Friday, December 31, 2004

We Painted the Sky

Bloggers have an interesting tradition: Friday is ‘cat day’. Thousands of sites worldwide contain stories, pictures, poetry, rants, essays about cats.

We have a black cat in our household. But I’m not going to join this tradition.

Instead, I will continue a habit I started in November, the first month of my entry into Blogger Nation: I will publish a poem on the last day of the month. I write most of my poetry for Pam, my wife, love, and friend. This is one I wrote for her two years ago, during our 25th year together.

We Painted the Sky

You picked bright blues,
twirled with wispy whites.
Just hanging in a porous canopy,
letting rays skip sprightly
and dancing to the hill’s gleaming fall breeze.

I brushed a pale pastel sky,
merging to the sun’s white glare at the horizon.
Purple clouds climb over the dark mountain
fringed in pink
which rolled with the wind.

We painted the sky
with the same palette we use on our lives –
ever smiling, ever dark,
always moving west to east,
smiling as it comes, waning as we leave
over a horizon we cannot know.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

We bring a bucket to the conflaguration

The neighbor’s house burns down.

Do you wait three days before wandering over to check on the family? See how they are doing? Offer any help? Call friends and community organizations to organize assistance?

Of course not. And the President of the United States shouldn’t wait that long either.

We just witnessed the greatest natural disaster of this generation. Uncounted thousands killed. Unfathomable physical damage. Whole islands devastated. Populations totally uprooted. Massive disruption of social and civil institutions. Broken health and safety structures.

And the leader of the strongest, richest country in the world speaks publicly 72 hours after the disaster. And promises something more than the paltry $35 million we have pledged so far. As Senator Pat Leahy noted, we spend more than that in Iraq before breakfast. The European Union has collected more than that from street collections….

As a society, we must rise above such meager leadership. We are better than this.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A Gift for Christmas

A friend sent me a gift this morning: an excerpt from the book Jacob the Baker by Noah BenShea. I had not heard of this book, nor of its author; the above title links to his web page.

The story, "In the Ashes", concerns Jacob and his friend Mr. Gold, who is dying. They discuss their views on life and its value; at one point Mr. Gold exclaims "Our days amount to nothing!" But Jacob differs, and he responds as one 'with the attitude of a man not filled with knowing but caring':

"Mr. Gold, all passes, nothing stops. Our days do amount to nothing, but that is because we are not a collection. We are a process.

"The truth about the seasons is that the seasons change. While everything appears to live and die, it is only the appearance of things which lives and dies. The dead are buried. Their memory is not."

"...Life is often heavy only because we attempt to carry it," said Jacob. "But, I do find strength in the ashes."

"In the ashes?" asked Mr. Gold.

"Yes," said Jacob, with a confirmation that seemed to have traveled a great distance.

"You see, Mr. Gold, each of us is alone. Each of us is in the great darkness of our ignorance. And, each of us is on a journey. In the process of our journey, we must bend to build a fire for light, and warmth and food.

"But when our fingers tear at the ground, hoping to find the coals of another's fire, what we often find are the ashes. And, in these ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony.

"Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night, somebody else has bent to build a fire, and somebody else carried on.

"And that can be enough, sometimes."

Human life is the show that never ends. We are the product of our past, our heritage; the ashes provide a foundation for the present, whether we are aware of it or not. Those ashes can represent our greatest hopes.

Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of one who brings meaning to our lives. Tonight, my wife and I will visit a couple who face incredible physical barriers. The woman suffers from a sickness that requires dialysis twice a week; her husband, who has been caring for her for years, is now going blind. Yet, they are the most optimistic and hopeful people we know. They do not dwell on their own problems, but are much more interested in caring for others -- and are thankful for every blessing that comes their way.

The light from this couple shines from a deep foundation of ashes. It represents the strongest hope for all of us.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Framing the Winter Solstice

The shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The sky turns steel grey. The river runs from black to corrugated white as the ice forms, creating small windows of rippled flowing water. The roads are white from that first layer of salt, laid down by midnight trucks that rumbled ahead of scattered snowflakes. Brown fields are scattered with white wisps of snow, rustling across dry harsh leaves. The sun visits for a few hours, then hides away to satisfy those that have gone south.

