Wednesday, February 29, 2012

All That Survives

You're walking in the woods and the trail comes to a crossing. Up in the distance, through the trees, lie the assembled headstones of an ancient graveyard. The old stone walls are crumbling, and half the markers are toppled over in the snow, neglected through the years. Some, the veterans of the Revolution, still have flags renewed by dedicated loyalists living in the towns around here. This is the legacy of a not-quite forgotten New England, when bands of families cleared land and struggled to subsist in the granite wilderness, under the constant threat of disease, hunger and Indian attack from Quebec. The headstones have names, Susan Puttnam, her husband Joseph, daughter Evelyn. So many children died young, the little markers washed clean of their engraved names. Now the farms have disappeared along with the settlers, the forest taken over with a vengeance. What attracts me to the old graves are the stories contained in that little clearing, the families, their children, the light that shines on these lives in the imagination. Somehow I find my optimism renewed contemplating the old cemetery. It's why I like sad songs and movies. They speak of resilience and a shared heart that still beats.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Winner is The Way

The Oscar's awards ceremony, in all its glitz and panache, is an annual celebration of box office winners. Here's a thumbs up to a movie I saw recently that I thought was a brave attempt to do an honest, human and uplifting story with little melodrama, no special effects, no twisted glorying in violence, sex or the worst of human traits. The title of the movie -- The Way -- gives a hint of its appeal to spiritual seekers or those among us who are just plain tired of being hammered about the head with the crassness of slick, seamless, vanilla storytelling. Given that the main favorite in tonight's best film category is a French silent, black and white movie called The Artist, there must be many in the film world today who feel the same way. The Way, a small, personal, literally off-the-beaten-path type of film is, like The Artist, harking back to a past, only a past that does not include many of the accouterments of modern technology nor the comforts many of us take for granted in our daily lives.
A collaboration between long-time Hollywood stalwarts Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen. the movie tells the story of a California opthalmologist who travels to Spain to recover the remains of his son who has died on the first day of backpacking across northern Spain along the ancient trail known as El Camino, or The Way, to the cathedral of St. James. The Martin Sheen character, distraught and sick of the pretensions and emptiness of his Southern California golf club life, sets out to complete the journey to honor his son's memory and perhaps to find a reason to live for himself. On the way he befriends an odd assortment of pilgrims, all on the path for personal reasons. The three month journey draws them together despite their differences, as they learn to overcome their personal and cultural ticks. Each of them has a different stance on the faith necessary to finish their respective hikes, but each is touched and changed in an important way by the end. It's a sort of quasi-documentary riff on the Wizard of Oz theme, with an over the hill, grumpy, but quintessentially Martin Sheen-like American innocent as Dorothy. The main character is of course the pilgrimage itself -- the beautiful Basque country and the baroque, fantastic cathedrals of Burgos and Santiago de Compostela.  I can't say it's the winner of any particular category, but anybody who sees it will feel like they've won.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Linning, Sometimes Sinning, but Still Winning

