Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Real Presence

Real Christianity was demonstrated by Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury this week. His statement has, in some way, raised my hopes that the Golden Rule will once again come to characterize Christianity, as opposed to its most vocal proponents' scorched earth policy of apocalyptic blood lust that justifies hate, bigotry, and violence.

While not yet ready to bless homosexuality, Williams equated hostile words with real violence against gays, "warning that such language could lead to suicide or even murder."
"...violence in word or deed and prejudice against homosexual people were unacceptable and sinful behaviour for Christians.”

Williams, is, of course, being lambasted by conservatives for being out of touch with mainstream Christians. So, I guess my question to those mainstream Christians is this: Show me the verse where Jesus condemned homosexuality. I can't seem to find it in my copy of the Beatitudes.

Mutton Heads

"Look at you in war--what mutton you are, and how ridiculous!" "In war? How?" "There has never been a just one, never an honorable one--on the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful--as usual--will shout for the war. The pulpit will--warily and cautiously--object--at first; the great, big, dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say, earnestly and indignantly, "It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it." Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out and lose popularity. Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers--as earlier--but do not dare to say so. And now the whole nation--pulpit and all--will take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open. Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception."
Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger: Chapter 9. (1916)

Monday, November 29, 2004

Alabama: Now Two Centuries Behind

No such thing as a free education. At least not in Alabama. In one of those decisions that would make me shake my head if it didn't make me want to howl in despair, Alabama has decided that it's just fine with segregated schools, thank you very much.

I keep reading letters from Southerners who whine that we in the North look down on them, but when people decide that the state is not compelled to pay for public education, the height from here is dizzying.

According to a spokesman for, sigh, the Alabama Christian Coalition, amending the Alabama Constitution to remove language that legalized segregation had nothing to do with racism. Of course it didn't. It was about that goddamned federal government again.

"The amendment had two main parts: removal of the separate-schools language and the removal of a passage - inserted in the 1950s in an attempt to counter the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against segregated public schools - that says Alabama's constitution does not guarantee a right to a public education.

Opponents cite tax concern
Leading opponents, such as Alabama Christian Coalition President John Giles, said they did not object to removing the passage about separate schools for "white and colored children." But, employing an argument ridiculed by legal experts, Giles and others said guaranteeing a right to a public education would have opened a door for "rogue" federal judges to order the state to raise taxes to pay for better schools.

I mean, it didn't take much research to find all the data about levels of education and income in Alabama. Guess what? They're not in the top half of the country in either category. (If you do a google search, you'll find loads of PDF files with the documentation.)

The North's record on segregation is fraught with some pretty vicious fights, but at least we agree that education is a universal right. If that makes us elitists, well, so be it. Lux fiat.

Hate Mongering 101

"We have a sports culture that practically encourages this and promotes it, by rewarding the most obscene behavior with the most television time and the most attention, and the most appearances on the highlights reel, and so one thing feeds off the other. So I don't know what they're going to do to get hold of it. I think just put it in perspective. As I said before the last hour ended, "Just rename the city of Detroit to 'New Fallujah, Michigan,'" and then what happens at the palace of Auburn Hills will be understood by everybody who goes there. By the way, has anybody noticed all these outbreaks, all this violence, all this stuff happens in blue cities, ladies and gentlemen? I mean, you don't see this happening in Charlotte. You don't see this sort of stuff happening. But you do see it happening out of Miami; you do see it happening in the blue cities out there. So, you know, call L.A. "New Mosul, California." You could call New York "Baghdad, New York," and this helps people put this in perspective. But you just listen. You listen to all these ex-NBA players saying, "I'm not going to get dissed. Any fan touches me is going to get his head knocked off." You're going to hear that said all over the place. It's all about this hip-hop culture not getting dissed and not being embarrassed in terms of your manhood and all this."
Doctor-shopping, Oxycontin-snorting, multiple-times divorced, draft-dodging moral values arbiter, Rush Limbaugh. November 22, 2004

Starting to Spin

Walk Away . It's happening. I'm trying to think my way out of a situation and have found myself on the hamster wheel. Maybe dialogue is impossible. Maybe the way to deal with the hate mongers is to put it down, walk away, and get on with the revolution without them.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

How about some real dialogue?

I don't watch the Sunday morning news shows; nor do I watch any of the "debate" shows on CNN. They're theatre, not real opportunities for dialogue, and I'm hungry for people to talk to one another without playing to the audience. Apparently, "Meet the Press" featured four prominent Christians trying to talk to one another.

