I recently took the position with a friend that what we call tolerance has pretty much gone out the window. The political scene is simply rank with intolerance (i.e., partisanship), and most Democrats still act as if the milk of human kindness will win out. How far has tolerance gotten them with Joe Manchin? Or Mitch McConnell for that matter. In Mexico we tolerate López Obrador, who campaigned as a liberal, while some make excuses for his authoritarian behavior.
Practicing tolerance requires coming to terms with a lot of conflict: setting aside your strong moralistic opinions (or beliefs) to respect and permit other viewpoints. Morally, we are motivated by the values we’ve learned and grown up with. That’s one reason why racial bias and hatred is so hard to overcome. Turning the other cheek has continually gotten the tolerators kicked in the ass. You don’t fight wildfires with fire extinguishers.
So it seems that people are drinking a lot more since Covid. My theory is that it’s not just about the dysfunction and disorder that the disease occasioned. For years now the U.S. has been forcibly pulled apart politically—and to a large degree socially. I had dinner the other night with three of my best high-tolerant friends. We had two martinis each before the food came. Conversation was lubricated; we even got through a few disagreements. No wonder booze consumption is increasing dramatically: “In 2020, beverage alcohol consumption in the US saw the largest volume gain in nearly 20 years.”
America was supposedly built on tolerance. We should buy Joe Manchin a drink and ask him what happened to that notion.
Here’s a blog I posted on July 4 of 2020. More than a year later I’ve gotten clearer about the benefits (and the downsides) of living alone. As the insanity around us grows, I find comfort with friends. But the routines and rituals I talked about here have helped me gain equanimity if not some tolerance for the irrational behavior of our species. I might write a book about it.
The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”
Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.
Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.
Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake! Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.
I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:
Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.
We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.
To someone who writes there is nothing more important than a desk chair. I think Philip Roth later on wrote standing up (he had back problems), but most of us cradle our glorious glutes for long periods of time in a device that must provide comfort and proper support. Writers thereby violate every orthopedic warning about sitting too long and the need for exercise.
Well, so what? The grand truths that emerge from this exercise in non-exercise come from gluteal contentment. No one should contemplate the cost, mental and physical, of sitting in an ill-fitting chair. If your butt don’t fit, your brain will quit.
I got this old Herman Miller chair when I was working at Lexis/Nexis in Charlottesville in 2002. I was doing some editing at home and asked the maintenance man if he had a chair I could buy. He gave me one free, and it was so good I brought it with me to Mexico. I’ve had it recovered and repadded a couple times. It has become part of my life.
Seven Reasons to Make Only Short Visits to the U.S.
The cost of everything
The potency of non-vaxers
The MAGA madness
Changes in the cultural life of New York
Being associated with mindless exploits like the war in Afghanistan (though expats cannot absolve themselves from U.S. policies).
AllAboutJazz asked me to provide an excerpt from my book Mingus Speaks (2013), so I thought I’d share it with you. Mingus loved to talk about the avant-garde pretenders and how they thumbed their noses at tradition.
Mingus: Everybody’s got ego and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they’re better than another guy. Even if a guy’s considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he’s better, if the guy’s on his own and creating, he says, “Man, I’m better than that guy.” I got a tenor player (I won’t call his name) wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can’t play. But when the people see him, he’s moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time and, man, they clap, and he ain’t played shit. And so I know that he feels, “Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don’t you hire me?”
I try to explain, “Well, I don’t move no people like that, man, that’s not what I’m here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass,” and he don’t believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that’s showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.
You know, anybody can bullshit, excuse my expression, and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn’t bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It’s like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It’s how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That’s the most progressive mind. It didn’t take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)
. . . One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. The movements—like you remember Moten Swing? Count Basie swing is another swing. And Jimmie Lunceford had another swing. Remember Jimmie’s band? The two-four rock [demonstrates].
Well, man, there should be a school set up where all those styles and movements are exposed to the students, and they find their medium, what is closest to them, and come out with that. I don’t mean copy that, I mean they should be able to copy it and then find themselves, as most composers do in classical music. Find which one they like and that’s where they are, through direction.
