Wednesday, November 05, 2008

November 5, 2008

Oh, the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'.
Like the stillness in the wind
Before the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Oh, the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the waves will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

Oh, the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they'll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand,
The hour that the ship comes in.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they're spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline.
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck,
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin'.
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

- Bob Dylan, 1963.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

You Can't Make This Shit Up

Despite being the world’s laziest blogger, there was no way I was going to let the selection of first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate go unmentioned in these hallowed pages. Read on for my reactions in roughly the order I had them, uncensored, unabridged, and unkind.

As I drove into work, the know-it-alls on NPR were hailing this as an opportunity to fundamentally reshuffle the electorate. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but as an Obama guy, I’ll admit thinking “if walruses win the right to vote between now and November, we’re in big trouble.”

The cynics have said this is further evidence that McCain will do anything to get elected. I just think it’s further evidence that he’ll do anything to get an erection.

Now that McCain has cast his lot with an ethically dubious nutcase from a western state with a four-digit population, Larry Craig has to be thinking “Who do I have to blow to get a slot in this cabinet?”

A hardline social conservative, Palin’s newest fearless policy initiative is to rename the waterway bordering Alaska’s westernmost point the “Bering Straight”. OK, even I’ll admit that wasn’t very funny.

Palin apparently named her first son “Track”, her first daughter “Bristol”, and her youngest son “Trig”. It’s a good thing frontier toughs don’t tend to believe in therapy, because these kids could go through a high six figures worth.

While this pick is sure to enrage whatever portion of McCain’s base has the slightest belief in meritocracy, it could be the best chance yet for the famously Internet-shy senator to learn such 21st-century terminology as “WTF” and “RUFKM”.

It’s too bad noted squirrel chef Mike Huckabee isn’t the presidential nominee, because he and mooseburger aficionado Palin could throw a varmint supper fundraiser that would singlehandedly negate Obama’s online contribution edge.

Much in the same way that McCain promises to be a continuation of Bush, Palin promises to be a continuation of Cheney. Think about it: they’re both hunters, both hail from the middle of nowhere, and, if Palin keeps having kids at this rate, she’s statistically almost certain to someday have a lesbian daughter she can conspicuously avoid discussing.

But don’t let Palin’s meager resume and McCain’s preponderance of vacation homes fool you into thinking these two won’t work round the clock. Between them, McCain and Palin have both 4 PM and 4 AM feedings covered.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

This Side of History

In a campaign where unfortunate, often outrageous statements have served as the most distinctive landmarks, Hillary Clinton’s latest broadside bears all the blithe insanity of a desperate basketball team fouling a 90% free throw shooter in the hope that he’ll miss everything from here on, and they’ll hit four or five half-court shots in the next 7.3 seconds. If you haven’t heard, or wish you hadn’t, Clinton had this to say on the mounting absurdity of her continued presence in the race:

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it."

The rest of the political universe (at least those who are not preoccupied debating whether talks with Iran would be more akin to giving away the Sudetenland or losing a NASCAR race to a Frenchman) is, predictably, disquieted. The calls for Hillary to bring the ship in to shore are growing louder; as Newsweek’s Howard Fineman put it, “this is a campaign that needs to be put out of its misery real soon". My first reaction is “Forget its misery; how about mine?” But this is about much more than pained rhetoric or Machiavellian opportunism. To decry Hillary Clinton’s cynical self-justification is to shift the blame unfairly from her indifference to something much larger.

Since 1968, idealists have, not unjustifiably, feared the worst. To a lot of people, Hillary Clinton seemed to be saying “I’m going to hold on, because hey, you never know what could happen to this once-in-a-lifetime black leader”. Calmer heads must prevail, however. I don’t doubt that a few of Clinton's supporters (especially in the Davey Crockett states) are that virulent, but to ascribe this sort of malice to someone who is quite obviously crumbling is a temptation Obama supporters shouldn’t permit themselves. More than that, it trivializes what is really on the line here.

Returning to 1968, the real message in Clinton’s poor choice of words is her ignorance of how she fits into the larger context of the Democratic heritage. Hillary Clinton has vowed, even within the last week, to take the fight to the convention, and that invokes its own, subtler nightmare: few backroom deals could encapsulate the dispossession of the progressive movement like Hubert Humphrey, who barely bothered to campaign, securing the nomination by virtue of his pre-existing hold on the delegates. While it would be foolish to claim that Clinton hasn’t bothered to campaign, when she’s exhausted a seemingly infinite number of political lives in this process, the fact is that the Clinton camp had not planned on a post-Super Tuesday strategy. As P.G. Wodehouse once said of a hapless foil, “He had confused the unlikely with the impossible, and as a result he was taken by surprise.”

