Ode To Bobbie

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In August 1967, there was little disagreement about the sexiest, smartest, sultriest–and some would say–savviest, woman in country music.  Bobby Gentry seemed to come out of nowhere to dislodge the Beatles from their number one spot on Billboard Top 100 and held it for a month. But, that was just the beginning.  Her mastery of Southern Gothic themes, cinematic approach to song writing and compassionate insight resulted in the one the most recognizable and performed songs of her generation. With “Ode to Billie Joe,” she crafted one of country music’s most alluring mysteries, then she became one.

bobbiegentry1Bobby Gentry was formidable picker, a self taught pianist and vibes player, pioneer of the concept album, writer, painter, a daughter of the wayward South whose narrative arches and Gothic characters echoed the voices of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor.

She wrote “Ode to Billy Joe” when she was 23 years-old and recorded it in a single take.  The record sold 750,000 copies the first week and secured her an opportunity rarely afforded women in the 1960’s.  She wrote nine of the ten songs on her debut album and began a body of work that would, decades later, be seen as the foundation for the concept album.

The lasting impact of “Ode to Billy Joe,” is the economical narrative arch that would become her trademark.  Her ability to inflate a story’s complexity through carefully placed textual references, set the bar for Americana artist like Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash (who poses on the Tallahatchie Bridge for her latest album cover).

She could delight the press with occasional glimpses of her process, and her insightfulness.  Asked why Billy Joe McCallister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,  she answered “Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billy Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people’s reactions to the life and death of Billy Joe… .Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown, when both women experience a common loss.”

She could also cause traffic accidents crossing La Cienega Blvd in a mini-skirt.  Forty years later,  arranger Jimmy Haskell still recalls his first impression of her and her legs. In fact, in a recent BBC documentary, every man interviewed for the special recalled her physicality with remarkable precision. Bobbie used Final Net, Maybelline and Betsey Johnson minis with the same adeptness she handled her Gibson five string.  “Bobbie made no bones about it,” says writer, Holly George-Warren, “she was hot and she wanted to look hot.”

Years before George-Warren and Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams reignited an interest in Gentry, before she’d become the subject of songs by Jill Sobule and Beth Orton, Bobby Gentry dropped from sight.  Her departure was sudden, deliberate and complete enough to make it ripe for legend.

Every once in while, her friend’s cousin or cousin’s friend or somebody who knows someone will turn up a tidbit: she paints in her antebellum home off the Savannah coast,  she lives reclusively off the vast dividends of her Vegas investments, she’s not really hiding, just living quietly in L.A.  Haskell says that she called him once, when Reba McIntire covered “Fancy.”  She chatted, wanted to know what he thought, said she had new material, then vanished, refusing to return his calls.

In 2011 the BBC broadcast, “What Happened to Bobbie Gentry?,” Cash posits a few plausible, but baseless, theories.  Was she just to much of a contradiction? an unclassifiable mix of sexy and smart? Maybe pop-music culture was just too much for so poetic a soul. Maybe she’s got other priorities or is just too tired, too old or never really cared for fame, or maybe she’s got a problem.  Any theory is fine: all are plausible when none are provable. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just what we do. Few of us can accept that silence is, sometimes, just silence or that nothing really means nothing.

After recording her song,  “Where’s Bobby Gentry?,” Jill Sobule said that she found an address from an ASCAP contact and wrote Gentry a letter. “Dear Miss Gentry, I just wanted to tell you what an inspiration you’ve been… You told me that girls could do it too.” There was, of course, no reply. A few years after the letter, Sobule  fantasized a response and posted it on her website.  Gentry comes across her blog, calls her and ends up recording a comeback duet, in her imaginary response.

I’ve also got an imaginary response.

