CPAC and SXSW: an American Stew

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It was spring break all over America.  It was SXSW in Austin. It was CPAC time in Washington, D.C.

While I was listening in Austin to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, CPAC attendees were complaining about life as beleaguered white people. Oh the prejudice they most overcome, and they will one day.

The cultures of SXSW and CPAC are so radically different that it’s a stretch to remember they are taking place in the same country or even on the same planet. Imagine the face of horror on the CPAC secret agent who gets a glimpse in his Victorian-era telescope of the revelers in Austin. “Run away, run away!” he would shout.

Now, I realize that the events are staged with wildly different purposes. SXSW is a music, film and intertubes festival that celebrates today’s stars and showcases tomorrow’s. CPAC is a cuckoo’s nest all the card-carrying cuckoos must attend.

Here was Sarah Palin speaking of Ted Cruz: “He chews barbed wire, he spits out rust.”

And here’s Cruz on Palin: “I’m not remotely cool enough to be Sarah Palin.” It’s hard to be cool with a mouth full of rust, Ted.

Now, I’ll tell you who’s cool, Ted. Robert Randolph, a genius on the pedal steel who combines the blues, soul, funk, southern rock and Hendrix to create a musical wonderland. I saw him yesterday on the massive outdoor stage at Auditorium Shore here.

Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris are cool to. So was the Midnight Ramble Band, the late Levon Helm’s gift to the world. I could go on and on about all the cool at SXSW.

On the dark side of the universe at CPAC, we return to the white-people-are-victims-of-racism party. Please, I’m not making this up. Benjy Sarlin tells us about CPAC’s breakout session from hell: (more…)

Politics, Coonskin Caps, and the Stories That We Are

I was Wyatt Earp when I wasn’t Davy Crockett

How was it that as a boy of four or five I came to wear a Davy Crockett coonskin cap or a Wyatt Earp outfit complete with a red and gold vest, striped pants and boots? I suppose it was at least precociously post-modern of me to be carrying a candy-filled plastic walking stick instead of a gun.

One answer, of course, is 1950s television. Another is the profound importance of our cultural narratives to the way we think and act, to the personae we take on, to the choices we make. It’s easy to forget this fact when one of the dominant cultural narratives tells us we are immune to the influence of cultural narratives as autonomous, self-contained individuals.

Popular culture scholar Margaret King wrote:

Americans like to think of themselves as rational people – rooted in fact. If this were true, Consumer Reports would be our best-selling magazine instead of TV Guide.

Well, TV Guide is no longer No. 1. AARP The Magazine is. Still, King’s point is well taken. We don’t choose presidents or products by rational means. We choose them because of the stories they come wrapped in, stories that dress us up, too, sometimes in Wyatt Earp garb.

My parents used to tell me I could sing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” before I could speak another word. I was only a little more than one year old when the original Disney three-part series aired on TV. So it must have been re-runs and the 1956 Disney movie, Davie Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier that had me singing. I had a coonskin cap, of course, but I couldn’t fine a photo. Wyatt Earp will have to do.


Voting Rights, Democracy, and the “Dignity of Man”

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President Lyndon Johnson opened his remarks to Congress urging passage of the Voting Rights Act with these words:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

A few moments later, Johnson quoted Matthew 16:26:

What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The conservative justices lobbed hostile and for the most part uninformed questions at defenders of the historic legislation. It’s obvious that those judges couldn’t give a fig about the dignity of man or the destiny of democracy.

It is also clear in this and other instances – Citizens United comes to mind – that the Roberts Court is all about protecting material profits of the few from the justice sought by the many. Gain the whole world they might. Their souls I’ll leave for others to judge.

The American Right’s recent war on voting rights is a disgrace. For all their endless prattle about freedom, their voter suppression campaigns betray their anti-democratic natures. It is not citizen empowerment they seek, it is the guarantee of their own power. It’s hard to imagine how they can reconcile their anti-democratic behavior with their professed love of democracy.

