Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

When progressive thinkers go bad

What does an accused sexual predator look like?

What does an accused sexual predator look like?

No sooner had I finished writing the Oct. 30 Critical Mass post on my experience interviewing Bill Cosby, and how that’s been cast in a new light, I read the news about Jian Ghomeshi. Who I have also interviewed. An interview that’s been cast in a new light as well.

Empirical evidence shows that Canadians aren’t as crazy as Americans, last week’s election being a major indicator: Iowa is sending to Washington a new senator who brags about carrying a gun to protect herself from the Federal government. But Canadians do have their moments. As the Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Crazy Train disappears over the horizon, Ghomeshi has filled the Great White North news vacuum. Multiple women stepping up to accuse one of Canada’s most-popular media personalities of sexual assault.

Most Americans don’t know Ghomeshi. He is – was – the host of a popular Canadian radio interview show called Q, a mix of lowbrow and highbrow culture. A smart guy, a smart show. His firing quickly become the biggest news story in Canada, resonating in the same way as it would with the NPR crowd here if it was revealed that Terri Gross hunts baby seals.

First one woman came forward. Eh, just a jealous ex-lover, Ghomeshi said while defending himself on that 21st-century media outlet, Facebook. Yes, Ghomeshi wrote, their consensual behavior could be seen as “strange, enticing, weird, normal, or outright offensive to others. We all have our secret life.”

But in the following days, the Ghomeshi revelations assumed a familiar pattern. It felt like the Cosby seediness, where one woman’s claim was followed by more women telling the same story. With Cosby, they alleged they’d been alone with the famous man, he charmed them, he put something in their drinks, he assaulted them. With Ghomeshi, after the first accusation, more women came forward. All telling the same story. Jian Ghomeshi charmed me, he beat me and no, it was not consensual. All that was missing was the date-rape cocktail.

My encounter with Ghomeshi came through his late ’90s rock band, Moxy Fruvous. I must have really liked the group, because in looking back I see that I interviewed band members three times over the course of a couple of years, pretty unusual for me. Conversations with three different and very smart guys in a very smart and talented band. Its lyrics were both unusually literate and pop-culture oriented. Songs attacking the American fascination with daytime TV talk and the syndicated radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh. And even though they were Canadian, the men of Moxy Fruvous closely followed United States politics: “Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan all have this very convincing, ’90s social statement,” Ghomeshi told me. “They’re saying that if you work hard enough and are smart enough, you’ll make it. Which is untrue. This is a structure that naturally breeds inequity. I think there has to be state intervention to smooth things out. It’s amazing that after Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics, and as the gap grows between the rich and the poor, that people still buy into this.”

That was back in 1996. Today, economic disparity continues to destroy our country. Ghomeshi’s words still ring true.

As does this quote, in which he was speaking of the wave of rock bands we were enduring throughout in the ’90s, all bearing dark messages. “I’m not saying we should all be The Partridge Family,” Ghomeshi. “I’m not saying we should all be Pat Robertson. I’m just tired of the same message.”

He stood against the status quo, he said. A band’s message didn’t have to be delivered from the darkness, even as it ridiculed something evil, like Rush Limbaugh. Let’s see how it holds up in the light, that was Moxy Fruvous’ idea.

So Ghomeshi was holding up Pat Robertson as a man of God, as a positive role model. Maybe if he thought about that for a moment, he would have realized that Robertson wasn’t a wise choice. The man’s views frequently sound like 17th-century Puritanism: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” That’s one of many crazy things Robertson has said.

The messenger sometimes sends mixed messages.

The intelligent ideas posed by Moxy Fruvous songs, and the 21st-century perspective that Ghomeshi offered on his radio show, paint a portrait of an enlightened man who actually didn’t exist. Ghomeshi’s smarts ran contrary to the alleged misbehavior of his personal life. He was fired on Oct. 26 after executives at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were presented with, the company said, “graphic evidence that Jian had caused physical injury to a woman.” Who presented them with that evidence? It apparently was Ghomeshi himself who showed them a video, taken on his cell phone, of a badly bruised woman whose ribs he had broken. I’m guessing it was his belief that the video was proof of consensual behavior in his bondage-dominance-sadism-masochism lifestyle. Why else would she allow that video to be taken, if she didn’t approve of what had transpired?

A lot of people gave Cosby a pass. And now a lot of people are stepping forward to say that yeah, it was pretty much known around the music industry, and among the women who dated Ghomeshi after he began hosting Q, that he was an abuser. They whispered about what was going on, but gave him a pass as well. One women employee at CBC complained of abuse to one of her supervisors, but nothing was done. So you keep quiet, keep your job, remain humiliated. Most people don’t have the resources to speak truth to power.

