Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Life Is Dear To All -- As Long As It's "My Life"

One who, while himself seeking happiness,

Oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness,

Will not attain happiness hereafter.

--Dhammapada 131

How is it that we continue to treat lunacy and murder as if they made sense?

How is it that we continue to behave as if mass murder were a legitimate solution to human problems?

It is that way because we tend to empathize with one side and not the other. Maybe we like Israel, and we identify with them because there are people shooting rockets at them and they are surrounded by hostile governments who exercise horrific rhetoric about them. Barack Obama himself said that if there were people shooting rockets at places where his own daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to stop them, and so should the Israeli people.

This is understandable. I can feel the emotional appeal of that argument myself. Touch one hair of my Gabriel's head, and I would be inclined to tear you limb from limb. There is, however, a problem with this argument, as with most arguments that rest on passion. This is the same justification used by terrorists. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

As long as we are using passions to examine human problems, put yourself in the position of a parent in a land occupied by a foreign power for two generations. You live quarantined, unable to move about freely to obtain work, and your children have trouble getting access to the nutrition and sanitation they need to live and thrive. Is there a possibility you would do something desperate?

The only sensible side to take in this stupid Gordian conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the side of humanity. If both sides truly wanted that, they would each make painful concessions at the negotiation table and put the life of their children before everything else. The sides should be pledging to help each other succeed rather than pledging each other's destruction. Hezbollah and Hamas are motivated by hatred, yes, and yes, there is a lack of honest negotiating partners -- I get that. Yet bombing innocent people does not root out hatred. Come, friends. It hasn't worked thus far. Are we going to give it a few more wars just in case?

The lunatic ideologies that move terrorists are bred in oppression and futility. And violence, of course.

It is typical, sadly, for human beings to raise their children to be soldiers in a glorious cause. The right cause, that being our side. We do not seek peace unless it is on our terms alone. Thus, we seek to win, above everything else, even when it is our own sons and daughters in harm's way. Our mythology must triumph against all other mythologies, and if this means I must bury my child's broken body, then this is -- this is -- further proof that my mythology must prevail!!

Our political leaders become a single party with their side-taking in this conflict, siding wholly with Israel and completely ignoring George Washington's warning to us: "The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave." (From his Farewell Address of 1796)

George Washington was not only talking sense about foreign policy - he was speaking wisdom to individuals as well. Habitual side-taking, positive or negative, is how people convert themselves into slaves who believe they are free. His words echo the wisdom of the buddhadharma, which remind us that we become slaves to our delusions. Our politics get infected with and then transmit this disease.

No more side-taking in this middle-east war, please. Both sides deserve a chance to live in peace, both sides need help in order to do that, starting with a right to live without fear of obliteration. This is not easy to do but it must start with an end to side-taking and, though I ask the improbable, an end to profiteering from death (as when we expedite sales and shipments of bombs to one side in the conflict). The only side to take here, I repeat, is the side of humanity -- if we want peace.

But you know what? I don't think many people actually want that. God as my witness, I think the truth is, human beings prefer this.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What Are We Truly Made Of?

Comment I left on Barack Obama's website today:

Several officials in the Bush Administration have admitted, or come very close to admitting, of their involvement in actions which are unambiguously war crimes.

While I do not generally recommend that an incoming President hunt down representatives of a previous administration and punish them, we are talking about something very different here. It is not enough to wait for these men (and woman, if we count the current Secretary of State) to go away. If we are a nation based on morals, there has to be a response to what has taken place in our name and carried out with our resources.

I refer to our policies on torture, a subject of anguish and shame for our republic. I am aghast to see the Vice-President admit to approving illegal torture as an interrogation tactic on national television, aghast to see the excuse offered that these things were done with "good intentions."

There should be a sober and orderly process to bring these actions to light for the historical record, and if proof exists of crimes, the culprits should be tried in a fair legal proceeding. That is the kind of country we are and this, of all times, is a moment when we must demonstrate that to the world.

Citizens, Not Subjects

Question: Who was the first President of the United States since Thomas Jefferson to quote Thomas Paine in a speech?

Answer: Ronald Reagan, as a presidential candidate in 1980.

Everyone wants to claim Thomas Paine. Why is that?

Here is an interesting interview between Bill Moyers and historian Harvey Kaye (a Paine fanatic)...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Unambiguously A War Crime

And I'm not yawning, though my mouth is hanging open.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Who Says I'm A Grumpy Santa?

Hey, I wore the Santa hat on the last day of school and played ukulele with two mariachi guys -- Mr. A, a second grade teacher, on guitar and one of the janitors on electric bass - on stage with the second graders singing "Feliz Navidad." Mind you, I was prepared, if invited to sing solo, to raise my voice with "Fleas on my dad! Fleas on my dad!"

I am so Christmassy, I smell like pine.

I am so Christmassy, Bill O'Reilly defends my honor on his show.

I am so Christmassy, there are coupons to help you buy me in your newspaper today.

I twinkle like little colored lights and fall off the spool like your last bit of festive glossy wrapping paper. I crunch like early morning snow under your feet when you're on your way to go sledding down that hill that lays a little too close to the street for your parents' comfort.

I'm even thinking of suggesting that my county get involved in a Christmas tree recycling program next year, like the one they've got in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ho ho mufuggin' ho!

I wear the floppy little hat and Gabriel laughs like it is the funniest thing he has ever seen. Don't get more Santa than that. The anti-Scrooge, that be me. Sometime tonight my parents arrive to stay with us for the week. Blogging will be irregular like always. If you don't hear from the Grumpy Santa before then, happy ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oy, Bama!

Theriomorph, a blogger I read and respect, is upset that Pastor Rick Warren is going to give the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration.

It is all over the news, as well, although the media have chosen to portray it as a "gay" issue. I suppose they are referring to the fact that Pastor Warren, who recently told Beliefnet in an interview that he does not see himself as a politician, was a leader in the California Proposition 8 campaign, and he routinely equates gay marriage with incest and bestiality.

I'm not a fan or a hater of Pastor Warren. Sarah gave me a copy of his best-selling Purpose-Driven Life as a present years ago, and I read it. In an interesting way, I regard Pastor Warren with a similar feeling as when I regard Obama. It's pretty clear what they are both up to, they're clever at it, they give a good performance and a surprising number of people fail to see through it.

Pastor Warren has said some very good, sensible things about poverty and the necessity of doing more to help the underserved. He has poked conservatives about their charity, and has put his money where his mouth is by reverse-tithing, keeping 10% of the royalties from his books and giving away 90%. He done an exemplary job as the 21st Century, affable, Hawaiian shirt-wearing version of the celebrity right-wing evangelist, who happens to think, by the way, shucks, that letting people make their own moral decisions regarding abortion is equivalent to being a Holocaust denier; and, again, that ridiculous equation of gay marriage with sodomizing animals. Pastor Warren can say things like this and yet fool some people into thinking he is a moderate, or non-political. That requires careful effort and skill. He has been dubbed "America's Pastor" in the press, and his star has not risen by accident.

Senator Obama, similarly, has an astonishing number of people convinced he is something other than what he is. What is he? An exceedingly good politician. As with porn stars, we always want a pro who makes us believe they aren't a pro. Obama is a policy wonk and a Chicago machine politician who combines youthful stateliness and confidence with an eloquence we have not seen in politics in a long time, and sang a song of national unity and optimism that was always right on key. He even quoted Sam Cooke in his first address as the president-elect, from a hit pop song about social change. It was the right message for our time, and Obama made people believe it.

He and Pastor Warren are friends: best-selling authors and self-made celebrities. They have used one another to show their constituents that they are open-minded and courageous. Warren invited Obama to speak at his Saddleback Church knowing it would anger some in the pews; Obama knew his choice of Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration would anger a lot of people who vote Democratic.

Obama wants this choice to demonstrate his inclusiveness. This makes some people tear their hair because Pastor Warren takes divisive political positions and has made some insensitive statements. For you, the riddle becomes, do you send a message of unity by including the voices of prejudice?

You can work on that one if you wish, but for me there is no riddle. What's the surprise? Obama and Warren are professionals who have an opportunity to burnish certain credentials for each other. Warren solidifies his "America's Pastor" brand by doing an inaugural invocation, Obama adds to his "post-partisan" routine.

