So, that’s a bit of a tease, isn’t it? Lots to think about in the season 7 finale of Doctor Who, but first, as River might say, Spoilers! (There’s a recap available at tv.com.)
We know nothing of import yet, and won’t for several hours, if not an entire day. That is the way of these things, and the truth of them.
Nonetheless, the circus has begun. Each network has already offered its own (or its several own) opinions on who caused the bombing, who planted the bombs, and why. They’ve thrown up experts onto the screen, some with actual expertise but none with actual knowledge. How do I know? Because anyone who does actually know something is busy right now, with, you know, the investigating and the saving lives and stuff. People who know are too busy contributing for them to waste time satisfying our ghoulish need for details.
The terror of actions like this, for me, does not lie in the risks we face or the suddenly-heightened sense of my own mortality. The terror lies in the amazing speed with which this sort of event divides us, inflames us, sets us against each other. It did not take long for World Net Daily to come up with its list of suspect ideologies to be blamed. It didn’t take long for CNN. It didn’t take long for me — and that’s what scares me. I have to keep reminding myself that we don’t know anything. We don’t know if this is the work of a terrorist group (foreign or domestic), or a lone madman, or someone with a grudge or a defective sense of grandeur or an aching consuming need to grab our attention.
It is so easy to take such an event and slot it into our comfortable pre-existing narratives. We spend our time imagining the worst of our opponents, so when the awful happens, we say “I can see how [group X] might be behind this sort of thing”, and then we seamlessly convince ourselves that they are behind it, and eventually we forget that we’re just speculating.
There is a nebulous, magical radius around the site of a catastrophe. Within that distance, we find the extraordinary ordinary people, the ones who run into fire and smoke and fear, who reach across the yawning divide and yank people back, the ones who won’t give up and won’t let go and who unthinkingly do the right thing. But beyond that special radius, it seems we fall prey to the worse angels of our nature: We accuse and tar and disdain; we assume the worst; we fall upon each other in anger and accusation.
So, tonight, let us remember this: We don’t know anything yet. The who and the how and the why will come out, will be known, will be important, but not tonight. We don’t know anything tonight. How this happened and how it could have been avoided and how it might happen again — these are questions of weight, but not right now. We don’t know anything — except that some have died, many are injured, and many more are grieving.
Tonight, that is our truth.
[Note: This post has been edited for spelling and grammar.]
It’s not small-government. It’s not anti-tax screeds or culture war crusades. It’s not being pro-big business or pro-gun. It’s not being anti-choice or anti-gay. It’s not suport of “traditional marriages” or of non-traditional “special interrogation”. It’s not being pro-Gitmo or anti-drone or pro-Keystone or anti-FEMA. It’s not even being sexist or being racist.
It’s a complete and utter lack of empathy, and an unhealthy disdain for the same in others.
How else do you explain the sudden 180=degree shifts in philosophy once the consequence of the party line hits home? Dick Cheney supports gay rights, because his daughter is a lesbian. Bob Portman now supports same-sex marriage, because his son has come out of the closet. Mark Kirk suddenly understands the value of government health care, once he has a brush with death. It’s how Republican governors can decry federal spending on disaster relief… right up until their state needs it.
Republicans like to claim that they’re the party of grown-ups, reining in those rascally irresponsible Democrats. But a hallmark of maturity is the development of empathy — the ability to think beyond the confines of your personal experiences and to imagine, however imperfectly, the life lived by people who are not you. On that measure, the Republican Party is a haven for toddlers and crybabies. I applaud Senator Portman for revisiting his philosophy in light of new evidence, but if we have to wait for a singular personal experience for each and every Republican, it’s going to be a long long slog.
“Rest for the Weary”
The Rainy Season
One of the things I like about Marc Cohn is that his songs aren’t all about finding, having, and losing the girl. Every album includes very personal songs that nonetheless seem to be universal. I’m also struck by how well his songs, without generally being all that upbeat, convey a certain subtle, almost unreasonable, hopefulness. More than optimism, it’s faith that, despite all appearances, there is something wonderful in even the most mundane times.