Their rationalizing gymnastics require two twisted beliefs. They must first diminish the humanity of those they seek to disenfranchise. Sociologists call it infrahumanization. The targets of out-group prejudice are considered just a little less human than in-group members. Sadly, recent studies show this is a habit shared by many around the world. So when the perpetrators of voter suppression hear a phrase like “the dignity of man,” they think it refers only to them and not the targets of their suppression efforts.

In a related move, vote suppressors have to believe in a natural hierarchy or order in which God or Nature has chosen their group for dominion over others. Most who hold this belief would deny it, of course. They may even deny it to themselves. They may never utter a racial epithet. But their world is turned upside down when someone from the out-category is suddenly in a position of power over them.

There are also cynical Machiavellians who know better, of course. They are quite happy to exploit the bigoted to enhance their own wealth and power.

It is obscene that there’s even a question about the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. And the Roberts Court may understand the potential public backlash. Consequently, some observers think the court will leave intact the critical Section 5 of the act that requires Justice Department pre-clearance of changes to voting laws in several states and jurisdictions. Instead, the Court will gut the Act by undoing Section 4, the formula for choosing the jurisdictions to which the VRA applies. This could allow the Court to try and escape the charge of overturning the VRA.

If we want to continue to gloat about being the world’s greatest democracy, we should be moving in the opposite direction. We should remove any and all barriers to voting by eligible citizens. The VRA should be expanded to cover the entire nation. We should expand early voting. Election day itself should be made a holiday. We should streamline registration efforts and allow for same-day registration or, better, automatically register all eligible Americans when they reach age 18. We should have real, universal voting standards that apply to all citizens no matter where they live.

The destiny of democracy is at stake, just as Johnson said it was in 1965. The recent assaults on voting rights across the country prove that the VRA is not obsolete, as the enemies of popular democracy argue. They prove that there are a good number of Americans who do not believe in democracy at all. We cannot let them prevail.

Life Is a Carnival

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“We’re all in the same boat ready to float off the edge of the world.”

The Band

“Life is a carnival,” sang The Band, and I imagine the passengers stranded in the Gulf of Mexico aboard the cruise ship Triumph wished it weren’t so true. Or maybe truer. They couldn’t, despite the promise of the song, walk on water. Still, they were lucky. The meteor hit Siberia and not the Splendor, after all.

Chuck Shepherd began his syndicated “News of the Weird” column in 1988. I’ve always enjoyed tales like that of the bank robber who put is gun in the sack after the teller filled it with money, only to have the guard tell the hapless, suddenly disarmed criminal mastermind, “Excuse me sir, but could we please have our money back?”

Contemporary events, however, make me question the distinction between today’s news and “news of the weird.”

This was the week that Marco Rubio America added a water-bottle prop to the GOP’s Dickensian message to America: “Stay thirsty, my friends.” It was the week another GOPer, Ted “Carnival” Cruz of Texas channeled Joseph McCarthy in his innuendo-laden attacks on poor old Chuck Hagel.

I’ve run out of ways to apologize to the world for launching yet another dangerous clown upon the stage. Cruz is a dangerous man. Don’t let his wacky Agenda 21 paranoia fool you. He may really worry that the United Nations is preparing to take over America’s golf courses. There’s no Second Amendment right to bear golf clubs, but Cruz doesn’t care. So far in the Senate, his drives are hitting the greens just about every time. Weird indeed.

Cruz may be the real reason Rubio gulped. There’s not room for both Republicans in that party’s presidential parade. Cruz, in just a month, is the Tea Party’s new darling. Cruz thinks he should be president or maybe king of the world. The only thing more obvious than his moral depravity is his ambition.

Back to the news. On Valentine’s Day, Slate’s Mary Mycio published a piece on archeologists’ discovery of the world’s oldest known pornography. The frolicking folk in the rock carvings may be 3,000 years old. They were found in the westernmost region of China, but physical characteristics indicate the artists came from the West. California’s San Fernando Valley, probably.

