Saturday, June 27, 2009

Iran Coverage You Should Trust

CEPR's Weisbrot Commits Journalism

In talking about the national economy, I've referred quite a lot to the work of Dean Baker, an economist, who is also co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), but Dean's colleague at CEPR, Marc Weisbrot, is an equally able economist who tends to focus most of his attention on Latin America and the global economy. Marc's most recent piece, Was Iran's Election Stolen?, focuses on Iran in a blessedly hard-headed and clear-eyed way. In fact, Marc's piece is, I think, a model of journalistic investigation in a period when real journalism seems a dying craft.

Marc notes that it may "not matter whether the elections were stolen because the government has responded to peaceful protests with violence and arrests. These actions are indeed abhorrent and inexcusable, and the world's outrage is justified," but, he continues, "the issue of whether the election was stolen will remain relevant, both to our understanding of the situation and to U.S.-Iranian relations."

He then goes on to explore the question of fraudulent vote counting and other irregularities in impressive detail and comes to the reasonable conclusion that Ahmadinejad likely did win by something reasonably close to the reported margin. In arriving at that point, Marc enlisted the help of a faculty member at the University of Iran and interviewed an Iranian poll worker by phone. He obtained additional information from "Rostam Pourzal, an Iranian-American human rights campaigner," who confirmed that the description of vote-counting procedures outlined by his other sources seemed factually accurate.

All told Weisbrot's piece is a model of fact-finding, attention to detail and timely commentary. Perhaps more to the point, as Marc notes, it does no good, at all, for Washington and Western Europe to pretend the election was stolen, if such accusations serve only to deepen the divide between Iran and the West. That, he says,
"will boost hardliners here - including some in the Obama administration - who want to de-legitimize the government of Iran in order to avoid serious negotiations over its nuclear program. That is something that we should avoid, because a failure to seriously pursue negotiations now may lead to war in the future."

Iranian Demonstrations Inspire Others

Pretty much everyone has something to say about what's going on in Iran. So do I. And it seems likely to me that Iran is headed, over an unknown period of time, to more freedom and less theocracy. I don't know enough about the details of political life there to say anything more specific than that, but that movement isn't going to occur without some bloodshed and considerable pain for ordinary Iraqis.

There have been a number of dramatic and powerful demonstrations against autocracy in recent years, like Tiananmen in 1989, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in Burma. All of them were and are full of promise. But the reality is that historically the struggle for expanded freedom is dangerous, complicated and painfully slow. Moments of real inspiration are not that frequent, either, but their importance is underscored by the fact that authoritarian regimes everywhere are severely restricting the availability of information about events in Iran. (Read an article about that here.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Playlist Begins With P

Ends With Dayton Reverie

So Brendan gave me an Ipod Shuffle for Father's Day. You know, the one I gave him a year earlier as my gift on Father's Day to my youngest child. I've barely seen the tiny device since Brendan gave it back. He borrowed it the next day--he was saving his new Nano for other purposes--and misplaced it the next. Still, it's around and, after I relocate it, I fully intend to load it with a playlist designed to help me remember who I think I am.

Like, for instance, I'm not a grandfather. You might think that since that is an actual objective state, I wouldn't need reminding that I'm not a grandpa, but some life trajectories do pass from parenthood and on to grandparenthood (though not always in the straightest of lines). And some mornings I wake up with aches that seem to be "slow down, gramps" messages from my bones. And many of the parents of Brendan's schoolmates appeal to me in precisely the way my own children appeal--I want to stop everything and give them a hug.

So "Playlist" begins with P, which is also the first letter of Pogues, whose music is sometimes cranky and grumpy and angry, or wistful, nostalgic and rueful, but never grandfatherly. Several Pogues songs yet to be determined will make my playlist.

Daniel Emerich, who left a decent job with a mainstream newspaper in Ohio to come to work at the Dayton Voice (and what a slippery slope that started him on) sent me a link for the Felice Brothers' Run Chicken Run, which will surely make my list, once I figure out how to transfer the song to my iTunes playlist and from there to my shuffle.

Citing the opinion of others, Daniel tells me that there is a developing music genre called "Dark Americana" into which the Felice Brothers fit. OK, note to self: find out more about Dark Americana. A Dayton band called Horsefeathers turned up through another link on the same page as Run Chicken Run. Read about them and download some of their music here.

Frankly, I'm not sure about Horsefeathers "Working Poor." It may be too country for my tastes, though Dayton music, even garage band rock stuff, has always been influenced by country and, for that matter, by the funk sound that developed in Cincinnati and in Dayton's Westside in the '70s and early '80s (Ohio Players being the most well-known Dayton funk band).

A lot of Dayton Voice staff were musicians: Steve Bright, Nick Kizirnis, Michelle Bodine, Don Thrasher, Greg Spence and CJ Sexson. When they were still high school students Jonathan and Hans Drexler became the Voice's first delivery staff. Later, Jonathan and Hans moved to Chicago where a lot of Dayton musicians migrated. I don't know what they're up to now, but Steve Bright is in Chicago, too, working at Northwestern University and planning on getting a graduate degree there.