(But! But! Obama is supposed to be DIFFERENT than all those people! Algernon, you are so MEAN MEAN MEAN!)

Obama partisans, it is time for your reality check. This is politics. Choose your battles: get active and be prepared to fight on the level of policy and legislation. Don't worry about the spectacle.

Change hasn't shown up to rescue us; change has come in the form of an intelligent and talented politician who might listen to reason. That may not be what we fantasized about, but it's what we've got -- and it isn't bad.

Christmas Is Coming, Where Is The Tylenol?

Christmas is a-coming. The dead tree sits in our living room with colorful balls hanging on it, and Sarah feeds it ice cubes. I constantly measure its proximity to the heating unit and wonder at this bizarre custom of dragging shrubbery in the house, decorating it, and then flinging it into the trash. I have learned to keep these comments to myself now, as otherwise people stare at me in horror. A Grinch in the flesh, I am.

In school, I've set the students to playing Christmas-themed improvisational games, trying to sneak a little bit theatre-related content into their holiday ruminations. I told a few of my classes this week they had better hope Santa wasn't watching. Indeed, a call to Santa is a more serious threat than a call to the parents. Santa has rank, but only for a few weeks out of the year.

There are a few gifts under the tree, festively wrapped and waiting for the day. The best gift of all, however, is the prospect of some extra time in that bed. The bedspread even resembles gift-wrapping.

The other day, Sarah asked me, "What is your favorite holiday?"

As I associate holidays with stress, peculiar activities, and demands on time and money, this question is a bit like asking me, "What is your favorite symptom of hypertension? Do you enjoy the headaches most, or the swollen eyes, the sleeplessness, the ringing in the ears?"

Monday, December 15, 2008

Heck Of A Job

There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.

Suppose I commit a murder, the police arrest me for the crime, and in my defense I say to them, "Don't be so divisive. Let's look to the future and try to forget the past." Would you not refer me for a psychological evaluation?

We are not supposed to remember Abu Ghraib.

It is supposed to be old news -- done. We are supposed to move on. Look to the future, that's they say. Stop ranting about holding our leaders accountable for what happened. Don't call for investigations, let's just move on. Punishing our leaders for war crimes only divides the country (the rationale used by Democrats to justify doing nothing).

You are not likely, then, to have read about this report in the news. The Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Senators Levin and McCain (you know him), released a report last week officially tying former Defense Secretary Robert Rumsfeld to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Here's the executive summary.

Doesn't this seem like a bit of a news story? There is now a bipartisan government report tying top Bush Administration officials to war crimes, to the abuse and homicide of prisoners held by our nation.

I take no satisfaction knowing that a little bit of the money deducted from your and my paycheck was spent building illegal secret dungeons such as the one outside Kabul known as "the Salt Pit." I take no satisfaction hearing that a CIA supervisor at this facility -- someone paid with public money, our money -- ordered a human being to be stripped naked and chained to the floor overnight. The prisoner froze to death, one of many prisoners to die in our custody after being tortured. The CIA supervisor was never reprimanded and has, according to some leaks, been promoted. That person was rewarded for what he did, and yet another government employee (also in our employ, yours and mine) who blew the whistle on our government for illegally spying on us has had his life ruined.

I take no satisfaction knowing that Donald Rumsfeld flies around giving talks on national security and global politics and will not have to answer for what he has done. We punished a couple of low-level soldiers and Army officials who carried out these dark directives, but not the men at the top who set the stage and put them up to it.

Nor can I really rejoice in the coming change of administrations, knowing that this President will fly home decked like some kind of honored statesman, and will never have to answer for the torture and death of detainees (something that continues to this day), for the illegal spying, or his other crimes against the United States.

The vision of those who fought the American revolution was of a land where leaders are elected, subject to laws and limits on their power, and held accountable if they do wrong. When this man became president, I rooted for him as an American citizen who wants his country to prosper. This president went wrong. Really wrong. His error is far more serious than Nixon's or Clinton's -- if you know what I mean. He has much to answer for, but our republic -- born of the American revolution -- has lost its own identity. We have not the character or the will to call our leader to account, or even his cabinet officials.

A lot of people are feeling very ecstatic about the new president, but as I am not certain anymore what country he is president of, my own feeling is less jubilant.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Week of More Sitting, Less Blogging

This time of year is when Zen Buddhists remember and observe the occasion of Buddha's enlightenment (rohatsu, in Japanese). Dates vary from one community to another, but in December is when you will see many Zen temples host a ceremony and, perhaps, a special meditation retreat or a week of intensified practice.

In that spirit, I've been blogging a bit less and sitting more. It's too cold in the morning to sit on the porch, so I use the living room, listening to the heater roar like a jet engine while baby and mama sleep soundly.

Yesterday, I was engaged in conversation in the teacher's lounge with one of the fifth grade teachers. She was in the middle of telling me something interesting about her class when another teacher walked in, interrupted us, and immediately engaged the other teacher in a completely different conversation about losing weight. The woman I was talking to forgot about me all together and went into a very graphic conversation about the liposuction surgery she had undergone -- in so much detail, I was quite embarrassed.

How people will talk! Attentive silence can be such a gift.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Seaside Woman

Remember this? Enjoy...

Friday, December 05, 2008

I Didn't Vote For Him, But He's My President...

"I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job."

John Wayne, a conservative, said this upon hearing that John F. Kennedy had been elected president.

Not everyone is on board with that sentiment. Justice Clarence Thomas is trying to get two of his colleagues to hear a silly legal challenge to Obama's eligibility for the presidency.

Mother Jones paid a visit to some of the activists waiting outside the Supreme Court.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remember Silas Deane

Tomorrow will be the 230th anniversary of the public controversy over Silas Deane, a war profiteering scandal that took place during a tough chapter of the Revolutionary War, and a scandal in which Paine denounced private arms deals but in the process leaked negotiations with France that were to have been secret, and was forced to resign his government post. He was the first whistleblower on American government, and for this his very loyalty to the American cause was called into public question. He was literally beaten up on the streets on more than one occasion.

I happened to come across John Keane's description of this event yesterday, as I make my way through his biography of Paine, and it struck me how some of the political dilemmas we deal with today were already present in our colonial era.

In this case, for instance, Paine became embroiled because, in his view, public accountability trumped secrecy. In a democratic republic, what is the right balance between the secrecy and loyalty required in military matters, and the overriding need for public accountability, to hold government leaders and appointees to the rule of law?

Also, there is no basis for assuming that an American political leader supports the idea of the public being the authority, then or now. Is Congress in charge, or the President, or the people? We do not all agree on this. Paine foresaw people actively involved in watching their government and holding them accountable. The likes of John Jay and James Madison were aghast at this notion. Government is in charge, not people. Moreover, not all people should have the same political clout. John Jay said outright that people who own lots of property should get to decide how the country is run. So what if Silas Deane enriched himself with shady arms deals while the American army suffered on wintery battlefields with scarce food and clothing? So what if he paid inflated prices for supplies, accepting a nice commission for himself in the bargain?

It all sounds familiar. Men who think like Richard Cheney have always been part of our history, and indeed were among our Founding Fathers.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Buying Books From O'Keefe

Desert Exposure has an entertaining profile of Dennis O'Keefe's book shop in downtown Silver City.

The last time I was in there, I found an old edition of Mark Twain stories and essays dating from the 1920's. It's a compact book PACKED with Twain. There are Tom Sawyer stories in there I had never heard about, the entire text of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and other, lesser-known works. Four dollars.

It's a tight little shop with newspaper articles taped up in the windows. The Desert Exposure article doesn't mention it, but Dennis pays close attention to politics and is easy to engage in conversation on the subject, from the local to the national. He knows his regular customers well and on Saturday mornings I always find him chatting with people. One time, I heard him give a lengthy discourse on the stupidity of daylight savings time.

(For the record, the web link in the previous sentence is simply an interesting website -- I don't know whether the website represents all of Dennis's views.)

It's a slow news week here at Casa D'Ammassa, where school is back in session until Christmas, Gabriel is very close to crawling, Sarah is teaching music at home and playing piano for the neighborhood Methodist church. Sarah and her sisters decorated the place with tinkly lights and wreathy things in observance of some holiday or other.