Now, this is real news. To young-earth creationists the sexy rock carvings could have been around at the time of Noah’s Ark. Hell, it could have been one of the reasons the Ark was necessary, if you get my drift. Or, it could make history’s censors look like fools as a healthy love of sexy time seems to predate the first prig. We report. You decide.

This was also the week I got around to watching Argo. The Iran hostage crisis began in the fall of 1979, just two months after I went to work as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. I covered a different bunch of imprisoned folk at the time – prisoners in the Texas Department of Corrections. The only television in Huntsville, Texas, came via cable. Upon moving into our new home, I hooked up the cable to see what would happen and it worked. I’m not sure I was ever billed. Those were the days.

Argo reminded me of the enormous impact the Iran hostage crisis had on the world, the nation and my life. It gets some of the credit for the defeat of Jimmy Carter and election of Ronald Reagan. And it didn’t just simply increase U.S. media awareness of the U.S. role in Mideast politics. It led to the creation of new media that has had, for better or worse, an enormous impact on how we consume the news.

Recall that ABC launched the news program, Nightline, just four days after the hostages were taken. CNN launched as the first 24-hour news program a few months later. Not long thereafter, Reagan eliminated the fairness doctrine from broadcast and right-wing radio was born.

We are, it seems, as adrift in the sea of news as the poor passengers aboard the Triumph were upon the waters of the Gulf. We can’t escape the carnival-like atmosphere of today’s news, weird or not. There is no farther shore. There is no Ark.

Life is a carnival, and I’m with The Band on this one:

“Take away, take away this house of mirrors

Give away, give away, all the souvenirs.”

Houses of Cards

House of Cards, the Netflix original series, just might be the best of a genre that ought to be called the “political sleezie.” Wildly entertaining, it stars Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire. Majority Whip Underwood is so underhanded it makes you feel guilty that you almost root for him to succeed.

The term “house of cards” dates all the way back to John Milton in the 17th century and still means what Milton’s figurative phrase meant then: a flimsy, morally reckless structure that threatens to come down on the heads of its builders.

It’s not hard to see in recent history something like card house sprawl. Wall Street? Congress? Most state governments? Higher education? Public education? Bridges, dams, and levees? Cards are cheaper than brick, and in so much of what we do we look for the best return on the cheapest investment.

And beyond individual institutions the climate crisis, the ultimate huff and puff, is threatening our global Cathedral of Cards. Civilization that in our arrogance seemed so permanent is not so invincible after all.

“I’m just a lowly House majority whip,” the powerful Underwood says in House of Cards. “I keep things moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude. My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving.”

I doubt anyone will argue with that “choked by pettiness and lassitude” line. The approval rating of Congress is so low one wonders if they’re playing a comic game of limbo, forever bending backwards under a lower and lower bar.


Revisionairies and Tooth Fairies

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PBS last week aired “The Revisionaries,” a remarkable documentary about the hard-right, creationist Christian takeover of the Texas state school board and its impact on the nation’s school textbooks. Texas’ student population is so large that publishers often push the state’s choices on the rest of the nation.

And what choices they are: the earth is 6,000 years old; diminished focus on the Civil Rights Movement; Thomas Jefferson is marginalized and John Calvin exalted. You’ll be happy to hear that more moderate folk are getting elected to the board. Then again, how could they not?

Not long after watching “The Revisionaries” I came across an article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, “Abolish Social Studies” by Michael Knox Beran. In it Beran fantasizes about a century-long conspiracy to indoctrinate American children in “collectivism.” Teaching children to work and play well with others, is, in Beran’s nightmare world, just a bit short of teaching Maoism.

Not only Scott Foresman but other big scholastic publishers—among them Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—publish textbooks that dwell continually on the communal group and on the activities that people undertake for its greater good. Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.”

Heaven forbid we should teach kids how to work together or point out that they probably live in neighborhoods. Teaching the importance of the greater good? The road to Stalinism, of course.

