Monday, March 25, 2013

A church for the poor

Holy Week commences. This year there's a brand new pope --the first-ever American pope ("American" in the larger sense) and the first Jesuit.

Curious, then, that he, a Jesuit, chose to take the name of the founder of the Franciscan Order. Or is it?

Right away, with regard to the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi, then I thought of war. Francis loved peace and that is how the name came to me. --Pope Francis, on how he chose his papal name

With the election of Pope Francis, who vows to make the Church a "church for the poor," I'm reminded of why I love it.

In 2005, back in the dark days of the Junior Bush presidency, when the reactionaries in the US House passed HR 4437, a measure that mandated that any organization must check the immigration status of an individual before it could render social or charitable services, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, spoke out against the bill forcefully. The Cardinal announced that he would order the clergy and laity of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to ignore the bill if it were to become law.

Cardinal Mahony quoted scripture when he wrote to Junior Bush, protesting the bill:
"Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me."
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen. I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Matthew 25: 31-46)
Subsequently, HR 4437 died an ignominious death in the US Senate. I'll always remember that act of courage and defiance by Cardinal Mahoney.

And so I'm encouraged and hopeful with the election of Pope Francis. His career has shown him to be a champion of the poor, unwilling to ignore the injustice of the current global economic structure.

In 2002, he said this regarding the economic crisis that struck his homeland of Argentina: "Let's not tolerate the sad spectacle of those who no longer know how to lie and contradict themselves to hold onto their privileges, their rapaciousness, and their ill-earned wealth." Take that, neo-feudalists!

Pope Francis reportedly has resisted the comforts afforded a man of his position. He cooks his own meals and rides public transportation.

Yesterday, on his first Palm Sunday as Pope, Francis greeted the crowd in St. Peter's Square, shaking hands and dispensing blessings.

"Don't let yourselves be robbed of hope! Don't let yourselves be robbed of hope!" he exhorted to the crowd of 250,000.

A champion for the poor! Pope Francis!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Message from a dying Iraq veteran

Yuck it up, pigs
It's been 10 years since Junior Bush and his filthy band of blackguards and hypocrites launched their war of greed and aggression.

Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran who has decided to end his life (he receives medicine and nourishment from a feeding tube) has penned a final letter to the evil cadre that even now enjoys the lucre it gained from its crimes at the price of his life.

What do you want to bet that no one, not a single one of them, has enough courage to watch this video all the way through?

Here's the text of the letter:
I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of [those who bear those wounds. I am one of those.] I am one of the gravely injured. I [am] paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost parents, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have [done, witnessed, endured] in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, [and your privilege and power] cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the [9/11] attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the [U.S.] I did not join the Army to 'liberate' Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called 'democracy' in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the [Army] to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the biggest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I have, like many other [wounded and many other] disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical [disabilities and] wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your [own] brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend our country I love—the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.
The hopes that Tomas expresses at the end of his letter are heart-breaking. It's as if he believes those scoundrels still have souls to salvage.

They've earned my undying hatred. All of them. Junior, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and all the rest. Dirty people. Human filth.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A day at St. Vincent

It's been a long day. Nothing takes it out of you like sitting in a waiting room. And I've done a lot of that today.

After they took you in, Jim Minor and I went to the cafeteria. Everyone was watching the television. White smoke billowed from the Sistene Chapel. There is a new pope. A Jesuit, an Argentino, and the first-ever American.

Brother Calee came by. We talked about the trip to China, then he was off to work. I told Good Mister Minor that he should go, too. But he said he thought it was important for someone to be here with me.

The actual thing, the procedure, was over quickly. Just a couple hours. When Doctor D came out, Jim gave me a nudge because I'd fallen asleep on the hard sofa by the window that overlooks the courtyard. I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and Jim said "Dade," and I sat up and there was the doctor.

"It went very well," he said. "She did great." His smile transformed me to a fool and a worrywart. 

They took me back and I saw you, only just emerging from the anesthetic depths. The weight of mountains hung on your eyelids.

Mme. Smith and Acetou came later and I went back to the waiting room so I could make calls and send texts to the army of people who love you. 

Later still, the nurse brought a tuna sandwich and barley soup. There were so many wires on your fingers and tubes in your wrists that it was easiest for me to spoon it to you. I fed you and you told me about your dream in the nether. You dreamed you were with your father and that he told you not to worry, that he had you, that you were safe. And you said you were very happy.

And I was happy, too. Happy and relieved. Like a ship-wrecked sailor pulled into a life raft. A sailor who'd spent hours in an endless sea. Hours treading in the deep, deep water.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Story openers

This post is a blatant rip-off of a post by my friend and coworker, Rick Mallery, who writes an interesting blog about writing. I liked his idea so much that I'm emulating it here.

