Jan 30, 2010

Yesterday, my wife was caught in an indiscretion. She was visiting her friend Daniel at his store, which offers finely made unpainted, wooden bookshelves, racks and tables, along with books, cards and common sense. At least once a month Daniel also hosts a small poetry reading. The quality is uneven, and the store has no heat, but once in a while a faint illumination occurs.

If it doesn't, no matter, out of nowhere an anxiously sincere someone or other always appears offering a bottle of cheap Trader Joe's-Merlot, and a story. These are all women. The story is always the same, how speaking of poetry they slept with such and such a famous poet in college, or else how their husband recently ran off with a "promising" new novelist. "Excuse my French but what an asshole he is."

"By the way, you wouldn't be interested in seeing my chapbook, would you?"

No matter how promising the invitation, no matter how lonely you might be, you would not.

So this is Daniel's world, and also my wife's, and one afternoon he's explaining to her his dream, which is to buy property in Wyoming, assemble some small pre-fab cottages, and start a writer's retreat. This is something he's been thinking about for a long time and he's actually received a number of brochures filled with photos of land for sale. But he has to do all this behind his wife's back. She has the fury of a woman scorned for poets and readings and anything to do with literature or literati.

She is from Thailand and has an amazing story. The short version is that she grew up in a modest family, got married at a young age and suddenly found herself living in America. Her husband was a beast. He beat her, raped her, humiliated her but, thank God, didn't get her pregnant. The one good thing he did was to bring her to Oakland, to an apartment just down the hall from Daniel. The two became friends and probably not lovers but the point was moot when her husband caught the two of them together in Daniel's apartment, and took out his gun.

But at the last moment the man released the trigger, made some outrageous threats and took his wife back to their apartment by the scruff of her neck.

Daniel did the right thing. He's a man who always does the right thing. He got the woman out of her marriage, married her himself, and together they had four children, who are all brilliant and go to the top schools in the city. My wife helped him during the time he was trying to get his marriage up and running, and he has always been very grateful.

You would think Daniel's wife, having the life she did and been saved the way she was, that she would be eternally grateful but she is not. She has made it a point to oppose the world of poetry, and all that goes with it. What Daniel tells my wife is that this woman has but one interest and that's getting more material, more stuff. More of whatever America can give her.

And so yesterday, one of those moments when you get snake eyes and you didn't even know you'd rolled, along comes the wife, blowing in with the draft and the bells above the door, another customer so her husband doesn't look up right away, and suddenly she is approaching just as he is showing my wife some pictures of property he intends to buy, and he is explaining that one cottage will go here and another there.

His wife realizes vaguely that she's come upon something, but what is it? She tries to calculate the scene, her husband with this woman and these photos that she can't see, even as her husband puts them away. Something going on but there are too many variables. And so what else is there to do, how else to forestall what might be a calamity, than to say simply, "Hello. I'm Daniel's wife."

Jan 27, 2010

Throughout his address the mic picked out
the drum-beat rhythm of his hands, returning,
to the podium, to a clasp — then thump —
to reason, to his personal politics of hope,
I suppose, to his naivete.... to himself.
Last night Lorna V.L. jumped out of one of the upper stories of 101 Alma Street. The building, which was completed in 1960, has 14 stories, not counting the ones in each apartment. It's among the most prominent buildings in north Palo Alto.

The condos are expensive and the dues are a pretty penny. But you get spectacular views of the university and the hills to the west, or the wetlands and the bay to the east. There's a pool and a gym and 24-hour security. Tenants who've lived in New York City will tell you the building — despite the five-story palm tree out front and the glassed-in balconies — reminds them of New York.

There's even a green awning out front, the kind you find outside most brownstones in certain parts of Manhattan.

At around 10 o'clock last night, in 48 degrees and drizzle, Lorna jumped to her death. She was 77, suffering from kidney ailments and, above all, from depression. She was on oxygen and endlessly uncomfortable.

That she jumped at night is perhaps significant. It afforded her some privacy. Also, there was no reassuring view; hardly any lights, no metaphor to keep her going. In the end, the view and being above the world, was no comfort. And so you wonder, had she been living without the opportunity, had she and her husband not moved into that building, would she have decided to go on struggling?

And how was it that she and her husband decided on this building in the first place, how did each step lead to the next, and when did it first occur to her that she could use this venue to be grounded as it were, to get closer to something more concrete and at the same time, less.

When was the moment she was looking out at the view and then down and thought to herself, 'yes, I could do that. That would work.'

Her husband, of 54 years, was quoted in the local paper to say, "She was tired of the pain, tired of not being able to do anything. We’ve had a wonderful life together, and now it’s over.”