You think about it, man, even the guys in jungles, they weren’t just born as a baby and picked up a drum. Their daddy taught them how to play drums, to send messages and all that. “Somebody’s talking something.” They heard it and loved it, went and fooled with it for a while, and daddy would say, “Well, here’s how you do that, son.”
They didn’t just say, “I’m Jesus born here, hand me a drum, baby; lay a flute on me, run me a clarinet next; now I’m gonna play a little bass. Where’s Jascha Heifitz’ violin? I’ll play that for you, better than him. When we get through, hand me Isaac Stern’s.”
Yeah, that’s where the guys are today: “Give me a violin and I’ll play it for you. Jascha played it, I’ll play it too.”
And intelligent people still listen to this crap, man. I don’t want to be fooled anymore: I know when I’m out of tune, and I’ve done it intentionally and watch critics applaud. And that’s when avant-garde has gone too far. I can play wrong notes in a chord if I want to sound wrong and have a clown band like—what’s that guy had a clown band? Shoots guns and all that?—Spike Jones. If you want to say Spike Jones is avant-garde, then we got some avant-garde guys playing, some Spike Joneses.
Goodman: Only he made music.
Mingus: He could do everything, man. I don’t want to be so junglish that I can’t climb a stairway. I got to climb mountains all day long? We’re going to the moon, right? Well, I’m with the guys that wrote music that got us to the moon. Not the guys who dreamed about it. Bach built the buildings, we didn’t get there from primitive drums. In a sense we did, because primitive drums was the faith. Primitive music is the faith—like Indian music—of the man to want to find out how to get there. Bach was the intellectual pencil that figured out mathematically “does this work?” “Yes, this does, now put that aside.” And finally, “does this work with this?”
Bach put all these things together and called them chords. Well, we go with progress and call it scales, and these things have been broken down by Schillinger and a whole lot of other guys. Now if you work in that form and then go back and say, “Man, we don’t need to know this theory,” fine, then I accept that you’re a primitive. But when you come on the bandstand with a guy who may not want to play primitive for a minute, can you play with him? That’s what the question is.
Maybe I can play primitive too but for a minute I want just one chord, a C Major seventh. Now how many guys can play that—and play something on it, improvise something on it clearly? That’s what Bach could do, because that’s the foundation, and then he could put the D-Flat Major seventh against that. Now then you got a building, black and white, concrete and stone, and it can grow taller. Now that’s the way it is, man.
This was the title of a piece I published in jazzinsideandout.com in December 2013. There was some confusion about what “cool” means, both in Ishmael Reed’s article and my own comments on it. One problem is that as a personality descriptor cool means unruffled, detached; while in jazz it refers to a style of playing.
In looser, more recent terms, cool means something like fashionable, hip. That’s how Maureen Dowd used it in a recent putdown of Obama’s 60th birthday bash. She observes how this Marie Antoinette-style event included numerous celebrities but disinvited those who were responsible for his success.
Obama was a cool cat as a candidate in 2008, but after he won, he grew increasingly lofty. Now he’s so far above the ground, he doesn’t know what’s cool. You can’t be cool if you diss the people who took risks for you when you were a junior senator. . . . Many of those who helped Obama achieve the moonshot, becoming the first African American president and then becoming uber-rich, were disinvited.
Well, here’s my 2013 attempt to disentangle at least some of the musical confusion.
If you are foolish enough, as I am, to look at The New York Times every morning, today you probably saw Ishmael Reed’s op-ed, “The President of the Cool.” With Mr. Obama getting whacked in the polls and Democrats disaffecting in droves, it’s not surprising that the president’s defenders are coming on strong.
I’ve been a strong critic of Obama but I enjoyed the piece. There are two problems, one of definition and one of rhetoric. Reed says:
Democrats have more of an affinity for jazz than Republicans. Even Jimmy Carter, not everybody’s idea of a hipster, invited Dizzy Gillespie to the White House. But among the Democrats, President Obama is the one who comes closest to the style of bebop called “the Cool.”
