Rearview Mirror

2014 wasn't all bad, but it was close

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You hear about this thing called a “California drought” and think—how bad could it be, really?

We were outside of Bakersfield, hurtling north on what would be the final day of a weeklong drive from New Orleans to the Bay Area. First stop: Berkeley.

We were treading light on American roads lit up with the Fear, or that was the idea, anyway: terrorists at every gas station, illegal aliens in every barn, you know the picture.

I just wanted to find some good doughnuts out here, and maybe some of that Kerouac apple pie and vanilla ice cream business from On the Road, but minus the speed and its manic edge.

It was me and the dogs, a cheap guitar and a bag of clothes in the trunk, not much else. Johnny Cash was the main soundtrack for the ride, his record that was made at the Orleans Parish Prison in the early 1970s. The prison crossroadss marks one of the endpoints of the legendary “blues highway” across America, and here we were, at the other end of it somewhere.

The Man in Black was in the metaphorical rearview as I rolled through Texas and beyond, thinking about new opportunities, or a righteous and legendary death on the Donner Pass, whichever came first.

But here’s the thing: All through the drive west, I was expecting to find—and I mean this literally, in the figurative sense—the last of the Okie Joad family holed up in a barn when we got to California. I was vibing Shangri-La lush as I thought about the Central Valley of lore and John Steinbeck’s descriptions of it. Pendulous plums dripping dew in the grand fecundity of the Eternal Renewal, that sort of thing. I was ready for it.

Instead, I got the Fear: “The dawn came, but no day,” is the first line of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which kicks off deep in Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Yet that line ramshackled itself clear across the country, with visions of the creaky Joad caravan playing ghost-roller in the breakdown lane.

The miles of dusty grape vines along the highway should have tipped me off that something was quite amiss in California. But before I knew it, there were signs looming with the orange-glow letters, big roadside portents of badness: “Warning: Dust Storm Ahead.” I thought, oh, these wussy Californians with their overdone warning systems. There was a little bit of wind, some whipped-up dust. No big deal.

Hey, dogs, look at those cool windmills! Just look at them spin! Then we were in it, just like that. The full-on dust storm, a rust-tinged dirt mist of scary blackout proportions, for miles up and down the highway.

Noon broke, but there was no day. The traffic had slowed to a crawl, the wind howled scary, and tumbleweeds the size of Toyotas rolled across the highway. Big freaking tumbleweeds that would have been mesmerizing were it not for the immediate menace of traffic, dust and wind. Welcome to California: Have you heard about the drought?

Grip the wheel and pay attention to the three feet of visibility that you do have. Turn off the Johnny Cash and focus on the road. Eventually, the dust settled.

This was late January 2014, the early days of what would be become the year in fear—and doughnuts. At least there were the doughnuts.

So we made it through the California dust bowl scene and got settled in at the Bohemian just in time for the torrent of terror and weirdness that was to come in 2014: Isis and Ebola, the midterm election meltdown, black kids getting shot and choked everywhere, earthquakes and fires and immigrant haters and radioactive tsunami ramen-wrappers washing up on the beach. At least that last one was just a rumor.

Oh, and good doughnuts, from Tan’s Donuts in Santa Rosa. With all this chaos and uncertainty swirling around, the bilious fear-mongering on your public media outlets, the anonymous shriekers commenting furious on the news sites as they reach for the Klonopin, it is important to remained grounded in the mindful doughnut—if not the moment.

“Hope and fear cannot alter the season.” That’s a line from the late Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa, from his Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Chögyam, the founder of Naropa University, is credited as being one of the bigt ambassadors of Eastern thought to Western minds.

It’s a resonant line for the obvious reason that it’s true, but the aphorism also—and quite unintentionally methinks—makes a statement in reverse about global climate change. The ding-dong denialists want you to be afraid—very afraid—of people who would insist that there’s Weird Things Happening with the weather. Maybe there are, and maybe there aren’t, but Why do you hate America?

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That line from Chögyam also makes me think of Rubin Carter, who passed on in this year in fear. Carter was a middleweight prizefighter convicted of triple homicide in the late 1960s, and was later vindicated largely through the efforts of one Bob Dylan and his song “Hurricane.”

The song’s been in heavy rotation in the car over the past few months during the commute, and serves as a combined protest song and investigative inquiry into the New Jersey murders, for which Carter was unjustly charged and imprisoned. “Hurricane” Carter was cause célèbre in the 1970s, thanks in no small part to Dylan’s efforts to highlight the injustice that befell the man.

If you read about it now, there’s a through-line about the song which heavily implies that Carter’s case had almost been forgotten by the time Dylan sang “To see him obviously framed / Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land / Where justice is a game.” Forgotten because of the utter banality of framing uppity, outspoken blacks for crimes they didn’t commit, a specialty of 1960s police culture.

Sound familiar? Carter’s story had resonance in 2014. The boxer-activist was exonerated and released from prison in 1985. He died on April 20, 2014, just as questionable police and prosecutorial activities again take front and center in protest, if not protest song, “just like the time before, and the time before that,” as Dylan sang in 1975.

It’s incredible but not surprising that in these “false equivalency” days of the irrational argument delivered with maximal self-assured pugnacity, you can find all sorts of people on the internet who still cast doubt on Carter’s innocence. The times, they ain’t a-changed much.