Nick and Greg played together for awhile in a group called Cage, among others. I used to have a Cage CD, but I can't find it. Nick was a great rocker and page layout guy, but for my money, Michelle Bodine (with the O-Matics, among others) was the #1 rocker/page layout combination.

But Nick could play the theramin--the eerie sound effects device from the early days of movies, the one moviemakers used to make brooding, haunting sounds in horror films. At Cage performances, Nick on the theramin was always a showstopper. Sometimes, I think that bothered him, He was a serious guitarist and he didn't want that to be overshadowed by his mastery of something which at times felt to him like a gimmick.

Greg died while we were all still putting out the Voice. His death was pretty hard on everybody, especially the musicians. He was always an absolutely gentle and calming presence. He was a great writer, too, very expressive and competent across a wide range of topics. I think Greg had a lot of friends who would have traded a few years off their own life so that he might live longer.

Not too long ago Michelle started playing with another band that tours occasionally, but I'll have to get the details later.

Then there was Don Thrasher, another relentlessly positive presence around the office. Don gave up drumming for Guided By Voices because touring separated him from his family. After that Don played in a number of local bands that were always a lot of fun. They were also distinguished by their cleverly idiosyncratic and suggestive names. The last one I was aware of was Swearing At Motorists.

Don didn't leave GBV for the Voice, that would have been abandoning a shot at artistic success for an ultimately doomed enterprise. Instead, he went to work in the accounting office of Standard Register, a Fortune 500 company at the time, which would end up slowly chopping off pieces of itself until it disappeared in the maw of some competitor.

Before that, though, Don did leave Standard Register for the Voice, where he became music reviewer and arts editor. For a brief time, the Voice was where he could both be at home with his family and also work where his heart led him. I think Don might be working for the Dayton Daily News in some fashion now, but that's clearly not a job with a future, either.

Right now, I'm listening to another Dayton original, Jayne Sachs. I don't know if any of her stuff is available on the web, but some of it will make my playlist. Jayne has always reminded me of a range of other more successful, but not superior (to my ear) female singer-songwriters. The Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins comes to mind. So does Liz Phair.

What started out here as an effort to blog my way, with the help of others, to a playlist for my new Shuffle has ended up being a post that needs more feedback than I first imagined and lots more links. I need readers to get back to me with links to music by some of the musicians I've mentioned here. And additions and reflections on the Voice and on the Dayton music scene in the '90s, and since. And other helpful feedback.

Feel free to e-mail me, if you wish, at, but it would also be helpful if you'd share your thoughts in the form of comments right here on this post.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Walt Whitman and the Wounded and the Brave

It's not OK, I don't think, for me to be satisfied with my understanding of myself as anti-war and anti-militarist. Not if it blinds me to soldiers who serve, whatever the motivation for their service. Overall, I think of soldiers as the toys of generals, of elites. But Walt Whitman didn't see it that way.

In December 1862, he left his New Jersey home after reading a report that his brother George had been wounded. Later that month Walt found George in a camp hospital in Virginia. He stayed with his brother, who had suffered a facial wound, until he recovered. Afterward, Walt traveled to Washington, where he found a part-time job, which allowed him to spend a great deal more time visiting the wounded and the dying, Yankee and Confederate, in the hospitals around the city.

In a short book, Walt Whitman and Words for America, I read the edited text of a letter he wrote to the parents of a young soldier who had died while Whitman sat at his bedside.

Washington, August 10, 1863

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Haskell,

...I thought it would be soothing to you to have a few lines about the last days of your son Erastus...Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside till far into the night--The lights would be put out--yet I would sit there silently, hours, late, perhaps fanning him--he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk--I shall never forget those nights...

I write to you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory...He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land...

Mr. and Mrs. Haskell...though we are strangers & shall probably never see each other, I send love--

Walt Whitman

How absolutely empathic, sweet, warm and clear-eyed Whitman was. Because of Whitman we know, now and forever, that Erastus Haskell lived and died. And we can imagine that this letter was a comfort to those Haskells. They would know that the man who wrote it was a mentsch. They might also have known that Whitman was a great poet, already America's poet, and that he had taken the time to sit with Erastus and to write them because it was important to do so.

Later, in O Captain! My Captain! Whitman would eulogize Lincoln as the man who had saved the union and as the man Whitman had "come to love personally," the man whose "face and manner are inexpressibly sweet."

The last few times I got a chance to work on poetry with kids I've relied primarily on two tools to break the ice, the poem The Unwritten by W.S. Merwin, and these lines from Whitman:

"Whoever you are,
now I place my hand upon you
that you be my poem."

I think we each have a chance to understand this country a little better because Walt Whitman came before us and loved America and Americans so well. He wouldn't have let a little thing like disdain for generals blind him to the humanity of the people who served under their command. I'm afraid I do.