The Cool School, as embodied in players he cites like Miles Davis and Hampton Hawes (Hawes overrated by Reed, I think) was not really a style of bebop but a reaction to it. The fiery music of Dizzy, Bird and Bud drove many people out the door. Taking after Miles, West-Coasters like Hawes and Shorty Rogers concocted a blander kind of modern jazz that stressed very different chordal and harmonic structures, slower tempos, simpler rhythms—a quieter, much more detached music. It got more popular than bebop for a while.
As a defense of Mr. Obama, Reed’s piece identifies him with the intensity and spirit of jazz. I just don’t get that. I find the president all too aloof and detached in his actions, though his words can often be inspiring. He’s just too cool—but not in the complimentary hip sense that Reed means it. One may define his style as cool, but many find his leadership lacking and without substance. He is anything but a bebop player.
As to the jazz greats, one of the commenters on the piece (Joel Parkes) put it this way: ” To compare Obama in any way to Lester Young is, in my opinion, incorrect. He’s much more like Chris Botti. Jazz in Name Only.”
I’m rethinking this blog and what I consider worth writing about. The political/cultural/climatic insanity gripping the world compels me to take a break to reframe, reassess. Or maybe cop out. Meanwhile, I’ll be posting a few old numbers from my former blog, jazzinsideandout.com, plus random thoughts. Here’s a post from May 2018 called “Quiet Time.”
I’m in Puerto Escondido for two-plus weeks to try and get my head around a plan for a book on jazz. This is the height of the low season, hot and with few tourists, a good time to visit. My escape is also a retreat from all things Trump, including the constant world calamities and fiascos that our flesh seems heir to.
Time is altered here. It becomes less pressing and far less structured. One can manipulate it to serve purposes higher than clock time and scheduling. A quantum physicist tells us convincingly that time is merely “a fluid, human concept—an experience, rather than [a quality] inherent to the universe.” Time is a story we tell ourselves, basically an illusion to keep us sane and functional.
Time can become malleable and infinitely flexible, particularly so in music. Yesterday I was listening to Ahmad Jamal’s A Quiet Time which, like so much of his music, plays with oddly syncopated rhythms, congas in the background, unanticipated pauses—all devices to make time expressive and give it a voice.
Ahmad is now 87 and has never played better. I’m approaching 84 and his great (yet still rather unsung) career in jazz gives me reason to rejoice in how much we can accomplish before time stops.
I began listening to him when he was playing at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago in the late ‘50s. Along with a couple of friends from the University of Chicago I would attend his shows regularly. His most famous record, At the Pershing, with “Poinciana” became a big hit in 1958, and his influence on Miles Davis was legendary.
It is like something out of Proust for me to flash back on those gigs. They come into memory as moments of untarnished joy, time standing still for their duration. For me, only music can do this.
Along the way, Jamal began to avoid the standards and play more of his own compositions, as he does in A Quiet Time. But on occasion (Live in Paris 1992) he could just blow you away with his approach to old chestnuts like this great Jerome Kern tune from 1920, which Judy Garland and others later covered multiple times.
The sonic experience usually gets lost in translation, which is why it’s so hard to write about music. Still, nothing is more rewarding than this challenge, at least for me. Bringing such moments to life is one way to make time real.
Says the quantum physicist: “Time is the form in which we beings whose brains are made up essentially of memory and foresight interact with our world: it is the source of our identity.”
Maybe he’ll get another book deal. The last one reputedly brought him a $5 million advance. Or he could practice law in Florida or somewhere. New Yorkers have had enough of him. Maybe he and his brother Chris could reprise their obtuse familial stunts of last March on CNN. The network did nothing to stop them because the boys got good ratings.
Never mind that this was completely inappropriate and violated every rule of journalistic integrity. One CNN staffer, reflecting the views of many, commented: “the fact that Chris Cuomo wasn’t fired over his inappropriate conflict of interest in actively affecting a news story is not only irresponsible of CNN, but also a disgrace to journalism.” By now you should know that Chris helped write Andrew’s recent self-serving mea culpas.