People know that a trailer-trash drunk throwing his girlfriend around on one of those TV reality shows deserves to be slammed face first onto the hood of a cop car. But when a guy in an expensive suit who talks like he’s been to college says or does something that calls for censure, the condemnation doesn’t come as easily.

Have I been fooling myself into thinking that progressive thinkers like Ghomeshi and Cosby aren’t capable of despicable actions?

Consensual behavior has its limits. There’s something wrong with a man who will break a woman’s ribs as a sex act.

Nine women and one man have told Canadian media outlets that they were choked, hit or sexually harassed by Ghomeshi. He filed a $55 million suit against his former employers for defamation and hired a crisis-management group whose web site boasts, “We take proven campaign tactics and apply them to issues where success is critical and you can’t afford to lose.” And then Ghomeshi disappeared. The Toronto police have opened an investigation based on the complaints of three women who are willing to go public about their relationships with Ghomeshi. Better late than never, I guess.

But will there be a time, anytime soon, when society isn’t enabling bad behavior simply because we don’t speak up

 

The Critical Mass

Did someone put something in Bill Cosby’s drink?

bill-cosby-why-is-there-air-front-704708889I think it was after Game 2 of the World Series last week when the television – which is rarely on in the Spevak household these days – drifted over to The Colbert Report. I’d read that Stephen Colbert is closing down the faux-news cable show, which has done commendable work in making a mockery of Republicans (Agreed, that is the definition of shooting smoked turkeys in a barrel).

This particular show was a repeat of a broadcast from last month. The guest was Bill Cosby. The 77-year-old comedian sounded like a sci-fi movie astronaut awakening from an induced hibernation following a long voyage to another planet. He spoke in a rambling series of non sequiturs, less funny than weird. There was much banter between Cosby and Colbert about “ball sandwiches.” After the interview, in which Colbert elicited nothing of use from Cosby, Margaret turned to me and asked, “Was he drunk?”

I interviewed Cosby a couple of years ago. I know how he can dominate a conversation with charm.  As I recall, we talked for nearly an hour. Actually, he talked for nearly an hour. I probably asked about six questions. He filled in the rest of the time. But one thing I do remember is, he was quite lucid, sometimes serious, sometimes funny. A legitimate spokesman on cultural issues. And certainly a controversial one, with his frequent exhortations to black people to “quit complaining,” and his insistence that black men should take more responsibility in raising children.

A couple of days ago I stumbled across a column which put Cosby in a different light. Written by Maureen Shaw, it was headlined, “13 Women Have Accused Bill Cosby of Rape — So Why Has America Forgiven Him?”

Shaw appears to write frequently on women’s issues, although most people would likely agree that domestic violence and rape are not solely the concern of women. In reading Shaw’s account, and backed by a number of other news stories as I searched the Internet, it actually appears to be 14, perhaps 16, women who alleged that they were victims of assault by Cosby. Now other media outlets are reviving the story, apparently after a  comedian named Hannibal Buress brought it up last week during a standup routine. Today, Queen Latifah cancelled his appearance on her TV talk show.

Cosby has never been charged with rape. But he did settle a 2006 civil suit out of court, after the plaintiff’s lawyers had assembled 13 witnesses who bolstered the complaint with their own stories about Cosby. The women had nothing to benefit from financially, the statute of limitations having passed on their own allegations. But they were prepared to tell similar stories in the court room. Cosby had at first charmed them, then slipped a drug into their drinks, then assaulted them. Some of them said they received financial support from Cosby for years afterward. The implication is that this was hush money.

I’m not blowing the whistle on Cosby. That’s already been done. All I’m asking now is, is this the right guy to be pointing the finger of personal responsibility at others?

If these allegations are true, how did he get away with it? Well, he’s Bill Cosby. My brother and I memorized his comedy records when we were kids. Why is There Air? and its ruminations on “idiot mittens,” those mittens linked by a string, where you’d pull the kid’s hand and he’d smack himself in the side of the head with the other. Cosby’s one of TV’s favorite dads, the Cliff Huxtable sweater is a fashion concept. He plays the loveable old curmudgeon in interviews, controls them, makes them go where he wants them to go: The importance of education, rather than the seriousness of a rape charge. He creates a conversational landscape where questions about his own irresponsibilities are unwelcome.

When I talked to Cosby, I’d long ago forgotten any news stories I’d read about those 2006 allegations. Apparently, Colbert had as well. We both let the old man have his way with us. And we didn’t even get a cocktail out of the experience.

