Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Eighth Day of Christmas

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[click image to view more days of christmas]

Monday, December 01, 2008

Patrick's Diamond

We found the diamond on a Saturday. We were walking with our heads down against the sleet, and there it was, right in front of us. Laying on the sidewalk next to a pile of snow the plows had pushed up over the curb.

It only took us a second to realize what it was, when Patrick snatched it up before another car could drive by, and throw black slush on it. “A diamond! It’s a diamond.” Mom had a diamond ring once, but this one was much bigger. Being the oldest, I was naturally the authority in found treasures. I told Patrick we should take the diamond to a jewelry store, and sell it.

“You mean for money?” The Possibilities: new coats; warm boots; Candy. A Car.

We both hated walking in Omaha. Patrick, especially. I’d grown out of last year’s boots, and he hadn’t yet grown into them.
~
When we first came to Omaha, it was September. Mom and Dad had just split up, and she’d found us a place there to live and a job, too. Dad drove all us kids and our clothes there. And he let us take most of the furniture.

At first, I didn’t wanna move there, but when I saw South 14th street, I knew things might be okay. There was something almost holy about the way our new street looked that afternoon. Almost all the houses were made of warm, red brick. It’s not like I’d never seen brick houses before. Lots of our houses at Lincoln Air Base were made of brick. But I had never seen this many houses packed in a row. And there was brick everywhere. The streets, even the sidewalks were paved with bricks.

And then, every single house had a tree in front of it. All lined up straight, one after the other like they were at a dance. The trees were very old. Some of them reached right across the street, and touched the trees on the other side. The leaves were red, orange, and pink. And the sun touched down on us underneath, only after it had fallen through all those leaves. Red was my favorite colour so I decided this was a sign that life wasn’t gonna be so bad there, after all.

But now it was December, and everything around us was hard and grey. Winter had turned the brick houses mean and bloody, and the bumpy brick street and sidewalks were smothered with a grey slime that people in Omaha called ‘snow.’ Downtown, concrete sidewalks followed us everywhere. They bridged bleak stone buildings to ugly dark streets. And they slapped at the bottoms of our feet every time we took a step. We didn’t have a car, and the bus cost too much so we had to walk everywhere. Sometimes, Patrick’s feet would get so cold, he could barely feel them. Then when we’d finally get inside someplace, they’d start to hurt him so horribly, and he’d start to sniff. But he wouldn’t cry ‘cause then Mom would cry, and Patrick couldn’t stand to see that.
~
But this was a Saturday, and Mom didn’t have to work. We didn’t have to go to school, so we’d headed towards YMCA to play. Standing there with that diamond, we were only two blocks from the jeweler’s. We knew this exactly because we passed it every weekday on the way to the sitter’s.

It took less than a minute to get to the store. It was all lit up on the outside with green and red Christmas lights. The door was wide and covered with a sheet of pink copper, polished shiny, with 4 small framed windows near the top. Beside the door, in a large bay window, there were diamonds and gold watches perched with shiny rings and necklaces of green and red sparkle.

I pushed open the heavy door for Patrick, and he went in first, holding our diamond in his mittened hands, cupping it the way he would a butterfly or a lightening-bug. The floor inside was carpeted in a deep moss green and the room was filled with china dishes. There were goblets and vases of cut glass with little rainbows shining in them. It seemed like there was light everywhere and we could hear the Nutcracker Suite. We started to feel toasty warm right away.

There were two round men bent over a glass cabinet whispering. Behind them was a grandfather clock like the one on Captain Kangaroo, but more elegant.

“What do we do?” Patrick whispered to me.

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t, now that we were here. I’d been with my mother the week before, when she’d sold her wedding rings but that place had been filled with guns, old push-mowers, and picture frames hanging from the ceilings tangled with gas lanterns and fishing poles. Nobody there whispered, except Mom.

The man who’d bought her rings that day wore a green plaid shirt, and he had dirty fingernails. And when he smiled, I saw dark stuff on his teeth. He gave Mom two 10-dollar bills for her rings. First she said no, but then, all of a sudden she made a smile at him, and even thanked him.

But these men here, looking in the glass cabinet, wore suits of soft grey flannel. And their hands were pink and plump. They smelled like tobacco and wool. And peppermint.

One of them turned and saw us. He smiled and his cheeks made little round apples. “May I help you?”

“We have a diamond to sell.” Patrick carefully opened his mittens to show the man.

“Well now, where did you get that?” He came closer, and bent over to see what Patrick had. He had to bend a ways too, ‘cause Patrick only came to the middle of his thigh.

“We found it on the sidewalk by the Safeway. Do you wanna buy it?” Patrick stretched out his arms to raise the diamond higher for the man to get a better look.

“Well, let’s see.” The man reached inside his suit and took out what looked to be a very short telescope made of silver. He lifted the diamond out of Patrick's cupped mitten, and peered at it using the baby telescope. He pressed one end up against his right eye and held the diamond almost right against the other end. “Hmmm.” He furrowed his brow in concentration. He put the little telescope on the glass table and picked up a short, skinny metal pick. He scratched at the diamond and sort of nodded his head. “Hmmm.”

“Have you tried cutting glass with it?” He looked at each of us. We shook our heads in unison but said nothing. Is that what rich people did?


“Well, diamonds are so strong that they can cut glass. I not sure if this is a diamond, but one sure test would be to try cutting glass with it.”

“You mean like a window?” I asked. Wasn’t that against the law?

“Yes, like a window. Try it on this cabinet, here.” He swept his hand to the glass counter beside him. He handed the diamond to me. I passed it to Patrick. He stepped up to the glass, and scraped the diamond across it. Nothing. He tried it again. Not a mark. He turned to look at me and then down at his diamond. “Maybe you just need to put sharper corners in it.”

“I’m afraid that wouldn’t work, son.” The man in the suit answered.

“You might still need it, though, sir.” I offered. “It’s really pretty, and it would make a nice necklace for your window.” Patrick looked up hopefully.


“I’m afraid not. It would be too soft and might break.” He went on to explain that since the diamond couldn’t cut glass, it must actually be a big rock of salt, giving us a fancy name. And he told it was used to melt snow. We tasted it then, and discovered that it did taste like salt.

Patrick wiped off the shiny rock with his mitten, and put it in his coat pocket. I looked down and saw that the snow melting from our shoes was making a wet spot on the fuzzy carpet. I put my arm around Patrick and started pulling him to the door. The heat in the room was starting to make my eyes sting, and Patrick was starting to sniff.

“Thank you, sir. We’re real sorry we bothered you.” I said, inching closer towards the door.


“That’s okay, Miss. One could easily mistake such a pretty kernel for a diamond. It does sparkle. Would you kids like to stay for a while, and look around? We have some hot chocolate and peppermint sticks.”

“No, thank you.” I replied. “We gotta get goin’.” I took my arm away from Patrick long enough to pull open the big copper door. Cold air curled around us, and swept away the smells of the jeweler’s shop. We could hear it swishing shut behind us as we pushed back out into stinging sleet shooting down from Omaha’s flat winter sky.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Did It Stop the Pain?

This morning, I'm sitting in front of my laptop, near a large window, through which I can see the gray-shrouded Saturday after a Black Friday. And I'm thinking again about the death of one Jdimytai Damour, whom, as you are likely aware by now, was trampled to death. Desperate shoppers literally busted the doors of a Wal-Mart and, in a rashness born of their sheer consumer panic, they trod a man to death under their feet. The recriminations have begun. The police have begun to analyze the security camera footage, searching for guilty shoppers, while those selfsame people likely go about their business, confident either in the incompetence of the authorities to find them or secure in their feeling that so many people (other than themselves, natch) are responsible that none are. And many people that were nowhere near the scene wrap themselves in sanctimony, decrying the savagery of unreasoning cupidity, relying on distance to hide from the decisions that they (and I, too) have made, and for which others have quite probably paid with their lives.

"How could anyone be so desperate for a cheap digital video disc player, a widescreen television set or a substandard - but yet must-have - toy from a sweatshop in some Godforsaken East Asian factory town that they'd fatally overrun an innocent, hardworking, man?" The moralists ask - waiting until they're sure we're watching before they allow themselves to wring their hands piteously.

But, as we all know, intense pain can make one do what one otherwise wouldn't. For those of us who can't attest to this from personal experience, no less an authority than the Bush Administration tells us so. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have thought that the pain of thinking oneself deprived of affordable consumer goods would have ranked high enough to allow one to justify killing a man, but we all have our breaking points. Just as we all have our own tolerance for pretense. :) (And, yes, I am grateful that yours is high.) And isn't the whole reason for Wal-Mart (and the others, for that matter) to exist to salve the existential suffering that comes from realizing that you cannot claim your dignity or legitimacy unless you can demonstrate that you have enough of the right things?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Populism and Pretense

Congress and the media have been making a big deal out of the fact that the chief executives of the Big 3 automakers flew to Washington, hat in hand, to ask for bailouts in their private corporate jets. Bully for them.