Gays in the Military

Same Old Arguments

I don't usually see a letter in the Washington Post that addresses in effective detail most of what I was trying to say in a letter that I'd sent. But this one in today's Post is a more than adequate answer to the question: Why didn't they publish my letter?

In fact, the letter written by Andre Sauvageot covers most of the ground my letter covered and is actually more succinct. Sauvageot's letter wasn't self-referential, either. Mine was.

But it's fine with me if the Post doesn't run my letters. Writing about good and bad generals and good and bad military personnel policy is a bizarre thing for me to be doing, anyway. First of all, I'm not a fan of militaries or military service. Obviously, there is a rationale for a defensive army and their is such a thing as heroic service. But I got over wanting to die for my country at the age of eighteen, or so, and have refined my anti-war and anti-militarist perspective ever since.

In a world in which there is so much real need and in which possessing weapons almost inevitably leads to using weapons in acts of war, aggression and injustice, I'm inclined to believe that moving in a measured way toward a policy of national vulnerability is both patriotic and a way to find a good portion of the funds necessary to build a just world in the 21st Century.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Military That Looks Like America

Letter to the Post, #18

Another letter to the Post goes unpublished. My guess is I'll get another one in the paper by the time I get to letter #22.

Retired Army General John Shalikashvili’s column “Gays in the Military: Let the Evidence Speak (Post, June 19) is a welcome relief from the usual narrow dicta issued by military command officers, retired or otherwise. In fact, Shalikashvili cites and refutes a previous Post op-ed piece (Gays and the Military: A Bad Fit, April 15), in which four retired command officers trot out the usual clich├ęs about gays harassing straights and undermining military cohesion. (I wrote a letter to the Post about that one, also. Read it here.)

That earlier piece confirmed me in my own prejudice, which is that in a democracy neither war nor social policy ought to be left up to generals. Shalikashvili is a clear exception, a general able to see that our society must be served by a military that can keep pace with broader social change; specifically that gay men and lesbians ought to be able to serve openly in our armed forces because our democratic values require a military that reflects who we are as a nation.

Jeff Epton

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Ten-year-old gives back

Last year on Father's Day, Brendan (on Marrianne's initiative) gave me an Ipod Shuffle. Then, as planned with Marrianne, I turned around and gave it to Brendan. This year, as his gift, Brendan performed a little concert of four songs he had written. He also gave the Shuffle back to me.

The concert was great. Brendan can write and carry a tune and shows little self-consciousness in performance.

The Shuffle had become superfluous. Brendan graduated from fifth grade this year, the transition point from elementary to middle school. So, after a little bit of parental discussion and a certain amount of 10-year-old nagging, we decided, OK, the boy actually has been a dedicated, enthusiastic young scholar, he gets a reward. We gave him a Nano.

And so, for Father's Day, I got a Shuffle. I'm going to clean off Brendan's music, mostly rap, but some Chipmunks. His music's not all bad, but as I understand it, you've got to wipe the chip clean on a Shuffle. There is no way to select one file out of many, then delete.

So, I'll delete everything, then develop my own playlist. I think I'll start with something raucous, something rebellious, something that won't remind me that I'm old enough to be Brendan's grandfather. Maybe the Pogues.

Our Economic and Environmental Future According to Republicans and Democrats

Who Is Accepting the Challenges?
Who’s Putting Them Off?

The National Debt

The nearly unanimous Republican position on the growing national debt:
It creates a crushing burden for future generations to manage.

The Democratic position on the national debt, generally:
The cause of the debt is twofold.
• A large portion of the debt is the result of higher and higher interest payments on debt incurred by Republican administrations stretching over 20 years (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) between 2000 and 2008.
• Debt incurred investing in reconstructing an economy that will grow and generate increased wealth in the future is defensible debt.

Climate Change

The Republican position on climate change, generally:
• Climate change is not scientifically proven.
• Even where there is evidence of climate change some of it will be benign and technologically manageable.
• Proposals to address climate change put too much burden on the private sector. The proposals also punish the United States while growing economies like China and India make things worse.

The Democratic position, generally:
• Some of the effects of climate change are already irreversible. We need to act now before things for future generations get much worse.
• Historically and currently, industrial and transportation policies of the United States have been significantly, if not primarily, responsible for much of the damage done to date. The United States must lead the world in addressing climate change, now.

Tentative Conclusion:

Republican claims about the future of the economy are debatable. Democratic claims are, also, but the notion that debt incurred to invest in the future now will pay off with growth and a larger GDP in the future make sense to me.

