Friday, December 5, 2008

The Naked Light of Sunday

As the shadows lengthen to the solstice, we take our comforts - and our excitements - where they may be found. Last Saturday, I watched one of the best college football games I've ever seen. Amid the sleet and rain of a "winter-mix" as the meteorologists term it, Missouri and Kansas went all out for a full four quarters. Kansas, the underdog, playing with a banged up roster, including their quarterback, who could barely lift his arm at the beginning of the week, took the lead early and held it through most of the game. Missouri, playing with their own share of injured starters, manging to fight their way back into the game, then take the lead on a series of gut plays. The final six and a half minutes featured four touchdowns, each of which resulted in a change of lead. Missouri lost on the last play of the game, a 53 yard field goal attempt. As the cliche-mongers have it, it was a shame that one team had to lose.

The Atlanta Falcons, who some predicted wouldn't win a game this season, are now 8 - 4 under a new coach, Mike Smith, and led by a new quarterback, Matt Ryan, who has to be the frontrunner for rookie of the year. What a difference one season makes, leaving behind the debacle of Vick, Harrington, and Pettrino.

And for those of you old enough to remember the 70s era Pittsburg Steelers, this may bring back some memories.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Volunteers of America


"When you choose to serve -- whether it's your nation, your community or simply your neighborhood -- you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That's why it's called the American dream."

The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year. Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start.

1. Does it not seem ironic that voluntary service, which so embodies the "fundamental American ideal," is about to be made mandatory, evidently under the rubric of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?"

2.Do you not suppose that service in the newly-formed Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, Veterans Corps, and Classroom Corps might involve some measure of political indoctrination, along with the doing of good deeds? Is not the requirement that one serve in such organizations itself a form of political indoctrination, as it implies that one's talents, energies, and ambitions are owed to, and owned by, the state?

3. Do you not suspect that a current or future administration might channel "volunteers" into such organizations as will serve the interests and/or political priorities of that administration?

4. Do you not wonder on what grounds, constitutionally, the Federal Government may assume the power to "require" students, or anyone else, to engage in "community service?"

5. Does it not seem preferable that private citizens, rather than the Federal Government, decide which types of charitable or state organizations, if any, they shall contribute their time and effort to?

6. Are you not curious as to what may happen to skeptical or reluctant citizens wishing to opt out of such "service?" Will they then be opting out of a high school or college education as well?

7. Do you not wonder in what ways retirees will be "encouraged" to join the volunteer ranks?

8. Does it not seem significant that these "volunteer" programs are to begin with middle and high school students, who cannot vote, and college students, a demographic particularly predisposed to "faith" in the president-elect?

9. Does it not seem an irony of historical proportions that -- while involuntary servitude under private landownders is taken to be America's "original sin" -- our nation's first African-American president plans to institute a program of involuntary servitude, only this time under the authority of the state?

10. Do you not wonder if somehow, somewhere, Orwell is smiling, not with pleasure, but recognition?

"Hey now its time for you and me
Got a revolution got to revolution
Come on now were marching to the sea
Got a revolution got to revolution
Who will take it from you
We will and who are we
We are volunteers of america"

-Jefferson Airplane

Addendum: In the past twenty-four hours, Obama's website has changed the wording of this post to read, "Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free."

Here is a screenshot of the CHANGE.GOV post in its original form.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Interested in Turkish rap? Well, Turkish rap is interested in you.

Ceza, Yerli Plaka.

Woe, woe, woe.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Fellow Americans . . .

On Friday, having not enough to do, I posted a comment on TGGP's Entitled to an Opinion. It concerned the extent to which the now near-mythical "Joe the Plumber" represented the real, actual, average American.

Intrigued with the question, I set out to do some research. In a project of this type, you can to some degree make up the rules as you go along. Average income, for example. The average American has some post-secondary education -- "college" of course can mean almost anything -- but no four-year degree. If you are determined to create a composite image of the "average American," do you then look at the average income for someone with that level of education, or simply the average income for the population a a whole? The two will differ.

Anyway, for some unknown reason I got into this demographic challenge, and I thought I would expand upon, and briefly explain (in italics), my reasoning in creating a portrait of THE AVERAGE AMERICAN:

She (50.7% of the population) is a white (80% of population, non Hispanic white, 66.4%), 37 year old who lives in a three person household in Olathe, Kansas (pop. 118,000), a suburb of Kansas City.

Olathe is near the geographical center of the continental US; the positions of Alaska and Hawaii distort the US center too much. Olathe is an urban area, but not an enormous one, near to Kansas City, with a metropolitan population of 2.2 million. I've never visited Olathe, but I have visited Kansas City, and if there was ever a city that felt like the average American city . . . .

She has a high school diploma and some post-secondary education, but no Bachelors degree. She works in an office. A Protestant who believes in God, she nevertheless doesn’t attend church on a weekly basis. She will have nine sex partners over the course of her life, and will at some point in her life be divorced.

She “owns” a home worth . . . well, it used to be worth around $120,000, on which she has a monthly mortgage payment of around $1,000. Her annual household income is $55,000 per year

The average between the US average [$48,000] and the average for Olathe [$61,111]. Household income can be deceptive, since only 42% of American households include more than one income earner. If our Average American is living with a husband or boyfriend and child, her income would be in the $60s. If she is divorced -- and she probably will be at some point in her life -- her income would presumably be lower, although according to one source, "Five years after the split, the average divorcee's new household income often surpasses her original household's."

Her home looks something like this.

Ugly as shite, but functional. Yes, the listed price for this monstrosity is higher than $120,000, but one the other hand, the average American resides in a 1,700 sq, ft. home, and this one is only 1346. I'm balancing out the various averages as best I can. Again, a lot of it depends on whether she's living with another income earner and a child, or no other income earner and two children. Anyway, this house intuitively feels like a reasonable representation to me.

Her household has two cars, two to three TVs (depends on the source you look at), and at least one computer with internet access.

She will someday find her way to this blog, read this comment, realize that she is the anointed one, and reveal herself to a waiting world as the Ultimate Average American. She will then run for national office, lose, and host her own TV show.

Interested parties can learn more about the average American here. I now feel better about myself.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Red Sky at Morning

"Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms."
-- Aristotle

"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.
It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."
-- William Pitt, speech to the House of Commons, [Nov. 18, 1783]

"A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic."
-- Dresden James

"The ideal tyranny is that which is ignorantly self-administered
by its victims. The most perfect slaves are, therefore, those
which blissfully and unawaredly enslave themselves."
-- Dresden James

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country; corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in High Places will follow, and the Money Power of the Country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the People, until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed."
-- Abraham Lincoln, shortly before his assassination

"Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else."
-- Theodore Roosevelt

"Gentlemen, I have had men watching you for a long time and I am convinced that you have used the funds of the bank to speculate in the breadstuffs of the country. When you won, you divided the profits amongst you, and when you lost, you charged it to the bank. You tell me that if I take the deposits from the bank and annul its charter, I shall ruin ten thousand families. That may be true, gentlemen, but that is your sin! Should I let you go on, you will ruin fifty thousand families, and that would be my sin! You are a den of vipers and thieves, I intend to rout you out, and by the Eternal God I will rout you out! If the people only understood the rank injustice of our money and banking system there would be a revolution before morning."
-- Andrew Jackson, 1832

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wall Street is not the Only Thing Imploding in New York

Periodically, I rise to the bait so freely proferred by my journalistic bete noire, The New York Times. However, I rarely have a go at Maureen Dowd, for much the same reason that I rarely challenge the blind to billiards or jump grandmothers in stairwells. I'm alluding to my sense of chivalry, of course, but there's also the fact to have a go a Dowd, I'd have to read Dowd, and in my current capacity I'm already exposed to far too much flailing and failing prose, though I am at least compensated here for my suffering.

