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...)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Go Post A Letter, White Man

If you saw this guy in traffic and felt a little bit angry, or saw this jerk at your neighborhood political rally...

...and noticed that none of the white people around him challenged him...

Well, just think on this thought and smile:

I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr stamp - just think about all those white bigots, licking the backside of a black man.

-Dick Gregory

I Prefer My Own Reality, Thanks

When writing about current events in this blog, we have tried to be very fair to Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, a potential President of the United States, thrust onto a national stage before she was really prepared and making her best show of it.

We learned soon after that she was the subject of an ethics probe in her home state, one called for by a legislative body that included three Republicans and two Democrats. The so-called "Troopergate" affair involved an allegation that the Governor abused her powers in trying to get a state official fired because he declined to fire her estranged brother-in-law. Since nothing was proven here, we didn't touch it. The investigation is now complete and a report was issued by that same 3/5 Republican legislative body. Would you like to read it? (Gosh, this internet thingie is handy.)

The conclusion is set forth in clear, declarative sentences that a layman can easily understand: The Governor "abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act."

Palin's reaction to the report was to tell reporters, "I'm very very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing, any hint of any kind of unethical activity there."

This and many other statements she made over the weekend about the report (which, again, can be read by any literate person right here ) fly in the face of what is actually stated in the summary of an orderly investigation into what happened. It presents the legal line, and demonstrates when and how the Governor stepped over it, and what one would expect is that there would be an acknowledgment. Perhaps the Governor would refute the results; or perhaps she would accept the results and express contrition.

Instead, this Governor who might be President denied reality and chose an alternative universe. If the report is wrong, she should make her case. But she is running around telling voters that the report cleared her of any wrongdoing.

Would that approach work with my car loan, I wonder? I'll zip off a letter on my letterhead telling the lienholder how happy I am that I have paid off my car loan.

Of course, if I do that, my car will get towed. If I then continue to insist that my car loan is paid, Sarah would take me to the hospital and have me evaluated for psychosis. (My Sarah, that is, not the Governor.)

We doubt Sarah Palin is exhibiting mental illness here. What she exhibits, rather, is the position held by the current regime that the truth is little more than performance art, that defining reality is a privilege that comes to power.

This is what makes her unfit for the public trust, especially in the office of Vice-President.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dharma Gates and Trailer Homes

The sun is shining everywhere. Why does a cloud obscure it?

It was homecoming week here in Deming, a week of epic anticipation for the high school football team. My elementary students wore jerseys day and night, and etched their skin with slogans like "Go wildcats!" or little paw prints on their faces. By Friday, they were as unmanageable as the Uzbek cavalry on furlough, on top of my physical fatigue and the entire school beginning to smell like milk. On Friday afternoon I left school feeling sullen and tired.

There was more to do, though. I had business at a state government office. The essential detail is this: the government sent me a piece of paper saying they needed something by this Monday. The person who filled out this piece of paper was not clear about what they wanted, so I had been calling and leaving voice mail every day. No one ever called back and lo, it was now Friday afternoon.

Everyone has a shadow following them.
How do you avoid stepping on your shadow?

I went on the internet and got the address for this office, and I would later learn that the address on the website is incorrect. The difference between the posted address and the actual physical address is measured in miles. Instead of a left hand turn on Pear Street, I faithfully took a right and drove deeply into a rural part of Deming. The address led me to a patch of trailer homes, neatly stacked. On the other side, open space surrounded by beautiful mountains. The afternoon sun was turning from gold to amber, a beautiful start to a fall evening.

It was the kind of place and scenery I often wish I were enjoying during my busy daily life. Yet here I was, wanting and expecting to be somewhere else, and so this lovely open space actually felt confining, and pissed me off.

This, by the way, is why our cushions can go days without feeling the weight of our asses. Our schedules are packed, and our wants and expectations are compelling. "Tonight, I am so tired and have so many things on my mind - I won't sit. I'll just sit there thinking about this stuff anyway, may as well take care of it." "This morning I need to sleep in. Yesterday was such a terrible day. Think I'll kick back and enjoy a cup of coffee." The freedom of zazen, the opportunity to practice the essential skill of dropping our 'checking mind' and engaging with this moment just as it presents itself, comes to be regarded like a creditor ringing our phone. "Go away. I don't have time for you now." Thus we follow the wheel of samsara wherever it decides to roll.

Indeed, everyone walking beneath this sun casts a shadow. How do we avoid stepping on it?

