Friday, February 27, 2009

Let the Bush tax cuts die with the Bush legacy

Part of President Obama's budget plan, just released yesterday, is a projection of increased federal revenues due to the expiration in 2010 of the so-called "Bush tax cuts" on the wealthiest individuals. Republicans are, predictably, screaming bloody murder.

At issue are the tax cuts passed in 2001 by Congress during the first 6 months of Junior's "presidency." Remember? Before bin Laden gave him his "mighty gift?" Back when Junior was just an inept and ineffectual shadow of his father?

These tax cuts were targeted for persons making more than $250,000 per year. Junior and company claimed that they were a necessary response to the (relatively mild) recession we were experiencing in early 2001. Estimates of lost federal revenue as a result of these tax cuts are as high as $1.35 trillion.

Unsurprisingly, the same Republicans who advocated these expensive tax cuts (which, after all, filled the coffers of their biggest campaign contributors) were also those who whined that Obama's $900 billion stimulus bill was "too big."

Get it? Over a trillion is not too much to give back to corporate titans and blue-blooded inheritors. But $900 billion is way too much to spend on helping working people keep their jobs and save their homes.

Well, they lost on the stimulus bill, as we all saw recently. But now, they're making a feeble attempt to save Junior's irresponsible tax cuts.

But this time, I'm afraid public sentiment is very much against them. They are trying to frame the expiration of the tax cuts as a tax increase on small businesses, but most people just don't see it that way.

In light of all the federal bailout dollars, those borrowed hundreds of billions tossed into the raging inferno of our financial crisis, there is just not a lot of sympathy for the folks at the top of the income scale right now. To the extent that there is any identifiable group to blame for our current (and perhaps, ultimate) economic crisis, it is that very group, which I call the plutocrats, that benefits from the Bush tax cuts.

"But, dahling, I will so miss our nights by the pool..."
These are the people who, apparently not content with the extra scratch they got by lessening their tax responsibilities, took advantage of the Bush administration's negligent oversight and regulation practices to bilk us all out of trillions of dollars by selling us fraudulent securities, pawning off too-good-to-be-true mortgage scams, setting regressive policies, and lobbying for competition-stifling legislation. These are the same people who, fresh from cashing those huge government bailout checks, continued on as they had done with their extravagant junkets to Las Vegas, Monarch Beach, and Half Moon Bay. These are the people typified by rapscallions like Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford.

It all fit in well with the plutocrat mentality that Junior and company encouraged: those at the top are there because they deserve it. According to them, there are a certain class of people that are inherently more deserving of riches and ease.

But Mammon, their god, whom they believed was their eternal savior, their facilitator as they manipulated the levers of power, is turning out to be a phantom, a figment. All their funny money, that ephemeral substance that allowed them to imagine they were superior, is going up in smoke before their very eyes.

Conservatives will sometimes preach "tough love" as a means of dealing with the down-trodden. Maybe it's time for the plutocrats to get a little taste of that bitter medicine. And for my part, I can't see a need to sugar the pill for them by extending the tax cuts that started them down their delusional path.

Come on down, plutocrats! We'll save you a place in line at the soup kitchen!

"I wanna sit by Bernie!"

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Swinging for the fences

Well, ya gotta hand it to the President. He had a grand opportunity on Tuesday night, and he didn't go half way with it. He stepped into the batter's box with all his political capital on the line, waited for the pitch, and swung for the fences!

The sweeping agenda that the President put forth is more than a new "New Deal." It's more like a New Deal and Great Society combined! In his speech, President Obama proposed education and health care reform, an overhaul of the regulatory system, entitlement reform, and an end to the war in Iraq. Further, he vowed to cut the size of the federal deficit in half by 2012. (Read the transcript here.)

People, take it from a trencherman: that's a plateful!

Will he be able to achieve all of this? We'll see. I think his success or failure will be determined relatively quickly, within the next three to six months. It hinges on several factors:
  • Holding the Democratic party together. As is always the case with Democratic presidents, President Obama must find a delicate balance in addressing the concerns of the myriad factions within the party: the various minority interests, the unions, the environmentalists, et alia. In a limited sense, the President owes a debt of gratitude to his doltish predecessor. Factions within the Democratic party are so relieved at having a real president, a competent and fair-minded president, that they will be less insistent on all of their various particulars.

  • Winning over elements of the Republican party. Of the three elements of the Republican coalition (the Plutocrats, the Neo-conservatives, and the Religious fanatics), the President has a decent chance of swaying some of them. The Plutocrats are chastened and humbled as their financial malfeasance has come to light. They know that public sentiment is very much against them. I think they will view the Obama agenda as necessary but bitter medicine. (And it's better than pitchfork-toting mobs kicking in their doors.) The religious fanatics will come over soon enough. As they face foreclosure and unemployment, those government jobs funded by the stimulus package will start to look like bounty from their iron-fisted god. (The neo-conservatives are, of course, beyond redemption.)

  • The public's perceptions of the current crisis. This is, perhaps, the biggest single factor in determining the President's success. The President's ability to influence Congress to pass his agenda is in direct proportion to the degree to which Americans feel the need to coalesce around a leader in this trying time. People are afraid, and that works in the President's favor. As Rahm Emanuel said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."
Well, even though I'm inclined to support President Obama, I'm worried that the agenda he has set may be too much. Perhaps I've been conditioned to expect less from my countrymen. But, then again, we've never faced a crisis like this before. Kudos to the President for determining what he thinks need to be done and then going for it. I've got my fingers crossed for him, and I'll do what I can to help. But, man! That is one ambitious agenda!

I'll leave you with the President's call for unity...
"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more." --President Obama, February 24, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Copenhagen - Oslo (Pt. II)

Note to readers: This is the second part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part I here.

I‘d heard about Christiania, before I got to Copenhagen. I’d heard about the old army base, abandoned in the 70’s that had been overrun by squatters and hippies. I’d heard about this free state, founded outside the perimeter of the city, with its own laws and civic administration, independent of Denmark.

