Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Franciscan Monastery and Later That Night

Almost noon. On the grounds of the Franciscan monastery in Northeast DC. About 100 years old, the monastery, designed with a Jerusalem aesthetic, intends to convey the Franciscan’s historic duty as Christian stewards of the Holy Land. With little training or instinct for the visual arts, I can only guess at how well the architecture accomplishes that goal. But it works for me, non-Christian that I am.

The grounds and building include all manner of replicas of grottoes and catacombs venerated in Catholic tradition. The Stations of the Cross are here, of course. I am not moved by the power of these images, I think, but I am affected by my awareness of the impact that the stories of Jesus and the early Christians have on many believers.

That awareness leads to some sympathetic vibration with the faith of others, a contact high, perhaps. I am awed by the stories that humans tell; awed by the storytelling ability that must be one of our first collective cultural achievements. When did people first tell stories that move audiences to weeping, to earnest devotion, to heroic sacrifice, to stoicism and, even, to voluntary suffering?

There are plenty of stories in Jewish tradition that accomplish these things, but none that I know of that feature a being who is both man and god. Feeling receptive, but in no way reverent, Under a low, overcast sky, on the exuberantly lush and landscaped grounds, I begin walking the stations. By the time I reach the second station, I succumb to the urge to memorize them, and I do, more easily than I expected.

Jesus is condemned to death. And I am the sole witness.

Jesus takes up the cross. It is a strikingly cruel and unusual prelude to crucifixion, a Roman form of execution reserved, I think, for troublemakers, thieves and rebels—enemies of the state.

Jesus falls the first time. An emotional response actually begins to well up in me, but a couple, carrying a child and trailing others in their wake disrupts the solitude and I move on.

Jesus meets his Holy Mother. Simon helps carry the cross, an act of courage and human devotion. Veronica wipes Jesus’ face and will be remembered forever. Jesus falls the second time. Jesus exhorts the pious women.

Jesus falls the third time. Gazing at the scene, I feel the brutal impatience of the man who is urging Jesus up the hill.

Jesus is stripped of his garments. This is truly the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. Jesus is nailed to the cross. I am not prepared for the ache I feel. Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus is taken from the cross. Jesus is carried to the sepulcher.

It’s over. I have surprised myself and felt some part of what I imagine faithful others must sometimes feel. This story of a Jewish priest who suffers and dies and rises to become something else is a most potent story, the foundation story of a kingdom on earth. Jesus suffers, consoles, forgives and transcends, but is rooted in the earthly and, even, the profane (if you buy into Nikos Kazantzakis’ version of The Last Temptation of Christ).

And then I think of Marge Piercy’s He, She and It. To protect the Jews of Prague in the 16th Century, Piercy’s version of Rabbi Judah Loew creates a being of great power, who is neither a man nor a god. The Golem of Prague, like Jesus, suffers from the burden of his mission and his difference from others; suffering is his fate. But there is great power in this story, too, magic.

At the risk of proposing something that sounds like “two guys walk into a bar…” I wonder what counsel Jesus and the Golem of Prague might offer each other. Humans might evade their obligations to each other and to their communities, but they don’t do so with easy consciences, one might say to the other. And so they create us to lift the burden from themselves.

And so it goes, Kurt Vonnegut, would add, were he drinking at the same bar at the time and overhearing Jesus and the Golem as they consoled each other and teetered at the brink of overindulgence.

Oddly, Pope Benedict XVI drinks here, as well, but he only comes in for a single shot of schnapps late in the evening. One can see him stiffen at the very sight of Jesus and the Golem drinking together. Benedict barely acknowledges Jesus with a nod and takes a stool at the end of the bar.

It is obvious that he can’t stand Vonnegut, either, though Vonnegut loves to ask him how he’s doing. Benedict sniffs shortly, as though in the presence of a bad smell. I want to say, loosen up, man, but I don’t want to sour my relationship with him.

This is not a guy who will easily give up the habits of a lifetime. After all, before he was pope, Benedict was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. A couple of centuries ago, the Prefect would have been known as the Grand Inquisitor, and would have had the responsibility for prosecuting people like Galileo for various heresies and, in many cases, torturing and executing heretics. I don’t think Benedict is that dangerous, but it’s still possible that Vonnegut, if he weren’t already dead, harbors a death wish. But that’s another story.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mary Oliver's Flare

Nourishing, rich and wise

Mary Oliver’s poem, Flare, invites us in with a modest greeting:

“Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.” Flare thus declares itself to be a particular type of poem, and one, probably, of limited virtues.

The misdirected reader can therefore be forgiven if she fails to notice right away that Oliver’s long poem, which kicks off her collection The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000), is wiser and carries a load much heavier than whimsy can bear.

In Oliver’s world “the finely hinged wings…” of the green moth, even one caught by a crow “…has trim, and feistiness, and not a drop of self-pity.”

Anything but silly, Flare rolls on:

“My mother
was the blue wisteria,
my mother
was the mossy stream out behind the house,
my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
as she carried it in her arms, from room to room,
oh, unforgettable.”

Yet the unforgettable lies deep within the forgettable, which Oliver knows and shares with us. She writes about her father:

this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.”

So matter of fact. But why not? Oliver has made her peace. A proud declaration, actually, a tribute to her parents; time to move on with the business of living:

“I give them—one, two, three, four—the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
of anger, of good luck in the deep earth.
May they sleep well. May they soften.

“But I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them responsibility for my life.”

What parents ask for from their children is not the issue here. But what parent, seriously, could ask for more than Oliver gives here. And when she is done with her prayers for the dead, with courtesy, sweet thanks, anger and good wishes, she moves on with living, and with her poetry. The ant has a tongue, primarily, Oliver tells us, “…to gather all it can of sweetness.”

And so the poem, which is less “…than the world…” not even “…the first page of the world..." flows on, making its way in a manner that defies Oliver's modest opening declaration:

“Live with the beetle, and the wind.

“This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the nourishing dark bread of the poem.”

I should be so silly.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Flawed Call to Action

The ironically titled documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” deftly portrays the nation’s longing for a high-quality, universally accessible public school system and some of the obstacles to achieving substantial reform. Along the way, the film celebrates some reformers and mounts a counterproductive campaign to cast teachers and teachers’ unions as significant obstacles to change.

Early in the film, Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, describes the devastation he felt as a child living in a dangerous neighborhood after his mother told him that Superman was not a real person. The news pushed Canada to the shattering realization that no hero was coming to rescue him from the widespread poverty and violence that characterized the area he grew up in. Canada’s tale of his awakening provides the underlying metaphor driving the film; if we as a nation want an educational system that prepares all our children for the world they will inherit, we cannot wait for a hero, we must perform that rescue ourselves, and together.

Overall, this is an easy notion to sell. Our system of public education has been failing for more than 40 years. Test scores in both reading and math have flatlined since the 1960s. Mid-20th century schools were mostly adequate to the challenge of preparing 20 percent of their students to move on to college, and another 20 percent to begin working as bookkeepers, stenographers and in other semi-skilled positions, while the remaining young people headed for the kind of work that would teach them the necessary skills on the job, or became homemakers in households with one parent at work earning a family wage.

But work life and the global economy have changed dramatically since then. If young people are to find a job in the modern economy, most need a college degree, but with high school dropout rates of 30 percent or more in most public school systems and only a tiny percentage of graduates going on to college, many leave school with no viable alternatives.

Through the dramatic personal stories of children and their adult caretakers desperate to find alternatives to the manifold inadequacies of their neighborhood elementary and high schools, “Waiting for Superman” outlines the collapse of public education and some of the consequent injustices. In the process, the filmmakers follow the work of a number of innovative and creative school reformers, including Canada.

Michelle Rhee, the young chancellor of the Washington, DC, public schools, has several strong scenes in the film, which portrays her as a frank, even confrontational, take-no-prisoners sort of leader. Rhee has been the head of the 45,000-student DC school system since 2007. She has repeatedly characterized entrenched teachers and their unions as one of the most significant obstacles to school improvement. She has fired or forced out more than 600 of DC’s 3,800 teachers since she arrived and has created a series of controversies as she proceeded with the terminations and closed neighborhood schools.

Many of Rhee’s admirers (and they are numerous, both locally and nationally) argue that she could not have moved so effectively against bad teachers and in eliminating underutilized and deteriorating buildings without offending some of the school system’s stakeholders. But the arguments in Rhee’s favor fade when considered along with her provocative assault on the city’s teachers. Virtually all observers agree that some percentage of teachers are extremely ineffective and cannot be coached or retrained to effectiveness, but this consensus cannot justify a reform strategy that appears to rely on sustained combat with teachers. The argument against partnership with teachers’ unions comes almost exclusively from young zealots like Rhee and historically anti-union groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Unfortunately, the documentary pays little notice to the efforts of education reformers, including Steve Barr, the founder of the Green Dot charter school network based in Los Angeles, and the Gates Foundation, who work with teachers’ unions in pursuit of fundamental change.

Though “Waiting for Superman” portrays teachers’ unions as a, perhaps the, major obstacle to change, the Washington teacher union was not a major problem for Rhee while she fired, released or forced out some 600+ teachers and hired almost 1,000 new teachers. Rhee’s confrontational approach has even obscured other positive changes she has made, including a tenfold increase in the number of teaching coaches working for the system and the establishment of a master teacher program that uses demonstrably effective and experienced teachers to perform ongoing classroom evaluations.

“Waiting for Superman” makes the case that dramatic improvement in the schools will require significant changes in the way teachers are trained and educated. The documentary cites research that pinpoints substantial differences in the results obtained by teachers classified as highly effective or highly ineffective. Those teachers identified as top performers get through 150 percent of the standard curriculum during a school year, while the most ineffective teachers complete only 50 percent of the curriculum.