I think true dialogue requires more than this.

A friend and I talked yesterday about what dialogue really means. If I'm completely honest, I realize that what I want is to bring the person I'm in dialogue with over to my point of view. There are issues that I feel so strongly about, I'm not going to back down. But can I defend my views and engage in respectful discussion with those whose beliefs are, dare I say it, abhorrent to me? How can I oppose the hate mongers without hating them?

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Omelas and us

The photographs of the Iraqi children keep sending me to the story by Ursula Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." I was introduced to the story by a close friend, Karen Novak,
an author whose books explore difficult themes with heart-rending grace and grit.

The story of Omelas is the story of knowing that your happiness rests on the misery of a single other. But if that were simply the case, the choice would be too easy. Many of us (our current president excepted) would willingly sacrifice ourselves for the sake of another. The moral choice in Omelas, however, is much more complex, as true moral choice is.

The "moral values" crowd is dead wrong on that. Moral values are not predicated on simple binary opposition. Moral choice is not yes/no, either/or. Moral choice is "yes...but" or "no, except." Moral choice is the willingness to accept that decisions have consequences, actions produce effects, and not taking those into account is immoral.

For the ad fontes crowd, moral choice is as clear as the contrast between black ink on a white page; they cite ancient texts to control the living. I'm not singling out Christians here. Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Hindu Fundamentalists all present a threat to a world that is trying to escape binary opposition in favor of ecumenical cross-boundary morality that recognizes the full ramifications of making moral choices.

Many want to argue that removing Saddam Hussein was a moral choice. And yes, it's true, he needed to be removed from power. But if someone had bothered to think about the difference between Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islam, to understand the history of the region, the opportunity that removing Saddam was going to create for Islamic Fundamentalists, the moral choices might have looked a little different. And now we are faced with real moral choices in Iraq, as we are forced to ask whether it would be moral to walk away from a mess of our creation in order to save American lives.

Nicholas Kristof has raised these issues this morning in the NYT. What are our obligations to Iraq now that we have been dragged into an ill-conceived war? And can our happiness be built upon the suffering of Iraqi children? I don't know what the answer is; all I do know is that I find myself wishing that I could be one of the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Cigarettes Can Kill You

We've all seen him. The soldier having a smoke break after a long, hard day of fighting war. Today's Guardian has
Naomi Klein's astute, wicked smart analysis of American reaction to that photo. Seems a lot of people are upset because the soldier is smoking--and that's not a very good role model for kids who may want to idolize the warrior hero.

I would assume that many of these people have not been able to bring themselves to go to the real photographs because they don't want their versions of reality messed with. And when reading the comments that have been posted on that blog, it's clear that, even when people are looking at the photos, they're still not seeing what's in front of them. They've accused the brave soul who posts those pictures of getting American soldiers killed. The mind boggles.

I find myself without words at the moment. Instead, I feel some ancient keen rising to the surface, or perhaps a Banshee-like wail. Today, it's just too much.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Cry the Beloved Country

Labour seems to have learned the lessons of the American election well: scare the shit out of people and convince them that their only salvation lies in voting their fears.

Propaganda is about stimulating the reptilian parts of our brains, making us think we're under attack, stimulating our "fight or flight" responses. It is difficult to think rationally when you're under attack: evolution says that those who respond rather than think, survive. But do we need to continue living like Neanderthals?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Because linking here is the right thing to do

What $200 billion buys us.

by Norman Rosten
In Guernica the dead children
Were laid out in order upon the sidewalk,
In their white starched dresses,
In their pitiful white dresses.
On their foreheads and breasts
Are the little holes where death came in
As thunder, while they were playing
Their important summer games.
Do not weep for them, madre.
They are gone forever, the little ones,
Straight to heaven to the saints,
and God will fill the bullet-holes with candy.
Monday April 26, 1937 4:30 PM

I'm pathetic

Sitting With the Dead got published Monday in the Ithaca Journal. (Yes. I know. I'm blogging myself. How fucking pathetic is that?) But as I was driving to work, my cell phone rang, and it was some woman who had read my piece and wanted to call and tell me how moved she had been. It was incredible--to think that someone had gone to that trouble. But, I'm also getting people who think I'm an ignoramus commenting on my blog, so my ego is right-sized, I think. Too bad my country's isn't.