To state the obvious, there are thorny questions to be raised about the tricky relationship between the individual and society. The questions are hardly new. But the paranoia about some kind of collectivist conspiracy intent on destroying the individual is downright kooky.

The deep contradiction in the agendas of the Christian Right and the Randian fantasists is that while they claim to be subverting indoctrination, indoctrination is their method. Individual freedom is not their goal. It’s universal conformity to their pre-modern worldviews that they demand.

The success of the flat-earthers is due in large part to the fact that more sane people view their theories as so far-out that they aren’t taken seriously. For instance, how is it that the region surround NASA south of Houston has elected some of the most anti-science school board members (and Tom Delay, too!)? NASA’s scientists and engineers wouldn’t have become scientists and engineers if they’d been taught the anti-science curricula promoted by the Right.

It’s not apathy, exactly. Oddly, part of the answer lies in a persistent progressive faith that the pursuit of knowledge will always outrun its enemies. So, political choices can safely be made on other grounds. That’s a mistake. History has its dark times. There were, after all, the Middle Ages.

The fantasies of the every-man-is-an-island hyper-individualists are part of a general intellectual and cultural retrenchment that’s long been tugging against modernism and technological change. There are always those who believe in tooth fairies. They can’t contemplate a life without them.

So be it. But I wish they could stop characterizing their antagonists as monsters under American beds. They’d be happier people if they could pull it off. I’m not anti-religion. I am an individualist who believes in the obvious fact that we depend upon one another for survival. The greater good is a greater good that should be taught.

Us Versus the Volcano

I wish we could require all Americans – at least all decision-makers – to read Joseph Stiglitz’s new essay in the New York Times. Inequality is strangling us economically, politically, socially, he writes.

…with inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.

The various Austerity Furies here and around the world are punishing the poor and middle class because…why? I think their economic theories are invented to hide their belief that human lives must be sacrificed to appease their invisible gods with the invisible hands. The Austerity Furies are like Biblical Jephthahs or Homeric Agamemnons, sacrificing their children with prehistoric ritualistic fervor.

The cultists are not disturbed by the failure of magical austerity in Europe. Hey, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t. So throw a few more bodies into the economic volcano.

In his essay, Stiglitz details the consequences of inequality:

The most immediate is that our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth.

This means the rich have captured enough of the nation’s wealth that their servants can no longer afford the hammers to build their masters’ mansions.

…the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s, means that they are unable to invest in their future, by educating themselves and their children and by starting or improving businesses.

This points to the creation of a permanent peasant class. The one percenters have become economic termites eating away at the foundations of their wealth.

…the weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks… Low tax receipts mean that the government cannot make the vital investments in infrastructure, education, research and health that are crucial for restoring long-term economic strength.

When you throw people into a volcano what you get are burned people. No gods appear to build your roads and bridges or educate your kids. The Austerity Furies believe the failure doesn’t prove the failure of their magical thinking, it just means they haven’t thrown enough bodies into the fire.

…inequality is associated with more frequent and more severe boom-and-bust cycles that make our economy more volatile and vulnerable.

This means that the magical thinking isn’t just failing, it’s causing the very problems the human sacrifices are supposed to solve.

The question is, what is to be done about the cultists? It’s very likely that democracy cannot survive the Austerity Furies as anything like a fair and open experiment in self-government. So something must be done, but what?

First, the cultists have to be exposed for what they are. Too many in the media are happy to describe them as advocates of a legitimate economic theory. They are invested with good intentions they do not have. What they mean to do is punish and sacrifice people in the superstitious hope that the gods will turn austerity into prosperity. That’s not going to happen, and we need to say so to everyone we meet.

Also, sad to say, many folks seem willing to throw themselves into the volcano. Hopes are vain that we can enlighten these people through appeals to the “rational self-interest”. The self-immolating can’t hear such arguments because they come wrapped in a language they do not know.

