Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dying for Peace in Chicago

Very early on a Friday morning almost four weeks ago, Malachi Ritscher climbed onto the base of a 25-foot abstract sculpture entitled "Flame of the Millenium" in the center of an interchange along Chicago's Kennedy Expressway, and set himself on fire. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a skull mask, and a U.S. flag was drapped over his head and shoulders. We know this begause he videotaped his own death. Nearby, Ritscher had planted a banner which read: "Thou Shalt Not Kill, " and "As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap," in black ink, and below that, "Your Taxes Buy Bombs and Bullets," in red ink. Despite his public self-immolation, the body was not identified for several days.

I learned only last Monday about the death of Malachi Ritscher on Nov. 3 from an Associated Press story in my local paper . Unlike the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war, and several antiwar protestors in this country, such as Roger Allen LaPorte in front of the U.N. in 1965, his death was not front page news. The Chicago Sun-Times printed a small blurb and the Chicago Tribune ignored it. Until the independent web media and the bloggers got a hold of it. Now a Google search of Ritscher's name turns up almost 200,000 entries and stories are appearing in Paris and London and on MSNBC. There is a full Wikipedia entry. The Tribune finally printed its own version yesterday of Ritscher's fiery death with additional details from witnesses and the police.

But the most complete information comes from Ritscher himself, on his web site Chicago Rash Audio Potential. There he left a suicide note, called a "mission statement," and a self-written obituary which he called "out of time." There are also many photographs of Ritscher as a child and adult, including this one which is captioned "one last shot, october 2006." Besides Ritscher's own words, there is extensive posting from friends and family members, including his estranged son, on a Chicago Reader blog, Post No Bills, by Peter Margasak. And, finally, there is a web site, I Heard You Malachi, with information and thorough overviews by Nitsuh Abede, reprinted from, and graduate student Jennifer Diaz. Fliers and tee shirts are also available.

All of this is pretty amazing, considering that the world at large, i.e. the narrow one which bases its information on American media, remains relatively unaware of Ritscher's martyrdom for peace in Chicago. Or was it the result of mental illness? That's the conclusion of his son and a few others, though some argue strongly that martyrdom and mental illness are not mutually exclusive. What's unusual is that anyone who accesses Ritscher's web site can draw their own conclusions about his mental state. He is remarkably articulate, passionately persuasive and even humorous.
Reportedly, his last words were 'rosebud...ooops'. (from his obit)
I wish I had known him, and I honor his public death for what he believed in.

Mark David Ritscher was born in a small town in North Dakota 52 years ago. He dropped out of school and married at 17, fathering a son he named Malachi, after the Biblical prophet who was sharply critical of the priests and rulers of the people. When the marriage ended after 10 years, he moved to Chicago and took Malachi, which means "my messanger" in Hebrew, for his own name.

Ritscher tells us that he was a musician, a photographer, a poet and a painter, a lover of literature, a collector of everything from snare drums to fossil tully monsters and glass eyes, and "a man of strong contrasts and fierce loyalties." He was a member of Mensa and Alcoholics Annonymous and "practiced a personal and private spirituality, seeking to connect across the illustion that separates us from each other." Admitting to a fear of people, he had many acquaintances in the Chicago music scene where he could be found many nights a week recording for free local musicians, documenting over (by his count) 2000 shows. You can hear his own music on either of his two myspace pages, here and here. He had recently purchased a cemetery plot and chose for his epitath, "I Dreamt That I Was Dreaming."

"Malachi was an incredible and gentle soul," one friend told Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper. He was reported to be kind, intelligent, funny, outgoing and polite, and others described him as warm, modest and a selfless individual. "He gave me peppers from his garden," a bartender cried when she heard what he had done. But he was also alone. In his obituary, he wrote: "He had many acquaintances, but few friends; and wrote his own obituary, because no one else really knew him." He wrote that his "metaphor for his life was winning the lottery, but losing the ticket." While he considered himself the "modern day equivalent of a 'renaissance man,' " he consistently failed in finding success," but "didn't really worry too much about it." Before he died, Ritscher was working on the night shift as a maintenance man at the University of Chicago.

Ritscher clearly intended his death to be a protest against the Iraq war and the Bush administration. In his "mission statement" he wrote:
When I hear about our young men and women who are sent off to war in the name of God and Country, and who give up their lives for no rational cause at all, my heart is crushed. What has happened to my country?
I too love God and Country, and feel called upon to serve. I can only hope my sacrifice is worth more than those brave lives thrown away when we attacked an Arab nation under the deception of "weapons of Mass Destruction." Our interference completely destroyed that country, and destablized the entire region. Everyone who pays taxes has blood on their hands.
He even answers his potential critics:
Many people will think that I should not be able to choose the time and manner of my own death. My positions is that I only get one death, I want it to be a good one. Wouldn't it be better to stand for something or make a statement, rather than a fiery collision with some drunk driver?...Here is the statement I want to make: if I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians who did notthing to threaten our country...There might be some who say "it's a coward's way out" ... From my point of view, I am opening a new door.
He ends his suicide note by writing, "Without fear I go now to God -- your future is what you will choose today."

I have written at length about the life and death of Malachi Ritscher because I find him a kindred soul, a prophet, whose passing leaves a wound in his family and community that cannot be healed easily. I do not recommend that anyone imitate his actions, however. For just as terrorism can never bring peace, I do not think that suicide affirms life in any way. Ritscher's death is a tragedy, not a mistake, not the whim of a mentally ill man. Heaven must have a special place for those who love that much.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Blogging the Blues

The rains came yesterday, threatening to overwhelm the windshield washers of my truck, turning Highway One into a river, knocking the leaves off my roof, shutting thoughts of sunshine out, turning the heart inward. In the evening I snuggled in my comfortable chair by the electric radiator while the rain poured down, listening to tunes on the iPod, and brooded. All around me the blues danced their seductive dance. What's the use, they said. It's all over in a moment.

When I was younger I wanted to play in a jazz band. I listened to the great saxophonists -- Bird, Getz, Prez, Bud Shank -- and I learned to hear the structure of chord changes in a song, within which the jazz soloist improvises. Without the structure, it's all noise (although Ornette Coleman taught the generation after me that noise can be jazz, too). I lean toward melody, away from the chaos of atonality. I cling to structure. Of course it's a cliche that you can't break the rules until you know them, and rules, in poetry as well as music, provide the structure, the womb, for creativity. So much for theory.