Things That Make Me Want to Parse My Eyes Out with a Sharp Stick

From today's NYT: My commentary in italics

November 23, 2004

Rare Weapon to Hunt Deer

The rifle that killed five Wisconsin hunters and wounded three more on Sunday was an SKS 7.62-millimeter semiautomatic assault weapon not normally used in hunting animals.
Which immediately begs the question: Who the fuck is it used to hunt?

"This is not a gun you go deer hunting with," said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry trade association.

The reason the SKS is not used by hunters, Mr. Keane said, is that it is designed for combat soldiers and is therefore underpowered for killing an animal like a deer with a single shot, the goal of good hunters.
Because the object of war is to make the other guy suffer. Therefore, you use an underpowered rifle that's going to make him think about why he's dying as he's doing it.

"The ethics of hunting are you don't want the animal to suffer needlessly," Mr. Keane said.
The ethics of kiling people, however, is a whole different thing.

Mr. Keane said he suspected that the man accused of the Wisconsin killings was not a trained hunter, since with the SKS he was carrying, he would have had to shoot a deer several times to kill it.

The SKS is a precursor of the AK-47 assault rifle. Though it has a longer barrel, it otherwise looks much like the AK-47. It has become popular in the United States among gun collectors, target shooters and some criminals, because it sells for less than $200, or more than $100 less than an AK-47, said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group.
Who knew death could be so cheap?

By executive order, President Bill Clinton barred the importing of Chinese- and Russian-made SKS rifles. But the Bush administration, Ms. Rand said, has specifically authorized the importing of SKS's from Yugoslavia and Albania.
Because we need to give economic support to peoples who spent most of the 1990's engaged in ethnic warfare that killeds thousands of them. Now they have all those extra guns and they need money.

It is not known where the SKS used in the Wisconsin shootings was manufactured.
But if it turns out that it was manufactured in China or Russia, then, as with everything that has gone wrong in the past 12 years, it must be William Jefferson Clinton's fault.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Red, White and Blue Emma

In July, 1917, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were convicted of opposing conscription. Before they were sent to prison, Emma made an impassioned plea to the jury. Here is an excerpt. As events have continued to unfold these past two years, Emma's words have rattled around in my brain.

Gentlemen of the jury, we respect your patriotism. We would not, if we could, have you change its meaning for yourself. But may there not be different kinds of patriotism as there are different kinds of liberty? I for one cannot believe that love of one's country must needs consist in blindness to its social faults, to deafness to its social discords, of inarticulation to its social wrongs. Neither can I believe that the mere accident of birth in a certain country or the mere scrap of a citizen's paper constitutes the love of country.

I know many people--I am one of them--who were not born here, nor have they applied for citizenship, and who yet love America with deeper passion and greater intensity than many natives whose patriotism manifests itself by pulling, kicking, and insulting those who do not rise when the national anthem is played. Our patriotism is that of the man who loves a woman with open eyes. He is enchanted by her beauty, yet he sees her faults. So we, too, who know America, love her beauty, her richness, her great possibilities; we love her mountains, her canyons, her forests, her Niagara, and her deserts--above all do we love the people that have produced her wealth, her artists who have created beauty, her great apostles who dream and work for liberty--but with the same passionate emotion we hate her superficiality, her cant, her corruption, her mad, unscrupulous worship at the altar of the Golden Calf.

We say that if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. How else is the world to take America seriously, when democracy at home is daily being outraged, free speech suppressed, peaceable assemblies broken up by overbearing and brutal gangsters in uniform; when free press is curtailed and every independent opinion gagged. Verily, poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world? We further say that a democracy conceived in the military servitude of the masses, in their economic enslavement, and nurtured in their tears and blood, is not democracy at all. It is despotism--the cumulative result of a chain of abuses which, according to that dangerous document, the Declaration of Independence, the people have the right to overthrow.

Full text of Emma's speech to the jury is here .

Jesus Ain't No Girlie Man


I've always loved Dave Horsey. He's the cartoonist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, probably the dumbest name for a newspaper, ever.

Thanks to my student, Justin, for sending me the 'toon.

Join the Army.

White House says fuck you to low-income college students.

But keeping the old formula in place for another year would add an extra $300 million in grants for college students to a program that is already running at a shortfall, the Office of Management and Budget said. So, the bill approved yesterday, brokered by Congressional leaders in a conference committee, eliminates a provision that would have barred the Education Department from changing the eligibility formula. A Senate staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the White House insisted the provision be dropped, citing the shortfall, and House Republicans were adamant in their agreement to do so.