But the unwillingness of most Republican officials to concede that climate change is a real and growing threat completely discredits their claim to care about the burdens we are bequeathing to future generations. Democrats may not know quite what to do, but that makes sense in dealing politically with an unprecedented problem. We must act, and if action means a reduced standard of living now in order to preserve a reasonable standard of living in the future, we must accept that as a basis for sound climate change policy. And we should discount both the economic and climate change recommendations of all politicians who rail against "burdening" posterity with monetary debt and, in the next breath, suggest that it's OK to pass along the burdens arising from global warming.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Unwritten

W.S. Merwin's Great Poem

I memorized this poem in the Fall of 2007 when I had the great privilege of teaching poetry for a bit to students at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School where Brendan goes. As far as I can tell, little miracles happen everyday at Haynes. Reciting this poem captured the attention of a lot of children (and a few adults) who hadn't previously shown any interest in poetry.

Inside this pencil
crouch words that have never been written
never been spoken
never been taught

they're hiding

they're awake in there
dark in the dark
hearing us
but they won't come out
not for love not for time not for fire

even when the dark has worn away
they'll still be there
hiding in the air
multitudes in days to come may walk through them
breathe them
be none the wiser

what script can it be
that they won't unroll
in what language
would I recognize it
would I be able to follow it
make out the real names of everything

maybe there aren't
it could be there's only one word
and it's all we need
it's here in this pencil

every pencil in the world
is like this

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Love of Our Life

Roger Sanders,
Born In Battle,
Died, May 27, 2009

The night Ilene’s pregnancy came to its conclusion and Roger’s life began, the Issett women were home alone. Generally, this would create no special difficulties, but in January 1941, London, where the Issetts lived, was the target of nightly bombing raids by the German air force.

Their modest home sat in a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of London. A railyard filled a large space behind the houses on the street, separating the Issetts and their neighbors from many city services. Ilene, the Issett’s adult daughter had moved back in with her family for the last part of her pregnancy after her husband, Arthur Sanders, had gone off to the war in France.

The almost rural character of their city neighborhood worked just fine for Ethel and Arthur Issett and their children. They had a garden in the backyard, raspberries, herbs and flowers sprouting vigourously. A high fence marked the back of the property, cutting off the clang and bustle of the rumbling freight trains. A driveway ran alongside the house to a garage where Arthur stored a car that he regularly maintained, but rarely drove.

Behind the garage stood a tool shed built primarily out of corrugated steel. Arthur, a machinist at a local factory by day, and a gardener, handyman and poet otherwise, referred to the little outbuilding as the “Mark Twain Scrap Iron Shop.”

Another twenty feet or so further, near the back fence, stood Arthur’s workshop. The Issett home was something of a small homestead, but they were hardly self-sufficient. In any case, they had no such goal in mind. They were more than willing to cross the long, narrow, pedestrian bridge that crossed high above the railyard and walk the distance to the grocer or the doctor whenever such a trip was required.

Accordingly, they accepted that when the time came for Ilene to have her baby, she would walk to the women’s hospital in town. That was the plan, and they would stick to it, even during an air raid, if it came to that.

On the night of January 5th, 1941, it did, indeed, come to that. And when it did, Ilene and Ethel left together for town. Audrey’s dad was gone too, pursuing his duties as an air raid warden, so Audrey was home alone.

Soon to be Roger’s aunt (later to be the mother of four, including me), Audrey was fifteen years old when Germany began bombing English cities. Audrey’s stories about the regular bombings are notable for how quickly she and her family adjusted to the attacks.

At first, the noise and glare from explosions, air bursts and burning buildings visible in the distance frightened her. Audrey and her mother spent many nights in a makeshift bomb shelter in the backyard, while her father walked his rounds, knocking on doors, reminding neighbors about the blackout rules, and shepherding people through the streets to public shelters.

As the attacks continued the terror wore off. Audrey and Ethel began spending the nights in the greater comfort of their first floor living room. Eventually, Audrey says, they just stayed in their beds, listening to the bombs and finally sleeping through the raids. But that January night, watching Ilene and Ethel leave for the women’s hospital, Audrey felt a fear similar to that she’d experienced when the Germans first began bombing London, that their neighborhood would be hit, that people would be hurt or killed, most especially her mother and sister.

Audrey watched Ilene and Ethel walk away, heading for the pedestrian bridge over the railyard. Following their progress was difficult in the blacked out night until they reached the bridge. Backlit by bomb flashes they would become suddenly and momentarily visible. To Audrey the two women, small figures on the bridge, seemed terrifyingly vulnerable. As each flash died, they would disappear from sight again, their disappearance seemingly heralded by the thunderous booms trailing each explosion. In the alternating flashes and sudden darkness, Audrey followed their progress, but could no longer see them at all by the time they reached the end of the bridge.

Before dawn, the nighttime air battle concluded. With still no word from her family, Audrey fell asleep. She woke to the news that Roger was born and all were safe.

Though Mom has always told her stories with stereotypical English reserve, it’s easy to imagine the special boost that the new baby brought to their lives. After all, the young men of the family were absent, brothers Pete and Doug served in the British tank corps, and were constantly in harm’s way. By the time Roger was four, Audrey would be serving as a plane-spotter for an anti-aircraft installation on the English coast by 1945. But until then, baby Roger was a respite from war, from lost adolescence, from worries about husbands and brothers and sons.