For a while this song was a touchstone in my life. It doesn’t really reflect any details of my personal history but I was very moved by the thought that someday, there will be rest for the weary. I think it’s both telling and fantastic that he passes by “love for the lonely” so quickly and dwells on “rest for the weary”. A lot of the time, that’s what we hope for: Not a surplus of joy but a cessation of struggle — just quiet time to enjoy life and life’s blessings.
I hope there was some laughter
Cause I know there were some tears
That is just an amazing line. It captures the whole arc of a family’s life. It’s also genuinely sad, in that he knows there were tears but he is unsure of the laughter.
Now I’m just another traveler
On another winding road
I’m trying to walk some kind of line
I’m trying to pull some kind of load
Now sometimes I move real easy
Sometimes I can’t catch my breath
Sometimes I see my father’s footsteps
And man it scares me half to death
These are the lines that made the song resonate with me. No child of suicide can ever think about his parent’s death without wondering, at least once, if there’s any difference — if the same siren song will call out. You try to understand but at the same time, you fear understanding. You don’t want to think the choice was senseless, but you don’t want it to make sense, either. And you always worry, in some corner of your mind, that you might have made the same choice, that you might still. For me, it’s never been a strong urge but I know that I shy away from thinking about my father’s death in part for this reason.
Although it probably wasn’t written that way, this is why the song is hopeful, for me: It gives voice to a hope I have, which is that after everything, my father found peace and rest.
“The Rainy Season”
The Rainy Season
The Rainy Season is not a happy album and “The Rainy Season” is not a happy song. While Marc Cohn held a wide mix of songs and styles, Cohn’s sophomore album is generally dark. What comes through more than anything is how hard love can be to maintain, especially when you’re on the road and apart for large stretches.
Clouds move in
From off the horizon
Feels like nighttime
In the middle of the day
This is a nice working of metaphor, which will extend to the refrain and indeed the entire album. Not only does he evoke memories of actual storms really well, but the threat of the future is pretty palpable here. When it gets dark in the middle of the dark, it’s not just any old storm. We’re talking flash-flood thunderstorm activity, something with lots of lightning and thunder and howling wind.
And I don’t know why
But it’s still so suprisin’
How a love grows stronger
Or it just fades away
The segue to the relationship is smooth, so smooth you hardly notice how much it hurts. He’s clearly not writing about a love growing stronger, is he?
But you look older today
Than I’ve ever seen you
I’m not expect on relationships, but things rarely go well when you tell your lover, “You look older than I’ve ever seen you”. But it’s a bit more than that: She looks older today — something’s changed, something that’s bringing the rain.
I think I know the reason
While I’m just making this up, I’ve always assumed that “the reason” is that she’s found out he’s cheated on her. (I think that’s backed up by “Paper Walls”) That’s the culmination of a process, of course, but the cheating (and her discovery of it) provide the singular act that cause her to look older today.
We might wash all our tears away
But you got to bundle up baby
For the rainy season
Here he’s holding out the hope — thin as even he sees it must be — that this won’t be the end of things. They might get through, wiping away their tears. But it’s going to take a storm to do it, and she’s got to be ready to walk through that storm.
I hear you breathing heavy
On the telephone tonight
I can feel the air is thick as thieves
If he’s calling her on the telephone, I’m not exactly sure how he knows she looks older today than he’s ever seen her. But let that slide. This line implies (to me) that he’s cheated; she knows he’s cheated; he knows she knows he’s cheated — but no one has said or confessed anything. That’s why the clouds are stil gathering. The unspoken accusation trembles in the air; it’s why he can feel the storm coming. Moreover, this opens the possibility that she doesn’t know and he’s just projecting his guilt.