Christmas shopping, right. Goodie, another reason to visit O'Keefe's!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Buy Nothing

"Why do they call it Black Friday?" somebody asked after a dharma talk at Silver City Zen Center this Saturday. Jeff said it had something to do with putting merchants in the black, as in black ink; the reason for the season being economic activity. I added another possible meaning: "it causes a Great Depression in your wallet!" Mike added, "Only if you participate."

The topic of Paul's dharma talk was the horrible incident at a Wal-Mart in Long Island. An employee there was trampled to death on Friday by shoppers who broke through the door at 5 AM, stomped over his body, and went on with their shopping. Also trampled was a pregnant woman, who is okay. When police shut down the store to investigate the crime, shoppers reacted with anger and continued to shop.

Human beings acting like starving, rooting hogs; and a man dead for no reason. Ho ho ho. Were they shopping for themselves, or shopping for others, fulfilling the implied duty to show your love and respect by purchasing merchandise? Were they using credit cards, overspending themselves into expensive debt and, financially, cutting into themselves? It is easy to put this down as a story about extreme human greed, but what about the anxieties and pressures that lay beneath the greed?

This happened the day after Thanksgiving, when some Americans observe an annual "Buy Nothing Day," a consumer protest against the commercialization of Christmas. This year, the context is one of economic malaise. We have only recently stopped whispering that another Great Depression may be afoot, with people around dinner tables remembering their grandparents who grew up in the Depression and thinking about a possible new season of prolonged hardship. Would we have to reconsider our lives, as the Depression generation did, and consider ways of living that involve sharing and cooperation, cutting back waste and unessential spending? Maybe, maybe not. I observe "Buy Nothing" day by keeping a skeptical frame of mind, not buying into any notion right away.

I am thankful for family, thankful that my son is growing up in a safe place surrounded by people who love him. My parents are driving across the country to spend Christmas with me and my family. To be present together, to drink coffee and rag on the politicians and say grace and tell stories together, is more significant than what's inside the gaily-wrapped boxes. If we had to skip the boxes altogether, we would still have the day.

Let us be chastened. Here is a heretical suggestion: I think that one Wal-Mart, just that one, should stay closed. Put a sign on the door explaining what happened. Maybe serve food to the poor from that location. Pay one employee to stand there with the Wal-Mart vest and greet shoppers with an unusual message: "Go home! Hug your kid!" Or just let shoppers go there, park, and find a locked door with a reminder about human priorities.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eulogy for Pearl Soup

In 2001, the website was launched as an unjuried forum for any user to post true, personal stories that taught them something or inspired some new insight. It was a place for sharing something deeper than what is revealed by routine chit-chat, with the aim of building a better world one story at a time, as the website's motto stated.

The website was designed rather well. It was visually appealing and easy to use, and for a while the two site owners, Jeff and Alex, were on hand to fix bugs and add new features, like an "author of the month" and a discussion area for conversation or debate on any topics members chose.

It was a good idea, sort of an interactive version of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, promoting casual literacy in an era when hardly anyone writes personal letters anymore beyond the Christmas thank-you note. Soon, however, issues arose that the owners perhaps had not anticipated. It began with comments left on people's stories.

Any registered user could leave a comment on a story, and there was some confusion and argument over the purpose of these comments. Some commenters left writing feedback, something that would be inoffensive and even welcomed by an ambitious writer learning the craft, but some felt hurt and defensive. Other comments intruded on a writer's personal life, assuming an attitude of seniority that could be overbearing. Since you had no way of editing these comments, like you do on a blog, you might see your work become a forum for other members to snipe at you or at each other, perhaps on subjects unrelated to what you wrote.

New friendships were established, even romantic relationships, through PearlSoup. As with all internet socializing, however, there were also abuses. One member, in particular, sent me two emails a few years ago that were deranged and threatening, at which point I guarded all details of my private life and location, and became mostly a reader. This member knew the internet well and used it to research other members of the site and play "gotcha" games with them, exposing unwelcome personal details about them and making up incriminating or embarrassing "facts."

There was also a rating system, whereby you had the option of rating pearls one through five stars. It amazed me what a serious issue this became. It became a commonplace on PearlSoup for people to research ratings and accuse other individuals of "downrating" their pearls. This and other distractions soon established a schoolyardish tone at PearlSoup. Far from being a haven for conversation, it became turf. Opposing alliances would gather around one or another personality, accusing the other group of being cliquish, and that sort of thing.

Its unjuried nature, and the quiet disappearance of the site's owners, made PearlSoup a wall on which layers and layers of graffitti were scribbled. Contributors started posting fiction. There were occasional racist or homophobic posts. The discussion area got to be like a middle school playground.

Less than seven years after launch, the website went away this fall. I cherish the few friendly people with whom I have stayed in touch, several of whom sent gifts when my baby was born and all of whom have expressed the requisite adoration of His Royal Cuteness. I remember fondly the earliest days of PearlSoup, when there were fewer members, a delightful mix of people from around the world who found each other's differences interesting rather than annoying. It was inevitable, I suppose, that when membership got into the hundreds and then the thousands, with no consistent enforcement of any ground rules, things would degrade.

At its best, PearlSoup was like the kind of party where nice, smart people start exchanging personal anecdotes sharing their notions and memories in an atmosphere of trust and affection. With face to face contact in a real place, perhaps in the presence of food and drink, you may bring together people who are quite different in their outlook, yet everyone feels valued while they learn more about other people.

Parties like that tend to be small, not in the thousands of people. And if someone has a bit too much to drink or gets a little aggressive for whatever reason, there are ways to contain that problem and move things along. More importantly, the party ends at some point so people can go home and digest the experience.

Inevitably, PearlSoup got out of hand, the party hosts left the building, and the place got trashed. At its worst, it could feel like the closing act of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with people's tenderest places being eagerly sought and scratched at. Finally, the lights went out. Party over.

Despite what happened there, I saw users demonstrate that people can discuss religion, politics, and anything else, quite amiably provided their attitude was amiable. It's a good time to bring that lesson back from the internet into our real neighborhood.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Lighting The Lamp

When Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge taunts the apparition:

...a little thing affects [my senses]. A slight disorder of the stomach deranges them. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!

That all could be true, and yet he keeps talking, and is profoundly changed by sunrise. Does it have to mean that ghosts walk the earth literally? Is a belief in ghosts necessary to touch the meaning of this story? Certainly not. Believe in them, or don't believe in them; the point of the whole thing lies elsewhere.

Writing for Parabola magazine in 2003, David Fideler made a succinct presentation of this point:

One of the most persistent human problems is the tendency toward literalism, and the perceptual habit of looking only at the outermost surface of things. This can't help buit lead to trouble because the world is not shallow but deep and complex; it requires multiple ways of knowing to unveil its inner dimensions, and to perceive the relationships that bind the world together as a meaningful whole.

Nowhere is literalism more of a problem than in the sphere of religion, where a certain subset of believers assume that sacred scriptures are just a collection of "facts" -- reported like a newspaper story from on high -- and that scripture should be understood, and acted upon, in the most literal and concrete way possible. In this approach, however, the more subtle shadings of meaning evaporate, for meaning is never a question of simple facts, teachings, or injunctions, but of relationships that bind things together at deeper and more intimate levels.

Il che yu shim jo, and at the risk of tautology, our experience of the universe is our experience of the universe, nothing more. It comes through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Since our encounter with the Absolute takes place no other place than here, and no other moment than now, the material and the "profane" is, in fact, how we understand and act upon the esoteric meaning and the "sacred."

Whatever we believe, let us use our concepts well for the benefit and happiness of all people.

In 1757, after narrowly escaping a brush with death at sea, Benjamin Franklin responded thus:

Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sailing the Rough Galleon

This morning after sitting I was reading about Thomas Paine's youth, at the time he left Thetford for London in 1756.

Imagine this young man. The average life expectancy then was 37 years. That's how old I am now. At age eighteen, an intelligent and energetic young man could look across the horizon knowing his life might be halfway over. Middle-aged at 19. In the United States today, the average is now 77.8 years -- and yes, I looked that up and divided it in two.