And the Danes, bless them, had long ago eschewed their battle-axe enforcement of the Viking way of life, and didn’t know how to respond to it, to Christiania. So they debated and wrung their hands and finally just shrugged and Christiania continued to exist. That’s why I went there.

Jason in Christiania
Jason (dread-locked hippie) and I made our way down there, to that strangely pastoral setting abutting the city limits, and walked down Pusher’s Street, where we bought a hash cookie or two. Then Jason (dread-locked hippie) and I wandered around stoned, hiking the trails that led between the houses, with their vegetable gardens and horse pastures, and hung out at the bar where we spoke with some partying Norsemen from the Faroes.

“Scandinavia may well be social utopia,“ said I to one of the partying Norsemen from the Faroes. He was hale and healthy in that Danish way. He had a grin that would charm a stone. Just like all of them, his English was perfect. Jason (dread locked hippie) asked me, “Did you notice all the old people?“ “It’s true,“ said the Norseman. “We have the highest life expectancy in the world. Now, come . . . won’t you be healthy with me?“ He offered  a toke.

There were children there, in Christiania.  Families were more or less living the socialist dream in a tolerant nation. Jason (dread locked hippie) and I stood on the high stone wall that ran along Christiana’s periphery, setting it apart from the rest of Denmark and gazed back at Copenhagen, with her immaculately clean streets, her efficient and plentiful public transportation, her complete lack of poverty, and saw past her to our own country, over there across the Atlantic, as if it  were some strange alien place where people couldn’t see how simple and easy life could be.  But, then again, Hrothgar’s heirs are a monolithic folk, with their beautiful blond hair and gray or blue eyes, and their white-haired, precocious bairns. In that sense, they have it pretty easy.

But Nelson (youthful idealist) knew about people. Nelson had discovered many truths about mankind because he’d been traveling for several months already. He would smile and laugh and admire beautiful women (he was from Brazil, yes?).  Yet there was a burden on him; a sad acceptance about the nature of mankind that puzzled me because he was so young, and because I didn’t want to believe what he believed. He said, “All of this comes at the expense of others.” As we wandered through Copenhagen, saw the beautiful Polish girls in the orchestra playing a concert in a local church, and ate grapes in the pedestrian mall we never caught a glimpse of a beggar. But Nelson knew about the price that people elsewhere were paying (he was from Brazil, yes?)  He knew how resources get extracted from one part of the world to make life easier for people in another.  I said “You’re probably right,” but I kept thinking about it, trying to find a way that it might not be true.

St. Alban church
We went to the Catholic Church down by the harbor where the water was so clean we had no qualms about jumping right in on that unseasonably hot September day. The Gefion was there by the fountain. Gefion, the sorceress who was to carve out her own homeland from the Earth itself, who morphed her four sons into mighty bulls, brought them to harness, and then with her yoke on their necks, cut Jutland from Sweden. The bulls’ rippled muscles strain against the cut of the plow blade; they drive on before their mother’s mad will.

The church is impressive. Rich, beautiful tapestries inside, paintings and stained glass and lush, red (Sangre de Christu) carpets. “Ostentation,” said Nelson (youthful idealist). He had trouble with it, with the pronunciation, because he was still learning English. “Yes,” I said. Because  I felt that way about the Church, back then.

The old woman (devout British expatriate), who told us the story about the Gefion was friendly and almost apologetic when I gave her a donation for maintenance of the chapel. “We’re not the poorest diocese in the church,” she said. Nelson (youthful idealist) didn’t say anything.


That night, we bid farewell to Martin (compassionate soul). Martin, so smart, so compassionate, so kind, and so happy. We even talked about meeting a year later, and climbing up to Machu Pichu. Good luck, Martin! Let’s keep in touch! Jason (dread-locked hippie) and Nelson (youthful idealist) and I hopped the train to Oslo.

From Copenhagen the train is driven onto a ferry, breaking it up into four-car sections so it can fit. Once on the ferry, everyone gets off the train and goes up on deck. We didn’t want to haul all our gear up on deck, but we were afraid to leave it unattended, because we still hadn't learned about Scandinavia. So we stayed on the train for a while. For maybe twenty minutes. Then we thought, hell with it, and we went up on deck. We saw that we were still docked or . . . were we? Where were all the people?  No, we can’t already be at Malmö . . . can we? Oh shit! Look! The train is leaving! With all our gear!

We raced down the stairs, and up to the moving train. Then, Jason (dread-locked hippie) got lost somewhere.  But  Nelson and I were on, hanging on precariously to the little step outside the door. Then the ferrymen saw us and waved at us to get off!  For God’s sake, get off the damn thing! A young man inside the train saw us, and tried to open the door, but couldn’t, because it was locked. They were all yelling at us while our benefactor was pushing at the inside of the door. Nelson shouted, “What should we do?”

“Hell with it!” said I.  “We’ll ride like this to Oslo!”

And then . . . the train stopped . . . because it was broken up into four-car pieces . . . so it could fit on the ferry, yes? Nelson and I felt foolish, and I don’t speak Swedish, but the ferrymen were letting us have it. We laughed about the whole thing, and a couple of them laughed, too. Then, we got back on the train.  Jason was waiting for us back at our seats.


The memorial had a huge turnout, mostly Mormons, because although Carey (smiling saint) was a jack Mormon, he was such a good-hearted fellow that even the Elders didn’t hold it against him. But we were there, too; Bruce (frighteningly odd, kind), Dave (geek intellect), Andre (smirker, social instigator) and I. All of us decidedly not Mormon: they can just tell, looking at us. (I’ve had them tell me as much.) We had long hair or beards or to them, odd ways of dressing. We loved Carey and Tena as much as they did, and maybe more. We knew how strange Carey  must have thought us to be. Carey, coming from that shiny, posed-portrait childhood, with the smiling, noble parents, and the gaggle of well-groomed, well-adjusted children, each separated in age by two or three years. All smiling and projecting the convincing image that all is at it should be with this family. Andre (smirker) might have something to say about that.