The surprise, however, is not how badly Clinton miscalculated, nor that the establishment has turned on her. The exodus of superdelegates followed the emergent mathematical probability, not the other way around. The real surprise of what everyone thought would be a historic campaign is this: Hillary Clinton landed on the wrong side of history, spurred by her own worst impulses as much as the advent of a remarkable new voice. By invoking Bobby Kennedy, she invoked the most sacred iconography of the Democratic Party, an iconography in which she (and her husband) have no place at present.

However, the Democratic party has been left with an iconography of false choices. Their most shining legacy, so we've been told, is a pair of fallen brothers; the rest of the story is populated by lovable losers, ineffective stiffs, and vile compromisers, with a few worthy fighters thrown in. This is not meant to ignore Martin Luther King, Jr's fifteen-year struggle, which, while it transcended mere politics, is surely inextricable from the transformation of the Democratic Party and the schism with the Dixiecrats. Nor is it meant to diminish at all what John and Bobby Kennedy accomplished in their too-brief allotments.

However, we know what is at stake: for the Kennedys' brilliant but incomplete legacy to be Barack Obama’s inheritance would be the greatest tragedy yet. No one can know fate, but the dream must be to lead with a wisdom that endures, not to spend another forty years of darkness lionizing one more noble sacrifice. In the pernicious political universe we inhabit, moral victories will no longer suffice. The threat is so dire and real that, paradoxically, we are better off not speaking of it, and in a time of such flickering hope, that is Hillary Clinton's real transgression.

Democrats have always had the reputation for eating their young, and this explains much of the futility, compromise, and bitterness of the past few decades. The most meaningful breakthroughs, at least since my parents came of age, have traditionally required that the young, and young-at-heart, eat the establishment instead. Geraldine Ferraro and her ilk have been quick to pin Hillary Clinton’s downfall on a conspiracy of the boy’s club, but the fact is that Hillary Clinton had the boys in her pocket not six months ago. What makes Obama’s ascendancy so refreshing, and so in keeping with the true Democratic spirit, is that he recognized when others did not that while he could not win without the establishment, they had to embrace him more than he embraced them.

The difference this time is that it should not be about who’s eating whom. Obama’s detractors have comforted themselves by dismissing his movement as a cult, but it would not be unreasonable or derogatory to say that it is a church. More importantly, it is a church in which all should be welcome. Hillary Clinton, by virtue of this latest verbal ordeal, might appear to be past help, but, for better or worse, her supporters might well determine whether the party eats its young yet again. To ensure that it does not will require the best efforts of everyone involved, and while it might be a bitter consolation to everyone who staked their hopes on her campaign, averting civil war is her best chance of journeying back to the right side of history.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Dispatches from Youngstown: Part Two

One day in, I wake up just in time to take a shower, dress respectably, and scramble downstairs to meet my ride to canvassing HQ, and in a quiet moment on the way over reflect how quickly we assimilate to routine. I've been in Youngstown less than 36 hours, and it's already another day on the job. This is a good thing; outsized expectations and lofty ideals have a tendency to put undue pressure on what should be the simple task of crossing names off a list. If it sounds unromantic, it is, and that's for the best. You have to forget, to sail away from your illusions, before, as Crosby, Stills, and Nash put it, "you understand now why you came this way."

My canvassing partner today is John, a retired high school math teacher who began his career in Youngstown in 1960. Our beat is a ramshackle stretch of South Youngstown, almost entirely black, some two miles south of HQ. It's sunny and mild, and while a welcome relief, this seems to underscore the omnipresent decay. John warns me in a tone that is grandfatherly yet ominous that we will see numerous houses boarded up, or simply abandoned; many properties are worth less now than they were twenty years ago - not adjusted for inflation. Looking at the street names - Glenwood, Park Cliff, Fairmount, Ravenwood - you could be anywhere in any city in America. The WASP street name aesthetic is alive and well, belying a squalid and essentially segregated reality.

After an opening stretch where almost no one answers the door, we find fertile ground away from the main road. People open their doors
with justified suspicion at first, but tend to warm up when we say who we're with. John reminds me to hold up my door hangers prominently so that the image of Obama is the first impression. When given a few seconds of goodwill past our opening pitch, we urge the more passionate-sounding voters to come by and help out tomorrow. John points out, time after time, "This kid came out here from California to work on this campaign!" It's an effective line and seems to engender genuine appreciation. Underneath, it feels more like a luxury than a sacrifice.

