The “twelve gauge surprise”…

An old James Taylor song popped into my head this morning. I discovered it in the early 90s, when I really got into James Taylor’s music. It was on his 1985 album, That’s Why I’m Here. The song is called “Mona”, and if you don’t see the crude little drawing of the pig that appears on the album’s cover art, you might not realize this song isn’t about homicide. If you’re used to James Taylor’s gentle lyrics and soothing vocals, you might really be taken by surprise by this quirky song. It really goes against James’s usual comforting, consoling sounds and messages of solace.

A fan pleads with James Taylor to play “Mona” at a concert. It had been many years and he mostly gets it right… I’m actually kind of comforted that James had to pull this one out of his ass. “Mona” is obviously a long forgotten problem.

“Mona”, of course, is not a person, but a pig. The story goes that James was gifted a pet pig who got too big to keep, and too “damned old” to eat. So James was forced to present her with a “twelve gauge surprise”. Or, at least that’s how the song goes. I don’t know if he actually did kill the pig, or if she even existed. For all I know, “Mona” is a metaphor for life’s problems. It’s just kind of a goofy song that was in my head this morning, reminding me of the twisted, dark, and ultimately, oddly funny things that come up in life.

I believe the album, That’s Why I’m Here, had a dedication to Bill W. in it, as well. Bill W., for your edification, is Bill Wilson, the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s no secret that James Taylor was a notorious drug addict back in the day. He got sober when he was 36 years old, which was around the time he was making That’s Why I’m Here. I’m sure he needed some comic relief when he made this album, since much of it consists of heartfelt songs about serious subjects and soothing covers. This was about the time James really started to turn into an adult contemporary artist, rather than a folkie. His sound, and his life, were changing.

The studio version of “Mona”, slickly produced and everything…

Anyway, I was thinking of “Mona” this morning. I don’t think it was necessarily because Bill and I just had to put Zane to sleep, either, because our feelings for Zane are much greater than the glib mood James displays as he sings this silly eulogy to Mona, the pig. It probably has more to do with another recurrent situation that has been plaguing us lately, and what we plan to do to finally address it.

I think about James contemplating what to do about that expensive, nuisance pig in his life. It probably troubled him for awhile, but then he resolved to take decisive action. He did the deed, and though he regrets having to do it and will miss Mona’s company, he’s ultimately okay with his choice and realizes that life will go on. The shock and awe will pass, and things will go back to normal. In fact, things will be better than before, because that pest, Mona, will be a funny, fond memory instead of a greedy burden. Maybe Mona really was a pig… but I kind of wonder if maybe she was a symbol of his drug and alcohol addiction, too. Hey, I earned a degree in English. I might as well use it somewhere, right?

James Taylor was inspired to write the song, “That’s Why I’m Here” after the death of his friend, comedian John Belushi, in 1982. Belushi, also a famous drug addict, had once told Taylor that he was worried about him because of his uncontrolled drug use. But Taylor didn’t die of an overdose; Belushi did. That seemed to be the wake up call James needed to get his shit together. Besides being a serious drug abuser back in the day, James also suffered from depression. He’d spent time in a psychiatric hospital– even graduated high school when he was a patient at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was probably an even bigger challenge for him than it was for most to take on his appetite for substances. However, although it was tough and no doubt, unpleasant, James resolved to take action and do better.

“John’s gone, found dead, he dies high, he’s brown bread. Later said to have drowned in his bed. After the laughter, the wave of dread, it hits us like a ton of lead.”

Now, almost 35 years later, James still loves his life’s vocation. We had the privilege of seeing him perform in Dublin last summer, along with Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon. It was a six hour show that left me Charley horses, due to the extremely cramped seating. But man, what a show… and what an inspiration. He’s on his third marriage, but it’s lasted seventeen years and produced two sons who are almost grown up. I think his wife, Kim, is the love of his life, and I can see how much he loves his work every time I watch him perform live. His face is an expression of sheer joy. That’s the kind of life everyone should aspire to have– doing what brings joy, satisfaction, and perhaps, material gain.

I know James Taylor’s journey to sobriety wasn’t necessarily comfortable. He had to do the work to move beyond his drug addiction and mature into the man he was destined to be. He had to slay a “pesky pig” who was draining his time and resources. So he pulled out his “twelve gauge surprise”, bravely pushed aside his doubts, manned up, did the work, and moved on to a better life. Is it a perfect life? No… no one has a perfect life. James Taylor is a flawed being, like we all are. He’s made mistakes, and his life isn’t flawless just because he quit drinking and drugging. But it’s no doubt better than it was. And that’s because James got brave, took a stand, and changed his way of living for the better. He finally addressed and overcame a problem that was holding him back, hitting him over and over again.