Ultimately, the film does a thorough job sounding the alarm about the sorry performance of public education in the United States and the dire implications for the country and for millions of children, But while it seems to be warning that we cannot “wait for superman,” its focus on Rhee seems problematic.

Just two days before the recent decent mayoral primary, in which the incumbent mayor, Adrian Fenty, who hired Rhee, was defeated, she appeared at a special invitation-only DC premier of “Waiting for Superman.” At the conclusion of a Q & A following the showing, Rhee made a final statement to the audience. There were still enemies of school reform out there, she said, and they would do whatever they could do undermine school reform and, presumably, force Rhee out. After overpowering the teachers’ union and terminating or otherwise eliminating more than 600 teachers in the last three years, Rhee’s continuing verbal assault is pure scorched earth.

If the claim is true that eliminating the six or seven percent of teachers who are the worst-performing in a district will lead to dramatic improvements in schools and significant increases in test scores, then some of the bloodiest steps toward school improvement have already taken place in Washington. Under the circumstances, it is time for peace with the remaining teachers. The worst are gone and the good efforts of the rest are key to any long-term improvements.

It is unfortunate for “Waiting for Superman” that Rhee turns out to have been such a flawed hero. The larger, more important point that the documentary highlights so well is that failure in school reform is no option; rarely have so many young people and their families required so much from the rest of us.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Eulogy for Audrey

May 24, 1925 – September 2, 2010

There are a lot of things to say about Audrey Epton, and it’s likely that some of those things will stimulate some of you to think, yes, that sounds like Mom, that sounds like Grandmother, that sounds like Audrey, but other items on the list won’t resonate hardly, at all. That shouldn’t surprise us; the truth is, Audrey didn’t share herself fully with most people.

A few of her friends, Hazel, Audrey, Jackie, Virginia, knew her well and long and, in some ways more fully than anybody else did, so maybe some of you can tell me later what I missed, what parts of Audrey I need to think harder about, and let me tell you, I will welcome that help. But here is my list about Mom, the things I knew or felt all along, the things I barely glimpsed, the things I am just beginning to understand:

First, she loved Bernie with a devotion that most people don’t experience in their own lives and he loved her back with that same devotion.

Second, in their lives together, Bernie was the show and Audrey was the rock. And because Bernie was the show--aggressive, charismatic, adventurous--most people never saw Audrey for who she was, because Bernie came first.

Third, Audrey never for a moment minded that Bernie came first. She was fully satisfied with her life. She had Bernie. She had children she loved. She had friends and she had excitement to fill a lifetime. And she would tell you all this, if you asked and she was in a mood to talk, but mostly she didn’t talk about such things. More than anything else, Mom, Audrey, was always of a mind to move on to whatever came next.

Everybody thought Mom was beautiful. And she was. And she was extremely careful about every detail of her appearance. But it seemed to me that she wasn’t vain about it. It was almost as if being beautiful was something she did for Dad. Of course, at the end of her life she was physically worn out and not feeling particularly pretty. But she was still Mom, focused on the family that would be left behind when she died and reminding us that we had to remain loyal to each other.

Mom wasn’t a great storyteller, mostly she left the stories to others, to Bernie, to brother Pete. But she told a few.

She was a brat when she was a kid, she said. And delighted in her own physical abilities—how fast she could run and how high she could jump. And those characteristics came together in a childhood she remembered fondly, the times when she teased and even tortured her older brothers, Doug and Pete, both of whom she could outrun by the time she was six or seven.

She’d tease them to distraction and then dash off; Pete, in particular, was relentless in his pursuit, but he couldn’t catch her, though there came a time when they dashed through the kitchen and he pulled a fork from a drawer as he ran by and threw it at Audrey, sticking it in the wall as she ran off. I always wondered what Grandma in England said about the fork sticking in the wall of her kitchen, but somehow we never got to that part of the story.

When Mom was 14, the Germans started bombing London and so she slipped from childhood into war with nothing in between. I don’t think that those of us who were born and raised here can fully grasp what it means to have your childhood go up in smoke and fire, but that was what happened to Mom’s childhood.

At 16, after a couple of years of air raids and blackouts, Audrey’s sister Eileen, pregnant at the time, moved back into the family’s home, to live with Mom and Grandma and Grandpa. Eileen’s husband, Arthur Sanders, and Pete and Doug were then fighting a losing battle in France.

One night, while Grandpa was on duty as an air raid warden, Eileen went into labor. Unfortunately, the Issett home was situated in a fairly isolated part of London. Because of the blackout, Eileen and her mom had to make their way on foot over a long bridge to get to the women’s hospital. There was no light other than that provided by bursts of flak, exploding bombs and burning buildings. Audrey watched Eilene and her mom cross the bridge, disappearing in moments of sudden darkness, reappearing in the light of sudden gouts of flame. Eventually, they made it off the bridge and disappeared from sight.

When I think of what I was doing when I was 16, knowing nothing but peacetime, thoughtless about my options, taking casual strides toward adulthood, I wonder what it means to have the world around you become so relentlessly unsafe and to wonder whether or not you will ever see your mother or sister again. Mom did see them, again, and they brought home baby Roger, who brightened the war years and whom Mom once called, “the love of our lives.”

But childhood was definitely over by then and, soon, Audrey was enlisted in the British Army’s Women’s Auxiliary, stationed on the channel coast as a plane spotter assigned to anti-aircraft crews. Audrey met Bernie in 1945, at a dance that brought her auxiliary company together with a squadron of American airmen. Bernie served as liaison between the two groups and, in the process, warned his fellow officers that he would be escorting the beautiful Brit.

In a matter of months they were married, and Mom was pregnant with Teri, while Dad was rotated back to the states without her, to train for the invasion of Japan. But by the time Mom, twenty years old and pregnant, managed to squeeze onto a US Air Force flight to the states, Dad was back in Chicago. This was the point when she met more Eptons, all of them, in fact; an event which she obviously survived, but I’m guessing had the potential to be at least as traumatic, if physically less dangerous, than the bombing of London. Eptons, as many of you know, manufacture their own special brand of fireworks.

Uncle Jerry and Aunt Marilyn are the survivors of that generation of Eptons and knew Mom longer than anyone else. And, perhaps, when we get back to 1110 later today, Uncle Jerry, the greatest Epton story teller of all, can tell us what really happened when Audrey met them all.

Now, remember, this summary of Mom’s life from when Pete threw the fork until she came to the United States and, in 1946, had Teri, appears in the middle of a list of things that seem to me to be true about Audrey. And there are several more things to add to the list.

Over the next few years she and Dad had three more kids, me and Mark and Dale. During the years of our growing up, Dad was the extravagant one, treating all of us, Mom especially, with a great deal of generosity. Mom accepted everything Dad gave her with the grace with which she accepted all the events of her life. But while Dad liked to demonstrate his love with gifts, Mom never actually required that, at all.

She never doubted Dad’s love and never asked for much. She got used to living well, of course—who wouldn’t—but she stayed attached to the simple things, her family, raising her children, living in partnership with Bernie, who was always off to the next big thing, which often was running for political office, for Congress, for the state legislature, eventually for mayor of Chicago. Audrey never shrank from any of it, and never complained about the demands.

If you include Dad’s years as president of innumerable civic and professional groups, as a founder and member of national organizations and political committees, you’re talking 40 years of political days and nights, of networking and campaigning, of schmoozing and making nice. As an actual reformed politician myself, let me say that imagining four decades of that sort of activity is as difficult for me as imagining being bombed at home when you’re supposed to be in bed. But Mom remained Mom despite the relentless demands, never complaining and always moving forward.

It was after Dad died that we all got to see how ingrained those characteristics were in her. She never stopped mourning Bernie, but mostly she mourned in private and somehow, though the only man she ever loved died twenty-three years ago, she learned to love another, Bob Bentley.

I think it took Teri, Mark, Dale and I a little time to catch up with Mom and to understand that her embrace of Bob and his family said nothing about her love for Dad, but was simply her moving on with life. She loved traveling with Bob and she loved spending summers at Bob’s place in Michigan where there were always a mix of Bentleys and Eptons hanging out together and enjoying the process by which families grow, rather than shrink.

And families do grow, at least this one has—let me count the ways—the grandchildren, Doug, Nate, Amanda, Julie, Stacee, Abraham, Mike, Jori, Gordon, Claire, Brendan and the great grandchildren, Manu, Ollie and Ethan. First to last, Audrey was thrilled by their very existence. Their youth, their love and their potential gave her both comfort and hope.

And there is one more family group, sons and daughters, also, who shared Audrey’s moments of joy and sadness—Owen Pulver, Marrianne McMullen, Ella Epton and David and Linda Bentley.

There were some profoundly sad moments for Mom these last couple of years, no Bernie, no Bob and her own cancer diagnosis, but by and large she remained the young Audrey, always on the run, only with fewer people to tease. She had her cranky moments, to be sure, she and Hazel, Elaine, Audrey, Vi and Jackie would gather for cards and, often as not, complain to each other that they were getting too old for real fun and sometimes, tragically, too old to share a cocktail. But to the end, they all gave it the old college try, drinking more often than they should and looking forward, not behind.

Ultimately, Mom had one other love—the White Sox and all last week while Mom lay in bed, breathing slowly, lying quiet, the White Sox were winning. This did her a great deal of good, we know.