I find the structures around me, the familiar habit patterns that hedge in my life, crumbling. It's all improvisation now, sounds of silence signifying nothing.

One explanation is my upcoming safari, to Europe and Asia, in less than a month's time. On the road I live out of a small suitcase and backpack, the journey providing structure, the rules improvised as I go along. Habits die easily on the road.

But in anticipation I have begun to clean house, throwing away less important files and papers, books and tools, including an old rice maker and a turntable for vinyl I rarely used. Hardly worn clothes go off to Goodwill, old magazines to the (recycled) trash heap. I also erase future entries in my calendar, skip meetings, antiwar vigils and Sunday mass, dodge old friends for an afternoon at the movies by myself. I ponder the virtues of brushing teeth, doubt the efficacy of prayer, pretend that health doesn't matter, and take naps.

Structure for most people is imposed by responsibility, a job, family obligations. In a relationship, everything -- proximity, intimacy -- is determined by the Other. But I retired from work to enjoy the benefits of Social Security, money deposited in the bank every month, and my wife is gone and the children on their own. Even the wild cats in my neighborhood do not need me since I stopped feeding them at my landlady's request (too much cat shit in the garden). I am alone. I can do anything (within the bounds of my income and savings).

Such freedom is scary, and to avoid its radical call I draw on a variety of distractions, most prominent the internet and the movies, not to mention ice cream and popcorn. When my life is structured by meaningful social activities, I can justify these indulgences as harmless diversions. But when the structures break down, as they have now, then the modes of escapism are unveiled as addictions.

Writing eases the pain, soothes the unruly beast within. Like the blues singers of old, I ruminate on the joys and wrongs of life, and I mythologize the world around me.

Thanksgiving was a time of good food, music, games and videos with my extended family in Sonoma. I collect gigabytes of new digital music to audition: Joanna Newsom, Regina Spektor, Robbie Williams, Dianne Reeves, the Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants, along with new work by the Who, Willie Nelson and Tom Waits. Just being together again, for one more year, is an act of gratitude. The next day the roads are crowded with shoppers oblivious that the Friday after Thanksgiving has been declared Buy Nothing Day by Adbusters Magazine. The incessant consumerism in the stores crushes my spirit and encourages a bah humbug attitude toward the holidays. And while it's good that the blue wave of the Democrats swept the nation, in Iraq, where the "war" has lasted longer than World War Two, people slaughter each other while the pundits continue to debate whether or not it is yet a civil war.

I learn about the horror of genetically modified food (even bagels are unsafe) from an excellent documentary, "The Future of Food," directed by Jerry Garcia's widow, and about Beethoven's passion from the fictional "Copying Beethoven" with its moving musical scene of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony which brought tears to my eyes. Beethoven, I discover, read the Bhagavad Gita, the spiritual text we've been studying in our sangha. Did he renounce the fruits of his work by being unable to hear it? The eyes of Nicole Kidder and Robert Downey Jr. have it in "Fur," a surreal film about photographer Diane Arbus and her symbolic breakthrough from housewife to creative artist. Both actors deserve an Oscar for the emotions that they can express only with their eyes. Did you know that Arbus's husband Allen became an actor and played the psychiatrist on the "Mash" TV series? He was a friend of Downey's father and acted in his cult film "Greaser's Palace." And while we're at the movies, I found Daniel Craig to be a pale imitation of Sean Connery as the new James Bond in "Casino Royale."

As I struggle with words to define whom I am and what I am to do during my brief span of years, the words of poet Mary Oliver come to me. While this may be late fall in California, and her poem marks the summer, I am still struck, again and again, by her focus on this "one wild and precious life." It's all blues to me (imagine it sung by Billie Holiday).

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Remembering Bobby

I was working on the night copy desk at the Pasadena Independent on June 4, 1968. And my job was to tear news stories off the AP and UPI teletype machines which utilized a system of bells to denote items of more than usual interest. A three-bell story would be rare, but this evening the bells started and they never seemed to stop. Bobby Kennedy had been shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel just after delivering a speech celebrating his victory as the Democratic nominee for president in the California primary election. He died from his wounds a day later.

I didn't vote for Kennedy. He had only entered the race a few months earlier, shortly before President Johnson, defeated by the quagmire in Vietnam, had announced that he would not seek reelection. My choice for president had been the radical challenger from the left, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, a scholar and a poet. But after Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and Nixon's defeat of Hubert Humphrey, I found myself drawn to the strong peace and social justice positions he took late in his political career. And for someone of my generation, there is no escaping the Camelot feel of the Kennedy dynasty.

These memories resurfaced last night while watching Emelio Estevez's fine film, "Bobby," which follows the stories of 22 people in the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was shot. Interlaced with footage from Kennedy's life and last political campaign, "Bobby" evokes a time of innocence hope in the late 1960s, before "the music died," as Don McLean puts it in his anthem, "American Pie." There are echoes, obviously intentional, of the times we are in today, the quagmire in Iraq. But there are no leaders now of the caliber of Bobby and Jack Kennedy, who put the interests of the poor and disenfranchised before that of the businessmen. And there is little hope. Politicans sell out to corporate interests, preachers battle abortion rather than restrictions on civil rights, and half of the voters stay home.

There are some wonderful performances in Estevez's "Bobby." Aging superstars Sharon Stone and Demi Moore are so convincing in their roles as a hotel hair stylist and alcoholic lounge singer that you forget their cinematic pasts. Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte, whose accomplishments should be celebrated from the rooftops, play a couple of retired hotel employees who ruminate on the history of the Ambassador and the problems of aging. William Macy, the manager of the hotel, is Stone's adulterous husband who is having an affair with telephone operator Heather Graham. Lindsay Lohan is a young woman who marries Elijah Wood to prevent his going to Vietnam. Estevez, Moore's long-suffering husband in the film, has had a checkered career in movies and TV. He is the son of Martin Sheen who plays in the film a tourist with a fashion-obsessed Helen Hunt as his wife. "Bobby" is not an unflawed film. The drug scene with Ashton Kutcher, Moore's real husband, as hippie guru is a bit absurd. And the integration of the story with TV news footage and songs from the period sometimes seems forced. But Freddy Rodriguez as the bus boy who ends up with Kennedy's head in his lap is outstanding in the role.

