Sunday, October 29, 2006

Woebegone Presidency

"Woebegone" is defined by a few online dictionaries as: " Affected with or marked by deep sorrow, grief, or wretchedness," and, " Of an inferior or deplorable condition." Is there any word or expression that better defines the state of the presidency in the United States?

Of coure, Lake Woebegon is also a fictitious town in Minnesota, the creation of Garrison Keillor, host of A Prairie Home Companion which is heard everywhere on public radio stations. Keillor is the Will Rodgers of the 21st century, an apolitical homespun humorist who makes us feel good about the America that still exists in the land of ideals. Or does he?

My friend Jane emailed me a copy of Keillor's syndicated column published earlier this month which begins: "I would not send my college kid off for a semester abroad if I were you. Last week, we suspended human rights in America, and what goes around comes around. Ixnay habeas corpus." Whoa! I had been taking Keillor for granted. This guy does not mince words. And if he does, he throws in some spicy seasoning to make our eyes water and our hearts burn.

Keillor, in yet another passionate column this month, describes the Military Commissions Act of 2006 as "legalizing torture and suspending habeas corpus and constructing a loose web of law by which you and I could be hung by our ankles in a meat locker for as long as somebody deems necessary." And in a third October column, Keillor celebrates Columbus Day by wondering who might win the title of the All-Time Worst President. "The Current Occupant...is contending with Pierce, Buchanan and Warren G. Harding," and adds, "he's had so much more to be worst with."
I propose that we change Columbus Day to Bush Day, a cautionary holiday, like Halloween, a day to meditate on the hazards of ambition. We could observe it by going through the basement and garage and throwing out stuff we don't want or need.

Also by not mortgaging the house to pay for a vacation, and not yelling at the neighbors, and not assuming that the law is for other people. A day to honor kindness, industriousness and modesty.
Certainly not everyone likes Keillor. A writer in the National Review once called him a "horrid left-liberal scold, dripping with contempt for nearly everything Middle American." Why is it that the Right can't take a joke? They have their comedians -- Rush Limbaugh, Donald Rumsfied, and Ann Coulter -- and we have ours -- Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, Al Franken, etc., and I'll match our blue team against their red one any day.

But Keillor, like Stewart, is not just a comedian, no matter how much they pretend otherwise. Both speak truth to power. The It's-OK-to-Torture bill was supported by 65 senators. None of them, Keillor writes, "has any right to speak in public about the rule of law anymore, or to take a high moral view of the Third Reich, or to wax poetic about the American Ideal. Mark their names." A couple, he noted, made a show of opposing the bill but voted for it anyway because they believed the court will throw it out.
If, however, the court does not, then our country has taken a step toward totalitarianism. If the government can round up someone and never be required to explain why, then it's no longer the United States as you and I always understood it. Our enemies have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They have made us become like them.
Many of you have seen the passionate critique of this horrendous bill by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. If I could figure out how to include video in my blog, I would put it here. In the meantime, if you click here, you can find Olbermann on truthout.org.

But, as Keiller reminds us, "Maybe we've been too lenient with enemies of the state. A period of stark repression might be a rich and rewarding experience for all of us." Perhaps Cheney and Bush will decide in a couple of years that giving up power will be tantamount to cutting and running in the face of global terrorism, and they'll cancel the next presidential election. Anything is possible.

Needless to say, VOTE on Nov. 7 for political representatives and senators who will save us from this insanity.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Porn With a Heart


Sofia has a problem. She's a sex therapist and she's never had an orgasm. But her husband Rob doesn't know this because she's been faking it. But one thing actress Sook-Yin Lee doesn't fake with Santa Cruz local Raphael Barker, who plays her husband Rob, is sex. John Cameron Mitchell's new film "Shortbus" opens with a very energetic and unsimulated sexcapade between the two which includes fucking on a piano keyboard to an atonal accompaniment. And that's not all. Another actor, Paul Dawson, who plays the gay lover of a man with the same name, James, is shown in an autofellatio yoga position that includes an orgasm. Mitchell, the director of the delightful transgendered musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," has dropped a WMD into the Cultural Wars, obliterating the boundary between entertainment and pornography.

"Shortbus" is no doubt the most sexually explicit film to ever play art-house theaters (you won't see this movie in Nebraska's multiplexes). The critics have had a field day. Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone that if there is "such a thing as hard-core with a soft heart, this is it." The Boston Globe's reviewer, Ty Burr, wrote, "'Shortbus' is a very dirty movie that can make you feel oddly clean." Jim Ridley in the Village Voice: “It's a triple-X midnight movie with a heart of squarest gold." Even the New York Times' writer Manohla Dargis wrote that the "carnal interludes in 'Shortbus' are integrated into the narrative, much as the singing and dancing are in “Oklahoma!" Newsweek's critic David Answen wrote that Mitchell’s methods, style and tone are the opposite of the pornographer’s. Titillation is not the point, nor is shock. Mitchell’s more radical agenda is to normalize the outrĂ©, to beguile us through his comedy of sexual manners into seeing sex as just another expression of character, as worthy of cinematic exploration as an itch to maim, murder or bake a cake. His movie is a celebration and demonstration of outsider Eros."

"Shortbus" isn't the first mainstream film recently to show real sex, but it's the most good natured. The others are troubled, murky or violent, and most come from abroad. Think of Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" or Gaspar Noe's "I Stand Alone" and "Irreversible." Other foreign films unrated or given the NC-17 commercial kiss-of-death rating include almost everything by Catherine Breillat, Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 shocker “In the Realm of the Senses,” Patrice Chereau’s "Intimacy" and Jang Sun Woo’s "Lies." In this country, only Larry Clark's so-far unreleased "Ken Park" and Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" (With Chloe Sevigny giving a blow job) have depicted unsimulated sex. All of these directors attempt in one way or another to make no-holds-barred sex an integral element for their plot.