How do we know? Because for Audrey, the athlete, winning was the point and we know she heard us, even if she wasn’t saying much. Last Tuesday, Teri, Mark, Dale and I were gathered around her bedside, talking casually. At one point, Dale said to her, “we know you’re uncomfortable, Mom,” and though she had said very little for hours, she responded, “I’m not uncomfortable.”

That was Mom, self-contained and private, but sharing what needed to be shared. She died exactly the way she lived, with her grace, dignity and extraordinary sense of privacy intact and evident. Audrey’s was a good life and a fine death.

When Mom died

When Mom died
there was a moment
when I thought
my eyes would run with tears forever.

But though her dying will never stop,
eyes do run dry,
and mind and focus drift.
When the grief slipped away,

I dreamed instead of Mom
the way she dreamed herself;
fleet and sure-footed,
a goddess in full stride.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Audrey Epton

May 24, 1925 - Sept. 2, 2010

At 14 years old, Audrey Issett was a typical English schoolgirl, albeit a faster runner and fiercer competitor than most. But she grew up quickly after the bombing of London began in 1939. Though the school days she barely tolerated continued, the track competitions she loved were gone instantly, while nights became a welter of black outs and exploding bombs.

Four years later, Audrey was enlisted in the British Army’s Women’s Auxilary, serving on the English coast as a plane spotter for anti-aircraft gunners. Regular dances with U.S. Army Air personnel provided occasional diversion for Audrey and her comrades. At one such event Audrey met American airman Bernard Epton, who had served as the liason with Audrey’s unit in setting up the dance. In the process, Capt. Epton made it definitively clear to his fellow officers that he would be the escort for the beautiful Brit named Audrey.

Though the war certainly accelerated what came next, Audrey and Bernie always seemed made for each other. Their impetuous and, perhaps, reckless decision in 1945 to marry and start a family turned out to be the best of many decisions they would make together.

After less than a year of marriage, Bernie rotated back to the states to begin training for the invasion of Japan. Audrey, still only 20 years old and pregnant with daughter Teri was left behind until she wrangled a spot on an Air Force transport to New York and made her way to Chicago. There she finally met her new in-laws and, after overcoming the language barrier created by Chicagoans trying to speak the king’s English, she joined Bernie in a life-long love affair in and with the city.

After Teri’s birth came Jeff, Mark and Dale in reasonably quick succession. And for the next 40 years, Audrey thrived as mother of four, friend of many, and as the wife of a politician who could be both charming and controversial. The highly charged Chicago mayoral election in 1983, which Bernie barely lost to Harold Washington, came near the end of their life together, but for Audrey and Bernie it was just one more episode in an eventful life. Though it was not the life she imagined growing up, Audrey was always quick to acknowledge that it was a life rich in love, excitement and beauty.

Together she and Bernie had seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, one great grandchild and two step-great grandchildren. Though she never remarried after Bernie’s death in 1987, Audrey found love and a long partnership with Robert Bentley, who passed away in 2007. Since Bob’s death, she has maintained a loving relationship with Bob’s son, David, his wife, Linda, and their two children.

“People should listen to their mothers more,” reflected older daughter, Teri, as the family gathered at Audrey’s bedside. And, it was evident from Mom’s expression as she lay there that she agreed—Teri should have listened to her mother more.

In death, Audrey is survived by her still growing extended family in the United States, brother Pete, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces in England, and numerous loving friends everywhere.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Monotheism and the Accidental God

Jehovah worshippers got lucky, but what if Elijah the Prophet got it wrong and Jezebel was not so bad, after all?

This isn't going to be a thorough (or, even, reliable) exposition of how we in the West ended up with the one god with whom we live now; it is merely preamble for my poem Jezebel, which can be found posted at Outdoor Poetry Season, my other blog. Behind Jezebel is the idea that history is a story told by victors or, at least, a story told by survivors with a definite point of view.

We live in a world substantially shaped by the bible, variously interpreted as it is by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Never mind that there is no archaeological or trustworthy historical evidence for many biblical tales. The foundational story of the Exodus is fiction, however much it might pain me to say so. The Exodus story, and, particularly, the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, with its implied obligation to side with the oppressed, has been the rock on which I've constructed my (mostly secularized) commitment to social justice. The human capacity for self-deception being what it is, the Exodus story doesn't actually need to be true for me to experience it like some sort of inherited memory. But it can't hurt, I don't think, to seek a better and richer understanding of how the Bible came to be the book that it is, and how and why it came to tell the stories that it tells.

Throughout the 19th Century and a good portion of the 20th, the relatively young science of archaeology was actually focused on proving that much of the biblical account of early history, since about 1500 BCE (BC, for all you traditionalists), was accurate. But as the science grew up, archaeologists have discovered that there is no factual basis for the story of the flight of thousands of Jews from Egypt. There is very little evidence of the existence of Jews, at all, before about 1000 BCE, when they begin to turn up in some Egyptian and, later, Assyrian accounts of a tribal people living in the Galilee and the hills around present day Jerusalem.

There is evidence that there were, briefly, two Jewish states, Israel and Judah, but the northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerers around 800 BCE. After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods. However vexing the worship of other gods was to Jehovah, it was a common practice in the polytheistic Middle East, and a practice tolerated by the kings of the northern state of Israel, who ruled over a kingdom much more diverse than Judah.

Theologians can argue the ways in which monotheism is superior to polytheism (and they do), but the Judean scribes had a much more practical interest in attributing the downfall of Israel to the worship of other gods and to the creation of graven images; they were primarily concerned with creating a rationale to support the reconquest of the Galilee by Judah, the home of the true and devout worshippers of the one god, the one who had promised the land to the children of Israel. Telling a story about how Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made good propaganda.

(How ironic it is that almost 3,000 years later the creation of the state of Israel has been legitimized, at least in part, by the same biblical stories, which have in the intervening time laid an even stronger claim on the Western imagination, become history, without any further substantiation.)

The story made little difference at the time. Judah had nowhere near the power necessary to reestablish of Israel. And for the Jews, further complications followed.

There were difficulties with other Middle Eastern powers, the Babylonians, to be sure; Romans, followed; and so did the Jewish sect known as Christians, who come to believe that they have a new covenant with the one God. Later came the followers of Muhammad, who developed a new understanding of the true intent of the same one God. Then the crusades, further wanderings around Europe and western Asia, expulsions, pogroms and finally the Holocaust. But that discussion is best left to another time and, probably, to others more qualified to pursue it. This piece is merely a look at some of the thinking that contributed came to writing Jezebel.

One important character in Kings is the prophet Elijah, and his relentless denunciations of Ahab, king of the northern state, and of Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who married Ahab in what was certainly a political marriage cementing an alliance between Phoenicia and Israel. Needless to say, Elijah and the one god did not approve of Ahab's marriage outside the faith.

Elijah blamed Jezebel for bringing the cult of Baal to Israel and to Samaria, the capital of the northern state. According to Kings, the prophet was persuasive enough to rouse the bad conscience of the Jews of Israel, who at one point rise up and slaughter 450 priests of Baal. This event enrages Jezebel who persuades Ahab to bring Elijah to justice or, maybe, just slaughter him in return. Elijah flees to the desert, as so many Jewish prophets are wont to do and escapes Jezebel's wrath. He does, however, prophesy (see, somewhere, Elijah Prophesys a Prophecy) that she will die in the streets and that her body will be torn to pieces by wild dogs. This, Kings tells us, comes to pass. But however satisfying the slaughter of the priests of Baal and the dismembering of Jezebel may be to the one god, it is not sufficient to spare Israel, which is itself dismembered and scattered to the winds.

But the historically more likely story is that Israel, far larger and more prosperous than Judah, was governed by rulers who had to tolerate the customs and rituals of a diverse population, including Moabites, Ammonites and other Middle Eastern peoples. The wealth and fertile lands of the northern state also attracted the interest of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans. In the to-the-victor-go-the-spoils world of the ancient Near East, Israel was more likely doomed to suffer at the hands of greedy, powerful neighbors than by its failure to follow Jehovah's commandments.

Judah, the southern Jewish state, was rockier and hillier. Producing little in the way of surplus, the place was of minimal interest to conquerors. In any case, when Judean scribes wrote the story of Elijah and Jezebel, there were no Israelites left to argue the point.

But what if Jezebel had not been the evil devil-worshipper denounced by Elijah? What if Elijah had himself had an earlier and more positive experience of Jezebel? What if his subsequent fury was, at least in part, the product of repressed desire and visions and, maybe, too much desert sun?

What if someone other than Judean scribes, someone like myself, told a different story about Jezebel?

Friday, June 11, 2010

So Lincoln Won, Now What?

Has progressive zeal gone awry?

Yes, Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, opposed the public option and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), but that sort of thing from an Arkansas senator shouldn't come as a big surprise. Bill Clinton, our emeritus president, also from Arkansas, did worse. He pushed through a welfare reform that further impoverished millions of families, single mothers and their children, in particular. Clinton also made the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other pro-business trade agreements, the law of the land. But somehow, most progressives went along, sourly perhaps, but voted for him for reelection, anyhow. The alternative in the era of Newt Gingerich was much worse.

But Lincoln got no such break from labor unions, the Daily Kos and Unions spent more than $10 million in an effort to defeat Lincoln and elect Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Democratic primary. From the start it was clear that Halter was no liberal. He simply allowed himself to be framed as a politician to the left of Lincoln. Only true believers practiced in self-deception could pretend that Halter would be an improvement.