But this is really little more than an exercise in populist hypocrisy. Were I a banker, and a family came to me to have their mortgage renegotiated, and I turned them down, because they had driven to the bank in their own car, rather than taking the bus, whose side would the press and the politicians be on?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Great Bit of Snark...

Courtesy of The Economist.

"And Barack Obama, committed to uniting America, could defuse the nation's culture wars by purchasing an alternative homeland for those of his countrymen who want more use of the death penalty, less gun control and no gay marriage. A slice of Saudi Arabia's empty quarter would do nicely; there's plenty of space and the new occupants would have lots in common with the locals."

"O give me a home..." The Economist. November 15th, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Beginning of the End

FiveThirtyEight.com tells the story of two Obama supporters who were nearly assaulted for showing up at a McCain rally in Florida.

"I had a guy tell me he was gonna kill me," reported one of the men.
This has gotten out of hand. The point that Bill Bishop has been making over at The Big Sort, that we are separating ourselves into mutually exclusive groups, is becoming more and more apparent.
"We read apart, live apart, watch apart, blog apart, and drive apart; we are one country that lacks any shared experiences or, it seems, common purpose."
Bill Bishop

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Abraham Lincoln, 1858
Lincoln, however, did not expect the Union to be dissolved - the house wasn't going to fall. He understood that one side or the other would prevail, and that, in effect, a monoculture would come into effect. It took a war, but the culture of slaveholding was extinguished, and the United States became a Free nation.

Will today's Liberals and Conservatives wage war to eliminate their opposition? And if they don't, how will we return to shared experience or a common purpose? A war with outsiders has never, despite what some people have said, brought this about. During the Second World War, European Axis prisoners of was routinely received better treatment than did black soldiers, or Japanese-American citizens, at the hands of the United States. The war against Communism in Veit Nam seemed to do little or nothing to make us into a single society, accepting of all its members. And a woeful lack of trained speakers of Arabic to help wage the War on Terror didn't keep the military from expelling homosexuals with required skills.

I don't claim to have a spectacular imagination, but I don't know what else would work. As the partisan atmosphere becomes more and more toxic (as people simply recirculate their own air more and more), we've moved beyond looking for solutions to simply looking to assign blame. While it is important to understand the conditions that brought us to the point where we are now, the public floggings of the people who nurtured those conditions (while it may be satisfying) does nothing to change those conditions. We are reaching a point where partisan bickering will take us to a point where we beat each other with fiddles while our home burns around us.

Anyone who has ever attempted to get a quarter-dozen people to agree on all the toppings for a pizza understands the impossible task that lies before anyone who would attempt to forge 300,000,000+ people into a single cultural entity. In very real ways, our society is only as harmonious as it is because we stopped engaging with one another around many important issues.

If there is one thing that is a strike against both Senators McCain and Obama, it's that they didn't have the sense to walk away while they still could. I suspect that whichever of them wins, a year from now, they'll wish they hadn't. Senator Obama is likely to get some time to work with things - he's likely to have a Democratic Congress to back him up - in so far as a Congress run by Democrats can do anything in concert. But the Republicans aren't going to be content to wait out their exile in the political wilderness - sabotage will be the order of the day. You could make the point that even the most strident Republican would back a good idea that came from the other side - but once you've become convinced that simply the fact that it originated with the other side makes it a bad idea, monkeywrenching goes from being contrary to a sacred duty.

In the meantime, the house will become further divided against itself. And I expect that this time, it will fall.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Are We There Yet?

I don't think that I've been this desperate for time to pass since I was a child. I can't wait for this election to be over, the winner to be inaugurated, and their first several months in office done. Just as long as it's over. I've had it up to here with both Presidential campaigns. The moronic sniping and countercharges, the bogus and manufactured outrage, the ever more blatant disregard for facts while pandering to the "greater truths" that partisan supporters hold up as reality (while pressing their fingers into their ears, and loudly singing off-key to avoid anything that might clash with that) - all of these things have left me completely disgusted with what passes for the Republic around here. It's gotten to the point where I find myself going out of my way to avoid political advertising (which is good, because it also allows me to dodge Washington State's rampantly annoying Governor's race).

It's becoming more and more difficult to resist the urge to simply not get involved. Spend the fourth of November playing Zoids Assault or shopping for new shoes or something. But, while I hate the conspiratorial tone this has, I do get the feeling that this is exactly what "they" want me to do. The primaries are done, and the campaign apparati* of Senators McCain and Obama are done looking for new votes. Now it's all about energizing/terrorizing core constituencies into turning out on election day, and introducing doubts about the other guy into those people who aren't blindly partisan one way or the other. And the purpose of those doubts, when it all comes down to it, is to keep people from voting. It's probably the single best method of voter suppression ever invented.

I don't want to reward the trend towards negativity by not voting, but I'm fed up enough with the major-party campaigns that I can't muster up any real enthusiasm or even desire to see either one of these fruitnobs elected President. On the Nth party front, there are a few candidates, but none that really capture the imagination.

But it's not yet October, so I have an entire month to see if I can find some sense of interest in the outcome of the election and revive it. I suspect that in the end, I'm going to wind up voting either for Senator Obama or Senator McCain - whomever my research shows has the least number of outright falsehoods to his name. I have a hunch as to who that will be, but we'll see if I'm right. I know this is an odd cause to be a single-issue voter around, but I guess I'm not buying that getting into the office is important enough for deception to be appropriate, but nothing that one does in office could be considered worth lying about. But then again, I know that politics is not a career that entirely honest people can ever really excel at.

* Yes, I know that apparati isn't the plural of "apparatus." But it should be.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

bus

[Thoughts on an old essay in Today's Pictures, here.]

I love pictures of buses. I think there are subtle differences in modern photography between buses, trains, and cars. Cars are about a kind of freedom of the road -- individuality, usually, but sometimes selfishness or self-imposed isolation. Trains convey a feeling of industry and motion over long distances. Bus pictures are different. The bus signifies local concerns. Interactions on buses tend to be more mundane -- more personal (not in the sense of individual, but more in the sense of intimate, close to quotidian life, ordinary). Photos of bedraggled buses are interesting in much the way bedraggled people are interesting -- there's more texture.

I suppose the burning bus is the exception. But even then, a burning bus is shocking in part because it's such a rupture of everyday life.

At any rate, I'd rather ride a train than a bus, but I'd rather look at pictures of buses.

rain in august

When I lived in Seattle, I biked like a demon through its jagged topography. I couldn't afford a car, and the stereotype is true that most of the year Seattle is moist, its roads unamenable to braking. I purchased instead a Gore-Tex (TM) jacket, and received free with my purchase a long-sleeved T-shirt that bore the opening stanza from Robert Creeley's "Rain":

All night the sound
had come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

Over the next two years, I wore that shirt to some of the most beautiful places I could imagine. I wore it while playing frisbee in Volunteer Park, a hill in the center of the city with a 360 degree view of mountains on a clear day. On most days it was a bath of mud, and I would throw myself horizontal in air to catch frisbees that some gust had suspended at the last moment, so that they and I were weightless, and snatching one was like picking a blackberry. I wore it hiking on Mt. Rainier, to the meadows at 9000 feet that only reveal themselves a month of every year. I wore it to alpine lakes, and I wore it while playing "Risk" in the city's coffeeshops, because there's nothing like cotton comfort when rolling a few armies into Irkutsk.

Naturally, Creeley's stanza worked its way into each of these moments. I would look out the window, or sit on the sidelines, or break for a drink, and the lines would come back to me, for in the same way the words invoke the soft repetition of rain (You don't believe? Listen for the n's...), the actual rain for me came to conjure the words, so that long before I read the whole of the poem, I was hearing Creeley everywhere.

Great poetry for me is more than an experience of reading. It is a process of remembering. It's a little like Goethe's Faust, who longed for a moment that would be so beautiful that he would wish to suspend time. If I find language striking, it works in me, and I feel joy at its unexpected resurfacing. I want it to linger. It's not just that there's this poem out there, "Rain," by Robert Creeley, that will yield itself to close reading -- and let me emphasize that I also enjoy the line-by-line parsing of poetry -- it's that there is a "Rain" that I carry around, a rain in august, that shapes the way I encounter the world.

If reading is that idiosyncratic, it's hard to have a debate. It's hard to say that I've really understood the poem, or that I get what is happening. It's entirely possible that I have missed the point entirely. And yet I think such connections and miscues are essential to what happens when I read. Part of the power of poetry is its capacity to be endlessly misunderstood. I could meet another person, April, who lived in a desert and whose life with Creeley was on of intense longing and a sense of never being totally fulfilled. We would agree about what the words say, but rain in april would seem to be a different work.

Or even the august I describe here seems a bit foreign to the person who is now writing this post, a decade after the Seattle sojourn, with the T-shirt in question long since donated in some clothing drive. In this way, my wholly individual, partisan, twisted view of the first stanza of rain raises an important question, one that I will probably mull for decades:

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon,
so often? ...

It is in this way that I know that Creeley has written a perfect poem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Women in War II: American Soldiers in Iraq

(Second in a series attempting to shame XX Factor bloggers into writing more about the effects of war on women).