The Kennedys were not perfect. Their father Joe financed their political careers with ill-gotten gains from a stock market career, and the sons supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and wars against communism in Vietnam and elsewhere. Bobby worked for the demogogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy ferreting out reds in government, and later made a name attacking racketeers like the union leader Jimmy Hoffa. But as attorney general under his brother and Johnson, Bobby developed a commitment for social justice that exceeded JFK's and one that was undoubtedly inspired by his understanding of Catholic social teaching. He was a friend to Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez, and after becoming a senator for New York he joined them in protest marches. He was probably the last politican truly beloved by the poor. Perhaps his inherited wealth insulated him from the need to cut deals and allowed him to see America as the moral leader of the world rather than its policeman.

1968 was a watershed year in world history. It began with the Prague Spring when Dubcek in Czechoslovakia promoted "socialism with a human face," only to be overthrown by the Soviet invasion in August. The Tet Offensive in January turned public opinion against the Vietnam War, and disgust deepened with revelations in March about the My Lai massacre. At the beginning of April King was assassinated in Memphis, and at the end antiwar students at Columbia shut down the university. That same week "Hair" opened on Broadway. May was a time of protest in Paris that almost toppled the French government. The day before Kennedy was shot, Valerie Solanas shot and wounded Andy Warhol. Also in June, Pope Paul VI published an eycyclical condemning birth control. And in July, Saddam Hussein took control of Iraq in a coup d'etat. At the Democratic National Convention in August, demonstrators clashed with police in the streets of Chicago, and the whole world watched it on TV. In October, students were massacred at a protest in Mexico City right before the beginning of the summer olympic games. Kennedy's widow Jackie married the Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis, and in November the Republicans under Nixon took back the White House. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 went into orbit around the moon.

That year I was 28 and lived in a faux Greene & Greene cottage in Pasadena with my wife and our two sons, one four and the other less than a year old. A new liquor store with a nautical theme, Trader Joe's, had just opened around the corner from our house. I rode my Yamaha motorcycle to my work at the newspaper, and we experimented with LSD and marijuana, read a new music paper called Rolling Stone, and listened to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which had been released the previous summer.

The assassinations of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King, as well as the war in Vietnam which continued to drag on, plunged this country into a prolonged depression, a extended time of bread and circuses, from which it has yet to recover. We miss you, Bobby.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do You Want Shit With Your Fries?

"It's a sad fact of life, Don, but we all have to eat a little shit from time to time."
"Fast Food Nation" is not a particularly great film but it covers an incredibly important subject. Richard Linklater's fictional version of Eric Schlosser's book is more than a critique of McDonald's and other fast food companies. It is a bitter critique of the fast food culture and society that we have become in the age of industrial and corporate globalism. Fast food not only makes us sick, but it harms immgrants, the animals whose flesh we are addicted to, and the environment.

There are three interlinked stories in "Fast Food Nation" using a cinematic collage technique that is fast become the story-telling formula of choice ("Bable," "Crash," Traffic," etc.). When done well, it is a powerful way to expland the scope of a plot. Linklater's film (as well as Schlosser's book first published almost six years ago), presents Mickey's, the invented fast food franchise in the film, as the nexus for three major ethical conflicts. Mickey's company representative, Don (played by Greg Kinnear), tries to be a good provider for his family but remains silent after learning about the misdeeds of a meat packing plant which might harm other families. Amber (played by Ashley Johnson) innocently works for Mickey's but becomes an eco-terrorist when she learns about the harmfulness of factory ranching. And a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico, including Sylvia (played by Catalina Sandino Moreno who was terrific in "Maria Full of Grace"), try to start a new life in Colorado but learn that freedom and democracy is dependent on the exploitation of workers as well as drugs.

There are some wonderful cameo performances by Bruce Willis as a corporate sleaze on the take from the meat packing plant who tells Don that shit in the meat can be overcome in the cooking, Kris Kristofferson as a rancher whose land has been taken over by fast built houses, and Ethan Hawke as a college rebel turned carpenter for the wealthy. Together they expose the injustice and general tackyness of 21th century corporate consumer capitalism.

And the final bloody scene in a slaughterhouse is enough to turn any filmgoer into a vegetarian. If it weren't for the fact that fecal coloform is now being found in spinach as well as meat. I read Fast Food Nation several years ago, and the part that scared me the most was the description of laboratories where scientists known as "flavorists" can duplicate almost any taste or scent. We could be eating cardboard and not know it. In the movie, a gee-whiz flavorist develops a a barbecue taste that Don uses for Mickey's next big campaign. With the right chemicals, even shit would taste great.

Could the film of Schlosser's book have been as insightful and disturbing as a documentary? This is, after all, the Golden Age of documentary film with almost one a week coming through the cinemas in our town to much acclaim. I doubt that the nodes in the fast food chain could have been illustrated as completely if it had been simply a documentary. Last week I watched the documentary "Dying to Live: A Migrant's Journey," about the dangerous passage across the Mexican border and through the Arizona desert, and although, it was informative and moving, it did not probe as deeply into the experience of the migrants as Linklater was able to do with his fictional story.

Another documentary I saw last week, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," probably could not have been as powerful as a fictional story. The unvarnished truth, in this case, hurts. And it also illustrates the malaise of a country in the stranglehold of corporate capitalism. Only profit counts in the reign of Big Business and Global Corporations.

Directed by Chris Paine, the film tells the story of the rise and fall of the electric car, starting at the turn of the century when electric cars were more popular that those powered by gas and steam. But Henry Ford and cheap oil pushed them off the roads. Then ressurection of the electric car began in 1990 when California's Air Resources Board adopted a Zero-Emission Vehical mandate which forced auto manufacturers to develop new technology. The General Motors all-electric car, sold under the Saturn brand, was enormously popular with a small group of people who were only allowed to lease it, not buy. It had a limited range of 70 miles but battery technology existed to extend that distance. A few years later, however, the chairman of the board reversed the emissions mandate and GM recalled, and destroyed, all of its cars. It was later revealed that the chairman had an interest in hydrogen fuel cell technology and that technology was pushed by government and business, even though a successful car is still years away. In the meantime we have the hybrids which are good but nevertheless no match for the electric car.

Paine's film, which would make a good double-feature bill with "An Inconvenient Truth," concludes that the electric car was killed off by the auto makers and the petroleum industry, neither of whom wanted a replacement for the gas guzzler. This is the same group, along with tire manufacturers, who killed off the electric transit system in Los Angeles forty years ago, documented in the excellent film "Taken for a Ride."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Pope, U.S. Bishops Jump Off Cliff

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Baltimore this week, and Pope Benedict XVI, pontificating in Rome, have issued spiritually irrelevant but nonetheless harmful pronouncements which should cause anyone identifying themselves as a Roman Catholic Christian, as I do, to think twice.