Arguably, a better health care bill might have passed if Lincoln had been a supporter of the public option. But had she voted for the public option, she would have faced a true right-wing opponent, more formidable than Halter. And who is willing to claim that Lincoln was the principal obstacle? How about Joe Lieberman, who progressives haven't been able to get rid of either, even though he comes from Connecticut, where it ought to be far easier to elect a liberal? But progressives haven't been able to manage that trick, and even supported Ned Lamont, a multi-millionaire businessman with a thin record of opposition to the Iraq War and no other credentials, in a futile and disheartening effort to dislodge Lieberman in 2008.

"Political movements tend to unravel gradually, but on Tuesday [progressives] seemed to be imploding in real time," wrote the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, an off-again, on-again liberal himself, in "Liberals gather, and yell." A bit hyperbolic, given that Milbank was merely observing a "gathering of progressive activists organized by the Campaign for America's Future," rather than, say, tens of thousands assembled in some amphitheatre at a critical moment for change. But Milbank was writing about the angry demonstrations that continually disrupted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's speech at the event. Hopefully, the rudeness was therapeutic and activists aren't also considering Pelosi a problem that leftists need to tackle electorally.

Milbank quotes Robert Borosage, organizer of the event, outlining the disappointments stacked up since Barack Obama's election:
"Progressives have grown ever more dissatisfied, and for good reason...Our hopes or illusions were shattered:escalation in Afghanistan, retreat on Guantanamo, no movement on workers rights or comprehensive immigration reform, dithering on 'don't ask, don't tell,' reverses on choice, delay on climate change and new energy."
Borosage isn't sniping from the sidelines. He co-founded the Campaign for America's Future and is a prolific writer and commentator. A piece he wrote for the Huffington Post prior to Obama's 2008 victory, "A New Progressive Era?" provides a helpful comparison between the political reality facing Franklin D. Roosevelt at the time of his 1932 reelection and political reality as it looked to a smart leftist in the fall of 2008.

But how things looked in 2008 seems a far cry from how things are in 2010. There is probably not a single Republican senator who needs to protect himself or herself from a political attack from moderates within their own party. Substantial minority though they are, the rules of the Senate work absolutely in their favor, and vulnerable Republican incumbents face bigger problems from Tea Party activists and the extreme right than they do from Democrats. And for more than a year, since the passage of the stimulus bill in early 2009, Senate Republicans have recognized that recession and widespread economic distress have created a volatile and emotional electorate just as likely to take out their anger on incumbent Democrats as on Republicans. It is this development, and the decision by Republicans to rejigger themselves as the "party of no," that has led to dashing our progressive "hopes or illusions." The hopeless, reactionary mood that characterizes a considerable part of the electorate is part of the wall against which progressive illusions have been shattered.

But why would anyone wish otherwise? Illusions, after all, do not provide a sound base on which to begin building strategy? It was far easier for the Republican minority to develop an effective legislative stance in the chaos created by the worst recession since 1929 than it was for Democrats. Borosage's Huffington Post piece makes clear that, even under ideal conditions, there never was going to be unity among Democrats: "For Obama, the greatest obstacles to pursuing progressive reform are likely to come from his party's conservative Blue Dogs and Wall Street DLC New Democrats." Perhaps, he should also have taken pains to point out that Obama, himself, is no progressive, only a breath of fresh air; a smart leader willing to do the right thing in cooperation with a cohesive progressive movement able to focus effective political power, if such a movement actually existed.

It is still less than two years since Obama's election victory. It is barely 18 months since Obama took office with the country headed toward double digit unemployment. Arguably, the labor movement has less political power to focus now than it had a mere 10 years ago, just before Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and president Andy Stern led several other unions out of the AFL-CIO, in an ill-fated attempt to reverse labor's decline. The fact that AFSCME and SEIU could scrape together $10 million to oppose Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas primary tells us very little about what the labor movement is capable of doing or what it ought to do next. But it looks somewhat like a tactical indulgence, spending money and lashing out becoming a sort of consolation for strategic failure.

Labor, and all progressives, ought to take a closer look at the political realities of this moment. No, we are not out of Iraq, but we are going to be. We are escalating in Afghanistan, but I see no sign that we are really hunkering down for an even longer war there. A higher likelihood is that we will leave both Iraq and Afghanistan over the next two to three years because we cannot afford to be there any longer. Yes, that point begs the question of whether or not we could ever afford to be either place. Worse, we will be leaving chaos behind in both countries, the forseeable result of a warlike, confrontational and theatrical foreign policy, but a policy that the Obama administration did not create. More problematically for progressive Democrats is that a specific plan does not exist for reengaging parts of the world which have been long neglected or exploited by U.S. policies.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, perhaps, the biggest foreign policy challenge of all to progressives. Israel has no secure future as an occupying power. But many Jewish progressives believe firmly that Israel should be supported as a Jewish state within pre-1967 borders. Talk about illusions from which we all must one day awaken.

A country cannot be both a theocratic state and a democratic state. Even if it is founded by, or on behalf of, Holocaust survivors. That may help make Israel a sentimental favorite for many, but in the modern world, it is not possible to play fast and loose with the rights of other peoples, no matter the gloss put on the act. If there is to be peace, Israel must give something on many points, forcibly evacuating settlements, returning to pre-1967 borders, acknowledging right of return on some basis, if only for compensation purposes.

And the United States is Israel's principal enabler. Without U.S. foreign and military aid, Israel would be bankrupt. And its weapons industry, now an exporter to all sorts of governments with dubious human rights records, has been built and sustained by U.S. aid. The American administration that finally reduces, ideally cuts off, such aid will help Israel to recognize some part of the injustices that have been perpetrated by the Jewish state, and create a more realistic basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ultimately, Israel will even have to choose between being a Jewish state, privileging some, and being a democratic state. But that crisis comes later.

We are facing an environmental disaster in the Gulf that highlights the limits to which corporations can act in a broader interest. The BP oil spill will help build support for climate change legislation, but whatever does pass, it will fall far short of what we wish for. So, obviously, will Wall Street regulation. Most members of Congress, in both the House and the Senate, will fight fiercely against efforts to raise taxes on the rich, and to raise the ceiling on social security taxes to cover more of the salaries of higher-income people. But some modest form of that could happen, especially if progressives let go of dreams and focus a little more on realpolitik.

It is somewhat surprising that so soon after Obama's apparently game-changing victory in 2008, so many Democratic incumbents turn out to be facing difficult reelection campaigns in 2008. And the idea that Illinois Democrats may turn out to be too weak to hold Obama's Senate seat is a major shocker. But the Republican party does not have the stature or the policy proposals to take real advantage of the national bad mood. Any rightward shift by Republican candidates sufficient to satisfy Tea Party activists during primaries will undermine those candidates in general elections. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, looked like a goner in Nevada, until Republicans nominated the extremely right-wing Sharon Angle. The smart money now is on Reid's reelection.

But the survival of moderate Democratic incumbents in difficult races does little for progressives. It simply seems vastly superior to challenging those incumbents in Democratic primaries. It is true that a frightened and panicky electorate is hardly a good audience for complicated progressive policy campaigns. But it should be obvious that expensive campaigns aimed at punishing Democratic incumbents for apostasy are counter-productive, if not also the desperate act of a movement with few, or no, ideas.

What's left then? In "Progessive Strategy in the Obama Era," posted on the Huffington Post website, activist Deepak Bhargava argues that there are no shortcuts. The progressive challenge in a deeply divided country is to admit "that we have a long way to go to win hearts and minds" and to "put the emphasis on organizing and recruitment, and social movements."

Right now the only viable progressive movement, Bhargava says, is the immigration movement. This ignores, I think, an environmental movement that has never stopped educating and organizing on college campuses and in communities. It also glosses over the domestic and international peace mobilizations in 2002 and 2003 that delayed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The related experience of millions of young Americans who took to the streets to oppose war at that time remains important, but it must be conceded that the peace movement proved unable to capitalize on those mobilizations. It is painful to think that most Americans still do not see the logic of peace and justice arguments, and are easily persuaded that government is the problem.

I am no particular fan of organizing efforts like, say, Organizing for America, the substantially web-based effort to keep supporters engaged that grew out of the Obama campaign. But it has kept a million people engaged in political action in some form and connected to each other. This is no small accomplishment. I don't know the numbers for Robert Borosage's Campaign for America, but it, also, aspires to overcome the isolation that demobilizes progressives and to focus them on a longer-term agenda. This is key.

Unless we understand what long-term progress would look like and develop strategies and tactics that teach us patience and allow us to pursue half-a-loaf outcomes, we will founder on frustration and anger with the difficult political reality that challenges us. We will dither away millions opposing Blanche Lincoln. And we will duck the hardest issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for which Americans will not admit responsibility. And we will drown in a sea of crude oil, and languish in a stagnant, poorly regulated economy, and bemoan our individual fates.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower

I'm returning Parable of the Sower to the library today (DC Public)

but I don't want to do so without acknowledging just how effectively Butler is able to tell an optimistic story, while framing it within a dystopian future that seems only a degree or two off from the world we live in now. In a postscript to Parable of the Sower, Butler said she based her dystopic view of the future on what the United States seemed to be at the time (Sower was first published in 1993):
"It is to look at where we are now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us. I considered drugs and the effects of drugs on the children of drug addicts. I looked at the growing rich/poor gap, at throwaway labor, at our willingness to build and fill prisons, our reluctance to build and repair schools and libraries, and at our assault on the environment. In particular, I looked at global warming and the ways in which it's likely to change things for us...I considered spreading hunger as a reason for increased vulnerability to disease. And there would be less money for inoculations or treatment. Also, thanks to rising temperatures, tropical diseases like malaria and dengue would move north. I considered loss of coastline as the level of the sea rises. I imagined the United States becoming, slowly, through the combined effects of lack of foresight and short-term unenlightened self-interest, a third world country."
But Butler's world, however crushing and grinding, is only background to her story of Lauren Olamina, a precocious, empathic, visionary teenager who leads a small group of fellow travelers out of harm's way and to a shared vision of the future that is motivating and optimistic. Just prior to a calamitous incident that will destroy the community in which she lives and scatter its survivors, Lauren begins a journal that will become the foundation document for Earthseed: The Books of the Living.