Readers of this blog will perhaps recall that I put down the swaggering younger Cuomo last March:
There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego.
Both the brothers ought to be fired from their jobs. But Andy in particular is going to have trouble finding new work after all the mishegoss over his loathsome sexual behavior. Why is it so easy to condone the misbehavior of the powerful, especially in political life? Why is it always the women who have to call this out?
And how does a guy so accustomed to power and the spotlight go out quietly? Well, it may be temperamentally impossible for him to do that.
What a family. Mario is turning over in his grave.
Well, you got a situation here that’s pretty outrageous. These idiots are maybe 40% of the population, and if things keep going this way, they’re gonna infect most all the rest of us. The public health people like Fauci are pretty good at scaring us about the unvaccinated, but they got no good solutions on how to deal with ‘em.
At the bar last night me and my friends came up with a few. You may find some of ‘em a little harsh but we don’t recommend outright killing these “purveyors of pestilence,” at least for now.
One-Eyed Jack said, “We got the biggest standing army in the world. Most of the time since Afghanistan they’re just sitting on their ass. Put ‘em in combat gear and send ‘em door to door to have a little talk with these people. Put on a mask and get your shots is the message. Or you’ll be on our list of subversives and threats to the American Way. Meaning fines for going without masks, no more government benefits, IRS harassment—it’ll be like a big No-Fly List.”
“That won’t work,” says Blade Runner. “These people don’t give a shit, and they hate government anyway. I think just let ‘em get sick and close the hospitals to people who aren’t vaccinated. The disease will take its course—and we got way too many red state Republican nitwits out there anyway. Setting up more crematoriums will make the economy grow.”
Darth Schwartz had another idea. “We should put ‘em in camps, like we did with the Japanese in WW II, electric fences and guard dogs. They’d be happier with their compatriots anyway. Maybe make ‘em wear yellow stars.”
Biden should think about that. He wants to be like FDR anyway.
Three days after I arrived here in September 2009, I was with my new Mexican friends celebrating Independence Day in the Zocalo. So were roughly a thousand others, and we were so densely packed that the crowd’s movement moved you. Some pinche ladrón lifted my wallet, containing a lot of cash, recently retrieved from an ATM, and all my credit cards, driver’s license, etc. Not quite the welcome I had looked for.
I had flown in from the U.S. at night, looking apprehensively out the plane’s window at the sparse lights of an unfamiliar city surrounded by mountain darkness and thinking, “Now it begins. What am I into?” I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety, being launched on one of the great gambles of my life. With only a few prior friends in Oaxaca, I had little money and no Spanish. My father would have said, “John, you’re just not prepared.”
Somehow I had the confidence to move on and change my life. As reported last week, there were many things pushing me to make this move. I knew the anxiety was normal though it was nonetheless powerful for that. Slowly I began to adapt to living in Oaxaca, finding the city’s life vital and energizing, its complications more or less predictable, its people more welcoming than I expected.
I rented a fine house near the Plaza de la Danza, which later proved to be kind of a disaster. But I settled in and got to know the neighborhood, the markets and shops, a couple of neighbors.
The first big problem was Customs. I had shipped all my possessions—about 2,000 pounds worth, including a large music collection and stereo equipment—by making a deal with FedEx. But, unknown to me, the stuff got held up in Toluca, and I finally hired a customs broker to get it released and delivered, after much agita and tsuris.
The typical irritations one encounters in Mexico when dealing with its bureaucracies—the ubiquitous paperwork and rubber stamps, the impenetrable processes—require patience and understanding. When you first encounter the system, as in shopping for healthcare, you may think you’re living in Mozambique. Yet Mexico is not by any means a third-world country.
You develop patience by growing to understand the culture, by making friends (both gringos and Mexicans), trying to learn Spanish, and finally by learning to relax and enjoy the extraordinary benefits of the place: the low cost of living, the glorious climate, the food, the welcoming people. One reason I found I could adapt was because I had lived and worked in so many different U.S. locales.