But, nobody was making any judgments that day. I’m glad there were others there that sobbed openly, unashamed, because it made my own tears easier, more tolerable.  Bruce (frighteningly odd, kind) and Dave (geek intellect) were crying, too, and Tycho (bearded, enigmatic) wept like a child.  Although we hadn’t shared a lot of feelings on that level, it was okay. We didn’t make a lot of eye contact.

“Their cats?” I asked. “What about their cats?” Because Tena (soft-hearted trouble-maker) would have worried about them, mostly.

“The family took them,” said Bruce (frighteningly odd). An Australian bush hat sat on straw-like hair. Pockmarked, ruddy face. Clear blue eyes that always seemed to be afraid to show too much. David (geek intellect) nodded. Trimmed beard. Placid expression, even in grief. Poor Andre (smirker) felt most out-of-place. Cynicism just doesn’t fit at a memorial. He didn’t say much.

We all stood there for a moment, looking at each other‘s feet. Tycho (bearded, enigmatic) wiped his nose. I was torn about whether I should be crying or not, because Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted trouble-maker) were the first ones to go, and I knew it. Not counting Grandma (brilliant, sober), because her death had been just another rivulet added to the springtime flood of my youth that flowed right in and added to the current of events (leaving my mountain home, moving to the city, starting a career). I never had enough time to really think about the implications, even though I did (and do) miss her. No, Carey and Tena were the first ones. They lost their footing in a place where that just can’t happen. When they tumbled down those  1,200 feet, I saw past them, to the next domino. There was Grandpa (angel-on-my-shoulder, wisdom speaker), at home that very moment, forgetting to turn off the gas on the stove, forgetting where he was driving, falling asleep anywhere and everywhere. Beyond him the strong, terrible captain in the last fight of his life, mighty shoulders bowing ever so slightly. It scared the shit out of me, and it made me wish that somehow I could have stopped it all right then and there, just keep things the way they were right then, forever.


We got to Oslo after a long night on the train. I had long hair back then. I had my guitar with me, and looked like a vagabond busker. That must be why the customs agent roused me from my fitful sleep and gave me such a grilling.  In the end he must have figured that I wasn't worth the effort and let me go back to sleep.

We were hungry when we arrived in Oslo, but Norwegian prices quickly curbed our appetites. Punching numbers into a calculator revealed that those donuts behind the glass case at the bakery in the train station cost  five dollars US apiece. No thank you.

We  went to the park nearby and saw the statue of Franklin Roosevelt (giant among us) whom the Norwegians regard as a hero for prying the German jackboot off their necks. Yet the alcove beside the statue was littered with discarded syringes; proof that the socialist paradise has a dark underbelly.

Syringes in the park
Jason (dread-locked hippie) left us that morning for the airport. Back to the USA for him. I was grateful to him, because he'd been on the road for quite a while when we met up, and he gave me good advice: shoes laced tight! Eat bread and fruit! Don't carry extra cash!

Nelson (youthful idealist) and I went to the waterfront. There was the drug-addled hipster from Portugal (loving inebriate) and his tall Norwegian friend (severely chic). "You must come here, my friends," said he. "You must live here. I promise you. The women, the life, the success! I promise you!"

Viking longboat
Instead, we went to the Viking museum and saw the longboats. Vikings made all their measurements by eye; no tape measures for them! From Oslo to Waterford to Glasgow to Reykjavik, a plague of axes, plaited beards and horned helms.

In the evening, we went to the train station to await the train for Bergen. I played guitar on the platform while we waited. Stone-faced Norwegians clapped.

To be continued...

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Holy Man and the Grieving Mother

Thanks to my friend, Sarah, for the inspiration. This is an adaptation of a Buddhist story.Walking, a holy man came upon a woman lying prone before a holy shrine by the river. Her face was turned to the earth; her body was wracked with sobs. The monk's heart went out to her; he knelt beside her, and took her hand, asking "What is it, woman, causes you to sob so?"

The woman lifted her head to speak, but for a moment was only able to wail. Tears coursed down her cheeks. The monk waited. "I have lost my child," she managed, eventually. "My child was a fine boy, kind to his mother and to every living creature. His cheeks were more red than any sunset; his eyes more deep than any water well. But as he fished on the river bank he slipped into the water and was swept away. He is gone! Gone! Never to return to his mother's arms! My boy! My precious boy!" And she fell back to sobbing.

The holy man continued to hold her hand while she wept. After a time, she quieted and the monk spoke. "I cannot return your son, woman," he said. "But I know a way to ease your suffering." The woman, exhausted and desperate, implored him with her gaze.

The monk continued. "You must go to your village and seek out someone there; a person who is a stranger to grief. If you can find one person that has not suffered as you suffer now, bring him to me I will help you to live as he, without grief or sadness."

The hopeless pall on the woman's face lessened slightly. Surely there were many who had never suffered as she suffered on that day. "I... I will do it," said she. The holy man said that he would await her there, at the shrine by the river. Then he sat, with his begging bowl in his lap and the woman struggled to her feet and set off down the path to her village.

As she walked, the woman's heart rose. Perhaps the holy man did indeed know a way to ease her suffering. She must seek out a person whom tragedy had passed over. Her son was gone forever, but if she could find some respite to the burden of her grief... But as she walked, if ever she paused, the memory of her lost son came rushing back, and she was nearly overcome. And so she made her way back toward the village, alternately hopeful and despairing.

After a time, she came upon a man leading a horse from a field. The man was whispering in the horse's ear, stroking it's muzzle softly. He smiled as he whispered, and his eyes were filled with love for the animal.

"Here is a man content with his work," thought the woman. "Surely, he is untouched by the grief I know. I shall bring him to see my holy man."

But when she spoke to the man with the horse, and told him her tale, the man shook his head. "I am afraid I cannot go to your holy man, woman," he said gently, "for I have known grief. At one time I had a farm with many fine animals and my larders were full to bursting. Every new moon, I would feast the village, laying the best table for miles around. But rumor of my wealth spread too far. One night, bandits came and stole all my animals and burned my farm to the ground." He smiled, sadly. "Now I have this horse, my only companion in the world. We have no place to call home; we wander from village to village, pulling plows and carts for farmers who will hire us. But it is enough for me."