The office I was looking for was a few miles away in the opposite direction. I drove past trailer homes and barns, crossed the Columbus Highway, and finally located the building a few minutes before closing time. An old guard greeted me in the lobby, looking older just now, ready for the weekend, a day or two of rest. He looked at me cross-eyed and asked me: "Have you got a knife in your pants?"

I was so tired and done with the world, I replied without thinking: "No, I'm just happy to see you." And the comment went right over his head, because he was done with the world as well. We were both done.

The whole universe is on fire.
Through what kind of samadhi can you avoid being burned?

Does meditation make it all right? Will it give me special powers to cope with all of this nonsense or change things to my liking, maybe change me more to my liking?

Ah, see, that's your shadow tripping you up. When you're out in the middle of nowhere, when you're lost on some road and the office is closing and the car needs gas and you're ready for Garrison Keillor to come out and offer you some rhubarb pie or you just want to curl up in the middle of the madhouse and cry it out, or do what Anthony Burgess did and just lie on the floor refusing to move or speak to anyone, when you're up the tree clinging to the branch by your teeth, you realize there is no subversive secret to what's going on. Everything really is right up front.

This is what it means. This is all it means.

While I have been typing this blog entry, the washing machine has begun to make a horrible noise. What kind of meditation do you recommend?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

My Halloween Costume

We were invited to a Halloween party.

After giving it some thought, I decided on a costume.

When they open the door to us, I introduce myself as "Bob the Bailed-Out Banker," and immediately start helping myself to everything in their house. When meeting new people, I say, "How do you do!" and immediately proceed to pick their pockets.

Witty, cheap to put together, and maybe we'll even snag some good china.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Aren't We Generous?

The government bails out Wall Street - and hilarity ensues!

A little less than a month ago, you and I, dear reader, assumed approximately 80% ownership of AIG Insurance. That was part of the enormous Wall Street bailout package passed by Congress and swiftly signed into law by the President.

As part of this package, the government, using our money, infused AIG with $85 billion. Following that, we have agreed to an additional $37.8 billion.

Shortly following that historic bailout, 70 top executives at AIG treated themselves well - very well indeed - after what was, you know, a tough week at the office.

We're not talking about the fact that the guy whose investments helped sink AIG continues to be paid $1 million a month as a consultant. We don't mean the former CEO who presided over AIG's mismanagement, who is slated to receive a $5 million bonus for what he did. That's small beer, as they say.

We're talking about a week-long retreat at an exclusive resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean including spa treatments. The bill, paid for out of a loan from you and me, amounted to nearly half a million dollars.

Even if they signed up for this a while ago, even if it cost money to cancel -- holy shinizzle!! By all means, why not cancel!?

This is the sort of madness that makes C-Span look like a situation comedy. Here is some funny television:

Give that guy props for actually DEFENDING the retreat!

Anyway, I think we should give ourselves a pat on the back. We are, indeed, a generous nation.

Monday, October 06, 2008

It's Fear, Stupid, And It Might Not Work This Time

Today, Senator McCain was in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, while I sat in Deming waiting for parents to come talk to me about their children, Senator McCain kicked off the final, darkest chapter in the 2008 presidential campaign with a speech lighting into Barack Obama as an unknown, mysterious, suspicious figure. (*cough*black man*cough*) Elsewhere, Governor Sarah Palin was barely veiling the strategy when she said, "This is not a man who sees America as you and I do -- as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country."

Bill Ayers again? We already sent this cold soup back to the kitchen! Sadly, this is all they have left. John McCain, a man who was the victim of horrendous personal smears in 2000, has ignored his own pledge regarding smear tactics and embraced them in all their warm, slimy awfulness - because the issues will kill his campaign. Moreover, having made this choice and buried his personal honor, the art of the smear is going to fail him. John McCain will not be elected president. Call it a hunch (and laugh at me if I'm wrong).

Fear of the black man is a potent weapon used by politicians perennially since the civil rights era - actually, it's been in use since reconstruction. They do not do this because they necessarily hate black people. I do not, for instance, believe that John McCain is overtly bigoted towards black people, nor would he condone such feelings in others. The sly infusion of doubt about "the real Barack Obama," about "Barack Hussein Obama," is not a condemnation of black citizens, but a cynical exploitation of white fear.

Like Jamie Foxx says in Dreamgirls: "It's business."