It reminds me of the story of the Gadarene (or Gerasene) swine, repeated with some variation in all three synoptic Gospels. Jesus encounters a man (or maybe two men) possessed by demons (or unclean spirits) and living, perhaps without clothes, in a cemetery. The man (or men, whose name is "Legion"), recognize him and beg for mercy. The teacher performs an exorcism and casts out the demons into a nearby herd of swine, who then proceed to jump off a cliff, like lemmings, into a lake where they drown. All three versions end the same way: The residents of the neighborhood, terrified at what they had seen Jesus do, ask him to leave.

"Let him who has ears to hear me, hear!" (Mark 4:9)

The U.S. bishops, at the end of their conference on Wednesday, released three documents which affirmed traditional, and increasingly irrelevant, church teachings: "Married Love and the Gift of Life" condemned artificial contraception; "Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination" denounced sexually-active gays and lesbians, and "'Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper': On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist" suggested that those singled out above, as well as pro-choice Catholics, should consider themselves unworthy and refrain from receiving communion.

While one news source lauded the bishops for at least not invoking a communion ban for politicians who do not support the Church's teaching on abortion in their public life, which had been advocated by the American Life League and other right-wing Catholics, the Bishops' actions illustrated the persistent fixation of Church leaders on sexual issues. The Gospels are strangely silent on matters to do with sex, but they have much to say about poverty. Have the bishops not read the Beatitudes lately, or Matthew 25?

It might be the scandal of priestly sex abuse that has skewed their vision, but the Church hierarchy was misguided about sex long before the current crisis. The document on marriage, designed for engaged and young married couples, claims that artificial birth control introduces a "false note" in marriage and has led to a decline in respect for life in society. In addition, "suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple's unity." According to Boston's Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, heterosexual marriage is divinely ordained because of its role in procreation. Balderdash. The disordered musings of aging and celibate bachelors.

The condemnation of gay and lesbian sex uses the same reasoning. In the words of Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, NJ: "Because homosexual acts cannot fulfill the natural end of human sexuality, they are never morally acceptable." Making love, having sex or fucking without intending to, or being able to, make children is strictly verboten. But here it goes farther. "The homosexual inclination is objectively disordered" and therefore "homosexual acts are immoral." No gays or lesbians were consulted before drafting the document. Members of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said the new guidelines would further alienate gay people. According to Dignity president Sam Sinnet, "At some point the bishops have to realize that they speak in willful ignorance about what homosexuality is and about sexuality in general."

In my understanding, God IS love, and the Church is ignorant of the many forms that love can take, mistaking social customs for God's command. Humanity is spiritually evolving and some of us have been blessed to encounter the love in same-sex unions, and in the many non-traditional forms of family. My daughter considers herself bisexual and is in a committed relationship with a wonderful woman. Their love is not disordered, and Church leaders who declare it so will have much to answer for.

The final document on worthiness to receive the Eucharist declares that Catholics who "knowingly and obstinately...reject the defined doctrines of the church" should not seek to receive Communion. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, KS, said that this includes sexually active gays and birth-control-using heterosexuals. Apparently these pillars of the Church are ignorant of teaching that no one is "worthy" to receive the Eucharist but all are welcome. The idea that some are more worthy than others is totally foreign to the Gospels.

The bishops were encouraged to produce these documents by the same Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Cardinal Ratzinger headed before he became pope. Many of the U.S. bishops were appointed during John Paul II's long reign and they were mostly chosen for their orthodoxy and subservience to Rome.

At a press conference, Bishop Serratelli said, "To be a Catholic is a challenge, and to be a Catholic requires a certain choice, and these are the choices that are consisten with the Gospel of Jesus." The bishop seems unaware that Catholics today can read the Bible, and anyone who reads the Gospels carefully will be mistified by the issues that the bishops deem most important.

Not all of the bishops’ pronouncements, however, were focused on sex. At the last minute an item on Iraq was added to their agenda, and the conference president, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, WA, issued a statement saying, "Our nation's military forces should remain...only so long as their presence contributes of a responsible transition." The bishops called on the government to "look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal." Bravo, bishops. You have a little spine after all.

In the same week, Pope Benedict XVI met with his advisers for a "reflection" on the rule of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests. Many of the 100,000 married priests
worldwide (25,000 in the U.S. alone) held their breath in anticipation. The average age of priests in America is now over 60. The meeting was prompted by the disobedience of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia who was married briefly in 2001 and who recently ordained four married American men as bishops, an act that drew a swift excommunication. Eastern Rite priests, and married Anglicans converting to Catholicism, have been granted an exception to the celibacy rule. Hopes for change were dashed however, when a Vatican announcement said priestly celibacy had been affirmed. What else might one except from a pope opposed to the modern age?

The Pope has more pressing problems. This week he is receiving a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who admittedly publicly that the only reason he did not become a Roman Catholic is because he does not believe the Pope is infallible. And the International Herald Tribune reported that the Vatican is upset by Italian satirists who make fun of the Pope and his staff by ridiculing his German accent and pretending that he shoots pigeons in St. Peter's Square.

And so I continue to reflect on why I became a Catholic over twenty years ago and wonder what that identity means to me now. If the Roman Catholic Church is a private club presided over by celibate gatekeepers, then count me out. I recently resigned as a communion presider after being told I must make sure that whatever I say in my reflections on the Gospel reading are in line with Church teaching. But who is worthy to decide on what is orthodox and what is not, what is approved sexually and what is not? The demons that Jesus cast into the swine, who then jumped off a cliff, remind me of the institutional leaders of the Church who ignore the teachings of love and burden the poor followers of Jesus with rules about sexuality. Does Doestoevski's Grand Inquisitor come to mind?

Vatican II declared that the Church is "the people of God," not the Vatican and not the hierarchy, not conferences of bishops or assemblies of priests. We the people, together, are the Church, and why should I leave?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Endless Punishment for Pervs?

It is doubtful that many of the more than two million people who voted for Proposition 83 in last week's California election gave the matter much thought. It was entitled: "Sex Offenders. Sexually Violent Predators. Punishment, Residence Restrictions And Monitoring. Initiative Statute," and most voters probably assumed the measure would "protect our kids," as the proponents argued. It was proposed by George and Sharon Runner, state senator and assemblywoman, respectively, married Republican conservatives from Southern California. Both candidates for governor backed it. The proposition passed overwhelmingly, with 71 per cent of the vote, one of only two out of eight state ballot measures to be approved by the electorate.

