Thursday, July 26, 2007

father time

As Dad waited to make the left turn, he said impatiently, "Come on gang, or that green arrow's gonna disappear." He was speaking to the car ahead of us, which was slow to accelerate.

There are words and phrases I have heard my mom and dad say all my life, and I am so used to them I hardly hear them. My dad says "run of the mill," and "land office business," old phrases so imprinted in him they do not fade away.

"Gang" is another such word, a casual word used to address other people, such as a group of friends. I think of "Our Gang," the TV show otherwise called the "Little Rascals." Dad was born in 1929. I imagine there was a time when kids said the word to each other, "Hey gang!" the way I said "Hey guys!" to my friends in the 70s and 80s.

It is a charming use for such a sinister word. Time slips by in language.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


When I was little I was enthralled in stories of heroic endurance, whether of Geronimo or of Cabeza de Vaca. I did not and could not distinguish the feats of conquerors from those of the defeated.

I was browsing in R.J. Julia, an independent bookstore, when I came across a book called "Brutal Journey," and my childhood interest in de Vaca's long ordeal was relit. He was part of an expedition in the 1520s to Florida. The expedition was ruined by catastrophe after catastrophe. Finally, after being saved from starvation by aborigines near present-day Galveston, Texas, de Vaca and his men make one more attempt to launch their boat. It is sunk just off shore, with everything they possess, including their clothes.

The author makes the insightful statement that the loss of the clothing and armor was doubtless a harsh blow to men instilled with the idea that their superior civilization and civility was represented in their dress. Suddenly, they were reduced to the condition of the savages they feared and hated. They wept on the beach, naked in the chill wind, reduced in more ways than one.

The natives who had helped them returned, and upon learning of their plight (and the death of some of the men), joined the Spaniards in loud lamentation. This sympathetic act increased the misery of these superior men, convinced that they had really reached bottom.

de Vaca persuaded his comrades that their only chance of survival was to join the Indians to their village. Even at that extremity, some Spaniards resisted, convinced they would be sacrificed. Finally they did join them. But in the chill wind and their emaciation, some men could not walk. The natives carried them on their backs. They lit fires along the way to warm them.

The hold outs lived on the outskirts of the village, unable to accept the Indians as human. After several months they were discovered dead. The state of the corpses enraged the Indians, for it was evident that the Spaniards had eaten the corpses of their comrades. Only one body was whole. For a time they considered killing the Spaniards in their midst.

The Spaniards, whose sense of superiority rested in large part upon the attribution of cannibalism to the indigenous Other, had themselves sunk to cannibalism. And the "savages," blindly maligned for eating human flesh, considered punishment against the breakers of the taboo. Oh the poetic lessons of History!

riding the merritt parkway

Some wag said the young Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person. The Merritt Parkway, running from Connecticut down to the New York line, is an American’s idea of Europe. Or at least my idea of Europe. Built over fifty years ago, the Parkway is a relic already crumbling in places. But one still gets whiffs of what the planners were after as one races along under a sun blinking through leafy boughs.

I felt a momentary hallucination heading north toward New Haven yesterday when I looked in the rearview mirror of my folks’ Honda Accord and saw a silvery grey torpedo on wheels coming up on me. I watched the old Jaguar pass me, an antique vision of Futurity: aeronautic shaping combined curiously with chrome spokes sparkling in a Gatsby era sun. For that moment I felt I was in that earlier time, a Manhattan ad man heading to my Stepford home in Fairfield County, pulling off my tie as I drive. In that moment I sensed another era’s – and another class’ – effort to enclose even the highway in an aura of swift, modern elegance.

Even the highway! Think of it! Now, the idea of elegance in a highway is ridiculous in the extreme. There is hardly a more barrenly efficient space in the whole of America. It is reminiscent of recent efforts by some airlines to “restore the romance” to flying. But as a trenchant observer (whose name I forget) has observed, these efforts mistake material luxury for romance. The real death blow to this so-called romance, of course, is that jet travel has become a truly mass transportation, as romantic as taking a bus. The age of romance in flying was an aura born not of slices of avocado on one’s plate or boutique lotions on one’s skin but of class privilege. The early years of jet travel were defined by an elite exclusivity. That era is over.

At least some older folks remember such a thing. But who even associates the highway with elegance and class?

Riding along the Merrritt is analogous to flying on an airline that is strangely stuck in a time warp, with stewardesses in space age pill boxes and scarves striding up and down. One rides through a brief age when commuting by car held a sense of excitement and prestige. All one has to do is drive on I-95, the interstate parallel to it, for a few miles to see how far highway travel is from either the mass romance of the road trip or the executive romance of the gliding daily commute.