The Critical Mass

A dream, in 140 characters

Our seats are in the very back of the aircraft. As they were in reality last week. But this time it’s a dream, one from which I woke up from just moments ago. I rarely remember my dreams. I’m often aware that I had been dreaming, but remember nothing of it. And when I do remember them, they are almost always banalities. The grocery store, that’s a common setting. And I can’t remember an item I’m supposed to pick up….

This dream is different. I suppose it is a product of the stress that people in the office are undergoing now, as we get swept up in a corporate-wide directive to re-apply for our jobs. And the increasing emphasis on social media. We’re supposed to connect with readers through Facebook and Twitter.

As I am doing now.

In my dream, Margaret and I are flying into Rochester. Closing in on our destination, I’m suddenly no longer in my seat, but have a dream perspective, watching as the aircraft closes in on a forest-green blimp with the words PERKINS PAN AMERICAN on the side. I watch as the bottom of the jet brushes the top of the blimp. Thee lighter-than-air ship begins to collapse as the jet continues on.

Now I’m back in my seat, looking out the window. The familiar buildings of downtown Rochester are in view. Except we’re coming in too steep, at an 80-degree angle. I think: Either this is an emergency-landing approach, or we’re crashing.

We level off dramatically. I’m watching again from the outside, the dream perspective, as the plane approaches the airport. The landing gear isn’t down, apparently damaged in the collision with the blimp. The jet hits the landing strip hard and comes to an abrupt stop. I’m outside on the tarmac, looking at the plane, which has neatly broken into three sections. The cockpit, the passenger compartment and the tail, where through the opening I can see our two empty seats. It’s eerily quiet.

“We’d better get out of the way,” Margaret says.

“I’m going to see if anyone needs help,” I say. I walk to the passenger compartment of the plane, but can’t find a door. That’s a common dream thing, isn’t it? A guy walks up to me; he’s wearing the outfit of one of those people you see from the airplane window as you’re leaving the gate, directing the plane with an orange flashlight. “You’d better get back to your seat,” he says. “The captain hasn’t turned off the ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ sign yet.”

“That my seat,” I say, pointing to the chairs in the tail section.

Suddenly, with a loud, electric noise, all of the windows of the passenger compartment begin rolling up. I see many of my co-workers. Smiling, with expressions of relief on their faces. They’ve survived the ordeal. Then I panic. I’ve packed my iPhone in my suitcase. I have to get to baggage claim immediately. My employers will expect me to tweet about this.

That’s it, my true dream. Let the psychoanalysis begin.

The Critical Mass

When the people speak, and no one listens

This morning, I’m reading something very unusual to American ears. Scotland voted resoundingly on Thursday against becoming an independent nation, choosing to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Conceding defeat, separatist leader Alex Salmond said, “I accept that verdict of the people and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit in accepting the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland.”

How odd. The loser accepted the verdict of the people.

We have a problem with that in the United States.

Barack Obama won two elections. Resoundingly so, considering he reversed eight years of a Republican presidency. The margins of his two victories over McCain and Romney were larger than Bush’s win over Kerry (And certainly larger than Bush’s electoral college victory over Gore; Gore won the popular vote). Yet conservatives have refused to acknowledge the verdict of the people. On the night that Barack and Michelle Obama were dancing at his inauguration, more than 15 conservative leaders met at a four-hour dinner to talk about what they could do about this turn of events. It wasn’t just a minor list of malcontents. It was major players like Republican representives Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.) And Republican senators Jim DeMint (S.C.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.).  Newt Gingrich was also there, as well as Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican talking-points guru. Luntz was the guy who came up with the idea of calling healthcare reform a “government takeover,” which the fact-checking group Politifact called the 2010 “Lie of the Year.”

That night, this swell group came up with the strategy of using the House and Senate to obstruct every bill, campaign and law that Obama backed. Everything. Any plans to end their wars, any ideas to stimulate the economy, any attempt to insure uninsured Americans. Over the next four, and then eight years, Obama wouldn’t even be allowed to play a round of golf in peace.

Not simply oppose, but they would obstruct the elected American government. Treason, in any other country.

In school, you probably learned that the United States has a representative government. More Americans voted for Democratic candidates in the House and Senate. Yet the House is run by Republicans, and there are many predictions that the Republicans will gain control of the Senate in November’s mid-term elections. So no, what you learned in school is incorrect. We do not have a representative government.