The real pioneer, of course, was Gerard Damiano who wrote and directed "Deep Throat" in 1972, the first porn film to make viewers laugh as well as turn them on ("Do you mind if I smoke while you eat," Linda Lovelace famously asked her partner, Harry Reems), and it attracted a mass audience and an unheard of box office of $600 million which reportedly went into Mafia pockets. The Seventies was the heyday of porn films: "Behind the Green Door" (1972)with Marilyn Chambers, the Ivory Snow cover girl, still going strong in her mid-50s; Damiano's followup, "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973), with Georgina Spelvin; the softcore "Emmanuelle" series which began in 1974 with Sylvia Kristel; and in 1978, and "Debbie Does Dallas" with Bambi Woods in the title roll. Both "Deep Throat" and "Debbie Does Dallas" have been the subjects of recent documentaries which chart the tragic lives of their lead actresses, as well as trumpet the significance of porn films in the sexual revolution of the 20th century.

Only the deaf, dumb and blind would not know that porn, or what has been come to be called "adult entertainment," from hardcore to soft, is everywhere in 21st century America. Four years ago, in a six-part series on "American Porn" by PBS program Frontline, it was claimed that pornography generated $10-14 billion (and maybe even more; figures from this secretive industry are illusive) a year in revenue. Sex is everywhere, on the internet, in movie theaters and on DVDs, on cable television, and in old standby print media like Playboy and Hustler. Parents trying to shield their children from disturbing information and images, and social conservatives trying to preserve an innocent Pollyanna culture against an onslaught of polymorphous perversity, do not have an easy time of it. The "Frontline" series was criticized on Violent Blue's Tiny Nibbles, one of a growing number of online erotic blogs:
Virtually every stereotypical notion about the adult industry was catered to in segments that represent only the tiniest slices of the genre. Instead of digging beneath the surface of the mainstream porn market to interview the people there (and incidentally where the money's really being moved around), Frontline focused on the fringes of extreme porn, depicting pornography as a horrid, hundred-faced hydra of exploitation. Considering our culture's internal struggle to reconcile sexuality with ingrained Puritanical values, portraying porn in a shocking and lurid manner is like shooting fish in a barrel, and this material did exactly that.
Is it possible that porn can have a heart? Must sex outside of the marriage bed always be sleazy, tacky and not very nice? What can the old and the unattractive do for sexual enjoyment?

I have had a long love affair with porn. When I was 16, a friend visiting Europe for the summer brought back illegal copies of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn for me. I read D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover right after the censors had lifted their ban, and I enjoyed James Joyce's hymn to Molly Bloom's orgasm in Ulysses, another banned masterpiece. I loved Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita and the two films made of it, and I also remember the pleasure of reading Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, Terry Southern's Candy and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, books that would have been censored by an earlier age. More recent authors who have stimulated me include Anais Nin, Kathy Acker, and Barbara Kingsolver who wrote the very sexy Prodigal Summer.

It's certainly true that much of the commercial porn on the internet is sleazy and downright icky. Models (in lesbian and in heterosexual sites which are aimed primarily at men) are shaved (wherever did this absurd practice come from?), overly made up, and frozen in stock, often comic, poses. Abby Winters, a lesbian photographer and videographer in Australia, has cleaned up the genre with her almost wholesome site, AbbyWinters.com The participants appear to be real people rather than bad actresses. There seems to be an erotic revolution occurring down under, and spinoffs from Abby's site include Beautiful Agony, I Shot Myself, I Feel Myself, and the tawdry, but not entirely disrespectful, imitation, Girls Out West. An American version of organic natural porn is Hippie Goddess.

But there are many internet alternatives to commercial porn, and this is what is hidden when attention is focused on the violent, disrespectful and tasteless extreme porno. Some people think the success of the videotape/DVD home market, and later the internet itself, was due to the sexual content; no sex, no home video or information highway. Technological progress is driven by the profit motive. But once the technology is put in place, people find uses for it never envisioned by the entrepreneurs. Who could have foreseen the popularity of chat rooms, perhaps the single reason for AOL's early success? Many if not most were virtual versions of singles bars where people could talk about sex and engage in cyber sex without the normal visual or moral restraints. Now there are chat rooms and groups everywhere on the net, from Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to Google and Yahoo. Personals ads, popular in print media, found a natural home on the internet and spread quickly. They range now from the establishment Match.com to the sexual suggestive AdultFriendFinder.com, with many variations in-between. These of course cost money. In many cities, Craig's List offers for free the possibility of both friendly and erotic connections. The internet is a cornucopia for both exhibitionists and voyeurs, and every shade in-between, and much of it is outside the marketplace. Erotic bloggers confess their desires and experiences, complete with self photography, for all to read and see. Sites like Sugasm.com link these bloggers together into a community and publish "best of" lists regularly. In the chat rooms and on the erotic blogs, every kind of sexual desire, attraction and fetish is on display. I'm sure that even Freud, when he wrote about polymorphous perversity, had no idea of the infinite permutations of sexual pleasure that could be achieved with the human body. And they're all on display on the net, much of it for free.

Public sex is a horror to the socially conservative as well as to religious leaders who are certain that secularism and sexuality lead inevitably to the Apocalypse. The barbarians are not only at the gates, they are crawling inside and into our bedrooms. These are the same people who hold up the Nuclear Family as the only viable container for sex. Equally outside the pale to them are same sex families, single-parent families, and polyamorous families of threesomes and foursomes (and more). They have little concern for the single men and women living alone, too old or perhaps too unattractive to develop a permanent relationship with someone else. What are they to do?

Charles Fourier, the eccentric 19th century utopian social theorist, addressed just this problem in his writings, notably Le Nouveau monde amoureux (The New Amorous World) which was not published until more than a hundred years after his death. In his imaginary utopia, Harmony, Fourier believed every mature man and woman should be guaranteed a satisfying minimum of sexual pleasure. In Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World, John Beecher writes that the "essential point which Fourier never tired of repeating, was that as long as the basic sexual needs went unsatisfied, the true richness of the erotic impulse could not find expression." For the elderly, the poor, the "perverts," all whom civilization denied sexual gratification, Fourier proposed a form of "sexual philanthropy" in which some classes of workers bestowed sexual favors on those left out. There would be an "amorous nobility" in Harmony whose main responsibility "would be the providing of sexual gratification to all those whom age or physical deformity would have condemned to loneliness in civilization." Remember, for Freud, it was Civilization that decreed an end to natural polymorphous perversity.