"They are throwing students out of the opportunity to seek a college education," said Senator Jon S. Corzine, the New Jersey Democrat who wrote the amendment to stop the changes last year, and introduced a similar provision this year that did not survive the conference committee. "It is now clear to me that this was a backdoor attempt to cut funding from the Pell grant program."

The exact impact of the new rules is difficult to predict, but had the new formula gone into effect last year, it would have prevented about $270 million from being spent on Pell grants, the nation's primary scholarship program, the Congressional Research Service found. Many students, perhaps more than a million, would have received smaller grants, many education experts estimated. And about 84,000 students would have lost their Pell grants altogether, the research service reported.

The other day at lunch, I was accused of being incredibly cynical when I stated that I expected the White House would continue to de-fund college education. "After all," I said, "What's the purpose of educating young men who you're intending to send off to die in Iraq? What a waste of money."

This morning's report makes me think that maybe I'm not so cynical after all.

What was the Washington Post thinking?

The story is here. The Post should be able to buy a lot of things with its 30 pieces of silver.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Let's talk about sex...

I am in the midst of writing a novel in which the erotic is an area of exploration. Literary sex is the topic of this article. As a writer, sex is extremely difficult to write about given that it's hard to straddle the pole between writing a gynecological treatise and engorged purple prose.

Here's how not to do it:

Robot sex can be good.


ZZ Packer explores many of the things I've been thinking about and have previously expressed here. That is, how do we talk to a conservative Christian constituency that was mobilized by the Republicans in this past election?

The Protestant Reformation was about splitting reason from faith. Packer talks about how to appeal to the hearts and souls. There's a really thin line, I think, between the kind of writing that touches the heart and opens the head up to new ideas, and propaganda, which is about stirring the emotions and bypassing the intellect altogether. But somewhere in there is wiggle room. We don't need to propagandize to right-wing Christians, but we do need to find a way to reach them so that they are able to see the moral good in what we on the left are offering.

Aid the Boxer Rebellion

Senator Barbara Boxer of California has stated in today's
New York Times that she is willing to filibuster in order to prevent passage of the omnibus spending bill that has anti-reproductive rights provisions hidden within it.

Take a minute and please send her a note of support.
Senator Boxer

Friday, November 19, 2004

Iraqi shadows


An AP photo from Iraq.

In Hiroshima, after the bomb blast, people who had been vaporized in their tracks left behind the outlines of their bodies, as if someone had done charcoal tracings of them at the moment when death came.

My friend, Maura Stephens and her husband, George Sapio, journeyed to Iraq prior to the latest U.S. invasion. Their story is here . On the trip, they visited a memorial to a bomb shelter. It had been a safe haven where Iraqi families had gone to seek refuge during one of our bombing raids during Gulf War I. The shelter was obliterated by an American bomb, and the souls within it were killed. On a concrete wall, the remnant of the shelter, are the shadows. The one that haunts me is the mother, cradling an infant. She was breastfeeding at the moment when the explosion reduced her and her infant to charcoal. (You can find the photo on page 3 of the article.)

Why can't I stop thinking of Plato's Allegory of the Cave? How all those people are crouched in the cave, watching the flickering shadows, afraid to leave? How in the US, we've become a nation in which we watch the flickering images on our television screens and think we're seeing the world, understanding reality? And what happens to us now that our government has decided that we can't see the real images from Iraq?

And why can't I stop thinking about that mother? In the chaos of the bombing raid, as her child no doubt screamed in terror of the noise and the lights, she offered the only thing she had: her body as pacifier, as nurturance.

This is a government that claims to love motherhood. We love it so much we want every woman to get to experience it, regardless of whether she wants to. After all, they told us that "W stands for Women?" But wasn't this Iraqi woman a mother, too?

How do we talk to this person?


This is an AP photo. I'm trying to imagine how one goes about talking to this person.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Cooking Rice

For those of us who think exchanging Powell for Rice is disastrous, even if Colin Powell should have fallen on his sword two years ago rather than continue to represent this administration,
this is a must-read.

The only thing I have to add to it is this: Years ago, when Maggie Thatcher was PM of the UK, my grandmother, who lives in the north of England, which was subjected to a scorched earth policy by the Tory government, had this to say. "I don't understand all these people who say that a woman can't do the work of a man. Maggie Thatcher does the work of two men: Hitler and Mussolini."