The tale the man with the horse had told her caused the woman to again remember her son and fresh tears streamed down her face. She wished the man well and set off again.

After a time, she came upon an old woman sitting before a hut. The old woman sat with her hands in her lap, gazing out at the ripened fields before her where the peasants were reaping. Her face was deeply furrowed, like the tilled earth in springtime, and her hair was white as river lilies.

"Here is an old woman, sitting by her home, awaiting the return of her children with the harvest's bounty," thought the grieving mother. "Surely this woman knows the peace for which I long. I shall take her to my holy man."

But when she told the old woman her story, the old women shook her head. "I must not go," said she. "I am an old woman. At one time, I was young and strong and beautiful. But now I am too old to work, too old to help my children in the fields. My husband has been gone for years and I am too ugly to find a new one. For a long time I grieved the loss of my husband and my strength and my beauty. But now I sit here during the day and watch the sun play on the fields and I help my daughters cook porridge when they return from their work. And someday soon, I will join my husband."

The grieving mother's heart ached at the old woman's story, imaging how it must have been to lose her husband and to become a burden to her own children. And again, she saw her own son's face as it had been in happier times. Sadly, she thanked the old woman and continued on her way.

At last, she arrived at her village. The people had mostly returned from the fields and the cook fires were crackling happily. The village children were gathered in the yard, laughing and running. The woman saw a strange man among them. A traveler with a painted face and enormous shoes and a beaming smile. The traveler chased the children, now galloping like a horse, now stooping and dragging his hands in the dirt like an ape, causing them to shriek with laughter. For an instance, the woman even forgot her own grief and delighted at the clown's antics.

"At last!" she thought. "Look how he capers without a care in the world, laughing amongst the children. Surely, here is a stranger to grief."

When finally, the children were called to their supper and scampered away to their huts, the clown sat in the shade of a tree and mopped at the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. The grieving mother came and sat beside him.

"Stranger," she said, "I have need of your help. My son was recently drowned in the river and I have been wasting away in grief. But a holy man has promised to teach me peace if I will bring to him one person who has avoided the agony of despair throughout his life. Will you come with me?" But, as she watched the clown's face changed. He brought his kerchief to his eyes and dabbed at them, and he sighed.

"Alas, woman," said he, "I cannot go to your holy man. At one time I had a wife and ten children. I was a wealthy and successful merchant and provided every need for my family. I was the happiest man in all the world. But a ravaging plague swept over my land and took my wife and my children from me. And since that time, I have wandered the land as you see now, clowning with children, laughing, playing the fool. It is what is left to me. But I will not squander it."

The grieving mother bowed her head and kissed the clown on his brow. Then she returned to her hut, set her cooking fire, and cooked rice and vegetables in the way that her son had liked. She took her pot of food and set out along the path.

When she came to the shrine by the river, the holy man was still there with his begging bowl in his lap. He was deep in his prayers and paid her no mind.

Quietly, she sat beside him, uncovered her pot, and spooned the rice and vegetables into his bowl. Sighing, she heard the river sigh in the distance.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Amsterdam - Arnhem - Copenhagen (Pt. I)

Note to readers: This is the first installment of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, which I took in the fall of 1999. Other installments will follow at irregular intervals.
Hood the Heartless
Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted troublemaker) died, May 23, of 1999. When they made the summit of Mount Hood that morning, they say it was bright and beautiful up there.  You could see the coastal mountains off to your right, and to the left, the endless prairies that stretched off to God-knows-where. Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted troublemaker) had camped at the base of Cooper’s Spur and so to save time, they decided to descend from the summit via the same route, even though the sun had been softening the ice there all morning.  There were other climbers on the summit who heard Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted trouble-maker) discussing the descent: how best to get back to camp to retrieve their gear. Later, one of the other climbers said in the newspaper that he felt bad because he hadn’t thought to offer them a ride from the north face parking lot back to their base camp in the south.

Setting out
 I’d been walking around the house during the time since  Michelle (tormented enchantress) packed up and left. I took secret pleasure in all the little time bombs I’d find in old drawers or in the backs of closets: her old blue jacket, a card she’d made for me, a photo. I spent time ruminating on the impending deaths of Dad (strong, terrible captain) and Grandpa (angel-on-my-shoulder, wisdom speaker). But, May 23, 1999, Carey and Tena took that step into oblivion, and things changed.  That happened in May, and it was the “final straw.” It was the last piece of that perfectly appalling jigsaw puzzle I’d been piecing together for so much of my life. When it happened, I could see it all, right there in front of me. The new truth is this: There is no fucking justice. Never mind that Michelle (tormented enchantress) was four years gone, and I hadn’t found anyone to replace her, and both Dad, (strong, terrible captain) and Grandpa (angel-on-my-shoulder, wisdom-speaker) were very sick. And never mind that my career was stagnant and uninteresting and I was beginning to suspect that I might be wasting my life. The picture puzzle wasn’t complete until that thing up on Mount Hood. That thing that put it all in perspective; made all my anger and frustration irrelevant.

On the third day of Ahab’s mad pursuit, Starbuck cried: “Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou that madly seekest him.” I suppose it is best, for Melville’s sake, that it was Ahab and not me. If it had been me, the Pequod would have come full about, and sailed back to Nantucket, denying the world a climactic conclusion. But smiling, saintly Carey was my Starbuck. And, to my credit, I heeded his admonition: any would-be Ahab who demands a fair shake from the Universe is going to end up dead.  In spirit, at the very least.

“You never do anything halfway,” said Andre, (smirker, social instigator). I never could decide if he looked more like Karl Marx or Christ. He was right, of course. Even when I speak, everything comes out with the weight of my soul behind it; a family heirloom from the strong, terrible captain.

“You’re envious,” I said, grinning. He smirked. I’ve always liked how we can do that, communicate like that.

Andre was wrapping my glassware and packing it into boxes. Two of my brothers were there too. Eric (meticulous German) and Calee (please-all, be-all). There were others, too. We were packing everything into a truck. All of it. All those things that I’d noticed while pacing around the house, waiting for someone to replace the tormented enchantress.  We banished the time bombs to the dumpster.  No more waiting.  It was time to take action.  Back to Nantucket lads! Turn this tub around! Forsake the Great White Whale!