However, seeing that Ms. Dowd's latest political rumination, Park Avenue Diplomacy, is today's most emailed article among The New York Times faithful, I thought I might venture off my well-worn path and take a look. Who knows, perhaps Dowd has purchased a new thesaurus or cribbed some scintillating notions from Naomi Wolf? Alas, no such luck.

I don’t agree with those muttering darkly that the picture of Gov. Sarah Palin with a perky smile and shapely gams posing with a pleased Henry Kissinger, famous for calling power the ultimate aphrodisiac, is a sign of the apocalypse.

It isn’t even a sign of the apocalipstick.

Yes, this is Dowd at the peak of her form.

Sarah was motorcading around Manhattan even as a “greed is good” Wall Street experienced an End of Days vibe while a world gone sour on America descended on the United Nations.

After losing its moral superiority abroad with phony evidence for attacking Iraq, the U.S. has now lost its moral superiority in the financial arena. Once more, W. took the ball, carried it off the cliff and went biking.

Two paragraphs, three sentences. A reference to a lousy (even by Oliver Stone standards) Oliver Stone film, Palin's barbaric theological persuasions, humanity's disenchantment with America (all in one sentence!), followed by the war in Iraq, the Wall Street crisis, George Bush carrying a ball, then carrying it off a cliff, then riding a bicycle. Don't you think she could have tossed in something about stem cell research, global warming, and the failure of the female orgasm?

Oh, and what's the deal about America losing "its moral superiority in the financial arena?" I know Bernanke and Paulson have been laying it on heavy, but they haven't been laying it on that heavy. (Yes, I realize it should be "heavily," but "there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right."
-E. Abbey.)

Finally, Sarah huddled with Henry in his Park Avenue office, next to pictures of Ford and Reagan. The two made an odd couple: the last impure Rockefeller Republican and the first pure Rovian Republican, grown totally in the petri dish of cultural crusaderism.

Is the odd couple composed of Palin and Kissenger, or Ford and Reagan? If the former, presumably, then why the mention of the latter, and is it not a basic error to use "the two" in reference to Palin and Kissinger, when in fact the last two people identified in the prior sentence were Ford and Reagan?

Palin was "grown totally in the petri dish of cultural crusaderism?" Couldn't that be as easily said of Barak Obama, and more tellingly, mightn't he - with a little tweaking of the phrasing here and there - like to have that said of him?

Kissinger probably explained détente and Metternich to Palin, while she explained the Iditarod and moose carving to him.

I once heard a rather well-known poet (as poets go) describe a student's effort at verse as "high grade ore." The above is not, to put it gently, high grade ore.

And Governor Palin spends so much time ostracizing reporters who might quiz her on NATO or the liquidity crunch that her press strategy is beginning to smack of Putin’s — but less lethal.

Even if she blows off the First Amendment — and lets McCain’s Rove, Steve Schmidt, demonize the press even though she disdains women politicians who whine — Bill Clinton is still a fan.

One tires of having to explain this, but criticism of anyone else's expression - valid criticism, invalid criticism, intelligent criticism, idiotic criticism, ideologically pure criticism, ideologically tainted criticism, constructive criticism, or mean, hurtful, vindictive, eye-gouging criticism is not a violation of the First Amendment; it is an exercise of the First Amendment. Therefore, "demonizing the press" (which thoroughly deserves its own circle of hell, by the way) does not constitute "blowing off the First Amendment."

To reiterate, this is today's single most emailed New York Times article, which is another way of saying that - as Sarah Palin herself might phrase it - we are upon the End Times. Or as the apparently now silent (and who came blame him?) Udolpho once put it, "This culture may not be worth saving."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Conflict of Visions

In his book of the same name, Thomas Sowell argues that all men are guided in their thoughts and actions by an underlying set of visions which explain to them how the world, in its various facets, operates. The book, in the main, goes on to examine the inescapable conflict between what he terms the "unconstrained" and the "constrained" vision. These terms are very nearly self-explanatory. The unconstrained vision takes human nature as a promising raw material which can, by relatively straightforward measures, be molded to a variety of desirable human ends. The constrained vision sees human nature as largely fixed, morally suspect, and sometimes blindly destructive, even toward its own apparent interests. The unconstrained vision promises us emotional well-being via the guidance of qualified psychological experts who seek only to help us better ourselves, and the world around us. The constrained vision sees man as a wolf to man, and hopes that his most selfish and anarchic instincts might somehow be muted by shame, or moderated by mutal affection, or at least channelled into relatively more tolerable pursuits.

The unconstrained vision is lyrical; the constrained is tragic. The unconstrained is youthful; the constrained middle-aged. The unconstrained inspires; the constrained cautions. "'Most men look at things as they are and wonder why. I dream of things that never were and ask: Why not?'" mused Bobby Kennedy. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return," Genesis replies. The first vision is linear, spring-like, we might say, "Faustian." The second is circular, autumnal, humbling.

Both the constrained and the unconstrained vision inhabit every human psyche, in varying ways at varying times. But Sowell's apparent purpose in writing his book is to caution us against the siren song of the unconstrained vision, and to remind us of the damage that its excesses so often engender. More specifically, he sees our political and economic choices as emerging from a conflict between these two visions of the human state. For those who bother to think, aging is, in some measure, a transit from one vision to the other.

This brings us to the upcoming election. We do not now have, nor have we had, so far as I can remember during my lifetime, any sustained political conflict between the constrained and the unconstrained vision. In short, what we have, and have had, is simply a rhetorical competition between two versions of the unconstrained vision. In effect, the unconstrained vision has long since won the day. Hence, my reluctance to enter into the political process (i.e. to vote).

For the entirety of my adulthood (and I'm now well into my forties) we have evaded the constraints on our income and our consumption, both as individuals and as a society, by borrowing against our own or our children's - and grand children's - future prosperity, such as they may ever enjoy. This evasion has been engaged in enthusiastically, even optimistically, but with next to no regard as to its long-term effects. There is no point here, so far as I am concerned, in apportioning blame to a particular politician, or party, or economic class of society. We've given ourselves license to do this, and we've given others license to do this in our name.

I don't know what the ultimate outcome of the current Wall Street tribulation may be, but I suspect that, in the much broader sense, the way that we have been living, and the vision which has underpinned the choices we have made, will eventually, inevitably, and not in the too far distant future, encounter a very stiff and unyielding wall. Things will then change, as things always do. The outcome will probably be sobering, and for many, tragic. And of course, it could always be even worse.

A few points to consider, none of which require an advanced understanding of economics.

1. The era of cheap oil is over. This does not mean that we, or the world, will ruin out of oil this year, or this decade. But we will be paying more for oil now and into the future than we paid up to the recent past, and that change will be permanent. The price of oil will only decline, long term, when (if) humanity hits upon something cost-effective that operates more or less as oil does. There is currently nothing on the horizon, that I know of, that fits that description.

2. Our fueling of ever-increasing consumer spending through ever-increasing debt is about to be re-examined. We rely on people elsewhere to loan us money, and those people are currently, for good reason, somewhat wary of our ability to repay. Again, this is true on both the individual and the national level. I don't pretend to have any esoteric understanding of our capital markets, but I think I am correct in assuming that when you take on debt, every year, and neglect ever to pay down the principal, and finance the interest on the accumulating debt through taking on more debt, you eventually find yourself deep in a hole you cannot crawl out of.