Maybe hanging is too good for someone who rapes a woman or molests a child. Perhaps we should cut off the hand of someone who touches another person in a sexual inappropriate manner. Or gouge out the eyes of anyone who looks at child pornography. Too tough? Do you think going back to an "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" criminal justice system is too radical? You might be in the minority today.

At the very least, let's put convicted sex offenders in prison and leave them there, forever. If we can't do that with sentences handed down in the courts, then let's restrict where they can live and follow their whereabouts with an electronic eye in the sky. Forever.

That's what Prop. 83, "Jessica's Law," named after the kidnap, rape and murder of a 9-year-old Florida girl by a registered sex offender last year, intended to do. Every state now has laws, which require persons convicted of sex crimes to register for life as sex offenders every year and when they move. While this might seem an additional punishment, violating the constitutional protection against double jeopardy, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 2003, declaring that registration was reasonable public protection. The idea that criminals can pay their debt to society does not apply to registered sex offenders (RSO). Prop. 83, in addition to increasing sentences and parole terms, would expand registration requirements to prohibit all RSOs from living within 2000 feet of a school or park, and mandates lifetime electronic surveillance by GPS devices.

There are problems, however, with Prop. 83 as written, and with the practice of registering sex offenders and making their names and residence locations available to the public. Will this law and the public branding of a class of criminals with the scarlet letter "S" make woman and children more safe, or is it part of a general trend of eroding civil liberties which leads to the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and to the recently passed Military Commissions Act which does away with habeas corpus and permits torture?

Less this slippery slope claim seem exaggerated, consider this. Not all RSOs are child molesters and rapists. They are also teenage boys convicted for having sex with underage girlfriends, breakers of sodomy and oral copulation laws, downloaders of internet pornography, incest violators, indecent exposurors, and those engaged in lewd and lascivious behavior (a drunken "prank" like mooning, perhaps). Currently, sexually violent predators (SVP) are categorized separately as more serious offenders, and have more severe restrictions. The Runners' law would change that, and requires all RSOs and SVPs to live outside urban areas, with multiple schools and parks, and to be tracked electronically until death. In addition, RSOs are exposed to vigilante justice. Last year a man in Maine killed two RSOs whose names he found on the web; one had raped a child and the other slept with his girlfriend before she turned 16. The murderer committed suicide before explaining his motives.

Minors in Connecticut have to register for having consensual sex in Connecticut. A criminal attorney in that state, Norman Pattis, argues that “sex crimes are the equivalent of what witchcraft was in Salem…a lot of the law is draped in Victorian convictions about sex and sensibility. There have always been young teenagers who were sexually active, but we don’t want to admit it so instead we criminalize it…the state is overreacting to the public’s hysteria.”

The morning after the election a lawsuit was filed in a federal court in San Francisco, and the judged ruled that the measure "is punitive by design and effect" and likely unconstitutional. She issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement and set a hearing date later this month. The plaintiff, identified as "John Doe," argued that the measure, if applied retroactively, would effectively banish him from his community and the home he owns with his wife "for a crime he committed, and paid his debt for, long ago." The proposition's sponsor, State Sen. Runner, claims it was not intended to be applied retroactively, but nothing in the language says that.

Other problems with Prop. 83 include questions about who will enforce the electronic surveillance of ex-cons no longer on parole and who will pay for the expensive equipment. RSOs currently register with local police but they would need additional staff and funding to keep track of increasing numbers of RSOs. How will the law define "park"; the measure is not clear on this. And the language of the proposition includes no new section to be added to the Penal Code. For Prop. 83 to be applied it will have to be amended in line with future court rulings by the state legislature which requires a two-thirds majority.

Still, if all this protects women and children, shouldn't we consider limits to civil liberties therefore beneficial? According to John LaFond, author of Protecting Society from Sexually Dangerous Offenders: Law, Justice and Therapy, there is "no evidence that registration or notification [to citizens of a sex offender’s presence in the neighborhood] either reduce sex crimes or help in their solution." LaFond says his concern "is the misdirection by public officials and parents toward strangers and away from the real threat: the family and friends they know.” Almost 80 percent of sexual crime victims know their perpetrators. “These new monitoring laws are symbolic gestures by politicians to show that they are doing something. But in the long run, they do a disservice to the community.” Pamela Schultz, author of Not Monsters: Analyzing the Stories of Child Molesters, said, “It’s not the creepy guy who moves in next door you need to be most concerned about, but family, friends – people who have access to your children on a regular basis.”

We should not so easily give up the idea that a person convicted of a crime can pay their debt to society and get a new start. If RSOs must be watched for the duration of their life, why not bank robbers? Some think child molesters are mentally ill. If so, they should be hospitalized. Restricting their residence but not their freedom to walk around will not make our children safer.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says that electronic monitoring of sex offenders opens a Pandora’s box. “If you start tracking convicted sex offenders, what about convicted drunk drivers or registered handgun owners? What about people law enforcement might consider suspicious but have no basis to arrest? States should proceed down this road carefully.”

And, finally, this should be a lesson to the idea that we can govern by proposition, by ballot measures designed by citizens with an ax to grind rather than legislators trained and experienced in balancing conflicting objectives. Prop. 187, designed to deny immigrants social services, health care and public education, passed in California in 1994 with 59% of the vote, but it was overturned by a federal court. We should demand that our politicians govern, rather than stand by while popularity contests determine our laws.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Tangled Up in Babel

How is it ever possible that we understand one another?

In director Alejandro González Iñárritu's superb new film, "Babel," the characters struggle to communicate even when they speak the same language. But the story takes place in four different countries -- America, Mexico, Morocco and Japan -- with the actors using six different languages -- English, Spanish, Arabic, Berber, Japanese and Sign. Transcending foreign language and cultural barriers in reality is all but impossible. Now that the globe is connected as never before by technology, how can we love the neighbor that might be a terrorist, who has wronged us in some way, who disagrees with our values, and whose speech and face are different from ours?

Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 16th century painting of the Tower of Babel illustrates the story in the book of Genesis that mythologically explains the diversity of speech in the world. The Sumerians build a tower to heaven, perhaps intended as a gateway for the gods to come to earth. These great towers of Babylon, called ziggurats, were said to be among the largest religious structures ever built. The Hebrew author of Genesis sees them as a threat to the one god's sovereignty and considers their construction a form of hubris rather than an invitation. "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves," the Sumerians say in the Genesis account. The Hebrew god, however, is not pleased. "If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do." To curb their upityness, he says, "let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says." He then proceeds to destroy the city and scatter the people. The Hebrew word for this city, Bavel, is related to the verb balal, which means "to confuse or confound."