Sometimes I just want to tell you
We’ll be all right
At least that’s what some part of me believes
Here, the forlorn hopefulness is just heartbreaking. He’s trying to offer comfort but he has none and (in my theory) it’s his own fault. He wants to think they can weather the storm but he knows, deep down, it’s unlikely.
Oh, oh I’ve been holding on so long
Holding on and holding on so long
Oh, oh I’ve been holding on so long
It’s interesting that he focuses on how long he‘s been holding on. This might upend my model of the relationship. Maybe the root cause lies with her. Or maybe he’s trying to justify his own failures. In the live version (which I prefer to the studio version), there’s an interesting twist: He says he’s “been holding on so long — holding on maybe just a little too long“. That signals, to me, that he’s come to understand things aren’t going to work out and that it’s been unhealthy for a long time.
All in all, you have to wonder what his wife thought when this song and album came out.
“Girl of Mysterious Sorrow”
Burning the Daze
I’ll make a confession. I did not get, at first, that this song was about graveside remembrance. In fact I felt quite clever to figure it out. Listening to it again, it now seems pretty obvious and I was just dense the first time around. There is cleverness in the song, in that he never comes out and says he’s at a graveside, but it really isn’t as subtle as I had thought. In any event, it seems clear now that this is a part of his Missing Mother triptych (along with “Ghost Train” and “Momma’s in the Moon”). It would be trite to comment that losing one’s mother, especially when young, will be a formative experience that naturally influences everything else that comes in life. It’s no surprise that he’s moved repeatedly to engage with that loss on every album. Here he tackles head-on the lack of answers to questions he never had the chance to ask.
I’m coming to see you, tomorrow sometime
Gonna bring you some roses, gonna tear off the vines
Gonna talk to the wind that blows through the trees
Kiss you like always from down on my knees
Gonna ask you some questions, get no replies
Wipe all the tears, falling down from my eyes
‘Cause the one that I wanted, I never could know
I think I was misled because I was still in my literal stage of lyric comprehension. I probably should have remembered that roses grow in bushes, not on vines, and thus the second line is about clearing a tombstone. The first of many heartbreaks comes with “Gonna ask you some questions and get no replies”.
Gonna park in the street, gonna open the gate
Walk to the spot where you always wait
I’ll be shaking my head like I usually do
‘Cause the name and the dates tell me nothing about you
Here we see why he keeps coming back: He has the facts of his mother’s life but not the truth of it. She died when he was very young, before he could know her as a person at all. One imagines he’s had family stories (although most likely people have been circumspect even in those), but he has nothing to connect them to. He’s looking for meaning, for a connection that was broken far too soon, and this patch of ground is the only place he has to look for it.
But I’ll sit in the shadows and let you explain
All of the sadness and all of the pain
Did it all seem so hopeless you just had to let go?
This is odd at first. How can he wait for her to explain? She’s dead. But that’s the point: He’s spent his whole life waiting for understanding that simply isn’t going to come. There’s also the first hint of something even darker here. I have no knowledge of the circumstance under which Marc Cohn’s mother died but this line makes me think it might have been suicide. If not that, then the end of a long drawn-out illness. People who die suddenly, unexpectedly, usually wouldn’t be described as having “let go”.
Yeah I’m coming to see you but I really can’t stay
There’s just a few things I needed to say
Like why were you hiding so much of yourself?
Why were you living for somebody else?
The lyric site I consulted has this as “but I really can’t wait”, but that’s pretty clearly wrong. First, why would he be eager to visit? The rest of the song sounds resigned and reluctant. Second, of course, is the deeper meaning. His life, unlike hers, moves on. He can visit her in the past but he can’t linger there.
It might be putting too much import on a word choice probably motivated by rhyme scheme, but I think it’s significant that he doesn’t ask the questions; he says them. He isn’t really expecting to understand. He’s just expressing bemusement and confusion. He might not even believe there is an answer.
