A single rose in 2020

January 8th, 2021

Red Rose

(published in The Daily Memphian)

My first job in an ad agency was cub copywriter. And 8mm and 16mm conference room projector loader. And phone answerer for people going to lunch. And gofer. And general flunky.

I was multi-talented.

Operating in that last capacity one day, I was cleaning out the art department when I discovered a treasure. Down behind a big – and heavy as hell – flat file, down among discarded layouts orange-tinted from long-dried rubber cement, and dropped X-Acto knife blades, #2 pencils, and the occasional cigarette butt, was a folded poster. So old and so many times refolded, the poster had cracked along the fold lines and was held together by several yellowed layers of Scotch tape.

To this day, now folded myself many times by experience and held together by layers of memory, I’ve still never seen a better illustration of what it is those of us involved in the creative process are trying to do – against all odds, despite all obstacles.

It is, in fact, what we’re all trying to do.

The poster was a photograph of a large pile of horse manure in a barn, one of the horses responsible standing in the background. Emerging from the center of the putrid pile was a naked arm, bits of straw and manure clinging to it, as it proudly held its prize aloft:

One single, long stem red rose.

I kept the poster for more than 20 years until, just like the nameless art director who bequeathed it to me, I lost it somewhere in my many office moves. I remember it well, and I see it clearly at the end of 2020.

What is the single rose we can take from that pile of a year?

Covid-19 not only lingers, it rages. In Tennessee, it not only rages, it’s encouraged, entitled and empowered almost like nowhere else in the country, in the world. Our president has proudly led the way to indifference to science, suffering and death, and Tennessee’s governor and legislature have followed in grim and spineless lockstep.

As hopeful as it may be, the vaccine cannot be our single rose.

Our nation is not speaking to each other anymore, hearing only what we choose to hear. Facts no longer matter anymore; facts are what we choose to believe. Our president has lied so completely and so constantly, the truth is fake to millions upon millions and false has become real. Many of our elected officials – many in power – have become cringing disciples of deceit, rationalizing, condoning, and spreading the false litany of fear and exclusion from their false orange god.

There is not one single rose in any of that.

The last two months have been an unparalleled attack on our democracy. With no evidence, stomped by courts at every level from local to state to federal to Supreme, in spite of confirmation by all 50 states and the Electoral College, in defiance of both houses of Congress, our president has attempted to subvert the election and deny the votes of millions of Americans. He was, to their infamy, joined in that dishonorable if not seditious effort in a suit by 17 states – one of them Tennessee – and 126 members of the House – one of them our own David Kustoff – and supported by several in the Senate – one of them our own Marsha Blackburn.

Further, and even lower, our own Kustoff, Blackburn and our own brand-new Senator Bill Hagerty pledged to challenge the vaildity of our democracy and the cerftified votes of the Electoral College.

Wednesday, our president incited a riot and invited an attack on the United States Capitol with the Senate and the House in session. The sorry spectale of that scarred our souls.

And there, at the very beginning of this year from the very deepest and darkest part of the pile left us from the year before, we can draw our single long stem red rose.

He lost. The republic stands. The people won.

With apology and due respect given to Mr. Shakespeare, this rose does smell sweeter than any other, and nothing in my lifetime has smelled as bad as what we’ve made of the last four years.

We will not dig out of what we’ve covered ourselves with quickly. We will not wash the smell of it away with denial. Those responsible can never run far enough away from that smell to lose it.

The fact that Kustoff, Blackburn and Hagerty withdrew their challenge in the face of insurrection doesn’t alter the odor of all of this that will cling to them like skunk road kill on I-40.

There’s no question that we’ll hear more from the margins of society empowered by the lies and threats and demagoguery of the last few years – those who feed on fear of the “other” – those with birthrights of superiority – those who take, suppress, and deny.

Before we swallow enough of that ever again to almost kill us, remember the smell.

I’m a Memphian, and we the people have given ourselves another chance.

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