Overcoming addiction didn’t mean that James Taylor didn’t have other challenges. He lost his 46 year old brother, Alex, in 1993. Alex died of a massive heart attack after having consumed an entire fifth of vodka in one sitting. The day Alex died was James’s 45th birthday. I’ll bet James wanted to drink that day… or use drugs, or do something to ease the pain of losing his big brother, who was reportedly every bit as musically talented as James is. But he pushed through it and kept making amazing music, despite still running into stumbling blocks that might have stopped or even killed a different man.

A song for Alex Taylor… named “Alice” in this memorial.

In 1997, James released his incredibly healing album, Hourglass, which happened to come out just as I was finishing my Peace Corps service in Armenia. I was profoundly depressed at the time and wouldn’t get help for another year. But when I listen to that album, which I’ve read James had made after seriously contemplating retirement, I always feel comforted. It’s a work borne out of tragedies… his brother’s death, his father’s death, and, perhaps, the death of his second marriage to Kathryn Walker. And yet, some of the music on that album is just nourishment for my soul. It’s helped me get through some very hard times.

Hourglass also reminds me of France, since that’s where I bought my copy. I was in Tours, with my older sister. I’d been on vacation for a month after my Peace Corps service… scared of the future, exhausted, walking on eggshells, and still very depressed and anxious. The music store where I bought Hourglass didn’t sell cassettes, but I only had a cassette player. CD players were still rare and extremely expensive in Armenia when I was there, and although I’d owned one for years in the States, I didn’t have one in Armenia. I carried an old school Walkman with me everywhere in Armenia, and bought tons of bootleg cassettes there, some of which were of amazing albums from the 70s I hadn’t yet been exposed to in our land of plenty. Now, I wonder how long it would have taken me to be exposed to that music if I had never gone to Armenia, where there are amazing musicians and artists, but not all of the modern conveniences we enjoy in America and western Europe.

I remember being very distressed that I couldn’t listen to Taylor’s latest back then, due to my inferior technology. I had heard some of Hourglass on VOA Europe, and knew I would like it. Alas, it had to wait until I was home… and that was probably when I needed to listen to it the most. 1997-1999 were very, very hard years for me. I might not have survived them, had I not been brave enough to seek help and do some hard work. In that case, the “twelve gauge surprise” was psychotherapy and antidepressants, which changed my life irrevocably for the better. It wasn’t easy. It cost time and money and required me to talk about some very difficult things with professionals. But ultimately, I prevailed, and life is, mostly, better. At least I don’t contemplate suicide nearly as often as I used to.

I don’t own a twelve gauge shotgun. If I did, I doubt I would use it to dispatch a pesky pig who has gotten too old, fat, and burdensome for me. That’s not really my way. I save such drastic, final solutions for when a situation is truly a lost cause. I also prefer much cleaner, more humane methods of slaying the Monas who get too damned big and old to care for. But still, the idea of the “twelve gauge surprise” in the old song, “Mona”, really speaks to me today.

So… to all the Monas in my life, enjoy being dirty, greedy, noisy, and stinky while you still can. I’ve got a figurative “twelve gauge surprise” waiting for you.

poor judgment

Will the swastika design ever be okay again?

Many thanks to Wikipedia user Wojsław Brożyna, for use of today’s  image.


Please note: This is a volatile enough subject that I must preemptively state that I’m not advocating for the display of hateful symbols. I present this topic only as food for thought.

For thousands of years, the humble swastika was a symbol of peace, prosperity, and good luck in Hindu and Buddhist cultures.  This earliest known use of the ancient character dates back to 10,000 BC, in Mezine, Ukraine, where it was found in archaeological remains.  For most of its existence, the swastika was regarded as a positive symbol promoting auspiciousness and bounty. But then came World War I, when the swastika was co-opted by other organizations.  Then there was World War II, Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi Party, which carried out the Holocaust.  Now, swastikas are regarded by most people in western culture as a symbol of terror, racism, and hatred. 

In Germany today, it’s illegal to display swastikas or any other symbol related to Nazism.  Many people from the west recoil when they see a swastika, even though it’s still revered in Eastern cultures.Yesterday, I read a news story about a ride at a German amusement park that opened in late July.  It’s operated less than three weeks, but is now shut down because its design looks like a couple of swirling swastikas.  The ride, called Eagle Fly, was designed by an Italian company and had just been installed at Tatzmania, an amusement park in the Black Forest town of Löffingen.  The park’s owner, Rüdiger Braun, had not noticed the ride’s resemblance to swastikas when he made plans to have it built.  When the unfortunate design was pointed out to him, Braun was quick to take the ride out of service, where it was reconfigured so that the gondolas no longer resemble swastikas.  There will now be three gondolas per axle instead of four.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the ride is now reconfigured.  Germans are understandably very sensitive about swastikas.  It’s forbidden to display them in Germany, and someone no doubt would have complained about the design.  Mr. Braun probably would have been fined and forced to change the design, anyway.  However, when I was reading about this mishap, once again, I was reminded of how much emphasis we put on symbols and their ability to offend.  I wondered if the ride’s designer had really intended the gondolas to be configured in such a way that they’d remind people of the Holocaust.  I also wondered how many people immediately thought of Hitler when they saw the ride in operation.  Obviously, Mr. Braun hadn’t noticed it himself.