See, the original version of this blog post was a crafted, pretty, yet thoroughly baseless theory of what happened to Bobby Gentry.  I covered all that stuff about being a sexy, smart girl in a world that demands easy categories in a time when women were so easily objectified and fought so hard to be heard. bobbiegentry2

In my Jill Sobule moment, Bobbie stumbles across my blog. She calls me up and, in that smoky Mississippi drawl, she says: “darlin’ you know that speculation is cheap, right?”

I answer, quicker than real life would allow,  “yes, Miss Gentry, but that’s all you left us.”  There’s a long pause and I can almost feel her smiling through the phone. “Baby,” she says, “bless your sweet heart.”… Click.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Girls on Vinyl

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I suppose one could write a book about why baby-boom women represent the most extraordinary generation of female musicians we’ve ever seen, or ever will see. They were the first generation to experience rock and roll as a mass media phenomenon while being schooled in traditions of regional music.  A preacher’s daughter in the New Bethel Baptist Church Choir, a Texas teenager drawn to the pain of Southern Blues and a Mariachi princess serenaded by Lalo Guerrero, all swooned to the same Elvis or Chuck Berry numbers. But, what they filtered through their own experience, refined on the road and reflected back in legendary recordings, was rich enough to redefine the categories of American music.

Aretha_FranklinThink of how Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt drew from the same well of classic soul, remaking the songs of Otis Redding (Respect), Garnett Mimms (Cry Baby) and Betty Everett (You’re No Good).  Yet, few would describe their recordings as “cover versions.”  In fact, they didn’t simply rework those songs, they transmogrified them into the foundations for categorically unique, widely imitated and distinctly female approaches to rock music.

Complex cultural and historical changes put these revolutionary women on collision courses with war-weary fathers, eager for normalcy, and, the ones we’ve heard of, were victorious.  But battles around the kitchen table got them nothing more than a ticket to the struggle.  None of these women were plucked off a Jamaican beach, decked in haut couture and sent into a studio with Jay-Z.   None won the most votes on a t.v. show.  As they set out for The Bitter End, The Bottom Line, CBGB’s, The Palomino Club or The Troubadour, the public voted either by walking out or staying through the set.  They were as unique as they were authentic.

None of this is to disparage the current crop of female artists.  No matter what the process is, the best have a wayjanisjoplin of making their way through it. But looking at these boomers, I’m reminded of the Sandra Bernhardt line: “Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Ann Wilson, when they sang about something it was because they either ate it, drank it, smoked it or f**ked it.”  Their music, their stories, were actually theirs to tell.  Here’s to a few of the best…

I Never Loved A Man...(1967-Atlantic) is Aretha Franklin’s tenth studio album and everyone knows this story, break-up with Columbia, match up with Jerry Wexler, honeymoon in Muscle Shoals and the rebirth of soul.

Pearl (1971-Columbia) was Janis Joplin fourth turn in the studio and the gold standard.  But despite being more refined than Cheap Thrills, everything about it, new producer, new band, a sound taking shape, a singer taking command, pointed to a beginning rather than a culmination.  She made this one of rock’s finest hours, but fate made it hers.

Blue (1971-Reprise), Joni Mitchell’s fourth recording and the game changer, David Crosby says this record put songwriters on notice that superficiality no longer cut it. But, despite the tricky chords and grown-up lyrics, the singable “Carey” has always been my favorite.  More than few July mornings I’ve woken up with a burn on my shoulders, sand in my hair and that song in my head…”Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers, a round for these friends of mine, let’s have another round for the bright red devil who keeps me in this tourist down.” Mitchell’s songs, so intricately personal, always feel like they have someone’s name and address attached.  Sometimes, though, it feels like yours.

Linda Ronstadt Portrait SessionHeart Like A Wheel (1974-Capitol) was Linda Ronstadt’s fifth solo project and ninth as principal vocalist. Widely considered the blueprint for a generation of female  country singers, it’s also what happens when a Mariachi kid grows on American Bandstand, then ends up in room with L.A.’s most accomplished session players, Nashville’s top fiddlers, Detroit’s finest background singers and Emmylou Harris.  HLAW has never been out of print in 40 years, but just in case, it’s permanently archived in the Library on Congress.