I only met Roger twice. The first time, in 1956, I was nine, Roger 15. My brother, two sisters and I flew to England with Mom to spend that summer with her parents in her childhood home. Roger was already grown, seemingly twice my size and fully equipped with an unruly shock of curly hair, a ruddy English complexion, and an adolescent air of aloofness. He was, to me, the very essence of an Englishman.

I met Roger again, 53 years later, this past January, when Brendan, Marrianne and I visited relatives in Ireland and England. In preparation for the visit, Roger and I exchanged letters, phone calls and e-mails. He was cordial in his greetings and both thorough and efficient when I asked for his help in finding lodgings in York, an older, historic English city, near his home.

But Roger’s reserve also conveyed a wariness that I interpreted as a suspicion that Americans traveling in England were barbarians, and generally unappreciative of England’s many virtues. When I suggested that he might take us on a walking tour of the spots in York he most favored, he responded with a measure of surprise that I would even suggest walking. Americans, he seemed to imply, typically toured England in limousines, strewing fast food wraps and other trash roadside as they went.

We spent parts of two days with Roger and his wife, Susan, a warm and relaxed soul. Roger seemed to recognize right away that Marrianne had somehow acquired a bit of civility herself, but I didn’t detect a thaw toward me until our second day in York.

He weakened, I think, as we toured Yorkminster (England’s second oldest cathedral) and I recited the first ten or so lines of the prologue to Canterbury Tales, which, he said, he could not do himself. He did not add that I had somehow positively distinguished myself from other Americans, but he did note that Susan, back at their hotel at the time, would have been delighted to hear my recitation.

We exchanged e-mails with Roger and Susan after that, sending our thanks for their hospitality and digitized photos of our time together. We didn’t hear from them again until the other day when Susan e-mailed.

“Sad news,” she wrote. “I am very sorry to tell you that Roger died on Wednesday, 27th May after 8 weeks in hospital.

“He was admitted with a severe pneumonia but the doctors were never able to identify the cause of the infection. He was treated with several courses of different antibiotics but despite this, the infection gradually spread throughout his lungs, making breathing extremely difficult for him. Eventually, after 2 months, his heart was exhausted and no longer able to fight.

“Perhaps you could tell your mother personally rather than me telling her over the phone.

“I am so pleased that he had a chance to meet you earlier this year in York. It really was a lovely occasion.

With love and best wishes to you all,
Sue & family”

I did want to be the one to tell Mom, but living in DC, with her in Chicago, I did it by phone, anyway. Fortunately, my sister Dale was in town visiting, and sister Teri and brother Mark live only thirty, or so, miles away. I passed Susan’s e-mail on to Mark and Teri and asked them to check with Mom later in the day, which, of course, they did.

The phone call to Mom was brief. She was resolute, but in telling her I felt Roger’s loss most keenly. The story of the night of his birth returned to me quite vividly and I found myself trying to choke back tears. Mom knew something was wrong, she said, when she didn’t hear from Roger around her most recent birthday.

She didn’t say anything about it at the time. She just wouldn’t mention a thing like that, but it would be on her mind. They had a special affection for each other. I have little doubt that Roger was Mom’s favorite Englishman. She, in return, was by far his favorite American, a bit of a stretch, considering how English she still seems to be.

Teri e-mailed later that Mom was doing well, displaying a reserve quite similar to Roger’s, the same sort of composure that Mom’s American children have always found somewhat baffling. Still, Mom exposed a bit of herself and the hope that Roger brought with him in 1941.

“He was the love of our life,” she said to Teri.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fleeing Before Me Becomes Journey

One More Tweak

OK, so on June 8 I wrote that I was finally pleased with Fleeing Before Me. I still am, but the poem is called Journey now. And I've changed it a little bit more. And, maybe blogging about my feelings about the poem and posting its stages of evolution is excessive. But once I begin learning my poems, reciting them as I walk, they change. They seem to improve.

Coming up with a "final" version and then still another and another may be somewhat problematic, but it's also a process in which I develop new enthusiasm for my poems. It's the antidote for any embarrassment I might feel about what I've written. In the process, I have my own "aha" moments, new clarity about what I've been trying to say, new insight about how to say it, a sudden connect to a word that works.

I'm getting very close to where I want to be with this. I have it half memorized, and that half isn't changing much. Now I have to ease into the rest--then it's on to Bus Boys and Poets. Or, perhaps, another venue.


Here am I
in this unbounded place,
a point in passing,
a bridge between times,
through darkness across voids
around the great signal fires.

It takes an effort of will
to catch what I’d missed,
to see we in that space
took wing,
to hear small birds with
perfect pitch and
immaculate messages
to conjure a thing so close
god’s eyes cross with
recall and effort,
cross with wonder and unselfconscious
neglect for appearances.