Well I know that I’ve always been looking for you
But lately it’s not such a hard thing to do
‘Cause it seems like inside every woman I know
There’s a girl of mysterious sorrow
A bit of self-analysis for Cohn, here. He knows that his mother’s death has cast a shadow over everything he’s done, even when he wasn’t conscious of it. Her death informs his life, all the choices and desires and hopes and fears. He’s been searching his whole life for the connection he can never make. And then he’s explicit: He’s been looking for his mother in all the women he’s known. He senses there’s something universal to her story, to her plight (which is one reason why I believe it might have been a suicide). The “mysterious sorrow” is that unbridgeable ineffable something that he can’t quite puzzle out but which he sees reflected around him.
This song speaks to me on two levels. First, I recently lost my mother in a car accident. Although I haven’t visited a grave yet, and though I had the joy of knowing her throughout my life, I can’t hear Cohn’s plaintive loss without feeling an echo resonate in that empty place that has erupted in my heart. There’s something primal about losing one’s mother, something universal and personal all at once.
Second, I did lose a parent to suicide, though it was my father and not my mother. I was closer in age to when Cohn lost his mother, too, right on the edge of teendom and looking for answers and guidance as I grew into a man. It took me four years to even begin asking the questions, much less finding the answers, and like Cohn, I really can only say them, not genuinely ask them. There is the same unbridgeable gap between what I feel and whatever my father felt. Part of me worries I will never understand. Part of me is terrified that someday I will.
More on my father and I when this compilation hits “Rest for the Weary”.
Update (2013 Feb 4): Noah Smith has an awesome response to the attack on Prof. Krugman, too.
This seems to me to be a basic divide between liberals and conservatives (or, at least, the conservatives who dominate the right at the moment). Liberals see the world as data-rich, model-complex, and infinitely varied. Conservatives want the world to be simple, precept-driven, and authority-based. They want bumper-sticker policies.
Each side accuses the other, with some justice, of hubris. Conservatives say that liberals are so arrogant that they think they can change human nature and upturn thousands of years of received wisdom. But conservatives suffer from their own arrogance: The delusion that the world is static and simple; that human nature can be comprehended in a not only finite but small set of precepts; that you can reason from rules-of-thumb that work on small scales to vast interlocking systems; that what is true is always obvious — the delusion that no one, in fact, is smarter than a fifth grader.
After all, that’s the origin of the wildly misleading “If a family has to balance its budget every month, why doesn’t the government?” (We’ll leave aside the fact that families in fact do incur debt, and have good reasons to do so.) The national economy is not a household budget, of course, and to argue that it should be run the same way is silly at best and perhaps insane. Things that work at the household level are unlikely to extrapolate to an intertwined world economy. Even if there are broad principles to be deduced, their application will necessarily be complex.
To get back to my main point: Although conservatism used to have intellectual giants who correctly confronted liberal theorists with hard questions, those days are apparently over. (Witness the coup within the Cato Institute and the general decline of the Heritage Foundation; witness the concurrent meteoric ascent of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain…) Conservatives no longer want sound answers to important questions; they want comforting answers to simplistic questions. They have abandoned the “reality-based community” and forsaken the “evidence-based world”.
This is a slightly more genteel version of the virulent anti-intellectualism that defines the conservative movement of the day. To the right, when you hear data that confounds your expectations or worse, your desires, the instinct is to reject not only the data but the idea of data. That’s how you get climate deniers, birthers, poll “unskewers” — a vast sweep of people whose commitment is to the idea that numbers are meaningless. These are not isolated outbreaks of irrationality that mar the otherwise-pristine right. They are surface symptoms of an interlinked pathology, and “ask a child’s questions” is just another expression of it. You can’t spend forty years reflexively demonizing “intellectuals and elites” without driving them from your party, either literally or by self-selection.