3. Our economic growth over the past twenty years has not been limited to, but has been characterized by, bubbles. According to economist Thomas Palley:

"The business cycles of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush share strong similarities and are different from pre-1980 cycles. The similarities are large trade deficits, manufacturing job loss, asset price inflation, rising debt-to-income ratios, and detachment of wages from productivity growth.

The new cycle rests on financial booms and cheap imports. Financial booms provide collateral that supports debt-financed spending. Borrowing is also supported by an easing of credit standards and new financial products that increase leverage and widen the range of assets that can be borrowed against."

When markets are on an upswing, those raking it in are hardcore free-marketeers. Even those who know that such markets are overvalued cannot resist the temptation to "make hay while the sun shines." When markets are collapsing, we discover that these same people are somehow integral to the salvaging of our financial system, and that the entities with which they are affiliated are "too big to fail." This may not have been true of the tech bubble, but it certainly characterized the S&L debacle of the 80s, and of course we hear the same rationalizations, or if you prefer, rationales, now.

4. Social Security. In about two years, the baby boomers will begin to reach retirement age. This will entitle them (and me, eventually) to Social Security. What's worse, it will entitle them to Medicare. This is like one of those satellite photographs of one of those many hurricanes sweeping through the Caribbean a few weeks ago. This storm will not be diverted. Obviously, accomodations to reality can - and will eventually have to - be made. These accomodations will not make the baby boomers richer. The necessary adjustments will be played out on the field of inter-generational, ethnic, and class rivalry.

5. The underclass in America is growing larger. It both reproduces more, and reproduces faster (children at 18 instead of 30, grand kids in one's 30s, not one's 60s). Women receiving public assistance have, on average, three times the number of children of women who aren't on the dole. The expansion of the underclass is also attributable to unbridled and unselective immigration, much of it illegal. People don't like to talk about this in polite society. Politicians who wish to remain in office don't talk about it at all. Hence, nothing will be done to curtail the rise in the numbers of young people who will struggle through school, vent their frustration in various socially destructive ways, drop out or graduate at best marginally educated, and then struggle to find an entre into the legitimate economy. Many of them won't even bother to try. The upper middle class will avail itself of gated communities and private schools, and continue to lie to itself for as long as it can. Those below will have to fend for themselves on the streets. For them, lies will not prove so consoling.

As the factors above coalesce, plus those I'm too lazy or ignorant to write about now, our political discourse will become ever more riven with jealousy and accusation, suspicion, envy, and fear. Our politicians will continue to promise us more and better, better and more, for they know that we are children who wish only to be comforted, which, as our circumstances decline, will mean only to be deceived. They will accommodate us, and we will accommodate them. And we will all fall down together. Want examples? Look to the campaign promises of McCain and Obama. Or just click on this article.

By the way. I am, as I've said, well into my forties, with a wife and two kids. But I've never in my life owned a house. I used to feel kind of bad, or guilty, or inadequate about this, like I'd neglected to do something that was expected of me.

I don't feel so bad about it now.

PS: If you,re pondering the merits of the Wall Street bailout, you might want to click here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In Our Time

Go to the "Search" feature for The New York Times website. Type in "Michael Richards+racist." You will get 318 hits.

Type in "Mel Gibson+anti-semitic" and get 1,170 hits.

Dog, the Bounty Hunter, "Duane Chapman+racist" produces 54 hits.

"Don Imus+racist" generates an impressive 2,090 hits.

Curiously, try whatever semantic combinations you may, you will be unable to produce even one hit referencing "comedienne" Sandra Bernhardt's recent performance at a Washington D.C Jewish Community Center. Bernhardt's monologue was characterized by the following political analysis:

Now you got Uncle Women, like Sarah Palin, who jumps on the s--t and points her fingers at other women. Turncoat b---h! Don’t you f--kin’ reference Old Testament, bitch! You stay with your new Goyish crappy shiksa funky bulls--t! Don’t you touch my Old Testament, you b---h! Because we have left it open for interpre-ta-tion! It is no longer taken literally! You whore in your f--kin' cheap New Vision cheap-ass plastic glasses and your [sneering voice] hair up. A Tina Fey-Megan Mullally brokedown bulls--t moment.

In a nice touch, Bernhardt also warned Sarah Palin not to visit Manhattan, lest she be gang-raped by blacks. The New York Times has yet to write about this story.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Should I Stay or Should I Go