An hour or so into our route, we see a car pulling into a driveway, towing another, almost identical one close behind it. This seems like a moving enough parable of humanity, until the driver's eye catches ours, and she steps out and welcomes us onto the front porch. She is thirty-something, determined, and voting early, and giving rides to her extended family. She takes enough flyers and stickers for all, and enthuses, "Regardless of who'll be elected, I'm just so proud to be a part of this century, where a black man and a woman have a chance to be president." She trembles, and adds, "I'm sorry, this is just really touching me", before bursting into tears.

The glow of the interaction lasts well into lunch and is not interrupted until we resume canvassing on Glenwood Avenue, even sides this time. A middle-aged black man answers the first door with a shaking head, then announces with discernible glee, "Obama? You've come to the wrong place. I'm voting for the blonde!" John asks wearily if anyone else in the family might be for Obama, and the man replies "Not in this house!" as the door closes emphatically. This exchange should provide plenty of material for problematic race and gender themes, but for me, the lesson is this: the true battle is always against whomever we perceive as the uncool parent.

During the longer stretches between assigned houses, John fills me in on how much the area has changed since his first classroom forty-eight years ago. Dollars are tough to standardize in your mind, but there is nothing ambiguous about this statistic: Youngstown's population has declined from a peak of 185,000 to fewer than 85,000 today. A high environmental cost preceded the economic and psychic toll of the steel decline; the Mahoning River once had an average temperature of 107 degrees along the stretch of steam mills that powered Youngstown's industrial heyday, and the water was reputed to be the most polluted in the United States. It is one of countless mistakes we hope that progress will not cause to be repeated, another exhibit of evidence for reinvention, not restoration.

Nearing the end of our route, we approach the first white man we've seen all day as he steps into his car. He wastes no words. "Democrats, I assume? Well, there's only one issue for me: abortion. You've pushed a lot of Catholics out of the Democratic party!" He backs out of the driveway as we tiptoe around patches of rapidly melting slush, and drives off, shooting us a look of accusation as if to suggest John and I were personally responsible for the political disapora of the believers.

I return to canvassing HQ happy to have finished a route from pages 1 through 15, and head for the tables. I'm beginning to feel like a part of the family now, but reveal my vestigial Northern Californian diffidence when I search furtively for a plastic knife. A kindly older woman asks what I'm looking for, and laughs at my sheepish admission. "Honey, you eat chicken with your fingers!" Evidently, that was all I needed to hear.

By this point, the collective din in the hall makes phone banking next to impossible for me, and a few tortured, half-understood live interactions convince me there must be some other way to contribute. This spurs me to catch a ride a few minutes away to the local Obama HQ downtown, a bustling, white-lit, modest space reminiscent of the all-night computer lab where I wrote two dozen or so of my more desperate college papers. There was usually a great sense of accomplishment which I later realized was actually relief.

After a few minutes of helplessness, I start coloring in the letters of a "Honk If You're Voting For Obama!" poster, joining Jessica, a young, blonde mother of two who looks barely more than twenty, and Elaine, a middle-aged lady whose voice makes everything sound like a lullabye and whose utopian vision for the country makes Obama himself seem downright cynical. Elaine announces that "God is good! I got tomorrow off work!", and given the swiftly closing window before the polls open and the ground force enters its most concerted and crucial push, I nod feverishly in agreement.

Once settled in, any resemblance to my collegiate haunts quickly gives way to an overwhelming sense that I'm back in the first grade. Now as then, there aren't enough Magic Markers to go around, and the seemingly bottomless black one is in high demand. I press my marker tip flat against the paper and fill in the blank spaces with firm, parallel strokes, trying to cover the most paper with the least ink. Our supervisor praises the resulting poster as a "work of art!", and her teacherly tone transports me once more to the first grade.

And for the first time since, I find myself genuinely believing anyone can grow up to be President.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Dispatches from Youngstown: Part One

I. I touched down in the Cincinnati airport late yesterday afternoon and was immediately seized by an amaranthine sense of yearning. To be so close, yet so far, from Kentucky. Learning, several minutes later, that the Cincinnati airport actually is in Kentucky was only the first of what I expect will be several days of humbling lessons.