I left the cats with Mom (blesséd mother) and took a flight to Amsterdam in September.

Amsterdam: raunchy, wild, dignified, solemn, frightening, kind, reassuring, threatening. Filthy canals, furtive junkies hanging out under bridges, Anne Frank’s house (sad, lonely prison in evil times), streets full of guitars and songs, frightening sirens behind plate glass windows, beckoning, calling out to that beast inside. Few can endure the honesty of their gaze. Every tongue you’ve ever heard; it is there in abundance. And, please, don’t say “Dankë,” say “Dank U Wel.” I spoke to every face I could see.  I hugged my guitar close.

In Vondel Park, I met Carl (friendly, bearded, good-old -boy) the singer-songwriter from Ohio. We played for each other and sang together. Juan Carlos (noble Spaniard) and Andres (hard corners about the mouth) were at the hostel where I had reserved a bed, right off Dam Square. They liked that I spoke Spanish.

Given that we were in Amsterdam coffee shops were everywhere. Acrid smoke, beers and cigarettes. Lights! Music! Action! Juan Carlos and Andres were still going strong when I stumbled back to the hostel.


The next day was the same, and so was the day after that. Somewhere in that temporal fog of guitar and beer and marijuana and cigarettes (Lights! Music! Action!) was the Van Gogh Museum.  Each painting with its thousands of tiny strokes feathered reality, made you realize that the very concept of reality is just unfathomable. When you saw those paintings you wondered how Vincent had seen things.  You wondered how strange his world must have seemed, with his tenuous grip on sanity loosened by the ravages of syphilis.

There was the Rijksmuseum, which reminded you that these people living here in this northern clime really do have  the long winter darkness upon them all the time. They never forget it, not even in the summer, when it is so hot and humid that anything more than a shamble is an effort.  So many of the paintings in the Rijksmuseum were stark visions of clarity in a morass of darkness; faces jumped out at you from black vestments and shadowy backgrounds, haunted and haunting. Rembrandt (beggar, genius) made me feel like that. I remember thinking, “Genius! Now for a beer,” and setting out to find Juan Carlos (noble Spaniard) and Andres (hard corners about the mouth), the acrid smoke, beers and cigarettes. Lights! Music! Action!

I busked in Dam Square, as I had vowed to friends back home that I would. Got nothing for my effort but a pity guilder from another guitar player that wanted to know if I’d had to obtain a permit. Shrug that one off. A vow fulfilled and now liberty to play and not worry about it.

There was the English fellow I met in the hostel bar; he’d just  motorcycled back from Moscow. He told a puzzling story about traversing the No Man’s Land between the Ukraine and Russia. Trapped between outposts of armed guards who wouldn’t let him go forward (Ukraine) or back (Russia) because his papers indicated that he wasn’t supposed to leave Russia for another three days and that, therefore, his papers weren’t in order. He told me he wouldn’t be going back soon.

On to Arnhem. Easy enough. Streetcar to bustling Centraal Station, whip out the 60 day Eurail pass, find the train, thanks to the helpful, sympathetic ticket seller, who could see that I was new at the whole thing. A quick hop on the train, and then I was in Arnhem.
I knew about the bridge already. I knew about Monty’s crazy gamble, with its complicated and risky timetable. Monty, who was already looking forward to his graven image near Westminster Abbey; already seeing himself standing next to Lord Nelson (captain of captains). I knew about the Red Devils (tough, dogged, duty-bound Brits) getting isolated in the city blocks around the bridge, and the SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) that turned the screws on them while they were holding on, waiting for the Shermans to come up from the south. The SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) turned off the water and killed duty-bound Red Devils as they went to the river. I think Eisenhower (diplomat in war) had his doubts about the whole thing, but he had to go along with it because it was Monty’s plan, and the alliance was so fragile. So the Red Devils died or gave up, and the SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) kept their boots on the Dutchmen’s throats for a few more months.

The bridge was long gone when I got there. The Allies bombed it later. Sent it burning into the Rhine, because they didn’t want the SS storm troopers (wicked, best avoided) to use it if the Allies couldn’t. It had been replaced with a new bridge after the war. There was a little park around the city-side terminus. A few anti-tank guns, a German tank destroyer, and Sam (leathery, jocular, proud), who took me and the other tourists around and told us how it had been back then. He said he and his father had seen the parachutes in the sky that September.  His father said, “In an hour or two, Sam, we will be free.”

A sad story, that. But the sun was shining when I was there. And I’d successfully completed an intracontinental commute, so I was feeling pretty good. I went to the graveyard out by Oosterbek where they’d buried so many of those duty-bound Red Devils.  I took a nap in the shade of the tall beeches that marked it off.

When I awoke I walked back into town to wait for the night train to Copenhagen. I ogled and flirted with beautiful Dutch girls while I ate dinner. I played guitar on the sidewalk until the girl in the ice cream store at my back came out and asked me to stop. Then came Pineapple Man.

Pineapple Man, from San Francisco, had been touring with his band. But mid-tour they had a terrible breakup because, as Pineapple Man said, "The drummer’s girlfriend was such a bitch.” He regaled me with stories about the road, and drunken busking in Amsterdam. Swarthy and suspect, but friendly enough. That was Pineapple Man. The train came soon after we spoke.

Pineapple Man
You’ve got to admire those Germans. If the schedule says 8:03, you’d better be on the train by 8:00. I had to change trains somewhere just inside Germany, I can’t even remember the name of the place, but I was excited to be there, in Germany. That’s where Grandpa’s (angel-on-my-shoulder) people (part of my people) were from. So I said to the conductor tentatively, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” To which he replied, “Nein,” and stalked off without waiting. It pissed me off, so I followed him and said, “Copenhagen?” When he ignored me I walked in front of him and said, “Copenhagen?” He stopped, stamped his foot and barked, “Copenhagen! Ja! Track Thirteen!”  Then the conductor, fine Prussian officer, Nietzsche’s übermensch, walked around me. I found it, Track Thirteen. I got a sleeper all to myself, which was good, because my snoring had been going full tilt lately, like some hibernating Ice Age behemoth.