The path goes far beyond the end
of innocence and divides in the next space.
The trail has gone this way,
into the future,
precisely the path I follow now
with music by birdsong,
if I should choose to listen, and
lit by brilliant flowers, if I should choose to hear.

I stop at the odd firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them,
the old bones near dust. What beasts were these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
Something fierce, I wonder.
How does a place become
so empty?

What has been driven before me?
A sudden thought;
what lurks behind?
A memory, perhaps. Of us.
What also wanders here?
Midst birdsong and flowers,
Who will find whom?
This hunt nearly consumes me.

Gathering a bouquet of thoughts,
I consider fragrance, balance of color,
length of stem, the flowering cup.

With fresh effort,
I hear small birds
possessing perfect pitch,
singing immaculate messages.

Leaving reason behind,
the supreme, last seen, seemed adrift,
Remote, flickered out in the distance,
just this side of the horizon line

The not known has gone this way,
into the future and
I am following,
backed with music by birdsong,
my way lit by scattered
combustible bushes.

Tiring, I stop at the next firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them—
the old bones stir. What beasts are these?
Something immense, I see.
And without name.
Abiding. This human
slips by.

Thoughts rolling like sea glass.
What has fled before me?
Who wanders just ahead?
With what purpose?
With eyes failing like mine?
With strain in the effort
of looking?

Who will find whom
around birdsong and flowers
and gathering bones of resurrecting beasts?
What happens then?
Who will continue this hunt?
The next thought consumes me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stella Taylor Died Last Week

The Woman Wouldn't Quit

Stella Taylor died last week, after a too-short lifetime of struggle. She was 56. To me, Stella is and was both the image and the summary of the six years I spent on the Ann Arbor City Council.

I suppose that when I met Stella, I thought of her as a victim. I never told her that and I don’t believe she wanted me to think so. I thought of her as a poor person who was afflicted two or three times over by racism and sexism. But she was never helpless in the face of the challenges life threw at her.

I met her during my first year on council when she called me about the inadequacies of the city recreation center in her neighborhood. By the time she called, she had already invested considerable energy trying to persuade the director of the center that the facility wasn’t doing a very good job serving neighborhood children.

The director of the rec center, Stella told me, “Had gotten on her last nerve.” He wasn’t serving children, she said. He was serving himself.

Stella insisted that I visit her and see for myself how little the city did for her neighborhood. The center was the only significant city government presence in the area and it was, she insisted, understaffed, passive and uncommitted.

Frankly, in six years of trying, I don’t think Stella and all her allies, mostly other neighborhood mothers and grandmothers and me, made much progress. I’m pretty sure she would have agreed with that assessment. But she would also have insisted, and did so, that we keep trying. Quitting, she believed, was the only real sign of failure

There was no quit in Stella. Her mother died when Stella was a young teenager, shot to death by someone who should have loved both Stella and her mother better. Dee Booker, one of the women whom I met through Stella, remembers Stella regularly visiting an aunt in the neighborhood, before her mother’s death. “She was so pretty,” Dee says. “She was always so neat and wore ribbons in her hair.”

But not long after her mother’s murder, Stella ended up homeless, on the streets of Detroit. She developed a drug habit and did whatever she had to do to get by.

Though I don’t know how she did it, Stella got herself straight by the time her first child, Putty, was born. Over the next 10 or so years, three kids followed, sons Corey and William and daughter Kamaria.

After Stella called me that first time, we took a walk around the neighborhood. It was the middle of the day. We stopped by the rec center. It was closed, locked up while the director, according to Stella, was off running personal errands on city time.

Stella was no tattletale. Everything she told me about the center and the director were things I later heard her tell directly to him, at meetings she demanded. At first, I was inclined to believe the director when he told me that the city didn’t have the resources to do what Stella wanted. I also believed that he was a professional who was doing his best.

Eventually, I came to think otherwise, to think that he was a gatekeeper who believed his responsibility was to “manage” the community and to discourage demands or, even, requests, for service. It was Stella who had a vision of how things should be. And it was Stella, who with her soft voice, made the most noise in the neighborhood.

I left Ann Arbor in 1990, a year after the end of my third term on Council, and I didn’t stay in close touch with Stella much after that. But we talked from time to time. One of her sons, William, in the same grade at Pioneer High with my son Nate, was also killed in a shooting. Corey, a great high school basketball player, struggled in junior college and didn’t finish. Kamaria ran into problems, too. But Stella never gave up, and has passed that quality on to her children who have learned from her that they, too, must persevere and insist on better for their own children.

The country is in a crisis of its own now. The economy has tanked, decent jobs are scarce, health care hard to come by, and housing grows increasingly unaffordable. If anything, times are objectively worse now for Stella’s children than they were for Stella. To compound the difficulties, the media seems fascinated with the problems of the once comfortable. The never comfortable have fallen off the radar.