Easter (1978-Arista) was Patti Smith’s third album and not HorsesHorses is the one you’re supposed to say is your favorite cause that’s what all the lists say. But, seriously, if the place was on fire and you could only save one of them you’d be thinking “‘Til Victory,” “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger”  “25th Floor,” and admit it….“Because The Night.”  This was the one that broke through to mainstream, but that doesn’t mean anything was compromised. I’ve heard it said that the world has never seen a woman quite like her; the world has never seen a person quite like her.

Broken English (1979-Island) Depending on how you see things, this was either Marianne Faithfull’s seventh studio album or her first.  Because what rose up out of the ashes when this former pop princess, heroine addict and Weillian chanteuse got back on her feet sounded like complete reincarnation.  Every dirty word (and there are plenty), raw emotion and cracked vocal is delivered with such matter-of-factness.  She’s not trying to shock or impress you, just telling what she knows for you to take or leave as you will.  Whatever you decide, isn’t going to make any difference to her either way.

When The Finish Line is Home

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Whether you’re a runner, a spectator, or just a guy who loves this town, each of us has his own memories to reconcile, his own peace to make.  For me, today is a confirmation of everything I’d thought about how much would change the day two bombs exploded on Boylston Street.

Nothing.  You know, some things just can not be changed.

Even in the heat of the moment, tragedy still unfolding, with the impact far from fully-realized, still trying to register what had happened,  I just didn’t share the view that anything had permanently changed.  I heard the cries and felt the pain of everyone who said, “this is it, nothing will be ever be the same about the marathon, the city or its people.”  But, to me,  that’s not how life works.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the scope of the tragedy or the cowardice of men who would launch sneak-attacks on people who are–in every sense of the word–stronger than them and, even worse, people who aren’t.  I understood, to whatever extent possible, the life-altering pain, confusion, grief, anger.   But some things are just too big to be changed. That’s not romanticism or defiance or hope and, God knows, it is not victim’s consolation.  It’s just a fact.

Every Patriot’s Day something big happens here, in Boston, and it’s not just the world’s oldest continuous marathon.  As South-Enders wander across the Corridor and North Enders cut across Haymarket and even the folks over in Jamaica Plain make that rare journey across Mass. Ave (or at least think about it), the rest of the world squeezes in and lines of demarcation fade away.  A hardscrabble town cracks a smile and it’s truly a sight to behold.

I’ve seen that most clearly through the eyes of others.  One of  the many spectacular Patriot’s Days I remember, I wandered into the crowd drifting into Copley from Tremont. It was about 4:30, all the elite runners had long been shuttled off.  But, like a lot of locals who’d opt to avoid the traffic, crowds, or just do other things that day, I’ve always prefered to show up after the fanfare just cheer on those last stragglers.  It’s always a small local crowd left to to encourage our own, or those who become our own that one day a year, those who finish the race on sheer grit.

This is a day when infamous parochialism melts like the March frost, Bostonians are actually willing to make eye-contact as though they recognize you, and the do.  You came here to do something, to win a battle we don’t know about, take a prize can not see and and we know that.

I was walking across the church yard with a friend, a transplant from D.C.. He was on his cell phone.  He was on his cell phone a lot back then with friends in Washington or family in Arizona.  Boston isn’t really an easy place to break into and it can leave the best of ’em longing for home. But when we reached the front of the library on Dartmouth, a few yards from the finish line, I noticed his conversation wasn’t about a place he missed, but the place he finally discovered a year after moving.  He wasn’t complaining to the person on the other line, he was sharing.  He was bragging.

Flanked by the BPL’s bronze goddesses of art and science on the left and the Trinity Church on the right, he was describing this newfound place.  People were out, smiling, talking, welcoming and it didn’t seem that big, cold or dark a city after all. It was like he just found home, on Patriot’s Day, in the place he’d merely been living all year.