These are the opening lines for (yet-to-be-written) stories. What do you think, dear reader? Which (if any) of them pique your interest?
  1. When it came to grooming and immaculate sartorial tastes, there was no one like Taylor Mann. From the instant he stepped from the limo to the curb, no matter the occassion --an opera at the Schnitz or the opening of a  Chihuly exhibit at the Art Museum or a banquet for some out-of-town dignitary --Taylor Mann was a portrait of refinement and fastidiousness. French-cuffed silk shirts, Harris tweed trousers, Rolex wristwatch set with diamonds from Amsterdam. The circle of Rose City Somebodies --the prune-skinned one-time debutantes, the high-wired coffee barons, the noveau riche software developers --gauged their own state of dress on how he appeared. The "Mann Standard" is how they came to refer to it. No one knew who were his barber and seamstress but it was generally agreed that they weren't from town. They couldn't be. Small wonder then that when Taylor Mann arrived at the swearing-in ceremony for Portland's new mayor Justin Laugh, no one recognized him. The mayor-elect was already at the podium when the door burst open to reveal a staggering, half-drunk figure with a five-day beard wearing shorts, tee-shirt and flip-flops. "My God!" whispered Dorris Frank, her surgically-modified wattles jiggling ever so slightly, "Who is that boorish fellow? He could be Taylor Mann's brother."
  2. The morning after the night when Willie forced himself on her, Bella found a single white rose on her door mat. Its long, thorny stem arced under the "WELCOME." The bloom seemed to punctuate the word like an imperative. She did not smile when she saw it. Dressed for work, her handbag over her shoulder, she stood in the apartment doorway and stared down at it. A hint of brown wilt discolored the lips of the petals. She thought for a minute that she should take it inside, place it in a jar with some water. But then she thought it better to leave it where it was. Willie might come by while she was at work and she didn't want him to think it mattered. She stepped out and locked the door behind her and started down the stairs. But the thought of the rose laying limp and forlorn on her doormat was too much. She turned around quickly, retraced her steps, and stooped and picked it up. She took it with her to work.
  3. --You said you would do it. You promised.
    --I promised that it would happen. I didn't say I'd do it.
    --So how will it get done then?
    He shrugged. --How does anything get done?
    She pressed her fingertips against her eyelids. --The car won't drive itself to Phoenix. Someone has to drive it there.
    He nodded. --That's how I understand things to work.
    --So if not you...
    He shrugged again. --Bait the hook well enough, you'll catch a fish.
    They peered out the window. A slate gray Camry four-door on the curb. Older model. Spots of rust on the front fender. The taxed suspension pushed the chassis down so the wheel wells rode just above the tires. There was a lot of weight in the trunk.
    --All you gotta do is drive slow. Obey traffic laws. You won't have any trouble.
    --All somebody's gotta do, you mean.
    Like swimming in molasses. She shook her head. --Yeah, somebody. What do you want then?
    His smile was like the grill on the car.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Dr. Seuss world in the Rose City

So today, this fine sunny day in the last fortnight of winter, I beheld my Rose City brethren in their glory.

A tall man in a track suit speed-walked across Tabor's brow, shoulders held high, back straight as a board. His strides were long and straight-legged. He held a cell phone to his ear. "Yeah, I'm up on Tabor. Trying to get my mind right." He trumpeted his words to the world as well as his cell phone. "Rebecca and I called it off today. Yes. It's the right thing." Something in his tone told me he was speaking to a woman acquaintance.

I imagined her to be a platonic friend, possibly a former lover. When I was in those shoes, those were who I would call. Every man knows there is no consolation so sweet as a sympathetic woman. (And if we're being honest, somewhere deep down in the psychological soup of our motives, there's a faint longing for some sympathy nookie. I'm not sure it exists, but sad men ever seek for it like Galahad and the Grail.)

Skaters took the slopes in determined strides, their boards tucked against their hips. They spoke in short phrases, breathless from the exertion. Up to the top where they pushed off for the ride all the way from the from the summit to the gate by Reservoir 6.

Two high school students, a beautiful blonde girl and a thin black man whose accent revealed him to be African, sat in the grass. They spoke to each other softly. She lay her head on his shoulder.

On the slopes above the soapbox derby track there were hacky-sackers and a group of young people surrounding an Asian man playing a guitar. Dog-walkers were everywhere and some folks were tossing a frisbee.

Peaceful Portlanders out enjoying this beautiful winter's day here in the Rose City.  It reminded me of a book from my childhood. And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, it was called.  By Dr. Seuss.

Remember that book? 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Requiem por un hermano

No me importa lo que los plutócratas se llama. Hugo Chávez era un heroé de los pobres del mundo.

A pesar de la propaganda de los derechista, los quienes que tengan temores válidos de un populista auténtico, Hugo Chavez no era un dictador. Él fue elegido dos veces como el presidente de Venezuela.

Sus políticas apoyaron a los derechos de las clases bajas. Él nacionalizó los recursos petroleros del país, Él se prestó asistencia a las personas pobres de todo el mundo (incluso en los Estados Unidos). Abogó redistribución de la riqueza. Y, por eso, las clases de privilegio lo odiaron.

Pero, también, él fue reconocido por los grupos de derechos humanos, como Human Rights Watch y otros, para mejorando las condiciones del pueblo. Y las estadísticas no mienten. Durante su presidencia, muertes por desnutrición en Venezuela se redujo en 50%, y la tasa de pobreza en 54%.