I have some ideas of my own for what would help. Certainly universal health care would make a difference. School reform and vast new investment in public education (paid for by dramatic cuts in the military budget) would be a giant step toward real equity across the country. Enlightened regulation of the private sector, which has always functioned in the interests of a privileged few, could help fulfill some of the promises America has made to working people, but has never kept.

But what we need most of all, is more Stella Taylors. People who speak up and don’t quit. If we don’t have enough of them, then we need to raise more of them. We are poorer, by far for the loss of our one Stella Taylor, but we are rich with her memory and her example. As Mother Jones said, "Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fleeing Before Me

A revision I can live with

As, I've mentioned before, I really like this poem, but I've never been happy with it. Yesterday, it occurred to me that the mood I've been trying to create here owes a lot to images inspired by Samuel R. Delaney's novel, Dahlgren. After having that thought, I revised the poem, again. It doesn't take a lot of alterations to dramatically change a poem. This one is maybe my longest, a bit over 300 words, probably. I changed about 10 words, some of the spacing and, of a sudden, it felt different to me. I don't know how long the feeling will last, but I'm a lot happier with the poem now.

Here am I
in this unbounded place,
a point in passing,
a bridge between times,
through darkness across voids
around the great signal fires.

It takes an effort of will
to catchwhat I’d missed,
to see we in that space
took wing,
to hear small birds with
perfect pitch and
immaculate messages
to conjure a thing so close
the supreme’s eyes cross with
recall and effort,
cross with wonder and unselfconscious
neglect for appearances.

The path goes far beyond the end
of innocence and divides in the next space.
The trail has gone this way,
into the future,
precisely the path I follow now
with music by birdsong and
lit by brilliant flowers.

I stop at the odd firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them,
the old bones near dust. What beasts were these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
Something fierce, I wonder.
How does a place become
so empty?

What has been driven before me?
A sudden thought;
what lurks behind?
A memory, perhaps. Of us.
What also wanders here?
Midst birdsong and flowers,
Who will find whom?
This hunt nearly consumes me.

Gathering a bouquet of thoughts,
I consider fragrance, balance of color,
count petals, sing at the silence.

With fresh effort,
I hear small birds
possessing perfect pitch,
singing immaculate messages.

Leaving reason behind,
the supreme, last seen, seemed adrift,
Remote, flickered out in the distance,
this side of the horizon line

The not known has gone this way,
into the future and
I am following,
backed with music by birdsong,
my way lit by scattered
combustible bushes.

Tiring, I stop at the next firepit.
Step carefully around the scattered
bones. Toeing, then picking at them—
the old bones stir. What beasts are these?
Something immense, I’m sure.
And very old, I imagine.
Hungry, I go.
When will this place
become full again?

Picking through the gathering thoughts.
What has fled before me?
Who wanders just ahead?
With what purpose?
With eyes failing like mine?
With strain in the effort
of looking?
Who will find whom
around birdsong and flowers
and scattered bones of long-gone beasts?
What happens then?
Who will pursue this hunt?
The next thought consumes me.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Health Care Benefits for Workers No Matter Who Pays

I'm approaching 20 letters to the Washington Post since we moved to DC. Clearly, I've too much time on my hands.

Meanwhile, the Post has published one of my letters. This one, submitted Monday, is over their word limit by about 30 percent and probably won't be published, either. But I don't really believe word count is the decisive problem here.

I'm guessing the main difficulty is that I'm generally too critical of the Post (and most other newspapers). Still, I don't think that's my problem. It seems to be a matter of editing and writing that doesn't meet a reasonably high standard. Newspapers in their current form may be on their deathbed, but journalists let the side down a long time ago.

Letter to the Washington Post, #17

Your article, “A Red State Booster Shot (Post, 5/31/09)” asserts that “universal health care … is likely to help red America at the expense of blue [America].” Arguable, yes, but far from proven.

The proposition that government health care reform will end up taxing northern and unionized workers for expansion of health care in red states misses several important points and may be overstated. I say, “may be” because the article does not identify the source for the data it throws around. It's true that most northern states have programs that do a much better job insuring children than do southern states. But the families receiving health coverage through combined state/federal programs certainly will not be taxed on those benefits regardless of the means Congress chooses to pay for health care expansions.

Further, as unionized workers lose their jobs they generally lose their health benefits, as well. This factor accounts more than any other for the recent spike in the numbers of uninsured, a change that probably is not reflected in the data supporting your assertion that blue state workers will be significantly taxed to pay for red state benefits.

Though this is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of the slant implicit in your story, there are any number of ways in which blue states and their residents will benefit from a federal initiative to expand health care coverage no matter how the cost is covered. Here are two:

When large numbers of working people in the south begin receiving health care coverage, it will be despite years of opposition by southern state governments and private employers. This benefit will dampen traditional southern voter hostility to federal government activism and will mean less opposition, if not more support, for other federal initiatives, including changes in labor law aimed at defending workers.