This can be a harsh tableau. But it carries its own beauty, sharp and clear at every angle. The air is not distorted by heat, or thunder, or slashing rain. Just a shiny collection of cold edges, reflecting an angled sun, trying to catch whatever warmth can be shared.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Where does reason stop?

Another 50 people are killed in a series of car bombings in Najaf, Iraq. Just another blip in a video full of violent acts on our television, all coming from the other side of the world. Does the distance inure us to the violence of these acts? The 8-11PM block on the same TV screen contains a sterile fictional view of violence. Does that carry over to our internal digestion of the news from a real warfront?

Killing, under any guise or in front of any camera, is an irrational act brought on when the rational mind turns actions over to anger, evil, power, or just total blankness. Darkness personified.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

From Ideology to dogma

From an essay on Jimmy Carter, written by one of his speechwriters, Hendrik Hertzberg:

“A political ideology is a very handy thing to have. It’s a real time-saver, because it tells you what you think about things you know nothing about. Reagan never had to agonize over the merits of this tax versus that tax—if it was a tax, he was against it. He never lost sleep over the proper design of some environmental regulation—if it was an environmental regulation, he was against it. He never worried about whether to build up the Navy at the expense of the Army, or the Army at the expense of the Navy. His view was, if it was military, build it all—and damn the expense.
Another way to put this same point is that Ronald Reagan did all of his thinking and made most of his decisions long before he became President. He had a complete ideological framework that answered virtually every policy question in advance. So, as President, he was able to devote all his time and energy to selling and implementing the ideas he had adopted during his years as spokesman of the conservative wing of his party.
This observation applies as much to ideologues of the left as to ideologues of the right….A fully developed, fully worked out political ideology provides a model of how the whole organism works. It may not provide you with the details, but it does provide you with a clear general direction.”

This is what we have in our executive branch today. George Bush has an ideological compass that he lives by, and it provides a foundation for all his decision-making. Iraq is a good example. Iraq and Saddam were part of an evil axis, a threat to peaceful stability in the Middle East, an extension of the terrorist protectorate. The lack of WMD need not stand in the way. When that fact becomes irrelevant, substitute another high moral purpose: Saddam is evil, must be eliminated; liberty is on the march; or we will make Iraq a beacon of democracy and stability in Middle East.

These are basic foreign policy tenets from the middle of the last century. Might makes right. We can spread our model of liberty, democracy, and capitalism, because we have demonstrated the rightness of our cause by our own freedom and economic growth.

I respect someone with a strong center. Successful people have a belief set that gives them both a foundation for action, and the self-confidence to carry it out. The danger is when such a foundation is so unassailable that it becomes dogma, and no other point of view is accepted. Then the ideological core becomes dangerous fundamentalism.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Barry's turn on the stand

So the other shoe drops, just as the San Francisco Chronicle planned. Makes one wonder: the grand jury testimony was in December 2003. The Chronicle publishes the material one year later -- after the baseball season is over, after all the 2004 baseball awards are announced. San Francisco is high-octane Giants territory; did the Chronicle protect the team, the season, and Barry's season, by orchestrating the release of this story?

I do not support Barry here. He is probably lying, just as Giambi has been lying. I am a Giants fan (yup, even here in upstate New York, we still prowl the National League West), and I am saddened by all this. Barry's friends, particularly Victor Conte in his interview tonight, come across as self-righteous and arrogant.

Every party, even the Chronicle, has been scripting this story to their advantage. Such actions taint everyone; the song remains the same, a noisy dance macabre.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Integrity takes a fall

Jason Giambi, a nine-year major league baseball player and one time Most Valuable Player, admits to a grand jury that he used steroids in order to enhance his athletic performance. He also states that he injected human growth hormone (HGH) into his body for a period of time. Giambi has publicly denied this for the past four years.

Add a few other facts. First, steroids and HGH are not illegal. The distribution and use of steroids or HGH without a prescription is illegal. Second, baseball’s steroid policy does not include HGH. Third, major league baseball’s anti-steroid and testing policy only went into effect in 2003 – after the time period that Giambi admits using the drugs.