While Fourier's ideas, bizarre even for his times, were never fully put into effect (only in America were communities inspired by him established, but his sexual theories were unknown), his thoughts about women and sexual minorities were particularly progressive. According to Beecher, "Fourier's ultimate goal was the liberation of all sexual minorities, so long as their activities did not involve the use or abuse of people against their will." An admirable goal, even today. And he believed, in the early 1800s, "the emancipation of women was the key to social progress in all other spheres." An end to traditional ideas about marriage, and the approval of polygamous relationships, would, Fourier believed "put an end to the hypocrisy about sex so rampant in civilization."

I bring in Fourier here because I think he was right that human beings need a "sexual minimum" of pleasure in their lives. While he had little to say about romance, his proposal for "sexual philanthropy" has much to recommend it. In the absence of a group of sex workers willing to service the elderly and the odd, the proliferation of pornography discussed above fills that gap. Rather than condemn it as an aberration, we should support it for its useful social purpose.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Secrets

Reflection for today's communion service on readings from Ephesians 1:11-14 and Luke 12:1-7:


How many of us want to have our hidden secrets revealed to the world?

I’m not talking about the people who confess their innermost secrets on television tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer and Oprah, the ones who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. I’m speaking about the rest of us who have something to hide that we don’t want other people to know about. The psychologist Jung called this our shadow side, and he said that most of us cover it up as best we can.

Sometimes we pretend that things are otherwise, that we are happy and at peace with the world, when inside we are frightened and insecure. Or we criticize others for not living up to the values they profess in order to hide the fact that we have failed. This is especially sad when it is revealed that preachers and members of Congress advocate moral values that they themselves cannot follow. Surely this is the hypocrisy, the leaven of the Parisees, that Jesus warns against in the synoptic Gospels.

Jesus tells us today that there is “nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” This follows from the fact that nothing escapes the notice of God who even counts the hairs on our head, over 100,000 of them. (Did you know that? Blondes have more and redheads less. You can find out everything from Google these days!)

This news, about the omniscience of God, can be both wonderful and scary. Each of us, in the depth of our hearts, wants to be known as we are and accepted for whom we are. This is the essence of love. And to be known and cared for by God, the master of the universe, is the pinnacle of love. In the light of God’s love there are no shadows. Perfect love casts out all fear.

But the all-seeing eye of God can also be a fearsome thing. There are some secrets too terrible to stand the light of day.

A couple of nights ago I was in Boston visiting my son Luke, and he took me to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was held in the cafeteria of a psychiatric hospital and there were men and women of all ages and, judging by their appearance, from all social classes. But all were alike with their secret, an addiction to alcohol or drugs, and sometimes both, that had nearly destroyed their lives.

The stories they told, of families broken up and jobs lost, were heart breaking. Addicts lie, again and again, to their families, their friends, and to their employers. The turning point for many is when they realize that only a Power greater than themselves can help them withstand the seduction of addiction. When they realize, in other words, that God knows the truth about them and yet still cares for them, for every hair on their head.

My son has been struggling with his addictions for many years. He has an acute sense that he has failed in life, and no amount of assurance from me seems to relieve his guilt. He knows that AA might be his last hope, but he resists becoming fully involved in the program. At the meeting we attended, I heard the speaker tell of achieving a “moment of peace” that revealed to him the presence of a Higher Power. And this presence helped keep him on the road to sobriety.

I pray that my son will find that peace that passes understanding, and that he will realize that God loves and cares for him despite the terrible secrets he carries within, secrets that only become bearable for him with alcohol. In the light of Christ’s love, all is forgiven and we can live without fear.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

One Day at a Time


On Monday, Luke and I drove up the New England coast, from Gloucester on Cape Ann above Boston, along New Hampshire's brief shoreline, to Kennebunkport in Maine. It was my son's 39th birthday, and I joked with him that, like comedian Jack Benny, he could now stay 39 forever. But Luke does not want to stay where he is.

"I'm Luke, alcoholic." Last night, my son took me to an Alcoholics Anonymous "newcomers" meeting in the cafeteria at McLean Hospital in Belmont, a suburb of Boston. It was the location for Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl Interrupted, the story of her two-year treatment for borderline personality disorder after a suicide attempt when she was 18. It was made into a film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. Luke has a DVD of the film and it's one of the reasons he is now in Massachusetts, on disability and in treatment at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in for psychological problems and alcoholism. At the meeting a number of people told heartbreaking stories of lives almost but not quite destroyed by alcohol and drug addictions. There were people newly graduated from McLean and patients on temporary leave with tell-tale blue bracelets on their wrists.

In the afternoon, we met with Luke's therapist, Erin, after negotiating the labyrinthine corridors of St. Elizabeth's to find her office in the outpatient psychiatric clinic. I found her to be understanding, sympathic and blunt as she explained to me the services available to Luke. The challenge is for Luke to stop drinking and abusing prescription medication, which he does to numb the pain of anxiety and depression, and instead let the doctors and support groups take over. He has been diagnosed with a bewildering variety of psychological conditions -- bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, hypomania -- and takes dozens of pills every day. But despite treatment, he "slips" frequently, cuts himself, and has been hospitalized three times since April. Last year he suffered a number of seizures. Getting the medication right is difficult; on our trip he was jittery, his muscles tight, and he had difficulty speaking and seeing. This was not caused by alcohol, however, but from the wrong mix of drugs. Erin scolded Luke for not calling his psychiatrist and getting the prescription adjusted.

At the AA meeting, a woman sitting at our table told the gathering how she had been prescribed codeine for pain after an operation, and how when the pain passed she worried about the unused tablets sitting in her medicine cabinet. They were a temptation for her. And I realized that I, too, was an addict, for not that many months ago I was given codeine after a tooth extraction, and long after they were needed for pain I continued to take the remaining pills to relax. Codeine is a definite temptation for me.

