Friday, May 29, 2009

GM and Chrysler

A Different Model?

I've criticized Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein in the past (check out "Letter to the Washington Post, #7" and "No Bailout"), so it's probably only fair to acknowledge when Pearlstein may have gotten it right. In particular, the federal investment in GM could turn out to be a very positive intervention in the long run.

In his Post column today (read it here), Pearlstein argues, as he has in the past, that GM and Chrysler and their suppliers are too big to fail. This could be just a rationale for a bad bailout. But I think Pearlstein is correct when he says that the government's investments in Chrysler and GM aren't bailouts, at all, but a massive intervention aimed at protecting jobs and pensions and manufacturing capacity.

Pearlstein points out that the intervention wasn't mandated, the Obama administration elected to intervene. In the process, original shareholders have been wiped out, or nearly so. The management teams that presided over the collapse of the two companies have been dismissed. "Bankers and bondholders who had the bad judgement, or the bad luck, to lend money to these companies" will get only pennies on the dollar.

But Pearlstein points out "any fair analysis would also show that the net present value of wage, benefit and job-security concessions agreed to by the United Auto Workers amounts to tens of billions of dollars." In exchange, some autoworkers will keep their jobs. Pensions will be cut, but will survive. And the union, its members and related organizations will own about one-eighth of GM and, I suppose, a similar share of Chrysler. The UAW will have to find a way to make this ownership share pay off, not a sure thing, but maybe a way to pressure the still giant auto companies to operate in the interests of all stakeholders in the future rather than in the interests of a privileged few.

And though I wish to give Pearlstein as strong an "attaboy" as possible for his column, his closing sentence opens up a whole new can of worms. "If President Obama can get most of our troops out of Iraq by the end of 2010, he ought to be able to get our money out of Detroit by then, as well," Pearlstein wrote.

I don't know about that analogy, Steven. First of all, I'm hoping that the U.S. investment in GM is not based on the same lies and deceptions that framed and covered the U.S. attack on Iraq. Second, we ought to be looking for some actual success story as a result of the GM investment, not a laying waste to the company. Finally, the troops in Iraq are, in significant numbers, moving to Afghanistan. Here's hoping that there are far better uses for the GM cash when we finally get it back.

Of Nate and Julie and Brendan

My someone's-growing-up trauma

Last night, Brendan went to bed without saying good night to me. He doesn't do that very often. I stewed about it a little.

It has been so long since I lived with Nate and Julie, but when they were around Brendan's age I was gone many evenings at city council meetings or for other stuff. Not saying good night to them every single night just happened, so I didn't particularly notice when it did.

And then other things in life happened, separation and divorce among other things. So the frequent and absolute separations from Julie and Nate had a different sort of painful and poignant quality. Not saying good night was such a small thing compared to being in Dayton, say, while they were in Ann Arbor.

But life with Brendan has a different sort of rhythm. I'm home almost all the time. It is Marrianne, who travels much more frequently than I do, who has to deal with the little separations, with not being able to read together at bedtime, with missing tender "good nights."

So last night, when Brendan was acting indifferent to the point of clowning around excessively while I was trying to say good night, I pleaded with him to chill out. When pleading didn't work I stomped out. That didn't work, either. If he felt guilty, he didn't act it out. There was no "sorry, Dad," no hugs. He and Marrianne read a while and they both fell asleep.

This morning, he was fine. So was I. But as I watched him preparing for school, getting dressed, sorting out his book bag, I saw a boy both on the cusp of adolescence and a child with eyes still way too big for his face and a book bag too heavy for his still small frame.

"I can't decide sometimes," I said to him, "whether you are a teenager or a little boy. How does it feel inside you?"

"Right now, I can't decide whether to rehearse my part in Hamlet or sit on the floor and watch Sports Center," he said. "I have to get my part right, but ESPN seems more exciting."

Given that watching ESPN seems to be a part of the lives of many adult men, I'm not sure if Brendan was defining the pull of two opposite poles, but his answer wasn't what I expected from a ten year old. To be honest, I think it's me who isn't keeping up here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speaking of Revenge

Living inside an enduring desire for revenge must be the oddest of all sustained emotional states. How could one who has suffered a loss sufficient to develop an unquenchable thirst for vengeance wish to visit an experience of dreadful hurt on another human being?

Living Well Is...

Journalism's slow, painful demise is only one of the many last laughs that Poetry has enjoyed during her storied career. Not that a laugh at Journalism's expense reflects some desire for revenge.

Marge Piercy and Zionism

Corrupting Power

Rereading Marge Piercy's He, She and It about a year ago, I was moved to writing her a mash note. Piercy’s work has always engaged me, but for the last few years, focusing on her poetry, I have neglected revisiting her novels.