Those are the facts of the case. The more interesting part is the attitudes of the various partners in this dance. The music is macabre.

The players view steroids as an insignificant issue. Many athletes have developed a lifestyle and training regime that involves diet supplements, creams, pain modifiers, mental enhancers – anything that pushes the edges of their abilities. The ball goes another 10 feet further, the time from home to first is 2 one-hundredths of a second faster. The difference between winning and losing, the difference between higher personal stats or sitting on the bench, might be that new diet, the weight-lifting regimen, or one pill. Even if that is not true, the athlete may perceive it to be true.

The fans have not rebelled with their feet or their wallets. Baseball attendance has been up over the last decade as the offensive numbers – hits, home runs, and runs – have increased. A stronger, faster athlete in smaller ballparks means more exciting offensive games.

The owners see the ticket receipts. They see no reason to tamper with success.

The people who dispense the performance-enhancing drugs get to be part of the athletic circle, even if it isn't realizing their dreams of being on the field themselves. They get sucked into the bright lights of the entertainment industry.

Someone is even leaking sealed grand jury records to the San Francisco newspapers, obviously hearing the same song as everyone else.

Everybody wins, and there’s plenty of money to go around.

Integrity takes a fall. No, not the integrity of the sport -- that's a faulty, misguided premise. This song is about personal integrity and honesty. A man lied. Many others, standing behind him, are all part of the same lie.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

November's New Act

The last day of the month. A good day to go off subject, and do something totally different – poetry.

Winter arrives in upstate New York three weeks before the calendar denotes it. The trees are stripped in November, the brown leaves run away, we commute to and from work in the dark. The weather can be rather dramatic; the wind will turn rain to snow in a matter of minutes, and the gray limbs wave crazily. Eventually, the transition occurs, and we have snow on the ground.

November’s New Act

The snow comes on cue,
after the trees perform their scene and drop their leaves.
The stage is now set with steel-gray limbs waving in the cold wind,
a carpet of dull brown skittering across the floor.
These branches once held a green tapestry against the blue sky,
and then infused that cape with bright red, orange and yellow,
in a short-lived but brilliant speech to the senses.

But the warm drama and the colorful shouting
is frozen out by the next Act,
covered by a white color slowly falling from the far-reaching gray rafters:
a quiet cold that carries none of the argument
that can come in the noise of a pelting rain.
We pull out our heavy coats and move away from the scene,
huddle in the warm lobby in front of our fireplace,
knowing that the pace of our play has changed.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Deja vu all over again

From a biography of Richard Nixon, by Tom Wicker:

“Americans could have seen in [Nixon] themselves as they knew they were, not as they frequently dreamed of being. They could have recognized in Nixon their own sentimental patriotism and confidence in national virtue, their professed love of God and family, their…preference for action over reflection…and their vocal if not always practiced devotion to freedom and democracy.”

Substitute our current President’s name for Nixon, and the description is not all that different. The debate is both over how we define those virtues and moral values, and how we act upon them. Today, those definitions and our government's actions are just as distorted as they were in 1970.

On that same theme, this is from John Fogerty’s new song:

“One by one I see the old ghosts rising
Stumblin’ ‘cross Big Muddy
Where the light gets dim
Day after day another Momma’s crying
She’s lost her precious child
To a war that has no end

Did you hear ‘em talkin’ ‘bout it on the radio
Did you stop to read the writing at The Wall
Did that voice inside you say
I’ve seen this all before
It’s like Déjà vu all over again”

In 1969, Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote a popular protest song against the Vietnam War. Fogerty's new song actually has a guitar hook that repeats the refrain from his previous song. President Bush repeats the patriotism and 'liberty marching' hook from an era 35 years ago.

Who’ll stop the rain?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Clean lines, order, and democracy

A New York Times/CBSNews poll, published today:

The poll reflected the electoral feat of the Bush campaign this year. He won despite the fact that Americans disapproved of his handling of the economy, foreign affairs and the war in Iraq. There has been a slight increase in the number of Americans who believe the nation should never have gone into Iraq. A majority of Americans continue to believe the country is going in the wrong direction, traditionally a warning sign for an incumbent.