Paine took off for London and initially signed up to be a privateer, essentially a legalized pirate. He was about to board ship when his Quaker father showed up at the dock and talked him out of it. Instead, young Paine got a job making corsets in slavish conditions somewhere in Covent Garden. The typical workday ran from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, pay was low, and unions (or "combinations") were illegal.

In just a couple of months, he boarded a pirate ship after all and spent six months squinting across the ocean for a sign of hostile ships to capture and loot. He was highly literate, and may have passed the time reciting poems or maybe composing bawdy verses to amuse his shipmates. We don't know what work he was assigned to do. Maybe making and repairing sails? Most of the guys on the ship were low-skilled, warm bodies needed for fighting. Indeed, Paine's ship narrowly avoided an exchange of cannon fire with another vessel. Many people died when ships fired on each other not because of the cannon balls themselves, but because of splinters - huge ones that could impale a man.

Young people do sometimes make choices and find themselves impaled upon them. You hazard that risk and board the galleon, it sets sail and your commitment is at that moment irrevocable. You're on board and things will happen to you. At that point, the game is whether you can make it back where you started having obtained something new and useful.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Perverted Time

Il che yu shim jo, we chant in Korean. Our world is created by our minds. In practical terms, our experience of this world is processed by our notions and definitions. We don't understand this and regard ourselves as possessing a better understanding of matters than our neighbors.

Which is how the Mormon Church committed so much money, not to education or the eradication of starvation in California, but to making sure Bruce and Joe can't get married. Focus on the Family spent so much money supporting the same proposition, that it has just announced job cuts. This matter is not just about marriage. It is a bid for establishing religious dogma and social prejudice into the law of the land, binding on everyone. There is not much sympathy here for the notion that law should be a neutral zone with respect to religious teachings, for the dignity and equality of diverse citizens.

This summer, I heard a local pastor say, "You know it's a perverted time when we are debating the definition of marriage." His meaning was, it's a perverted time because Massachusetts and Connecticut now permit couples of the same sex to marry one another, and a number of people think that's okay.

On election day, Proposition 8 narrowly passed in California, amending that state's constitution to define marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman. I did not expect it to pass, and was deeply disappointed by the outcome. I agree with pastor's statement that there is something perverted about the debate, although I'm not sitting in the same pew.

The newly-elected President of the United States is the child of a union that was until fairly recently illegal. Up to 1967, several of our United States banned marriage between couples of different races (calling it "miscegenation"). It was in '67 that the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, that "marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man'... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.... Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."

Damn these activist courts! Damn them for redefining marriage!

But wait - we have always defined marriage and re-defined it as we please. Marriage is a human institution, and it has often been redefined. We have, for that matter, re-defined a lot of concepts as we have traditionally come around to expanding equality and dignity to minority groups. For me, an interesting aspect of this drama is that people are regarding human concepts as immutable laws of the universe. Just as it was once conventional opinion that black people were an inferior race who were best off working on our farms with no liberty or legal recourse, we have also held that a homosexual person is necessarily ill, deranged, wrong. Homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder even after it was formally dropped from the diagnostic scale. There are churches purporting to "cure" homosexuality.

What people fail to understand is that this is all made up. We make marriage, we make sin, we make rights, it's all stuff that humans have dreamed up and treat as conventional reality. For that matter, the God that really exists is not likely to resemble the God that dwells in the human imagination. I sincerely respect human religion, but all religions are human. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

When Bill Richardson was a candidate for President, he was asked at a political forum whether he regarded homosexuality was a choice or not. He botched it and chose a side. A better answer would have been, "I don't know. It doesn't matter. Gay people are citizens and in America, they are entitled to dignity, respect, and legal rights."

Dignity, respect, and equality are all notions as well. In light of qualities such as compassion and humility, we can choose the notions that guide us in light of how we wish to treat other human beings. If we desire to rule over human beings and subjugate them, we find reasons for doing so. If we desire something else, we can do it. I participated in a human-made ceremony in which I swore human-made vows about something called "the Bodhisattva way," which is a human concept about how we would like to treat other human beings and other life forms on our planet. I take these concepts seriously, but not literally. Il che yu shim jo.

The perverted thing about this debate with respect to marriage is that we defend prejudice and unnecessary human suffering, pretending that the concepts keeping it in place don't come from us. The fact is, Californians wrote Proposition 8 and defended it. Californians then voted to deny homosexual people the right to form full legal unions recognized by the State and human society as "marriage." And they use vapid dogma to pretend it wasn't their choice to make. How sad, when we blame our petty bigotry on God or discredited science.

My friends Brian and Stephen have been together longer than most heterosexual, "normal" marriages. Their relationship has been tested, and they have prevailed. They own property and have contributed much to their community, just as respected middle-class "married" people do. They could go to Massachusetts and get married, but they have been together this long, DOING what we talk about when we discuss marriage, and for the moment are content to wait until their home state comes to its senses and grants them the dignity and respect that is their due.

A perverted time, indeed, but it has always been this way with humans, and we live for those days when a new crack appears in the door to our tomb, and a ray of sunshine (credit God for that!) comes in and dispells another bit of ignorance for a while.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Another Monday Already In Progress

Instead of blogging, I've been working on two scripts, one of which is now on its way to the National Audio Theatre Festival. The other one, also an audio play, is crawling along. It's the sort of thing that might in the end be more fun for me than for anyone else. The story involves a brash reporter, a hurricane, Al Capone, and a gigantic whale.

All is well up at the Silver City Zen Center. Sarah brought the baby up there this weekend to meet some of the folks up there, on a beautiful, chilly autumn day.

Gabriel (who is six months old, can you believe that?) has been enjoying his first solid foods, although he went nine days without a poop and worried his parents for a while. And when the poop finally came yesterday, lo, it was astonishing. Opening his diaper, I was reminded of footage of mudslides in southern California, and imagined I could see houses in there. Gabriel was well pleased with his efforts.

And another Monday is already in progress, so it is time to be presentable and impart the mysteries of theatre. Adieu for now...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drat! Blog Tag!

Are these things fun, or are they annoying? I don't know, which is why I'm shy to play these "tag you're it" blog games. Two readers have 'tagged' me today, and I wouldn't mind a break from this script I'm finishing (another submission for the National Audio Theatre Festival's annual competition), so here goes.

My assignment is to tell you 7 "random and/or weird facts" about myself. Then I am to tag 7 random people at the bottom and let them know they've been tagged.

Really? 7 random people? Rockin'!



Years ago, he played a woman in realistic drag in a stage play, and was luridly curious as to whether he was attractive as a woman - but never dared ask any of his friends.

He has a weakness for sudoku and online chess.

Flirted with Gillian Anderson in Chicago in 1989, when they were both at DePaul University's theatre school, while he was blacked-out drunk. Friends at the party said he was actually more charming drunk, and he found this information very alarming. Besides which, he doesn't even remember the encounter with Ms. Anderson. (Unsurprisingly, he only lasted one semester at DePaul.)

He rarely gets around to cleaning his car and feels quite embarrassed about it. The other day, wife and mother-in-law took a drive in it, and he just wanted to crawl into a crack in the bathroom tile.

For some reason sub-conscious, being around mountains makes him want to chant his old Korean Zen chants. On foot, in the car, whatever. Mountains = chanting time. A long time ago, camping with a Buddhist friend in West Virginia, this caused a little bit of tension. One companion wanted to honor the mountain with silence, and the other wanted to sing the Dae Dharani.

Was nearly struck by lightning several times as a child - so often that for a while he was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, as he came to think nature was seriously coming to kill him, as family and friends edged away from him when the weather turned bad. His flesh still creeps a bit when the lightning is close, but he feels much better about it now.

Was strangely obsessed with the Marx Brothers' biographies as a teenager, and even wrote and staged a full-length tribute to Groucho Marx when he was 18 years old. People say it was an entertaining show, if a little bit odd.

All right, that was my seven. Wasn't that FASCINATING!?

Now, following the directions quite explicitly, I tag these 7 random people:

* Glenn Greenwald of (one of the very best legal/political bloggers right now).

* Kip Hawley at the Transportation Security Administration

* Andrew Schark, who never tells his friends how he's doing.