Second, an expanded federal role in providing health insurance means more government leverage for controlling health care cost increases. Such a result will lead to huge benefits for both red and blue state workers and, in the long run, dramatically reduced costs for universal healthcare.

Jeff Epton
807 Taylor St., NE
WDC 20017

202 506-7470

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's Happening to Slam Poetry?

The New York Times Wants to Know

Probably nothing would be my guess. But the Times story featuring the impassioned and contradictory opinions of Marc Kelly Smith, the organizer of the first documented poetry slam, is worth reading (you can find it here).

Smith's thinking aside, the premise behind the Times story doesn't work. Slam may be in "danger of going soft" as the headline puts it, but it seems unlikely to happen just because a couple of poets with slam backgrounds got invited to the White House or because HBO produced a documentary series about slam poetry.

Competitive poetry recitations for tiny prizes are frequently fun, engaging, interesting, and just the thing for a small, mostly youthful, primarily urban audience. They can also be absolutely liberating for young artists. And they have taught old poets (some 20th Century ones, anyway) that poetry is something that happens not just in head and heart, but in your bones and on your tongue and out loud.

Slam has changed the work of a huge number of poets, most of them poets who have never gone near a slam event. But Shakespeare changed poetry, too, and permanently, even if very few new sonnets are being published these days. And as Shakespeare has endured, so will slam, perhaps most especially in Chicago at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where Smith's foundational slam still jams.

Slam's audience will stay largely youthful, which means most aging slammers will move on to new experiments with the parts of their art they find most compelling or, perhaps, get pushed off stage by fresh, new slammers. And slam events will stay on the to-do lists of cultural surfers (frequently artists, themselves) who regularly sample the wide varieties of performance and culture offered up in Chicago and other cities around the country and the world. And older poets who need an infusion of new ideas or a little adrenaline or a poem with their beer will continue to show up, too.

And the NYT and staff will move on to covering next year's donkey flu outbreak or, maybe, the WMDs about to be produced any day now by one of Kim Il Sung's descendants (if not this generation, the next, for sure, or the one after, at the latest). Somali pirates are due for a revisit, too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Two more, revised

Ecstasy (again) and Julie Came Around


The experience repeats this way:

In this moment,
the world around is an absolutely
perfect space.
The hot point inside you
and the cold point inside you
in perfect balance with the same points,
the hot and cold points, of the universe around.

When that happens,
you rip and run naked
down streets and alleys.
This you do stretching toe and heel.
The asphalt changes with your foot fall,
becomes like sea foam stroking soles.

You walk this way,
swinging your arms,
shoulders like easy oil,
greasing and flinging you through nights,
the darkness acknowledging you,
stampeding by, bearing
new secrets.

Your nostrils like racehorses grasping
every scent of your own and of the earth
around and all the exuberant plants of the night.
Find yourself in this moment
and every other time
you are called to
this exquisite place.

Julie Came Around

Stoic endurance is for Julie
not a sign of strength
or weakness
but of missed chances.

A matter of enjoyment,
Not endurance. In thunderstorm
Julie senses quakerly
opportunity to see that of god,

in blistering heat the eternal,
in caressing breezes the infinite.
The lowliest, fleeting squall

a portal to the vastness
of the deep. Maybe,
I taught her that. Maybe,
it was in me once.

But today in D-City, in sunny,
blustery cold, I am undone,
hardly reaching even no account,
unsatisfactory, stoic endurance.

I do not suffer unfairly,
only there does not seem to be
a piece of god in this cold.
It is said that as one

freezes to death,
numb indifference
is the blissful stage
before unconsciousness.

I wouldn’t know.
When Julie at four said,
my toes are frozen, she spoke
as we waded our slushy way,

maneuvered between glacial piles
of snow, caught in a condensed,
relentless freeze-thaw-freeze,
I said, eyes to the sun, face to the sun,

body to the sun, do you trust me?
Yes, Julie said, with the fervor
of conversion and a prayer for warm toes.
OK. Good, then. Close your eyes,

feel the heat pulsing gently
Feel through cheeks.
See through eyelids.
Test the air, your nose

knows the way to the beach.
Note the orange glow of the midday sun.
Seen best with closed eyes. Heat
Beat Warm. Walk the

beach with me? Savor the sun.
If we were in Ann Arbor now,
we’d be slogging through the snow.
But we’re barefoot on warm sand.

Sand actually hot on our toes.
Exotic, our naked, satisfied feet.
Are we warm yet?
And Julie said, yes, we are warm.

Our toes are so warm.
Our visit rich with our wonder.
Our lives focused this moment.
That message to Julie, coax a little warmth

from always available stock,
came around today.
On the Metro platform, I turned, faced the sun.
More brightness than heat, I could still feel it.

I could feel my satisfied feet grabbing sand.
And the cold and bluster drifted off,
leaving Julie and me at the beach,
so long ago, so fresh today, so warm.