Opportunities to be humbled abound in Youngstown, Ohio, where I’ll be spending the next several days canvassing and cajoling for the Obama for America campaign. The hub of the Mahoning Valley, an overwhelmingly Democratic region with little cause for optimism, Youngstown has weathered over thirty years of stagnation since the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s. Youngstown seemingly captures the political imagination every four years, only to be forgotten by the next wave of economic development and innovation. On 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen included a searing portrait, simply titled “Youngstown”, of a city and economy left behind:

Seven hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world's changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name

Thirteen years later, progress remains slow and expectations are muted. All is not despair; last summer, John Edwards praised “Youngstown 2010”, the city’s plan to crack down on blight through organized shrinkage, and the establishment of a downtown tech-job district, as “visionary”. But as America once again casts opportunistic eyes on Youngstown, Youngstown glances back suspiciously. Driving past the dark storefronts, missing street signs, and sagging traffic lights of Belmont Avenue, you come to understand how sympathy is ultimately as cheap as neglect. In a widely-referenced New York Times feature, Youngstown’s Downtown Director of Events and Special Projects, Phil Kidd, charges, “The problem is that this is a rubber-stamp Democratic area so they know it’s almost a guarantee they’re going to get our vote. We just have to hope that this time whoever wins won’t forget about us.”

As of the article’s publication (February 26), Kidd was said to be “leaning toward” Obama. Kidd is an interesting lens through which to view the Obama campaign. The creator of the “Defend Youngstown” t-shirt, featuring a towering steelworker swinging a hammer, Kidd has taken on the tenuous challenge of bringing not only visibility but respect back to the city. Kidd is also using the internet to further visibility’s too-often neglected cousin, transparency. His blog details exactly how his days are spent advancing downtown revitalization, and include - perhaps tellingly, perhaps not - a summary of his meetings with campaign to finalize the location of Obama’s headquarters.

What Kidd may or may not see in Obama is idle speculation, but I do feel obligated to explain why I’m here, and why now. As Michael Jones wryly reminded, (and as I acknowledged in a pre-emptive announcement last week), my dating life was not absent from consideration. Guilt has played a role as well: I was plenty unhappy about how my own state’s primary played out, and realized I’d done little to change it besides a few arguments held in the safety of friends. Once I decided to get involved, the choice of Youngstown was both symbolic and strategic. This is probably the toughest battleground in the crucial Ohio primary. Obama’s message of hope finds a receptive audience in the favorable acoustics of San Francisco Bay; here in the Mahoning Valley, skepticism is plainspoken and arises of necessity.

But hope is also vital in Youngstown. Despite the working-class hero iconography of the “Defend Youngstown” movement, the steel heyday of the mid-20th century will not return in its original form, nor will the jobs shipped oversees magically reappear. This is, perhaps, the essence of the Obama pledge. In his “Blueprint for Change”, Obama declares, “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights we had in the Nineties.” The dark side of this looking so firmly forward is the tacit acknowledgment that many of those fights have been lost, as have many in the new century. I’m not naïve enough to think Obama can succeed in fixing Iraq. I’m hopeful that Obama has the judgment not to lead us into an even deadlier entanglement in Iran. Likewise, foundries and sheet works are not going to erase the economic ravages of the past 30 years, some of which can be attributed to NAFTA and some to the simple vagaries of commodity and manufacturing markets. Instead, the hope is that Obama will have the foresight not to sign another NAFTA, and use government to catalyze, not stifle, innovation in building, transportation, and energy, creating both assembly-line and work-station jobs in the process. In both cases, the hope rests more on Obama’s intelligence, demonstrated prescience, and lifetime of working for the little guy than any sweeping legislative or diplomatic triumphs.

II. Neither complex economic issues or lofty rhetoric, however, have much bearing on the immediate challenges of Sunday, March 2: increasing the chances that both committed and likely Obama voters actually make it to the polls Monday and Tuesday (early voting is an option, and many of the voters I met today plan to take advantage). Logistical traps are rampant, and canvassing is more about filling in these gaps than changing people’s minds. For an elderly voter reliant on a walker, or someone without internet and television, a free ride to the polls or confirming the location of the county board of elections is the difference, not a new slant on the issues.

After an orientation lasting no longer than necessary, I set out to canvass in the suburbs just south of Highway 80. Obama’s gospel of participation is the main orthodoxy: there is no need to burden yourself with excess preparation, just hit the road and go. My canvassing partner is a nice middle-aged lady from western Pennsylvania, just 20 minutes east of Youngstown. She drives – you guessed it – a Prius, though it is gunmetal gray as opposed to the ubiquitous silver or burgundy models seen in San Francisco. It seems like a discreet nod to the location, but that’s probably reading way too much into it. Still, I can’t help but shudder, recalling how Hillary champion Tom Buffenbarger, president of the Machinists Union, denounced Obama supporters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies”. Coffee is served black at headquarters, and thankfully it’s too cold to be tempted by impractical footwear. Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

I started this trip with castle-storming ambitions to, as Michael put it, “struggle against the Forces of Darkness in the Battleground for The New Tomorrow.” Minutes after leaving headquarters to begin canvassing at an address 5.3 miles away, I’m ready to settle for just finding the damn place. Detours, indistinct maps, and most of all the aforementioned missing street signs make navigation a royal pain in the ass, and frustration is only overcome by the image, rife with symbolic possibilities, of the wayward Prius adrift in suburban Youngstown.