Buoyed by the lengthening days, the blossoming spring and promise of another summer in a coastal town, The Marathon, more than any other event reveals the spirit of this city.  Parochialism starts to look familial and people don’t seem as defensive as they do protective.  It’s the time when people get hooked and feel a sense of ownership in a city that will end up owning them in some way.  So even if we don’t say “hi” to every random person we pass or ask where you’re from or care whether or not “y’all come back,” this place has a way of revealing itself in those lovely, long-awaited, shared moments.

When it happens, when you get it, you’ll forever understand Bostonians because you will be one too.

On Monday there’ll be the painful memories that’ll last forever, but there will also be an unassailable sense of community.  It will be triumphant and irresistible like it always has. If anything, it’ll be stronger and that’s never going to change.  Not because of two guys with bombs, or ten guys with bombs or even ten-thousand.

Some things can never be changed.

Corporations are….Christians too?

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This month the Supreme Court will again take up the question of whether or not corporations are people too.  The Court has already ruled that Citizens United was not guilty of electioneering, as widely seen,  but simply exercising the free speech guaranteed to all citizens, just a bigger, louder, wealthier, ubiquitous version of you or me. So,  are corporations also entitled to same, or even greater, religious freedom than individual citizens?  That’s the question before the court in three cases to be argued this month.

The first is the New Mexico case that caused a firestorm in neighboring Arizona. After the New Mexico Supreme ruled that Elane Photography violated the state’s Equal Access law with it’s “traditional weddings only” policy, Arizona attempted to preempt similar cases by expanding the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

RFRA is the federal law that includes “religiously neutral” laws among those that may infringe upon the free exercise of one’s religion.  Previously, only laws directed at imposing or curbing religious practice were considered under the Free Exercise Clause. Based on federal law, Arizona’s bill proposed two significant changes.  First, it secured the right to deny services where RFRA had only legitimized the right to be heard in court. Secondly, Arizona attempted to extend the definition of “person” to include businesses.

Despite the highly publicized veto by Arizona’s conservative governor, expanding RFRA remains a cornerstone of current conservative policy dealing with marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act and birth control access. The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall passionately argues that these changes are merely clarifications of a reasonable interpretation.  In fact she seems downright flummoxed that anyone thought it was such a big deal writing that “the Arizona law simply would have explicitly clarified that ‘person’ in the law includes groups of persons—in other words, churches, associations, and businesses.”

Except, of course, the term “person” has never included businesses.  Even in cases where religious exemptions are extended to organizations, those organizations have always been churches or church sponsored non-profit services.  The government has never treated secular, for-profit business the same way it treats churches.  The rhetorical strategy of  simply linking the terms together every time you say them, churches-and-businesses, comes off as a sophomoric attempt at revisionism.  It’s not the kind philosophical argument one might have expected from The Heritage Foundation.

Nevertheless, this notion is at the heart of the other two religious freedom cases before The Court.  Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties will each argue that the religious convictions of their owners entitles them to equal status with churches and non-profit organizations, namely, the Affordable Care Act’s exemption on birth control coverage.

The Obama administration argues that the exemptions, written into the law, do not apply to secular for-profit organizations. However, unfair or un-Christian this position is, it is based on precedent. It’s nothing personal, just the closest we have to an objective standard: if a business seeks the privileges of a religious institution, it must show that it functions like one.

What’s striking is just how emotional the response has been, not from tea party extremists, but from the conservative establishment.  Rather than acting on precedent, the administration is imposing a sexual revolution upon us (The American Conservative) codifying “complacency in the destruction of human life” (The National Review) and “wielding their sweeping new powers to assault freedom of religion in the name of their preferred social order” (The Weekly Standard).

