Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Coming Home

"You can't go home again," Thomas Wolfe wrote, and boy was he right. "Home," that figment of the imagination, somehow moved while I was away in Argentina. Everything looks the same, but I feel as if I'm still on the airplane and we're turning, turning, turning.

Yesterday evening, after watching Woody Allen's frivalous "Scoop," I walked down Pacific Avenue, drifting along with the crowds, into the book stores and down to the record store. Wherever I go in the world, I think of Santa Cruz as paradise, the urban sanctuary hippies dreamt of in the Sixties, a progressive and liberal, free-thinking bastion of freedom and hope for all the disenchanted and marginalized in Bush's America. But last night all I saw was ugliness and misery, tension and anger. Nothing overt, mind you. It was in the faces, in the dress and the posture of the people I passed, particularly the young. I know some residents are fearful of walking past the Catalyst and the bus depot where today's disaffiliated and rootless poor tend to congregate, but not until last night did I feel afraid. "Money for pizza," one young bearded man in mufti growled at me. An overweight young woman shouted nonsense syllables at people passing by. Tattoed and pierced people, their heads hid in dark hoods, wheeled bikes down the sidewalk, daring you to challenge them. A trio of young girls, stomachs agressively bare, walked by, speaking a foreign language (it was not Spanish) in squeaky voices. Was this MY Santa Cruz?

At my son's house in Sonoma not long after flying in to San Francisco, I picked up an issue of Rolling Stone and read a riotous rant against the modern world by that prophet of the absurdities of life, Kurt Vonnegut. Now in his 80s, he said "I'm forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, Colon." Calling himself Jeremiah, he ticked off the sins of our age: We're "killing the planet as a life-support system with gasooline...This is the end of the world...Of course, the lunatic fringe of Christianity is welcoming the end of the world as the rapture. So I'm Jeremiah. It's going to have to stop. I'm sorry." But when pressed for advice he might give young people who want to help, he replied: "There is nothing they can do. It's over, my friend. The game is lost." In my most pessimistic moments, I agree. But is this an epiphenomenon of geography? If I had remained in Argentina, or lived in on a beach in Thailand as I sometimes dream, would the future of the world still seem as dire as it does in the belly of the beast?

As I write, the glug glug glug of plumbing in distress echoes from my bathroom. One of my closest friends, recently returned to Berkeley after a year-long manic episode that costs him thousands of dollars, tells me matter-of-factly that he had a heart attack a month ago. This morning I'll visit another friend, in the hospital recovering from an operation for stomach cancer which followed a stroke. Jim in Fresno seems to have disappeared; he won't answer my emails or respond to phone messages.

But outside my window a purple flower (will I ever learn their names?) blooms, and it attracts a hummingbird that seems unworried by my typing. A woman I knew as a newborn, visits from Georgia with her two girls and tells me that her third kidney transplant seems to have been successful. Shirlee's garden is a vibrant collage of greens, although it is probably the giant redwood's roots that are mangling my plumbing. The good and the bad always coexist.

Argentina gradually fades from my memory, leaving behind firm images in the photos I took, more than 1200 of them, which I now have to edit and put in some semblance of order so that I can share these Kodak moments I saw with others. But of course the sounds of traffic and Castellano voices and the smells of smokey air and dog poop on the shoe are missing, as is the welcoming sound of Ofelia's "buen dia" when I would come to a breakfast of stale toast and instant coffee precisely at 8:30 in the morning. As I walk down the street in Santa Cruz I am also walking down Avenida Federico Lacroze in Belgrano, and the faces I see here jar against the memory of the faces there.

When I travel, irksome conditions of the skin and scalp take a holiday. My doctor says his eczema disappears when he goes on vacation, and he attributes this to an abscence of stress. When I go away on a journey to a faraway place, I leave appointments, meetings, duties and responsibilities behind and focus on the task of getting to know a new place for the first time (or in some cases revist old memories to see how they hold up). Coming back home, they descend like an out-of-control heavy stage curtain on the unsuspecting actors below. The glorious freedom of sipping a cafe con leche with an empty mind at an outdoor table under the bright sun in Buenos Aires is gone. Anti-dandruff shampoo becomes once again a daily necessity.

In Argentina, more than halfway south to Antarctica, the news of the world came from far away: Slaughter in Lebanon, a drunken Mel Gibson goes anti-Semitic, terrorists in London plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives. But when we got to Ezeizia International Airport I realized once again how small today's globe really is. A very short time after the arrests in London, policies were in place in all airports to ban liquids and gels from carryon luggage. We had to endure very long lines at the check-in counter, at the gateway to the departure lounges, and again in the lounge for our plane where hand luggage was examined thoroughly by pleasant women wearing plastic gloves. And a man passed a magic wand over our body to ferret out anything metalic that might be dangerous, like fingernail clippers and the like. There seemed to be enormous duplication of effort. In Atlanta, even though we were in transit, the process was repeated, our shoes once again x-rayed, out luggage once again pawed over. I did not feel safer. And I realized that, like checkpoints and searches that sprouted after the first airplane hijacking years ago, these procedures would stay in effect forever. No more bottled water carried on planes, no more lipstick applied before landing. I expect that soon anything powdery, and indeed all carryon luggage, including detective novels and iPods, will be banned by the authorities concerned about saving us from the dark side of terrorism.

This might be justified if a real threat existed. But according to the stories I am reading, the so-called terrorists in London, who had been watched for some time, had neither current passports nor plane tickets, and they had not yet put together workable explosives. The threat of liquid explosives on airplanes was mentioned in the 9/11 official report, but no security measures had been taken back then. And the one known instance of a liquid explosive being used was not as devastating as feared. So once again the lying regime of George Bush has manufactured a threat that did not exist, outside of disgruntled and speculative conversation, to terrorize the world into accepting their disastrous agenda of spreading capitalism and control around the globe. It makes me sick.

Have I mentioned that everywhere I went in Argentina and Chile people wanted to speak to us about their dislike of George Bush? Of course, my inadequate Spanish made it difficult to carry on the deep political discussion I wanted to have, but it was easily seen that the United States and Israel are today the leading candidates for Number 1 Pariah.

It was encouraging to me to learn that the new democracies of South America -- Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela -- are uniting, under the paternal gaze of Fidel, to oppose Bush's policies. Everywhere they are overcoming the tragic years of military rule in the late 20th century, when numerous US supported right-wing dictatorships, their soldiers trained in torture at the School of the Americas in Georgia, murdered their own people for supporting peace and social justice. This killing still goes on in U.S.-friendly Colombia. I believe, with left-thinking people everywhere, that the United States is now the greatest threat to world peace. Our democracy is strangling in the grip of an unscrupulous religious right-wing cabal in Washington which utilizes 1984 newspeak to numb the consciousness of many Americans. Veep Chaney is channeling Joseph McCarthy when he accuses the foes of that turncoat Joe Lieberman of aiding Al-Quaeda. Oh, what a tangled web they've woven!

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