If the snow pack and basement cinder blocks, both showing several inches aboveground, aren’t enough of clue that Northern California is far away in every sense of the word, there are red-on-white signs, seemingly every third house, proclaiming “Keep 9/11 In Liberty.” I’m not going to argue this is good or bad. It is, however, ineffably different.

My partner is reticent to attempt to drive up on the frozen roadside, leaving nowhere to park but driveways. Hence, she drives almost from house to house, in obscene hiccups of motion, and we brave unplowed lawns and ring doorbells, usually to no avail. Live greetings are few enough to remember verbatim:

Fiftyish man: “Sorry, I’m a Republican.” But you can vote in this primary too! As Rush Limbaugh is reminding his remaining listeners in his effort to game the system by getting them to vote for Hillary in Ohio. On Friday, Fox News, alas, lacked the forbearance to give this latest stunt of an Oxycontin-addicted icon of both literal and metaphorical deafness fewer than the requisite fifteen minutes of coverage.

Fiftyish man, walking dog: “I guess it’s between Hillary and Obama for me. Well, I think he’s inexperienced. He’s not what this country needs right now. But thanks for your effort! It’s what makes this country great!” If I were in familiar territory, I would be certain he was mocking, not enthusing. Today, who knows. But it does make me wonder: What does this country need right now? More fear-mongering and tough-guy posturing? More compromise and obligations to lobbyists? More rhetorical questions? Always.

Fiftyish man, smoking a cigarette indoors. “Hell yeah, Obama!...I’ve been for him since the beginning…Can you put a sign in my yard?” In my experience, those who persist in smoking indoors tend to be individualists, and rarely decline to state allegiances. For good or evil is anyone’s guess at first glance.

Seventyish man: “I’ve picked my guy. But I like ‘em all!” That was a popular sentiment six months ago. These days, in my crowd, it’s Panglossian naivete at its finest. Unless you’re kidding, which is just too close to call anymore.

After a couple of hours, my partner decides to call it a day and return to Pennsylvania. However, I’m quickly absorbed by three students from the University of Pittsburgh. Our beat for the afternoon is a retread of a cluster of tenements closer to the industrial heart of the city. Almost all of the residents who were reached the first time around were Obama supporters; we are visiting the places where no one answered the door the first time around. In stark contrast to the suburbs, almost every knock is answered, and for a long stretch, the voters here are as overwhelmingly female as the suburban ones were male. At several addresses, painfully polite children intermediate between us and wary mothers or grandmothers.

Besides tallying who supports whom and offering rides, information, and toll-free numbers, we have door hangers and glossy leaflets to give away. I offer one to a man staggering across the road, who replies, “Thanks, man, I got boo-coup of those!” A little further down, a boy and girl, no more than five, ask what we’re selling. My partner, clearly more at ease with the very young, exclaims “Why, sweetheart, we’re not selling anything. These are yours to keep. But show them to your mommy and daddy.” Are we selling something after all, though? Emphatic no. On second thought, it’s too soon to say.

In some buildings, apartments are accessible only from inside, and we’re let in with remarkable ease. The Obama pin seems like a good-luck charm here; we’re saved many cases of fruitless knocking by good neighbors who let us know not only who’s sick or who’s out, but who’s likely to need a ride and what her phone number is. As we give out the last of our materials, someone asks for a pin like the one I’m wearing. Upon finding out we don’t have any to give away, she asks me the best rhetorical question of the day: “You’re spending a million bucks a day, and you don’t have a pin for me?” I step forward and remove mine. “It’s yours. But only if you recruit all your undecided friends.” Something tells me that won’t be too difficult. Then, we knock on another door, and another small boy intermediates between us and his mother upstairs. She is voting early, tomorrow. And would she mind letting us no for whom? The reply comes direct: “That’s none of your damn business.” Fair enough.

We return to canvassing headquarters again, having completed the full route this time. The gas station where we stop to refuel has an Obama sign in the window, making this particular gratuity to OPEC slightly more palatable, and some of the cheapest cigarettes I’ve ever seen. The lunch table has been restocked, and a crowd every bit diverse enough for a pamphlet cover trades war stories over fried chicken and spaghetti.