In a world where religious, ethnic and tribal passions are so publically irreconcilable, it’s surprising–even disappointing–that the right relies entirely on righteous emotionalism when addressing important social policy.  It reflects just how desperate they’ve become.

The Soul Invictus

December 25th was, among other things, The Sol Invictus, the day Ancient Romans celebrated the Unconquerable Sun before the rise Christianity.   I’m always struck by the idea that no matter what we believe, we seem hardwired to seek out our higher selves in the darkest months.  Whether it’s the Unconquerable Sun, the victorious lights of Diwali, the menorah that burned eight days or the light in the stable where redemption touched the earth, we need this stuff.  We don’t need it just because it’s comforting, we need it because it’s true.

We are also hardwired to rise up after a fall. So, when I see Stonehenge aligned with the Solstices, I don’t imagine dull Neolithic tribes cowering at the darkening sky or appeasing an angry god.  I imagine, instead, a primordial knowledge that each of us has a higher self. There is an alternate version of each of us which comes out on the other side the of darkness stronger and more fully realized than we could have imagined.

There is a Soul Invictus for which dormancy was merely part of the plan. It will blossom again because it knows no different and it has nothing to fear.

Making Memories and Making Them Over

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If you’ve reached the age when you’re starting to doubt your own memories, don’t worry. It really doesn’t matter.  In fact, it’s a complete waste of time debating whether leaves were beginning to fall or there was already snow or the ground, or whether it was Aunt Bess or Cousin Margaret or even if it was just an awkward choice of words or a calculated verbal assault designed to ruin your holiday.  The part you recall, and the part with which no one can argue, is how you felt about the event, not how it happened.

Timothy Leary explained that other kind of truth saying “we are each the stars our own life story,” unable to see beyond the prism of our own experience. But, there’s more to it than that. Our life stories are, by definition, works in progress.  To retain any relevance at all, events are continually reconsidered and revised. The past is influenced by the present as much as the present is influenced by the past.

Now, neuroscience has begun to catch up with what psychology has known for decades.  Memories, particularly important ones, are not like photographs that freeze a moment in time: they are more like keepsakes that are reframed with each new look. Studies by Karim Nader, at McGill University, indicate that each recollection of a significant memory triggers the production of new proteins used to store that memory.  The chemical process of recalling a memory is not unlike the process of creating it in the first place.

He says important events, the “flashbulb” memories thought to consolidate over time, are actually most susceptible to change since we replay them over and over. That, by the way, is not a bad thing; it’s essential to managing Post Traumatic Stress.

But  even innocuous recollections are subject our value systems.  For my niece, a sweater I passed on to her years ago was navy blue, well-worn and meaningful.  In my mind it was black, rather new (laundry mishap) and Armani. I’ve no conscious purpose for altering that image; there was no consciousness involved at all.  Yet, there I stand, lead actor in this little movie in my head, pulling the practically new, black, turtle-neck out of bag in her living room.

Poetic license allows the replacement of items that don’t resonate with a particular audience with ones that do to convey the most accurate meaning in a particular medium.  Telling the truth, you might say, sometimes requires tweaking it.  Although I’m certain that I hadn’t tweaked anything, I even more certain that the neurological/psychological process of developing our own storylines is far more complex, multi-layered and pluralistic than anything Miramax could imagine.

Legendary film director, Luis Bunuel, writing his autobiography in his eighties, offered up this disclaimer: “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths…I am the sum of my errors and doubts as much as my certainties. Such is my memory.”

So, next time a family member, old friend or classmate shares a memory you find utterly absurd, anachronistic, uncharacteristic or just plain stupid, remember: you’re hearing the review not the script.

Harry T. Moore Still Matters

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My God called to me in morning dew; the Power Of The Universe knows my name. He gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way; now, I raise my voice for justice and I believe.*

Harry_Tyson_MooreOn this day in 1905 teacher, Harry T. Moore, was born.  He went on to put his considerable talents to use with the NAACP, establishing 50 branches in the state of Florida.  His Florida Progressive Voters League would register over 100,000 black voters, more than in all the other southern states combined.  He was, as Bernice Johnson Reagon said, “so successful they had to kill him.”