For a little while, Luke was able to get out of his uncomfortable skin and enjoy the autumn scenery with me. Winter is on the way but it has been mostly warm and sunny this visit. We took the back roads from Gloucester up to the New Hampshire border. Displays of pumpkins and scarecrows competed for space with signs for political candidates; the upcoming election has been much in evidence. In Vermont I thought Marie Osmond's brother Donny was running for a state office, but it turned out to be Donny Osman, no relation. Crossing over into New Hampshire was a revelation. U.S. Highway One was lined with strip malls, fast food franchises, outlets and brand name shops. Perhaps the lack of a sales tax makes it a prime shopping area for south of the border residents. Unfortunately, it seemed tacky. Mostly landlocked, the state was making the most of its tiny seashore.


Yesterday afternoon we drove over to Cambridge and explored the campus and Harvard Square. In the Old Yard, a ride-on mower was sucking up leaves as soon as they fell. Tourists were taking pictures in front of the founder’s statue and his foot was rubbed to a golden shine by visitors wishing for good luck. We peeked inside Memorial Hall to see the baroque dining facilities for students and the stained glass. And we browsed the bookshelves in the Harvard Co-Op and looked over CDs on sale at Tower Records which is going out of business. The square was full of beggars and buskers under cloudy skies.

In a little while I leave this home away from home and head for Logan to catch my flight back to San Francisco. Hotels are discovering innovative ways to cut costs. For example, this one provides no maid service for stays of less than four days. So my residence is showing a bit of wear and tear. A TV set dominates the room, and I have once again been able to experience the banality of American television. All those channels and nothing worth watching. Fox News is a scandal and CNN is little better; both present idiotic variations of "Entertainment Tonight" with celebrities indistinguishable from politicians. No wonder Americans are the most ill-informed nation on earth, and consequently vote for mentally challenged politicians.

I have enjoyed my journey through New England, and even managed to see a corner of Maine for the first time. All of the cliches are true. If you get off the interstates and onto the back roads, New England is a panorama of rolling hills and small towns with charming two-storey houses clustered around tall church steeples. The range of colors in the autumn leaves constantly delighted me, and I will remember them for a long time in my winter dreams.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hanging with the Leaf Peepers


Fall foliage is big business in New England. The roads are full of tour buses and cars with out of state plates, the hotels are booked in advance as I found out when I tried to get a room in one where the parking lot was empty, and tiny towns with church steeples rising above orange trees are packed with visitors. "How's the color?" and "Has it peaked yet?" can be heard on every side. The leaf peepers are in season.

The dominant color is orange, and even where pine trees keep the forest green you can find a speck of orange in the ubiquitous pumpkin. They're everywhere, in the fields, on house porches and in stores, along with what appear to be scarecrows. New Englanders like to make fall tableaus to illustrate the season not unlike the Christmas creches on lawns in December. They also decorate their houses with ghosts and bats and cobwebs. Halloween is a major event in this region where everything will soon shut down after the snow season begins.

Not everyone likes the leaves. My friend Jim in Bristol, VT, surveyed the acre of lawn and trees in his backyard and calculated the work it would take to remove the fallen and soon-to-fall leaves before snow covered the ground. Leaves kill grass and so would have to go. He tried mulching them with his ride-on lawn mower but was displeased with the effect. So we raked up several piles and filed the bed of his truck with them. The next morning we desposited the leaves at the nearby city dump. It seemed like an endless job, an illustration of eternity.

In southern New Hampshire, the fall foliage color has been spoiled by a leaf blight affecting mostly Norway maple trees. Instead of turning red, the leaves fade to yellow with an ugly black spot in the middle. In the north, up near Burlington, Vermont, the leaves in places have peaked, leaving hillsides of bare branches waiting for their covering of snow. I passed numerous ski resorts, still deserted, and at Mad River there was a sign saying "Pray for Snow." In some regions through which I traveled, fields of pine trees held the green in place, punctuating the splashes of deciduous oranges and reds. Looking for the perfect photograph is dangerous business. I kept my Nikon at the ready on the seat beside me and frequently pulled over to the side of the road when I spied a fabulous vista. But all too often I found the view obscured by wires and poles. Capturing this annual transformation is hard work.

Yes, I've joined the tribe of leaf peepers. A number of us, mostly white-haired, stood in the lobby at Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury as we waited for the tour to begin (every ten minutes). You can't look at leaves all of the time. And Ben & Jerry's is an icon for baby boomers who now have the leisure time to look for their roots. The lobby was filled with self promotion and sourvenirs. Two Jewish nerds from New York come to Vermont in the 1970s and make such good ice cream that it goes global. And they do it by promoting social and political causes with every pint. They name their first unique blend after Jerry Garcia. Could anything be more cool?

But Ben & Jerry sold out. "They've gone to do their own thing," the tour guide told us, over free samples of apple pie ice cream, complete with bits of apple and pie crust embedded in the vanilla. What isn't mentioned in the literature is that B&J is part of the Unilever family of products, which includes Best Foods mayonnaise, Coleman's mustard, Lipton tea, Dove soap and Pepsodent dental products. It is the world's largest manufacturer of ice cream under a variety of different brand names. How can you be socially conscious when you're an integral part of global capitalism's reign of terror?

Besides Cherry Garcia, my favorite flavor these days is Phish. I didn't buy a tie-dyed tee shirt, however.

For my last day in Vermont, Jim and Linda took me to Shelburne Museum south of Burlington which features over 40 acres of exhibits in a multitude of facilities including a fully-restored Lake Champlain steam ship, the Ticonderoga, now in drydock on the landscaped grounds. Many of the antiques and folk arts on display were assembled by the eccentric collector, Electra Webb. I saw old toys and a variety of weather vanes. A docent explained the the history of the Ticonderoga and how it operated, and another made objects in a blacksmith shop that had been moved piece by piece to the grounds of the museum. There was also a visiting exhibition of paintings by Georgia O'Keefe that was attracting the biggest crowds.