There were many of my fellow backpackers on board too, Colombians, five or six of them, that were going to Stockholm. “Estocolmo,” dijeron. Nelson (youthful idealist) was from Brazil, and so was Martin (compassionate soul). But Jason (dread-locked hippie camper) was a North American, like me, except that he was from Massachusetts. Nevertheless we were all Americans, in the general sense. So, the four of us agreed to see Copenhagen together.

That’s where lots of things happened. Copenhagen. That’s where we found the huge pot plant growing in front of the youth hostel, well-tended, beautifully forthright, bespeaking an open culture and a people that have good priorities. Copenhagen was where we rode the perfectly clean and safe modern city buses, with their hydraulics that raised or lowered the buses to accommodate passenger embark and debark. Copenhagen, where we got a good look at those Danes, with their strong cheekbones, their flawless skin, their beautiful blond hair and gray or blue eyes, and their white-haired, precocious bairns. None of us had ever seen so many beautiful women. They were an open-minded people, most of them. Maybe not the proprietor at the guitar shop who watched us like a hawk when we came in and found ways to let us know that he didn’t really trust us. When we left he was angry because we’d knocked into one of his guitars by accident. The guitar wasn’t hurt.  Still, he wouldn’t accept an apology. But most of them, sure, they’re open-minded.

Martin (in front), Nelson, author, Jason (middle row), Cannabis sativa (back)
Prices were steep. Nelson (youthful idealist) and Martin (compassionate soul) were unhappy about the (roughly) 25 (American) dollars it cost to stay for a night at the hostel.      

Those two. Nelson, tight with his wallet, spoke Portuguese (he was from Brazil, yes?), English, Spanish, and was working on French. He was tall and handsome, a lover in the way that Hemingway was a lover. (He was from Brazil, yes?) Nelson and I went all the way through Scandinavia together. Fine, fine young man. Wherever he may be, I know we’re still friends.

Then there was Martin, heart full of pure love for humanity, and eyes full of love for beautiful women, with spectacles that showed how smart he was, because he was smart. He had a scant beard covering his jaw. Both Martin and Nelson had those eyes that South Americans have, deep, dark, warm, moist, and honest. But they were different from Jason (dread-locked hippie camper) and me, the North Americans, when it came to money. They were different about women, too. Jason and I both winced when they whistled at the Danish girls with their high cheekbones, beautiful blond hair and gray or blue eyes. They couldn’t understand that wolf whistles are only okay in Latin America or Italy or someplace more Roman.  But, hey? Who’s to say what’s right? You know? 

To be continued...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

GOP Governors fake principles, then grab the money

"Being a Republican means something, dammit!"
Thanks, in large part, to the laissez-faire capitalist policies of the Reagan Revolution fulfilled to their utmost degree by Junior Bush's administration, our economic house is ablaze. Soaring unemployment, home foreclosure rates that are through the roof, banks and venerated financial firms collapsing... I could go on all day.

So, here we are, in this quagmire, bereft of any resources to deal with the crisis other than the full faith and credit of the federal government, and the troglodyte Republican leadership has the unmitigated gall to whine that running a federal deficit is fiscally irresponsible. This is the party that wiped out the federal surplus they inherited from the Clinton administration with their regressive tax cuts, then ran us into unprecedented debt by funding their illegal invasion of Iraq with Chinese credit.

Well, I honestly don't know if President Obama's stimulus package is a good idea or not. But it is, at the very least, an honest attempt to deal with our problems.

As I pointed out before, the GOP still stinging from the beatings it has received in the last two national elections has chosen to sabotage the President's efforts in the hopes of gaining some political advantage rather than constructively joining the debate. Of the 219 Republicans in the two congressional houses, only 3 voted in favor of the stimulus package.

The immediate reaction of the public was decidedly against the Republicans. Only 31% approved of their actions. And the Obama administration pointed out that several Republican governors, including Florida's Charlie Crist and California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, favored the bill. With the public, three Republican senators, and a number of Republican governors supporting the President's agenda, congressional Republicans were in danger of being exposed as hypocrites and failed obstructionists.

But then, a clutch of governors, hailing from the most backward red states came to their rescue.

Texas' Rick Perry, South Carolina's Mark Sanford, Mississippi's Haley Barbour, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Idaho's "Butch" Otter, and (who else?) Alaska's Sarah Palin all remarked that federal stimulus money would no doubt come with a long list of commitments that would require them to (gasp!) pay for education, health care, and infrastructure. In short, they would be required to use the money to take care of their citizens.

Republicans generally have an aversion to spending money on caring for people, but this gang really takes the cake. I mean, really. Texas? South Carolina? Mississippi? Louisiana? Idaho? Alaska? Could anyone have possibly compiled a list of states with a more regressive and ignorant mindset?

Quoth Governor Perry: "My concern is there's going to be commitments attached to [the stimulus money] that are a mile long. We need the freedom to pick and choose. And we need the freedom to say 'No thanks.'"

"Now, gimme the money."
For my part, although I feel for the indigent in those states, I wish these governors would hold the line and reject the money. There would be more for the rest of us, and those same governors would be driven out of office next election cycle as their states fell far behind everyone else.

The governors all got out and made their statements in front of the cameras, playing to their redneck base and showing a little support for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. But clown time is apparently over. Perry decided on Wednesday to go ahead and accept the money.

Watch and see: every one of these "principled" Republican governors is going to line up at the federal trough with his or her hand out like a greedy pig.

It was a nice little vignette, though: Republicans pretending to be driven by principles! High comedy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Puritan values keeping us in the Dark Ages

Thanks for the hang-ups, assh*les!
So many of the backward social mores that hinder and torment this nation are the endowment left us by those 200 or so prudes that washed up on the shores of this continent back in 1620. You know? The Pilgrims? That little group of Calvinists that were so god-awful prude that even the puckered-ass Church of England couldn't stand them?