From the Washington Post:

"We live and work with the infantry," said Maj. Mary Prophit, 42, who heads a four-person civil affairs team with a Stryker battalion in Mosul. An Army reservist and librarian from Glenoma, Wash., Prophit handles security duties from the hatch of a Stryker armored vehicle, watching houses during searches and returning fire when shot at. "Civil affairs teams have to be prepared to perform infantry functions, because at any time we could be diverted," she said.

In January, Prophit was delivering kerosene heaters to a Mosul school when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb as her convoy passed, fatally wounding three Iraqi soldiers. Prophit moved to shield the medic treating the wounded, firing at insurgents who were shooting at them from a mosque across the street. "Women in combat is no longer an argument," she said matter-of-factly at her camp near the Mosul air field. "There is no rear area."

Martial virtues – bravery, strength, power, glory, camaraderie – although never the exclusive province of men, definitely have been gendered male. That is changing in part because of the efforts of women soldiers fighting and dying for their country. Even those of us who believe the war to be misguided still claim to support the troops. I would argue that a key element of supporting the troops is not forgetting who they are. More than in any previous war, they are women.

The deaths of women soldiers -- more than a hundred since the beginning of the war -- can be particularly poignant. Sgt Princess Samuels died in 2007 in a mortar attack. Her mother said, “I want to know why I’m planning a funeral while George Bush is planning a wedding.” Samuels and others are honored at The Mother's Day Project, an attempt to construct a memorial for fallen women soldiers. Note that “fallen” in 2008 means something very different than it would have in 1958.

Numerous reports suggest that American women at war face the problem of rape. I do not know how to evaluate the accuracy of these reports, but they seem worth discussing (to be fair, Dahlia Lithwick did mention one incident here). Even the possibility of rape suggests that the way women experience war can differ from men.

All of this raises a hosts of questions. What justifies the policy of keeping women out of combat positions when women are clearly experiencing combat anyway? Does the presence of women change the way war is conducted? Do women soldiers change the way we talk about differences between men and women? When we throw out platitudes about "supporting the troops," is there anything we can do to support these troops?

Perhaps the XX factor bloggers will have something to say.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Women at War I: South Ossetia

(First of a series attempting to shame XX factor bloggers into paying attention to war.)

Prior to the Russian intervention there were the refugees: people fleeing South Ossetia. It is a cliche of war: women and children flee, men fight. Here's one story from The Guardian:

Alisa Mamiyeva, 26, a teacher at the arts lyceum in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, said: "I came in the boot of a car. Georgian snipers were firing at us from the forest. I heard the bullets hitting the chassis.

"My brother stayed to fight. Our grandparents' home was turned to rubble. We don't know where they are. Nothing is left of their village. It was totally destroyed by rockets and tank fire."

One thing struck me in the Guardian story that seemed perhaps a little different from the cliches -- many of the women quoted in the stories are professionals. They have jobs: teacher, lawyer, hairdresser. To be sure, there are also images of elderly women peering into space , but much of the early reporting of the conflict involved women and children getting onto buses, leaving their careers as well as their husbands and homes, and fleeing into Russia.

Monday, July 07, 2008

how I drive

I'm a macabre guy; I drive along I-95 wondering how I could die. What fellow citizen will fail to see me in the blind spot? Which guardrail might play the catcher's mitt to my rented Pontiac? What piece of this car might stick, slip, snap, skip, or fall off? Would the traffic report include my name while explaining the thirty minute to one hour delays? Should I consider alternate routes?

I've come to wonder about how I came to drive with the Grim Reaper riding shotgun. The only other time I recall this particular terror was in Taiwan, where I fled buses. They hurdled in at us (we who had been waiting in the monsoon for a ride to some other, less aromatic, corner of town) and we scattered and tumbled like dice on the pavement to avoid the homicidal drivers, the reckless manslaughterers who thrilled at our kinesthetic fear. Then the bus stopped, and we boarded, happier to be part of the irresistible force of the vehicle rather than splattered onto some immovable object. That terror was mostly rational. But I assess the likelihood of my brakes failing here, twenty miles from the rental counter, as alert level orange, even though my ribs are telling me: "RED, RED, RED -- Close the borders!"

I also remember fearlessness -- crossing the highway at Wachapreague (a hamlet on the Eastern Shore) in pursuit of a shade of green I had never seen before. I remember diving into Nice traffic, thinking that if I died, it would be against a backdrop of Chagall, sardines, olive oil, and lavender. There are people I love for whom I would spare no organ or injury.

My conclusion: beauty is that which makes me willing to die. Ugliness is that which makes me fear death. Black asphalt brings me closer to death, and so when I drive, I drive scared.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Shills in Snipes' Feathers

John Dickerson, over at Slate, has penned an interesting article claiming that the disaffected Clinton supporters who are now planning to cross party lines aren't as powerful as they're being made out to be. He likens the search for them to a snipe hunt - albeit one in which your quarry seems to be everywhere rather than nowhere.

Personally, I suspect that the "I'm so pissed that Senator Clinton didn't get the nomination so I'm going to vote for McCain" voter isn't as numerous as they're made out to be. I'll bet they're actually a fairly rare bird, if for no other reason than many of them are really Republican voters in the first place.

Dickerson is likely correct - the anger and hurt feelings over Obama WILL fade. So someone needs to stoke the fire. And on the internet, no one knows that you're a Republican. Let's face it. If someone were to come across this weblog at random, as far they're concerned, I could be Howard Dean as easily as I could be Karl Rove. Or, for that matter, John Dickerson. Would you really know any more about some random person who sets up www.ObamaStoleTheNomination.org? (No, it's not intended to be a real site. I made it up.)

As movements begin to shed members, a snowball effect begins. As it gets lonelier and lonelier, the exodus gets faster and faster. But if you have a number of people keeping the lights on, and making sure that there's always someone home, you can slow the rush for the exits.

This isn't to say that everyone who stomps around complaining about Hillary not getting the top spot or being chosen as VP is actually a Republican. I suspect that there really are some people who are so mad they can't see straight and are willing to open up a can of worms that will be very, VERY difficult to close later on. Just like I suspect that there really are people who see Senator Obama as hopelessly unqualified, and honestly believe that Senator McCain will do a better job for the nation. After all, despite all the flack that Nader took in 2000, it was Democrats for Bush that put him over the top in Florida - they outnumbered the Nader voters. And not all Democrats voted for Kerry/Edwards, either. Anyone willing to cross party lines in 2004 is likely to be perfectly willing to do so now.

But the GOP would be a bunch of idiots not to throw some resources towards ensuring that as many Clinton partisans remain disaffected as they can. It's what negative campaigning is all about. And here you have a ready-made negative campaign, and a constituency that is already receptive to it. They don't really need them to vote Republican in the fall; they'll likely be happy just to have them stay home, and hopefully browbeat family members into doing the same. Those that do actually cross over are a bonus. A few thousand votes in one or two battleground states could make all the difference. And the costs are minimal. It's not like Senator McCain is going to have to turn pro-choice as payment or anything. And if it works, it becomes the gift that keeps on giving. Clintonistas that think that after four more years of a GOP White House that all will be forgiven, and the feelings of betrayal will be submerged "for the good of the party" have half the sense Dog gave a cabbage. Many of the young people who went crazy for Obama are likely to have simply been turned off, and the Obama die hards will likely have no problem doing onto others.

In light of all that, just because it looks like a snipe, walks like a snipe and grouses like a snipe - I'd think twice before claiming to be sure that it's a snipe.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

About that vast media conspiracy...

I’m going to ask you to suspend disbelief for a few minutes. Read what I have to say, click on at least some of the links, and consider what I’m saying with a fresh mind.

We all know Jacob Weisberg - the outgoing editor of Slate (actually now promoted in the WaPo organization). Well, we also know Jake's dear friend from childhood, Malcolm Gladwell.


Malcolm Gladwell has made quite a name for himself. His mother was a social psychologist, presumably instilling in him an interest in social dynamics, because it's on the topic of social dynamics - more specifically attitude change - that he's had his greatest publishing success, writing best-selling books such as Blink and The Tipping Point. These days, he's a staff writer at The New Yorker.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell discusses cultural memes at some length - a term I believe was originally coined by Richard Dawkins. Memes are cultural beliefs that one might consider contagious, and are modeled along the same lines and biological constructs. We transmit them to each other (and they tend to evolve), and we use to make a unified sense of the world in a social context. They are closely related to the concept of framing, which I suppose you might consider a special type of proto-meme. (This is not a specialty area of mine, so forgive me if I mash up some of the details.)

Framing is an issue with broad application in the field of politics - in fact, there was an attempt recently to develop a liberal think tank devoted to framing issues - something to counteract the work of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (click on that second link and you'll see an article authored by Ann Applebaum - a name that should sound familiar, and not the only Slate writer with links to the organization) - both conservative think tanks who've already been active in developing frames to be utilized in political discourse.