This was the year, too, that the last of the Angola Three found some justice. Albert Woodfox was the last man still serving time in the notorious Louisiana prison over a bogus armed robbery conviction.

Woodfox’s conviction was overturned in late November—ending what’s been widely reported as the longest bid anyone in U.S. history had spent in solitary confinement. He has not yet been released.

Carter’s death and Woodfox’s vindication were, of course, overshadowed by present-day outbursts of race revanchism, disguised as “fairness.”

In 2014, policing was a big and scary issue, and not just because of a generalized assumption that the police like doughnuts. Or because of all that military hardware they’ve been stockpiling.

Michael Brown and Eric Garner, now household names, were both killed at the hands of police officers who were just “doing their jobs.” Garner was choked to death for the crime of selling loosies. His last words are now immortalized: “I can’t breathe.”

The furor over Brown’s death and the failure of a grand jury in St. Louis to indict now-retired officer Darren Wilson kept the tension ratcheted high in the Year in Fear, and now there’s a sick hook to bring it all back to Rubin Carter.

The New Jersey police and the district attorney who framed Rubin Carter (“He ain’t no Gentleman Jim”) did so with the help of two white crooks and a white woman named Patty Valentine. They’ve maintained that Carter was the killer, even though he wasn’t.

As if on cue, the district attorney in St. Louis took a page from the accepted “false equivalency” construct of American justice, circa 2014, and allowed a woman, “Witness 40,” to lie, lie and then lie some more to the grand jury about what she saw the day Brown was shot by Darren Wilson.

She didn’t see anything but says she saw everything.

Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis district attorney, gave an interview before Christmas, and in it said he wanted to see all sides represented. McCulloch admitted that he let the grand jury hear this woman’s testimony, even though he knew she was a liar. Sandra McElroy is the Patti Valentine of her generation.

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I think it’s time for a doughnut, or at least to think about one, to calm the nerves and maintain perspective. Skip to that next track on Desire and move on, deeper into the Year in Fear.

Mondays and Tuesdays at the Bohemian offices are big days for doughnuts. Copy editor Gary Brandt knows I’m partial to the maple bar, and when he strolls into the office with the big pink box, stained with fryer grease and sugar, you know it’s going to be a good day. The maple bar is delicious, decadent and large. I do not fear it.

“Hurricane” kicks off Desire, released in early 1976, and it straight-up punches you in the gut with the news. And the second song on the album? That one’s called “Isis.”

Long before there were Sunni fanatics hell-bent on beheading infidels and creating a scary caliphate from whence to destroy the West, there was Isis.

She was the Egyptian goddess of marriage, health and wisdom, and by most accounts, Isis was all right. But not in the Year in Fear.

Pagans these days still like to gather at her feet, according to the gods of Wikipedia, but don’t tell that to Pat Robertson or he’ll try to convince you that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian separatist who’ll separate Christians from their heads if she’s anointed president.

Such are the times we live in. Perhaps you’ve not been paying attention to Old Goat Robertson lately. He’s laying out the Heavy Fear. And the fear fingers are pointing at Africa as the very heart of darkness.

Of course they are. In the current meta-media conspiracy of race-baiting spectacle and bad faith, Barack Obama is to blame for all of it. Six years into his presidency and it all makes sense, finally: Ebola, Obama, Africa, AIDS, Isis, Muslim, the Other, O’Bummer. And of course you heard, thanks to Rand Paul: He’s coming for your doughnuts!

Obama said he’d alter the tattered American season, if not the century, with some hope. Hope is always preferable to fear. But let’s face it, Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” was never really audacious. It did offer a bucketload of pleasing rhetoric for susceptible, weepy liberals like myself, and a welcome tonic to the Dick Cheney doctrine, which, as I understand it, goes something like this: If there’s a
1 percent chance some bad terror episode is going to go down, you have nothing but fear to hope for.

The Dark Lord Cheney was unloosed following the news that the Bush administration and CIA went hog-wild with the torture after 9-11. I’ll just highlight here the torture of at least 26 innocent people, on top of all the rest of the reasons to hate the “enhanced interrogation” neo-fascist death posture this country’s slipped into.

Another day, another doughnut—and one more Dylan indulgence, if you’ll excuse it. The third song on Desire is “Mozambique,” which is a country in Southeast Africa where Ebola is not raging.

I read somewhere recently, probably Wikipedia, that the lyrics to “Mozambique” came out of a game. Dylan and co-songwriter Jacques Levy came up with a bunch of words that rhymed with “-ique,” and conjured a song out of it.

The Ebola fear-mongers of America seem to have have used that same method to try and figure out where all that scary Ebola was coming from. Mozambique, it sort of rhymes with the Congo, unless you’re so tone-deaf to raw racist blabbering as to not care that it doesn’t.

And then there were the midterm elections, which ended all talk of Ebola the minute after the GOP took the Senate.

Ebola and incoming Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Nutjobistan, are to be feared, but numerous stories jostled for top honors in the Year in Fear.

Was it The Interview and a bellicose North Korean dictator outraged at the Katy Perry jokes made at his expense? Nope. A new Cold War to fear as Vlad Putin goes insane in the Ukraine? Nah. Crusty old Cuban exiles freaking out in Florida and loading the cigars with cyanide again? Doubtful.

I fear we’ve run out of doughnuts.

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