Why is the “right” way to debate Paul Krugman to repeatedly ask questions a child would ask? Because their philosophy isn’t fit for grown-ups. It takes maturity to appreciate nuance, to rely on data (even when it says things you don’t like), to reason deeply. Modern conservatism seems to be inherently infantilizing (which is actually funny, considering their knee-jerk abhorrence of the “nanny state”): Grab with both hands, define “fair” as “what benefits me”, put yourself at the center of the world; rely on totems; fear the monsters under the bed.
The world is more complex than that. The principles (and intellect) of a five-year-old are not equal to the challenge of understanding it. There is a difference between being childlike and being childish — modern conservatism has dived deeply into the latter.
“Strangers in a Car”
Now we reach the final song of the “car trilogy” (after “Listening to Levon“ and “Silver Thunderbird“). It certainly wasn’t planned to make automobiles the pivot point of my 30-day exploration of Marc Cohn, but it’s worked out nicely. ”Listening to Levon” is Cohn thinking back about a relationship about to end in a car; “Strangers in a Car” might well be that same encounter about to happen.
There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street
Acts like he knows who you are
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car
Might be the one they told you about
This is an unusual second-person song. We assume that this is not literal truth — that the narrator isn’t watching someone get into a car with someone they don’t know. The strangers are more metaphorical, of the “Does anybody ever really know anybody?” type. The driver acts like he knows who she is — he should know. Indeed, the action is casually intimate: A car pulls up, a boyfriend gestures for his girlfriend to hop in. The question is so wonderfully ambiguous. It could be a friendly welcome, but it seems to contain just the hint of menace. The driver is forcing her hand, leading her to a choice she might not be ready to make — elsewise, why would she have been hesitating once the car pulls up? It’s probably no coincidence that, whenever I find myself humming this song, I think the line is “Might be the one they warned you about” (which carries a darker connotation than the actual line).
Well you never were one for cautiousness
You open the door
He gives you a tender kiss
And you can’t even hear them no more
I’ve always heard the line as “Can’t even hear him no more”, though admittedly it’s hard to pick out from the vocals. Although the lyric as found online links up to the “All the voices of choices”, I prefer my (mis)-hearing. It underlines the gulf between the driver and his passenger. It’s an almost-cliche moment in a dying relationship, when both parties are going through the motions but aren’t really invested.
All the voices of choices
Now only one road remains
And strangers in a car
I absolutely love this sequence. Things escalate so smoothy and so naturally. Now it’s not just the driver whom she can’t hear. She’s lost the voices of her inner angels, the whisper telling her it can be better, or at least, what it all means. All her options have come down to the choice she’s made before getting into the car, and now she’s just along for the ride. The repetition of twoness divides them and makes them separate. And of course, on a two-lane road, all traffic is headed in different directions.
You don’t know where you’re goin’
You don’t know what you’re doin’
Hell it might be the highway to heaven
And it might be the road to ruin
The theme of dichotomy remains, all the futures laid out bare, but the fact of choice mocked: She doesn’t know where she’s headed, she doesn’t know what she’ll find there. All she has left is the ride, and when it ends, much ends with it.
But this is a song
For strangers in a car
Baby maybe that’s all
We really are
This has always struck me as full of the odd hope and wistful resignation that runs through many of Cohn’s song. It’s as if he acknowledges the ending on the way but he absolves her of it. The song isn’t about the destination; it’s about the ride.
It really wasn’t planned that this song follow “Listening to Levon” on my countdown, but it’s nice that it worked out that way.
In “Listening to Levon”, Cohn tells us he was sitting in his dad’s “blue Valiant” but this is the song he really associates with his father. It’s a very heart-felt piece of nostalgia and, like many of Cohn’s songs, gentle while remaining pop-ish. Whenever I hear it, I’m struck by how thoroughly successfully it evokes the memory of being a child. My dad didn’t own a silver Thunderbird (or a blue Valiant — the only car my dad ever purchased new was a 1983.5 Chrysler Reliant K car, notorious as one of the worst cars to ever roll out of Detroit). But I totally get the vibe Cohn is sending in this song. There’s pride and wonder and just a hint of loss.
