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Popular Culture and Politics and Same-Sex Restrooms

Due to our upcoming brief appearance on the local amateur stage, the rehearsals for which have been taking up way too much of our time, we’ve lately been in contact with younger people. Worse yet, we’ve been in contact with their music, which is as awful as any more seasoned music-listener would expect, and also the similarly suspect political views that go along with it.
We’ve still found enough time to in the day to note a recent spate of stories on the internet about the alleged rights of self-identified transgendered people to choose the public restrooms of their choice and how people who object to same-sex marriages don’t have any right to decline to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, and we’ve noted how what’s left of the popular culture has responded. Big time rock stars are canceling gigs in states that refuse to toe the currently acceptable line on such matters, including some that pre-date even our aging selves, and we glumly acknowledge the culture has been declining for a while now. Our musical heroes and heroines from the good old days never had to confront such questions, and who knows where the likes of Little Richard of Chuck Berry might have weighed in if he’d been asked, but we still fondly recall an era where none of this even came up.
The cultural rot has been occurring so long now that even we recognize most of the names. Bruce Springsteen was a big deal back when we graduated from high school, and we still like that “Born to Run” song about the highways jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive, but we can only roll our eyes at the news that the well-heeled one-percenter is declining a gig in North Carolina because he doesn’t like the state’s rule that prohibits people from penises from using a women’s public restroom in the state. We’re also old enough to remember the 15 minutes of fame that someone named Byian Adams had, and to note that he’s canceling a gig in Mississippi to make sure that some Baptist baker there is coerced into catering a same-sex wedding. Even Ringo Starr, one of The Beatles, who date from our early childhood and who actually were pretty damned good, is eschewing dates in North Carolina for its refusal to force those damned Baptist bakers to bake that same-sex wedding cake.
One of our old and non-rock-star-or-theatrical friends recently had some dinner and drinks with us, and he commented that most of his homosexual friends seemed to be faring well enough and that he didn’t know any transgendered people who were having any problems with the local accommodations, and that he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. We also don’t know any transgendered people who are having problems with the local restroom accommodations, and although our friend has a son we know some fine people with daughters that would rather not have them encountering some guy who claims to be transgendered in the public accommodations, and it seems danged strange we have to be even considering the question.
The young and relatively young people we’ve been running into lately seem a reasonable lot, though, by and large, and we think we can reach some reasonable agreement on these matters, no matter how egregious their musical tastes might seem.