Not long ago I had asked the specialist if I could contemplate travelling. Naturally, anytime, he said, but the way he said naturally struck me as sinister. On the other hand,whatever condition we are in, we must always do what we want to do, and if we want to go on a journey, then we must do so and not worry about our condition, even if it's the worst possible condition, because if it is, we're finished anyway, whether we go on the journey or not, and it's better to die having made the journey we've been longing for than to be stifled by our longing. It was eighteen months since I'd been anywhere. The last time had been to Palma, because I always regarded it as the most perfect place. In November, when the fog so cruelly oppresses and depresses us in Austria, I had run through the streets of Palma in an open necked shirt and drunk my coffee every day in the shade of the plane trees on the famous Bourne. And in Palma I'd been able to make my definitive notes on Reger. True, I later lost them, to this day I don't know where, thus managing to destroy the fruits of two month's intellectual effort through a piece of gross carelessness. Quite unforgivable! Just to think that I might now be sitting on the terrace of the Nixe Palace, eating my olives and drinking my glass of water, not just absorbed, but utterly captivated by the sight of others on the terrace, who would be just as taken up by their fancies and fantasies as I was with mine! We often fail to realize that if we want to go on existing we need to summon up all our strength in order to wrench ourselves off the spot where we're stuck. My sister's right to keep using the word travel in my presence, wielding it over me like a whip all the time, I tell myself. She doesn't just use the word casually every moment, but with a definite aim in mind, the preservation of my very existence. Naturally the observer can see through the person he is observing more ruthlessly and realistically than the person observed, I said. There are so many wonderful towns in the world, so many landscapes and coastlines I've seen in my life, but for me none has ever been as perfect as Palma. But what if one of my dreaded attacks comes when I'm in Palma and I'm lying in bed in my hotel room with no proper medical attention and in a state of mortal fear? We have to envisage the most terrible eventualities and make the journey nonetheless, I told myself, yet at the same time I said, I can't take all my piles of notes with me; they'll hardly go in two suitcases, and to take more than two suitcases to Palma is madness. I was driven almost to distraction by the thought of having to go to the station, get on the train, go from the train to the airport, board the plane and all the rest with two or even three suitcases. But I didn't abandon the thought of Palma or the Melia--the Mediterraneo having closed for good years ago. I had taken a firm hold in the idea, and it had taken a firm hold on me. I walked about the house, to and fro, backwards and forwards, upstairs and downstairs, unable to rid myself of the thought of leaving Peiskam behind me; in fact I made not the slightest attempt to rid myself of the thought of Palma, but went on fuelling it until in the end I got so far as to take my two large suitcases out of the hall chest and place them beside it on the floor as though I really was going to leave. On the other hand, I said to myself, we mustn't give way at once to a sudden whim. Where would that land us? But the idea was there. I placed the suitcases between the chest and the door and contemplated them from a favorable angle. How long it is since I last took those cases out of the chest! I said to myself. Far too long. In fact, the cases were dusty, even though they'd been in the chest since my last trip to Palma. I got a duster and wiped them. At once I felt very sick. I hadn't even finished dusting one case when I was obliged to support myself on the chest, overcome by a sudden fit of breathlessness. And in this condition you're thinking of flying to Palma--in the midst of all the dreadful difficulties that are invariably attendant upon such a journey, a journey which would be nothing to a healthy person, but which is far too much for a sick person and could even lead to his death? After a while, however, I dusted the second case, proceeding more cautiously this time, and then I sat down in the iron chair in the hall, my favourite chair. The articles about Mendelssohn Bartholdy can go in one of the cases, I told myself, my clothes and underclothes in the other--the Mendelssohn papers in the larger one, the clothes and underclothes in the smaller one. What's the point of having such elegant luggage, I said to myself, at least sixty years old and going back to the latter years of my maternal grandmother? She had good taste, as these suitcases of hers testify. The Tuscans have good taste, I told myself, as is borne out time and again. If I go away, I said to myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall simply be leaving a country whose absolute futility utterly depresses me every single day, whose imbecilities daily threaten to stifle me, and whose idiocies will sooner or later be the end of me, even without my illnesses. Whose political and cultural conditions have of late become so chaotic that they turn my stomach when I wake up every morning, even before I am out of bed. Whose indifference to the intellect has long since ceased to cause the likes of me to despair, but if I am to be truthful only to vomit. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in my iron chair, in which everything which once gave pleasure to so-called thinking people, or at least made it possible for them to go on existing, has been expelled, expunged and extinguished, in which only the most primitive instinct for survival prevails and the slightest pretension to thought is stifled at birth. In which a corrupt state and a corrupt church join forces to pull at the endless rope which, with the utmost callousness and ruthlessness, they have for centuries wound round the neck of a blind and stupid people, a people imprisoned in its stupidity by its rulers. In which truth is trodden underfoot, and lies are sanctified by all official organs as the only means to any end. I shall be leaving a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which truth is not understood or quite simply not accepted, and falsehood is the only legal tender in all transactions. I shall be leaving a country in which the church practices hypocrisy and in which socialism, having come to power, practices exploitation, and in which art says whatever is acceptable to these two. I shall be leaving a country in which a people educated to stupidity allows its ears to be stopped by the church and its mouth by the state, and in which everything I hold sacred has for centuries ended up in the slop pails of the rulers. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall be going away from a country in which I no longer have any place and in which I have never found happiness. If I go away, I shall be going away from a country in which the towns stink and the inhabitants of the towns have become coarsened. I shall be going away from a country in which the language has become vulgar and the minds of those who speak this vulgar language have for the most part become deranged. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, in which the only model for behavior is set by the so-called wild animals. I shall be going away from a country in which darkest night prevails at noonday, and in which virtually the only people in power are blustering illiterates. If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall be leaving the disgusting, depressing, and unconscionably filthy public lavatory of Europe. To go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, means leaving behind me a country which for years has done nothing but afflict me with the most damaging depression and has taken every opportunity, no matter where or when, of insidiously and malignantly urinating on my head. But isn't it madness to think of going to Palma when I'm in such a state, and when my general physical condition doesn't even permit me to walk two hundred yards out of the door? I asked myself as I sat in the iron chair. As I sat there, I thought first about Taormina and the Timeo, with Christina and her Fiat, then about Palma and the Melia, with the Canellas, their three storey palace and their Mercedes. And suddenly, as I sat in the iron chair, I saw myself running through the narrow streets of Palma. Running through the streets! I cried out, sitting in the iron chair, when I'm not capable of even walking round the outside of my own house, let alone running through the streets of Palma. For a sick man like me to entertain such an idea isn't just bordering on megalomania; such an idea is well beyond the border, it's sheer madness. And I couldn't get this madness out of my head. As I sat in the iron chair I couldn't call a halt to the madness and didn't even try. On the contrary, I indulged it to such an extent that I couldn't help shouting out the word mad. The Melia or the Timeo, Christina or the Canellas, the Fiat or the Mercedes, I speculated, unable to stop myself, as I sat in the iron chair, drawing refreshment from these ridiculous speculations -- the Melia with all the hundreds and thousands of yachts outside the window -- the Timeo with its bougainvillaeas flowering at the window -- the Melia and the incredible sea breeze -- the ancient bathroom at the Timeo -- Christina or the Canellas -- the bougainvillaeas or the sea breeze -- the Cathedral or the Greek theater, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, the Mallorcans or the Sicilians -- Etna or Pollensa -- Ramon Llull and Ruben Dario or Pirandello. At present, I finally told myself, since I want to start my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy, I need a cosmopolitan atmosphere -- more people, more activity, more excitement, I thought as I sat in the iron chair, not a place with just one street -- and on a hill at that, hence requiring exertion -- and just one cafe, but a place with many busy streets -- and squares! and many cafes, and as many people around me as possible, for at present I need nothing so much as to have people around me - not that I want any dealings with them: I don't even want to speak with them, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, but I must have them around me. And so for all these obvious reasons I decided on Palma and against Taormina, in favour of the Canellas and against Christina, and generally in favour of a climate which would be positively beneficial to me in my condition, a summery climate such as I might expect in Palma even in February, but not in Taormina, where in February it is still wintery and rains nearly all the time. And in February, I thought, sitting in the iron chair, Etna is seldom to be seen, and even then its covered in snow from top to bottom, a constant and harmful reminder of the Alps, and therefore of Austria and home, which could only sicken me again and again. But suddenly this all appeared to me as senseless fantasizing, indulged in by an over wrought invalid, sitting in his iron chair; it did little more than make me sadder than I already was, and ended in dejection.

Thomas Bernhard Concrete
trans. by David McLintock, 1984

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Discipline and Hope

Having no need to account for anything they have done, our politicians do not find it necessary to trouble us with with either evidence or argument, or to confess their errors, or to subtract their losses from their gains; they speak like the gods of Olympus, assured that if they say they are our servants anything they do in their own interest is right. Our public discourse has been reduced to the manipulation of uprooted symbols: good words, bad words, the names of gods and devils, emblems, slogans, flags. For some the flag no longer stands for the country, it is the country; they plant their crops and bury their dead in it.

There is no better example of this deterioration of language than in the current use of the word "freedom." Across the whole range of current politics this word is now being mouthed as if its devotees cannot decide whether it should be kissed or eaten, and this adoration has nothing to do with its meaning. The government is protecting the freedom of people by killing them or hiding microphones in their houses. The government's opponents, left and right, wish to set people free by telling them exactly what to do. All this for the sake of the political power the word has come to have. The up-to-date politician no longer pumps the hand of the prosperous constituent; he offers to set him--or her--free. And yet it seems to me that the word has no political meaning at all; the government cannot serve freedom except negatively--"by the alacrity" in Thoreau's phrase, "with which it [gets] out of the way."

. . . Free men are not set free by their government. Free men have set their government free of themselves; they have made it unnecessary. Freedom is not accomplished by a declaration. A declaration of freedom is either a futile and empty gesture, or it is the statement of a finished fact. As I understand it, freedom is a personal matter; though we may be enslaved as a group, we can be free only as persons. We can set each other free only as persons. It is a matter of discipline. A person can free himself of a bondage that has been imposed on him only by accepting a bondage that he has chosen. A man who would not be the slave of other men must be the master of himself--that is the real meaning of self-government. If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work

-Wendell Berry "Discipline and Hope," 1971

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Democratic Vistas 2008

Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry -Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


"I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease." - Democratic Vistas

"Look for me under your bootsoles."