On the way back to Bristol, we stopped in Charlotte and took a brief trip on a Lake Champlain ferry to visit New York state across the lake. This was the shortest and most southerly ferry route, but it operates all year round. The passenger compartment contained photos of a ferry navigating through ice to keep the states connected. As we neared the village of Essex, now mostly closed for winter, dark clouds headed eastward from the Adirondacks. Rain was on the way.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

On the Interstate

Traveling was simpler when Jack Kerouac and his pal Neal Cassidy set off after World War II to see America, a trip memorialized in On the Road. In the novel, Cassidy as Dean says "we gotto go and never stop going until we get there." And Kerouac as Sal asks "where we going, man?" "I don't know," Sal tells him, "but we gotta go." And they head across America in a beat up car, meeting hipsters and digging the sights. Kerouac's testament continues to motivate and inspire:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace things, but burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "AWWW!"
The other day, on this mad, crazy dash across New England, I tried to find Kerouac's grave in Lowell. But off the interstate, I got lost in a tangle of city streets and failed to find the Edson Cemetery on Gorham Street. I needed Dean Moriarty by my side as co-pilot helping to navigate the path to the past. Rest easy, Sal.

My intentions were good. Setting out in a rented Chevy Malibu with more technological bells and whistles than I could understand, I stayed off the interstate yesterday morning and headed north into the autumnal wilds of New Hampshire in search of the perfect cappuccino and a free wireless for my laptop. The day was overcast and rain was promised, so the fabled leaves on the rolling forest trees around me were less than vivid. Still, the procession of small towns and the antique barns in between, not to mention the charm of Halloween decorations along the way, made the relatively slow journey enjoyable. On the road I began to see "Moose Crossing" signs, and at a rest stop I found a workman touching up the paint on the statue of a moose. Moose country!

A connoisseur of college towns, my first stop was Hanover, home of Dartmouth. I quickly got lost in a maze of tiny streets wrapped around a corner of the campus. After several hours of driving, I was in need of a pit stop, which I soon found in the Collis student center where the cluttered tables and ever-present laptops reminded me of Lulu's back home. Refreshed and renewed, I went into the Dirt Cowboy Cafe where the wireless was not functioning and the cappuccino was less than excellent. Back on the street I found that this portion of Hanover (was there any other?) was glitzy shops past which walked men in suits and dressed up ladies. A few penniless students in patched jeans could be seen, but the whole atmosphere was upscale. Where were the homeless? I'm sure Dean and Sal would have been appalled, so I split.

Since the day was advancing and I had places to go, I got on the interstate and headed into Vermont.
What's your road, man?—holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. (Dean in On the Road)
This was not just any old interstate. It was 89 and it wound like a snake through the midsection of the state, accompanied on my AAA map by a dotted line, which meant that the scenery would be beautiful. Now if only the clouds would lift and the sun would come out to illuminate the leaves.

Besides looking for a cheap motel, my goal for the afternoon was to revisit Goddard College. In 1970, when I was working for Atlantic Records, I attended the Alternative Media Conference there, a gathering of underground newspaper and radio personnel, as well as countercultural spokespersons like Baba Ram Dass, Michael Rossman, Wavy Gravy with his Hog Farm, and musicians such as Dr. John the Night tripper and the J. Geils Band. On the last day of the conference, the punch in the dining hall was spiked with acid and I barely remember a glorious trip into the countryside where I swam naked in a stream with rock writers Richard and Lisa Robinson, a lady who later did the PR for Woodstock, and Lenny Kaye, who not long after became the guitarist for Patti Smith. I found Goddard but the place looked empty and rundown. I learned their undergraduate program had been disbanded four years ago, and now they apparently only have a few graduate programs and the facilities are used for conferences. But the memories of that wild moment 36 years ago refused to reactivate during my brief stop.
Something, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be replaced (though we hate to admit it) in death. (Sal in On the Road)
Disappointed by two college towns, I pressed on in search of the perfect motel, cheap and providing wireless and HBO. Montpelier seemed perfect. Situated in a valley in the Worcester Mountains and alongside the Winooski River, the gold dome of the capital beckoned invitingly. But the Capital Plaza Hotel downtown was filled up, and the Comfort Inn on a hill out of town was sold out. I pushed the pedal to the floor and roared down the interstate toward South Burlington and the promise of motel paradise, according to the Triple A Tourist Guide. I passed up a free tour of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury. But the next two motels were also full, and when I pointed to the empty parking lot, the clerk said simply "tour bus," and I immediately imagined a big bus filled with senior citizens on their own version of Kerouac's journey.

I finally found a motel in Shelburne, south of Burlington along Lake Champlain. It's a grossly overpriced Travelodge with no HBO, two broken lights, but a strong wireless signal. Turning on the TV, I learned that another plane had flown into a building in New York City, but this time it was piloted by a pitcher for the New York Yankees trying without success to fly home to Florida. Across the street I soothed my sorrows with a local beer and a rib eye steak. This search for redemption in 21st century America is hard work.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear?

The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found. I think of Dean Moriarty. (Sal in On the Road)
Today I'll tour Burlington and environs, rain or no rain, and I'll think of old Jack.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Memories of Monadnock


Today I drove around Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire while revisiting my past. Nearly thirty years ago I came here for the first time to stay with Steve Avery who was living in Dublin and selling ads for Yankee Magazine which is published there. One evening we drove to the Mount Monadnock Inn for an evening of fine food, good wine and songs around the piano. The next day we climbed up to the top of the mountain where you can see six states from the summit. The wind was blowing hard that day but the view was stupendous.