After a couple of hours of phone-banking and a round of Nerf football to unwind, I catch a ride back to my host family. Looking up Youngstown on Wikipedia, I learn that its most famous natives include a host of American icons: Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke. Ed O’Neill, better known as Al Bundy. Chris Columbus, who wrote “The Goonies” before producing “Home Alone" and numerous other, less distinguished films. And, as one of my favorite Warren Zevon songs tells us, boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, a lightweight champion whose epic, 14-round battle with Duk Koo Kim assumed tragic proportions when Kim died five days later of brain injuries.

Whether silly or sobering, these icons are each firmly rooted in an increasingly distant past. To suggest that the resulting void in iconography could be filled by the resolute, granite-steady face of Obama himself, however, would be forgetting a lesson all too recently learned. I’m here, with hundreds and thousands of others, in the belief that Youngstown itself can assume a new place in American iconography, that this embattled, depressed, and impossibly hopeful city will come to symbolize the reclamation of not only its own destiny but that of a nation.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Hempire Strikes Back

And it’s up against the wall, Redneck Mother
Mother who has raised her son so well
He’s 34 and drinkin’ in a honky tonk,
Just kickin’ hippies’ asses and raisin’ hell.

- Jerry Jeff Walker

This blog is about to boldly go where no other entry has gone before: I will not only touch on incidents of a personal nature, but I will make pointed accusations, denounce an entire group of people, employ dramatic narrative strategies, and pass value judgments. I will, in short, complain.

First off, it should be said that my relationship with so-called hippies has always been a complicated affair. On the fuzzy side, I’m the son of a Berkeley ’69 graduate. I lived in a co-op for three years of college. Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Teach Your Children” makes me so sentimental you could shit. I’ve used a frying pan as a musical instrument, and eaten more than a few meals off a Frisbee. I think Burning Man is the coolest, although, as longtime readers will know, I’m in it for the conspicuous consumption and sheer patriotism of it all more than any feel-good ideology. The point is, I’m not going to be confused with the Project for the New American Century anytime soon.

There are contradictions, however. I often denounce residents of the Mission as “liberals and vegetarians”, tongue partly in cheek. While I was certainly an avid proponent of some aspects of co-operative living, I also took a hard line against the resident ideologues. During my house’s now-infamous “buy local” meeting, I declared, “I don’t care if they come from Mordor, I’m eating a banana every morning.” I enjoy hunting wild boar in the wilds of coastal California. I part my hair with precision. I think the American system of government is superior, I’m just not convinced of the efficacy of trying to impose it elsewhere. I’m a pretty reasonable dude, when you get down to it.

All of which makes the current outrage afflicting my previously pristine quarters overlooking San Francisco’s Aquatic Park all the more difficult to brook with equanimity and grace. Last Sunday, after several days away from home, I returned to find that my housemate was going away to Aruba for a wedding and would be gone most of the week. I also found that two textbook cases of unmitigated hippie scum, itinerant jewelry “artists” who eschew last names, had been invited to stay the week and furnished a pair of keys. I was further informed that they were recuperating from an infection of “worms”, and were treating themselves with a strict diet of vegetables and almonds.

I have been familiar with these two for some time, and I must disclose that my enthusiasm becomes more restrained with each successive visit. Past highlights include the matriarch and nutritionist, as it were, informing me that “you shouldn’t eat fruit with anything else, because it rots in your system”, and the whole menagerie badmouthing my friend, the human rights attorney, for being a “fancy Stanford and Yale person” while they thought she was out of earshot.

One could debate the merits of taking nutritional advice from people who sleep until 3 PM, smoke cannabinoid stimulants throughout the weekday, appear to have four or five functioning brain cells left, and make a point of driving across town to dine at Café Gratitude. But that's a given. I will instead present some of the more noteworthy scenes of this past week, for your moral instruction:

Scene 1: Wednesday, 10/31/07, 4:00 PM. The male hippie has risen for the first time all day and is busying himself in the kitchen.

Me. So, what’s the plan for the rest of the week?
Male Hippie: We don’t have plans, we have visions.

Scene 2: The same day, 5:15 PM. The female hippie is busy concocting numerous unappetizing substances in a blender. I enter the kitchen to put together a marinade for that evening’s dinner.

Female Hippie: Hey, do you want me to clear some room? Are you gonna make lunch?
Me: No, that was a long time ago.

Scene 3: The following day, around 3:30 PM. The male hippie shambles into the kitchen in a state of obvious decrepitude.