Camus and the Christians

This review of the legacy of Camus coincided with my own return to the late, great philosopher.

I was obsessed with Camus beginning in my late teens. I once told one of my professors, a noted intellectual historian, how much I admired Camus. His response? "You'll get over it." But I haven't. Not really. I stoppped reading him for a while, but I still think his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," is one of the most hopeful documents ever written. (Yeah. I know. Puts a whole new spin on hopeful.) But I find myself wishing that Camus was alive today so that he could be yet another voice that calls tyranny tyranny and speaks truth to power.

This speech, given to the Dominican monks at Latour-Maubourg in 1948, has been preserved as an essay entitled "The Unbeliever and Christians," in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Here are the last three paragraphs:

"That, I believe, is all I had to say. We are faced with evil. And, as
for me, I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when
he said: "I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere." But it
is also true that I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not
to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent
this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we
can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us,
who else in the world can help us do this?

Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great
unequal battle has begun. I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to
the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought, and I know
that certain men at least have resolved to do so. I merely fear they
will occasionally feel somewhat alone, that they are in fact alone, and
that after an interval of two thousand years we may see the sacrifice
of Socrates repeated several times. The program for the future is
either a permanent dialogue or the solemn and significant putting to
death of any who have experienced dialogue. After having contributed my
reply, the question that I ask Christians is this: "Will Socrates still
be alone and is there nothing in him and in your doctrine that urges
you to join us?"

It may be, I am well aware, that Christianity will answer negatively.
Oh, not by your mouths, I am convinced. But it may be, and this is even
more probable, that Christianity will insist on maintaining a
compromise or else giving its condemnations the obscure form of the
encyclical. Possibly it will insist on losing once and for all the
virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that
case Christians will live and Christianity will die. In that case the
others will in fact pay for the sacrifice. In any case such a future is
not within my province to decide, despite all the hope and anguish it
awakens in me. I can speak only of what I know. And what I know--which
sometimes creates a deep longing in me--is that if Christians made up
their minds to it, millions of voices--millions, I say--throughout the
world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals
who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere
and ceaselessly for children and for men.

I share with Camus his unwillingness to declare a belief in a supreme deity, and yet, I also believe that Manichean Christians aside (and I would put most born-agains, including the Prez, in this category), if Christians would make up their minds to end their contribution to the perpetuation of suffering on this planet, Jesus, what a difference it would make.

This is not to say that I don't believe evil exists. It does. And it is being perpetrated in our name. But I also believe that to declare the other side as evil shuts down the dialogue I so desperately long to have with them. Rantings about them aside, there's still a part of me that wants to talk to them, to convince them to come closer to the fence so we can try to work this out.

I am not a Christian, but I cannot believe that the WWJD crowd really believes that he'd be killing civilians in Fallujah.

The Crusades were a disaster. There is no evidence to suggest that this Crusade is not going to end up the same way.


The cultural differences between Ithaca and Cortland are legion. As I pulled into Cortland and waved "hello" to Wal-Mart, I realized I was behind a car that actually had a "Boycott France" bumper sticker. I don't know how you boycott a country and what exactly is entailed by that. Did she intend that we not buy French products? Not speak French? Not visit France on our next vacation? Or that we not patronize anything that was remotely French? I hate inexactitude of language.

But, after I had called this woman every synonym for moron I could think of, I realized that perhaps this is a good thing. If a large portion of the population, convinced that somehow France is responsible for us getting our troops killed in Iraq, decide to boycott all things French, well, things could get better for the rest of us rather quickly.

Pasteur, after all, was French. And therefore, they'll not be able to drink any Pasteurized milk products, which perhaps will allow them to all contract antibiotic-resistant strains of TB. And, if they get cancer, they won't be able to have any radiation treatments because radium was discovered by Polish Marie Curie who was married to a Frenchman, Pierre Curie.

I'm sure the list goes on and on, but you get my point.

Vive la resistance!

Late Breaking Addition: Someone reminded me today about the Louisiana Purchase. So what are all those people who want to boycott France going to do who live in those states?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Bollocks to Prince Charles

The bloody British monarchy strikes again.

This is what happens when a small group of elitist rich people interbreed over generations: you wind up with the British monarchy, Paris Hilton, and the Bush family. The fact that the British people continue to pay for these morons to make their royal pronouncements used to be beyond me; having watched Americans once again choose Bush, I now comprehend that I know nothing about human nature.