Great big fins and painted steel
Man it looked just like the Batmobile
With my old man behind the wheel
I just love the line about the Batmobile (even though, of course, the Batmobile is black and not silver ). That’s exactly what a six-year-old might say describing his dad’s new car. And the pride that radiates through — “with my old man behind the wheel” — is palpable.
He got up every morning
While i was still asleep
But I remember the sound of him shuffling around
Then right before the crack of dawn
I heard him turn the motor on
But when I got up they were gone
Here too Cohn brilliantly evokes childhood. Who hasn’t heard their father (or mother) rooting around the house in the early hours, before any children are supposed to be awake? Who can’t read in there a safe feeling of being provided for? I can definitely empathize with the thought of jumping out of bed to say goodbye without realizing that, if the motor’s on, he’ll have pulled out long before I get there. Here is the moment of loss that often informs Cohn’s songs — not teary mourning, but a soft regret.
I suppose this songs speaks to me because of how and when I lost my father. By the time the song came out he’d been gone eight years; there would be no chance to sit and reminisce with him. My memories of my dad are wrapped in the same misty nostalgia that informs this song. What remain are glimpses and impressions of the man he was, but as a kid I didn’t have the context to weave them into a real understanding of him. Cohn’s sparse tribute to his dad honors that incompleteness and captures the important parts anyway. To a young boy, his father is more than a person; he’s the living concept, the very definition, of what it is to be a man.
Don’t gimme no Buick
Son you must take my word
If there’s a God in heaven
He’s got a Silver Thunderbird
You can keep your Eldorados
And the foreign car’s absurd
Me I want to go down
In a Silver Thunderbird
“Listening to Levon”
Join the Parade
This was the pop song leading off Join the Parade, the first studio album from Marc Cohn in a long time — and the first after he was shot. This gave it some emotional oomph beyond the song. It’s a warm nostalgic tune which probably helped inspire (or at least reinforce) his desire to visit the songs of his youth in Listening Booth: 1970.
There are some flourishes I like. The use of detail — his dad’s “blue Valiant”, his insistent remembrance of Mary’s hair and skin — give it verisimilitude. The listener totally believes this is Marc remembering and sharing this fond memory of his youth. Except, we learn later that key details are just made up:
I changed her name
To protect the innocent
I might have even lied
About the car
That has got to be one of my favorite lines in music. It’s so playful and mischievous. You can just see him grinning a wide smirk at us as he admits up-front the song is a sham. I even love that he “might” have lied about the car. We’ll never know. That line struck me when I first heard it because I had been spending the early part of the song thinking — I kid you not — “I thought his dad had a silver Thunderbird”. So part of me thought “Ah, that explains it” (as if a person only ever owns one car in his life).
As is typical, there’s more going on here than just reminiscence. This month-long exploration of Marc Cohn’s songs has made me aware how very many of them involve relationships past their sell-by dates. Cohn obviously didn’t stay with “Mary” — he doesn’t even know where she is now. This courtship ended, and one gets the impression not too long after the rainy night in the car. Apparently Mary felt his lack of attention. Now, from the vantage of many years, he’s looking back and feeling regret — not that the relationship went no further, but that the ending of it hurt her, that he hurt her, and probably through accidental indifference more than fiery explosion.
The whole song is sweet but bittersweet. Cohn is more than distracted — he’s “lost”. His willingness to own up to his oblivious mistreatment of Mary (even if it has to be done via a broadcast with little hope of reaching its intended recipient) might be evidence that he has finally found himself, or at least made peace with what he did in his youth. He wryly notes the best possible revenge Mary could have on a singer-songwriter:
It serves me right if
You can’t even hear me singing
If you tuned me out a long time ago
And it serves me right
If you already changed the station
And you’re listening right now to that old boy on the radio
One hopes that, maybe, Mary did hear the song, and forgave him at last.