Piercy is sometimes lyrical, but more often her poetry is a rare combination of grit, mystery and authenticity. This seems a result of integrity more than anything else, a loyalty to feeling, a passion for justice and a dislaying of both profoundity and desire. Piercy writes as I wish to write.

I am near certain that I will never be quite so reliably present, frank and loving as Piercy seems to me. But sometimes, while reading her, it feels almost sufficient to me that I can recognize those qualities in someone else.

In Piercy’s best stuff—in the poem “Joy Road and Livernois,” in her most feminist poetry, in which she celebrates fertility and menopause, self-knowledge and passionate commitment, in her Jewishness, which seems more than ethnicity, but other than pure faith, and in her novels, I find language that moves me as beauty sometimes moves me. But I am not seduced by it, I am awakened. This isn’t an experience of perfumes and curves and grace and artful drapery; this from Piercy is the reliable uplift I experience in the presence of my closest friends and of my real life partner. It is warmth and it is steel.

The paragraph in He, She and It that moved me to stop reading and start writing the original draft of this post is on page 113 of my Fawcett Crest paperback edition.

“From that moment on, Joseph loves Chava, but he is ashamed of his love. He is a golem of clay. How could any woman embrace him? He could not give her children. If he should touch her, he is terrified he would bruise her flesh that is as light as a petal to him. He would crush her as he crushed the narcissus he tried to pick on the bank of the Vlatava. He knows that the Maharal, whom he always longs to please, whom he cannot help but consider his father, would never forgive him. He cannot bear to imagine the anger of the Maharal if he should ever touch Chava. But Chava is the sun of his day, his rose of light. Whenever she is called out for a birth, he walks with her and he waits outside, all night if necessary, until the dawn renders the ghetto as safe as it ever is,”

This is not even my favorite paragraph on the page, let alone in the book. But it is the point where I finally felt I had to stop reading Piercy for a moment and write to or about her.

Though there are no politicians in her books, or none that come to mind, Piercy is always political. Her best characters, her leading women, mostly, are deeply political and heroic without any desire to be that way. Their values are earthy, global, relational and, sometimes against their individual will, profoundly empathic.

In one short passage, Piercy lays out a most succinct argument about the limitations of what we really know compared to what we think we know. On page 77, the aging Malkah speaks to her granddaughter Shira.

“The great whales—we had just about killed off the last of them before we began to translate their epic and lyric poetry. Were they people? Were the apes who learned to communicate in sign language intelligent beings? Was Hermes [their long-dead, but unforgotten cat] a real presence?” Is it too much of a stretch to note that this passage proposes that creating and understanding poetry is always a matter of someone’s, if not everyone’s, survival?

Piercy’s character Yod, a cyborg, possesses a dignity and integrity that makes him the clear equal of human beings; he makes the same essential claim on our respect and sympathy. His emergence into consciousness is at least as traumatic for him as the birth moment is for babies. Yod tells Shira that he was flooded in a single moment with more data than he could possibly absorb and process. It was the trauma of that moment, he speculates, that doomed earlier attempts to create a functioning cyborg, fatally overwhelming and overloading their nascent circuits.

It is Yod’s fate to struggle with the same basic challenges with which humans also struggle. He is ignored, exploited and lonely, and fated to wrestle with his own version of the human condition. Yod must teach himself or learn from others how to overcome his isolation, how to negotiate the conditions of his existence, how and who to love, how to judge when his moment of personal sacrifice arrives.

For me, reading Piercy is a great intellectual adventure, as exciting to me as Talmudic study is purported to be. Yod has an analogue in Piercy’s story, the “un-man,” the golem Joseph, created in early 17th Century Prague by Rabbi Judah Loew (the Maharal). One of the rabbi’s kabbalah students is a scientist, David Gans, who is also a colleague (as much as a Jew of the time could be) of the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Gans, Kepler and Brahe discuss Giordano Bruno, who had recently been burned at the stake by Roman Catholic inquisitors trying to force Bruno to recant his theories asserting that truth is relative to the position of the observer. “It’s a hazardous business imposing truth,” says Gans. “The Maharal says we can never arrive at truth if we fear discussion. We must attack falsehood, but only after we have given it leave to speak.”

The passage reminds me of Henry, an old friend of mine (from whom I am now estranged) who is locked in bitter struggle with the rabbi and congregation of a temple in Ann Arbor, Mich. Henry believes that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the existence of Israel as a Jewish theocratic state, is the major cause of conflict in the Middle East; the prime cause, even, of the devastating American attack on Iraq. It is a point that he has tried to make by presenting his personal account of the conditions of life for Palestinians living under occupation. But the rabbi of the temple whom he first approached, seeking only an opportunity to make a presentation, denied him. Henry’s response was to organize a silent vigil at the synagogue on Saturday mornings.