What can we make of this quaint myth in a world where the diversity of speech, as well as cultural customs, continue to confuse and confound us? In the 21st century, the world, while increasingly homogeneous on some levels, is becoming more and more fragmented. The ruins of Babylon are sixty miles south of Baghdad in a country where Sunnis and Shi'as are slaughtering each other because of a difference in religious identity. Although peaceful at the moment, the Irish divide themselves along sectarian lines. The people of the subcontinent, once united under English rule, now hate one another, Indian and Pakistani. Both Jews and Arabs are Semitic people, but they are fighting to the death in the Middle East over disputed land, their separate religious identities masking any similarities in culture and tradition.

Rodney King, the black man whose beating sparked rebellion in Los Angeles, asked the crucial question: "Why can't we all get along?"

Language, like religious, ethnic and national identities, can divide us. What can pull us together?

The major characters in González Iñárritu's "Babel," as in the previous films of his trilogy -- "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" (all written by Guillermo Arriaga) -- are victims of a fate over which they have little control. There are tragic accidents in all three films, random violence as difficult to understand as words in a foreign tongue. The other major ingredient in these films is family: the characters are tied together by blood and marriage, and the glue that holds them together is often their children. In "Babel," a couple travels to Morocco to ease the pain of the death of a baby, while their two remaining children are cared for by an undocumented Mexican nanny whose son is about to be married in Tijuana. Across the globe, a Japanese father struggles to understand his rebellious deaf mute daughter who is suffering from the suicide of her mother. The link that brings the narrative together is a gun.

Stories help us make sense of our world. The answer González Iñárritu gives in his films is love. But this love does not change the chaotic, meaningless nature of reality, the random nature of violence, the futility of fate. Rather it enables us to endure it. Without love we are lost; with it we can survive for another day. In "Babel," the nanny is deported, but love of her son sustains her. We see the embrace of the Japanese father and his child, the love of a Berber boy for his brother, the resurrection of a marriage in the aftermath of an accidental shooting. The world remains a dangerous place, but hope can survive through love, on the screen and in reality.

Language and the difficulty of understanding one another was also the theme of Sofia Coppola's wonderful "Lost in Translation" a couple of years ago. And glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, comes up in two recent films. In the scary documentary "Jesus Camp," teens and preteens are whipped into a religious frenzy at a summer camp run by a fundamentalist minister, and they babble nonsense syllables through their tears. Language is twisted by the rituals, dogma and preaching into a black or white, devil or angel world view that will scar these children forever. But this world view is skewered delightfully by Sacha Baron Cohen in the mockumentary "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," when, after learning that Pamela Anderson is not the paragon of virtue he imagined, he stumbles into a real holy roller assembly and begins to babble along with them. The true believers are no less frightening, but at least there is comfort in shared laughter, much like the nervous laughter inspired by ghost stories.

In our own lives, there are misunderstandings and mistranslations. I struggle to understand the reality of my son Luke who is under dual diagnosis treatment in Boston for alcoholism and borderline personality disorder. We watch our words carefully but the love between us calls us to try and try again to bridge the gap and see the world through the other's eyes. I continue to try and make sense of why I stayed in a marriage for nearly twenty-five years when the ending made it obvious how different we were. The only answer I can come up with is continuous compromise inspired by a love that passes all understanding. Now I wonder where that love went.

We frail and fallible human beings can really understand very little in this life. Today our Tower of Babel is the skyscraper of science and technology and it lures us into thinking we know it all. But the terrorists of 9/11 leveled two towers in no time at all using only box cutters, jet airplanes and a fanaticism without limit. The love that arose out of that disaster, love among family and friends searching for the missing, and love and support of the world for our country's tragedy, is the love that will sustain us in troubled times.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Yet Another Israeli Massacre

Once again Israeli troops have massacred innocent Palestinian civilians. In the latest bloodbath, Israeli artillery shells killed 18 people, including 8 children and 6 women, at a cluster of houses in Beit Hanun, one of the largest single losses of life in Gaza in years. Over 60 were wounded, 26 of them children.

Because these "accidents," as Israeli authorities invariably term them, are becoming common, and because we can become numbed to the horror of ongoing Israeli genocide, I will quote from an Associated Press description of the scene:

"Shells were fired directly onto the people who were rushing out of the house," said Akram al-Athamna, a relative of the victims. "There was blood everywhere."

Another family member, 14-year-old Asma al-Athamna, said she saw her mother, older sister and brother-in-law die as they fled their home. "I was behind them and I was wounded," the weeping girl said from her hospital bed. Her 2-year-old niece, Malak, lay in an adjacent bed, recovering from shrapnel wounds to her face.

The family is prominent in Beit Hanoun and includes several doctors and professionals. Family members said they had fled during the Israeli offensive, returning home after Tuesday's pullout.

Bits of dismembered bodies were plastered to walls of the damaged buildings and lying on the ground. A woman's head scarf, children's boots and slippers, and a pair of jeans — all burnt — were strewn outside.

Weeping relatives gathered outside the homes. One man dipped his hand in victims' blood and smeared it over his face. "God avenge us, God avenge us," he wailed.

A young man, standing in the bloodied alleyway, said an infant girl had been blown to pieces. "I tried to look for her head, I tried to look for her head," he shrieked, then sank to the ground, weeping.

How long will the world permit Israel to slaughter Palestinians? Will the celebrated victory of the Democratic party on Tuesday make possible a change in U.S. policy toward Israel? The blood of the murdered Palestinians is on our hands, for years of U.S. government support and financial assistance have made possible the oppression of the Arab Muslims and Christians of Palestine.

This does not justify the killing of innocent Israelis by suicide bombers. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. When the Zionists were fighting English occupiers for the independence of Israel, they used terrorists techniques to great effect. However, any examination of the 60-year bloody history of Israel will conclude that the casualties have been overwhelming disproportionate. The killing of hundreds of well-fed 1st world citizens of Israel is outweighed by the deaths of thousands of suffering 3rd world citizens in the Occupied Territories.

There is a solution: Demand an end to Zionist apartheid in the Middle East, and call on Israel to become a true democracy with full rights of citizenship for all residents of Israel and the Occupied Territories, Jew, Muslim and Christian (The "One State Solution"). In the 21st century, no religious state can be called a democracy, and a country in which followers of one religion massacre the followers of another is an abomination.