As Robert Sullivan notes in the Christian Science Monitor, highway services have been taken over by corporate providers, ironing out all sense of regional difference in a wide band along both sides of every highway. In facilitating more and more highway travel, these companies – La Quinta, Pizza Hut, Boston Market and Popeyes, not to mention the massive “mini-marts” smelling of stale Snickers and Pine-Sol – have also made difference (and the road trip romance) disappear. I challenge you to find one regionally unique product in these places (in Cumberland Farms recently I found an “ice cream canolli” produced in New Jersey). One bumps and swoops along I-95 in frightening proximity to roaring 18-wheelers, cars and SUVs of all kinds, and cement barriers scarred with slip ups. Sun glares down on defeated urban landscapes of which the highway is a part. Between cities, one rolls along in a broad swath cut through faceless vegetation. Either way, one feels like an ant naked on a wide, rumbling ribbon.

On the Parkway, on the other hand, trees encroach, arching over the roadway. Suddenly one is not trapped on an endless strip under a cruel sky, but is flitting down a cool, soft corridor. This feeling is accentuated by the fact that only sections of the original plan remain in places; some massive clover leafs have replaced the cramped, if intimate, on-ramps appearing out of the forest. These places are shorn of trees. The sense of vast space is oppressive, the force of the sky mitigated by nothing. Or a long, blank bridge cuts across the horizon.

But then the trees cluster closer again, the breakdown lanes disappear, one is enclosed in a green tunnel, and the four lanes squeeze together to fit under a wholly unique bridge. The bridges of the Parkway are treasures of public design, a rare example of resources spent on beautifying public spaces. It is even rarer for the transient space of a highway, as opposed to a park or train station, which have long attracted architectural ambitions. The fact that such thought was lavished on a roadway intended mainly for the wealthy white collareds shows how dominant classes are able to steer the definition (and monies) of the “public” in their direction.

One memorable bridge is arched and faced with rough rocks of many hues, and then is half swallowed in ivy. One is covered in wrought iron clusters of grapes. Others are modernistic or Art Deco, with stylized wings rising above and cut in sharp, simple lines. Some feature sculptural panels one barely glimpses. What fun it is whipping along, caught for a few moments by the sight of a modest but attentively made bridge before it disappears behind one and gives way to another. Enough of the Parkway is still intact that one can catch a whiff of a suburban class romance of the road – one which did not last long. You can sense that era even if you are not lucky enough to see a Jaguar racing up on you.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

America's Slippery Slope

I hate the need of some people to make monsters of others. I am a humanist. No matter what another person has done, he or she is still a person. This point may seem simple, and in little need of making, but in the noise of the present day media machine, I think it is actually easy to forget.

When I say a killer or a terrorist is nonetheless still a person, why is it assumed I am lessening or softening their offense? Not at all. Precisely because they violated the humanity of other people through killing, they are guilty of an essential betrayal.

Those who insist that Hitler or Saddam Hussein are not human – monsters – are guilty of a betrayal similar (if far smaller, of course) to the ones they carried out. Just as killers deny the humanity of others in order to carry out their killing, pseudo-moralists must deny the humanity of others in order to carry out their task. What is their task? To divide the human race between humans and “monsters.” I am not going to argue that this moral division is as serious as the bloody division of life and death perpetrated by killers.

But consider this: the beginning of killing is symbolic and moral. Hitler only succeeded in his task of killing because the prerequisite moral and symbolic segregation was accomplished. So in this present day “War on Terror” I insist on the humanity of terrorists. Why? For the simple reason that demonizing them is preparing the way for atrocities committed by us in the name of right.

In other words, we are preparing the way to follow in the de-humanizing footsteps of those we hate. We hunger to become like them. When one hungers to become a terrorist – a hunger many Americans feel – morality becomes a burden.

But I insist on this: morality is a joy and a freeing force. Morality frees me from hate and allows me to judge wrongdoing rationally, without myself becoming a wrongdoer. It worries me that so many Americans are eager to join in terrorism: first symbolic and moral, and finally actual.

In Harlem I passed a man wearing a T-shirt reading, "I support terrorist prisoner abuse." Such a statement is simply a hunger for revenge, as well as politically lazy. The very point is that without a proper procedure one does not in fact know whether people in custody are "terrorists." To simply trust the president is to believe that executive omniscience trumps facts.

What I want to point to, however, is that the slogan avoided the word "torture." Why this linguistic delicacy? I think this slight veil or censorship is the fig leaf that allows people to, on the one hand, divide the world into good and evil, and on the other, to pretend that they belong only in the former camp. We are copying the terrorists, goes the thinking, but we maintain a tiny symbolic difference that proves our superiority.