Nothing Henry wishes to say or do falls outside traditional Jewish notions of valid discussion. But it is clear that the rabbi who denied him does not share the values of the Maharal. Perhaps Henry’s claims are false, but “we must attack falsehood” after we have permitted its expression, not before.

Though she never mentions Palestine or Palestinians in He, She and It, Piercy’s book is full of implicit observations about the injustice that accompanied the creation and are part of the maintenance of the state of Israel in its current form.

“The Maharal abhors violence…he says no nation has a right to dominate or rule another. Each people has their own road, their own destiny to fulfill. The world is imperfect and requires repair so long as any people is under the rule of another (page 315).”

This belief of the Maharal reflects a traditional Jewish understanding of the obligation called tikkun olam, the obligation to heal the world. Less than one hundred pages later, Malkah, a 21st century computer whiz, reflects on the same subject.

“…my part was to read the poem by Mara Schleimann that everybody but the Orthodox use these days, about the heritage we share now of having a nation in our name as stupid and as violent as other nations: a lament for a lost chance, a botched redemption, a great repair, tikkun olam, gone amiss.”

It is a striking thing to imagine that the unjust use of Jewish power, which historically has been something Jews have wielded only against others within their own community, has become an ethnic and nationalist power used to expropriate and oppress non-Jews. But that is precisely Piercy’s message here.

Zionism in the 19th Century was just another minority political tendency in European Jewish communities, which seemed to sow and cultivate political theories with a frequency inversely proportionate to Jewish powerlessness in the larger universe. But in the 21st Century Zionism has become a false god, an idolatrous nationalist celebration that dooms the history, plagues the present and crushes the hopes of Palestinians, the people whose circumstances and fate Jews, above all others, should be lamenting.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Wild Once and Captured (revised)

An earlier version of this poem can be found here.
A further revision can be found here.

Wild Once and Captured
On Hearing Annie Lennox

Wild Once and Captured
On Hearing Annie Lennox

A prairie full of flowers,
a whisper full of rhythms,
a mirror full of faces,
a mountain draped with heroes,
every one a rarity
designed in regnant places.

Here music summons silence,
here longing is allure
and touching is an art
and dancing is a language
and searching leads us one by one
to stories all our own,
and to stories told in common.

Here smolders spirit,
rich and ripe
with promise, peace and legend.
There drums yammering in clearings
where we are jamming with justice
who was wild once and captured
and has broken out again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Health Care News from Commie Rag

Health Care Fight Isn't Over

The May 23rd issue of People's Weekly World came in the mail today. "Public option is 'core fight' in health reform battle," announced the headline on the lead story. Well, quelle surprise!

I thought the fight for a public insurance plan was all but over. That, I suppose is because I have become a consumer of primarily mainstream versions of the news. I read Washington Post. I catch a little CNN and clearly not enough Daily Show. And, I'm thinking as a direct consequence of where I get my news, I had come to believe that the stars (and the lobbyists and the insurance companies and the Republicans and the privileged few who don't care what they have to pay to get decent medical coverage) were lined up against a public plan (government-operated health care coverage) and that said public plan was therefore doomed.

But it's not doomed. According to PWW (here's a link to one Weekly World article) the fight for a public plan ain't over. That's great news and, unsurprisingly, not clearly the case in the sources I've been relying on for most of my news. I should be ashamed, but more to the point, we still have a chance to pass health care legislation that includes a public plan. Now, better informed as I am, what am I gonna do about it?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Beet Stalks In the Disposal

Bad Idea

Here's what happens when you put beet stalks in the garbage disposal: The blades of the disposal, which are actually grinders rather than cutters, strip the vegetable layers binding the fibers of the stalks. The grinders turn the vegetable matter to a swampy mush and relentlessly fold and refold the fibers and stuff the indigestible mess into the small holes that drain the grinding surface of the disposal, plugging it.

If you leave the disposal going and the water running, the sink will begin to fill. But before the water reaches a depth of, say, two inches, the disposal will fling water, vegetable matter and fiber back out of the sink drain and, sometimes, achieve something like lift off. A revenge, of sorts, for victims of food chain tyranny.

The process of clearing the disposal, which comes next, is interesting, but an account of that process would distract us from the value of the experience, what the experience teaches us: Don't put beet stalks in the disposal.

Next Week: What happens when you allow the gas bar-b-q to fill with too much propane before pushing the igniter button.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The End of the Affair

Infatuation with Republican Secretary Ends

I should have known it wasn't for real. I'm no James Carville and DOD Secretary Robert Gates is no Mary Matalin. The large passion I felt for Gates when he announced a plan for extensive cuts in previously untouchable weapons programs was real. No Republican with Gates' stature has set himself against the culture of biggering the military budget since Dwight Eisenhower's critique of the military-industrial system. But I should have recognized that what I felt was not love, but the gratitude of a thirsty man staggering up to an affordable bar in an out-of-the-way mirage.