The majority of Americans want gun control. They approve of how the Affordable Care Act is addressing the issue of the citizens of the richest country in the world not having access to health care. They favor allowing marriage equality, Planned Parenthood, a woman’s right to choose, teaching kids about evolution in schools, even the legalization of pot. They’re OK with higher taxes to pay for roads and schools. They agree we should regulate industry to protect the environment and our health. They know climate change is real. They think all nuclear weapons should be banned. They don’t like the harsh treatment of immigrants, and agree that discrimination against African-Americans remains a significant problem.

And on and on. Until it becomes clear, this is not the conservative country, or the “center-right” country that conservatives claim it is. It’s progressive, it thinks liberal. Throughout the last decade, and for much longer in some cases, conservatives have not accepted the verdict of the people.

The Critical Mass

Yes, this is an actual photo of an open-carry enthusiast  shopping for drugs.

Yes, this is an actual photo of an open-carry enthusiast shopping for drugs.

Pointing a gun at every problem

President Barack Obama addresses the country tonight on how we’ll deal with the emerging Islamic State. This is why he gets paid the big bucks, although admittedly not as many big bucks as the Koch brothers get paid for their mission to destroy the country. But the Islamic State is Obama’s problem, and he has to set not only the policy, but the tone.

And he’ll be speaking to a tone-deaf country.

Consider Ferguson, Mo. The testimony of witnesses says a police officer got out of his car and murdered an unarmed 18-year-old black kid who had his hands in the air. Protests ensued – we seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of police-on-black violence – and the official response was to call in more cops. No, not just cops. Cyborgs from a sci-fi film. Cops in military gear, riding through the streets in armored vehicles, beating up people, arresting journalists, menacingly pointing guns at their fellow citizens. You’re outraged because some fools turned the protest into a riot, even firing guns? Then why weren’t you outraged when a bunch of redneck militia wannabees turned guns on Federal agents at Cliven Bundy’s Arizona ranch earlier this year, when the government was trying to collect back taxes owed by the cranky old racist scofflaw?

Consider White Plains, Ariz. Two weeks ago, a 9-year-old girl from New Jersey on vacation was being given a lesson on how to handle an AK-47 at a shooting range, lost control of the weapon and killed her instructor. What kind of craziness is it to allow a 9-year-old kid to shoot a military weapon at a paper target of a human being? It’ll be another 12 years before she can legally drink a beer. Less than two days after that accident, the National Rifle Association posted a Tweet, “7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range,” that linked to a story about how kids can be entertained by firing at targets that look like zombies.

Consider the supermarket. Kroger, the country’s largest supermarket chain, is the new battleground. The Open Carry people have declared it is your right to protect yourself while shopping for healthy vegetables. Kroger has said fine, if your gun complies with state and local laws. Packing heat on a trip to the coffee shop is the pro-gun crowd’s declaration that guns are a normal part of life. Sure it is, if 20 children and six teachers and administrators shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School is your normal world.

This is the tone-deaf country that Obama will be addressing tonight. ISIS is a serious threat, beheading American journalists and killing its way to conquest in Syria and Iraq. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has a plan. “What we ought to have is a direct, concerted, overwhelming air campaign to take them out.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney has a plan. He spoke to Republican Congressmen Tuesday, using the example of the 9/11 terror attacks – which in 2003 he falsely linked to Saddam Hussein as justification for the invasion of Iraq – to call for action against terrorist groups such as ISIS. Rep. Tom Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, summed up Cheney’s philosophy: ”His advice was mainly to spend more money on the military.”

And I need to consider what’s happening in my own community this week. A city emotionally deflated by the news of a well-liked businessman and his wife, two important people to the future here, lost when their private plane crashed into the ocean. And this morning, from a fourth-floor office window, I watched the funeral of the first Rochester police officer to be killed in the line of duty since 1959. A flag-draped coffin carried into the front doors of a hockey arena, the only building in town big enough to handle the crowd that came to grieve. The family, friends, thousands of uniformed law enforcement people. It was a heavy sight. I went outside and stood on the sidewalk, watching. The streets were closed off. It felt as though all of the air had been sucked out of downtown.

All agree that the killer, a convicted felon, should never have had a gun. But he did. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre is fond of saying, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Well, officer Daryl Pierson was a good guy. And he had a gun.

Here’s the problem, from ISIS to Ferguson: We can win battles, but wars are no longer won. The United States did not win the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. After decades of effort, we have not won the wars on drugs or poverty. We can’t turn the police into a paramilitary force that creates animosity where there should be trust.

The world is full of evil. A lot of villains out there count on that. But on this planet of 8 billion people, I have to believe we have them outnumbered. It’s likely too late for our generation. But we can start making things a little better by rejecting the idea that the answer to every problem is to point a gun at it.