The other day I heard a typical symbolic or linguistic example of this thinking. I was listening to National Public Radio’s “On Point.” One of Tom Ashbrook’s guests was a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer. When asked about the situation in Pakistan, this woman said that the country was indeed home to “virulent” Muslims, and the borderlands with Afghanistan was a place where the Taliban movement is “nesting.”

I object to these descriptions because in dehumanizing those people, we participate in the logic of terror, we copy the tactics of those we fight. Could the attackers of 9-11 have carried out that act without first designating those attacked as cockroaches, less than human? Why, I ask, are Americans so eager to follow in their footsteps? While seeming to fight terrorists, these Americans – including the journalist from Philadelphia – dream of becoming them.

Hate is not essentially immoral. Hate is an important moral force. What is deeply immoral is to dehumanize. Dehumanization is a betrayal.

how suburbs are like movies

Suburbs are like movies in a certain way. They are beautiful things, artistic representations whose beauty depends on something ugly. Their delicate rustic flavor relies on an industrial apparatus which remains as hidden as possible. If you were to stand on the patio of my parents’ home facing back toward the neighbor’s big green yard, you would know what I mean. You could feel both aspects mingling: the bucolic ease of the tree-rimmed yards in your sight, and a hard, relentless hum and roar in your hearing. What is that roar? The highway. It is out of sight, but its noise cannot be masked.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno symbolized the utter split between the movie’s delicate representation of nature and its technological production as an “orchid in the land of technology,” a flower blooming unnaturally out of cameras and recording equipment. The suburb relies too on this chasm between representation and production.

The suburb retains the outer shell or husk of the agricultural past while injecting it cleverly with technological networks that allow a much higher density of occupation than in the days of the farmers. The shell of the farm is retained while the economic base is transformed. Places that were once remote and lonely, requiring a day or more of travel in a wagon from the nearest town, are transformed into cozy nooks for those with salaries and cars. Every corner is steadily filled up. In Madison, the Milano Corporation identifies still-remaining chunks of nature for destruction and transformation into bucolic scenes.

These productions, for efficiency, are not particularly convincing even from the standards of the suburb. As representations they are too hard, with all the trees razed, replaced by a flat green carpet. Huge houses dominate these empty spaces. It will be decades, if at all, before such developments approximate the successful suburban representation: houses nearly overwhelmed by trees on three or four sides.

Just because I do not like the essential falsity and hiding on which suburbs are based does not mean I cannot judge them on their own standards of beauty, just like movies that “work” or do not. Milano’s developments do not work because the house dominates the scene too much. You are aware of a mighty force that erased nature and dropped from the sky multiple mansions. In their brutal overpowering and ironing out of nature they are like movies that overpower spectators with technological might. A more gentle wooing – of nature or of spectators – works best, through sensitivity to the contours of the land on one hand, and through sensitivity to the charms of story, on the other.

In these shoreline towns those streets whose houses were built one at a time, by different builders, are inevitably more beautiful than those built by a single developer. This is not to say that developers cannot make beautiful houses. Not at all. My point is that the overall effect is off due to their forceful unification of the whole space under one producing hand. In more concrete terms, I mean that all the trees are cut down, for efficiency of production no doubt, and emphasis given to big empty lawns and big blank houses. Nature is utterly defeated.

If one travels along River Road in Clinton, modest houses emerge from enchanting veils of trees. One house in particular is blessed with a natural landscape that was not eradicated by the builder. As I bike past this house, I round a small hillock covered with leafy trees. As this hillock subsides, the house is revealed behind it. The driveway curves around the hill, emphasizing the topographical uniqueness of the place. As I move past the house, there is a graceful visual movement, a curving, a revealing, a subsiding – all shaded by numerous trees.

While I bike the margins of Madison, Clinton and Killingworth, I notice something too about lawns. Many homeowners feel uncomfortable with thick tree cover in front of the house, so they thin them out. But this results in a worse effect that is neither the flat shady floor of forest nor the gentle green carpet of grass. Because the shade of the trees is reduced, an opportunity is given to smaller plants which struggle for the light and space opened up. What results is a scruffy effect, of graceful trees amid a chopped and clipped space of weeds and saplings. If they had simply left the thick tree cover, been happy with the shady peace prevailing, the house could be seen between the many trunks. What they have, however, is a messy and ongoing insurgency of plants versus clipper. The owners do not have the energy to completely pacify these rebel plants under the occupation of a lawn. They were better off letting sleeping dogs lie. (Yes, I am straying egregiously here).