Jan 24, 2010

Frank Rich made the point ("After The Massachusetts Massacre") that when President Kennedy went after U.S. Steel in 1962, by name, he showed his willingness to battle people from his own class — patrician and intellectual elites alike. President Obama has not seemed willing to do that and has entrusted financial reforms, which is the only reform people care about, to the very supercrats — Rubin, Geithner, Summers and the like — who should be sent to Devil's Island.

Of course Obama doesn't come from the patrician elite and perhaps there's some reticence on his part to stare down, to disrespect the country's true oligarchy. An oligarchy that imagines itself as an aristocracy of imagination and drive. Perhaps, it's the one mind game Obama cannot quite master.

But the real problem is that Barry is finally a community organizer by experience and by nature. It makes the utmost sense to him, it's the real American way, to gather people around, let each of them have their say, no matter how idiotic, and ever so gently if relentlessly push them and pull them to a consensus. That would also appeal to his intellectual respect for the basic process of critical thinking. You gather all points of view, study each, weigh each, go back and forth on each, and then a shape appears and, as though you were a sculptor, you refine the shape.

But that's not what's required now. The public will not have it. The lynch mob in the street, and now in the townhouse windows, doesn't want artists or artistry. They don't even want a president, they want s tribal leader. You think of that scene in Lawrence of Arabia when confronted with the choice of whether to go around a retreating Turkish column or indulge in revenge, the Oxford graduate rejects reason and efficiency and leads the blood lust.

That's where we are now.

Or remember Gov. Dukakis's answer to Bernard Shaw's question — if Kitty Dukakis were raped and killed, would you still support the death penalty? "No, it wouldn't change mind,' replied Dukakis without a pause. "I think you know Bernie I have always opposed the death penalty...."

And so the end of Michael Dukakis. We've been here before.

It is a personal tragedy that such a reasoning man as Barack Obama should be asked to discard everything he has learned, and surrender everything he believes in to the drooling, snarl-faced beast in the streets. To the baying below, which comes from right and left. It's as if even they're all whispering in his ear, in Southernmost tea-klux-klang: 'Don't you tell us what you think, boy, and don't give us no more pretty words. Don't you try to elevate us; we don't need your inspiration. Just your anger will do. We know you can do it, boy. We countin' on you.'

And Barry can do it. He showed he could when he ran the Harvard Law Review, a tiny but telling example. And he will do it again. No, we haven't seen Barry's real anger. Sure enough he'll show some fang, no doubt beginning in the State of the Union address next week. But will it be impassioned enough? No, probably not. But later, when he leads the real blood lust, he'll do it in his own way, he'll be cold and quick and dead-eyed.

Is there a defense of giving in to the mob, even in the face of such utter unfairness and the desolation growing for tens of millions of people? No, there is no defense, only a political rationalization. Still, you see how the rebellion against intellectuals flourishes when you look at say, Ted Olson, arguing simultaneously on behalf of gay marriage and Citizens United. These are not equal cases. Gay marriage is coming sooner or later. The corpocracy of America is here now, fully blown, and becomes the mother engine of destruction for all progressive movements. So you wonder how such a gifted mind could be so wise and so stupid at the same time. It's as though Ted Olson doesn't have any moral compass, only an obsession with the glittery little facets of argumentation.

It's one more measure, a throw away revelation, of how America cannot loose itself from its true, base nature. Even the serene, pragmatic and noble Barack Obama cannot pull us up out of that. Here is a country that endlessly prides itself as a peacemaker and the great savior to match great satans, the country of restraint and reason and thoughtfullness ad nauseum. But underneath that we're tied to the extremes. We're out of balance, although not out of character. The worst of it is that just when we need a moral instinct to guide us we find ourselves to be amoral and sentimental, and we've lost trust in the one leader who does have a moral instinct.

As citizens we imagine ourselves as powerless and impotent and now we have become that and drown in the effect.

Jan 19, 2010

Fifty-eight percent.... What is it about this percentage lately? What's behind such a coincidence?

58 percent of those polled oppose Obamacare (a new high).

58 percent of US voters want to waterboard failed Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

58 percent of GOP voters aren't sure if Barack Obama was born in the United States.

58 percent of Americans believe climate change is a "minor threat" or no threat at all.

58 percent of voters polled oppose further investigation of U.S. torture allegations.

58 percent of Republicans answered 'no' when asked if they believe their state should secede from the Union. (And so 42 percent believe their state should secede?)

58 pecent of Republican respondents in Minnesota said they were proud of Michelle Bachmann.

And then...

58 percent of those polled by CNN will not donate money toward the Haitian... what would you call it? Cataclysm. 'Disaster' is too light a word.