These folks were so uptight, with their insistence that human beings must at all times strive to live in accordance with the Bible down to the smallest details of their lives, with their belief that human beings were inherently sinful and loathsome, that no one else could even tolerate their company.

So they set off for America with their buckles on their ridiculous hats, clutching their Bibles and maintaining an insane vigilance against the Devil. These people were so repressed, so burdened with guilt that they were dangerous. They regularly sought for and found the Devil in their midst. Those whom they accused, their own neighbors and family, they cruelly tortured and put to death: drowning, hanging, burning at stake.

Imagine a pretty, young girl, unaware even of her own prettiness who, while on a visit to the market, makes the mistake of smiling at some twisted and repressed village elder. The elder, feverish and tormented in his fight against his own sexual urges, his "sin," cannot rid his mind of the image of the pretty girl and her smile. He is driven mad by lust. He therefore concludes that the poor girl has cast a spell on him, that she is a witch. Well, you know where it goes from there...

Party time!
Times have changed somewhat, thankfully. The so-called founding fathers of the United States recognized the tyranny that might be imposed by religion and crafted the Constitution as a safeguard against it. One of my favorite quotations on the matter comes from Thomas Paine:
"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind." - Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason, 1794-1795.)
There are many more similar quotations here.

But, of course, puritanism is still with us. Today's inheritors of the puritan morality are the Christian evangelicals that routinely retard social progress. Here are just two examples:
  • In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine, Gardasil, that protects against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted disease that is known to cause cervical cancer in some women. HPV is so common that physicians recommended that girls as young as 9 years old be given the vaccine, presumably in an attempt to protect them before they become sexually active. But rather than express relief that modern medicine may have actually achieved a significant breakthrough in defeating cervical cancer, evangelical Christians shrieked that administering the vaccine would encourage promiscuity.
  • Despite many studies that show that sex education is effective in reducing teen pregnancies and the transmission of STDs, evangelical Christians, under the wise guidance of Junior Bush, prohibited federal dollars from being expended on anything other than "abstinence-only" sex education. That is, education that teaches only that abstinence is the "only certain way" to avoid pregnancy and STDs and that the expected standard of human sexual activity is "a monogamous relationship within the context of marriage." Apparently, if kids were armed with real knowledge they would be unable to resist the temptation to f*ck their brains out.
Puritan prudery is not limited to human sexuality, by any means. Freaked-out evangelicals yearn to punish marijuana smokers, prostitutes, gays, and basically anyone else who doesn't live in fear of their stern, vengeful god. And, ain't it funny how they can always find a way to rationalize killing and murder? At least, when they are the perpetrators. To top it all off, Christian evangelicals are generally credited with giving Junior Bush his victory in the 2004 general election.

Well, people, we're stuck with them. They're not going away. Our only consolation is that, no matter how much they annoy us, they are themselves miserable; it's their nature. They resent people that don't live as they do, especially when they don't see those people suffering as a result of their "sin." I heard a definition once that I thought nailed it perfectly:

Puritanism: the vague fear that someone, somewhere might actually be happy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Othello and Lear

Scene: A barren room, lit by torchlight. There are no doors or windows. Two men stand, empty-handed, in the flickering shadows, their heads bowed. The one is dark-skinned, with the stance of a soldier, and hands that hang, idly menacing, at his sides; the other is wild-haired, and dressed in rags, and bony, and weather-worn and aged.


Prologue: "Oh, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!"
Thus pined the Bard.
And so must I!
Humility must be my watchword.
Small hope have I toward sweet-sounding eloquence, nor deftly-worded puns, nor the conveyance of dimly-glimpsed truths.
Nonetheless, these that you see before you are not unknown to me.
I have heard their tales, and beheld their various spectacles.
I have come to understand some small part of them.
I beg your pardon for presumption, and humbly make offer: 'Twas love, betrayed them.

Exit narrator.


Othello: "Love," sayeth he. I pause to consider......

Is Aphrodite such a cruel mistress, then?
Was it she set the green-eyed monster upon me?

A soldier, bereft of mother, was I,
And deadly, when she struck;

That such a warrior,
Whose life had oft been held as ransom to the quickness of his eye and wit,
Should become blind to peril in the form of tender flesh, soft sighs, and gentle ministrations;

Ah, me!

But, as I am now, I dare not deny it;
'Twas love led me through the dark garden of self-doubt
Where malicious whispers invited me to believe that which I feared:
That I was not equal to those around me.

Ever did she nurse my suspicions,
A caring mother, indeed,
'Til they were fully-weaned and stood upon themselves,
And, like wayward children returned home,
Bearing a message for Othello, their father:
Thou art unloveable!

How then, can I deny?
Nay! I state it, flatly:
'Twas love betrayed me!

He bows his head.

King Lear

Lear: Little then, doth brave Othello know of love;

I stand before you now, humbled king;
These rags, upon a time were sabled robes,
This ring of thorns, worts, and brambles
An envied crown;

But 'twas not love that brought me to my condition;
Indeed, 'twas she presided over my coronation
In the filthy hovel where murderer sought my life;

There it was that she revealed herself to me, completely;
'Twas there, in the gaze of my beloved Cordelia,
That I beheld her,
And held myself king again for having seen her;

Nay! Heed not the Moor!
He spoke of blindness, and blind he was;
Blind not to see that the phantom which tormented him
Was no emissary of Aphrodite;
Rather, a monstrous demon,
Bred in the pits of Hell we name "Ambition," and "Pride;"

This demon I have known as well,
In forms corporeal that would rend the soul of any father;
And for a time, I was held in the demon's spell;
But unlike the unfortunate Moor,
Love dispelled the demon, at the end;

Alas, for Othello, who smothered love's last gasp,
As she reached for his stranded soul;
My own fate, immeasurably better!

But none may live in perfect peace,
Whilst another is without;
And so, we creep along,
At the Scotsman's petty pace;
But my own hope is that each tomorrow might bring us closer;

Love did not betray me;
'Twas she that saved me;
May she save us all!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Faux Christian masochism: Waiting for the day

Once again I don my Doomsday hat, postulating that our civilization, our species, is fast approaching some cataclysmic crescendo that will usher in a new historical movement, some change in tempo or key that will mark a new age. None can know exactly when or how this transition will occur, nor indeed what to expect on the other side. But if one has been paying any attention at all to current events, to the exponential growth of human population, to the depletion of the resources that fuel our civilization, to the irreversible changes occurring in our environment, it seems inevitable that compulsory change is coming for humanity.