It seems that HRH runs an "elitist" household. The mind boggles at the idea that a monarch would run a democracy; still, his official statement in response to a former employee's complaints was chilling:

According to THE GUARDIAN:

The prince wrote: "What is wrong with everyone nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?

"This is to do with the learning culture in schools as a consequence of a child-centred system which admits no failure. People think they can all be pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV personalities or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having natural ability.

"This is the result of social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically and socially engineered to contradict the lessons of history.

I guess I have two comments:
1) Um. Chuck. Other than the fact that your royal mum shat you out, you've got no technical capabilities to speak of.

2) This is America's future.

Smells Like Home Cookin'

Today, I asked my students to make a list of 5-10 songs that had meant something to them in their lives. I then asked them to choose one of those songs and to write an in-class essay on why the song had meaning. Given that I shouldn't ask my students to do something I'm not willing to do myself, I chose a song and began to write. Here goes....

Three years ago, I left Ithaca on a mad flight across the country. It's still not clear to me, 39 months later, what I was doing. The thing I remember from that time was the overwhelming urge to run, to leave--really, to flee--a life over which I felt I had lost all control. It wasn't that my life was without meaning--on the contrary, I would say there was too much meaning, too many things going on--and it was as if my brain short-circuited and the primal urge of fight or flight hijacked my brainwaves.

I had just left my marriage of 12 years, had just conquered an addiction to opiates that had enslaved me in a cycle of chronic pain and narced-out bliss, had decided to "become" a writer, and had just had my disability benefits run out. In short, my life was simultaneously chaos and re-birth, and being stuck in a tiny town in the middle of rural New York was not where I wanted to be.

On a Thursday afternoon, I announced to my soon-to-be-ex-husband and my two shell-shocked children that I was going back home to Seattle to look for a job, look for housing, and that when I got settled, I'd make a new life for my kids there.

It sounded almost rational. After all, Seattle was home, had been for my adolescence and most of my adult life, and even after eight years in Ithaca, that was definitely not home.

And so, less than 36 hours after my pronouncement, I pulled out of my former driveway in my '95 Sunfire and I set off to find myself.

For most people, finding oneself is a long, meandering journey with myriad steps along the way. Not for me, though. No sirree Bob. At the top of my list of character defects is impatience, and I wasn't wasting any time in getting where I thought I needed to go.

I was traveling on Labor Day weekend, and I did not have a cd player in my car, so I was entirely reliant on my car radio. The radio became my compulsive obsession. I have rules for the radio: no country stations and no Jesus. I was amazed at how quickly I could identify either. With Jesus stations, I'd say it was less than two seconds--there's a certain quality to the music played there that resembles Chinese water torture. I sense that hanging drop and I'm outta there. And with country stations? Well, when you're driving on I-90 and someone's speaking with a southern drawl, there's a good chance you're not listening to pop.

It was, however, one of those weekends where every Top 40 station was broadcasting some kind of theme for the weekend. And, given the fact that most radio stations are owned by a small number of media companies, it wasn't surprising to find that nearly all of them were running some form of nostalgia--it was either 70's music or 80's music. Take your pick. No wonder I was driving so bloody fast.

The first night on the road, I slept for three hours in a rest stop in Minnesota. (If you're following along on a map, I'll let you do the math in terms of miles.) The second night, exhausted, I stayed in a $26/night motel in western South Dakota. And the third day, I drove 16 straight hours and 1130 miles. I have no idea how fast I was going. My speedometer only went up to 110 mph and it was maxed out for most of Montana.

What driving this fast did mean, however, was that I crossed the Cascades and came barrelling down into Seattle sometime after 11 pm on Labor Day, 60 hours after I had left Ithaca. And here's what I remember, the place I've been trying to get to when I first started writing this down in my room full of students.

I came across Mercer Island and began the last part of the journey: driving across the floating bridge across Lake Washington. The sky was dark, of course, and I don't actually remember if it was cloudy or not. But the city, which, when I was a kid hadn't been a city at all, just an overgrown town with magnificent views of the Sound and the mountains, the city was laid out before me. It's a forest of skyscrapers now, monuments to money, but on this night, they were all lit up. I had turned the radio back on, and as soon as I had come into range, had tuned it to FM 107, KNDD, the End. As it turned out, KNDD was doing a retrospective, too: The top 100 modern rock songs of all time. And as it turned out, close to midnight crossing the bridge, the d.j. mentioned that he was going to play the number-one song.