Essentially, Earthseed is a new holy book for a faith that has no supreme being, only a profound and Buddhalike understanding of the world that humans must embrace, sharp points and sharp edges, notwithstanding. "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change." In other words, there is nothing for it but to live in the world, and to see oneself as both responsible for what the world becomes and subject to its conditions at any given time. People are most present in the world when they are growing and changing.

I assume that Butler was partly motivated to tell this particular story by a perception that the religious faiths and traditions people use to interpret the world and hold it at bay are part of the problem, one of the reasons why we do not effectively address problems like climate change, poverty and the gap between rich and poor. There are, after all, a great number of ways in which prevailing cultural beliefs and attitudes seem to hamper our ability to solve critical problems. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), in particular, seem to have created a mania in the West, and certain other parts of the world, for interpreting the modern world based on the experience of others, mostly men, mostly white and long dead, who would be even more baffled by modernity than we are; a riot of such folks, ranging from Moses, the prophets, Jesus and Mohammed, all the way to the Founding Fathers, whose inability to address and resolve the question of slavery would lead to a fratricidal war that would nearly destroy the United States less than 100 years after the country's founding.

In an ironic end to her story, Butler quotes a verse from the bible: "A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside;and it was trodden down and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And others fell on the good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit an hundredfold. (The Bible, Authorized King James Version, St. Luke 8:5-8)"

I've wanted to write a book something like Sower, myself, and have even outlined one (but not pursued it to completion); so when I read Butler's very effective go at the same problem, I feel a little bit awed and very aware of my weaknesses. All the more surprising then to discover that Butler's diagnosis of her own character bears some resemblance to my self-diagnosis: [I'm] an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Well, so what? Butler's combination seems to include a little bit more drive than mine, which turns out to reward me well.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

War Heroes, Wannabes and Dissenters

My war hero dad and my anti-war hero friend were cut from similar cloth

I came back to DC from Chicago last week with a new treasure, one of Dad’s World War II medals. In all, he earned probably a baker’s dozen medals, the most important of which are his five Air Medals and three Distinguished Flying Crosses. I don’t think often about Bernie’s record as a war hero, but he was the real deal.

He served in the Army Air Force as a navigator and rose to the rank of captain. In the pantheon of heroes, navigators are generally ranked lower than army grunts and fighter pilots, but there’s little question that Dad belongs on the big list. He flew somewhere between 25 and 50 bombing missions over Germany and Eastern Europe, and was the lead navigator on many of those missions, which sometimes involved hundreds of planes. Clearly, and with only a little effort, I could come up with a more precise number, but the total would only reflect the fact that he showed up on time and ready to go every time Bomber Command called.

It was the lead navigator’s job to get the flight safely to target and home afterwards. Dad’s comparative record in that respect was sterling; as a consequence he was chosen again and again to lead, though he did have one story to tell about an apparent mission failure for which he ended up with a medal, anyhow. He told me the story after he found out I was reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a strikingly vivid anti-war novel featuring the Army Air Force during WW II.

Heller’s protagonist, Yossarian, receives a medal after leading a huge bombing mission on an apparently disastrous run over southern Europe. Forced by stiff German air force resistance and anti-aircraft fire over known targets, the bombers use up huge quantities of fuel with extensive evasive measures. The maneuvers force them to skip their primary and secondary targets; in consequence, safe return to home base becomes the highest priority.

Lead navigator Yossarian’s goal becomes finding an unpopulated area to drop their bombs. Later, after the remnants of the squadron return to base, more detailed charts show that they have bombed a remote village. Military intelligence reports received later made the village, the location of a manufacturing facility critical to the Axis war effort, a target.

Originally picked by his superiors to be the fall guy for a possible war crime, Yossarian becomes the principal hero in the revised story of a successful attack on a military objective. By the time the “good” news comes in, Yossarian, tormented by constant preoccupation with the deaths of numerous airmen on a mission he led, and dreaming vivid dreams about innocent villagers waking to horrific explosions and certain death, has lived through many dark nights of the soul. He eventually shows up naked at a formal award ceremony to accept his medal.

The catch is that no matter how crazy Yossarian appears to be, his Army shrink believes that the navigator’s bizarre behavior is a sane response to the insanity of war. He gets no excused absence from his shrink. This particular contradiction, one of many on a long list, is “Catch-22.”

The novel captured Dad’s imagination and conscience in a way that other war stories had not. His disturbingly parallel experience led to the award of one of his three Distinguished Flying Crosses. As lead navigator on a mission involving planes from multiple English air bases he ended up with the Yossarian problem—finding an unpopulated area to dump bomb loads so that the remnant of his squadron, broken apart by heavy German air resistance and ground fire, could return safely to their bases. Unhappily, the spot in the Carpathian Mountains where they dumped their load turned out to be the village of Eagre, Czechoslovakia, not uninhabited territory.

In Catch-22 fashion, Dad was first suspended from duty pending an official investigation and later was awarded a medal when follow-up intelligence identified Eagre as the location of a war products factory. Though Dad never won an individual Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest armed forces award for valor, he was selected to receive the medal on behalf of his unit when his bomber group was awarded the Medal of Honor, Unit Citation for its overall record.

In light of recent news about Connecticut Attorney General (and Democratic senatorial candidate) Richard Blumenthal’s outing as a Vietnam-era vet who has erroneously claimed to have seen combat in Vietnam, Dad’s story, among others, seems especially relevant. So, too, is the story told by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (“A right to not fight,” May 25, 2010), in which Cohen discusses his choice to enlist in the National Guard so that he might avoid being drafted and, ultimately, serving in Vietnam.

Cohen feared a Guard mobilization that might land him in the middle of the war, anyway. But that never happened. Cohen notes that there was no particular dishonor attached to most ways men used to avoid service in Vietnam. Arguably, no war in American history, even the deceptively packaged invasion of Iraq, was more seriously and vigorously challenged by the men who were tapped to fight it. The allegation that some international “Communist monolith” had invaded Vietnam was demonstrably false, Cohen writes.

“The South Vietnamese government was corrupt. Why should I fight for it? What, exactly, was I supposed to die for anyway? I thought I had the right to know.”

But now, the “zeitgeist” of the time has changed, Cohen says. As a result, political candidates like Blumenthal pad their resumes with allusions, if not fraudulent claims, to actual combat service in ‘Nam. “But his most appalling lie was to turn a complex truth of that era into a simple matter of shame. It was obscene to send young men into a war that had lost its purpose… Opposition to the war was not merely a matter of avoiding duty but an agonized grappling with a hideous moral dilemma…”

In deceiving others and aggrandizing himself, Blumenthal makes it appear that avoiding service during the Vietnam War was a shameful, dishonorable act. Cohen ends his piece on this note: “I keep reading about how Blumenthal betrayed a generation of young men who actually fought. Maybe. He certainly betrayed those who would not.”

The problem with Cohen’s piece, for me, is that it does not do enough to survey the political universe of the time and the range of perceived moral choices that the Vietnam War created for others. The suggestion that enlisting in the National Guard was a way of “grappling with a hideous moral dilemma” seems problematic to me, though I can acknowledge that others who choose the Guard might have also seriously considered that they were choosing a path of resistance despite feelings that they also had a patriotic duty to serve.

I thought otherwise—that my patriotic duty was not merely to refuse to serve, but to resist. There was not simply a war, there was a war machine, spawned by a military industrial complex that survives to this day, profiteering on war and on preparations for war. Enlisting in the National Guard, the choice made by George W. Bush, hardly seemed like a moral response to the duty to oppose an unjust war and the system that prosecuted that war. To address that issue, I offer my own story—and the story of Fred Chase, an old friend, whom I regard as a hero on the same basis that my father was a hero; he saw his duty and he did it.

The simple version of my story is that I didn’t serve in the military of the time and enlisted, instead, in the anti-war movement, an enlistment that turns out to have been a lifetime commitment. Ironically, I entered college in 1965 with a burning desire to fight and die for my country. College, of course, was not the place to go on such a mission, but middle-class kids who lived in their parents’ home did not enlist out of high school, they went to higher school. This, it turns out, would not be a long stay for me.

My first day at the University of Michigan included attendance at an ROTC class where I found out that my poor vision ruled out the possibility that I might one day be commissioned as an infantry officer. This development instantly obliterated my fighting-and-dying ambition and left me without a coherent goal of any sort to guide me through the years of college that loomed ahead. It also shortly became clear that the academic indifference that had characterized my high school years would persist in college. As it happens, being out of my parents’ home and away from their scrutiny left me free to embrace the life of a dropout in a college town.

Though Dad was a loving man, he was also authoritarian and exact. In high school, I conformed as much as possible to the letter of his law, all the while breaking them in spirit as often as I thought I could get away with it. My new found, away-from-home freedom created exciting opportunities for self-indulgence, but it also led me to the discovery that I could be genuinely interested in ideas and issues when I encountered and explored them on my own, beyond the influence of convention or of my very patriarchal father. The Vietnam War, hotly debated everywhere, became just such an issue for me.