And while I believe that many human institutions, including organized religion, can help humanity in the trying times to come, I also know that there are those who will revel in the insanity and fear that the recognition of such a transition will engender, who will delight in and promote chaos and lunacy. (Picture a mad sailor, in the crow's nest of a flaming frigate, laughing and swilling rum from a jug, even as the flames climb the mast and rigging to claim him.)

One such group of apostates is the sect (for lack of a better word) of faux Christians that work from the mindset that they are oppressed, tortured souls, saintly in their virtue and forgiveness, eagerly awaiting Judgment Day when their god will set everything to right. Chris Hedges wrote about this movement in his book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.

I remember when Mel Gibson's flick, the Passion of the Christ, came out back in 2004. I spoke with several professed Christians who were deeply moved by the film, which depicts the Christ character being tortured mercilessly for more or less its entire run time. By all accounts the film is graphic and difficult to watch. But there seemed to be a common current among the sentiments expressed by those who admired the film: gratitude toward Christ. I remember a television report that showed people leaving the cinema in tears, wailing "He did it for me!"

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have not actually seen the flick. My opinions regarding the film are based on what I have read about it and what I have heard from others. And I have seen other of Gibson's flicks (Braveheart, Lethal Weapon) where the protagonist "virtuously" endures torture.)

Well, the mindset that Gibson reveals with his work is, to me, exemplary of this lunatic faction of so-called Christians. I find it sick that people would enjoy what sounds to me like an elaborate snuff flick. The masochistic idea that it is virtuous to endure torment and suffering twists at my guts, fills me with distaste and revulsion.

But what is even more frightening is the thought that these people, these martyrs for their god, are impatiently awaiting the final Trumpet Call, when they will mete out the vengeance that is their due upon those whom they imagine as their oppressors. Already, we see signs that they believe we are approaching the Day of Judgment.

James D. Adkisson as he appeared to me...
In July, I wrote about the horrible shooting that occurred in Powell, Tennessee, where a demented conservative, Jim D. Adkisson opened fire in a Unitarian Universalist Church. Well, recently, the authorities released the hand-written letter that Adkisson penned as a suicide note and manifesto. Here's some choice quotes:
Don't let the word church mislead you. This isnt a church, it's a cult. They don't even believe in God. They worship the God of Secularizm. [...]
So I thought I'd do something good for this Country. Kill Democrats til the cops kill me. If decent patriotic Americans could vote 3 times in every election we couldn't stem this tide of liberalism that's destroying America. Liberals are a pest like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great Nation. The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is Kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather.
I'd like to encourage other like minded people to do what I've done. If life aint worth living anymore don't just Kill yourself, do something for your country before you go. Go Kill Liberals.
Tell the cop that killed me that I said "Thanks, I needed that!" -Jim Adkisson
You can read the whole thing here.

Note the tone of suffering, the vehemence. Adkisson, who survived the incident, sees himself as a victim.  A virtuous Christian patriot who endured the slings and arrows cast at him by liberals. But, in what he thought would be his final act, he sought to bring about Judgment Day, to light the fire that will consume the world, calling for "like minded people to do what I've done."

...and as he appeared to himself
As I said at the beginning of this post, humanity is facing a painful, frightening transition. The last thing we need is a sect of aggrieved fanatics chomping at the bit for payback.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Atta boy, David! Axelrod strikes back.

Take it to 'em, David.

This is what I like to see (and hope to see a lot more of)!

After prominent members of Junior's gang of shysters broke with accepted decorum and publicly criticized the Obama administration, the President's senior adviser, David Axelrod hit back today in an interview with the Washington Post.

First, there was Big Dick Cheney warning that, unless the United States continues to torture and abuse detainees, Al Qaeda will storm into our living rooms and throttle our dogs and cats before our very eyes... or something like that.

Dick, haven't you figured out yet that you don't matter anymore?

Axelrod's response? "I was disappointed in [Cheney's] comments not because he said–stated the obvious which is that there are threats that are grave, but that he suggested that somehow the President’s decisions on torture in Guantanamo would increase the likelihood of that."

Well, perhaps not as emphatically-stated as I would have liked, but at least it's fit for print. (And if the Washington Post were to ever ask me to comment... well, let's just say there would be a lot of square bracket [] replacements.)

Then, there was Andy Card, Junior's nominal chief-of-staff, whom Junior sent out to fetch cheeseburgers whenever the talk got serious. Andy was all in a huff because President Obama and his advisers didn't wear suit jackets in the Oval Office.

Junior violating Andy Card's dress code

Axelrod hit him with a pretty good zinger, quipping: "We're wearing short sleeves because we have to roll up our sleeves and clean up the mess that we inherited." (And, of course, after Andy had shot his mouth off, some web-wise surfer discovered photos of Junior sitting at his desk in the Oval Office in his shirt sleeves! (Gasp!))

And lastly, there was Karl Rove himself. Axelrod's counterpart. Rove wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal bitching about the way that the new administration is handling the financial crisis (the crisis that Rove helped to create).

Quoth Axelrod: "You know, the last thing that I think we're looking for at this juncture is advice on fiscal integrity or ethics from Karl Rove, anyone who's read the newspapers for the last eight years would laugh at that." Is it just me? Or does Axelrod seem to have a special contempt for the man that Junior called "Turdblossom?" (And really, who among us doesn't?)

Axelrod's comments are hard-hitting and serve to remind the public of the absolutely sh*tty job that the Bush administration did when they held office. It's not just that they were corrupt, but that they were also inept!

As the remnants of the Republican party whine and cry and do their best to discredit Obama, even at the price of our national economy, Democrats generally, and the Obama administration specifically, should continue to remind the public of what it is that the Republicans truly represent: incompetence, corruption, sadism, plutocracy.