Sunday, January 24, 2010

Everything Fights

As the reality of post-Massachusetts backlash sets in, we turn inward this week, choosing to focus on the pleasures of hearth and home state rather than the absurdity of the national or international stage. After all, you're supposed to write about what you know, and increasingly it is obvious that I don't really know what country I'm in. The state to our south that produced Thoreau and Harvard has now come up with the poster child for the triumph of ignorance and bad taste, Scott Brown from Wrentham who drives a truck. Apparently that is all he needed to say to win.

But New Hampshire and it's winter pleasures - I know a thing or two about that, and here's a largely undiscovered trove for you - middle school wrestling tournaments. It's not for everyone, but as an immersion in what makes us tick, regardless of party allegiance, it's second to none. You get 200 kids and their parents and guardians singing the national anthem and then sharing bleachers for six or seven hours in a sweaty, stinking gymnasium. You get a cross section of physical types and facial hair, although this year I have seen a diminished evidence of lavish moustache and goatee to go along with the economic downturn. You get to talk to people you haven't talked to in about a year, the mother of a child on your kid's team separated from her husband, now with new boyfriend sporting obnoxious sweatshirt with the name of some California college emblazoned on the front. Then outside, getting some fresh air on a break from the action, the owner of the town pharmacy tells you she's looking at losing 40 percent of her business as the municipal employee's association negotiates for mail order contracts with some national retail chain. You get kids wrestling their hearts out, developing skills, resilience, and a respect for themselves, each other, and the coaches and other adults who cheer them on. You get all this, and at the end of the day, if you're lucky, you get to go home, you and your kid, to a dinner and reports of ice storms coming that might mean no school Monday and more time to write. Awesome.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Visit From a Man in Black and his Daughter

A tall black man and his daughter knocked on my door today. He was dressed in a black suit coat and his daughter wore black also. His eyes were pained, hooded. The sun was bright and low in the sky behind him. He had a Bible in hand and asked me if I thought about the events in Haiti. I said I did. I wanted to tell him how much I thought Pat Robertson sucked, but didn't know if I was in the mood for a lengthy discussion. I knew he wasn't. He quoted verses from the Old Testament about the oppressed and God's mercy and then handed me the Jehovah's magazine before walking back down the porch steps and getting back in the green mini-van. I've always enjoyed talking to Witnesses. I know some people can't stand them, but I don't know why. We should be able to talk openly and freely with our neighbors about religious opinions but often don't because, well because it's just awkward. But this man wasn't in the mood for talking. The Haiti earthquake is just too much raw material for any of us. And what can anyone say at a time like this? Even the Bible's platitudes do little to soothe. The range and extent of the suffering, the immediacy of so much death and destruction, the uncanny unfairness of it, is of yes, Biblical proportions. But words that talk about the inscrutable logic of the Universe don't help explain the inexplicable. And assigning a supernatural cause to tragedy lets in the unspeakable evil smugness of a Pat Robertson blaming the victims. If the representative of a religion started by a man claiming allegiance to the poor and disenfranchised can't bring himself to empathize with the victims of an earthquake, then he might as well get out of the way. The great Moral Majority has vomited up its arrogance on us once again.

(photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP via TampaBayBlogs slideshow. A cross stands intact in front of a church that collapsed during Tuesday's earthquake at the Canape Vert neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Cove

Weekend night with the girls asleep and Michael spending the night at Daniel's house, so it's video night here at the homestead. Let it not be said we don't know how to have fun any more. A light dusting of snow on the roads and the cat's outside the door refusing to come in. He'd rather be out with the sheep. The movie, The Cove, is an excellent documentary that transports us to the deeper recesses of human cruelty, a kind of anthropocentric fascism that one day will be seen for the evil that it represents. The focus of the movie is Ric O'Barry, the animal trainer who brought us Flipper, for which he has been atoning for the past 35 years. He lives for the day when he can shut down the dolphin hunt which occurs every year in Taiji, Japan, a remote whaling outpost that has kept its gory practice a secret by barring journalists and activists from the cove where the dolphins are trapped and harpooned until the waters run red with their blood. The main financial incentive for the fishermen is to sell some of the captured dolphins to dolphin shows like Seaquarium around the world that profit from our love of the intelligent sea mammals, actually whales, spawned in large part by the succesful run Flipper enjoyed on the tube during my growing up years. Hence O'Barry's sense of mission and the impetus for the film, which was made by a crack team of activists and adventurers who covertly installed cameras in the recesses of the bay. It's a great story, the best kind, that follows an unlikely hero to his existential dilemma of an end, haunted by his obsessions. It is clear that O'Barry has garnered a victory of sorts as he tramps through the halls of the International Whaling Conference, upsetting the proceedings with a laptop he carries at his chest showing images he and his team of rebels have captured which prove inconclusively and embarrassingly, (to the Japanese delegation) that the slaughter is in fact occurring. But he, and we, are powerless to stop it nonetheless. So O'Barry, like a modern day prophet, stands in an unnamed city's traffic in speeded up time at the end, holding his laptop as witness as the crowds stream unceasingly past.
The Japanese have a decent retort in that the hunt satisfies a small market for dolphin meat in their country, despite the high levels of mercury. But there is no getting around the inhumanity and barbarity of the practice. Is it any worse than the slaughter of factory raised cows and chickens to feed Western appetites? was the question we asked. The point made by one of the scientists in the movie is that we know so little about our fellow creatures here on Earth. Hence our consciousness is so undeveloped while we look to the stars for the answers to our deepest yearnings. Someday we will learn from our fellow creatures that we are not just one humanity, but one life force dependent on one another for learning how to coexist on this planet. In the meantime, watch this movie if you can.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Decade

It's the end of an era, the dawning of a new age. We love to demarcate, catalogue and otherwise attempt to order our experience to lessen the bewildering effects of ever-present change. It makes a neat way to think about our shared recent history, but it's probably closer to the truth to say that the new happens whenever it impinges on our consciousness, in other words, whenever we see it. So how do we see? In this increasingly interconnected, technology savvy world, it's ironic that human connection is still vital to insight. We gather with friends we haven't seen in "ages", aware that as the crystal ball drops, it's good to put heads together, to think as part of a truly inter-connected node, because human eyes working together work better than millions of information bits flowing across a single screen. To buttress my point, look at the realm of international security, where a Nigerian young man, disaffected by the world he is destined for and seeking solace for his loneliness and spiritual longings, joins an Islamic militancy that trains him for a dangerous, suicidal mission against the infidel. His father, a successful businessman, warns the US embassy that he has great fears that his son is being used as a tool for an evil he cannot even bring himself to name. Another branch of the security apparatus learns that the enemy plans an attack against aviation on Christmas day using a Nigerian to carry out the mission. Yet the dots aren't connected. The network is too large and cumbersome. The missing dimension is not technology, not financial clout, it's people talking to each other and sharing insights. How to remedy the problem? That's above my pay scale, but I believe that smaller is better, in the sense that an empire is always going to be prone to attack from smaller, well-organized forces. Throwing money and technology, more bureaucracy, creating a new inter-agency oversight committee, is probably not going to do it. However, I can't escape the suspicion that warnings from the Nigerian businessman went unheeded, that here the missing dimension was human connection as opposed to decision making based on a type of racial or cultural profiling and that what we need are embassy personnel with their eyes and ears truly on the street in potential problem countries or regions with a growing Islamic militancy and disaffected youth culture.