The Critical Mass

The Tragedy Slut reveals himself

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

I turned down a chance to interview Glenn Beck. Twice, in fact.

Late in 2005, Beck was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted an interview with the conservative Fox News host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Am I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I work for?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. And in recent years, the truth has taken quite a beating.

President Obama has finally laid some truth on us when he admitted that, yes, the United States had tortured prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This wasn’t news – most of us knew we’d lost our moral compass in the 9/11 rubble – but we’d been trying to fool ourselves for years, using phrases like “enhanced interrogation techniques” when, in truth, it was torture. And the CIA has admitted now what many people had already figured out on their own, that it lied when it said it wasn’t spying on American citizens and members of Congress. Yes, it did all of that. If you believe the CIA this time.

Such willful ignorance is accepted as the norm, and you know the big lies. Obama’s a Kenyan, a Muslim, he wants to take your guns, he’s committed impeachable offenses. Voter fraud is rampant. Rich people create jobs. Immigrants are a threat to America and a drain on the economy. The Affordable Care Act will include Death Panels. Climate change isn’t real. The only way to stop a Bad Guy with a gun is a Good Guy with a gun. These, and hundreds of other errant ideas, lingered on long after the facts disproving them were available. And in many cases these notions continue to breed in the darkness, because our leaders refuse to yield to inconvenient truths. And often because the media is stuck on the notion of false equivalencies as legitimate argument. Be smart: The debate on climate change is over. Whenever you read the phrase “Some people say…” in a news story or editorial on climate change, immediately turn the page. “Some people say” is just a lazy editorial writer’s way of re-introducing a roundly defeated argument to the reader. Because very often “some people” is a guy like Ken Ham. The last time we should have seen Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, was after pop-science demigod Bill Nye the Science Guy had thoroughly kicked his ass in their Science vs. Creationism debate. But Ham keeps re-appearing in the public spotlight, saying dumb stuff. Some people never learn.

Points of debate should earn their way into the public discourse. Ideologies should stand on the truth. We give a loudmouth a microphone, and he whips a crowd of knuckledraggers into a frenzy by calling the president of the United States a socialist. Those people can’t possibly know what socialism is, unless they hate their city’s fire department.

So I denied Glenn Beck the opportunity to use my forum, minor as it is. I denied him the opportunity to say this: “I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 201, 2010.

And this: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.… No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out. Is this wrong?”  – Glenn Beck, May 17, 2005.

And this, on people whose homes were being destroyed in a California wildfire: ”I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 22, 2007.

And this, on the people who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina: The only ones we’re seeing on television are the scumbags.” – Glenn Beck, Sept. 9, 2005.

And my opinion on the responsibility we have to the truth is bolstered by an unexpected source. Glenn Beck. He seems to have been on an apology tour this week. “When you live your life five hours a day on live television and radio you’re going to say stupid things,” Beck said last Sunday. He conceded that one of those stupid things was his declaration that President Obama is a racist. That unsubstantiated claim was more fuel for the uniformed.  Indeed Beck admitted that, in this highly partisan, angry America, he may have “unintentionally… added to the situation we’re in right now.”

Later in the week, just to make sure we weren’t hearing things, he re-iterated the point: “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart,” he admitted. And on his radio show, he dropped this bomb on the war  mongers: “From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t…. Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have.”

Welcome aboard, Beck, even if it’s just a momentary sanity. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Your ill-advised words fueled misery, and even death. I have no room in my heart for your apology. You are the true tragedy slut.

The Critical Mass

Literature junkies

William Burroughs.

William Burroughs.

While riding the No. 1 bus to downtown the other morning, I heard an out-of-place, yet familiar, clicking noise. I glanced around. A guy in a nearby seat was using a clipper to trim his fingernails. I decided I’d shift to a more-distant seat if he made a move for his toenails.

What is it about people that they think they’re invisible when in public? When I’m sitting in that bus, I can look down, through those big windows, and see right into your car. I know what you’re doing. Eating an egg, sausage and cheese sandwich. Putting on makeup at red lights. Stuff you should have done at home.

I’m not snooping. It’s not snooping if what I’m seeing and hearing is something you’re doing in public. I’m not deliberately trying to listen to your loud cell phone conversations with your parole officer or your unemployed boyfriend. In fact, I try to ignore you.  I do what a half-dozen or so people do on the bus ride. We read. Newspapers, magazines, court summonses. A lot of paperbacks. A year ago, half the people reading books on the bus were reading them electronically. But the pendulum has swung the other way again. It’s been six months since I’ve seen someone with an eReader on the bus.