Indian summer is on way out and a cold front is headed toward New England. Today was cloudy and the reds, oranges, golds and yellows of the leaves were muted. I drove through Dublin and found the house were Steve had lived. He died two years ago of a heart attack while campaigning for reelection as the state representative for this region. A mutual friend sent me a clipping. Steve, one of the most sociable guys I've ever met, was at a barbecue, no doubt pumping hands and asking for votes. He was wall eyed and had a slight speech impediment, but he was the raconteur par excellence, and could mesmerize a room with his enthusiasm. We never talked politics, for Steve was a conservative Republican. His father had been the press officer for the National Association of Manufacturers, a bulldog for corporate capitalism.

Steve and I met in the early 1960s when he ran a coffee house called The Cat's Pajamas in Arcadia, California. It was the heyday of folk music and I recall that Jim Kweskin played there before he formed his infamous jug band. David Lindley, just out of high school, played at the Cat's with his group, the Mad Mountain Ramblers. Steve needed a place to live and we had an extra room in our rambling house in Sierra Madre Canyon so he came to be my roomate. After a few months he moved back east, where he'd grown up in Port Chester, New York, and went to hotel school at Cornell. When I moved to the Big Apple in 1962 he was my only friend and we got together frequently. And when I returned to the states from London in 1964 he was working at Rutgers and I stayed with him in Cherry Hill, NJ. Not long after that he gave up food for advertising and moved his family to a large house in Dublin. The last time I saw Steve was when I was living in Connecticut in 1982; he came with his daughter to visit us after my youngest son was born.

So Steve was much on my mind as I drove down highway 101 through Dublin, past his old house, and then south to Monadnock. His marriage ended, and his two daughters grew up and away, and not long before his death he remarried, but I never had the opportunity to meet her. My plans to visit Steve six years ago were incomplete at the time of my own breakup. We never talked again.

I couldn't find the Mount Manodnock Inn, but I traveled as far as Jaffrey where I saw dozen of scarecrows along the side of the road. Obviously there was a contest for the most creative, or the scariest. In Madison and in Sonoma (and I heard Boston is doing it as well) there are cows, dozens of cows decorated by artists (you can see pictures if you scroll back a couple of months). I've learned that Keene, New Hampshire, is the pumpkin capital of the world. A week before Halloween there will be upwards of 30,000 carved and lit pumpkins surrounding the town square.

Even without the sun, southern New Hampshire is beautiful. I drove within sight of Monadnock for miles, through Marlborough and up to Keene, my destination for the evening. Here I am staying with Adriana and her husband Bruce and their three kids, Morgan, Elias and Cora. I've known Adri since she was four. She was the daughter of Diana and her husband Peter, my oldest friend. Adri and I sat around Peter's bed as he was dying of prostate cancer several years ago. This afternoon we walked to the nearby Waldorf School and she showed me around the old building after we met her children. I met the "hand work" (art) teacher, and the wood shop instructor who presides over a paradise of tools, projects and wood smells. The Waldorf method sounds incredibly creative and I wanted to be back in school again. They have a wonderful life in this small New England town, and dinner included corn from the farmer's market and wild mushrooms gathered by a friend.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

At Walden Pond


Today is Columbus Day, and, while elsewhere Native Americans are mourning this date as the beginning of the genocide of their people, at Walden Pond the beaches and pathways were thronged with tourists celebrating the holiday by communing with Thoreau's nature.

I am in New England to visit my son Luke, to see other friends in New Hampshire and Vermont, and to watch the leaves change color. That won't be easy because the East is in the grip of a heat wave. I packed for cool days and frosty nights, and today the temperature was in the mid 70's, requiring a bathing suit or at least shorts.

Luke is living in Waltham on the outskirts of Boston. Heidi's restaurant where we had breakfast was packed, with prices half what you'd pay at Denny's in Santa Cruz. Many of the customers were Latinos, and walking our meal off along Moody Street I saw shops and restaurants catering to Indians, Thais, Mexicans, El Salvadoreans and Guatemalans. A Spanish language newspaper is published here. We crossed the Charles River which flows down to Cambridge and Boston and along the river before heading back.

While Luke was doing his laundry, I drove over rolling hills and along leafy streets lined with rock walls to Concord and Walden Pond. This was ground zero of the American Revolution. I pictured a tiny body of water and no people. What I got was a large lake surrounded by a state park and crowds filled with hikers, picnickers, runners, families with crying kids, and people speaking a babble of languages. There was a Greek man selling ice cream from a truck (most of the popular choices were sold out) and bathers were sunning on sandy beaches and splashing in the water.

I made the pilgrimage to the site where Thoreau built his cabin. Nothing is left but a memorial, and, beside a sign with a quote from his writing, a pile of rocks. The custom, apparently, is to leave a rock behind and thousands have complied. The view from the cabin site is mostly obscured by trees now (there was more logging in Thoreau's day, and he could see a train across the pond).

Tomorrow I head north, to Keene in southern New Hampshire. On the way I plan to visit Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Big C

Is there an easy time to introduce cancer into the conversation?

I've been living with prostate cancer for over five years. It's a part of my body now, something like an unwanted wart or the nobbly fingers sculpted by arthritis that work but with less elegance and grace than before.

"What are you going to do about it?" I've been asked by my friends as well as physicians. And when I tell them "nothing," they shake their heads more in bewilderment at my madness than in sympathy.

We live in a fix-it culture. If there is a problem, solve it. If something is broken, repair it. There are two solutions for cancer: cut it out or poison it. Get it out of my body, and/or kill it, NOW.

But the "it" is a part of my body, a few cells that have got their signals crossed, that reproduce erratically and unendingly, the cutoff switched bypassed or forgotten. The mass, the tumor, the shadow on the x-ray, is The Blob that will grow like topsy until it kills its host, me. Many (most?) cancers are fatal. It is a sign that my body is killing itself, committing suicide, without involving my head. How very strange!

Life, of course, is a terminal disease. No one here gets out alive (to quote my friend Jerry's book on The Doors). Who are we to wish it were otherwise?