It goes without saying that politics is an avid interest for Weisberg, and judging by the relative slant in coverage on Slate (and there are perhaps other indications), it's reasonable to assume he is a fan of Barack Obama. The question is whether or not Weisberg, with the technical assistance of Gladwell, is also a political activist.

It's surprising, to an outside observer like myself, that Hillary Clinton did not pick up more steam as the American feminist's candidate of choice - there is certainly precedent. Also surprising has been the majority of the content of the XX-factor blog - a blog one might expect would cover issues from a feminist perspective, but whose coverage has been anything but - even from (previously, in my case) well-respected writers such as Dahlia Lithwick.

So the conspiracy is this: the XX-factor blog was created deliberately to counteract a cultural meme - that of Hillary, as the champion of women. If so, judging by a startling (for an ostensibly liberal site) number of posts on the XX-factor fray, I'd say it's been a very successful project. Remember - this was a very close race, and memes can be powerful agents of attitude change in a population.

So if I was correct, what kind of conspiracy is it? Is it the vast right-wing conspiracy previously alluded to by Clinton, and associated with the conservative groups we know are affiliated with some Slate contributors? Or would this be motivated by liberal concerns, perhaps associated with groups like the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, or Moveon.org.

You've got me - this is as far as I can go. Well, except to note a couple of other puzzling things (perhaps to entertain Apollonius, if he happens to be around).

George Soros is a billionaire philanthropist who provided substantial funding for the Center for American Progress, Moveon.org, and who is rumored (though he denies it) to have funded Media Matters through the Democracy Alliance or The Progressive Media Project) as well. He has been one of the primary financial backers for Democratic candidates for a number of years. Though he's been a supporter of the Clintons in the past, this year he's backed Obama - and remember, he's cozy with Moveon.org - Howard Dean's grassroots organization, which represents the now-dominant faction in the Democratic party - victors in the philosophical dispute with the Clintonistas.

Did I happen to mention that, in addition to providing substantial funding for Obama, that Soros has been a chief contributor to McCain as well? Or that he was allegedly a prime mover in the passage of the McCain-Feingold act, which makes it easier for him to wield political influence relatively unimpeded, through his media organizations (and which apparently served to alienate McCain from conservative elements of the Republican party)?

Oh, and as a last aside, did I mention that Malcolm Gladwell is an opponent of nationalized health care? Just sayin'.

I feel a little like Homer Simpson; "Aliens, bio-duplication, nude conspiracies... Oh my God! Lyndon LaRouche was right!" It's a novel feeling - I've never been a fan of conspiracy theories.

However, the idea of a coordinated media campaign in support of a single candidate is not farfetched, and the implausible character of the XX-factor blog, on it's own, begs for rational explanation.

Well that’s it. If you find this argument compelling, feel free to repost elsewhere. Please. (Though attributed to me, if you would.) If not, I hope you found it entertaining reading. But if I am right, then the only antidote I know for such manipulation is inoculation. As sympathetic to a political cause as I might be, there is a world of difference between framing taxes as an expression of social responsibility, and using sexist language to undermine the credibility of the first female candidate with a legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination. I find such tactics reprehensible – regardless of who they are used against.

Cross-posted to Best of the Fray, Fraywatch, and the XX-factor blog.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sex and the Committee

One of the things about living in Washington State, as opposed to Washington, D.C., is that we've reverted back to hearing about the primary campaign as if it were taking place on another planet (not that shipping this entire mess off to Neptune on the next NASA flight would be a bad idea). Catching the punditry that surrounds the election requires either getting up early on Sunday, or watching Fox News (or another cable news outlet), neither of which is really on my agenda these days. The net result of all of this is that most of the complaining that the Clinton crowd has been doing about the media's treatment of her gender has been largely abstract.

But I was reading today's papers online, and this caught my eye.

"One woman, wearing a blue 'Team Hillary' shirt, shoved a man in a suit and tie with a small Obama button on his lapel. 'We just blew the election!' another woman shouted. 'McCain in '08! McCain in '08!', a woman yelled from the back of the room. 'No-bama! No-bama!'"
"Dems seat delegates, but ignite new anger"
It doesn't take a hardcore feminist to get the feeling that someone has a problem with loud-mouthed, "uppity" women - or to get the idea that readers might wind up thinking that the only shouting was coming from female Clinton supporters. The idea that the meeting was such a one-sided affair didn't make any sense to me, even with the understanding of the culture of political entitlement that has grown up around Senator Clinton's candidacy. (Mainly because I find it hard to believe that there isn't a similar, if less vocal, culture around Senator Obama's candidacy.) So I jumped over the he Seattle Times crosstown rival, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, to see if they used the same story, or had a different perspective. It turns out they went with an Associated Press story instead.
"'We just blew the election!' a woman in the audience shouted. The crowd was divided between cheering Obama supporters and booing Clinton supporters."
"Florida, Michigan delegates will get half-votes"
Okay, that's a little better. At least you get the idea that the Obama supporters were something more than passive punching bags.

In addition to a photograph of one "Joh Winkleman of Sunnyside, N.Y.," with his fist in the air, both articles have this in common. You never see references to men shouting or being disruptve - it's either a "woman" or an "audience member." Mr. Winkleman was apparently the only man in attendance with something loud to say - although we aren't told what it was.

I have some difficulty believing that it was that difficult to pick disruptive/angry men out of the crowd. And it's not like this would be the first time that women have had something to say about something (which would somewhat justify the exclusive focus on them). I doubt that anyone in an editorial position (at the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Seattle Post-Intelligencer or the Seattle Times) would concede the presentation of the stories is, if not overtly sexist, easily mistaken for such. On the other hand, yes, I find the stories somewhat sexist - but I'm a guy. Perhaps women would look at these stories and say: "Sexism? Where?"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"I am never again voting for a male candidate."

What (some) feminists are saying:

“This election represents a turning point for me. I am changing my registration to the Green Party. And I am never again voting for a male candidate except in the unlikely event that a male candidate meets the conditions I outline below. I will vote for pro-choice women from any party…” –V (full text below)

“No more votes for men. No more. My entire professional/public life has been about, because of, by, for, and of "men," and now I'm finished.” -TH

“Maintaining a unified party front is not my responsibility as a voter; it's the party's responsibility.” -E

“In the electoral college system my vote means nothing and I'll probably cast it for McKinney, but I'm doing what I can for Obama and/or Clinton in the purple state 20 minutes north of here.” -M

“This is the hill I am prepared to die on. I'm not voting for men anymore.” -S

“There are 16/100 women U.S. Senators.

There are 87/535 women representatives.

There are 8/50 women governors in 2008.

There have been 0/43 U.S. Presidents.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I do not believe things cannot change. This is my attempt at changing them”. –TH

“I may change my registration to Green, too. I think you might be better off doing that as an initial move. It's going to be a lot more obvious to the Dems that women are deserting them if they start registering en masse for the greens than simply by voting green.” -A

“VP? Many think she should turn it down. Women have had to work subordinate to less qualified junior men too often. It usually isn’t a good idea, and I don’t see this situation as an exception.” –O

“I urge [those of you] who think that feminists shouldn't vote with their feet and EXIT from the Democratic Party's base to think again. This primary campaign has made it clear that the male leaders of the Democratic Party feel they are under no obligation to feminist women who make up part of the Democratic base.” -Vera

— — —

“I do not care which person is your candidate. I don't care what you think of Hillary Clinton as a potential president. What is being done in the press is akin to a pack of rabid 7th graders trying to haze the nerdy girl in school simply because they can. It has nothing to do with her qualifications -- it has to do with gender, and these lemming pundits think that it's perfectly acceptable because everyone is doing it, including women like Andrea Mitchell and Anne Kornblut.
Treat her with disrespect simply because she is female, then you are treating every woman, everywhere, with disrespect. And we are not putting up with that shit.” -- Christy Hardin Smith, Firedoglake

— — —

Deborah Tannen: The Hillary Factor – why she can’t win.

— — —

From the Washington Post interview with Hillary Clinton (2008/5/19):

Q. One of the stories that has been well documented over and over again is basically how you've been treated by the media. Can you talk about that a little bit, because I get the idea that it's really pissed off a lot of women.

A. "I think it has. I think it's been deeply offensive to millions of women.

Q. Do you think this has been a particularly racist campaign?

A. I do not. I think this has been a positive, civil campaign. I think that both gender and race have been obviously a part of it because of who we are and every poll I've seen show more people would be reluctant to vote for a woman to vote for an African American, which rarely gets reported on either. The manifestation of some of the sexism that has gone on in this campaign is somehow more respectable or at least more accepted. And I think there should be equal rejection of the sexism and the racism when and if it ever raises its ugly head. But it does seem as though the press at least is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by comments and reactions of people who are nothing but misogynists.