I don’t claim to have appropriately resolved the vexing question of how best to express my opposition to the war and fulfill my desire to impede the war machine. The arc of my life from 1965, my first year in Ann Arbor, until the end of the war in 1976 makes clear that I did not “show up on time and ready to go every time” anti-war duty called. Like Blumenthal and Cohen, I was no hero.

But Fred Chase was. As a teenager, Fred developed a real admiration for the Catholic Worker movement, the left-wing group founded by Dorothy Day as a way for progressive Catholics to express their commitment as Catholics to peace and justice issues. By the late ‘60s, Fred’s conscience had focused him on anti-Vietnam War activities. But the relentless expansion of the American military presence in Southeast Asia, the consequent increase in casualties for both Vietnamese civilians and U.S. servicemen, and the strain the war put on the domestic economy and social programs, persuaded Fred and others that more direct action aimed at stopping it was required. Fred and his colleagues planned and conducted a break-in at a Selective Service office in Chicago where they pulled files of draft-eligible young men and poured red paint on some files, and dragged more into an alley, where they doused them with gasoline and burned them, hopeful that by doing so they would damage the war effort and create a memorable image that would persuade a public increasingly skeptical about the war, that the break-in and destruction in Chicago to stop the war was far better than further bloodshed in Vietnam.

"We intended that our action have a practical aspect beyond the symbolic efforts of the Berrigans and others," Fred told me. "We destroyed some 20,000 files and delayed a lot of inductions in the disproportionately impacted black community on Chicago's south side. But it was just a delay and I'm sure the SSS didn't have any problem finding replacements elsewhere. In some ways it's like all the anti-war actions were just symbolic; and it's only when all of those just symbolic actions created a wall too tall to ignore that the war started winding down.

"They're talking about Afghanistan as being longer than Vietnam, and no end in sight," he added. "That's based on a Vietnam timeline from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops in '75. But the first U.S. "advisor" died 8 years before Tonkin in '56... longest or second longest, Afghanistan has been too god damned long from its first day. It's a damned shame we don't have a movement effectively building that wall of symbolic actions that could bring its end."

Fred spent several years in federal prison for his act. When he was finally released, he came out of prison with his zeal for social justice and change entirely intact. Most of his adult life since has been spent working for nonprofits, raising his children, and organizing union locals on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, whose members, committed to One Big Union, were known as Wobblies).

Never in the mainstream, Fred’s forty-year commitment to and membership in the IWW is a measure of his dedication to fundamental principles, including democracy in the workplace and worker-based governance. The IWW’s heyday, its membership high-water mark, was almost 100 years ago. But the One Big Union was decimated and permanently damaged by the Red Scare of 1919 and the Palmer raids, when the Justice Department swept both left-wing citizens and immigrants, mostly European-born, off the streets and deported them.

But for Fred, it was always first a question of what his principles were, and second a question of finding the best possible vehicle for carrying those principles into the everyday world, waging the best possible fight with the tools at hand. For Fred, the Wobblies were the best possible vehicle; for Dad, the best possible vehicle for a man who wished to give his country all he had was the Army Air Force. There’s no question that Dad’s vehicle was better suited for the task ahead of him than Fred’s. But the two men share a singular quality, they both showed up on time and every time their duty called them. Heroes, both.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Failing to Speak Out Against the War

Change we can believe in has not come to Iraq and Afghanistan

Of course, there never was a universal expectation that Barack Obama's election would end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq very quickly. But it seems likely that a good percentage of those who consider themselves fundamentally anti-war did expect that both wars would end sooner rather than later as Obama pursued a more realistic and internationalist foreign policy. I know I hoped for such things, but in the meantime, I've paid little attention to the details, like who's killing whom, who is dying, how much the wars are costing

Where is my anger over this dragging on of war? Perhaps part of the taming of my peace-movement ardor is that it has been so long since we had a president with an interest in some of the issues that are absolute priorities for me. Or at least a president with a commitment to discussion of policy. Are my appreciations of this guy simply self-deception?

We do have an apparent winding down of the war in Iraq. We do have a modest health care reform bill, better than most progressives are willing to admit, albeit far short of what it would take to get U.S. health care costs and life-expectancies in line with all other industrialized countries. The stimulus package that passed Congress in 2009 without Republican support blunted the effects of an economic meltdown that could have been even worse. The bill saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of highway construction workers and state and local government employees. It extended and increased unemployment benefits, and increased government spending on green jobs. Without the bill the current unemployment rate would be markedly higher.

But the Obama administration has been plenty disappointing, as well. The war in Afghanistan is not ending, it is ramping up. And U.S. and allied forces there are likely responsible for 40 percent or more of the thousands of civilian casualties over the last two years. U.S. aid to Afghanistan seems anything but stabilizing. In 2011, the U.S. will give Afghanistan more than $11 billion for its army and police. The amount is about 80 percent of the Afghan GDP. "It's obvious that Afghanistan is not going to be able to afford [to maintain] what we are building for them," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), quoted in "Senators Call for Changes to Troubled, Costly Afghan Police Training Program."

The Obama administration has also missed chances to help working people with mortgage cramdowns, preferring to push apparently ineffective measures that subsidize banks willing to forgive a portion of mortgage principle. The administration has shown a similar willingness to avoid confrontation with or, even, accommodate powerful interests in regard to oil and coal production, credit card regulation, climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All this is very disappointing, but two considerations make me hesitate to blast an administration that I campaigned and voted for. First, it's hard to imagine a political climate more likely to give a moderate and cerebral president pause. I would have counseled a far more aggressive approach to passing health care, challenging unions to give their full support to a tax on "cadillac" health plans and blue dog Democrats to back off opposition to a public option before Ted Kennedy died. But it would be presumptuous for me to assume that strategy would have succeeded. More likely it would have killed any chance of a bill passing this year. and Kennedy would still be gone and Scott Brown would still be the senator from Massachusetts.

Second, there has been a Democratic president in only 14 of the 42 years since 1968. Jimmy Carter, who has made a far better ex-president than president, held the office for four of those 14 years, and Bill Clinton was president for 8 of them. But Carter was a graduate of the Naval Academy, a nuclear engineer and a Southerner, someone from whom I expected neither progressivism nor peace (but who was actually more progressive and more peaceful than I expected him to be).

During the 1992 Presidential primary, Clinton very publicly left the campaign trail to return to Arkansas where, as governor, he would figuratively preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded murderer, who was reputed to have asked if he could save the dessert from his last meal until after the execution. In refusing to spare the wholly incompetent Rector, Clinton manufactured proof that he could be tough enough on crime to be president. Oddly, Clinton, who failed utterly on health care reform and worked with Republicans to "reform" welfare, led the country into a war over Kosovo that turned out to be generally popular with a good portion of the Left.

But not with me. As the political writer for the Dayton Voice, I wrote a lot about who we were killing and what (and whom) we were bombing, what it all cost in absolute dollars and what we might otherwise be doing with those billions, and who (read weapons manufacturers and military contractors) was profiting. For the Left, and even for some of my colleagues at the Voice, the situation was made more ambiguous by repeated Serbian attacks on civilian populations in Kosovo. For many, saving lives trumped the usual anti-war objections and they supported the U.S. intervention. But I didn't. And I couldn't be silent.

So, now, on the question of continuing American intervention in Iraq & Afghanistan, in the face of hundreds of billions of dollars (the total for both wars is approaching $1 trillion) worth of spending in those places, on the occasion of hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for weapons manufacturers and military contractors, why am I silent?

Iraqi and Afghani civilians are still suffering tens of thousands of casualties annually. Hundreds of Americans who enlisted because they were poor or had no work or were looking for a way to help pay for college are dying in the Iraq and Afghanistan. Why do I remain silent?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Achenbach for fun, Baker for the facts

Really, the debt is not a big problem

Joel Achenbach, author of a lot of "Why Things Are" and, sometimes, "Why Things Aren't" books, is generally great fun. Informative and humorous, he can tell funny, riveting stories about things that are generally neither fun or riveting. A recent example, "The Wow Factor: Reading between the pixels of the Hubble's latest images," which ran last December in the Washington Post, reads quick and easy and shares just enough science to make casual readers dangerous at dinner parties.

The Post frequently uses Achenbach to cover complex topical stories that need more than a little explaining, but his most recent story, "Will the debt break Washington?" tramples all over familiar ground, leaving behind little steaming piles of opinion valuable, perhaps, to farmers.

For primary source, Achenbach uses Bill Gross, founder of a large investment company, to pound what appears to be his main point, namely the national debt is "awful" and "hideous" and, in the worst case, either a Ponzi scheme or doomsday for future generations. None of this is actually true, but more to the point, none of it is helpful. If successfully reducing the debt becomes the highest immediate priority for Washington then several things happen along the way, including immediate and major tax increases, dramatic cuts in social programs, likely throwing the economy back into recession. If the hysteria around this issue should continue to grow, it seems plausible that banks and brokerage houses could even get their holy grail, the privatization of at least a portion of Social Security.

Achenbach also relies heavily on William Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institution, his source for the notion that large deficits now shift the cost of problem-solving onto future generations. But ultimately, Achenbach relies on himself. The new health care bill, which Achenbach admits will pay for itself, actually makes things worse "because its spending cuts and new taxes could have been used to reduce the deficit ... instead of being an offset for an entitlement expansion." In view of the prevailing notion that Congress routinely creates new programs without paying for them, the point is bizarre. After all, a program that pays for itself is, according to Brookings, most Republicans, and a host of pundits, a thing of beauty and the very definition of fiscal responsibility. In this case, the program that paid for itself also extends health coverage to another 25 million Americans, which ought to be celebrated as a tiny bit of social justice rather than disparaged as mere "entitlement."