He and his wife, Harriett, died on Christmas Day in 1951 when a bomb, planted beneath their bedroom floor, exploded.  The Moores’ assassination predates what the Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Civil Rights Era. So, he wasn’t included in their Memphis memorial and still lingers deep in the shadows of iconic figures like 14 year-old Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

Harry T. Moore didn’t single handedly start the struggle for voting rights, but he was putting up one hell of a fight, long before politicians or the press seemed to care, while the KKK’s own Warren Fuller served as Governor of Florida.  Moore was a rare figure in history who walked onto the battlefield not knowing if a single soul would follow him.

They did follow and over the next 17 years shots rang out across Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Texas.  Incidents seared into our national psyche, would eventually command attention of the highest levels of government, but not before 39 names were added the list of Civil Right Martyrs.

Most of them, like Moore, walked straight into the fire. None could have doubted the credibility of the constant threats. Recalling the event years later, Myrlie Evers hadn’t thought a car backfired, or children were playing with fire crackers or that there was anything remotely unequivocal about the sound she’d heard in front of her Mississippi home in 1963.  When asked what she thought at the first loud bang,  she answered flatly,  “I knew they killed my husband.”

I’ve poured over photos from that era and, lately, am more drawn to the personal ones.  There’s that famous shot of a beaming Martin Luther King on the courthouse steps while Coretta plants one on his cheek and Medgar Evers, looking like any other groom cutting the cake while Myrlie leans into him. There’s Moore resting on his lawn while Harriett nuzzles against his neck.  Like men dream of becoming heroes, I wonder of these heroes ever dreamt of just being men.

There’s one photo of Harry T. Moore that compels me the most, though. Leaning on the hood of a car, wearing a bright white shirt and tie flying in the breeze, his eyes seem focused on something distant, but clear. His eyes seem to answer all the questions I’ve ever had about him and the others.  It’s a look that makes it almost possible to understad how they did it, how they pushed passed the instinct for self-preservation, how they didn’t recoil from the heat, how they resisted telling their children it would stop and they’d live quiet subservient lives, how they already owned a victory they’d never see.

His eyes pierce right though the clutter and the excuses, the convoluted babble and inconvenience. They focus, laser-like, on one indisputable fact: The right to equality is inherent.  It needs no defense, no explanation, no postponement and God knows, it needs no compromise. For anyone. Ever.

* “I Remember, I Believe” Bernice Johnson Reagon

Actually, it is a “damn game.”

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I’m not sure if it’s just me, but Mitch McConnell always looks like he’s been crying.  Beyond the puffy damp cheeks, he’s got that befuddled look in his eyes. It’s as if someone suddenly flicked the light-switch on, exposing him sniffling and teary-eyed and struggling to get his bearings.   Whenever I see him, I feel like I should look away and give him a few  moments to collect himself.

He reminds me that politics is hard. It requires a certain constitution, especially when it doesn’t go your way.  Being good at it means, not just knowing how to win, or even how to lose,  but how to constantly negotiate the in-between. In fact, that’s what politics is, negotiating the in between.   So, when John Boehner, who also looks like he’s been crying–usually because he has been, said “this isn’t some damn game,” he just sounded like a sore loser. In fact, it was nothing but a game when he strategized to force the Administration out of the in-between and off the field completely.

If Boehner doesn’t seem to like the game very much these days, it’s just because he sucks at it. Legislatures are places where people fight to get the most of what they promised while doing the least amount of damage to the relationships and process on which they survive. At any other time in history it would have been too obvious to be worth saying,  but politics requires nimbleness, fair play, discipline, institutional respect and delayed gratification.