Yet as McCain makes his awful choice, his numbers are dropping.

My God, are we going to break the curse this year? Is the Rus Walton / Lee Atwater / Karl Rove exploitation of racial insecurity in white people going to fail? Do we have the perfect storm of mobilized black and Hispanic voters, along with white voters who are actually more concerned about issues than personalities (and our own insecurities about race)?

That would be a good moment for us fair-hued folk and our politics.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Bit Of A Shock

In my senior year at The Wheeler School, 1988-9, I met a freshman named Jay Paul.

He was diminutive in stature, socially awkward, and it is not an exaggeration to say he had no peer intellectually. He had been an academic overachiever from an early age, and continued so at Wheeler. His strong suit was math. I cannot remember, but I think he may have been studying calculus when he was in ninth grade. He participated in parliamentary debate at Wheeler, and distinguished himself not only for being a formidable and even ruthless debater, but for his political viewpoint that was very far out on the right wing. He wrote articles for school publications that pressed extreme political views and when arguing in person he could become highly agitated.

I played chess with Jay and invariably lost. He liked me: I was a good debater, even though I was a notoriously lazy student. We jousted on a number of issues, he wiped up the chess board with me, and we knew that once I graduated we would lose touch.

One day, the head of the upper school's english department, John Love, Ph.D. (who is now a headmaster at a very expensive private school in the Bronx), stood up at an assembly to award a few distinguished students with globes. I remember him joking as he called up Jay, "Of course, Jay's globe only turns to the right."

There were unkind jokes about him as well, whispered in the senior room. Jokes to the effect that one day he would quietly blow his top and start shooting at people from the roof of the building. People often say things like that about people who are introverted and/or vastly intelligent. Jay was both. He was also fiercely tidy, wore ties and blazers to school, and was hyper-organized. He was never physically bullied, but many students argued with him and he sometimes became disproportionately angry.

Apparently all of these characteristics got more intense as he got older.

Today, I learned that Jay Paul committed suicide on Friday afternoon in a rather spectacular manner. Apparently, he was fired from his job as a special education assistant at Lincoln High School. He left distraught, filled up his station wagon with containers of gasoline, and rammed straight through an entrance to the school. Students had already been dismissed, and his intent to harm children and co-workers was unsuccessful. He succeeded only in murdering himself, as his car caught fire and he was soon burned beyond recognition.

Jay was 34 years old, one of those people you meet sometimes who seem to be functioning fine, a bit eccentric, and from time to time you wonder if they might need help. You might even make the "shooting at pedestrians" joke about them, but only because you've never known anyone who actually did something like that.

Oh, Jay. I don't know what happened, and I am sorry you had to leave this way.

Ji Jang Bosal.
Ji Jang Bosal.
Ji Jang Bosal.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

On A Pleasant Saturday The World Can Take Care Of Itself

As I do most Saturday mornings lately, I took the car for an hour's drive to Silver City here in New Mexico. To get there, you drive on a road unromantically named "Route 180" and there is nothing especially romantic about the scenery, and yet it is beautiful. There are mountains and ranches occasionally interrupted by villages or towns like Hurley and Santa Clara, some industry and some agriculture, and then you arrive in the handsome little town that Silver is, one Saturday after another showing you that life is taking care of itself, the land is preparing itself for autumn thank you very much, and the cows are grazing.

Over near the university is the Silver City Zen Center, where I've been going to sit with a supportive group of sitting people, and this morning Paul, the resident priest, gave a lively talk about one aspect of our practice that can be very challenging in an election year: trusting in a wisdom that has nothing to do with our opinions and our convictions about how things ought to be. It's a good group of people who aren't afraid to ask questions and challenge their teacher. Is meditation a way of burying one's head in the ground? Does practicing Zen mean to turn away from the affairs of the world, with an air of studious detachment, to be holier than thou? No, that's not why we're indoors on a Saturday morning. We are there because we are convinced we have personalities, opinions, and objective ideas about how to fix the world; and we have seen the mess these convictions have made.

Helpful action is possible and needed. If you're going to get in your car and drive somewhere, though, you had better clear off the windshield first. We forget this routinely, and we are very much prone to forget this in an election year when the front page of the newspaper reads like a political thriller. There are things we want to worry about and the ability to discuss these things rationally, never mind do something helpful, seems remote.