My diagnosis came at a very difficult time in my life. I was trying to write a phd dissertation and my marriage was falling apart, not exactly in that order. The recommended treatment, surgery or irradiated seeds, was not convenient. It's hard to make these decisions while living in a borrowed room. In the first flush of discovery, I researched prostate cancer as if it were an academic conundrum. I attended a support group and met a sad man whose prostate had been removed, with all the attendant complications and a long healing process, but whose cancer had spread nonetheless. All that work and no reward. The common side effects of conventional treatment are scary: incontinency and impotency. The later I certainly did not need as I embarked on a new life as a single man. I learned that most men develop prostate cancer in their later years, and most of them die from other causes. But in some cases it spreads out of control. Timothy Leary, Frank Zappa, and my dear friend Peter Troxell died from it.

At that moment, not long into the diagnosis, help came in the form of an invitation from Dean Ornish to join his clinical study of prostate cancer. Ornish, who discovered that exercise and nutrition will cure heart disease (and wrote a number of best-selling books about his methods), was applying his ideas to prostate cancer (and by extension hopefully to breast cancer because the pathology is similar). For several years I followed a non-fat vegan diet, meditated and did yoga for at least an hour a day, exercised aerobically for three hours a week and attended a weekly support group meeting in Sausalito where, in addition to conversation and exercise, we were fed gourmet vegan meals and given more food and vitamins as well to take home with us. At the end of the study, Ornish determined that the PSA (blood test to determine the degree of cancer) of those adhering to the research guidelines did not rise as rapidly as that of those in the control group who did not follow the protocol. But the difference was not nearly so dramatic as in the more successful heart study.

Ornish's funding for a longer study eventually ran out and he turned his attention to advising giant food corporations on how to jump on the organic bandwagon. I found the weekly commute to Sausalito too demanding and the siren call of meat too irresistible. Did the diet and the exercise and the support slow the growth of my cancer? I really don't know. Ornish was careful to pick study participants with low PSAs. Mine was in the 6's; when Peter was diagnosed, his was in the 100's. Now, five years later, my PSA is slightly above 12. How does that correlate with tumor growth? Even the scientists and the urologists are not sure. Why do some cancers grow rapidly and others take their time? No certainty on that one either.

What is certain is that we will all die at some time. What merit is there in fighting it, now or later? In stories, the dead are usually given high marks for their valiant struggle against the dread disease, as if they are in competition, the cancer or me. But the cancer IS me. And failing to except that means we are fatally divided. Far better, I think, to embrace all parts of ourselves, the good with the bad (kind of like in an ideal marriage). Surely we've learned by now that healing is not always a cure.

My feeble religious faith, with insights from Christian, Buddhist and Hindu teachings, tells me that death is not the final answer. The universe is not random and meaningless. Whether something of me will continue or will merge with the whole I do not know. Jesus said over and over: "Be not afraid." And yet it is often Christians who are most fearful of death. The sign that we hear his Gospel and follow it should be not only that we love one another (and our enemies as well) but that we face death unafraid. Anything less is a travesty.

For myself, I've decided to let my body take its course. I joke that if I discover my cancer has decided to speed up and race to the finish, I will retire to a beach on an island in south Asia, with all necessary drugs to ease my pain and discomfort, and a young housekeeper to keep the flies away. Like the old elephant who leaves the herd on a journey to the dying ground, the Shangri-La of ivory tusks, I prefer to spare my family and friends the vision of a death scene. I want them to remember me not as a medicalized patient grasping at life but as the stubborn, cantankerous old fart that I am.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Prophet of Nonviolence

Communion Reflection for The Feast of St. Francis

Yesterday was the 780th anniversary of the death of Francis of Assisi, and today we celebrate not only his feast day but also the beginning of a day of prayer for peace in this chapel. The day will end with an interfaith prayer service at 6:30 this evening, and the reading of passages of Scripture from the Jewish, Islamic and Christian traditions. We will be united under the Tent of Abraham the Patriarch who is reverenced by all three religions.

Of all the saints, none exemplifies radical discipleship more than Francis. When Jesus tells his followers, in the Gospel reading for today, that they will have nowhere to rest their head, we think of Francis sleeping in caves and in open meadows. And when Jesus tells his disciples to forget about their families and the past, we remember Francis renouncing his inheritance in the main square of Assisi and walking away naked. He went through the streets shouting “Pace e Bene!” meaning “peace and goodness to you!” and he was dismissed at first as a crazy fool.

Last summer I stood in that square and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the young son of a wealthy merchant to give up his privileges in order to follow the path of Christ and proclaim the Kingdom of God. The Jesuit peace activist John Dear has summed up this radical transformation by writing that “Francis embodies the Gospel journey from violence to nonviolence…cruelty to compassion, vengeance to forgiveness, revenge to reconciliation, war to peace, killing enemies to loving enemies. More than any other Christian, he epitomizes discipleship to Jesus. His witness continues to shine throughout the world.”

I want to say that Francis lived a life of prayer, poverty, penance, preaching and peace. It is the later quality that I want to speak of this morning, and in particular the role of Francis as prophet of nonviolence and a peacemaker through inter-religious dialogue.

Two years after his death at the age of 44, Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX who himself laid the foundation stone for the great new basilica in Assisi dedicated to the memory of the saint. In the old chapter hall of the Basilica, which dates from that same year, I was able to see relics that included the patched tunic worn by Francis, a pair of his sandals, and a small ivory horn that had been given to him during his journey to Egypt. It is said that Francis called his followers together with that horn, just as it had been used in Egypt to call the faithful to prayer.

The early years of the 13th century were a time of political turmoil and violence throughout Europe and the Middle East. Visiting Tuscany and Umbria, I was struck by the number of towns and cities built on top of hills where they could be defended from attacks by their neighbors. There were constant wars and crusades against Jews, Moslems and “heretics.” At 19, Francis joined a military expedition against Perugia but was captured and imprisoned for a year. Four years later he tried again to be a soldier, but he heard a voice telling him to go home, and he did. Not long after that, the crucifix in San Damiano spoke to him and he took “Lady Poverty” for his bride. His love for others was so great that, in the spirit and poverty of Christ, he could embrace lepers.

