Bully Pulpit

Bulls 1, Runners 0.

This week a young man who went to the Pamplona Festival in Spain to run with the bulls rode into the Hereafter on the horns of a bull.  He is probably having drinks and cigars with Papa Hemingway even as I write.  Lucky bastard.

In the aftermath of this man’s death, many people have commented on the “safety” of the festival and whether the event is an example of animal cruelty.  I am, frankly, amazed by this discussion.  First of all, OF COURSE running with the bulls is unsafe — probably one of the most dangerous things that someone can willingly do!  Remember Hemingway and his masterpiece The Sun Also Rises?  People (and by “people” I mean men, though I imagine that there must be some women among the runners) participate in this activity to recapture what it is like to be alive.  Nothing focuses one’s attention on living in the moment like the prospect of an immediate and horrible death, especially in the form of an angry, snarling, and deceptively fast bull.

The considerable threat of death aside, the Pamplona Festival is, in many ways, a relic of a faded and heroic past in which life was more volatile and, perhaps, more precious.  We now live in a world where risk has been reduced to something on the financial pages of the New York Times.  Lawyers must remind us that the cup of coffee we get at Starbucks is — gasp! — hot.  Toys come wrapped in so many warnings that we are afraid to let our children play with them.  Soon cancer warnings will be printed on the side of cigarettes themselves.  And do not get me started on food.  The pounding heart of our civilization has become but a murmur.

So let us take a moment to consider the second claim of the aforementioned ridiculous discussion: that the Pamplona Festival is cruel to the bulls.  Even I would be hard-pressed to deny that it is.  But at least the bulls are doing what they were meant to do.

Are we?

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Michael Has Left The Building

Like much of the rest of the world — or at least that segment of it that cares about such things — I was shocked by the unexpected death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, last week.  News of the passing of Farrah Fawcett saddened me as well.  (The Pinup of My Generation had the misfortune of crossing the River Styx on the same day as MJ, and thus received diminished press coverage.)  Her death was actually more disheartening to me — perhaps because she had lost her struggle against cancer.  And though it may be harsh to say it, one expects — at some deep, dark, unspeakable level — that cancer is going to win most of those heroic battles.

MJ’s final departure from the stage was stunning because he, unlike Farrah Fawcett, was a part of my life almost from the moment I became aware of popular culture.  My cool cousins who lived in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D. C. had Jackson 5 albums on 8-track cassette.  (I listened to the songs so much that even today, I remember when the cassette player would “click” as it switched tracks during the music.)  I watched the Jackson 5 cartoon on TV and saw “The Wiz” in the movie theater.  And years later, as a student at a residential high school for North Carolina’s freaks and geeks, I sat spellbound in a crowded and hushed room as MJ’s “Billie Jean” premiered on MTV, then a fledgling upstart cable channel that previously had only played music videos by White artists.  From that point onward, my life could be divided into two epochs: BMJ (Before Michael Jackson) and AMJ (After Michael Jackson).  Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration; but his music was the soundtrack of my adolescence.

The King of Pop’s personal eccentricities and later scandals, when I cared to take note of them, were in turns amusing and deeply troubling.  But the thing that really grafted MJ to my cultural DNA was his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.  Elvis is the real musical love of my life; and though I participated in the joking about MJ’s relationship with Lisa Marie, I was secretly jealous of him for having wooed and won the daughter of the King.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that I had foolishly believed, like most people in my generation, that MJ would always be with us .  We would grow old together and someday — many decades from now — die together.  None of us expected MJ to check out early.

Our 24-hour news and entertainment cycle is, at least for the moment, obsessed with measuring MJ’s impact on music, culture, and society.  That is well and proper as he was a figure of global stature, whether or not we wanted that to be the case.

But there is a small part of me that hopes against hope that the King of Pop is not really dead.  Maybe he just got tired of it all and decided finally to accept Elvis’ offer to join him at his villa in Argentina.  Rumor has it that Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina had a good time there.