So take a walk. On the main street of Silver City's historic downtown, people are out buying vegetables and drinking coffee, connecting with neighbors and admiring each other's children. Father Marcos leaned over a railing with a cigarette in his hand to say hello and introduce a newly-arrived seminary student. No ecclesia for either of them this morning - they looked ready to play beach volleyball. It was that kind of day.

Stopped at a gallery where my colleague has some work on exhibit. Mrs. Griego's sculpture would strike fear in the faint of heart, which is much to my liking; her glass works are sunnier and also very beautiful.

Where there are people trading recipes and selling their wares and asking after each other's grandchildren or the new roof of the rectory or the newly redone hedges, and fresh coffee, there is hope. Where there is sangha, people supporting each other in Christian prayer or Buddhist meditation or non-denominational kindness, there is a chance for wisdom to do what it does, indifferent to our big ideas and opinions.

Politicians are doing what they do, just as the cows are doing what they do. Cows are eating straw and pooping. Politicians are telling increasingly unbelievable lies about each other, like the Republican trash-talking Obama this morning in the press: "Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." That was Sarah Palin, and she wasn't done. "This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America." Take that, black man. You're a terrorist. Thank goodness grownups are in charge.

How do I see America? This morning, I see people who work hard all week, now enjoying the creosote and the wildflowers a little while longer, checking their faces for signs of age, noticing how quickly their children are growing up (have I mentioned that my baby is trying to walk?), worried about the future, and looking for what is truthful and decent in their world. As you do on a Saturday.

Someone will become President, and we will soon be talking trash about them around a barbecue or over coffee. The cows will need tending, the papers will need grading, the bills will remind us of our financial obligations, and our children will remind us that life is skipping along.

A Word For The Mountain Party - and Local Politics

Turning away from despair, I would like to say a word for state political parties. That is, parties that focus on a home state, with no national aspirations.

Personally, I saw this in action very briefly back in Rhode Island. There, a libertarian attorney from the seaside town of Warren ran for Governor in 1994 and won 9% of the popular vote, enough to establish ballot status for his own political party. Thus, Rhode Island's Cool Moose Party was born, and I was a member of its founding platform committee. (I wrote about that here.) Unfortunately, after a good start, the party did not succeed in recruiting good candidates for office, and after losing ballot status a few years later, the party dissipated.

Our politics would be served well by more state parties that are focused on local economics and energy, the integrity of small places and local communities. At the state level, campaigns are easier to fund than national campaigns, and national politics need not be a distraction.

In West Virginia, the Mountain Party established ballot status in the 2000 election. This means they are on the state ballot and can run candidates for any public office in the state without a petition drive. They have several candidates running for local office this year. Scan the party's platform here.

The next beachhead is being admitted to the candidate debates. Consider: the Mountain Party has the same ballot status as the Republican and Democratic parties in West Virginia. Interestingly, the Republican and Democratic candidates reportedly have no objection to Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson participating in debates. (Good for them! Stout fellows!) Still, the West Virginia Broadcasters Association is holding their gubernatorial debate at a non-profit center, and aims to exclude Johnson.

Johnson has filed suit, making the argument that this amounts to an improper endorsement. All legally recognized and qualified candidates ought to be granted participation - that is simply just, fair, and democratic. Johnson is not some quack running a limited campaign; he is the head of a legitimate and legal political party in the state of West Virginia, independent of the Democratic and Republican operations, and there are no grounds to exclude him from the West Virginia debates. Let me note again, even the other two candidates have indicated they would welcome Johnson.

We wish them well in their legal fight. We need more smart, decent, locally-rooted people participating directly in politics - and we need them especially at the civic level and the state level. We need them on our regulation commissions and utility boards, city councils, police commissions, county governments, and boards of education. We need citizens working locally to create and maintain disciplined organizations focused on Main Street (and the farms), because we know the true measure of the national parties' dedication.

We need local politics much more than we need Cynthia McKinney running for President.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Your Pick Always Wins

There are polls suggesting Senator Joe Biden won the Vice-Presidential infomercial last night. Others feel it was Sarah Palin's show. To be fair, this event was more like a debate than what transpired last week between the two national party candidates.

To declare a winner, though, seems an elusive thing. In a sense, they both won their individual objectives. Governor Palin, whose star has faded somewhat, pulled out an unexpectedly competent performance, demonstrating better preparation here than she did for round of television interviews. She makes a likable evangel for the disasterous religion of supply-side economics. The only problem is, a good performance in a debate doesn't make you right, and so much that came out of her mouth was wrong. On Iraq, she was imbecilic. On health care, she was disingenuous, lying about Obama's plan and dissembling prettily over the cost of McCain's plan.