I’ve been using the last few weeks of bus rides to re-read William Burroughs. Short, brutal sentences. Low-life literature that’s a perfect match for the bus. So last week I’m sitting in the back of the bus when I realize I’m overhearing a couple of guys discussing their experiences with dropping acid. Discussing it with great enthusiasm, and loudly, in the same tone that some guys talk about cars or sports. “Sometimes you’re just gonna have a bad trip, there’s nothing you can do about it….”

So I’m staring at my paperback book, trying to figure this out:

Perhaps the intense discomfort of withdrawal is the transition from plant back to animal, from a painless, sexless, timeless state back to sex and pain and time, from death back to life.

On of the guys notices me. “Is that Burroughs?”

“Yeah. Junky.”

“Cool, I read that last month.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Critical Mass

Don’t kill the mockingbird

This morning’s walk with the dog coincided with garbage pick-up day. Today’s garbage trucks have a huge claw that seizes the big green bin, raises it high in the air, turns it upside down over the yawning, undoubtedly disgusted pit on the back of the truck, shakes it, and sets down the bin at the edge of the driveway. The guys don’t even get out of the truck anymore. Kinda sad, professional trash picking is becoming a lost art. I know old-school garbage men who talk about finding all kinds of interesting discarded items along their routes. Hands-on garbage men who once a week were recognizable and welcome members of the neighborhood, building casual relationships. I know garbage men who tell me they’d get presents at Christmastime. Like a six pack of beer, wrapped in a ribbon, sitting on the bin.

to_kill_a_mocking_birdSummer Mondays like this, following summer weekends like we just had, mean the curbs will be piled high with extra detritus. Stuff from people cleaning out garages, basements, attics and the bedrooms of recently deceased parents. I drag home scrap wood to burn in the chimea and, much to my surprise, books. Usually uninteresting-looking young-adult books that have outgrown their usefulness. But sometimes, good ones.

This morning I found a paperback copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Books often carry clues of their personal history. On the inside of the front cover of this book is a stamp, “Monroe High School.”

But mostly, books are a shared experience. You read the same words that I read. And To Kill a Mockingbird is full of stunning words:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.”

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.”

“There are just some kind of men…who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book ever written by Harper Lee. But it’s full of wisdom. Bible-like words. I already had a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’ll keep this found copy. Until I find someone who needs it.

The Critical Mass

My inner Bukowski

Charles Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski.

I finished off a 131,000-word manuscript Thursday evening – I use the word “finish” loosely; these things are never really done – and asked myself: “Now what?”

More writing. Bathed in self-flagellating angst, writers love to act as if they’re making personal sacrifices on behalf of mankind. Monks and Joan of Allegories with keyboards, uncovering universal truths one keystroke at a time. The only space available for this kind of work is inside the writer’s own head, as the process itself seems astonishingly boring and often self-contratulatory to normal people who are inadvertently exposed to it. I’ve been trapped inside that echo chamber for quite a while now, and “Writing Aerobics” seemed like well-needed airing out. Hobnobbing with my fellow scribes Saturday morning at Writers & Books, my hometown center for local literary types who have actually been published, and housewives who dream.

There were five of us, plus the instructor for this session. Louise Wareham Leonard has a charming New Zealand accent, which she apparently comes by honestly, and has published two novels, with a third close to hitting the press. These books appear to be far more self-revelatory than any place I’ve personally visited. She says she’s done these Writing Aerobics sessions for as many as 12 people, but prefers these more-intimate groups. I prefer 12, where I can get lost in the crowd. I was the kid who never wanted to be called on by the teacher.

So now you’re gonna get an exclusive look at writers at play.

Wareham’s first exercise starts with asking each of the writers to create a dialogue between two people; I chose the option of a secret being revealed. Next, she instructs us to add dialogue tags. As in “he said….” Then, one element at a time, we insert the characters’ appearance, gestures, setting, a memory, relevant back story, action, imagery and how the narrator feels when it is all over. And there we have it. Instant literature. When I put all of my elements in place, this is my story:

She looks out the front window. It’s a man standing in her front yard, wearing dark blue work clothes and an orange and lime-green reflective vest. For his safety. “Meter reader,” he says, waving his electric meter-reading wand as proof, while not looking up from his clipboard.

“Oh. you’re here to read the meter?” she says.

“Yes. I’m the meter reader.”

“Does this mean you have to go into my basement?”

“Is that where your water meter is?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, I have to go into your basement.”