Q. Isn't that how it's always been though.

A. Oppression of women and discrimination against women is universal. You can go to places in the world where there are no racial distinctions except everyone is joined together in their oppression of women. The treatment of women is the single biggest problem we have politically and socially in the world. If you look at the extremism and the fundamentalism, it is all about controlling women, at its base. The idea that we would have a presidential campaign in which so much of what has occurred that has been very sexist would be just shrugged off I think is a very unfortunate commentary about the lack of seriousness that should be applied to any kind of discrimination or prejudice. I have spent my entire life trying to stand up for civil rights and women's rights and human rights and I abhor wherever it is discrimination is present.

— — —

Using my vote as a protest

“[…] I'm a registered Democrat and I've never voted for a Republican. I've also sent money, every year since I could first afford it, to the Democratic Party. I've sent money to every Democratic presidential candidate for the past several elections. When I worked on Capital Hill, I worked for a Democrat. I worked in the campaigns of two Democratic candidates (male, naturally).

This election represents a turning point for me. I am changing my registration to the Green Party. And I am never again voting for a male candidate except in the unlikely event that a male candidate meets the conditions I outline below. I will vote for pro-choice women from any party.

I feel as though I've spent most of my life working for men, helping them to advance their careers and obtain promotions and raises that I seldom see. My ideas have been appropriated, I've seen twenty- and thirty-something CEOs spend their start-up's money on questionable entertainment (guess what kind), and I've reported to many men who didn't have my smarts OR my experience. When I worked for a member of the House of Representatives, I was constantly harassed, culminating in the day I was locked in a closet and told that I couldn't come out until I "showed my legs" (I always wore pants, you see). That's the main reason I left Washington, many years ago, and decided that a political career was not for me.

I thought my eyes were open. But this past year has opened my eyes wider. I had truly underestimated the amount of woman-hating that the combined media and political punditry of our culture could produce.

So here's what I expect of the party to which I have shown allegiance all these years. I expect the leaders of the Democratic Party to stand up and loudly decry and reject the misogyny we've seen in this primary campaign. Barack Obama will soon be the leader of the party. I expect him to speak out and show that he understands that misogyny is a huge problem. I expect him to serve the women of this country, especially the women who have been hurt and disappointed by this primary campaign, by pointing out sexism and misogyny whenever and wherever it shows up. I need to see some sign that he gets it.

Here are the conditions under which I'd vote for a male candidate: He must give a speech similar to Hillary Clinton's statement to the UN's fourth world conference on women, in which she proclaimed that "women's rights are human rights." He must object, loudly, publicly, and often, when some misogynist sexist media tool refers to a woman as a bitch, or compares her to a nagging ex-wife, scolding mom, or punitive schoolteacher, or comments on her clothing, hair, thighs, age, or lack of "femininity," or suggests that she's got male organs, or says she is too aggressive, too argumentative, or too ambitious. In short, I will only support a male candidate who shows me that he understands that misogyny is poisoning our political discourse.

Whatever one thinks of Hillary Clinton, she is a leader of the Democratic Party and has worked as hard or harder than anyone on its behalf. She has given up a lot to lead a public life. The nearly all-male Democratic Party leadership owes it to her to express indignation at the way she has been treated by commentators in the press, television, and Internet, and by individuals within the party and within some campaign organizations.

If the nearly all-male Democratic Party leaders do not indicate in some effective way that they understand and reject a system by which women leaders are attacked, mocked, and undermined, then they do not deserve the support they have had from feminists, and I hope that millions of women depart, en masse, from the Democratic Party.” –Vera


“I urge [those of you] who think that feminists shouldn't vote with their feet and EXIT from the Democratic Party's base to think again. This primary campaign has made it clear that the male leaders of the Democratic Party feel they are under no obligation to feminist women who make up part of the Democratic base. Feminists can always be counted on to suck it up and vote Democratic. But I think feminists have got to get angrier, make that anger visible, and become a lot more strategic.

California is a perfect place to start. Obama will carry California. He doesn't need the votes of radical women like myself to do that. I am free to use my vote for another purpose: making my EXIT from the Democratic Party. My individual action will be noticed only if it is part of a larger movement, and I suspect that it will be. I would like to be part of a movement that makes the Democratic Party leadership wake up and realize that if they want our votes, they must show us that they take us seriously.

It's not correct that third party movements are pointless and ineffective. In the U.S., a shift in the focus of a major party occurs when a third party, or some other phenomenon (such as the recent rise in identifying as Independent), becomes a vehicle for carrying away some segment of the party's base. That sort of thing makes a party straighten up its priorities. If, in California, there's an increase in women registering as Green and a commensurate decrease in women registering as Democrat, the Democratic Party may notice.

Furthermore, if enough people lend money and energy, a third party can win office on the local and state level. The Democratic Party has communicated to me that I am excluded from the political conversation taking place on the national level; I'm only needed when it's time to cast my vote for the man who's going to protect me from government-owned uterus laws. On the state and local level, however, I could help elect some Green candidates who stand on a party platform that's much more aligned with my views.

Here's a portion of the Green Party's platform: "Since the beginning of what we call civilization, when men's dominance over women was firmly established until the present day, our history has been marred with oppression of and brutality to women. The Green Party deplores this system of male domination, known as patriarchy, in all its forms, both subtle and overt - from oppression, inequality, and discrimination to domestic violence, rape, trafficking and forced slavery. The change the world is crying for cannot occur unless women's voices are heard." *

This primary election has been an incredibly painful show to watch. But up until now, I always believed that attempting to vote strategically, as a feminist, would have been tilting at windmills. Now something has happened to mobilize our anger. It's a nascent anger, and I hope at least some women will step up to nurse it along until it's big enough, and powerful enough, to be HEARD.” -Vera

— — —

I am never again voting for a male candidate. -Dawn Coyote

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Homophobia persists at the American Psychiatric Association

Homosexuality was listed in the original, 1952 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, as a “sociopathic personality disorder”. In the 1968 revision (DSM-II), it was removed from the list of “sociopathic personality disorders” and listed instead with the “sexual deviations.” In 1973, homosexuality was officially “depathologized”, and listed in the DSM-III as a disorder only when it was ego-dystonic – it was only considered a problem worthy of diagnosis and treatment when a person’s sexual orientation was dissatisfying to them, or caused them significant distress. Through the subsequent three revisions (we are now to the text revision of the fourth edition of the classification system), treatment for ego-dystonic homosexuality has been permissible under the diagnosis, “Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified”, which is appropriate for individuals who experience “marked and persistent distress about sexual orientation”.

“Treatment” for homosexuality is a sad chapter in the history of mental health treatment, with vestiges of such abhorrent practices as aversive conditioning (including plethysmograph-triggered genital shocking following exposure to homoerotic stimulus) still found in select backwaters of the mental health treatment world. But the religious prohibition against homosexuality has ensured that individuals will continue to experience profound conflicts about their sexual preference, and practitioners (almost exclusively affiliated with a major religious institution) have continued to devise methods for “treating” homosexuality.

The most prevalent model, “Reparative Therapy”, was developed by Joseph Nicolosi, director of the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic. Though this approach was roundly criticized as a religious intervention operating under the guise of mental health treatment, a thriving population of conflicted gay Christians seeking relief from their “sinful” orientation provided the impetus for a cottage industry in “treatment” for their homosexuality. This approach soon came under fire, however, after a variety of high-profile cases in which parents had sought “treatment” for their adolescent children, eventually leading the American Psychological Association (the other “APA”) to draft a resolution in 1997 decrying this re-pathologizing of homosexuality, and disavowing coercive treatments for this supposed “disorder”.

But proponents of “Reparative Therapy” have remained active, and have generated some sympathy among powerful professionals, most notably Dr. Robert Spitzer, who as chair of the committee revising the third edition of the DSM was instrumental in the de-listing of homosexuality from the catalogue of mental disorders.

One of the most vocal of the remaining proponents for Reparative Therapy is Dr Kenneth Zucker. Needless to say, news that he has been appointed chair of the committee on Gender Identity Disorders for the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders has created some outrage among members of the LGBT and mental health communities, and interested members of the public.

If you feel the same way, please join us in protesting this appointment, and mitigate the insanity that apparently persists at the American Psychiatric Association.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reading Whitman

The year is 1993; it is summer; I am in Taiwan. I have recently bought a copy of Leaves of Grass. It is very hot, and at first I am very reluctant to sing the body electric. I had read a few poems in high school and seen Dead Poet’s Society, and Whitman had always reminded me of Rococo revival, of class oral reports that lasted way too long, of Steven Spielberg movies, of anything that involved a great deal more inspiration than perspiration. I believe in editing. I thought Whitman didn’t.

Still, the English-language offerings in the city where I lived were limited, and at the time I could not handle Taiwan. Later I would learn to read; I would study calligraphy and learn about hot springs, order better food and find nicer lodgings. I would in the woods meet a bamboo python. I’d hang out with art dealers.

All that was later, pre-Whitman. For the moment I am deliriously unhappy as I read:

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing

And I think, once again, “Who is this clown?” He reminds me of the American bike-dealers who had lived in the city for decades and never bothered with a word of Chinese. The words seem more than ugly – they seem rude and stupid and delusional. I still think that.

But then I read “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night”, about spending the night next to a dead friend. It finishes

Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And I buried him where he fell
.