I had left Seattle in 1993, the tail-end of grunge, a year before Kurt Cobain committed suicide, but always, anything by Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, etc., would snap me back to home. And so when I heard the opening chords--and how could this song not have been the number-one modern rock song?--I thought it was a sign. I was almost catatonic from exhaustion, but I was awake enough to have one of THOSE moments. Fully present, fully aware, fully conscious that something in my life was opening up, changing. And so I sang. "With the lights out, it's less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us." I sang all of it. All the way across the bridge, coming home to my goddamned city, trying to reclaim my goddamned life, and not having a fucking clue how I was going to do it, but trying to take advice from a dead rock star. The window was down and I had tears in my eyes and I wanted to glean meaning from a song that it had taken me a long time to even figure out the words to.

If you know the last words to the song, then you know what I found in Seattle. I'll spare you the story of not being able to go home again. But I still love that song, love that city, love that moment.

Oh denial....

Drink Dr. Lesbian

I'm a lesbian, she's a lesbian, he's a lesbian, we're a lesbian, wouldn't you like to be a lesbian, too?
I've got nothing to add to this posting by Jo , other than to applaud it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Where are this war's poets?

If one buys the arguments of historians, this century did not really start until 1914, when the march toward rationalism (that commenced in the Enlightenment) and the long 19th century (which according to the same historians began in 1789) came to a screeching halt in the killing fields of Flanders. And if this century has been characterized by the re-embracing of delusional beliefs in gods and monsters, then I would argue that this century, this 20th century, continues, although I'm praying like hell that 2008 may be its end.

World War I has now been joined by several wars that had no moral justification, made no sense, and resulted in mass carnage. Americans have no idea the costs of WWI--after all, we joined the fray in 1917 and, because of strict press censorship and government crackdowns on dissidents (any of this sound familiar?)we stayed woefully uninformed--but the evidence of the complete waste of human life is evident in every memorial garden in every town square in Western Europe. An entire generation of men were wiped out in that war.

If WWI left us anything, it is great literature that was created in the midst of the dying. In Wilfred Owen's case, he wrote poems up until the moment of his death, which occurred several dozen hours before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. (The REAL meaning of Veteran's Day.) Viet Nam, which perhaps is America's version of WWI, if not in terms of sheer numbers of casualties at least in terms of the psychic damage that the war inflicted on its veterans--and after campaign 2004, one wonders how many more years it will take us to recover from it--produced some incredibly fine novels.

But with the exception of the movie, Three Kings, I have yet to see great literature produced by those who fought in the Gulf War I. And I wonder why? Was it because there was so little hand-to-hand combat, so little contact with those that were slaughtered? Will Gulf War II be different? Is there, even as I write this, some soldier sitting in his or her bunk scribbling memories into prose or poetry that will bring this war home to us here?

Where are this war's poets?
So, after having seen the pictures this morning that are being posted from Fallujah, I went looking for Owen's most famous poem. Perhaps you've read it before. But it bears reading again. And again.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


For those of us who are enamored of distraction at work, may I recommend a couple of blogs?

Hiding in Plain Sight

They're both well-worth your time.

In the beginning was the word

And that's the fundamental problem, I think. Fundamentalism of all stripes is firmly anchored, nay cemented, to literal readings of the texts upon which they are based. Thus you wind up with situations in which words that were composed by other human beings who were reacting to their own myths and prejudices have become the arbiters by which millions of people on this earth judge themselves.

I feel myself turning into a French feminist. Language is fluid, not static. Fundamentalism is a phallic interpretation of language--hard and unyielding, whereas life, and the language that we need to live that life, must be fluid enough to accommodate changing experiences.

So fundamentalism is phallocratic, phallocentric, and phallologocentric. And as much as I like cocks, as the great Groucho said, "I take it out of my mouth every now and then." I refuse to speak the language of fundamentalism.

Monday, November 15, 2004

searching for les mots justes

Does the world need one more blog? I'm torn about this: one one hand, I make my living crafting words; on the other, I feel increasingly that I live in a world where words have lost their meaning and what I say is not what you hear. And yet, the only thing I think that can save us (and by us, I mean we, the peoples of the world) is dialogue. Not monologue. And not cacaphony. And so, before I make a regular habit out of posting here, I want to think about what my responsibility is. And if anyone is out there, I'm open to dialogue.