On Long Island, they moved my clapboard house
Across a turnpike, & then felt so guilty they
Named a shopping center after me!
Teen-agers call me a fool.
Now what I sang stops breathing.

And yet
It was only when everyone stopped believing in me
That I began to live, again-
First in the thin whine of Montana fence wire
Then in the transparent, cast off garments hung
In the windows of the poorest families,
Then in the glad music of Charlie Parker.
At times now,
I even come back to watch you
From the eyes of a taciturn boy in Malibu.
Across the counter at the the beach concession stand,
I sell you hot dogs, Pepsis, cigarettes-
My blond hair long, greasy, & swept back,
In a vain old ducktail, deliciously
Out of style.
And no one notices.

Once, I even came back as me,
An aging homosexual who ran the Tilt-a-Whirl
At county fairs, the chilled paint on each gondola
Changing color as it picked up speed,
And a Mardi Gras tattoo on my left shoulder.
A few of you must have seen my photographs,
For when you looked back,
I thought you caught the meaning of my stare:
Still water,

A Kosmos. One of the roughs.

Leave me alone.
A father who's outlived his only child.

To find me now will cost you everything.

-Larry Levis (1946-1996)

Happy Independence Day . . . enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

yeah, it's over (for) now . . .

The Seattle grunge band, Alice in Chains, used to sing a little ditty, presumably about the hard road of addiction and the struggle to clean up, called "Over Now." I can't access Youtube here in Turkey (don't ask' it's political), but I'm sure you can locate the Unplugged version there.

On a related note, bowing to the inevitable, Senator Clinton yesterday "suspended" her presidential bid. This morning, I scrolled through a transcript of her speech, hoping for something worthy of at least riffing on, but paragraphs of Democratic boilerplate don't lend themselves much to riffing, and anyway, what's the point?

Clinton lost because, well, because she's Clinton, and her assets (as is true for most of us) are inseparable from her liabilities. She was the presumptive nominee a year and a half ago. This lent her campaign an air of inevitability, which both helped and hurt her. She's as plugged into the conduits of power as any Democratic politician, particularly a relatively new one, could ever hope to be. This, combined with Clinton's honest sense of herself, led her to run as the knowing, competent insider, but she faced a blank tableau on which the electorate could deny its anxieties and inscribe its dreams. In other words, Clinton's support was a tepid pool, about a mile wide and an inch deep, until finally, it wasn't even that. Of course, she also had Bill to contend with.

The Democrats could still lose in November. They've just passed through a primary contest in which to vote for one of the two contenders was to invite a charge of racism, whereas to vote for the other was to invite a charge of sexism. Welcome to American politics, 21st century style. We're all going to have to live with these rhetorical ploys, and a good bit more. Both the Republicans and the Democrats have self-destructive impulses rooted in their respective constituencies. Come November, I plan to keep my non-voting streak alive. I'll start voting when someone starts representing me.

Hillary Clinton may or may not be angling for the Vice Presidential nomination. But based on past behavior, she probably is. After all, old habits die hard, or not at all. Speaking of which, Layne Staley, Alice in Chains lead singer, composed not one but a string of songs, similar to "Over Now" in their oblique references to the torments of addiction. They make a sometimes strangely pretty, sometimes grim, sometimes doggedly hopeful chronicle of his attempt to wrench himself free from drugs. Then he died. Drugs, of course. Found in his apartment, partially decomposed, he weighed all of 86 pounds. No one had seen him for weeks. Staley contrived to check out on exactly the same day as Kurt Cobain had, eight years before (great career move, as somebody said of Elvis) but arguably he'd been dead for years. "Over Now" ends in the following, allusive refrain:

We pay our debt sometime
Yeah, we pay our debt sometime
We pay our debt sometime
Yeah, we pay our debt sometime

On the personal level, he was apparently right, but on the political level, let's hope he's wrong.

Lyrics to "Over Now" here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Atlanta's a distant memory, Montgomery a recent blur . . .*

Today, around lunchtime, we fly to Chicago (American Airlines, of course) and then on to Istanbul. This will be, I calculated recently, our sixth move over the past six years. Somewhere along the way, two kids appeared.

These moves haven't always meant a new job or a new city, and often they haven't even involved transporting furniture (most of the places we've lived have come furnished). Still, six moves in six years, and now with two kids. Too much moving.

Thursday afternoon, I drove up to Rome, Georgia to attend to some minor business. My father's family is from there, though my father himself grew up in a small town about 15 miles south of the city. So I've been visiting that region all my life. On the way back to Atlanta, I decided to drive through my father's hometown.

The first thing that threw me was simply the struggle to find it. I don't mean that I didn't know the way to the town, which I visited frequently as a child. What I mean is that the roads around there have been re-mapped into 4-lane highways, and there's the ubiquitous profusion of fast-food and discount stores on the outskirts, and whatever bearings and landmarks I'd used in the past to navigate into town were so lost or obscured to me that I drove around and around, knowing all the while that I was on the edge of the town, but struggling to find my way to the part still recognizable to me. I nearly gave up, but eventually I got there.

In my experience, so much has changed, and still changes, that I don't quite know what to make of it when something doesn't. It's a little disconcerting. When I was a kid, I tried to imagine what the world would look like by the time I was my parent's age, a nearly unimaginable chasm of time, and the best I could come up with was something utterly alien to everything I knew. Of course, the elementary school readers we were given, with fathers flying to work in helicopters and mother's preparing dinners in a kitchens copied from The Jetsons may have pushed me on a little in that direction.

When I finally found my way into town, and drove past the house where my father grew up, not only was it still there, it was still exactly as it was, or as I remember, from when I would visit in the summers as a child. So were all the other houses on the street, and on the next street, and the next. Years ago, my brothers and I would ride, unaccompanied, from Atlanta on the train, if you can envision this, there to be met by my grandfather at a small, white clapboard station. This was so long ago that these memories are like a few worn snapshots uncovered at the bottom of a drawer. You have to gather yourself before you even recognize what you're looking at. "Oh," you say, after a moment's pause of uneasy confusion, "there I am, standing with my brother at the beach we used to visit every summer, the one where we'd pick up sand dollars and skim them across the slough." These meager recollections swim up to you from the depths, and you realize that large chunks of your own life are mostly unrecoverable.

My grandfather disappeared forty years ago, from lung cancer. But the detached garage next to his house, where I sat in his lap while he sharpened his tools on a foot-driven grindstone, is still there. The color of the house, the gravel drive, the small screened porch, the slatted fence in the backyard, all as it was when I was young. And - so my father told me when I shared all this with him later on - just the same as when he was young, in the 1930s. He can't remember the house ever having been anything other than white with green shutters, and that's all it's ever been every time I've seen it.

I also drove out to my grandparents' cemetery plot. I didn't have any particular reason for doing this, since I wasn't going to be cleaning the headstones or leaving flowers, but it was something I wanted to do anyway. The stones looked almost new, though as I've said, my grandfather died forty years ago, and my grandmother nearly thirty. I didn't really know what to do there. I didn't have anything to offer, or to leave.