Biden 'won' by doing no harm to himself or the Illinois Senator. In his hunger to jab at McCain, he made misleading statements about how the Arizona senator has voted on military appropriations and tax bills. No howlers, just the usual unnecessary exaggerations and fudges that would diminish a candidate if anyone had higher expectations.

No surprise that those inclined to Sarah Palin believe she won for her spirited presentation, and those inclined to Joe Biden think he won on "substance." It was still a joint campaign infomercial in a campaign that has been short on sense, restricted to two arrogant national parties who are not compelled to make sense or tell the truth.

But it gave me something to listen to on a long drive, so I am thankful. Preceding the debate, however, was something much more interesting, on the topic of Iran. Have a listen.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Photos: Two Blessing Ceremonies

Buddhist 100-Day Ceremony

Providence Zen Center

23 August 2008

Christian Dedication Ceremony

Living Word Family Church

7 September 2008

Previous post describing these two events here.

Cabaret Voltaire Remains Open

Previously in this space, we addressed the threat against Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire.

The people have spoken, and the voters of Zurich want it to stay open, and don't mind contributing a few cents to keep it around.
We are delighted.

Those Shoestring Folks Are So Nice

First of all, they liked my play enough to produce it. Secondly, they did a nice job. (You can hear it for another day or two on their website, here.) In response to my note of thanks, they wrote back to tell me they had fun producing it - which is the only reason I wrote the thing in the first place, to have some fun.

I was especially pleased with the first half of the play, which moved at a snappy pace just as I hoped. There is a lot of fun dialogue in the first half. In the second half, where things begin to get really weird, it appears I over-wrote and director Jonathan Wind had to make some cuts.

Why, I had so much fun (not to mention learned a thing or two), I have already begun a draft of another play for radio - inspired by the vivid memory of Geraldo Rivera reporting on Hurricane Ike, dancing on a seawall in Galveston as the storm arrived that Thursday night. Idiot. So we're going to have a tremendous storm, an odious reporter, and a leviathan.
Let's give the sound guys another interesting assignment!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

This Blog Is Back On The Air (and An Answer For Blue!)

The brand-new computer had a bad memory chip. Increasingly, I can relate. We had to pack it into a box and ship it back to the manufacturer. Wish some could do that to me - oh wait, that does happen eventually: back to the manufacturer we all go.

During the silence, reader (and blogger) "Blue" had a question: I keep checking back here to see what your opinion of the Friday debate is. I, myself, tend to not side with one party or the other, but the fact is one does have to vote, even if it is an illusion of freedom, so to speak.

What we have are not debates. They are scripted events, in which candidates prepare the same talking points they make in the stump speeches and attack ads, throw in some good jokes, and select phrases that are to be repeated throughout the evening so as to create a sort of subliminal anthem in the minds of the viewers.

We got no new information from the debate. They both managed to look cool and "presidential" even though their styles are plainly different. They both lie with ease. They are both in the thrall of the two national parties that uphold them.

Despite my complete disdain for the two national parties, which I assure you is genuine and well-deserved by both, I plan on voting even if it is rigged. A lot of people like these guys and believe what they say - God bless, please vote for them.

We have other options as well. Two of the "alternative parties" have well-known candidates who served in the Congress longer than Barack Obama has. Check out Bob Barr and Cynthia McKinney. Check out the Constitution Party, too: on the ballot in the 44 states (more than the Greens), with a message a lot of Americans like (scrupulously follow the United States Constitution, with a Christian moral message), and Ron Paul has endorsed their candidate.

More importantly, vote in your local elections. Know who your judges are, your county supervisors, your local lawmakers. Vote for them, or vote 'em out if they need to be shown the door. Don't be afraid to stray from the national parties if a decent, smart, locally-rooted person is running (and they don't sound like an idiot).

For instance, here in New Mexico, I'm leaning towards voting for independent Zack Boatman for the U.S. Senate, and we endorse Rick Lass (a Green) for the Public Regulation Commission.

Anyway, Blue, I'm all for voting even if it is -- well, I wouldn't go so far as to call it the illusion of freedom. LACK of freedom is an illusion. Vote for someone you are proud to vote for, if that's possible, and don't be afraid to "color outside the lines" so to speak.

Think of it as performance art. Be creative. And dare.