The problem for the current Republican leadership is these are the very qualities on which the tea-party has declared war.  If Boehner and McConnell had seen this less as less of a holy war and more like a game, they wouldn’t be in this position.  Now, they can’t seen to put the fire they started.

When I was a kid, the comparison between political leaders and sports figures wasn’t that much of a stretch, even here in the home of John Havlicek, Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Bruins.  Kevin White was mayor and in my memory he’s in perpetual motion, zig-zaging across a Washington St. parade route.  White shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows and sinewy forearms in constant flex, he gripped hands, flashed grins, and moved with supreme confidence.

In New York, John Lindsay was mayor.  Looking far more like a basketball star than a politician, Lindsay too embodied all “the right stuff.” Both of them new how to rally their troops when the odds looked impossible and how to pull them back when the game was over. They looked measured and capable.  They looked like people you wanted to be like.

I don’t want to romanticize the past, though.  Boston and New York were far more dangerous, troubled cities than they are now and neither White nor Lindsay were without fault.  In the midst of failing schools, urban flight, racism, police bias and uprising for every sort, they each made their share of miscalculations.

Lindsay was badly wounded by a series of labor crises, including the strike that would shut down the NYC transit system.  White faced a school desegregation plan that tore his city in two, pitting allies and neighbors against each other, leaving scars that would last for decades. And, whether or not he did anything wrong, the appearance of impropriety certainly hurt him with his essential liberal base.

They lost sometimes and, although they understood the difference between quitting and knowing when the game’s over, their constituents often did not.  Both Kevin White and John Lindsay frequently found themselves under fire from their own side.

I’d record these kinds of events in a scrapbook my mother and kept when I was 10-years old. She had filled it with presidential biographies that ran as series in The Boston Globe.  Later, we’d add quotations, trivia or news articles.  People sometimes smirk at the thought of just how much of a geek you’d have to be to sit at the kitchen table with your mom carefully transcribing lines from Barry Goldwater into your “Political Stuff Scrapbook”. So, I get it. It’s hard for people of this generation to imagine that there were once politicians as dynamic as sports figures, and even at that, it was still a little geeky. But, public service could attract these kinds of all-stars.  Many of them really were the guy you wanted to be like when you grew up.

I recently shared this idea with Michael Dukakis. A spry and optimistic eighty-year old, he shot back, “you gotta remember that there were a some real bastards back then too.”  I don’t think I’m missing that point, or even the fact that the bastards won sometimes.  But watching Republicans change make the up of D.C. Circuit Court simply because this President shouldn’t have the right to make appointments, making filibustering status quo because this president shouldn’t have the right to govern and shutting down the government because this president shouldn’t have been elected…I’m pretty sure that these bastards are different.

The Cases

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Yesterday, Governor Chris Christie seemed to see the writing the wall  when he withdrew his court challenge to reverse marriage equality in New Jersey.  He, wisely, put the passion and prayers aside to face the reality that a series of changes to the law, both in his own state and the nation, had boxed him and his social conservatives into an impossible position.

Here are some of the key changes in the law, that made Gov. Christie’s decision inevitable (in Supreme Court unless otherwise noted)

1965, Griswold v. Conn.: This, of course, was landmark case that first established a constitutional right to privacy.

1967, Loving v. Virginia: Beyond just striking down anti-miscegenation laws, which it could have done on civil rights grounds, this case elevated that status of marriage, “a fundamental freedom,” to the level of constitutional protection.

1978, Zablocki v. Redhail: In striking down a Minn. law that withheld marriage licenses from anyone with child support in arrears, the Court reaffirmed the “fundamental importance” of the right to marry.

1987, Turner v. Safely: Significantly expanding marriage protection the High Court ruled, that “prisoners have a constitutionally protected right to marry…and although such a marriage is subject to substantial restrictions as a result of incarceration, sufficient important attributes of marriage remain to form a constitutionally protected relationship.”