Me (pointedly): Good morning.
Male Hippie: Good morning, man.
Me: I was kidding.

Scene 4: Several hours later. After disappearing back into my housemate’s bedroom, with no evidence as to the activities within save for a steady trail of marijuana smoke, the male hippie re-emerges.

Me: So, what’s the agenda for this week, guys?
Male Hippie: We might be taking off in a couple of days. We want to find some more stores to sell our jewelry, but we got a lot of work to do before we can do that, y’know.
Me: (Suppresses urge to helpfully point out that waking up during normal business hours and leaving the house might be effective ways to follow through on this strategy). Yeah…you know, I’m going to be doing a silent meditation all weekend, so the sooner you all could clear out, the better.
Male Hippie: Cool, man.

Scene 5: Saturday, 11/3/07, 3 PM. Both hippies, in an unprecedented state of dress and mobility, leave the house, bags in tow.

Hippies: See you later, Gabe!
Me (overjoyed): Are you guys leaving for good??
Female Hippie: No, we’re just checking out some stores! We’ll be back!

I’m heading back to my apartment now after a day exploring many of San Francisco’s cosmopolitan pleasures. Who knows what I’ll find on my return.

“The omen is bad…Today, I saw the day become like night. I saw a man run with the Jaguar…”

To be continued.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Concerning Brave Captains: Jay Fliegelman, 1949-2007

“Rosen, you should check out this class with me. I hear this guy is amazing.” So said Noah Barron, my brother in arms in the English department, with little idea how prescient he would turn out to be. The spring quarter course catalog said only “Eng 138: Melville”, and I had never heard of the professor, Jay Fliegelman, though his name had a pleasant familiarity to it. It was an unseasonably warm day, and the seminar room on the edge of the quad was filled to capacity. A signup sheet went around, but there were no pleasantries or introductory remarks dispensed. Instead, as sweat beaded on his forehead, Jay Fliegelman read Melville’s “John Brown” with searing clarity, until, as he hit the poem’s iconic final line, “The meteor of the war”, a whole room trembled along with him. Judging by the look Noah and I shot each other as we filed out of that classroom, we had come home at last. Not everyone, however, was equally moved. Another friend remarked, “I dunno, I think this guy is a little too intense for me.” He was probably right.

For all his oracular qualities, Jay was also a lot of fun, especially in those early days of the quarter, which were ardently consumed in cracking his newest students open as thinkers. On the first day of class, he promised that an extremely long term paper would be required, then, on the second day revealed with no little mischief that he’d only said so to scare away the pretenders. Jay’s teaching recalled what Edward O. Wilson said about good science – that it consists of play disguised as serious work. Our work, nonetheless, was cut out for us. To follow Jay’s inquiries was to hitch a ride from the inscrutable to the sublime, often within minutes, as he coaxed each student from fogginess to intimation to discovery. The questions usually stemmed from somewhat counterintuitive focal points, and it seemed almost a game: what absurd political cartoon, tangentially related landscape painting, or 1840s household object would lead us closer to the truth today? Invariably, Jay supplied just enough revelation - any more and we might have started to take things seriously.

All levity aside, however, it quickly became clear that Jay Fliegelman’s teaching centered on a proposition more radical than any critical theory or political agenda: that his students had ideas worth seeing through. His penetrating brand of scholarship defied easy categorization, while rising above the fray that tends to dominate the academy. He opposed himself against no orthodoxies more violently than intellectual complacency and reliance on others to supply personal conviction. Jay’s guidelines for how to write a paper sounded innocent enough: Pick out something in the text that speaks to you, something that gets stuck in your head, and work inductively to get to the bottom of it. What Jay did not advertise, but what we all found to be true, was that he would help a student to attack the “pasteboard mask” of uncertainty with a vengeance worthy of Captain Ahab himself.

Jay was not given to overt political pronouncements, being both too wise and too jaded. All the same, it was clear how acutely he felt the sting of an age when America seemed to be turning its back – gleefully – on its own intellect. As someone who had dedicated his career to charting the evolution of the American mind, it was only right that Jay should be among its most jealous guardians. Having assembled the members of the Melville seminar in his home for an end-of-quarter pizza party, Jay exhorted us to strive to truly become intellectuals, and to wear that mantle without apology. At a time when Americans were being told in no uncertain terms to watch what they said, Jay raised the specter of unquestioning acceptance, and it was as terrifying as any of the more obvious demons thought to afflict us.