* Ji Hyang Sunim, Buddhist nun and trapeze student.

* Mr. Steven J. Smith, exposer of the "Tehachapi Covert Underground Complex."

* This dude who seriously thinks JFK was assassinated by the vatican.

* Last but certainly not least, The Amazing Randi.

Go read more about these interesting and randomly-assorted people. Maybe they will respond to my tag, maybe they won't...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Leaders of our Nation Meet

"No, sir, Ms. Winfrey is not named after the vegetable. The vegetable is called okra, sir."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

...And THIS Is Shinola

My mother forwarded me a lovely, affectionate column about post-election manners written by Gail Collins. Indeed, it is a time for compassionate speech among neighbors, for intelligent conversation and affection.

The national elections are over, and there is exulting and gloating, griping and sulking. People who were calling the President-elect a socialist and a terrorist as recently as November 3 are now praising him, to get themselves on the right side of history if nothing else. There are some who accept political defeat with grace, and others with hypocrisy. Some genuinely wish success for the next administration, as indeed we all should; others are anticipating the inevitable reality check when actual government begins.

My comfort in the final weeks of this campaign has been John Keane's 1995 biography of Thomas Paine. There are many reasons I admire Thomas Paine and have wished for more of his spirit in 2008. Consider this, from Keane's introduction:

[Paine] counted himself among the modern believers in the originally Greek idea that what makes us clever, language-using animals is our ability to rise above the contingencies of time and place and know the nature of things. Paine nevertheless pointed to modern humans' bad habit of forgetting those same circumstances. We moderns continually attribute universal importance to our own particular ways of life and we therefore have an alarming tendency to boss ourselves and others, using sticks and stones and bigoted words, into accepting our preferred version of the world. Paine despised bossing, and he had a fine ear for language masquerading as Truth. "Bastilles of the word" was Paine's phrase for needlessly haughty language, and he consequently wrote as it it were the duty of the citizen, and certainly the political thinker and writer, to be on the lookout for hubris. He prodded and poked at it wherever it appeared, his overall aim being to encourage individuals to become citizens capable of thinking, speaking, and acting clearly and confidently in public.

[From Thomas Paine, A Political Life, 1995]

The citizens of the United States stepped up this year, turning out to vote in unprecedented numbers. Let us keep the bar there, please, and even raise it even higher. We might expand our notions of national service to include helping our elections process (more volunteers working the polls or being non-partisan poll-watchers) on election day, and one more important thing for all the other days: detecting and calling out horseshit. Seriously. Political horseshit is every bit as dangerous as terrorism if not more so, and you don't need to be military age or in good physical shape to do the job. It was cheering to see that this year, for a change, the politics of smear, fear, and outright lies, did little to help any candidate. It sank Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Whenever Obama went personally negative, even his popularity sank. It's a hopeful sign.

Maybe we're starting to tell the difference between smear and shinola. If Thomas Paine is watching from heaven - well, to begin with, he must be very surprised! - but I hope he is also smiling.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Decision

As some of you know, to the fury of my friends and to some readers of this blog, I sometimes vote for minor-party candidates for President. To my mind, Democrats and Republicans are not better suited for office simply because their parties are more familiar and better-funded. We have more choices and sometimes we have better choices. So my presidential choice is not limited to two candidates.

We also had Cynthia McKinney of my old Green Party, Bob Barr for the Libertarians (both of whom, by the way, had long careers in the United States Congress previously, as members of the two "major" parties); we had Chuck Baldwin thumping his Constitution, Brian Moore explaining real socialism, and for a while we had Ron Paul making the best case possible for a libertarian administration in the White House following George W. Bush. And of course, outside the restaurant pressing his face against the window getting it all foggy, is independent candidate Ralph Nader. Don't stare at him.

I'll vote for any candidate who is offering the right message and the right platform for the time, even if that candidate isn't likely to win. I'd rather be right than vote for the winner.

Everything has already been said about the pet issues such as war, taxes, and healthcare. Too much, in fact, and at times we have given the most absurd lies equal status to the truth. In such an atmosphere, it is impossible to say anything sensible, and anyway it has all been said, written, blogged, robo-called, and spoofed on television.

Pulling backwards, then, to two "super issues," if you will. For a long time, this election was dominated by one super-issue for me: a return to Constitutional order after an administration that ran amok, rounding up human beings and keeping them imprisoned for years without any charges or basis. The wars, the torture, the denial of any Constitutional restraint on its power created a tyranny that defended itself with a craven nationalism - even when confronted with its obvious incompetence. This, coinciding with the crisis in confidence over our electoral process, threatened the very legitimacy of my country's government.

No candidate has answered my concerns on the issue of Constitutional order and the divisive, partisan strafing that has become the language of political discourse in the USA. Senator Obama has, however, offered something just as important: a strong message of American unity in the light of our differences.

If the conduct of a political campaign is any measure of how the candidate would govern, then Senator Obama looks fit for the job after all. The messianic nonsense around him will dissipate when reality takes office and the man must govern. His campaign suggests strongly to me that he will be thoughtful, sensible, principled, and will act decisively when the need arises. A politician could be more honest, more positive, and more right, than Barack Obama has been - but not by much.

And what is clear to me tonight, hours before I go vote, is that he is the messenger of unity that most Americans believe, whereas the Republican party is selling division, lying their souls into hell, and peddling discredited economic ideas. The minor parties aren't singing the song of unity and citizenship, either. Nader is - just Nadering. Somehow this razor-sharp kid from the Chicago Democrat machine is the winning spokesman for the idea that we are a union.

"Our opponent says that there is a real America, but ...there aren't a real America and an unreal America. Soldiers in the trenches don't ask each other if they are red or blue. You can support the war and be a patriot, and not support the war and still be a patriot. We are tired of these old divisions and ways of separating Americans from each other. We are all Americans and what we share is greater than what divides us."
Sigh. All right then. Fine. I don't think the arid deserts will bloom colorful wildflowers singing hymns of justice and prosperity, but Obama might just convince enough of us that we are one America. I have my doubts about him, but they aren't grave doubts. I'm not afraid of him, like the people who think he's a muslim Communist in cahoots with Al Qaeda. He is not the messiah, but he is not Satan, either. And he can be a good President. He doesn't believe insane things. He can lead. If anyone can put us on a better course at this moment, he can recruit the right cabinet and woo Congress, see it through and explain it to the people. And damn it, he has the right message, and people are buying it.
So I vote for Obama after all, with a rueful smirk but a dimming optimistic glint in my eye.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Pipe Me Your Lobes!

The Deming Arts Council hosted the monthly open-mike reading sponsored by the Bel Canto Literary Circle last night, with punch and snacks and and a gallery stuffed with people aged 15 to 70.

The stars of the evening were members of the high school poetry club, with well-worn legal pads or notebooks by their sides. As I approached the home of the arts council, sitting on the bench by the front entrance was one young man, furiously writing away.

The young poets (and a local adult poet as well) read their own works while most of the rest read works by others. A local writer, man by the name of Howard Scott, recently passed away so there were several tribute readings to him. A woman got up and read a passage from the Declaration of Independence so we could savor the words. Another man read from a speech by Dwight Eisenhower about the ravages of war. Our host for the evening did a dramatic reading from a Tom Waits song.

In keeping with Halloween, I tried to channel the dead. I brought the text from Lord Buckley's hipster-poet version of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven. It did not occur to me until I was there what an opportune choice that was. These young poets had never heard of Lord Buckley, and yet Lord Buckley, a man who absorbed the language of hipsters and junkies, who spoke verbal jazz as naturally as you and I breathe, was an early progenitor of rap and a compelling bard in his own right.

The teenagers loved it and wrote down his name. Meanwhile, listeners who had been teenagers themselves when Lord Buckley was riffing related happy memories. It had cross-generational swing, this groove, and the social hour was long.

And Lord Buckley was remembered.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Triumph of a Mostly-Sensible Campaign

American democracy is performance art at its best times, and this year has been more like a comedy sketch than most. In one of Tina Fey's recent lampoons of Governor Sarah Palin, the comedienne actually quoted straight from the actual text of her subject's press interviews. The material just writes itself.