 ”Fine.” She sighs, pushing the screen door open and holding it to allow the meter reader into the house.

The next-door neighbor is mowing his lawn, glancing over in time to see the meter reader disappear inside. He thinks: She always has those window shades partially drawn, so that the house looks like a man half asleep. He pauses behind the angry mower, wiping the sweat from his brow, and looks at this dead-end street crowded with old houses, paint peeling, many of the driveways with cars that haven’t moved in years, their tires flat, registrations expired. Houses this old, you figure a few people have died in them over the years. Hell, a guy could have a heart attack while sitting in his chair in front of the TV and they wouldn’t find him for a week.

And a house that old, the next-door neighbor thinks, has to be full of spiders.

The meter reader follows her to the basement door. She’s in good shape for a middle-aged broad, he thinks. That green cocktail dress is kind of odd for this early in the morning. And her hair is tied up in some kind of net, like diner waitresses wear. This woman reminds him of his Aunt Roberta. Yeah, he needs to visit Aunt Roberta at the hospital one of these days.

“Careful,” the woman in the green cocktail dress says, pointing to the basement door. “It’s dark, and there are some old shoes sitting on the steps.” This meter reader reminds her of her ex-husband. “To hell with him,” she mutters.

“Yes ma’am. Oh, you don’t see many basements like this anymore. Dirt floor. Did you have some plumbing done here? Coupla mounds of dirt…. three. Oh jeez, I nearly stepped in that hole! Big as a grave.

“Hey, did you just shut the door?”

She locks the door behind him. A heavy, solid-wood door. If he starts yelling too much, she’ll just have to go down there and shoot him. Just like she did that husband of hers. And those damn Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And there you have it. A Hitchcockian short story.

“That’s a small notebook you’re writing in,” Wareham says to me. It is. “But it has a lot of pages,” a say.

Now Wareham has us responding to writer’s prompts. She offers a fragment of a thought and the eager scribes respond with complete thoughts. Her prompts are “It could have been you,” “The secret is,” “There was no going back,” “There was no going on,” “If only the rain would stop,” “If only” and “Because I never.” Then she reads random lines and titles from books in the room. “The view from here,” “But you cannot argue with hungry spirits,” “Birds of the USSR” and “One type of anger can be positive.”

Two of these prompts sound to me like a poem:

The view from here is kinda worrisome

the fall would be precipitous

perhaps leading to serious injury

perhaps the death of the poet.

But it’s a narrow ledge

He’d probably fall anyway.

There’s no arguing with hungry spirits.

A second prompt results in good, handy advice for the amateur home repairman:

The secret is, you can’t tighten the bolts too much, or you’ll crack the porcelain. The nuts have to be finger tightened to the point that the toilet doesn’t rock when you sit on it.

The rest of the prompts bring forth similar non-sequitur inspiration. I step back and look the pages of my undisciplined scrawl, each prompt leading off a new thought. They read like another little story:

It could have been you. But it was her. I can live with that. She, apparently, has decided that’s not enough. She thinks it should have been him. That’s why they’re both in the trunk of my car.

There was no going back. That’s what happens when you set off 40 pounds of dynamite at the foot of a suspension bridge like that.

There was no going on. The gas gauge was on E. The carrion birds were gathering along the roadside. The road signs were riddled with buckshot, to the point that the directions were useless.

If only the rain would stop. Then I could walk a half-mile into those woods over there and shoot myself in the head without getting all wet.

If only I had packed a lunch. That would be a sign that I had some hope of making it to the end of the day, end up on some bar stool with a bunch of other guys who forgot their lunches.

Because I never want to see the sun again. It reveals too much. Age. Decay. Illness. Inadequacies. The light of a neon Corona beer sign shows nothing of the men and women sitting on these bar stools. Their secrets are safe.

Birds of the USSR. What is that? It’s a web site for meeting Russian women. Guys like us, sometimes we need a little help getting past our social awkwardness.

One type of anger can be positive. It’s motivational anger. The gas that prompts you to break that beer bottle – after it’s empty – over the head of the guy next to you, instead of worrying after you get home about why you didn’t do it.

See how that works? It pulled the Bukowski right outta me.

The Critical Mass

Saving Sgt. Bergdahl

The problem with guys like Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – and Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Pat Tillman – is they shed light on our dark sides.

Snowden and Manning used their top-security jobs to expose classified information that confirmed the U.S. government is undermining some of its citizens’ most-treasured principles: That we have no right to privacy. Now we are all guilty of something until proven innocent.

For shedding light on this issue of domestic spying, some Americans regard Snowden and Manning as heroes. More consider them to be traitors.