This was the time of the Fifth Crusade to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land and the motto of the crusaders was: “God wills it.” Francis begged Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to stop the fighting, but he refused. So Francis, who sought a non-violent solution through dialogue with the enemy, began a long march with a companion to Egypt where the Crusaders were battling the Muslim forces. They were captured by the army of Sultan Melek-el-Kamel and beaten before being taken to see the ruler. In his interview with the Sultan, Francis presented an alternative to conversion by force of arms and showed by example that it was possible to follow the Gospel command that we love our enemies.

The Sultan was so impressed by the kindness and gentleness of Francis that he is reported to have said: “If all Christians are like this, I would not hesitate to become one.” Francis accompanied the Sultan’s nephew to a mosque and prayed there, saying “God is everywhere.” During his visit with the Muslims, Francis was so impressed by the use of prostrations for prayer that in his letters he urged Christians to adopt a similar practice. The Sultan showered him with gifts, but the only one Francis would take back with him to Assisi was the ivory horn.

On his way back out of Egypt the crusaders wanted to kill him as a heretic and the Muslims soldiers had to protect him from the Catholic warriors. Back in Italy, his brother friars also criticized him for his “politics” and for his outreach to their Muslim enemies. But Francis responded by adding to his early rule the instruction that all friars are to love their enemies, “as the Lord commands.”

After leaving Assisi last summer, I traveled down the mountain and visited the little chapel of the Porziuncola, which is now inside the huge basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, and I stood a short distance away on the spot where St. Francis breathed his last breath. As he lay dying, Francis told his followers: “We have only just begun to practice the Gospel.”


Outside the Basilica, there is a large bronze plaque on the wall depicting religious leaders from all over the world who attended a summit for peace called by Pope John Paul II twenty years ago. More than 200 distinguished participants from a dozen faiths, including the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, were part of the historic event, which took place during the tensions of the Cold War. On the 20th anniversary last month, Pope Benedict XVI said that John Paul’s “invitation for a choral witness to peace served to clarify, without any possibility of misunderstanding, that religion can only be a source of peace. We need this ‘education to peace’ more than ever,” the Pope added.

Today, as we gather under the Tent of Abraham to pray for peace with our Muslim and Jewish friends, we can remember the example of the radical discipleship of St. Francis, the prophet of nonviolence and the proponent of inter-religious dialogue, who took seriously the Gospel command that we love our enemies.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Truth on the Ground

Sojourners is urging everyone, from Oct. 4 to 11, to watch a new DVD documentary on the human cost of the war in Iraq, "The Ground Truth," which was released last week. I ordered a copy from Netflix and I found it a kick in the stomach and a further (if anything more is needed) incitement to resistance to our government's murderous misadventure in the Middle East.

The so-called "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq is not only killing combatants and innocent civilians, it is also brutalizing a whole generation of young Americans. Produced and directed by Patricia Foulkrod, the film features interviews with 10 returning vets, men and women, several of them with disabling wounds. The stories they tell of random killing and disregard for human life, promoted in boot camp and by senior officers in the field, are disturbing. And the nightmare does not stop when they return home to encounter the insensitivity and cruelty of the Veterans Administration. Anyone turned into a killing machine does not transition easily to civilian life.

One gung-ho Marine tells of killing an iraqi woman only to discover later she was holding a white flag. It was a turning point for him against the war. Another vet recalls being screamed at by an Iraqi who was carrying his brother's head, which had just been blown off. One Marine speaks of images of the destruction that remain with him back home. "Your purpose is to kill, make no mistake," he tells the camera. "There was nothing honorable about what we did. And that broke my heart."

This documentary joins a whole raft of others that have revitalized the cinematic genre. Because of them, we know much more today about the war and terrorism, 9/11, crossword puzzle addicts, global warming, birds and penguins, Enron, and, in "Jesus Camp" soon to be released, the threat from militant far right Christian children. For more information about "The Ground Truth," and to see a preview of the film, click here.

Despite more stories in the media that the Democrats might actually have a chance to retake Congress in the November elections, there was disturbing news last week. Joe Lieberman and a few other turncoast Senate Democrats supported the Republican majority to pass a torture bill not much different from what Bush had originally requested, despite McCain's feeble attempts to make it more palatable. An editorial in the New York Times, "Rushing Off a Cliff," summarized the bill's biggest flaws (click here to read it).

And in related news, Congress authorized an additional $70 billion in "emergency" funds to pay for expenses in Afghanistant and Iraq, including almost $24 billion to repair and replace worn-out equipment. The new funds include $2 billion to somehow prevent roadside bombs which are the leading cause of deaths among U.S. troops in Iraq. One proposal has been to dig a trench around Bhagdad, one of the world's bigger cities, and idea that Saddam had thought up (too late) as a way to prevent defeat. Madness. Since Sept. 11, our government has turned over $507 billion to the military. And that's just the beginning, if Bush and the Republicans remain in power. The United States spends more on its military than ALL of the other countries in the world combined. Can you imagine how these enormous sums might be spent to promote life rather than death?

Can the Democrats take over? They certainly have not yet mounted a challenge in Washington. Alexander Cockburn, the curmudgeonly columnist for The Nation, whose challenges to the left (from the further left) sometimes make my blood boil, believes that the US antiwar movement is "near dead," with the environmental movement running a close second in the mortality race. One of the reasons, he writes in a column titled "From Flying Saucers to 9/11," is distraction from the conspiracy buffs who believe Bush was behind the terrorist attacks. Speaking of cynicism towards government and conspiracy theories which include the Kennedy assassination, he writes:
It seems to demobilize people from useful political activity. I think the nuttishness stems from despair and political infantilism. There's no worthwhile energy to transfer from such kookery.
Cockburn believes that "the Bush gang, and all the conspirators of capital, are delighted at the obsessions of the 9/11 cultists. It's a distraction from the 1,001 real plots of capitalism that demand exposure and political challenge." (I wrote about the 9/11 conspiracy movement here.)

You can read Cockburn's full column here.

More optimistic news would be gratefully appreciated.