A word, then, for the mostly-sensible campaign. In a year when fear seems such a potent weapon, when 91% of Americans participating in one poll think government is on the wrong track, with the wars and lost homes and plunging markets and energy and -- oh, just take a deep breath. One might think a campaign would win only by exploiting those fears.

Yet this year we have a mostly-sensible campaign that appears to be winning. It is not perfect. It has been wrong about some things. It has stooped to a dishonest statement here, a negative ad there. Its candidate is wrong about some things, like FISA. Its candidate has also been lucky: lucky that Hillary Clinton underestimated him, lucky that he's not running against the John McCain of 2000. His messianic aura is the work of mass imagination, like those stories that get in the news sometimes of people seeing the face of Mary in a cheese sandwich. He is a mainstream Democrat, a decent man, a shrewd Chicago politician who played this election exactly right.

What they have done is appear calm and thoughtful, and have persisted in speaking intelligently to us 98% of the time, assuming that most of us are basically intelligent, educated to some extent or another, and deserve something better from our politicians than fear-mongering and overblown lies. A lot more of us have noticed that trickle-down economics is a false religion at best, and at worst a deliberate fraud.

That goes for the candidate himself, but also for campaign spokesmen like managers David Plouffe and David Axelrod, and this press secretary named Bill Burton. Burton demonstrates what this campaign has done well. He can go on Fox News, as he did on the 27th, and unflappably confront the most belligerent partisan nonsense without a hint of anger. Watch the clip and note how the Fox sandbagger gets angrier and angrier while Burton remains calm.

That's what they do. They raise money well, they mobilize volunteers well, they crafted a rational message, they communicate well, they minimize embarrassing gaffes, they are well informed and reasonable. Kind of like how you want your government to operate, nu?

It is stunning to see the Democrat candidate called every worst thing that can be thought of. Terrorist. Communist. Cokehead. The N-word. An assassination plot has been discovered and foiled. And he has shrugged, addressing these things briefly if at all, while returning to real problems and proposing solutions. He has slyly branded McCain as another Bush - a deeply ironic charge if you think about both men's history - and the opposition has been too undisciplined and amateurish to thwart him.

He looks "presidential" and so does his team. That's why he's winning over people who consider him too liberal for their tastes. He is the new George Papoon! Obama is not insane.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Red Ribbons

This week the school is doing something different each day to broadcast an anti-drug message to our kids. Even our Halloween decorations are festooned with slogans and reminders that drugs are unhealthy, dangerous, and not "cool" in any sense.

Red ribbons with anti-drug messages have been distributed to staff and students, and we are being reminded to wear the things at all times.

My ribbon was waiting for me in the mailbox. Cheerfully, it rhymed, "United We Stand - For a Drug-Free Land!" and it bore the image of our nation's flag.

Face in palms.

Look, friends, I'm on board with telling kids to stay away from drugs. It's an issue of health and security. Where patriotism has to come into it, I don't know. Many of my adult friends enjoy themselves a bit of the marijuana from time to time and I do not consider them traitors to their country. Presumably, this patriotic red ribbon does not refer to drugs that are legal, like nicotine and caffeine. The ribbon doesn't say anything about "an addiction-free land." It's a reminder to me that the war on drugs is a political business, not strictly medical.

So I put it on backwards, going for the absent-minded professor dodge, and leave it on my desk at other times. It seems like a thoughtless use of the flag to me. "If you are a real American, you must uncritically adopt this sweeping statement about narcotics." Well, neighbor, I don't.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where's Joe the Socialist?

With all the desparate chatter about Barack Obama being a socialist, you would think some news interviewer would have the wit to bring on someone from the Socialist Party to discuss whether Senator Obama really is a socialist. I am in fact surprised no one has done that yet, for the novelty if nothing else. I mean, how many times can you bring on GOP spokesman Brad Blakeman for laughs? Give us some variety.

And, maybe, help us clarify what the heck socialism really is, because the word is in danger of becoming meaningless. When a mainstream Democrat who supports free trade talks about adjusting the tax code, and partisans scream "socialism!" without anyone correcting their terms, this literally cheapens political debate in a nation that is supposed to value debate and democracy.

The Socialist candidate for President is more than happy to talk about it. Surprise, he says Obama is no socialist. But we knew that. Obama is not mounting an attack on economic neo-liberalism, and has even backpedaled his criticisms of NAFTA. His campaign has benefitted greatly from the support of our oil barons. He is certainly not advocating worker-ownership of the automobile manufacturers - or state ownership.

It's an interesting time for anyone to be hurling the S-word at anyone else. Obama made a remark about "spreading wealth" and the Republicans started painting a hammer and cycle on him. On the other hand, tax revenue worth more than $8,000 per household in America has just been "spread" upward.

Like Robert Reich recently said, maybe what we have here is socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the rest of us.

Is it a "socialist" observation that capitalism, at least as we practice it, has concentrated political clout and wealth to a small, elite class of our society? The fact is not in dispute. The debate is over what it means and whether it is just.

As we have seen, our government is quite willing to intervene in the workings of the market economy, which resembles the philosophy of some socialists. If we are willing to invest public money to prop up ailing financial institutions, to 'nationalize' them to some degree or other, to make our government a shareholder in what were private companies, then we are somewhere on the socialist spectrum, aren't we?

We're just afraid of the word, that's all. It's used as an epithet to hurl at political rivals, interchangeably with 'communist.' The words do not illuminate. We need to be considering good ideas and bad ideas, not worrying about whether Karl Marx said them first.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Real Words, Real People

Early voting is going on here in Deming, and business at the County Clerk's office, located in the county courthouse down that way on Gold Street, has been steady from what I hear. (My friend Jane up in North Carolina voted early, too.)

The head of the local Republican organization has letters in the local paper often enough that he functions as an unpaid columnist. His letters mainly exercise the talking points of the campaign although he has some thoughts of his own about abortion, one of his favorite topics.

In another of New Mexico's counties, the local Republicans made news in a way they might not have wished. A woman named Marcia Stirman, the head of the Republican Women of Otero County, had a letter published in the Alamogordo Daily News referring to Senator Barack Obama as a "muslim socialist."

Wrong on both counts, but her mind is made up and will not be reached by facts, no matter how they are presented. The Associated Press took an interest in her, so they interviewed her and she elaborated: "Muslims are our enemies...why we are trying to elect one is beyond me."

The Otero County Republicans commented on this to say they are going to ask Ms. Stirman to step down but had no other comment.

When "muslim" is uttered as an expletive, like a brand-new "n word," and when the word "socialism" doesn't mean what it truly means, hung like a hood over the heads of moderate Democrats who support free trade, will the Otero County Republican spokeswoman take her moment in the spotlight to be a voice of sanity? Is Stirman merely being punished for P.R. reasons, because she said things that are unfashionable yet tacitly believed by her group? Or will the Otero County GOP make a statement, for this half-a-minute the spotlight is on them, to say, "We are intelligent people and desire a decent politics, a politics of truthful statements and honest opinions?"

We can't help noticing, here in the burning house, that there is real fear about this black man who might well be our next President. To look dispassionately at his voting record, you see a mainstream Democratic Party politician, even if he does have more panache than most. Yet there is such terror among some of us, that some terrible thing is about to happen, and the anguish of knowing that this disaster is looming, wondering why can't everybody see it??

Whether you have voted early or not, today is not too soon to consider how we might speak to our neighbor with compassion. It's a silly campaign with little to no sense on display, but there are real feelings on the streets. There is a house I drive by every day on Second Street, in a poor part of town near the railroad tracks and the juvenile detention center, a ramshackle house that has lost its ram and its shackle, looking barely inhabitable, and the newest thing I can see anywhere on the property is a crisp Obama sign displayed on the front window. In the same neighborhood, a beat-up old car has a fresh bumper sticker for McCain. These are real people, not campaign ads.

What words will serve them best?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Believing Everything We Think

It's good to practice what we teach the kids.

Lately, I've been making them hold hands because it challenges them. It's amazing to see the aversion in some of them, as early as kindergarten. They turn into tiny Howard Hughes's, hiding their hands inside their sleeves or consenting only to link their pinkies. "Must...not....touch!!"

At such times their teacher suggests to them that their minds are telling them it's a big deal, even though it isn't.