This return to reality is caused, irony of ironies, by the fact that Gates has just recently fired the only general who ever stoked a similar passion in me. General David McKiernan endeared himself to me when reports circulated about a paper he wrote intended to guide US military operations in Afghanistan.

"One tactical approach stands out [in the memo]," wrote Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus, who highlighted an important quote from McKiernan's paper: "Do not clear an area unless GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] are able to hold it."

McKiernan made a special effort to clarify the point that military operations in Afghanistan must be guided by the understanding that actions that do not contribute to security, stability and hope in the Afghani countryside will undermine US goals. There may be other recent examples of such prudent thinking by commanders leading US military interventions, but I'm not aware of them.

Like my "cut military spending" mantra, I also favor "US out of everywhere" as a general approach to military policy. Nothing McKiernan wrote changed my mind on that point. But it was refreshing to think that somewhere in the world there was a commander of US military forces who could not be satirized for an "I love the smell of napalm in the morning (Apocalypse, Now)" mindset.

Now, McKiernan's gone. Fired by Gates, who replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a soldier with a special forces and a secret ops background. Call me a quitter, but I'm ready to bail out now.

Of course, the US has not, in my adult lifetime, fought a war I didn't oppose. Further, it seems increasingly likely that it is no longer possible to fight a war in which one side wins. Obviously, there are always losers in war, but what are the realistic outcomes that would define what it means to win a war?

At this point, I am so over Bob Gates. And I am audacious enough to hope that the Pentagon will one day soon be run by people who don't believe that winning a war is a reasonable goal.

Friday, May 8, 2009

10 Best Stoner Movies

Uh, well, there's...uh

I know The Big Lebowski is one of the 10 Best Stoner Movies of all-time, but I can't really think of any others. The Beatles' Help! is one of the peaks of the '60s zeitgeist and therefore has to count, even if it's not really of the genre.

Apocalypse, Now is really not of the genre, either, but if you think the people who made the movie--wrote it, acted it, directed it, produced it--weren't stoned along the way, you either are stoned right this moment, or never have been, at all. Therefore, Apocalypse, Now qualifies, too. It wasn't for stoners, it was by stoners. "By" and "for" both qualify.

I'd like to include "about," also, but there are simply too many movies that are about stoners to be considered part of the stoner genre. Broadly understood, virtually all movies are about stoners. A genre is a subset.

Linking to The Big Lebowski and Apocalypse, Now and to "stoner movies" and following the links will get us where?.

Ah, the link for TBL goes to "Memorable Quotes for The Big Lebowski." Very nice site. Memorable, indeed. And there is not a single line on the site that would contradict the notion that TBL is one of the Ten Best. One can also link to three of the stars of TBL, Jeff Bridges (also in The Fisher King), John Goodman (also in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and Steve Buscemi (also in Reservoir Dogs , Con Air and Fargo), but I wouldn't advise it.

The link for Apocalypse, Now also goes to the "Memorable Quotes" site. Just read the first quote from Col. Kurtz and encounter the dark side of stoner movies. What, by the way, is a reader supposed to understand about the comma that separates Apocalypse from Now? Does it refer to Vietnam, the apocalypse happening in the "now" of the movie? Or is it the call of some darker figure for an apocalypse to begin, like, now?

Suddenly can't stop thinking about Smoke, which stars William Hurt and Harvey Keitel (advise that interested readers do not ignore this link to the website "Famous Marines In the News and In the Community;" after reading the long-winded and comprehensive first sentence about Keitel's career, one can backtrack on the site to the page about former marine Captain Kangaroo, aka Bob Keeshan). Keitel, by the way, was also in Reservoir Dogs.

Smoke had an incredible soundtrack. Screaming Jay Hawkins makes Tom Waits seem like a crooner.

There's something about Smoke that makes me think of a book I once read, titled, I believe Letting Go, by an author whom I can no longer identify, but whom brother Mark says is Philip Roth. The middle-class protagonist in Letting Go attempts to help a young woman whose life he is unequipped to understand. In the process, he methodically destroys himself. "Such book," as the German emigrants in Casablanca (not a stoner movie) might say.

Letting Go, of course, is not a movie and certainly not a stoner movie, but it makes good sense to end a post I have no hope of ever completing with a digression. So, three arguably stoner movies TBL, AN and Help! (four, if you include Smoke, which I have not actually nominated to the list), one film that would never qualify (Casablanca), several other mostly good films encountered while linking, and a book somewhat faded from memory--pathetic. Perhaps, others will flesh out the list.

As for the link to stoner movies, itself, that goes where? Here (among other places), a site that claims that such movies are almost always comedies and usually about dopers. Imagine that.