Achenbach gives a little ground in his debt-is-coming, sky-is-falling assessment. "The latest news from the Treasury is hopeful: Tax revenues are slightly higher than anticipated so far this year. The TARP program to bail out financial firms has proved far less costly than expected. Investors from around the world still eagerly bid on Treasury notes at auction," he writes. And Achenbach does quote the far from panicky Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Orszag tells him that he believes the Obama administration can balance the budget, excluding interest payments, by 2015. Orszag concedes that reducing the debt will require political action in the future, presumably some combination of tax increases and spending cuts, but his comments do not support Achenbach's next point, which establishes parallels between Greece, Iceland and the United States. In the upshot, should the largest economy in the world go the way of a tiny tax haven and one of Europe's weakest economies then, yes, I suppose Achenbach will have been proven right.

But how different his piece would have been had he asked Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) for his opinion. Fortunately, we can go directly to Dean for a progressive economist's view of the story Achenbach tells. Here's Dean's opinion, in its entirety from his "Beat the Press" blog:
"More Debt Fearmongering at the Washington Post

This piece includes the information that the national debt "totaled $8,370,635,856,604.98 as of a few days ago." Boys and girls are you impressed by that big number? Are you scared yet? This is Fox on 15th here -- they'll keep trying.

This sentence continues by telling readers that this number is not "even counting the trillions owed by the government to Social Security and other pilfered trust funds." How did the author determine that the trust funds were "pilfered." The government didn't do what he wanted it to with the money? Wow, that gives a reporter the right to say the money was "pilfered." Apparently it does at the Post.

The article does not include the views of any experts who do not view the debt as a serious problem. It presents an inaccurate assertion (in the context presented) from Brookings economist Bill Gale that the debt: "This [running up the debt] is all an exercise in current generations shifting burdens on future generations." Actually, the debt being run up at present is helping future generations by keeping their parents employed, improving the infrastructure and providing them with a better education. There is little or no real burden associated with this debt since much of the debt being issued is held by the Fed. The interest on these bonds is therefore paid to the Fed, which in turn refunds the money to the government.

Last week, the NYT reported that the Fed paid more than $47 billion in interest to the government. So, where is the burden on our children? If we do get the economy back to normal levels of output the deficit will be at a manageable level. Over the long-term, if we don't fix the health care system, we will face serious budget problems, but this is an argument about the need to fix our health care system, not about the deficit."

I probably could have confined my response to Achenbach to quoting Dean's opinion alone, but where's the fun in that? Joel Achenbach's got opinions, I got opinions, too.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What Do Progressives Want?

OK, it wasn't the health care bill we got

Marrianne's cousin Kevin sent a link to a piece by blogger Ian Welsh. In his piece, "Kos Calls For Progressive Civil War," Welsh shreds Kos. "It's time for Kos's 15 minutes to end. The man's stupidity, hubris and willingness to be used by a president who is objectively a conservative means he is now doing more damage to the Left than good." Oh, my. We are angry, aren't we.

Admittedly, Kos's call to campaign against Kucinich in a primary seems blockheaded. Whatever the Left's problems may be, a Kucinich in Congress isn't one of them. It ought to be equally clear that Obama isn't standing in the way of a resurgence on the Left, either, but Welsh thinks so: "Those who want to go after Kucinich are acting as Obama's and Rahm's heavies. acting as enforcers for a president who believes in indefinite detention without trial, who has expanded the war in Afghanistan, gutted civil rights and who wants to force every American to buy health insurance from private companies," wrote Welsh.

Maybe I'm dense, but this seems a little hyperbolic. Obama doesn't appear to believe in "indefinite detention without trial," he just seems to be unwilling to take the issue on. Such a stance may be morally weak, but it isn't equivalent to gutting civil rights, either, though Welsh may have more in mind than the way the Obama administration is dragging its feet on Guantanamo and criminal investigation of torture. Certainly there is a critical Left perspective to bring to bear on Obama's strategies regarding health care, Afghanistan and a host of other issues, but that doesn't make Obama a conservative or suggest that Obama considers Kucinich a major obstacle to his agenda, whatever it may be.

Arguably Obama's agenda is a lot clearer than the Left's. We may want universal, single-payer, and, if we were expecting to get it this year, then our failure to achieve it would be bitter, indeed. On the other hand, if our goal was simply the bill that actually passed, there'd be no need for a Left, at all. The problem lies in defining political and legislative goals for the Left that keep progressives in the discussion and push the boundaries of the possible.

Single-payer is, in that regard, an important ultimate goal for progressives and ought to be a defined part of every health care discussion. But we are not defeated just because we don't achieve it. More people will be insured as a result of this legislation. Insurance companies will have more customers, it's true, but being barred from excluding preexisting conditions will cut into profit margins, as well. And state health insurance exchanges offer potential for further government involvement in health care cost control and, even, the direct provision of health care.

Given the political climate in which this was all fought out, a global economic collapse, a vastly expanded federal debt and hysteria on the right, it's hard to see how a better bill could have been passed. Passing the bill last summer, instead of this spring, would have been better, of course, but it didn't happen. Progressives and labor unions might have been able to accomplish it, if there had been a greater willingness to tax "cadillac" health care plans, but too many people couldn't see a way to do that and protect union members, too. In the upshot, a weaker plan passed nine-months later when progressive members of Congress finally decided not to oppose the bill on that basis. Regardless, this bill was always going to be the step before the next bill, which will take more unity on the Left and among Democrats than either Kos or Welsh appear willing to acknowledge.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?

A book about labor and justice

I just finished reading Which Side Are You On?, published originally in 1991. Written by a labor lawyer in Chicago, Tom Geoghegan, a man who knows too much--about how badly the union movement has been screwed by government and bolixed up by its own leadership and left to die a lingering death by the rest of us--knows too much for his own moral comfort. But Geoghegan's honest and important book should earn him a break from his angst about failing the cause.

Who knows, it has been 20 years since the book came out, maybe he has let some of the guilt and pain go. But last I heard, he was still a labor lawyer in Chicago, still wishing and hoping for the legal case that would break the pattern of rulings against workers organizing to form a union, however improbable such a case would be.

It's hard to say exactly when Geoghegan himself came to the conclusion that such hopes were nowhere near realistic, but sometime during his career, after losing cases that he felt the courts were morally obligated to decide in favor of his clients, he came to the conclusion that labor's decline was directly traceable to the passage "in 1947, over the veto of Harry Truman" of Taft-Hartley, the law that "outlawed mass picketing, secondary strikes of neutral employers, sit-downs; in short, everything that [John L. Lewis and the Mineworkers] did in the 1930s."

Geoghegan writes that it was years before the damage from Taft-Hartley was obvious; the labor movement would grow quickly for ten more years, and even after the industrial unions began losing ground, rapidly growing public employee unions would hide the fact of decline. Geoghegan's not whining here, but he's not the only one to point out that the history of American labor would be a different history if not for Taft-Hartley.

"The CIO, in 1946, was planning a big organizing drive in the South...this drive, Operation Dixie, was pulled back at the last moment to avoid alienating Southern Democrats. and the Republicans, meanwhile [with majorities in both houses of Congress], went on to pass Taft-Hartley, to stop just this kind of mass organizing. If the CIO had organized the South, American history would have been different, because labor would have been a truly national force, and not a regional one, trapped in the Northeast and Midwest."

I'd like to quote so much from the book I'd end up reprinting most of it here, but Geoghegan is also a wonderful writer. Anyone who merely read my excerpted version would be missing the real thing, an intimate view of workers and their families struggling with and for their unions, and of their leaderships, the good, the bad and the ugly, from an informed observer who chose labor's side a long time ago, but knows himself to be an outsider.

I wrote a letter to the Washington Post a while ago, extolling charter schools and asserting that the best practices of charter schools and public school reform efforts needed to be regarded as complementary activities aimed at the shared goal of rebuilding quality public education. In response, a friend, another Chicago lawyer, wrote me arguing that the charter schools were actually part of a systematic attack on the union movement. We exchanged several e-mails on the subject, but she remained convinced that I was inadvertently stooging for a right-wing attack on labor and I came to the conclusion that she saw charter schools as a for-profit conspiracy to privatize education. Had we continued our discussion, I'm pretty sure that we would have found common ground, but I am more certain that our whole discussion would have been broadened substantially had we first read Which Side Are You On?.

Broadened theoretically, at least. After all, nothing in Which Side suggests a practical course of action, especially 20 years later and immediately after the sustained and tortured fight to pass health care reform. Perhaps not so ironically, it is the current day coalition of Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, not unlike the coalition that passed Taft-Hartley over Truman's veto 60 years ago, that made prompt passage of a better health care bill impossible. Sixty years ago, before Taft-Hartley, unions organized by card check--getting the signatures of a minimum of 30 percent of workers at a plant in order to form a bargaining unit that the employer had to recognize. Today AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions have prioritized the Employee Free Choice Act, which would once again allow for card check, instead of the NLRB regulated elections that employers have learned how to win with regularity simply by firing leaders on the shop floor and intimidating workers.

Lots of questions arise. In many ways progressives are lost without a viable union movement. A few years ago, writing in In These Times and attempting to bridge a perceived gap between labor and other progressives, I wrote this: "Corporate America and the Republican Party have forged a partnership that ... decrees the contours of our economic and cultural life. If progressives ever want to counter this corporate hegemony, they must learn from the past and embrace the strength and potential of the union movement (from "Labor's Future Is Ours," In These Times, January 21, 2005).