I decided I could handle depressed Whitman.

The Civil War gave Whitman plenty to brood over. It induced a phantasmagoria of a different order from his earlier work. The Artilleryman’s Vision, for example, describes a peacetime moment of hallucination for the artilleryman:

The skirmishers begin, they crawl cautiously ahead, I hear the irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles, the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle balls
.

This battle is more horrifying in retrospect, for the war never ends. Whitman is a poet of predawn visions. His language creates an alternate world that is sometimes fantasia and often hell. I’d always imagined his reveries as obnoxious, public affairs, chants before the crowd in the matter of preacher or cadre. In Taiwan I came to think of him differently, as a poet of the moments when nobody else is around, when talking about yourself is talking to yourself, when sense and nonsense are not entirely clear.

That’s what I felt like for a time in Taiwan. I was awake at the wrong hours, speaking the wrong language, moving in nonsensical rhythms. It lasted about three months. It rained a lot. I tried to teach English, tried to learn Chinese, tried to pay attention to the world at hand. It was useless. I was mostly alone, and all I had with me was Whitman. I couldn’t generate his passion, but in those moments when it felt like I was beyond any point of contact, it was nice to have a travel companion. Finally, after three months, I moved, and began to talk to people instead of myself, or Whitman. I’ve always been grateful for his help.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dylan on a stick

The more interesting aspect of Dylan Watching the last four years or so hasn't been his new music, which is fine if a bit cornball and relying too much on the songwriter's reputation for a passing grade, but rather in how well, how brilliantly he's managed and manipulated his image and mythologies. Chronicles, the assumed first volume of an ongoing memoir, had him writing clearly about his influences and his struggles as an up and coming folkie in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, an intelligence that maintained a bucolic trace that never let on too much, too soon about what his fandom wanted to hear about.

I actually enjoyed Tarantula and still parts of it brilliant in ways that would have been interesting if Dylan had continued writing for books, especially the riffs on Aretha Franklin and the odd fellows who suit her, and especially the poem about the end of Bob Dylan, recited at the beginning of Todd Hayne's recent fantasy I'm Not There. As for film making, at least he's allowing professionals, Scorsese and Haynes, to put his accounts together. Masked and Anonymous, a film he takes credit for directing, should be canned and left on the bottom storage shelf of the dampest storage garage on can find.

I don't think that manipulating his reputation so much in recent years makes Dylan less of an artist, only that it's been the most ingenious expression of his art of late. The self-construction of his persona is crucial to his ability to write songs in the manner he did. The work does stand by itself once we deal with the albums and not the reputation, but like Miles Davis there is a context of rigorously maintained mystery about them that can't really be separated from the work.

Actually, I think Dylan's albums of new material in the nineties and the 2000s are among the best writing in decades, a sure recovery from the depressing drift of his work in the eighties. Love and Theft and Modern Times are the writings of an artist who has let his masks slip a little, allowed his defenses to open just a tad and allowed his thoughts to develop a clear, if haggard voice. None of the lyrics approaches his genius from his best work, but then again Davis never produced some quite like Kind of Blue after that, nor did Mailer attempt to write another Naked and the Dead. While I'm bored unto death with the packaging and repackaging of him as cultural icon, I do admire his willingness to move on to the next music to be written and played, regardless of what others might make of it.


He wasn't about to give away the core and cause of his mystique, and seemed determined to with hold more than he would reveal, a shrewd and measured use of his charisma and allure. The Martin Scorsese directed miniseries for PBS No Direction Home was, of course, a feast of obscure footage and interviews with Dylan and his fellows as they recalled his rise to stardom and their time basking in Bob's cold glow, but again it was a production underwritten and controlled by Dylan, with Scorsese being only the hired gun to bring it too market. Now, finally, thanks to NetFlix, I've seen I'm Not There, director and co writer Todd Hayne's movie that deconstructs, in several overlapping narratives derived from Dylan's factual biography and his self-mythologizing, with a series of actors including Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett taking turns doing impressions of the reclusive icon. I turned it off forty minutes into the DVD , my prurient interest in Dylan and the manner in which he continues to add layers to what's left of his charisma finally exhausted. It’s not that the various versions of Dylan here aren't good or canny; the actors are good mimics who imitate Dylan's accents and affectations from the differing periods of his life, from the days when he wanted to be Woody Guthrie and took to adding a twang to his speech and dropping his g's like were seeding an apple grove, to the citified version of himself, post Greenwich Village and Gerdes Folk City, when the media discovered him and he made himself another cryptic sage with a bag full of self-cancelling aphorisms perfect for the age of McLuhan. Blanchett gets this ideal of Dylan down perfectly, an angular, shock-theatre hair do, a firm, scowling face, a constant attack of the amphetamine jitters.

What brings it down is the lack of a story line that would make this fanciful and hard to take fan letter into something that would inspire my willing suspension of disbelief. There is something about Dylan’s fan base that nears a cult identity, and one picks it up from time to time when a writer starts speaking in a stream of Dylan’s, where song titles and oddments of phrase, riveting and hackneyed, substitute themselves for a real argument; you know the audience reading the stream just nods and grooves on the heaviosity it all. I posted about Dylan’s problematic Pulitzer a month ago, and the only response was from a writer who’d self-published a novel where the character names and the major plot lines are taken straight from Dylan lyrics. I haven’t read the book, but I would imagine it to be at least as annoying as the Beatles film Across the Universe, where a plot is contrived from that band’s lyrics to offer us up—what else?—a tour of the most over-studied clich├ęs of the Sixties. That I was getting the references this movie was making in the course of its unraveled narrative style made the matter more frustrating; it was depressing to realize that one had to be a Dylan obsessive to follow any of this at all. There has always been something cultish about Dylan's fans, but this, among other efforts since the start of the 21st century, is too close to the songwriter asking to be adored and coo'd over. He is willing to remind us again and again and yet again if we missed it the first time that he was a genius poet of the juke box, and we, a generation priding ourselves collectively for being so bright and hip to the Man’s trick of co opting our best ideas, seem more than willing to let this guy sell us our own memories.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mind If I Tag Along?


Chuck was lost in a swirl of his own thoughts just as Alice came up to him at the bus stop.

“What are you thinking” she asked, her voice a brassy rasp. She placed the plastic bag she’d been carrying on the bench where Chuck sat, where it met the warped and over- painted wood with a wet , crackling rush of air.

“Oh, ya startled me” said Chuck. He rubbed the back of his neck and looked up at Alice, squinting to see her face. If he still had the glasses that got run over by the city bus a month ago, he wouldn’t have to strain his eyes to see the droops and sags in her face, the
lines that looked like ravines seen from planes on implausibly clear days. He could tell she was smiling. When she frowned her face seemed darker, more a smear or stain in a cloth than the cheery cloud she usually seemed in his blurry world.

“Whatcha thinking” she asked again.

“Thinking about going downtown and getting me a few bucks for a pint of blood and then
getting a room at the Sattler to get out of the cold, ya know? They’re gonna tear that thing down and put some condos or offices or some such nonsense, and I thought it’d be nice to spend a night in a room with a roof and windows that close and all, for old times sake.”

He fell quiet, and after some minutes Alice spoke up.

“Mind if I tag along?”

“Nah. Let’s get going then.”

Chuck stood up and pushed the shopping cart he’d filled with everything he had and both of them moved up the main street, mindful of traffic, quiet as shadows as they moved toward the high rises, the tall buildings just over there, the towers of commerce.

Avenue (2)


Night never seemed the time to get sentimental about the way the world never becoming what it was you wanted it to be when you were young, so thought Flanders, but this night, this very night, the lights on the wet streets making slurred rainbows and hissing sounds as the tires rolled over the pot holes in the asphalt, he thought, why not, this night of endless dreaming when there is only he and his cigarettes, the bottle of hooch in his back pocket, the clubs along the avenue up to the old water tower where he’d been in trouble on nights like this years earlier, earlier, faster as the rush of speed hit the brain and the tongue swelled and dried as ideas and impulse came into their own just then, this night of cigarette smoke in is lungs, a dry and parched pinch of burning charcoal filtered blackness that roasted the pink design of nature’s idea of breathing, Flanders took a drink, he wanted to talk he fingered his change and lounged against the wall of the door way he was in, cracking his knuckles, rattling the coins in his pocket, thinking he’d love a blues jam to break out in front of him right now, a long and searing guitar solo ala Alvin Lee or Johnny Winter, none of this po’ sharecroppin’ Negro shit where the notes were all wrong, the coarseness of the singing too beat up, chafed, scuffed up , none of that at all, he wished it would rain, he thinks that would help the way he isn’t feeling about this world and how it never comes around to his way of thinking, anyone’s thinking when there was a time for him to be alert enough to ask someone, why couldn’t he just drink like the other guys, just be like the other guys, just drink and sit in a bar and smoke the cigarettes, endless butts crammed in an ashtray, get drunk, pick up on some swing shift cootie cutie and fuck his brains out, be in some place warm, worn out, fucked up, fucked and asleep, oh yeah, not outside on a rainy night, looking at the traffic, all his teeth grinding something fierce, molars going like trains passing each other in mountain towns where the coal and the axel grease comes from, to the shelves of California, Flanders took a drag off his smoke and felt his back pocket for the bottle, wanting to slow down, the cars came to the intersection and just roared by when the lights changed, when the lights changed, the cars just roared by, big radio speakers cracking the promise of dawn and early returns of bus lines up and at ‘em and really alert to the cause of what the fuck am I doing here, oh pleaseeeeeeeeeeesssee man oh god in heaven this is such a bad bad badddddddddddd buzz, fucking A man, bad bad bad, Flanders was awake enough for an invading battalion, the white crosses had him marching, ready for anything, just alert, nothing moving but notions about what he might have done in former times, the chances he passed up , the chances, man that guitar solo smoked!!! I went down to the cross road, to hack a ride , oh yeah