1996, Romer v. Evans: This case concerned Colorado’s constitutional amendment which barred municipalities and counties from extended civil rights protection to gay people.  In striking down the amendment, the court said that disqualifying “a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.”

2003, Lawrence v. Texas: Basically, this case decriminalized being gay.  Reversing Hardwick v Bowers, the majority now quoted Justice Brennen’s original  dissent: “the State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making private sexual contact a crime.”

2003, Goodrich v. Dept of Public Health (in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts) The state’s highest court, now hearing the case in the context of constitutionally protected civil marriage, made history and ruled that limiting marriage to same-sex couples violated that state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

2008, Kerrigan v. C.P.H. (in The Supreme Court of Conn.) and 2009, Varnum v Brien (in The Supreme Court of Iowa): Again, in the context of a class of persons no longer criminalized and constitutionally protect marriage, neither court found any justification for banning same-sex marriage.

2012, Hollingsworth v. Perry (in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals): The Court ruled that California’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and “serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California.”   In the absence of challenge from the state, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal for lack of standing, securing marriage equality in California.

2013, Windsor v. the United States: The Supreme Court upheld the First Circuit Court’s decision and ended several pending cases, ruling once and for all that the federal ban on same sex marriage (DOMA) violates the Due Process guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment of U.S. Constitution.

Best Boys

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Once, when I was in first, maybe second, grade this boy was going to beat me up.   He ran at me in the school yard and to everyone’s surprise—especially my own—I swung first, landing a pretty solid right to the jaw.  It was the only time I ever had any pushback for someone who hadn’t hit me first–at least once.  Anyway, I really didn’t have a choice, there was nowhere for me to run and, as it turned out, I didn’t have to.  He grabbed his jaw with both hands, looked horrified and ran inside the school.  I don’t know if it actually bled, but he certainly acted like it did.

Later, I remember Mrs. O’Hare talking with Mrs. Callahan (Cockeyed Callahan), wringing her hands and shaking her head while lamenting what a burden I put on them, “daydreamer, obstinate, uncooperative, unproductive and immature.” Then, as they both stood looking down at me, shaking their heads so vigorously that their turkey necks swung violently from side to side, she said “and today he hit one of my best boys.”

The Best Boys.  With their scrubbed faces, fresh haircuts and new sneakers, smacked baseballs with firm and even swings, never missed class, could dutifully recite their timetables and, on  Sundays, the Apostles Creed.  The Best Boys were only cruel when no one was looking and, if you really were a Best Boy, no one ever was.  It was as if they had some sort of arrangement with those in authority: a childhood version of don’t ask don’t tell.

I had no arrangement with anyone in authority.  That was the problem or, at least, one of them. Mrs. O’Hare, Mrs. Callahan, Mrs. Jeffries, Miss DeVoe and all the other ladies in flowered dresses liked classifications and arrangements and such.  They appreciated a simple order of things and who could blame them.  Life with more answers and less questions is so much easier to manage:  I would have done it the same way if I’d only known how.

They did what made most sense.  They simply took stock of their charges and invested where the return looked most promising. Separating the wheat from chaff you might say, they designated best boys, good boys and hopeless boys.

Best boys, good boys, hopeless boys…how any of us got that way is still a question for ages.  That was the stuff of long forgotten thesis papers and scholarly journals left unread and yellowing in a teacher’s lounge.  It is truly without sarcasm that I suggest that those questions were probably too much to ask of people who signed up to teach reading, writing and arithmetic. They had homes to get to, dinners to cook and little time for anything out of order.

I didn’t expect them to do more than they were asked or to look for what they didn’t really want to see.  I don’t hold teachers responsible for clearing the paths or healing the wounds of children randomly thrust into their care.   But, I did expect them not to be among those who inflict the damage.  I expected, still expect, them to have the wherewithal—let’s call it the intellectual courage–to know when they’re the problem and when they’re the solution.

I expect that now more than I ever did and I still don’t think it’s too much to ask.