We need them to understand that they’ve been duped by the Austerity Furies, and painting vivid pictures of the cultists is a first step in getting that done. Stiglitz’s essay helps in that task. (more…)

The Perils of Media Parallax

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It is by now a commonplace to note that the world as presented to us by various media is not the world of flesh, blood, earth, fire, water and air. Media reality is altered, making the use of the term “media parallax” fitting as it comes from the Greek parallaxis, meaning “alteration.”

The parallax effect can be used to get a more accurate picture of reality. Look at an object with one eye closed. Then look again with the other eye closed. Neither mono-view gives an accurate representation. Humans have two eyes and use parallax for greater depth perception and a more accurate view of the world.

Media flatten our natural stereoscopic view of reality. We get a singular perspective. This is, in part, a technological consequence. But it also involves the way media is used.

In news reporting, he-said/she-said “balanced” reporting gives us two views, neither one accurate. It’s like the eye experiment above. We get a view with one eye closed and then a view with the other eye closed. We see one Cyclops arguing with another Cyclops.

I got to thinking about this after re-reading a couple of books by Jack Kerouac recently and re-calling the tragedy of his life. Whatever his personal difficulties, they were exacerbated by the distortions of his celebrity. Neither detractors nor worshippers got him right. They were just tribes with different blind eyes. The video above shows the author being interviewed by Steve Allen in 1959. I used it because Allen was an intelligent man and the interview is, by today’s standards, responsible and informative. Even so, the Kerouac presented is not Jack Kerouac. He is a Kerouac from an alternative universe.

Ignoring the obvious pain this caused Kerouac, the example of his media displacement is a rather benign one. Today’s celebrities sometimes suffer from the same pain, but most have adapted to living life in at least two worlds.  In many ways, it’s their specific job. They are paid to inhabit multiple worlds.

The dangers of media parallax become dire when we turn to more critical issues. With one eye closed, society can’t know where the cliffs are, to use a current favorite metaphor. What can we do about this?


On the Dangers of Hollow Ways

A Hollow Way

It’s a new year, bless us, a time to think about doing things differently. Resolutions and all that.

I was thinking about this when I came across a reference by writer Jim Harrison to Britain’s “hollow ways.” Many hollow ways are old Roman cart paths that are deeply eroded. Some are 20 feet deep and full of impenetrable thickets and brambles. That seems like a pretty good metaphor for old ways of thinking and doing.

Harrison mentioned hollow ways to poet Gary Snyder in The Etiquette of Freedom (companion book to the documentary, The Practice of the Wild). Snyder and Harrison were talking about broadening our understanding of “the Wild,” describing a wild new way of thinking about the Wild.

Snyder defines “nature” as more than the conventional picturebook outdoors. Nature refers to the whole universe.  “The Wild,” he says, is the process of nature, the becoming of the universe. The wild happens everywhere, even on city streets, even in the hollow ways. You don’t have to be in the Cascades to experience with wild.

I don’t think we can avoid the experience of the wild. I’m thinking of the cells of a sedentary couch potato who would seem about as tamed as a human could get. But his cells are processing their inputs and outputs. He is becoming right along with a distant galaxy, although he may not approach the latter’s glory. Try as we might, we can’t withdraw from time and process. We can, however, limit our future possibilities by keeping to the paths of yesterday.

To wake up to the process of the wild in a fully human way we have to always be open to the new. Though no less wild, the hollow ways are made of yesterday’s roads. This openness isn’t a complete break with the past, with tradition, with individual or cultural continuity.  Culturally, such a break would be nonsense because it would escape knowable context.

For all the potential of a dynamic democracy, for all the legend and lore about the nation’s courageous, self-reliant, pioneering spirit, America remains politically uncomfortable with the new. Democracy was invented in part to keep a people open to change. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that our political practices are designed precisely to resist change. Our political practices – the roles of money and deceptive advertising, deceit as an acceptable standard of debate – are an ugly companion to our Constitution.

As marketing gurus know, there’s nothing better than to present something as “new.” Consumers (an old category!) just have to have the newest app, hear the newest song, keep up with the newest hit TV series.