The problems of being an expat in Mexico can be intimidating. Some of the pros and cons are described here. The rewards you’ll find will depend on your personality, your aims and goals in life and, mostly, on your attitudes toward change. Finally, I think it’s kind of a crapshoot for everybody. The winners will learn how to play the game.
Who are these itinerant people, and what are their stories? For twelve years now I’ve been living with a bunch of expats from the U.S. and Canada who have come to Mexico for many different reasons. I’ll be talking to some of them in future posts. The point will be to reveal something about what moves people to leave a familiar culture for one largely unknown. For now, I’ll try to explain what this move has meant to me politically and culturally.
So let me give you a few excerpts from things I’ve written about moving on in my life. From the conclusion to Moot Testimonies, a fictionalized memoir published about a year ago:
I expatriated myself ten years ago in part because I was broke, in part to get away from American politics and culture, in part to start a new life. One takes a modest pride in being an expat because it is a conscious opting out. (An exile usually signifies someone who is excommunicated, banished, cast out.) As an expat, I’m in no way a Mexican immigrant: I don’t want Mexican citizenship and I like the indeterminate nature of living here. Expats will never be part of the Mexican polity or culture, and most of us accept that. Being an expat is a way to try getting beyond your former experience.
Earlier, in another attempt at a memoir, Jive-Colored Glasses, I tried to explain the political and cultural motives behind my move:
After a number of visits there, Mexico seemed my best option. For one thing, I found cultural and political life in the U.S. increasingly impossible. By 2009 when I moved out, real commonality had all but ceased for most people, and class warfare was a term being bandied about. The liberal elites were living lives as circumscribed as those of the working class (though they didn’t realize it), and both groups were still captivated by the myth of human progress. For culture, the elites watched PBS; the working class (many of whom were not working) watched American Idol. I felt little connection to either group.
. . . My last three years in the U.S. after [working for] the Navy and before Mexico were spent in the state of Maine, living with my sister on an idyllic farm with Angus cattle, beautiful short summers and long ice-bound winters. . . . The solitude of Gardiner, Maine, was hermetic and hard to break out of. Instead of inspiring my creativity, the natural beauty of the place brought me an emptiness of spirit. Maine was forever economically depressed. And I was far too preoccupied with finding work and keeping the woodstove going, never getting the relief that a good walk in the woods should bring. It was what a lot of folks in Maine experienced: the bucolic blues.
But living in Maine does something to you. I had that in common with my friend Conrad who passed on about six years ago. We both had careers in academia and had developed similar misanthropic views about politics even though we counted ourselves as part of the liberal majority that so predominated in Oaxaca.
After his death I put some words in his mouth, again from that fictionalized Moot Testimonies attempt. Conrad had become one of the more important and loved people in my life. He understood the finer points of what it meant to be an expat.
I’ve seen and done all Oaxaca has to offer. So part of me is just tired of being the house liberal, and I think Goods has felt the same way. Every progressive cause has its downside. Living in a liberal bubble like Oaxaca can get tiresome.
After all, we are the privileged caste, aren’t we?—the white folks who call ourselves expats, so unlike those Nicaraguan and Mexican “migrant workers.” I recently read a piece in The Guardian about this. Arabs, Latinos and Asians are immigrants; we and the Europeans are favored and called expats. Well, I can’t get too exercised about this linguistic snobbery, though many of my Oaxaca friends are always preaching from that liberal state of mind where every last kind of injustice must be called out as unfair, insupportable or immoral. I come from good French-Canadian stock, working class folks who had no money or time for such bullshit. Mainers by and large don’t put up with such bullshit. They can’t afford the indulgence. Goodman gave up on the American Way, maybe for similar reasons.
In our ways we both were trying to express the dissatisfaction that comes from looking at life as identity politics. It becomes more discernible when you’re living abroad. I don’t know what to call myself these days, but I guess liberal will suffice.