There was a harmonica in one of his pockets, but this was no time to stop what he was doing in order to find it, he ran his hands over the wall, slimy with night dampness, another rain was coming, dust from the asphalt rose again and choked him, he lit a new cigarette and watched the fresh red cherry at the tip glow , Flanders squinted his eyes to blur the vision, it was the light at the tip of an air plane wing, the light on a buoy in a harbor of choppy water, a small torch to burn away the night, he coughed, spit some phlegm, he took another drink from the bottle, he could hear the motor functions of his own mind grind away, running overtime, everything felt as though it were about to fall apart and collapse, I bet this goddamned building weighs a fuck of a lot, he thought, I mean any reason I need not pay my taxes, I mean, not until the editorial cartoonist for that rag gives us an apology for the dirt he did addicts, man, like just cuz I slam does not mean I am an addict, I just fuck up is all, ways to my thinking, the cooties are fucked up, yeah, electric as robot arms in Disneyland kiddie zones, oh yeah…

“You need a blues jam” Shel said, breaking the barrier between them. She’d been there next to him, flipping through the pages of a paperback novel that she read by the light of the liquor store they were standing in front of. “You’re tense, Flan, you gotta loosen up.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. He pulled away with a startled jerk of his shoulder.
“Play some blues, squeezie”, she cooed, bending down the corner of the page she was on and stuffing the book into her shoulder bag/ “Play something low and deep so that your nerves can find something they can rest on.”
“Can’t” said Flanders” this was a mistake. I can’t even walk anymore, and the only thing I can do is stare at the intersection watching cars get on and off the free way…”
“Those white crosses were supposed to be good….”
“ No goddamned shit, . Flanders wheezed. He was short of breath.
“Easy” said Sheila “It’s okay.”
“Goddamned Ferg” he said.
“It’s okay. Play some blues…”
“Can’t. Ferg just drinks, man, none of this slammin’’' and scammin'. Man oh goddamned man, oh fuck oh yeah…”
“Easy …”
“Yeah…”
“Easy…”

A car slowed down in front of them, the tires hissing like crackling dry leaves in a fire. The driver was a teen age male, wearing a backward baseball cap, looking around the avenue to see who was coming and going along the wet street. The passenger was another boy, a Mexican kid in a spike cut and black smear of a goatee between his lower lip and chin. He pounded on the side of the car in time to the furious beats of their CD deck, annihilation music.
“Hey” he yelled at Flanders, “Which way to the Water tower??”
Flanders stepped forward, into the arc of light cast by a yellow street lamp. He looked sick, eviscerated of all feeling.
“That way” he said, pointing up the street, into perspective obscured by billboards and old trees the city hadn’t yet cut backt.

“ On the right, bro, can’t miss it…”
The passenger gave a nod to the driver in the direction that Flanders pointed . The car lunged forward suddenly, running a red light, leaving a clamoring echo of squealing tires resounding through the block on what had been a quiet night on the street, with only a constant light rain accompanying the motions of minor crimes occurring in the alleys , parking lots and playgrounds.
“Kids, goddamn kids” he said, “I mean, when we went cruising, when we were that age, we made it a point to get the fuck outta dodge, y’know, I mean go someplace we didn’t live and see the sights , the freaks who lived there , man, I mean, gimmee a break, there’s nothing at the Waterpower but old men at picnic tables playing cards and checkers…”
“I couldn’t tell ya” she said, “Let’s go get a movie and chill, Flan, its cold and you have to do something besides stare at traffic. Put all that speed to use studying an unsolvable puzzle…”
“Tell you what, Shel, I gotta work tomorrow, and I ain’t sleeping tonight, not really…”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing” she said, taking his arm to pull him away, inch by rattled inch away from the liquor store entrance and up the street, where she had her apartment above a neighborhood hobby shop. “Time to read a film, not the street..”
“But…”
“Next chapter…” she said, and pulled him along by his arm.

She led him down up the street, into the dark and shrill coldness of half-rain, a hard mist that felt not unlike stabs to their skin, pricks of cold, deliberate fingers. The walked past several businesses, most of them bars, most of them unlit with the doors open for the old navy guys and their wives who had to stand outside for a cigarette. Shel could feel the double burn of whiskey and Marlboros passing through her throat and passing on its burn and warmth to every far end, fingertip and unhealed region of her body where the cold of an unending, snowless winter crept and hardened her skin into some flat surface, emotionless, recoiling at the touch, she loved the feeling of being thawed, whiskey and cigarette, the room and the streets getting hazy around her as the city seemed to calm down for a moment, fall quiet for some long seconds, it’s hateful speech quieted by a collective sign from bars and vanishing apartment houses after the citizens are off the buses and out of their cars and settling in with the fall of nigh and an eye lid, then another eyelid, television on and drink in hand, a cigarette burning and the skin softening, feeling, the sting of feeling flooding back to what had seemed so hopelessly lost, inured, hard and crass, like the weather that surrounds and buries the neighborhood , unresponsive to the silent yearnings of hearts translating their desires into small talk about work, box scores, bad jokes, yes, she wanted to warm up.

Shel pulled on Flander’s hand, poor Flanders who was now so relentlessly distracted with his speed that all he wanted to do was merge with the things of this extraordinary world, to burst through some membrane of distinction and test the intelligence of the average man- made things he found on the street, that he espied doing nothing, being nothing and not even existing as the sum of theirs constituent parts until his eyes took them in and his mind gave those things names, that is, defined them, but he could feel himself being tugged along the street by Shel, past the businesses, the parked cars, in a direction away from the water tower that was still the landmark all kinds of personal gravity had their polarities defined by, the water tower seen from afar, looming from the small vest-pocket park area from where it rose above the line of tall trees and the buildings of the business district that had an indifferent profile in their hard angles, architectural distinction sacrificed when mortar had to be applied in a hurry less the money run out during a construction boom that began in the fifties and ground to a stand still in the sixties, leaving the business area to slowly fall apart, patch by patch, chicken wire seen under the stucco, the water tower looming over the tree line and the roofs and television aerials as though it were a guardian sleeping on its feet, resting against the cornerstone of a palace gateway while the business of invading hordes and their dirty money swept past it, quietly changing the name of the bricks, the stones that built the homes , dug up the trees whose roots disrupted the sidewalks that led to and from the park and The Water tower, where everyone was going to or coming away from on a rainy night.

Flanders stopped suddenly, causing Shel to stumble in her rapid pace. He pointed down to the curb, where a stream of rain water flowed down the street’s slight incline. This was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and again he pointed he motioned for Shel to take in a long look at the run off as the water gathered and swelled at the curb and then became a mad river to the bottom of the hill, running into storm drains that emptied on beaches that were closed to swimming and other human use.
“Nice, Flan” said Shel, pulling her coat around her collar. She was getting cold. The wind cut through her wet coat bitterly.
“We gotta go, sweetie” she said, pulling him along, “what we need are a bath and drink. Let’s get going…”

“Listen” he said, cocking his head as though to aim his ear in the direction of sounds only he heard. Shel looked puzzled, her mouth taking on a frown that wormed over her delicate, high-cheeked features.
“What?” A visible tremble ran through her lips. It was cold and her teeth were chattering.
Flanders put a finger over his lips. “Over there” he said, tilting his head to indicate a cross street they’d come to, in front of yet another cluster of shops that were mostly closed for the night, but where the liquor store still kept the light burning until the legal limit. Up the side street, in a doorway that led up to apartments over the storefronts, were two teenagers, arguing. There voices could be heard on the main drag between batches of cars hissing along the asphalt.
Flanders was laughing.
“I wanna hear this…”
“Flan, damn it, it’s cold…”
“Listen. Shhhhhhhhhh…” He placed a twitching, cold tipped finger over her lips to make her be quiet.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

FROM THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD

Avenue (1)


1.

"Ain't no big" Flanders said, "I mean, I get all the noise all the time about saying things when it's not the best time to be saying anything at all, but understand this, it aunt no big thing, no slab of massive import?"

He sipped his coffee and listened to the dishes being bashed out in behind the door to the kitchen area behind the cook station. He hated all night diners, but it was the only place in the area where he could get a coffee, a smoke and chance to run some lines of finessed rhetoric of what he was about.
Ferg sat across from him in the booth, rubbing an imaginary stain on the table top as Flanders stopped long enough to light a cigarette and take a long, caustic pull off it.