It's difficult for me to say now that I still believe firmly in what I wrote in In These Times just five years ago. A better health care bill could have been passed and sooner, if labor leaders had not opposed a provision taxing "Cadillac" health care plans last summer. It would have been a better bill that would have taken a bigger step toward universal, single-payer health care. But after reading Geoghegan's book describing the deck stacked against the union movement for half a century, it seems silly to blame labor for something all of us, unions, the Democratic party, progressives, a vast coalition of non-profits, couldn't accomplish.

But what then are we to do if we can't blame labor or save it? The answers, of course, are complicated. We should certainly support the Employee Free Choice Act, even if it doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell. There is a long list of other things to tackle, including the demilitarization of our economy and foreign policy, underwater mortgages, financial regulatory reform, the restoration of urban public education, action on climate change, and more. All of this would help, were we able to accomplish it. But labor's decline has made progressives much weaker. Perhaps, we've lost clarity about what matters most. Tom Geoghegan's book, written 20 years ago, is still profoundly relevant.
"Lately, I've been writing this book. I've been writing it on weekends and in the mornings before I go to work, and now that I've reached the end of it, I hate to let it go. Because in writing it, I come closer to solidarity with ... well, not the workers, but other people ... than I do in the day-to-day living of my life.

"Here's a depressing thought. Maybe in a book, and only in a book, is solidarity 'forever.'

"But there's a great danger in writing a book. I can already see what's happening. I keep some steelworker waiting on a corner, walking up and down. What kind of solidarity is that?

"That's where the aesthetic view of politics leads. That's why it's dangerous.

"That's why when you shut the door and begin to write, someone should ask you, right then,

"Which side are you on?"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Incompetent Traveler and other updates,

including hatred of polytheists

Brendan flew unaccompanied to Detroit on March 27. Older sister Julie met him at Detroit Metro where they laid over for some six hours before catching a plane to Seattle. It must have been about midnight, maybe 1 a.m., east coast time when they finally landed. Older brother Nate met them at the airport and wisked them to the Seattle home he shares with partner Nikki. Cousin Abraham and partner Irina where there, also, having flown up from San Francisco to spend 48 hours or so in cousin adventures.

While Brendan was away, Marrianne and I planned to play. But sisters Dale and Teri, brother Mark and various nieces and nephews planned for a Pesach seder at Mom's house; given that this might be Mom's last Passover, it made sense to go, even if it would tear a chunk out of the time available for Marrianne and I to do fun and loving things. So, at Julie's instruction, I went to Priceline to seek an affordable roundtrip ticket to Chicago and back. It worked--going early Monday a.m., returning mid-day Wednesday would cost just over $200, a deal at today's prices.

Marrianne and I did squeeze in a date on Sunday night, but I had to get up at 3:00 a.m. on Monday to catch the Super Shuttle to the airport for my six o'clock flight (Metro trains don't start running until 5:00 a.m., that wouldn't get me to the airport and through security in time for my flight). Everything worked pretty decently except for discovering after I reached the airport dreadfully early that my flight wasn't Monday at six, it was Tuesday at six. My bad.

There was a time in Chicago when people would ride the Blue Line out to O'Hare to sit in the observation lounge and watch planes taking off and landing. The golden age of aviation, you know. Pan American Airways to the Orient. Good stuff. Brother Mark used to take son Abraham out there for a visual fix on wide open airport spaces and the wild blue yonder. It wasn't so much like that last Monday at Washington National. More like sleepy, droopy people, closed kiosks and stores and the dark before dawn. There was a Starbucks open to kill a little time until the Metro opened and provided a cheaper way home. And there was the astonished looks and dropped jaws of those around me who shared in the news that I had arrived at the airport the day before my flight. He looks normal, they were thinking, but maybe he's dangerous, or bad luck, anyhow.

When I got home, I put in a little time on a longer poem I'm working on, but mostly I was a sleepy, droopy shell of a man. A sleepy, droopy shell who knew he needed to get up at 3:00 a.m. the next day, also, so that he might get to the airport on time. I really wanted to get to the airport on time. And, after a quiet evening at home on Monday night, arrived on time.

Passover is the most universal of Jewish holidays, I think. It involves eating, it involves ritual that honors those who gather around the table, it reminds us of captivity and celebrates both liberation and fidelity to an ethical understanding of the world. It also teaches us a complete disregard for a fact-based understanding of history in favor of stories and legends that evolved to serve the institutional goals of a religious faith with which I have a complicated relationship.

Personally, my preference, above all, is for the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt. In light of that memory, the Jewish declaration of "never again" after the Holocaust, should more appropriately be "never again to anyone, anywhere, including Palestinians. I recognize, though, that among American Jews there is a decided bias towards "next year in Jerusalem," rather than the remembering when we were slaves in Egypt thing. It is with some satisfaction that I note that African-Americans, by and large, see the Exodus story as having little to do with Jerusalem and more to do with slavery, which is one of the reasons for the universal appeal of Passover--that, and the fact that Jesus' last party with his posse was a Passover seder.

Anyway, since about 200-300 AD, the real underlying motivation for the seder, at least according to the learned rabbis of the period, is the commandment that the story of the Exodus and the rescue by God, working through Moses, of the Jewish people must be told every year to the children. This commandment was honored in detail by brother Mark, who planned and conducted a 45-minute seder which captured and maintained the interest of the very youngest cousins (going on 4- and 5-years-old) in attendance. Manu and Ollie, the sons of niece Stacy (mark's stepdaughter), knew their own parts (the Four Questions, as well as other bits of info Mark had rehearsed with them, visibly and actively anticipated the moments for direct participation, and hurled themselves in the most full-bodied way into the ceremony, delivering both questions and answers with awesomely good timing.

It should be noted that while Manu and Ollie participated with great maturity, most Epton family seders, at least since Dad's death and even before, border on chaos because of the behavior of Teri, Dale and I. OK, maybe, mostly me. All I know is, they get really loud and Mark, who always leads the seders because he's the serious one, obstinately soldiers on. Julie called during the seder because she and Brendan and Nate were thinking about Mom (Grandmother, as she is always called). I put the phone down next to Mom so they could hear what Grandmother was hearing. For her part, Mom was pretty much ignoring the chaos, smiling benignly at Mark and radiating affection for the better behaved, especially Manu and Ollie and Ethan, her one and, to date, only great-grandchild. I don't know how long the Seattle connection stayed open, but they probably heard Mark patiently leading and me bellowing. (Mom always used to say things like, "Jeffrey, stop bellowing," which, of course, I always saw as unfair until one day in San Francisco, during a champagne breakfast following the San Francisco Marathon, someone at another table turned to me to ask, "would you please stop bellowing?" at which point I yelled out "Mom!" and things deteriorated from there--but that's another story.)

Of course, there was an extra wine poured for Elijah, that stiff-necked prophet-warrior from about 700 BCE, the time of stiffest competition between polytheism and the monotheistic God of the children of Israel. I had hoped to be on the seder agenda, so I could do my pedantic best to remind everyone that we were slaves in Egypt and ought to recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people, as well as tweak Elijah for his awful intolerance in regard to Jezebel who, as Phoenician princesses married to kings of Israel go, was not really so bad. At least not compared to Elijah, that rabblerouser who stirred up the Jewish hoi polloi, inciting them to murder 450 priests of Baal, the god of rain and sweet water, and a personal favorite of Jezebel's. Sure Jez was hot for Elijah's blood after that incident, but her murderous rage arguably paled next to Elijah's (and the one God's) hatred of polytheists. The longer poem I've been working on incidentally, is an attempt to resurrect Jezebel and cast a critical eye on Elijah.

Regardless, I probably could have injected myself into the seder anyway, but I was so impressed with what Mark had done, I restrained myself. It was a grand seder. Mark led with grace and competence and Dale cooked everything and did a wonderful job. Unfortunately, most Eptons don't care much about food--Audrey (Mom), Teri, Mark and I, at least--so Dale's efforts had to be appreciated more by in-laws who have a more balanced understanding of the role food plays in life than by her own siblings. Still, most of the rest of us do clean up after meals decently well.

Left Chicago on Wednesday. Brendan returned to DC on Thursday and Marrianne's mom (Audrey M., as opposed to my mom, Audrey E.) arrived the same day to spend the long Easter weekend with us. Between picking up everyone at their various arrival points and making other preparations, I didn't get back to the business of blogging, at all. And not for the next four days (through yesterday).

On Saturday, I called Mom (Audrey E.) to see how she was doing. Not so good, she seemed incoherent. On Sunday, she was suffering a lot of headache pain, so Teri took her to the hospital where they tested her for everything, but suspected a stroke or bleeding on the brain. As it turned out, it was neither one. She had a bladder infection, which frequently causes disorientation and temporary memory loss in other women. Though we all recognize that Mom may not have a lot of time left, it was very scary to talk to her and not have the conversation make any sense. But Monday she was better, released from the hospital with the infection under control, even though there's still no explanation for her severe headache pain.

Monday afternoon, I drove Audrey M. to meet one of her nieces living in the area, who would later get her on the bus back to Pittsburgh. It was a good visit, full of meal preparation and eating and easy conversation. And by the time I got home, the word from Chicago was that Mom was home and watching the White Sox Opening Day game. Mark Buerhle threw seven shut out innings, Paul Knoerko homered in the first and the White Sox won.

Mom says she's getting a lot of lunch and dinner invitations from friends. She jokes that they all think she's going to die soon and want to see her before she gets too weak. But she's not going anywhere, she claims, as long at the White Sox have a shot at winning it all. Most years that fantasy is pretty much finished by mid-July, but White Sox pitching is looking pretty strong. If the hitters come through, I think this is going to be a good year in Chicago.