I spent two memorable summers assisting Jay with the researching of his long-awaited masterwork, Belongings: Dramas of American Book Ownership. Though we were nominally working under the auspices of Summer Research College, a flagship program with formal dinners and presentations, Jay quickly dispensed with all notions of supervision and turned me loose in the libraries with only faint clues for assignments. We would, so the plan went, check in once I had something. Like many American Jews of his generation, Jay regarded Chinese food as a panacea, and our more or less biweekly meetings invariably took place over Mongolian beef and moo goo gai pan at one of several familiar Palo Alto haunts. Though the majority of these “progress reports” seemed to focus on our respective dating lives (at least during the first summer), we usually made time to go over the findings of the previous few weeks. It always held an air of high adventure, as Jay no doubt intended. On a good day, a connection might surface that had escaped the notice of earlier scholars, and Jay would note, with barely restrained triumph, “That’s going in the book.” Having known him those few months, I understood, even then, that there could be no higher compliment.

One afternoon, driving to lunch downtown, I asked Jay if he was a Beatles fan, and his voice quavered and slowed as it did whenever making a particularly impassioned point. “I saw them live. Three times!” Encouraged, I popped in a mix, beginning with a shaky but especially ethereal bootleg of “Across the Universe”, and went silent, stealing furtive glances at Jay as John Lennon intoned “Jai guru deva om”. Neither of us spoke for the length of the song, and for some time afterward. Looking over to my right, it was clear that Jay had been transported, by forces stronger than a ’93 Volvo, to somewhere far beyond Palo Alto.

Not surprisingly, my education broadened when it was Jay’s turn to pick the music. One muggy July evening, on the way down University Avenue, he at first cranked up some standard Motown classics, then reconsidered, asking if I’d ever heard of Laura Nyro. I had not, and sat, mesmerized by her voice, as he pulled his Chrysler Sebring into a parking lot. With the devotion of someone who remembered his teenage years and still honored them, Jay kept the car on for the full length of the song, and began to sway, at first imperceptibly, and eventually with rhythm and gusto few would have thought possible. Turning to me, he exulted, “Is that a song, or is that a SONG!”

Between his New York roots, taste in restaurants, evangelism of Melville’s novellas, and talent for self-deprecation, Jay felt like a member of my own family, even in the early days. The effect was at once paternal, fraternal, and avuncular, and represented a sort of coming full circle for me: finally, thanks to Jay’s guidance, I could discuss Benito Cereno with my own father, who had been urging me to read it for ten years before I finally experienced it under the fierce torchlight of Jay’s seminar. Although my college graduation was almost entirely a blur, the one image that remains absolutely clear is that of stumbling, dazed, out of the main entrance of Memorial Church, and finding Jay at the head of the crowd of well wishers thronging the quad. Without speaking a word, we embraced, and then I ran over to summon my father away from the extended family, to meet the professor I had raved about in almost every call home since the first week of English 138. Fixed in the benevolent gaze of two of the most indelible influences I’d ever known, I felt my true graduation ceremony was taking place, and for a few seconds I stood as proudly as in all the twenty-two years that went before.

Jay and I last spoke in early November, 2006. I was at the height of optimism, fairly gushing about my various projects and prospects, though feeling a touch the prodigal son – after all, there was not too much evidence I was using the many gifts imparted to me by this titan of professors. On the other hand, he was the same man who, upon being informed that I would not be applying to graduate school, grinned ever so slightly and told me “Get out while you’re still young!” Jay, for his part, sounded as ebullient as ever. Typically the Rembrandt of self-effacement, he was finally permitting himself a bit of triumph. He was in high demand on the lecture circuit, at home and abroad. The by-then legendary manuscript of Belongings was developing apace, and promised to be the apotheosis of his lifetime of thinking. Finally, he had found, in Christine Guth, love, light, and wholeness.

We concluded our chat on a note of mutual admiration, and I vowed to visit the next chance I got. That I never did is a sin a thousand Yom Kippurs won’t erase, but, then again, neither teacher nor student ever set any records for synagogue attendance. Jay’s world was one of few pieties - and almost infinite reverence. Knowing his distaste for easy consolations, perhaps Jay would remind us that, as with the annihilation of the Pequod, the sea simply rolled on this time as well. Yet, to leave it at that would likewise be too easy a consolation.

Neil Young, writing in the spring of 1970, knew it all along: We’re finally on our own. It’s an ambiguous line, equally an expression of liberation and bereavement. All of Jay’s teaching held the conviction that we must take our own compass readings, however wavering or imprecise. Like all great captains, he prepared his crew, whether consciously or not, to someday sail on without him. That is our only solace today, as the North Star disappears over the horizon and unknown leviathans approach. We have always been free.