I shared this article on Facebook.  My German friend, Susanne, is very familiar with Tatzmania before it was named such.  She is originally from Freiburg, and Tatzmania, which used to be called Schwarzwaldpark, is located not far from there.  She wrote that Schwarzwaldpark used to be pretty awesome, but then it was purchased by new owners, who kind of ran it into the ground.  She hoped that the new owner would bring the park back to its prior “super” level, although having a ride that resembles swirling swastikas may have gotten things off on the wrong foot. 

Susanne shared another story with me about clothing racks at a Berlin outlet of the German store, Kik.  The racks looked like swastikas, and a teenager had criticized it.  Later, it was said that the teen was banned from the store for making that comment.  Kik representatives later said that teen had not been banned and furthermore, the clothing racks were not meant to symbolize anything hateful.  They were simply intended to hold up clothes.  Officials from Kik also plainly stated that the company is opposed to racism, xenophobia, and neo-Nazism.

It occurred to me that even though I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that the clothes racks were shaped like swastikas.  Maybe it’s because I’m not Jewish.  I also doubt that the people behind the racks’ design meant to offend more than they meant to present a practical design for displaying clothes to paying customers.On my old blog, I’ve written a couple of posts about how I’ve seen Europeans displaying the “stars and bars” version of the Confederate flag, especially on the Autobahns. 

A few years ago, I saw several battle flags on display at a truck stop in northern Italy, not far from the Swiss border.  One of my Italian friends explained that the Confederate battle flag has been adopted by some southern Italians who relate to it, not because they believe in slavery or white supremacy, but because of the “battle” between the northern and southern regions of Italy.  They identify with the southern United States and its rivalry with the north.I also saw a Confederate battle flag in Ireland.  It was on the back of our cab driver’s car.  I doubt it had the same significance to him that it did to Bill and me.  He probably just thought it was a cool symbol of rebellion.  That symbol doesn’t mean as much to him because he’s Irish, and American history isn’t a priority to him.  It would have been strange to tell him that the battle flag on his car is offensive to many Americans, even though I’m sure it got a lot of double takes from my countrymen.  After all, Ireland isn’t my country, and I was a guest.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  I think revising the attitudes behind hateful symbols is much more important than quashing the symbols themselves.  In my opinion, symbols only have the power that people give to them.  Does that mean I think it’s a wise thing for someone to display Confederate battle flags and swastikas willy nilly?  No, it doesn’t.  But I also think people should use common sense and determine context before they get too excited about some things.  

This isn’t a new topic for me.  I’ve written lots of times about how much I dislike the idea of banning words and burying symbols.  I think all words have a use, even if the use is mostly negative.  I’ve read too many slave narratives and listened to too much Stevie Wonder to be in favor of banning the so-called “n word”.  Taken in context, that word has a purpose.  It should never be used to hurt others, but it would be crazy to remove it from historical documents.  That word has been used to hurt and denigrate Black people for hundreds of years.  No, we shouldn’t continue to use it to hurt and denigrate, but erasing it from history would also be wrong.  It’s an ugly part of history, but it’s still a part of history.  If we remove it simply because it’s offensive, then people might forget about its impact. 

But also consider that even words like “fag” and “retard”, considered “hateful” in some societies today, also had practical uses before they were co-opted by the hateful.  In fact, in countries other than the United States, those words are used all the time and aren’t considered offensive.  They don’t mean the same thing in England or Italy as they do in the USA.  And if we ban those words and symbols, those groups will simply come up with new ones.I did share my basic thoughts on the swirling swastika ride on Facebook. 

I think one of my Jewish friends was slightly offended that I wasn’t more outraged by it.  I certainly mean no disrespect to my Jewish friends.  The Holocaust was absolutely a horrible time in history.  But swastikas were ripped off by Nazis.  For thousands of years, they had no negative connotation at all.  If the world doesn’t end in the next couple of hundred years, there may come a time when people no longer see it as offensive.  It will be just another part of history. 

I think many westerners think only about their own cultures and perspectives when they see or hear certain things.  It may be helpful to broaden one’s perspective regarding words and symbols before allowing them to be too upsetting. Isn’t there enough legitimately awful stuff in the world to be offended about, rather than something that brings to mind something offensive, even if it really wasn’t meant to be?