The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

February 1, 2010

Sexy Tractors

Richard Harris of NPR News shared the following with listeners:

January 25, 2010

Can a man’s technology make him more attractive to women? A new study says it can. But before you run out and upgrade your smart phone, take note.

The technology in this story includes stone axes and other basic tools of agriculture. And the smitten women are the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric Europe. Those technologies were not simply cutting edge about 10,000 years ago; they were revolutionary.

“You can regard it as the most important cultural change in the history of modern humans,” says Prof. Mark Jobling at the University of Leicester in England. “It allowed people to generate their own food, and populations to grow and society to become specialized.”

…He says, is that “as the populations expanded from the Near East they contained men and women. But then the indigenous people, the hunter-gatherers who were already in Europe, the women were incorporated into these societies and had offspring…the result is the genetic pattern we see in many Europeans today: male genes from farmers who hailed from the Near East, and female genes mostly from women who had been hunter-gatherers in Europe after the last Ice Age.

So, to the punch line: Does technology make men more sexy?

“That would be one way to interpret it,” says Peter Underhill at Stanford University. But it’s not necessarily just sex appeal at work; it “might be in terms of not just physical appearance but also in terms of ability to provide for offspring.” — from NPR News.com

That’s all very cerebral and fine.  However, for me, Kenny Chesney has more pertinent things to say on the topic:

Yes I said yes I will yes

“She thinks my tractor’s sexy
It really turns her on
She’s always starin’ at me
While I’m chuggin’ along
She likes the way it’s pullin’ while we’re tillin’ up the land
She’s even kind of crazy ’bout my farmer’s tan
She’s the only one who really understands what gets me
She thinks my tractor’s sexy”

Ladies and gentlemen, long oppressed by urban sensibilities, I am coming out of the closet — I am an agrosexual.  I dig guys with farmer’s tans, tool-wielding hands, a certain boot-wearing gait, a laconic way of stretching out the word “ma’am” into four or five syllables.  I dig the Earth, the Earth they plow, the practicality of what they do, the profound necessity — no one has ever told me in a manner that I can honestly believe that poetry was truly a matter of life and death, and yet it is what I do best, but agriculture is.

I’ll be honest.  In ancient Europe, if I had seen those stone-axe-wielding studs headed toward my cave, I would have given it up faster than you could say “paleolithic archeology.”  My genes scream now for some jeans, faded and American blue, not torn at the boutique but out on the back forty.

It feels good to tell you all this.  On my way back and forth to the University of Southern Mississippi, I cruise by fields and see the occasional tractor.  Finally, National Public Radio has given voice to my Stonewall, or my stone implement, anyway.

At the University of Southern Mississippi, I am taking a class in queer and gender theory in literature.  Reading texts that go into the minutia of the habits of men in the Greco-Roman world and their anthropological implications, I cry out for a text that at last expresses my sexual preference — I am talking about a clearer definition of my “straight.”  The closest I have ever found before this was written by a very naughty Southern woman named Rosemary Daniell.  It’s called Sleeping With Soldiers, and while I don’t intend to be anything other than absolutely monogamous with my sexy implement-wielding husband (okay, he’s not a farmer; he’s a chemist, and the implements are generally metal, not stone, but, hey!), she describes the things that get me hot under the church lady collar.  She talks about her promiscuity of a certain era of her life with verve and a guilty pleasure of muscles, guys who get their hands dirty at work, soldiers of  fortune, oil rig grease monkeys in bed. To all this, I say yes, I say yes I said yes.

I’ll be honest.  New York, for all its kinky, twisted sexual energy never quite scratched my itch with all the men who got manicures on Wall Street, the tortured artists, the metrosexuality.  It’s not quite the same as Marlboro Man manliness, is it?  I’m not in favor of cancer cowboys — don’t get me wrong, but there is something about a guy who gets up before dawn because the cows need milking which is just, well, sexy.  There’s nothing abstract about it.  He’s solid.  He’s real.  He’s capable.  There’s milk in the bucket.  There’s food on the table.  I think his tractor’s sexy, and now I know that my ancestresses agreed with me.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.