"Your goddamn cheeks are all sucked against your jaw line" he said, noting the Flanders had a face that could scare morgue attendants when he'd been up for a week, wrecked on righteous speed, living on nothing but some glasses of water and a cartoon of rank TJ smokes.

Flanders dredged up a laugh, smoke spewing from his mouth like vapors on a cold, lost morning that made him think of searching for car keys under hard wood floors in the Midwest where he'd been raised until his family moved to California on a job offer his Dad accepted.Those mornings when the cold air that crept from under the door caught him in its embrace and made all the objects at that level – cheeks on the boards, looking under chairs for some glint of key chain from under a stray sock or newspaper section –radiate a coldness that killed aromas and preserved every ache and sting of being awake at an age when the body knows only its own sensations to either fall into lust and love and maybe a relationship . The room seemed to literally chatter, to find a vibration of another dimension that was like this one,but blue, faded blue, the color of lips against a frosted window, dead skin, a deep kiss of an unkind heart. He hated looking for keys.

"Like I said, it aunt no thing that I haven't already talked about. I made my choice to have my cheeks go slack when sucked up against my jaw line while I suck down a righteous flaming butt of skunk tobacco."

"Fuck that," said Ferg, "Lemmee see the money." A busboy happened by and took away the plates they were done with, smears of eggs over easy, yellow yoke, impressions of teeth lost in cold, over buttered toast.

The plate fell into the industrial rubber tub with a crashing sound that made both of them cringe; each expected the silver ware in the glasses to shatter and make the thing a nightmare for the dishwasher, who both of them saw earlier getting a coke from a dispenser next to the coffee machine when the both came in. A white kid, maybe seventeen, tall and skinny and with a haircut you had to get murdered to keep longer than a day. As soon as they bus boy was gone, Ferg spoke again.

" I mean, you got the money, don't you?"

"Money?" repeated Flanders, adding the lilting, up ended lilt of a question mark at the end of the uttered word in successful effort to the annoy Ferg even more, "Money? You think I have any money? I misjudged you..."

"Pull my chain. Jerky. I gave you a ten spot to get a bag of frozen French fries and a sixer of Tall Boys, and some Borax if you had enough change. That was yesterday, you said you'd have it today, and now I'm asking for it…'

"Yeah, my friend, but we are all asking for the big slap inna kisser when all is said and done for, and besides, its not as if you're not gonna use the Borax to wash your hands after you untidy them inna the goddamned sink and over the stove and after you use the toiler, I mean, really, and those are my magazines in the can anyway, I know you been reading them while you've been dropping bombs in still water, I mean, come on, it all comes out in the end."

Flanders took another drag off the cigarette, dropped a sagging ash to the floor, and spied Ferg reaching into his coat in order to pull out a bottle of Myers rum, a large one that was crammed in pocket on the inside of his white and black plaid sport coat. The bottle made him look like he were about to topple over as the result of a horrible miss-distribution of weight. Ferg unscrewed the cap of the bottle and poured a stiff addition to his coffee, and then passed the bottle over to Flanders. A waitress taking an order at the next booth moaned when she caught a whiff of the shark-toothed contents of the bottle struck the fine hairs of her nose.

"Fucking a it all comes out in the wash, I mean I want some money, bub. You said you'd have it, and now is the time that the you said you would give it too me, and now is the time for me to get what you said you would give to me, and besides, hey, fucker, easy on that shit…" Flanders put the bottle to his lips and lifted it, chugging away at the vile rum as if it were nothing more abrasive than cold water. His gulps drowned out the orders the customers next to them were trying to place with the waitress who'd moaned when her nose caught a waft of the wretchedly desirable hooch.

"You can't drink in here," she said to Flanders. She tapped her ticket book with the cheap plastic clicking pen, "you can get this place closed down" Ferg thought she looked suddenly very beautiful and had half a mind to offer her half his bed that night when he felt himself being yanked out of his seat by his hair. A bus boy the size of a the dumbest linebacker on the worst football in the ugliest town in the most rudely attired state stood over him, pulling at Ferg's scalp.

"What the fuck" he yelled.

Flanders tried to get out of the crowded booth so he could run quickly away, but his face slammed straight into a fist when he tried to rise out of his seat. Through the spinning stars and dimensions of new defined pain he saw another bus boy hovering over him, not as tall as the one playing yo-yo with Ferg's head, but big all the same, thick muscled, thick headed.

The waitress stepped aside as the diner's night manager walked up, a short guy in white shirt damp with sweat, bald on top with a thin crown of hair circling the oval circumference of his head. He was smoking a cigarette, with the burning tobacco mixing poorly with his body odor. The place smelled as an animal of some kind had found a place where old toupees went to die and had crawled in an attempt to mate . Funky, funky Thought Flanders.

"This patch of linoleum floor space and table tops quite suddenly smells like something smeggy and unflushed, like failed fake love across species distinctions…"

"Told you two fucks to stay the goddamn fuck outta here?" he said.

"What" said Ferg, pulling away from his tormenting busboy."

" Tollyewtwopunxtostaythefugodorhere" the manager repeated, faster this time.

"Have a drink" said Ferg" I mean, they are gonna blow a gasket or two, and the war looks like its gonna be a long, and your hash browns tastes like the stains in your shirt, so I mean, get rid of these goooons and have a blast of this grog…."

"Tollyathfuxottahere!!"

The would be diners in the booth next to them had gotten up by this point, a man and woman who thought they would have some late night eggs after the Dagmar film festival at the quizzical art movie house up the street. They were almost out the door, just past the cashier station, when the manager turned around and screamed at them.

"FUCKING PANTYWAISTE COLLEGE KIDS!! C'MON BACK HERE AND I'LL MESS UP YOUR SENSE OF TIME BUT GOOD. DONTEVERCOMBAGINEARAGAINORI'llhafata PUT THE HURT ON YA."

The woman turned around just long enough to to flip the manager the bird.

"THAT TEARS IT!!"he bellowed, "GET THEM AND HURT THEM!!!"

The two bus boys dropped their plates and chased them into the parking lot, but the man and woman were already in their car. Flanders and Ferg heard car wheels squeal, high strung and grinding of gears. The manager went back into his office, mumbling something having to cut back on the amount of over time that he'd been paying out to idiot thug kitchen staffers he'd ordered to put the hurt on some yahoo who looked they were having a half a lick of a good time.

"So gimmee the goddamned ten spot" said Ferg. Flanders pushed the bottle back over to him.

"Start stealing some better grog, baby…"

"Whattaya mean kipe some beet grog, you fuck? You steal some and see what you can get under that coat of yours. Anyway, this is the stuff that'll do the trick, get us outta here and outta of our heads in a hurry, and that is a good thing, and that is a good thing indeed, ya know what I mean, look at this place, look at the death trap this is…" Ferg made a sweeping motion with his arm to convey an idea of the coffeeshop viewed in a nauseating panning camera shot that made the particulars of the place, from the hot lights at the cookstation and the rotating metal mill that contained waitress orders, homeless men going back and forth to the restroom as their funkified smell mixed in with the layers of undisposed cooking grease that added the flavor to many house favorites, to the customers lined up along the counter, hovering over coffee cups, plates that resembled battlefields, sports and business pages that had more news than anyone this time of night could use ,

"I mean this aint all there is too being alive, y'know? I mean, whattaya think?"

Flanders stirred yet another pack of sugar into his coffee, and rotated the spoon relentlessly as he spilled goodly amounts onto the table top. He kept his gaze on Ferg, who was now watching Flanders and his business with the sugar spoon.

"Getting out of your head is one thing, but you don't hafta do it with some third rate boogie swill you can clean auto parts with." He dropped the spoon and took a sip of the hot syrupy coffee. He grimaced, his nose and mouth giving flinching at the unpalatability of the drink, and then he finished it in two throttling gulps.

"Anyway, I think that fat fuck of a manager is gonna be coming back here with his bus boy toadies, and right about now the white crosses I took are starting to kick in…" Flanders dropped the paper napkin he wiped his mouth with , readjusted the spoon, and grabbed his pack of rank smokes. I dropped a five dollar bill on top of the check.
He stood up."Gotta go. I'm likely to either stare at traffic or murder that fat ass for his bad lanuage and love taps, so I'm go and walk around and read headlines in news stands, watch TV through an appliance store window, find me a giant leering woman and get paranoid some place where I can do the least amount of harm. But all that , away from here…"

"Great then" said Ferg, "then I'm going up Avenue to the Watertower.."

"Yeah, I 'll trace you later…"
Flanders adjusted his coat and walked up the aisle past the cashier the stand, past the manager who was suddenly busy with a line of customers wanting to pay their check. He could hear the little fat guy yelling "Hey, hey you,. HeY!" as he went outside through the door . Car horns, crashing dishes and rain pounding the roof drowned out most of what he said once he was on the sidewalk.