The man won with nearly 52 percent of the vote. No argument. A majority of voters nationwide selected him as President on November 2. He will win that convoluted college of electors when they get together in December, don their powdered wigs and exchange stories about their land and estates (whoops, sorry, wrong century).

But a majority of the population disapproves of this President's policies and methods.

Rather incongruous. Psychologists and political scientists make a good living by deciphering these mixed signals. But clearly, many people entered the voting booth and pulled the lever based on their gut feeling. That's a technical term, incidentally. "Gut feeling": a decision-making process shaped by rational sortation of issues, fear of change, sound bites, this morning's paper, a set of candidate pictures flipping through the mind's digital viewer, and the barrage of overt and subliminal messages purveyed by the political advertisements.

If we all used a set of pro/con columns that sorted the issues by candidate, and we added up the check marks, the result may have been different. But cleanliness is not one of the attributes of democracy.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Two Presidents, and human loss

George H.W. Bush was scheduled to attend a Chamber of Commerce meeting today in Ecuador. A private jet was landing in Houston to pick him up. The Gulfstream jet crashed during descent, killing all three people on board. The former President expressed his sorrow at the deaths, as he knew all three crew members.

His son, the current President, has been in Chile on another economic mission. He praised the Chilean government for their efforts to fight terrorism.

Neither of these events are connected. And I find no real irony in this. But many people are affected by the death of the three crew members in Houston – their family, friends, even George Bush. The former president acknowledged the loss.

Who died in Iraq today?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Are there any alternate voices in town?

The familial patronage continues, as W spreads his friends around Washington. He has appointed Margaret Spelling, his inside advisor on all things domestic, as Secretary of Education. Others have written of the Second Term Relocation Process in much better terms than I, so I quote from one of the more cutting of those commentators (at least, in the mainstream press), Maureen Dowd in the New York Times:

In ancient Greece, the prince of Tyre tires of all the yes men around him. He chooses to trust the one courtier who intrepidly tells him: "They do abuse the king that flatter him. ... Whereas reproof, obedient and in order, fits kings, as they are men, for they may err.''

Not flatter the king? Listen to dissenting viewpoints? Rulers who admit they've erred?

It's all so B.C. (Before Cheney).

Now, in the 21st-century reign of King George II, flattery is mandatory, dissent is forbidden, and erring without admitting error is the best way to get ahead. President Bush is purging the naysayers who tried to temper crusted-nut-bar Dick Cheney and the neocon crazies on Iraq.

First, faith trumped facts. Now, loyalty trumps competence. W., who was the loyalty enforcer for his father's administration, is now the loyalty enforcer for his own.

Those promoted to be in charge of our security, diplomacy and civil liberties were rewarded for being more loyal to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney than to the truth. (Maureen Dowd, New York Times, November 18, 2004)

The column is entitled "A Plague of Toadies", which is a bit over-the-top. Do columnists get to write their own headlines?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Insider's Cabinet

So much for bipartisanship and reaching out to the other side. Six cabinet members have resigned, and in two cases, the President has appointed members of his immediate insider staff to fill the vacancies. Both Gonzalez and Rice have viewpoints more akin to W’s, and are much more likely to be loyal to his hue.

The President, of course, has the right to create that situation. Any executive wants to have loyal administrators to run his primary units – in this case, foreign policy and justice. But the implications for the country are much larger than in a private business. Both the State Department and the Department of Justice have well-educated, knowledgeable staff who bring experience and expertise to the discussion. The Cabinet secretary has a responsibility to listen to those viewpoints, and not simply run roughshod over them in blind pursuance of an Executive mandate. The purpose is to have a Cabinet member who brings that knowledge to the President’s table, and the team formulates policy from that discussion.

But then, maybe I believe too much of what I learned in civics class.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The President's Flawed Moral Imperative

[I wrote this three weeks before the election, and submitted it to our local paper as an op-ed piece. They wouldn't publish it.]

George Bush invaded Iraq for three stated reasons: the existence of weapons of mass destruction; the premise that Iraq harbored terrorists; and Saddam Hussein was a destructive leader who suppressed his own people and destabilized the region.