Thank You, Jesus

Does anything else need to be said?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

VOTE: Democracy is in Peril

Today is election day. VOTE! Our democracy depends on your voice through the election process. Our country is in crisis and the outcome of this election will determine our future, as well as the world's. The Bush Republicans MUST be thrown out of power.

The above quilt is in the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. It was made by Irene Williams in the 1960s and includes ribbons with the word "VOTE" that were distributed in Alabama to encourage blacks to overturn the apartheid regime that had kept them oppressed since the Civil War. The campaign, which involved thousands of civil rights workers from the north, some of whom were martyred, was successful.

Our government has been hijacked by militarists, religious fundamentalists and global corporate pirates. Innocents in wars around the world are being slaughtered with weapons made in America, the life support systems of the planet are dying because of corporate greed and government inaction, and precious human rights, and moral laws like habeus corpus, are being overturned and rolled back by militant right-wing Christians whose authoritarian agenda strays far from the gentle truths taught by Jesus.

The Republicans' "October Surprise" turned out to be not the invasion of Iran or the nuking of North Korea, but the conviction of Saddam Hussein for a 20-year-old crime, the undoubtedly horrible killing of innocent Kurds. But if the U.S. used military force to capture and try criminal heads of state, we would become bogged down in hundreds of such escapades, toppling the leaders we had previously held hands with before. Our foreign policy is, and perhaps always has been, hypocritical. Others might call it pragmatic. Except now. Saddam, like Tito before him, was able to create a viable state composed of bitter enemies. Without him (and Tito in the Balkans), the former citizens have turned into murderous antagonists. The Iraqis are well aware that life was better under Saddam's reign, however tyrannical he may have been. Remember that the Iraqi state was created by Europeans after World War One; it is not a natural entity. So now Saddam is going to the gallows. Would that George Bush might follow him for his own war crimes!

George Bush and the Republican Party is responsible for this disaster in Iraqi and in this country, and, although this isn't a presidential election, control of Congress hinges on the outcome at ballot boxes all across America. VOTE the bastards out!

Two current movies give dire warnings about out future if the Republican regime remains in power. "Jesus Camp," a true documentary about a Christian youth summer camp in North Dakota led by a minister with the fervor of a Mussolini, shows pre-teens being trained to become militant shock troops who will grow up to impose abortion laws and put prayer back in the schools through force. Be afraid, be very afraid. The other film, "Catch a Fire," shows what happened in apartheid South Africa when a white government used terrorism as an excuse for torture. If you think Guantanamo has no place for you, think again.

If we let democracy slip out of our hands by leaving control of Congress in the hands of Bush Republicans, God help us. As Thomas Jefferson said:
Every generation needs a new revolution.

Friday, November 03, 2006

When Life Meets Art

"Quilts?" I asked when my friend suggested we visit the new de Young Museum in San Francisco while we were waiting for our visa applications to be processed at the India Consulate. Looking at bedspreads wasn't my idea of a fun time. "But these are special," he said. And so they were.

The Quilts of Gee's Bend is an exhibit of 60 quilts made by four generations of African American women who live in a bend of the Alabama River not far from Selma. A New York Times review of the traveling exhibition described the quilts as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." They were awesome. The quilt pictured above, made by one of the younger members of the collective, 50-year-old Essie Bendolph Pettway, stopped me dead in my tracks with its vivid beauty. It was pieced together from fabric that had been used to make dresses for herself and her mother, Mary Lee Bendolph, another one of the quilt makers. Many of the older quilts used found material, such as empty flour sacks and even ribbons saying "VOTE" from a voter registration drive in the 1960's. The quilt that moved me the most featured pieces from the worn work clothes of the maker's husband after he died, and in a brief description she explained that she wanted to wrap them around her in bed at night.

A 28-minute video in a room off the exhibition hall featured interviews with a number of quilt makers. They were eloquent without being what urban dwellers would call articulate, and the southern dialect required subtitles to be understood. The quilts were made by poor sharecroppers and their descendents who could not afford to buy bedspreads. The walls of their houses were papered with pages torn from newspapers and magazines to keep the wind out. Women passed down the secrets of quilting to their daughters and the practice bound together both the community and the generations. "We were poor but we were happy," one woman exclaimed, and I got a sense of how the burden of poverty might also be a blessing. Our culture of abundance has not brought happiness for its beneficiaries. We are smothering under a mountain of store-bought things, crying out "more stuff!" with our last breath. Buying off the shelf distances us from the land and the workers who labor to turn what the land produces into something useful. And these quilts are, before all else, something useful. That they are now seen as art is secondary.

I discovered later that the documentary film of the quilt makers in the exhibition was co-directed and produced by Vanessa Vadim, the 38-year-old daughter of Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim, the French filmmaker who directed the young Fonda in "Barbarella." His first wife was Brigitte Bardot whose career he launched with "And God Created Women." Vadim and Fond's daughter was named after Vanessa Redgrave. In addition to the quilting film, she has produced documentaries on racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.

For more information about the The Quilts of Gee's Bend, look here and here. The exhibit has been held over until Dec. 31.

The new de Young Museum, which has been open for just over a year, was an awesome surprise. Its vast walls and halls reminded me of the Tate Modern in London, housed in a huge old power plant on the south bank of the Thames, which I visited last year, and I learned that both museums were designed by Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog. The main entrance to the De Young features a walkway of pavement stones and boulders designed by environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy which includes a series of earthquake-inspired cracks. The giant box of a building, which has been likened by critics to a rusty aircraft carrier, is sheathed in stamped and dimpled copper to simulate the dappled texture of sunlight filtering through leafy trees. At one end is a 144-foot tower that twists in a clockwise direction and appears, from a distance, to be falling. The view from the 9th floor, even on a foggy and rainy afternoon, was stunning. Below, the eccentric landscaping of Walter Hood which defies symetry, could be seen to best effect. "This is not your standard art-filled box," wrote the Chronicle's John King. If the building "doesn't have the skin-deep romance of its predecessor, it offers something deeper: a hint of mystery, of secrets that might reveal themselves over time."

After lunch, our group of eight pilgrims walked in the rain through the dramatic Osher Sculpture Garden at one end of the building to the almost subterranean "skyspace" designed by James Turrell. The artist, known for his visionary work with light, calls it "Three Gems," for reasons that escaped me, and it has the feel of sacred space. The round chamber modeled after a stupa is entered through a tunnel walkway, and includes a stone bench where visitors can view the sky through a round hole cut in the ceiling. Subtle lighting changes color which alters the sky's perception. For our visit, an almost white sky and spraying rainwater gave a unique perspective. After a time of silence, we almost spontaneously broke into song, our voices echoing deeply with the chamber. It was a priceless moment.