They're at it again, the hounds braying about how America is about to fall. This time it's an elegant sort of certainty, expressed by the pen of an Eric X. Li, allegedly a Chinese entrepreneur writing in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. But the sulphurous whiff of chickens being counted before they're hatched reminds me of what it must have been like at other times in history, say the elegant chambers of Vienna or Berlin in the 1930s when Adolph was telling the assembled barons of Teutonic industry the Americans were much too decadent to withstand a Nazi assault on civilization.
But let's go back even further, to that day some 230 years ago, after the army of hard-scrabble American colonists had overthrown the mightiest military in the contemporary world in the name of a faith they held in their own ideals and their own destiny. The world's cognoscenti, certain that the experiment must fail, indeed lusting after such a failure, were already predicting that it would all soon fall apart. Because America's success, the success of democracy, flies in the face of the most cherished belief of most elites in most places throughout human history, that the common people could never be graced with the wisdom to seek a better way.
It is messy, being an experiment, a changeable, malleable system of government constantly in the throes of self-invention. Li is correct in pointing out some of the glaring flaws that anyone can see in our government today: paralysis, demagoguery, the undue influence of money. But he shows a lack of understanding of our history to think that we have arrived at some unique nadir in time. There have been similar moments of corruption and paralysis. No, there is no guarantee that we will be able to reform ourselves in time to avert total disaster, but there is no reason for undue pessimism either. Indeed there are many analysts who believe that America, because of its traditions of individualism and innovation, stands poised to reap the greatest rewards of any country in the increasing globalization of the world's economy.
Li  points out that democracy is based on a faith, as yet unproven, in individual conscience and human rights. This is true -- nurtured by our faith traditions and our long collective memories of struggles for national and individual emancipation, Americans have been able to overcome deep differences in our past, think Civil War, and still be reconciled to living together in relative harmony guaranteed by the rule of law and the rights in the U.S. Constitution. But what is Li's faith based on, the benevolence of closeted apparatchiks who know what is best at all times? Or perhaps his own connections to the reins of power. Whatever it is, I'll take my faith over his. The faith in democracy has legs that grow stronger throughout the world. It is not a uniquely American or Western European phenomenon. George W. Bush was right when he said that democracy is a universal aspiration. It is not, as Li states,  that Westerners see our brand of parliamentary or representative democracy as the pinnacle of human achievement, it is that democracy, or the rule of a government by consent of the governed, is a system of government uniquely suited to bringing about ever greater levels of human freedom and prosperity. It is not an idea that is hard to sell, witness the fall of the Communist world, (except China), and the rise of the Arab Spring. Millions of people around the world share this faith.
There are contradictions written into the very fabric of our common life. These contradictions are the heart of the engine that makes the system work. Indeed we are living at a time when many are chafing at our liberty and longing for a turn to a more authoritarian United States that would legislate morality, tell women for instance, that they have no rights to choose contraception. Ironically it is often deeply religious people that seem to lose faith in our democratic system, based as it is on a faith in the freedom of choice and the collective wisdom of the people -- the Spirit that moves among us. Which brings me to Jeremy Lin. This Asian-American basketball star who has taken the country by storm with his poise and flair is symptomatic of the kind of dark horse underdog that Americans love because it revives our faith in ourselves and our story. He is also a symbol of how intertwined the world has become. An Asian American basketball star. What next? Democracy in China?  I would give it better odds than American decline.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Excerpt from Latitudes - A Story of Coming Home

They gathered in a room by the sea with sweatshirts on. There was a black-and-white television, a centerpiece set on a shelf above the food. The men were barbecuing and watching a Yankees  game. The women were silent, conspiring. Somebody's girlfriend marched up and changed the channel. Here was a beauty contest, women in beehive hair parading in knee-length dresses down a catwalk. It was eerily silent, the calm before a storm, and then somebody, one of the men, marched up and dialed noisily back to the baseball game. The young woman charged back up and, slap, the crew cut boyfriend had had enough, and the television was never touched again as the Yankees rounded the bases and innings.
Mother gave Will a camera she had in her large purse, full of keys, papers, food -- a Kodak instamatic that was wound on manually.
“Go make her feel better, Will.”
Will took the camera and went around the corner. The brown haired lady was lying in a bedroom, face to the wall, convulsing in sad tears.
            "Smile," he said. He was afraid she wouldn't hear. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

Pruning the apple trees is good for spurring more fruit production, they say. You cut back the branches leaving a sparser, leaner tree that lets in light and allows fewer diseases. So far I only have about ten trees that are big enough to require major cutting. I let trees under about three years just grow the way they want to. It's one of the seasonal farm chores that lets me feel like I am having a hand in the natural world's healing while I attempt to provide healthy food for my family. Meanwhile it's kind of ironic that the girls have both had gastroenteritis the last couple of days and are laid up sick and Michael looks like he's coming down with it this evening. So the mid-winter pruning is about manipulating nature to ensure health, and at the same time nature is manipulating right back at us. One step forward and two steps back, isn't that life? Lately it seems to me that the whole of civilization, if not evolution itself, is like a dance on the edge of a precipice and we never know when the stage will collapse below us. Meanwhile we keep our shoulder to the wheel, most of us struggling to avoid calamity from day to day and a few of us shooting to the top and flaming out with an extravagant, self-destructive arc like Whitney Houston - God bless her wherever she is tonight! All part of the same whirling, delusional ballet.