— Bud Norman

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L Is For Super Bowl

Although we’ve pretty much lost all interest in professional football, which lately seems an interminable series of obnoxious commercials for pickup trucks and pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs followed by a few brief seconds of tattooed behemoths beating their chest as they stand over some supine opponent and then an endless series of pointless play reviews, we still tune in for the annual Super Bowl extravaganza. By now it’s an almost obligatory secular rite, at least for any red-blooded American male who doesn’t want to be left out of the new few days of guy conservation, and it’s also our annual foray into contemporary popular culture.
The rest of the year we’re playing old jazz and hillbilly and garage rock tunes on the stereo, watching the occasional old sit-com over the rabbit ears on our analog television set or taking in Netflix’s offerings of the good old black-and-white days on this newfangled computer machine of ours, or reading books mostly by dead white males and a few dead white women, and our sports spectating is mostly limited to such old-fashioned fare as Missouri Valley Conference basketball and American Association baseball, so we’re annually curious to see what’s going on out there with the young folks and their modern world. It always comes as quite a shock, of course.
There’s always a slight surprise to find that they’re still playing the Super Bowl at all, for one thing. Football has always been a rough affair, and was arguably even rougher before President Theodore “Rough Rider” Roosevelt sissified the the rules to eliminate the frequently fatal “flying V” formation, but these days the players are so big and strong and fast that the kinetic energy exerted against the players on each down is so great, and the lifelong physical consequences are so severe and common, and the entire culture is suddenly so risk-averse, that we might have expected the lawyers and the oversight sub-committees to have put a halt to it all by now. The effort is well underway, naturally, but such a profitable organization as the National Football League can well afford to buy plenty of its own lawyers and oversight sub-committees, and vicarious risk will always be a big draw on television, so perhaps the fight might take a while.
In the meantime, sports in general and football in particular remain the last redoubt of unapologetic masculinity in America, for both better and worse. The Battle of Waterloo truly was won on the playing fields of Eton, as Lord Wellington famously observed, and the men who stormed the beaches on D-Day were already veterans of hard-fought wars in backyards and on vacant lots where not everybody got a trophy, and every successful culture since Sparta has honored the victors of rough games, and we’d like to think there’s still some role for unapologetic masculinity in American culture. So long as the players are fully apprised by the best medical experts of the risks, and have agents and hangers-on to advise them how to weigh that against the not inconsiderable benefits of a professional football career, we say let them play, and let the lawyers and the oversight sub-committees and the rest of the risk-averse and all-too-feminized culture be damned.
Still, for such history-minded sports fans as ourselves there’s also something unsettlingly bread-and-circuses-like about these roman-numeraled Super Bowls. After five decades they went with the more standard arabic “50” instead of the roman “L,” reportedly because “L” would confound a public that was never taught to count that far in roman numerals, and “Super Bowl L” looks kind of odd to even the most Latinate priest, but the same imminent-fall-of-Rome vibe was still there. The guys they’ve got playing in the Super Bowl these days are so big and fast and strong that they’d whip your childhood idols easily, even that Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs squad of of our long-ago wide-eyed youth, but there’s a tattooed and preening thuggishness about them that Lord Wellington would have disdained and an unabashed self-interestedness that would not have sat well with those boys who played for the team at Normandy, and there’s little of that helping-a-guy-up-after-you’ve-knocked-him-down sportsmanship that was always part of the western tradition on the playing fields and battlegrounds and business deals and interpersonal relationships.
The same tendency to unnecessary roughness that afflicts football is evident in popular entertainment, where Quentin Tarantino’s post-modern revenge fantasies and thuddingly aggressive hip-hop and heavy metal music and bondage-fantasy romance novels are now standard fare, but there’s also a slightly more respectable mainstream left over from the Ed Sullivan days that the Super Bowl annually books for its much-ballyhooed half-time shows. This year it was some band called Coldplay, or Cold Play, or however they might write it, and some woman named Beyonce, who has an accent mark over the last letter that we’re not willing to figure out how to put there, and some guy named Bruno Mars, whom we think we can vaguely remember from Super Bowl halftime show of a few years. The band was dressed up in nostalgic jeans-with-flower-patches and played electric guitars just like the garage bands used to do, although with a football-field-sized dance group jumping around, and the Beyonce woman with the accent mark over the last letter did some kinetic dancing with her noticeable legs and group of similarly leggy young women and did some song that supposedly has something to do with the edgy “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the Bruno Mars guy sang something about “funking you up.”
In past years the Super Bowl has featured what are politely called “veteran” acts of the late rock ‘n’ roll era, but lately there’s been a spate of those dying off. The past month has seen the passing of heavy-metal hero “Lemmy,” glam-rock innovator David Bowie, country-rock star Glenn Frey, popular funk-lite performer Maurice White, and our Super Bowl was especially saddened by Sunday’s news of the passing of Dan Hicks, who wasn’t so well known but played a delightful blend of jazz and hillbilly and garage rock and old-fashioned goofus music that we’ve dearly loved ever since we borrowed a friend’s VW Beetle to cut class one day in high school and found Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks’ “Last Train to Hicksville” in the eight-track player. Musical culture has since been in severe decline, judging by the recent Super Bowl halftime shows, and we’ll admit it probably began even before that.
We do try to keep up with politics and other unavoidable matters, and of course we notice the same decline there. On the Democratic side of the race they’re talking about trophies for everyone and trying to pretend there are no more battles of Waterloo or D-Day to be fought, and the putative front-runner is claiming that any biological masculinity should be disqualifying and her pesky challenger self-described socialist challenger isn’t do much to dispute the argument. On the Republican side that pick-’em-up-after-you’ve-knocked-’em’-down approach to the playing fields and battlegrounds and business deals and interpersonal relationships seems out of fashion with at least a plurality of the party. Neither side seems to have any good music, for that matter, and judging by the endless commercials during the most recent Super Bowl even the private sector seems wanting.
At least the game was pretty good. At the risk of violating that warning about “unauthorized accounts” of the game, and bringing down the wrath of the NFL’s lawyer’s and oversight committees upon us, the Denver Broncos’ defense beat the Carolina Panthers’ offense. This kept the Panthers from their infamous beating of chests over the supine bodies of their opponents, and allowed the seemingly good guy Peyton Manning a crowning glory to his scandal-free and sportsmanlike career, and maybe the youngsters will get something positive out of this rough game.