All these newbies inhabit a media universe that is really a kind of virtual hollow way. It reinforces a conservative dread of real change by making passive consumerism seem like a road to adventure. There’s nothing safer than the “new” laundry detergent, especially when it feels daring to buy it.

Real political change will continue to elude us until we attack the problems of people’s fear of change and the exploitation of that fear by the political pickpockets who want us to keep our change in the same place.

Still, those who keep to the hollow ways ultimately become hollow humans. Sooner or later, the hollow become weightless and the Wild takes them like a wind takes dry leaves. Stubbornly resistant to change, they become victims of a change they themselves brought about.

America is in need of dramatic change, in our relations with one another, in our political practices, in the way we treat the earth on which we live. Bring it on.

Photo by Nicolas under GNU Free Documentation License

Ho Ho Ho

Photo by Travis Swicegood, via Flickr

I’ve been listening to a radio station that’s playing a good number of the pop and rock versions of Christmas carols, the kind that were all the rage on the AM dial in late ‘50s and early ‘60s. There is something innocent about these Cold War-era songs. Bing Crosby’s hit, “Do You Hear What I Hear,” was written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. At Christmas, we could carol a crisis away.

Of course, when not listening to these songs recently I’m covered in contemporary tales of armed schoolhouses and political cliffs of different kinds. So maybe when I go back to the radio, I’m looking again for a magic charm. When you hear what I hear, be gone evil spirits.

Ho Ho Ho.

This will be the first post-Mayan-Apocalypse Christmas. There are still many skeptics poking fun at the end-of-the-world predictions. I’m not so certain they were wrong.

For instance, if theories of the multiverse hold water, every quantum decision branches off into another universe. What happens, then, when the world collectively loses its mind? Do we all trip off into another world, the world we once knew effectively coming to an ignoble end?

It could be. Where’s Alice when we need her?

We live just south of the river in Austin, near Zilker Park. The city, with a little help from corporate sponsors, has revived an Austin tradition called the Trail of Lights. We walked the trail Saturday night. It’s kind of a lovely scene, all kinds of people marching along past one Christmas display or another. Horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and pedestrians crowd the main street that leads to the trail. The smells of marijuana, horse droppings, fried food and beer fill the air. Austin’s still weird.

We were a little impatient with the crowd, which was shoulder-to-shoulder and toe-to-heel. The displays are intended for little children, as they should be. I have to wonder, though, what Rudolph really thinks of the Little Mermaid. A good number of the displays have corporate sponsors, making it something of a Trail of Brands. There was one sponsored by an outfit called “Retail Me Not.” I thought, good for them, put something of the old spirit of peace, love and charity back into Christmas. Turns out, of course, that it’s a coupon outfit. Ho Ho Ho.

None of this defeats my holiday spirit though. I wonder why.

Whatever one’s spiritual background, this is the time of year when things slow down. Committed shoppers might disagree with that. But it’s true, generally. By Christmas Eve, the streets will grow quieter. The rat race (I still like that term) gives way to light-footed reindeer on the roof.

The Christmas-to-New Year week is a time I get to spend with many close friends, some from far away. I’m very lucky in this. One way or another I’ve managed to take that week off, no matter what political or business endeavor I was engaged in.

We go out to West Texas in the Big Bend region. Many will camp near the Rio Grande. Others gather in Marathon, the last desert town before you head south into Big Bend National Park.

I’m unable to pass through the Christmas season without reliving all those memories of this time of year, from my early childhood on. Once again, I’ve been lucky. All those memories are good.

This is a time to celebrate our dependence on one another and our responsibility to one another. It is a collective winter celebration that reminds us we don’t pass through this world alone.

That leads me back to the question of just which world this is after all. It does seem crazier than the one we left behind. But I’m glad we brought these winter traditions with us. I just wish we’d thought to bring winter as well. Because here in Austin, it’s still rather muggy and warm.

Lift a glass to the good times folks. And notice that we never toast alone. Peace.

Photo by Travis Swicegood under Creative Commons license.