Tillman is an equally confusing story for Americans to digest. A highly-regarded defensive back in the National Football League, he turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Arizona Cardinals and joined the U.S. Army eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Tillman was deployed to Iraq, and then Afghanistan, were he was killed in 2004. The selfless Tillman was hailed as a hero, and he remains one to this day. But the story of his death evolved in the days and months that followed. There was a cover-up. Members of his unit were instructed to lie. Evidence was destroyed, including a notebook in which he was recording his thoughts about the war. The truth soon emerged: Tillman was not killed as a result of enemy action, but friendly fire. And we now know that this member of the elite Rangers, an Academic All-American in college, had turned on the war as well. Tillman no longer believed America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were justifiable.

Bergdahl presents an equally complicated story. And since he was traded earlier this week for five Taliban leaders being held in Guantanamo, his return after five years in captivity is being re-written by politicians and pundits with disappointingly simplistic world views.

Here’s one: Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, the multi-national group once headed by Osama bin Laden, is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban had nothing to do with it. And while the Taliban has notoriously violent ways, the Afghan Taliban is not even officially delegated as a terrorist organization. As far as the world and the United States legally defines it, the Afghan Taliban is an enemy combatant. We invaded their country, and we should not be surprised that they are shooting at us and setting roadside bombs in our paths. Like Bergdahl, the five Taliban who were traded for Bergdahl were prisoners of that war.

Here’s another simplistic view: That we have now allowed five enemy combatants to return to the battlefield. “The worst of the worst,” critics say, as the five thuggish mug shots fill the flat-screen TVs in America’s living rooms. And they may indeed return to the battle. But is the Taliban really getting back five top commanders (all of whom will be quarantined in Qatar for a year, as part of the deal)? Reporting that runs deeper than the hysterics of Senator John McCain and TV pundits suggests that the bloodthirsty reputation of these five Taliban leaders may have been grossly exaggerated, perhaps as justification for keeping them imprisoned for more than a decade. In fact one of these fearsome fighters – and all were captured in the early days of the war – was truly something many people do fear: Before the invasion of Afghanistan, he was a used-car salesman.

Hyperventilating over the release of The Taliban Five ignores the fact that America has created a cottage industry of manufacturing hate among the people of that region. We’ve invaded sovereign nations as though we own them, bombed villages, killed children with drones, tortured and humiliated innocent people in prisons such as Abu Ghraib and helped keep violent tribal leaders in power by paying them off with cash and Viagra, gaining the faint promise that they might help us keep the region marginally under our control. Our actions have recruited thousands of American-hating combatants for the battlefield. And we’re worried about those five guys just released from Guantanamo?

Someone’s worried about something. Before the facts were in, Bergdahl was under attack. Attacks planned by Republican strategists, always seeking a political crowbar to use on Barack Obama. The soldier’s family is even being scrutinized. If Bergdahl’s father, wearing a beard he hasn’t shaved since his son went missing, “absolutely looked like a Muslim,” as claimed by Fox News facial-hair expert Bill O’Reilly, then so do the guys from Duck Dynasty.

We don’t know why Bergdahl walked away from his post. Perhaps he was naive. Perhaps his mind caved in to the pressures of battle; we know that we’ve already brought back thousands of soldiers who will never be the same after this war. It’s even been claimed that Bergdahl’s desertion cost the lives of some of his fellow soldiers who were searching for him, although doubt has been cast on that notion by a story this week in The New York Times – supported, ironically, by some material stolen by Chelsea Manning. You can read it here.

One thing we do know, thanks to a story in Rolling Stone magazine, is that Bergdahl – like Pat Tillman – had grown to despise the American mission in Afghanistan. He says as much in emails sent to his parents:

We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks … We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.

He sees himself in the company of  “an army of liars, backstabbers, fools and bullies,” and writes that he’s ashamed to be an American. Some heavy stuff seems to have been weighing on Bergdahl when he walked away from his post, his objective either uncertain or unreachable, perhaps even suicidal.

Allowing a soldier to die at the hands of his captors is not the punishment for his having questioning the validity of a mission and deserting his post. There is a human calculation being made here, that Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders was not an even trade. This debate should not be carried out under the same rules that we use for evaluating a couple of baseball teams swapping infielders. Obama reminded us Thursday of what the priority should be:

I write too many letters to folks who unfortunately don’t see their children again after fighting a war. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents, and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child, and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try and get them back.

We sent Bergdahl into harm’s way, on a dubious mission built on lies. Damaged or not, it was our duty to bring him back.

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