Based on rational analysis, we had no reason to invade. There were no WMD. Iraq probably did have terrorists within its borders, but Saddam had them under his thumb, and they likely had nothing to do with the 9/11/2001 attacks. Only the last reason was true – and even there, his elimination has not led to any form of stabilization.

But the reason for our failure in Iraq actually runs much deeper. It has more to do with how George Bush views our role in the world.

As the pillars of his reasoning are knocked down, the President has shifted his stance. We had to invade to bring liberty to the Iraqi people. The President is fond of pointing out that freedom is on the march in Iraq. He recently stated in an address to the United Nations:

“Our security is not merely founded in spheres of influence or some balance of power; the security of our world is found in advancing the rights of mankind."

The new reasoning becomes a moral imperative: the United States will bring democracy and a free society to Iraq, and we will use our military to do it.

We have failed in Iraq because of this false assumption.

As a society, we view the United States as a moral beacon to the world. The premise of our very creation was that individual liberty is the essence of freedom. We created a democratic government to protect that liberty. In over two hundred years, we have built a nation and a society that represents the best elements of that premise.

But we distort our message by using our military as the messenger, believing that we can impose our methods upon other societies and they will stick. Such a premise assumes that other cultures will accept our governmental structure unflinchingly.

Other societies, grounded in hundreds of years of their own history, may be in no position to quickly absorb our democratic structures. Today’s Iraq is a chaotic collection of religious and ethnic cultures, many of which do not get along and will fight to retain their power. It is similar to Yugoslavia after the fall of Tito; those disparate cultures were being held together by the authoritarian power of Tito’s regime, and once he was gone, each group went their own way. His Yugoslavia no longer exists.

I am no isolationist, and do not believe that we should never use our military power. But the war on terrorism is not a war between nation-states. Al-Qaeda is not a country with distinct borders and an established government. There is no main street where we can parade our victorious army. This takes a different kind of warfare.

We use the Statue of Liberty as a physical symbol of who we are as a nation: the light of liberty held high for the oppressed peoples to turn to in hope. We malign that message when we turn our moral beacon into a moral sword.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Beyond self-indulgence

This is for Charlotte Gregory. And for David Sawyer.

Miss Gregory taught her 11th Grade English class that daily writing did not need to be just a diary, with all its connotations of the pink cover with a clasp. She encouraged us to write what we were thinking, no matter the format: poetry, short stories, diatribes, expressions, interesting passages from books, our own feelings. So, I started.

David Sawyer taught Rhetoric 101 to Lycoming College freshmen. He took the concept one step further: we were each required to write for 15 minutes daily, nonstop – even if it meant writing “I don’t know what to write” while our brains got unstuck. He checked our notebooks each week to make sure we met the assignment; he didn’t read our stuff, just made sure we wrote. His purpose was to break any fear that a blank piece of paper could engender, and to get us used to writing without worry about form. Structure and form would come with editing.

For me, the result is 32 years of material. Sporadic. Unedited. On paper and in four different word processors. Some junk, some creativity. Most resting in a four-drawer metal filing cabinet in our basement.

But how self-indulgent can one get? If I don’t publish anything, journaling becomes a solo pursuit without an audience. I can have a sense of immortality by believing that this stuff is left behind for others, as a way of measuring who I was. But isn’t it better to have something to say that others can hear? Rather than leaving breadcrumbs backwards from the gravesite, I can use words to affect thought and outcomes during my lifetime.

The new electronic media lets me do this. I can publish without an intermediary – no editor, no marketer, no newspaper or magazine to convince. I can become a blogger, and let others determine the impact.

I can go from private self-indulgence, to the arrogance of believing I have something important to say. All in one electronic posting. Even that sentence can be read in different ways:

All, in one electronic posting.
All-in-one electronic posting.

So here goes. I take Miss Gregory’s encouragement to write, and Dr. Sawyer’s admonition against the tyranny of the blank page, and join the cacophony of sounds and words on the internet. Small i.

I will not limit myself to one theme or subject. I will write about our government and leaders. I will write about baseball. I might weave in some poetry. This is a personal experiment, designed to take my monologues and turn them into dialogues. Or just a way to get published.

This is Entry 1. In Entry 2, I take on the President.