The school day ends, and the teacher returns to what he does whenever he isn't teaching theatre: fretting about debts. Indeed, fretting so much that he called a lifeline, as on that quiz show - what was it called, uuum, Who Wants To Be Solvent? - and spoke with a money person.

Anguished conversation about payment schedules and interest rates, savings programs, and so forth. Virtual handholding over the phone. Teacher realizes things are not as bad as they were a year ago, even six months ago. Much better, in fact. As for creditors, money person says, "Have you thought of calling up and asking?"

It could not possibly be so easy, teacher protests. They'll bully me into something I cannot afford. Money person says, "Ask." Teacher instinctively pulls sleeves over his hands and says, "Eeeeeeeeeew!"

Then he remembers. Sighs. Mind mind mind. Minding mind. Makes the phone call. Secures a much lower interest rate than he ever anticipated. Sleeps better than he has in days.

Hard times aren't over, but they are overing. Slowly, overing.


You're all looking at me.

Like you're waiting for something.

Oh, right. I know what you're waiting for. Here you go.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Certain View of Power

Comedians and smirking liberal bloggers have had a field day with Governor Sarah Palin. They've set up funny websites like this one and impersonated her, assembled montages of regrettable interview moments, belittled her intellect and her religious convictions. To be fair, she has provided them with plenty of material, yet even so, if anyone has taken a bigger beating in this election than Barack Obama, it has been Sarah Palin.

We're not getting into all of that stuff. We're concerned about something quite different, and it is bigger than Sarah Palin. If it is entertainment you seek, we'll reward you with some entertaining videos at the end.

Sarah Palin lacks the polish of the professionals who have selected her for this candidacy. For that reason, she may be inadvertently serving as a window onto a certain view of power that is, more and more, dropping the mask and revealing itself in its snarling, authoritarian ugliness. Perhaps the party doesn't need a candidate who is good at covering it up because it is no longer important to cover it up. A veil will do, as long as it is in the colors of Old Glory.

It's an interesting time for our sandcastle republic. For the last eight years, our family secret has been that the Vice-President has been acting as President, even though George W. Bush sincerely wishes us to view him as our leader. This Vice-President has exercised tremendous powers, granted at the pleasure of his President, and has established in our short-sighted public imagination the idea of the Vice-President as a leader of policy. Richard Cheney has actually used the office to make a gap in the separation between the executive and legislative branches, at times literally so.

The erosion of the separation of powers is something this administration has fought for as diligently as their war in Iraq, and they have done so with greater success, even after the Democrats took Congress in 2006.

We now have a candidate who, in July, said she was not sure what the VP does. She did not ask this out of ignorance; she wanted to know whether the role would be big enough for her:

We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position.
--Governor Palin, 31 July 2008

By October 2, in her well-executed debate performance, she had adopted the idea that the Vice-President plays a leading role in the Senate, not a ceremonial one. Her Vice-President would not be a mere tie-breaking vote when needed, but someone who would be on the floor of the Senate steering the agenda and working with legislators.

A Vice-President has a really great job...Not only are they there to support the President's agenda...but also, they're in charge of the United States Senate so if they want to, they can really get in there with the Senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better.
--Governor Palin, 20 October 2008

Not without a Constitutional amendment, she won't. Yet Sarah Palin has defended this notion and claimed that this is what the founders intended, twice since that debate. She and her defenders blithely pretend, at different times, that Sarah Palin said something other than what she said, or that the Constitution says something that it doesn't actually say. (Don't the Republicans prefer "strict constructionists?") Moreover, in her own words, she described her role in working with the Senate as a guiding influence, "making sure that we are supportive of the President's policies," as she put it on October 2nd.

You see, it all comes back to the "unitary executive" theory, the re-modeling of our President into a constitutional monarch, whose visions are to be faithfully executed by the Congress. If Congress opposes the President's will, they are unpatriotic.

A certain vision of executive power shows itself quite plainly here.

We can laugh about it at the moment because it looks this party is going to get trounced in the election. If there IS an election, and the votes get counted. So, as promised, entertainment.

Two clips here, parts one and two. MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann and CNN host Chris Matthews both address Sarah Palin's view of the Vice-Presidency. Olbermann uses humor and made me laugh here. Matthews does an exemplary job of holding a Republican spokesperson accountable and giving her (and us) a forceful civics lesson. Watch how a rare moment of truth-telling on national television reduces a professional liar to petulant, frustrated sighs.

Slapping and Pulling

Spent a weekend in west Los Angeles, another one of these quick trips in order to don my robes and pronounce a nice young couple as married persons in front of weeping parents and beaming friends.

It was not long enough to visit many of my friends, although this time I was smart enough to convince two friends to let me stay in their house so I could see them for a couple of hours, at least. The whole drive was worth it just to wander Venice Beach with Chris and visit the spectacle, this weird human bazaar of the Venice promenade, and inspecting books in that bookstore I used to frequent. The Fig Tree Cafe told us we could only sit if we were buying a full meal - coffee would not be enough. That isn't how it used to be. There once was a time you could sit here and nurse your coffee as you watched the hucksters and wackos cavorting in front of the ocean. Chris said to him, "You aren't a cafe, then. You're a restaurant."

Venice is changing. Different people own the property now and they aren't as charmed by the old madness, the unique edginess of this boardwalk. The laws are changing accordingly, and there is a bit less color to the place now. The merchants win their space in a lottery, and limits have been placed on performers. It feels tainted.

Strange to think I lived near the Pacific Ocean for so long. I hadn't noticed myself missing it much, but there it was all weekend. The wedding took place at Duke's restaurant up in Malibu, on the Pacific Coast Highway in a little room full of windows looking out across the sea. As the vows were exchanged, waves slammed into rocks and sprayed dramatically into the air behind us.

The photographer stole pictures of me when I took a breather on the deck, watching the water slap the shore and then pull back, slapping and pulling, on and on, wearing the beach and the rocks away. This has been happening a very long time and it will continue when I have passed away and the things I worry about no longer cross my mind.

* * *

But you haven't come here to read about that. You're here for Gabriel pics! Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dear World, Lighten Up!

"Do you know what I say when I go to bed every night?" he said. "Unborn yesterday and dead tomorrow. Why fret about them if life be sweet? Right now is the only moment there is."
--Groucho Marx
A lovely story about a book that, incidentally, is also in our living room (in its original hardcover edition - a treasure).

Have a listen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

How I Helped the Senator

Over the weekend, I received some mail from the McCain-Palin campaign. No doubt, they have concluded from my previous communications with them that I am a supporter. And doggone it, I am: I support all of us trying to have some fun with our imaginary democracy, just as I support other forms of performance art.

Pleased, I opened the mail right away and found a fundraising letter that I soon decided could benefit from a little proofreading. I went through with my pen and made some changes, correcting some minor inaccuracies and replacing them with more truthful statements.

For instance, when they wrote that they were dedicated to upholding long-held conservative principles of limited government, strong national defense and individual freedom, I thought no no no, let's get right to the point.

So I crossed out and wrote in the correction: Republican values of deregulation and lack of accountability; bellicose neo-conservatism; and class war.

After all, this is the "straight talk" candidate.

So I went through the letter and made my improvements. I folded it back up and put that in their postage-paid return envelope. I also put in some offers we received in the mail and won't be using ourselves. You know, the man's got to eat while he's campaigning, so he might be able to use those Burger King coupons. I stuffed that postage-paid envelope nice and full, and posted it right away.

Sand, not oil.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Men In Black

First, a disclaimer. The human being depicted in the photograph does not appear to be an agent of the Secret Service, so it is not quite aligned with the topic here, but I liked the picture.

What, then, is the Secret Service? You see them in their clean black suits and dark glasses, often with a little squiggly wire behind one ear, doing a job I shudder to imagine: scanning large crowds of people, ceaselessly, for any sign of menace. A weapon. A suspicious bag. Anything. Their job is to protect government officials.