The old de Young was fatally damaged by the 1989 earthquake. When a bond measure to rebuild the museum failed in 1998, socialite Dede Wilsey embarked on a capital campaign to raise $190 million from private sources, $10 million from her own fortune. More than 7,000 donated money in amounts as small as $5. It is one of the largest private gifts ever given to a city for cultural purposes.

The history of Michael de Young, who first established the museum, is shrouded by scandal and rumor. Known primarily as the founder of the San Francisco Chronicle, de Young and his family arrived in San Francisco during the Civil War. The de Jongs were Dutch jews. According to historian Grey Brechin, author of the fascinating Imperial San Francisco: "Rumors kept circulating that Mother de Young had run a whorehouse back in St. Louis, and that Charles and Michael de Young's sister had worked, gainfully, in that establishment. They were considered shady people." The Chronicle was famous for yellow journalism, and Charles was shot and killed by the son of a Baptist minister he had defamed. The minister, Brechin says, called the de Young brothers "the bastard progeny of hell, the illegitimate offspring of the keeper of a whorehouse." Later brother Gustavus de Young was sent to an insane asylum in Stockton. In 1884, Michael de Young himself was shot by the son of sugar baron Claus Spreckles over a supposed libel, but he survived. The jury acquitted the shooter on the grounds of reasonable cause. Ambrose Bierce wrote, "Hatred of de Young is the first and best test of a gentleman."

The M.D. de Young Memorial Museum was established with profits and artifacts left over from the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1893. The fair was de Young's idea and the original museum housed over 6,000 objects left behind as well as his own collection and thousands of items donated by local families wishing to preserve artifacts from the Gold Rush era.

The descendents of the de Young continue to rule San Francisco today, Brechin says, and he details the in-bred exploits of more recent generations in his book which he says was written to explain the basis for the power structure's current legitimacy.
These people with vast wealth and power today are self-conscious aristocrats. I think its important to go back and see what these fortunes were built on — essentially blackmail, extortion, and other criminalities were at the roots of some of these family fortunes.
The legacy for us is the new and very modern de Young museum and exhibitions which include the beautiful and insightful story of the quilting artists of Gee's Bend. Not a bad tradeoff, it seems to me.

To visit the de Young's web site, click here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Days of the Dead

We have not one but three days to celebrate death.

Last night was Halloween, never one of my favorite holidays, when everyone, young and old, tries on new identities to see how they fit. My favorite, seen last night among the crowds of crazies on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, was a young Latina with a blood-splattered baby struggling to climb out of a hole in her pregnant belly. There were numerous witches and vampires, and the usual walking dead without costumes taking photos and videos of skimply clad teenagers shivering in 40-degree weather.

Back in the Sixties, when I was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was assigned to cover the party on Halloween at the Black Cat, a notorious bar for homosexuals on the edge of North Beach. Halloween was the only day when transgendered folks could legally cross dress and it was a major social event. There were bleachers for spectators, kleig lights criss-crossing the sky, and limos which unloaded the glamorous stars, Miss this and Miss that, to thunderous applause.

It is also the day when we sing these immortal words from Bobby "Boris" Pickett's Halloween anthem "Monster Mash":
He did the Mash. ("He did the Monster Mash!")
He did the Mash. ("It was a graveyard smash!")
He did the Mash. ("It came on in a flash")
Pickett, so our mutual friend Mike told me, invested his earnings in Afghani hash which he then smuggled back into this country inside of oriental rugs. Ah, the Sixties!

Last night thousands congregated downtown in streets emptied of cars as a police helicopter circled overhead. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that
General themes in costumes emerged as the night deepened. The ornate Mexican wrestler mask — think "Nacho Libre" — was a frequent go-to item for men. For women, a surprisingly popular look was the yellow-and-black honey bee, accompanied by a yellow tutu and twirling antennae.

On the political front, one Dick Cheney grinning carrying a shot gun and what looked to be a dead quail in a cage was spotted. A few Borats mixed with a couple of Ali G.'s. The haunted V from "V for Vendetta" was seen several times as was Shrek, the Energizer Bunny and the droogies from "A Clockwork Orange."

This morning the legacy was trash in the streets, rotting pumpkins, and two people in the hospital with stab wounds. Certainly not a few students went to class with hangovers.

Today is the Feast of All Saint's Day, also called All Hallows Day. Tomorrow is All Souls Day. Both today and tomorrow are celebrated by Mexicans as Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. I'm not sure how the four celebrations are connected, but the theme of death is all pervasive. Long Live Death!

Of course, by means of Google and Wikipedia, you can now find out everything; the internet is one big brain which never forgets anything, though it often fails to distinguish between fact and rumor. The Day of the Dead came first, celebrated by the Aztecs for thousand of years. Spanish conquistadores were horrified by their celebration of death, which was based on the belief that life was just a dream and death was the only true reality. Today Mexicans celebrate the date with marigolds, sugar skulls and a special bread, as well as the construction of household shrines and processions to the cemetery. It has been especially popular in Oaxaca, but all celebrations there have been curtailed by the present revolution and oppression. In Guanajuato, I visited the Museum of the Mummies, one of the area's top tourist attractions, where dozens of mummified human corpses, mysteriously preserved by unique climatic and soil conditions, are on display. The grusome place had a festive air as parents pointed out to young children the baby mummy and the pregnant mummy.

I asked Noel, my expert on all things religious, to explain the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day and he simply noted that "we are all souls but only a few of us become saints."

Garrison Keillor told me on the radio yesterday that All Saints Day was started in the 3rd century by Pope Gregory the Great to counter the pagan holidays. One of them might have been Samhain, the Irish word for November, when the first three days were celebrated by the Celts as the end of the summer season and the harvest. It's also the name for one of the sabbat feasts to mark the Wiccan wheel of the year.

I think it's a good thing to remember the dead and to realize that life for all of us is a terminal disease. On these days of celebration and remembrance, I will think of my father and mother, my uncles and aunt, my good and much-missed friend Peter, Allen who survived a heart attack but not liver cancer, Betsy and Ma'im who died from breast cancer and hepititis C, and all of those other friends and relatives who are gone but not forgotten. They live on, if not in Heaven, at least in our hearts.