— Bud Norman

Today’s Geography Lesson

We began the day with every intention of writing about illegal immigration, and how it’s suddenly an issue that seems to bolster the Republican party’s electoral prospects rather than portend its doom, but our research on the topic led us to a recent Washington Post story that tried but failed to make presidential contender Gov. Scott Walker look bad after a recent encounter with an illegal immigrant, and off to the side of the article was a suggested link to a story headlined “Which of the 11 American Nations Do You Live In?” The click bait was irresistible, given our longstanding fascination with America’s regional divisions, so we decided to fulminate about that instead.
The Post’s map of the north and western hemisphere of the world makes as little sense to us at its attempt to make Walker look bad for insisting on the enforcement of America’s immigration laws, and reflects the Washington press’s same provincial viewpoint of the country, but at least it doesn’t put us in the “midwest,” as so many people are wont to do. Here in Kansas the country is easily divided into four main parts, those being Up North and Down South and Out West and Back East, with our beloved state being in the very heart of a fifth and most essential region known as the “Heartland,” and no true Kansan can abide being called “midwestern.” We admit that Kansas taxonomy admittedly doesn’t really make much sense in geographic or political or economic or cultural terms, as Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, don’t truly make belong in the same “Up North” category, and that Palm Springs, California, and Palm Beach, Florida, don’t have much in common except that they’re both “Down South,” and “Back East” and “Out West” only make sense in the context of America’s westward-looking history toward its manifest destiny, but at least it doesn’t pretend we’re part of any “midwest.”
By almost any definition the “midwest” includes Minnesota and Wisconsin and Illinois and Ohio and Indiana and other states that would seem both Up North and Back East to us, and we find that our geography and ethnography and politics and culture and economy and other defining regional traits have little in common with them. We prefer the company of the “prairie states” or “plains states” or “heartland” that stretches up from Oklahoma Ciy or so through the harsh Dakotas into the pugnaciously conservative Prairie Provinces of Canada, and is bordered from west to east by the Rocky Mountains and approximately Kansas City through the western portions of Minnesota. The Washington Post has us in a “midlands” region that somehow stretches clear to the Atlantic Ocean, with western Kansas somehow aligned with a “far west” region that stretches into Trudeaupian parts of Canada, and we have to wonder if the authors have ever visited our very remote part of the country.
We found a more reasonable division of the northern and western hemispheres of the world way back in the ’80s in a book titled “The Nine Nations of North America,” which was recommended to us a city editor at the newspaper we worked at who had come from Back East and was trying to make sense of his baffling new residence, and which dubbed Miami as the capital of the Caribbean and the Pacific Coast as a specific region and Quebec as a distinct nation and the mostly Spanish-speaking southwest and all of Mexico as a distinct political entity, and Kansas as part of a prairie region stretching well into Anglophone Canada as a political and cultural and economic bloc, but we also had our quibbles with that. We think the best definition of the country’s regional divisions used to be defined by the old college athletic conferences, before the days when greed and re-alignment altered the landscape.
The Big Ten used to have have ten teams that quite logically defined the “midwest,” and the Big Twelve, which once had twelve teams, and was once the perfectly appropriate Big Eight, was a fair map of the “heartland,” and the old Southeastern Conference reasonably defined the “deep south” while the Atlantic Coast Conference was a reliable indicator of Duke University and the rest of the respectable south, while the Pac-Ten mean the hippie-dippy West Coast and the Big East represented the pinko East Coast and everything more or less made sense. Now the Big Twelve has ten teams and the Big Ten has twelve teams and the Big Eight’s old University Colorado has somehow relocated to the Pacific Coast and the University of Missouri is in the Southeastern Conference and no longer playing the University of Kansas, and Tulsa University was briefly in the Big East, which is now mainly Catholic schools such as former Missouri Valley Conference member Creighton University of Omaha, Nebraska, so we can see why The Washington Post is so easily confused.
The cultural and economic part of it is confusing, as well. Kansas has always been part of the southwest as far as country music is concerned, with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys being the guide, but the rock ‘n’ roll scene has always been connected to the midwest, with Detroit Rock City as the starting point and such Big Ten acts as Head East and John “Cougar” Mellencamp drawing reliable crowds, and the ingrained right-to-work laws are more in line with the southeast until and the oil and agriculture and leave-me-the-hell-alone politics are more in line with the economy Out West, and the abolitionist strain harkens Back East, and the bluegrass that fills the pecan orchards in Winfield every fall coming from the southeast, and a reporter for The Washington Post can easily be forgiven for failing to understand where Kansas fits into the big hemispheric picture.
In any case we’re not the “midwest,” as even The Washington Post has noticed. We’re not the something called “the midlands,” however, and have little in common with the Eastern Seaboard states the paper has lumped us in with. “Prairie states” is a better description, and “heartland” is better yet, and we suggest The Washington Post should keep that in mind when trying to disparage a politician for suggesting that the immigration laws should be strictly enforced.

— Bud Norman