I liked looking out on the graves in the cemetery. I recognized at least half the names carved into the stones, probably more. These were names I hadn't thought about or even heard in 25 years, names remembered from when my grandmother would come to visit us, when she updated my father on all of the small doings in the lives of people he'd known growing up. Some of these names may even have belonged to distant relatives. My father's parents lived in that area long enough for third and fourth cousins to become blurred with friends my family had always known, at least in my mind. Sometimes, as a kid, I wasn't sure if the people we we drove out to visit in my grandmother's car were relatives or just someone or other she'd always known. My confusion was, in a way, understandable, because I'm not really describing the world I grew up in. I'm describing a world I knew only occasionally and intermittently, many years ago, a world my grandparents inhabited, and one my father could hardly wait to flee. He made his escape as soon as possible to Atlanta, a full fifty miles away. His parents must have admired his daring, but then again, he'd already seen Europe in the Second World War, so maybe the leap to the city came easier.

I haven't written much here lately. There seemed little reason to chronicle the mostly tedious and sometimes stressful steps involved in moving, particularly moving overseas, and what else was there for me to write about? When I'm situated in Istanbul, and have access to a computer, I'll write something new. But that'll probably be a while. In the years to come, I hope I write more and move less.

* From the song 200 More Miles by the Cowboy Junkies. You can view a sort of warbly live version here. Or maybe you'd rather just read the lyrics.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Books in Boxes

Preparing to move back to Istanbul, we've been going through all the junk that we've kept in storage the past 5 years. This involves asking repeatedly, "Why did we save this?" when running across old cassette tapes, coffee mugs, and contact lens cases. Probably, we saved them because we were too lazy/disorganized to throw them away 5 years ago.

Anyway, this exercise offers the opportunity to go through boxes of books that I've been wishing I had access to those 5 years. Before we put them in storage initially, I gave a lot of books away (for better or worse), and I'm sure to give a few more away now before we pack the rest into sturdier boxes and have them shipped to Istanbul. In a couple of months, I hope to be placing them on shelves in our new home.

In the meantime, here's something I dug out, from Denis Johnson's Car Crash While Hitchhiking:

I was standing out here in the night, with the baby, for some reason, in my arms. It must have still been raining, but I remember nothing about the weather. We'd collided with another car on what I now perceived was a two-lane bridge. The water beneath us was invisible in the dark.
Moving toward the other car I began to hear rasping, metallic snores. Somebody was flung halfway out the passenger door, which was open, in the posture of one hanging from a trapeze by his ankles. The car had been broadsided, smashed so flat that there was no room inside even for this person's legs, to say nothing of a driver or any other passengers. I just walked right on past.
Headlights were coming from far off. I made for the head of the bridge, waving them to a stop with one arm and clutching the baby to my shoulder with the other.
It was a big semi, grinding its gears as it decelerated. The driver rolled down his window and I shouted up at him, "There's a wreck. Go for help."
"I can't turn around here," he said.
He let me and the baby up on the passenger side, and we just sat there in the cab, looking at the wreckage in the headlights.
"Is everybody dead?" he asked.
"I can't tell who is and who isn't," I admitted. He poured himself a cup of coffee from a thermos and switch off all put the parking lights.
"What time is it?"
"Oh, it's around quarter after three," he said.
By his manner, he seemed to endorse the idea of not doing anything about this. I was relieved and tearful. I'd thought something was required of me, but I hadn't wanted to find out what it was.
When another car showed coming in the opposite direction, I thought I should talk to them. "Can you keep the baby?" I asked the truck driver.
"You'd better hang on to him," the driver said. "It's a boy, isn't it?"
"Well, I think so," I said.
The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea of how really badly broken he was, and I made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn't be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn't, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person's life on this earth. I don't mean that we all end up dead, that's not the great pity. I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real.

We'll see whether all these books make it to Istanbul.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

David Mamet Renounces "Brain-Dead Liberal" Self

Playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, essayist, children's author, theologian, social critic, drama critic, amateur sociologist, cartoonist of modest talent, and fan of con games and magic acts, David Mamet has concluded that his lifelong liberal convictions are, more or less, a pile of unexamined and highly derivative horseshit.

Better late than never.

Writing in the Village Voice, Mamet recounts his path to revelation. He used to believe that governments were corrupt, corporations evil, and militaries murderous, but people, at heart, basically good. He's now realized that governments,corporations, and militaries are actually made up of people (allegedly, at heart, good), and this has thrown a spanner into his worldview.

As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life. How do I know? My wife informed me. We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up. "?" [sic] she prompted. And her terse, elegant summation, as always, awakened me to a deeper truth: I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as "a brain-dead liberal," and to NPR as "National Palestinian Radio."

This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

This is fairly basic stuff, but more significantly, perhaps, he has come to realize that the liberal temperament assumes the attainability of a world - perhaps not perfect - but flawed only by minor glitches and imperfections, whereas, to the conservative mind, life always encompasses the tragic, and we'd do well not to compound tragedy in our zeal to abolish it.

The liberal - or at least, extreme liberal - vision, being profoundly optimistic, tends to induce only greater frustration and impatience over time, since it strives toward the attainment of a near Paradise, made possible if only the right people come to power and implement a few obvious and utterly benign reforms. Who could object to a better world? Hence, the tendency of millenarian revolutions and cult societies to resort to bloodshed when Paradise fails to arrive on cue.

Paradoxically, one of the difficulties of espousing a conservative vision in most Western societies is not that life, from day to day, is such an irremediable disaster, but that, it so often isn't. Things may not work perfectly, but they often enough work well enough to seduce us into believing that we can, by dint of political activism, make them work a whole lot better. In other words, things are so wrong because they could be so right. Again, who could object to a better world?

We Americans have a weakness for believing that there is no problem so intractable as to be beyond a solution. We take an almost algebraic approach to any human failing, believing only that the right combination of research, methodology, and funding will rid us of everything from childhood aggression to teen pregnancy to violent crime to middle-aged despair (old age we simply deny). As Mamet acknowledges, despite his sense that, from an overarching point of view, the world is characterized by invidious corruption and greed, on the personal level, that is, on the level of his own experience, things generally work rather well.

I rather like Mamet's plays, or at least the ones that I've seen (on video, of course), but to be honest, I don't find his prose any more lucid or compelling than that of a decent part-time blogger. I mean this not only of the piece that he's currently written, but of the essays of his that I've read as well. You may judge for yourself, but his political insights seem fairly pedestrian to me, and he talks an awful lot about the theater, as always.

Still, he seems to have realized that though from the liberal perspective life proceeds through a series of crimes and brutalities, which in fact it often does, on the personal level, where life is actually lived, it usually works better than we have any reason to expect. Mamet ultimately concludes that we're probably better off maintaining the personal latitude to figure out how to live it.

There is, of course, a more concise way of saying all of this. I used to know a guy named Wes who once observed that, "For this world to be perfect, everything would have to be different."

To both David and Wes, I say indeed.

Addendum: Here, you may read a Salon interview of the pre-conservative, "Brain-Dead Liberal" David Mamet. You can also view the Alec Baldwin motivational speech from Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Eternal Return

Recently, Steve Sailer blogged about Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, which brought to mind an encounter, or sequence of encounters, between a friend of mine, Roger, and Daniel Day-Lewis years ago, which then brought to mind a post I'd myself written in Istanbul, late the night before my family and I were due to board a plane, after four years in Turkey, and return to America.

My own post had to do with the circuitous way that lives sometimes wind round each other, and people, sometimes strangers, find their lives intersecting once, twice, even thrice, over various points in space and time. Obviously, modern technology (the airplane, primarily) makes this just slightly less miraculous.