I just read an article by Robert Kagan in the Wall Street Journal, Why the World Needs America. His premise is that preparing and accomodating for a post American world order is a foolish thing to do and that instead we should be aiming to maintain our military predominance in order to ensure the global democratic order. In a way it is like pruning the apple trees. We just can't abandon the orchard and expect the trees to keep producing good fruit. I know it's a vision of benign interventionism that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seem to be listening to, but to me it's all about keeping the soil healthy. If we don't improve our educational outcomes and jobs infrastructure, then we are going to have a top-heavy, over-extended military presence that will eventually topple like a dead tree.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sting

With rising economic indicators and jobs data, President Obama's chances in the fall are looking better than ever. Along with the rosier economy undercutting the main criticism from conservatives that his policies are making things worse, it's pretty obvious that none of the main Republican challengers is about to set the world on fire. Barring international catastrophes or blunders on Obama's part, things are looking good for another four years and an opportunity for Democratic gains in the House and Senate. Which is why the administration's recent decision to gut the ability of religious institutions, primarily Catholic hospitals and charities, to accept federal funding without having to provide universal access to contraception is pretty baffling. Granted most Catholics in the US ignore the church's teachings on birth control, but still, the institutions of the Church are having their hand forced by this decision, and that doesn't sit well with Catholics, even liberals like myself that understand where the Church is coming from as far as a respect for life and human sexuality. So where does this decision come from? It's hard to believe that the Obama administration, with Biden, a prominent Catholic, as Vice-President, would purposely set out to alienate a portion of the electorate that swung in his favor in the last election. By changing a long-standing policy that had enjoyed bipartisan and universal favor, Obama risks arming the evangelical right and the conservative Tea Partiers with much needed ammunition as they set out to portray him as the leader of an overbearing government intent on trampling our rights. No, the Obama people are far to canny to do anything like this unwittingly. Here is the political calculus being weighed in the White House as I see it. As Romney begins to romp through the Republican primary, support for him from all sectors of the GOP will consolidate and thus give the Republicans many months to regroup and turn their sights on the man in the White House. Far better to see that selection process delayed and the fight go on to a brokered and mud-slinging finale. So let's give the evangelical and conservative voters a jolt and swing some support to Santorum, who may be able to go on a run and make life a little difficult for Mitt. And then later, with a wave of the Presidential wand, we'll see the White House, or the Department of Health and Human Services more specifically, issue a new edict in the summer establishing freedom of conscience in how religious institutions deal with federal funds. I could be totally wrong, but that's the most obvious reading of the situation. I say it's good to see the Republicans being played for a change.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Sheep and the Groundhog

Do sheep eat dead leaves? I googled it and couldn't find out. Apparently goats in California can be killed by oak leaves. But my sheep seem to like the dead maple leaves they are finding as the snow pulls back. It's February, and the sun seems summer-like in its brilliance. I'm wearing sun glasses as I prune the apple trees this morning and watch as a big white ewe scoops up a lower lip full of brown leaves and tosses them in the air joyfully. This is like an early spring to her, and the leaves are a treasure that makes a change from the hay and grain rations. I imagine the unlimited supply is what really excites them. No more relying on that miserly man, me,  and whatever I feel like giving out. They are all pregnant too and craving weird nutrients. The maple leaves are likely to contain some valuable stuff that scientists haven't even discovered yet. Maybe this is a permacultural breakthrough. Sheep on dead leaves. A new way of life. At least until it snows again.

Change is in the air, not just for the sheep. It's Super Bowl day, which marks a distraction from the routine. Between Punxsutawny Phil and Tom Brady, I prefer Phil as a marker of seasonal time. At least the groundhog is based on the old belief that the time in between is a fluid medium, good for prognostications and communicating with the other dimensions. Now if I was a Republican I would be looking for some distractions, because you don't need a medium to know that old Mitt is not which way the wind blows come next fall. And who would want to have a beer with him? If the right is going to pull off its usual bait and switch it helps to have a folksy performer. Mitt is not that guy. Is it too late to write in  for the groundhog? Google has the answer, I bet.