According to Wikipedia, although no source is provided, the mythological significance of 58 is that it was "commonly associated with misfortune in many civilizations native to either Central America or Southern America. Due to their beliefs in the original 58 sins, the number came to symbolize curses and ill-luck. Aztec oracles supposedly stumbled across the number an unnaturally high number of times before disaster fell. One famous recording of this, though largely discredited as mere folktale, concerned the oracle of Moctezuma II, who allegedly counted 58 pieces of gold scattered before a sacrificial pit the day prior to the arrival of Hernan Cort├ęs."

Fifty-eight is also the minimum wind speed (mph) needed to issue a Severe Thunderstorm Warning.

And then there is Isiah 58, which by one translation begins....

"Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.

A song based on Isiah 58 uses this question as the refrain, "Am I worshipping God, only for me?"

Isiah 58 offers a fitting commentary on the poll results, and brings to mind H.L. Menchen's observation, "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

If Scott Brown wins a ticket to the U.S. Senate today, it will not be a political debacle for Democrats, contrary to some predictions, but it will bring Democrats to their senses. Whatever effect it has, it will be an unnerving reflection of how this country has come to resemble Germany in the 1930s. Not in full scale, but as a hint, a miniature, a diorama, a moment, like a old smell you'd forgotten.

Imagine them as beer swilling, brown shirts: Limbaugh, Levin, Beck, O'Reilly, and that political cabaret star in Nazi cap, Ann Coulter. And so many others.

And now just this afternoon, on a tip that Brown will win or sufficiently undermine the healthcare bill, the stock market has gone up 116 points. The boys at the Bull 'n Bear are burping with joy that the healthcare company stocks won't take such a hit.

It's no longer a joke. It's that gravity effect of fear and hatred that most people in this country have never noticed, have never known. How could this happen, so easily, like gas coming in under the door.

No matter. However it happened, the thing is here.

Jan 11, 2010

So you turn a corner, your age is a different number. Now everything is in shambles: you haven't done anything in half a century, you're a glistening failure, oh what you could have done with your life, oh who you could have been, oh who you could have been with. Oh but for the grace of a graceless god. Isn't regret the oldest unpaid profession, and beating yourself up, the one true love. And why not. In such a fast, steel-hulled world you ought to be able to jump off once in a while, languish in the horse latitudes of a good long lament.

We are just passing half serious, if you look out of the right side of the aircraft. As if to say, 'well isn't the whole world in menopause'? It depends on the time of day. But it's not just the jack-boot step of time, is it, it's a sign of the times. Emotion is on high alert these days. Islamic extremism, it turns out, is a very real illness, the H1N1 of the psyche.

Think of Iris Robinson, for example, the wife of Northern Ireland's First Minister, who at 58 had an affair with a 19-year-old. Not so unusual and of no account but then she helped him raise some money to open a restaurant. His dream was to open a restaurant. She had everything, you name it she had it, and it was too much. Everything is always the same as nothing. Don't we suppose that all she wanted was something less powerful, a little lighter, a little less abrasive. So she went looking for a thrill and it was his innocence. But her goal was not to catch a butterfly, not to violate anything or tack anything up, simply to experience innocence herself, one last time, to feel it inside one last time.

Then it all came tumbling out. Then she tried to kill herself.

That there are no secrets anymore is the great shame.

* * * * *

In San Francisco, suicide is relatively common. The city has the highest 19-24 age youth suicide rate in the country. More people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than any bridge in the world. Veterans, and now men in middle age, they're all killing themselves. Middle aged men, that's the new mystery.

Interestingly, in San Francisco, the attempted suicide reports tend to come in the late afternoon and early evening. From 5 to 7 p.m.. Vodka martini time, in the old days. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe vodka and gin martinis saved more people than we knew. And so now what? You're sitting there, the sun is turned off, the fireplace is black, you haven't had a happy thought in five years, more than that. And all of a sudden you're in the dark place and you cannot calculate the distance to daylight.

And then maybe you went to see Avatar last weekend and something happened. You saw a utopia, which you hadn't seen in years, maybe ever. And now you want that and you wish your life was just like that, full of fabulous creatures and endearing native people. If you could just have that innocence once more. This is true: A growing number of people report feeling depressed after seeing the film because the depiction of earthy and earthly paradise is so compelling.

* * * * *

When facing the end, generally beautiful scenes appear. According to your mental inclinations, the most impressive are experienced first. If you do not do bad things right now, then there will be no unpleasant scenes when you face death. Even if there are some unpleasant scenes, they too will change into pleasant scenes.

- Pai-chang