But back to Daniel Day-Lewis. Somewhere in the early 90s, my friend Roger abandoned his pursuit of a PhD in French at Chapel Hill (he just couldn't see himself struggling to hold the wayward interests of 18 year olds for the rest of his life), and, at a loss for what to do next, retreated to his ancestral home of Columbus, Georgia, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

There, in something approximating bewilderment and despair, Roger located for himself a garage apartment, took up work at the Columbus Historical Society, and attempted to resign himself to the next half century of waiting in vain for something of significance, even he wasn't sure what, to occur.

One afternoon, while strolling home from work, he wandered into a card shop. His idle browsing was interrupted by the luminous presence of a woman wrapped entirely in white, an atypical clothing choice in Columbus. Intrigued, Roger gazed a half second longer, then another half second, then approached.

There was a certain . . . something. More than attraction. Familiarity. He finally summoned his nerve. "Excuse me," he said, "I know this will sound strange, but I couldn't help noticing that you bear the most remarkable resemblance to Isabelle Adjani, the French actress. Has anyone ever told you this before?"

She arched an eyebrow slightly. "That is because I am Isabelle Adjani." Immediately, Roger segued effortlessly into French. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

Adjani explained that she was staying at the local Hilton, or something, with her companion Daniel Day-Lewis, who was at that moment just across the state line in Alabama, studying with a woodsman in preparation for his role in Last of the Mohicans. Evidently, DDL was honing his skills in fire building and rabbit skinning while wearing a coonskin cap, that sort of thing. After some time, Adjani fixed my friend in a curious stare, then asked, in French naturalment, "And what are you doing here?"

Roger couldn't help but laugh. After he'd explained the sequence of events leading him back to his hometown, Adjani casually asked, "Why not join us for dinner? Daniel will be returning this evening."

Before arriving at their hotel, Roger, whose manners are well rooted in a prior century - and not the 20th - arranged for flowers to be delivered to their room. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by Isabelle, and ushered into their suite. There, in a corner, dressed in black and smoking a cigarette, sat Daniel. Despite the Euro-Hollywoodish trappings, and their color-contrasting taste in apparel, Daniel and Isabelle turned out to be warm dinner companions. Roger discussed with them his ambitions to leave Columbus behind, and, if possible to make his way to Europe. They exchanged addresses at the end of the evening, and Isabelle and Daniel promised to do anything they could to assist Roger in his bid to relocate to Europe - Paris, most particularly. The next day, Roger found himself in the stunning heat of Wet Willie's Waterslide, relating to his sister the events of the previous evening, squinting against the sunlight, enduring the kids' squeals of hydraulic joy, and pondering the wistful incongruity of it all.

Some years later, after much searching, Roger managed to secure a job interview with Nato, and fervently hoped that this might at last be his ticket out of Columbus and on to Europe. He arranged to fly into Paris, where he would stay with a friend for a week before heading on to Brussels and the interview. Arriving at the Atlanta airport, Roger checked his bags, made his way to the International Concourse, and started into space while biding his time and waiting to board the plane.

His eye eventually settled on a lone figure, dressed in black, wearing sunglasses, and slouched against a far wall. There was a certain . . . something. Could it be? It looked like it was, but how could you tell with the sunglasses, and even if it was, he wouldn't remember a dinner in a hotel suite years earlier.

A few moments later, the black-clad figure glanced from behind the shades in Roger's direction, straightened, then approached. "Roger," he said smiling, "what are you doing here?"

They were booked on the same flight to Paris. After catching up on old news, DDL invited Roger to join him in first-class for a drink once they were airborne. Once the plane was en route, however, Roger was stopped cold by the flight attendant, who informed him that - invitation or no - he wasn't allowed in the first-class section. At that point, DDL intervened, explaining that he had specifically asked Roger to join him for a drink. Nothing doing.

"Do you have a foot stool, then?" asked DDL.

"A foot stool, yes, we do."

"Would you put the stool in the aisle next to my friend's seat, and I'll join him for a drink there?" Day-Lewis asked. Which is what they, and he, did.

When the flight landed, Isabelle was at the airport, waiting to meet Daniel. The three were briefly reunited, and Isabelle and Daniel asked for the phone number of the apartment where Roger would be staying. They then agreed to meet up a few nights later for dinner.

Sadly, Roger only discovered after having been met by his host in Paris that he'd recently moved to a new apartment, and that the phone number which had been given to Daniel and Isabelle was no longer in service.

Roger had no way of contacting them, and never saw them again. After a week in Paris, he went to his Nato interview in Brussels, eventually resulting in reimbursement for the cost of his flight, and a polite letter of rejection. Some time later, Daniel and Isabelle had a son together, resulting in the quick demise of their relationship. Day-Lewis is now married to Arthur Miller's daughter, with whom he has two sons. I know nothing more about the life of Isabelle Adjani.

Roger eventually escaped Columbus, and landed on the Upper West Side, about a block from the Museum of Natural History. I visited him there in 2003, when I was in New York to obtain my residency visa for Turkey, a country I'd never before visited, and in which I was soon to live. After some slightly tense to and fro with the ladies of the Turkish consulate, I left New York with my visa. Ten days later, I was on my way. Roger, so far as I know, is still in Manhattan.

Speaking of Turkey, in April my family and I will again board a plane, this time back to Istanbul. To live. Again.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Our Moribund Political Mind

In today's NY Times, Caroline Kennedy has written an endorsement of Barack Obama under the title, "A President Like My Father." Scrolling through her Op-Ed, a few observations come to mind.

First, someone should tell her that alliteration (a habit of my own) can be overdone. "My reasons are patriotic, political and personal . . . . There is a generation coming of age that is hopeful, hard-working, innovative and imaginative. But too many of them are also hopeless, defeated and disengaged."

Second, her endorsement of Obama leans overwhelmingly on his capacity, real or imagined to "inspire." Of course, most children would like think the best of their parents, but it would seem that Caroline, in praising Obama, is rather transparently attempting to breathe new life into the cult of Camelot.

"Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible."

This is a line of political thought, so common as to be pretty much the norm, which I despise. I am not interested in electing a national savior. To elect a national savior is to acknowledge that we are in need of saving, and from whom are we in need of saving, if not ourselves? If, in fact, we are in need of saving from ourselves, then I suspect that all of the current crop of candidates will be found wanting.

I am not arguing that presidential elections are of no consequence (the current president has demonstrated that they are) but rather that what Caroline Kennedy is engaged in, and what she encourages the rest of us to join her in, is something more akin to religious ecstasy than sound deliberation. It seems to me that for much of my life, voters have been "energized" in this manner, and look at where it has gotten us.

Finally, I would like to say something about the Kennedy legacy, and it's appearance in this campaign. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. If you are old enough to remember the failures and accomplishments of the Kennedy administration with any genuine clarity, then you are probably at least 60. For most Americans, the life and death of JFK have no significance apart from the mythic tale that was being spun by his "handlers" before he'd even set foot in the White House.

JFK has become one of those Democratic touchstones, like FDR, by which current candidates, and their operatives, attempt to establish the bona fides of their political ambitions. That Caroline Kennedy's Op-Ed piece is the most emailed article in today's NY Times would indicate that we are increasingly surrendering to our atavistic impulse toward political dynasty. It is only a matter of time before Chelsea Clinton weds Jeb Bush Jr., and America can finally crown the royal family we've been craving all along.