Presidente Chávez los desafió a Bush y sus colaboradores. Me animé cuando llamó a Junior "el diablo" en un discurso ante las Naciones Unidas en 2006.

Como Chávez, un católico, dijo "Cristo está con la revolución!"  

Adios, hermano!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Early garden 2013

Red leaf lettuce, spinach, and beets
This Portland weather.

I awoke this morning to frost. Maty was scraping the rime off the windshield when I tripped out the door at 6am.

This drop in temperature puts the test to assurances I received from the gardener at Portland Nursery and Garden Center on Saturday. When I pulled my wagon up to the register I asked him. "Everything I've got here is okay to put in the ground this early, eh?"

He looked over the little plants in their black plastic ice trays. "Let's see. Lettuce, spinach, beets. Yeah, you should be good."

Thus reassured, I made the purchase and pulled my wagon back to the house. I stopped at Peet's Coffee along the way and picked up a couple bags of coffee grounds. These I mixed in with the soil in the garden bed when I got home.

On Sunday, I went out early (10am is early for a Sunday, no?) and carefully extracted the contents of the cells of the seedling trays. I took great pains to separate each tiny plant from its brothers, then planted it in the coffee-enriched soil in the beds in front of the house.

This morning, crystals of frost blanketed the dirt in the garden beds. The tiny seedlings looked traumatized, but I couldn't be sure in the dim pre-dawn light.

I guess we'll see. According to the local forecast, temperatures this afternoon will be in the high 50s, and projected lows for the coming week don't get down past 40. I've never started a garden this early before. After all, winter still has another two and a half weeks to go.

Hang in there, little lettuces! Hang in there, spinach and beets!  Next weekend, the garlic goes in.

Hooray for the garden!

Friday, March 01, 2013

Book review: Wild

This interval's book club selection was wild by Pacific Northwest author Cheryl Strayed. The book is Strayed's memoir of her adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the 90s.

It's a very personal story. Strayed recounts how the life she strove to create --that of a strong, independent and successful woman --was shattered through a combination of tragic events and her own personal failings. The death of her free-thinking, extraordinary mother, the dissolution of her happy but unsatisfying marriage, and the rupture of her family left Strayed adrift and aimless. She relates how the PCT gave her an alternative to the self-destructive course on which she found herself in the wake of her myriad disasters.

Despite all the acclaim the book has received, I found it wanting in a number of aspects.

I found the book to be extravagantly self-indulgent. Granted, it is a memoir, and memoirs are, by their nature, introspective. But I felt that Strayed relied too much on the sympathy of her readers.

Everyone knows the devastation that comes with losing a loved one. But I found little that made Cheryl's grief unique. We all lose our mothers. We all grieve. We all find methods (both self-destructive and innovative) to deal with our grief.

After her mother's death, Cheryl spiraled into self-destruction. Common enough. She found her way out of it by putting herself in an alien environment. Heroic, but also common.

Nonetheless, the book could work were it not for Strayed's often belabored and awkward sentences. Try this, for example:
"She still had the ribbons when she died. I packed them in a box that was now in Lisa's basement in Portland. A yellow third for barrel racing, a pink fifth for walk, trot, canter; green for showmanship and participation; and a single blue ribbon for riding her horse through all the gaits smoothly over a course lined with mud pits and tight corners, laughing clowns and blaring horns, while she balanced an egg on a silver spoon in her outstretched hand for longer than anyone else could or did."
Like a mouthful of cotton candy, eh? The illusion of substance melts away to nothing. The book is rife with these unnecessarily long, relatively empty sentences. Strayed seems to eschew the concept of "economy of words." (I lost track of the number of times the phrase "The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1: California" appeared. Strayed not only assigns the phrase as a chapter in the book, but repeats it in its entirety seemingly every other paragraph.)

Further, I found the characters in the book, especially the people Cheryl encounters on the PCT, to be two-dimensional and largely interchangeable. I couldn't keep track of who was whom. None of them had anything that stood him apart from any of the others. Strayed describes them only in terms of how they affect her, not as individuals enduring their own struggles and doubts. As I said, this book is self-indulgent.

There was an overall lack of imagery, which for a recounting of a PCT hike, is befuddling. There are precious few descriptions of the vistas and forests that surround the trail. And those few that exist are wooden and uninspired. All of which suggests the possibility that Strayed was so wrapped up in her mountain of woe that she couldn't be bothered to even notice the beauty around her.

Generally, I found the narrative to be detached. I had mild sympathy for Cheryl, but I wasn't moved by her trials. I never laughed or cried; I never had any strong feelings at all. It was a mildly interesting recounting of a more or less ordinary personal transition.

Surprisingly, our group discussion of Strayed's work led to the most vociferous debate we've had about books since we formed this group 3 years ago. Perhaps not so surprisingly, I found myself alone in finding the book less than satisfying.

I suppose I'm being rather harsh. I certainly don't want to diminish Strayed's achievement.

It takes considerable wherewithal and determination to write a book (to say nothing of the wherewithal and determination it takes to hike the PCT). And Cheryl Strayed has done both. My hat is off to her for that.