They fulfill this reponsibility in a country that has a long history of mob justice and political violence. To begin with, we aspire to democracy, which is, as H.L. Mencken described, the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Although high-profile assassinations have become very difficult to carry out, there remains a potential for terrible suffering if you exercise your right to assemble and protest. I have been spat upon by civilians at some very unexciting war protests - and were it not for a police presence, that gob of spit might easily have been a bottle. On the other hand, if you protest GATT, you could get pepper spray in your eyes courtesy of your local riot squad. "Protesting While Mexican" is enough to get you clubbed in L.A.

Candidates are in a pretty bad spot themselves, within this horrendous mess. So the Secret Service has a huge responsibility to protect officers of the Constitution and candidates for national office. They will investigate verbal threats and prosecute. They take it seriously. As we are reminded in airports, security is no laughing matter.

For most of the time Senator Obama has been a candidate for President, they have been charged with protecting the first black man to be a national party's candidate for president. Imagine being on his detail. The pressure must be great.

Alex Koppelman on Salon reported yesterday that the Secret Service took a mighty big interest in stories about political rallies where attendees shouted "Kill him!" in reference to Obama. Koppelman reported that the investigations have found that the stories are unsubstantiated. They listened to tapes of the rallies and were not convinced that there were authentic threats of violence against the Senator from Illinois.

On the other hand, there is another item about the Secret Service from Steve Benen. As has been the fashion with President Bush's town halls (which have so often been invitation-only events), security is now being used at some Republican campaign events to keep reporters away from other attendees. Not the candidates, mind you, but from the people attending. They don't want reporters talking to McCain-Palin supporters, and are using the Secret Service to keep the press away.

Is this a proper use of the agency? Is Security Service now being used to block the press and assist candidates in achieving political goals? Steve has an interesting suggestion for reporters. In essence, Steve suggests they press on. If the Secret Service is being mis-employed, let's get it out in the open.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Be Sand, Not Oil

When you get that recorded phone call about a "warranty" on your car, do you just hang up on them?

Have you considered "sweating" them a bit? Hold the line, if you have a minute. Get a live person on the line and hold them accountable. You don't have to roll your eyes and tolerate this stuff. Stress them out. Ask them questions, ask for their supervisor.

In the words of Gunther Eich, "Be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world."

Call them up and tell them you don't want to be on their mailing lists. You might feel good, like you just voted. In a way, you have. Speak up. Don't roll over while your phone rings off the hook and your mailbox gets stuffed full of lies, sent by people counting on you being either passive and/or an idiot.

Today I came home and the telephone was winking at me that we had messages. What I got was a recorded phone message from the McCain campaign in Washington, D.C. Here's most of the script: "You need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country."

Barack Obama is no prince, but this message is steaming-fresh cowflop. The only way he resembles an "extreme leftist" is if you put him next to Mussolini, and even that would be an illusion. These sneaky, cowardly little messages aren't held up to the same scrutiny as television buys (and I suppose they're cheaper). It's a cowardly move, spamming people with recordings, ramming the lies into our ears and our answering machines. It's like that obnoxious roommate you once had who only ever communicates with naggy little notes everywhere in the house.

They were, however, kind enough to leave the number of their campaign office in D.C. So I called them, just to see if anyone in the office had the guts to speak directly with a voter. I punched the appropriate number on the automated menu and waited for someone to pick up. And waited. And waited. No one picked up.

Admittedly, the campaign is low on funds. Life is like that when your campaign is clearly bereft of a vision, when it is as mean-spirited and raving as a madman in the park scolding pigeons. (This blog comes dangerously close to that at times, yes, I know.) So I got on the McCain campaign's website and sent them an email message, with my phone number, inviting them to call me after 4:00 PM on a weekday if they have the courage to talk to a voter live about their allegations.

If you want to start a betting pool on whether they'll call me back, you had better seek help immediately.

Here is another fun activity for the next time you get a call from a pollster.

Ask them who they work for. Insist on an answer.

Ask them if you'll be paid for your responses.

When they so no, remind them that they work for a company that is in business selling information. "Do you really expect me to give you something for free that you're going to sell to the news media?"

They might just hang up on you - but you have given them a taste of their own medicine. You have used up some of their time.

I'm also a big fan of this line, for pollsters and telemarketers: "I'm a little busy right now. Would you like to give me your home number so I can call you this evening and discuss it with you?"

Don't roll over. Be sand, not oil. And tell 'em Al said hi.

Our Sweet Union

I think we can come up with a statement on which all Americans, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, straight or gay, can agree, despite our country's being so tragically and ferociously divided. The first universal American sentiment I came up with was "Sugar is sweet."
--Kurt Vonnegut

The political ticker buzzed like a seismometer as the Republicans and Democrats waged their latest war of words.

The rumpus du jour began when the Senator from Arizona paid a visit to a beet-processing facility in Bay County, Michigan. No doubt, the Senator thought nothing of it when he told a hastily-assembled audience of beet farmers and sugar processors, "It is such a pleasure to see what you do at the Michigan Sugar Company. As you can imagine, friends, when I was staying at the Hanoi Hilton they never fed us dessert. When I came home in 1973, despite all the debate over the war, I knew there was one thing about which every true American can agree: sugar is sweet!"

Within the hour, angry press releases from the Illinois Senator's campaign were crawling through fax machines at every news organization: "If our opponent really thinks sugar is sweet, why not support increased production of sugar for ethanol? Revitalizing rural economies - now that is sweet!"

The GOP treated this like an easy setup, and went for the kill. "One might say our opponent is merely pandering for the farm vote," said their press release. "But we also see a sly insinuation between the lines that because our candidate was tortured in Vietnam he doesn't understand sweet when he tastes it. Our opponent ought to be ashamed. This slander is a desperate attack by a campaign that is out of touch with the real America, where we know the real difference between sweet and sour."

Overnight, an independent 527 organization called "War Prisoners Who Had Dessert" produced an ad in which three former prisoners insisted their captors had fed them mousse on occasion. The ad showed a grainy photograph of the young lieutenant commander, now running for President, eating what appeared to be a piece of pound cake. The newly-dubbed "McSweet For America" campaign immediately countered by insisting the Senator was actually eating shrapnel. "In fact," said the Senator, "Shrapnel is all I ate for five years." On CNN, Wolf Blitzer devoted an entire program to the ad. "The real question in this election as of today," said Blitzer, "Is whether a man can actually live on a diet of shrapnel for five years. Please email us your thoughts and we'll get Dr. Gupta's medical opinion after these messages."

Gleefully, the Democrats arranged a press conference with retired boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, who gave his endorsement to the Illinois Senator. It took several days for the Illinois Senator to respond to the controversy himself, as he was on another tour of Europe and trying to arrange an appearance with the Pope. From the balcony of a villa in Capri, the senator finally responded to "SugarGate" with his most ambitious speech to date, a speech sure to top all of his other speeches in rhetorical majesty, a speech for the ages.

"I have a sweet tooth for my country," said the Senator with urgency. "A sweet tooth for my country to come together and hold this truth to be self-evident: that sugar is sweet. I have a sweet tooth for my daughters, and the hope they will grow up in a country where we all understand that white sugar and brown sugar are both sweet. And molasses. And honey. And stevia. And yes, friends, agave nectar, too! I have a sweet tooth today. I have seen the shining bakery on the hill, where all our ingredients combine into wholesome goodness that will feed our nation and our world!"

The Democrats had now stolen the sugar narrative. The GOP moved quickly to get the momentum back. The "McSweet" signs were taken down and campaign manager Rick Davis appeared on Fox News to tell Bill O'Reilly: "Real Americans understand that sugar isn't necessarily sweet. The Democrats have nothing to offer but candy, saying to the hungry people of America, 'Let them eat cake.'"

O'Reilly looked grave. "'Let them eat cake.' That's what Napoleon said. Do you agree the Democrat has a napoleon complex? I've always thought so."

Meanwhile, the beet processing plant in Michigan closed down, and a farmer who had shaken hands with the Arizona Senator packed up his truck, kissed his wife and two daughters goodbye, and drove off to look for work out of state. The sun was not yet up as he drove past harvested beet fields with radio talk shows keeping him company, sipping black coffee and taking comfort in its bitter taste.


(This piece was written last month and submitted to a few newspapers and journals that print satire. No one wanted it, but it got a chuckle when I read it at an open mike here in Deming. In the wake of the final presidential debate, please enjoy...)