I am not "inspired" by the legacy of JFK, nor that of FDR, nor that of Bill and Hillary, nor - for that matter - of Ronald Reagan. I do not expect a politician to transcend race, or class, or any other category of competing American interests. I don't expect, I hope, more than can be expected. Intelligence, a respect for the bounds of nature, including human nature, and a willingness, when necessary, to speak to the American people as fellow-adults, rather than confused and frightened children, might just be enough.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I am currently reading Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost, published in 1963, and translated from the German in 2006 by Michael Hofmann. You may be unfamiliar with both the life and work of Bernhard. Born in Holland in 1931, he was the bastard son of a high-strung Austrian mother and reprobate laborer father, also Austrian, whom Bernhard never met, but whom subsequent research led him to believe may have been murdered during the Second World War.

Bernhard was only briefly in Holland during his infancy, his mother having been sent there to have her out-of-wedlock child. Mother and son soon returned to their Austrian homeland, where Bernhard came of age in difficult circumstances during and after the war. In his autobiography, Gathering Evidence, Bernhard provides a striking account of his early life, up to the age of 19. He lavishes particular attention on the torments he endured as a schoolboy, most excruciatingly during his tenure as a boarding student at the "National Socialist Home for Boys," which he attended during the war years.

Bernhard's account is precise and unsparing in every way, both of himself and of others. As a teenager, and while barely surviving with his extended family in a tenement, Bernhard deviated from his normal, and much dreaded, path to school, turning instead in the direction of the state labor office. That same day, he began a new life as a grocer's apprentice in a public housing project in Salzberg. One might expect a writer, particularly one as inclined to the shadowed vision as is Bernhard, to recount this experience as one of misery, but in fact, it constituted a tonic and liberation. No longer forced to endure the taunting sarcasm of his teachers, he was free to watch and observe, to speak his mind as did the denizens of the housing project whom he served. In a sense, Bernhard's abandonment of school in favor of the tiny grocery store tucked into the basement of a dreary apartment block initiated him into what would become his life as a writer.

Gathering Evidence is one of Bernhard's best works, more eventful and plot driven than are most of the novels he wrote. Though I am a great admirer of his work, I must admit that many of his novels suffer, at least in patches, from an absence of narrative movement. His characters ponder and ruminate, despair, and savor the ironies of their despair, their thoughts circling back upon themselves. At times, this leads the reader into a narrative cul de sac which . . . well, sometimes amuses, sometimes fascinates, and sometimes bores.

In my opinion, he pulls off this aesthetic trick to best effect in his brief novel, Concrete, the story Austrian musicologist of independent means who has, for the past several years, been attempting to write a ground-breaking study of the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though he aspires to pen only a brief article, the demands of the assignment - self-imposed, of course - rise to such towering heights that he is unable, throughout the book, ever to settle upon even the first sentence. Concrete is written in the form of a journal, in which the narrator recounts his epochal bout of writer's block, his relationship with his hard-nosed, worldly-wise sister (whose expressions of concern for his welfare move him to both anger and tender affection) as well as a host of other episodes and encounters that crowd his mind and brook him no peace. Though this hardly seems the stuff of comedy, Concrete is suffused with a self-mocking humor. Bernhard knows full well that his protagonist is an absurd creation, that writers, poets, artists and intellectuals are absurd poseurs, and that in fact, it is absurd even to be a human being. A rather Austrian observation, eh?

Anyhow, I've got some business to attend to today, so let me offer a couple of quotations from Frost, to give you a taste of Bernhard's style, or at least, his style as translated into English.

How long was I proposing to stay in Weng, he asked. I needed to get back fairly soon, to prepare for exams in the spring, I said. "As you are studying law," he said, "I'm sure you'll find a job later. There are always jobs for lawyers. I had a nephew once who was a lawyer, only he lost his mind over stacks of files and had to quit his job in the civil service. He wound up in Steinhof. Do you know what that is?" I replied that I had heard of the institution "am Steinhof." "Well then, you'll know what became of my nephew," he said.

Readers familiar with Bernhard's work will know that his friend, Paul Wittgenstein, was a frequent guest at "am Steinhof," during his bouts of periodic madness. Such knowledge of course, only enhances the ominous implication of all that is left unsaid in the passage above.

The tale of Bernhard's friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, is, in part, the story of a beloved friend's descent into madness and despair. At it's end, Bernhard reveals that he declined to attend Paul Wittgenstein's funeral, and has never been able even to visit his grave. All of this is recounted in the brief volume, Wittgenstein's Nephew., and yes, Paul was the nephew (or cousin) of the renowned philosopher Ludwig, which again, adds greater dimension to the tragedy.

One more passage from Frost:

"My time has passed as if I didn't want it. I didn't want it. Sickness is a consequence of my lack of interest in my time, lack of interest, lack of productivity, lack of pleasure. Sickness appeared where there wasn't anything else . . sometimes I jumped out of bed, and slowly I saw all thought become impossible, worthless, everything successively, logically, became pointless and meaningless . . . And I discovered that my surroundings didn't want to be explained by me."

Lovely, in its own strange way.

An interview with Bernhard is linked to here. A review of Frost here. I can't say whether the review is any good, because I didn't bother to read it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Riding on the Metro

Every workday, I drive to a train station, and take Atlanta's version of the Metro, known as MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority). Every evening, I ride MARTA back to my car, parked securely in the deck, and make my way home.

Whatever charm this jaunt may offer as an occasional outing disappears after, oh, the fortieth or fiftieth haul. Not much is going to change out the windows of the train. And few experiences are more disheartening than bounding down (or up) the stairs as your train pulls out of the station. Time to start looking for some new graffiti to admire. Occasionally, I even find myself driven to eavesdropping.

Yesterday morning, I overheard the following exchange, between a youngish man and a younger woman sitting together. Acquaintances, I gathered, but not close friends. The young man was describing the tribulations associated with conceiving his first child. Evidently, he and his wife had "struggled" (is it really so hard?), had given up hope, and then had been blessed with a little one. "That's awesome!" the young woman said. To which the young man replied, "Yeah, it's pretty cool."

He then went on to describe some completely unexceptional aspect of parenting, something familiar to anyone who's ever had a kid, or been one, like, I don't know, reading a bedtime story. In response, the young woman exclaimed, "That's awesome!" to which the young man replied, "Yeah, it's pretty cool."

Limited lexicon, apparently.

That afternoon, I overheard two young men at Peachtree Center Station. One was recounting the weekend visit of a friend who "crashed" at his apartment. Every single sentence he uttered was structured as follows: "________ was like ...."

"He was like . . . . And I was like . . . .and then he got like . . . ., and so I was like . . . , so then he got, like, . . . and it was so like . . ."

Evidently, he's dispensed with the superabundance of verbs in the English language.

This morning, I was off for a glorious eleven hour workday (I'm teaching in the evenings, two nights a week) when, while ascending the escalator, I was overtaken by a young woman bounding up the stairs in frantic haste (of which there was no need, as the train wouldn't be arriving for another three minutes). From her anxious grasp slipped a can of Coke Zero, which landed on the edge of the escalator stair directly in front of me, ruptured, and then more or less exploded, covering me in Coke Zero (whatever the fuck that is) from my glasses to my shoes.

"Hey," I shouted to this nerve-addled basket-case who hadn't even bothered to look back while I was being showered in Coke. "I'm going to work!" (I was wearing some nice clothes, or as she might have pronounced it, "cloth-hes.")

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said in her Spanish-inflected English (not that there's anything wrong with it), "It was an accident. I didn't mean to."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I muttered as I wiped Coke "Zeh-roh" from my glasses with my yellow silk tie.

What a pleasure to take the train.