But whether the representation is successful or forced, however, all suburban homes depend equally on the fiction of removal from the city. All suburban domestic dreamworlds are plugged in to the same power cable: that howling waste of the highway. Only by plunging these great knives into the breast of the land could these pretty pictures of houses-in-nature be produced. No matter how pretty the picture, it is this essential dishonesty I dislike. Not to mention the illogic of violence done to nature in order to pay homage to that same nature.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

in the road

Riding my bike down the middle of Island Avenue, swerving from one side to the other across the yellow line, was an unequalled joy. The road was completely empty, and nearly sunk in the blackness of massive maples reaching across it, blotting out the evening sky and muffling the street lamps.

To be master of a road is to race down it in a Chevy Chevette, burly sound billowing into the wind. To be master of the road means submitting to its logic and its power, which is: straightness. And speed. Cutting like a knife through space.

To swing across the yellow line side to side on a bike is to change the road into something else. A place for swooping in the dark like a swallow. A swallow with hairy legs and a bike. Not a master of the road, but a fool toying with it in the absence of other users.

To be a fool is to ignore the rules -- but only as long as the road is unoccupied. To be a fool does not mean to be so thick skinned one ignores the demands of the efficient machine (see "the awkwardness of intersections") and its functioning. It only means to long for cessation, for a breathing out, for a break in a power that does not know how to stop.

Oh, bike and road, swerve and dark. May you be so until the end of the world!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The first oddity is "to garnish one's wages." When I think of garnishing, "adding something" comes to mind. How did such an absurd wording come to be? Was it a euphemism? To "append a removal"? To "decorate with a defacement"? To "promote with a firing"? A salary can also be so garnished, I think.

Or is the point to diminish the force of the act with diminution? For any garnish is always a measly little olive, or sprig of parsley. One never eats it or pays it any mind: it is there to throw to the side as one gets to the (meaty) heart of the matter. Was the word "garnish" chosen for this administrative cruelty to diminish it? Like adding a stalk of celery or slivers of carrot to one's paycheck? A teeny-tiny adornment, in the form of a little-wittle deduction?

The second oddity is "butterfly." For a long time I have been sure that this word was a mutation of history. Switch the "b" and the "fl" and one has a perfect description of what this insect does: it flutters by. I have not looked into the Oxford English Dictionary for confirmation. Perhaps I do not want to be disappointed to find that this perfect little eddy in time does not actually exist.

But lately I have made peace with "butterfly." There is something poetic in the associations. I see a butterfly opening and closing its wings on a windowsill, sipping at a saucer of melting butter, bathed in buttery sunlight. There is a peacefulness in the word, a domestic warmth, to thinking of this beautiful creature naturally drawn to human kitchens. And now that butter is less used, and is no longer made at home, there is a tint of the past in the image, as if the butterfly itself signified a rustic past of Heidi-like simplicity, of a time when butterflies fluttered by one's doorstep, drawn by the scent of the butter in the churn.

Still, "fly" makes me pause. It does not fit that insect. There is dragon fly, of course. But it has clear wings at least. "Bug" makes more sense: butterbug.

Monday, July 16, 2007

"illegal" friends visit

Sunday night Abinadi and Herlinda drove up after a day driving from Palmyra, New York, where they had gone to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a Mormon spectacle depicting the founding of the church. For Abi, coming to Madison has become something of a pilgrimage since he lived here for 10 months in the late 90s. He had met my sister in Houston where she had served a mission. She had invited him to come and stay for a few months in my parents’ bed and breakfast in order to learn some English. My mom used to read him children’s books. The bare ability he gained in that time made a transformative difference when he went back to Houston.

“That little bit of English I learn here, when I go back to Houston they make me foreman,” he said the night they arrived, as we ate dinner. “Why? I don’t know the job more than the others. Because I speak a little English.” Wielding his clumsy and unwieldy English, he exuded far more confidence than I feel. Beginning with very little, he feels his progress keenly, and that energy and satisfaction is what makes successful “small” immigrants (as opposed to the super rich who buy their way in) such dynamic people and community builders. Whereas I, of the nation’s racial and educational upper strata, struggle to find my “place.” Unlike Abi, who saw English lift his hourly wage in a startling way, I lack a clear and definable trajectory. Dollarwise, my salary will be most likely down from my father’s.

His kids’ names tell something of his life. The first daughter, Lizette, is named after my mother. When they got out of their car Sunday night little Lizette held a plant with a bow on it, obediently handing it to Mom, who hugged her namesake. The second daughter is Nimbe, a Mexican Indian name. And the little tike who hid his head in his mother’s embrace is named Heber. I don’t know if the name comes from the Book of Mormon (like the name Abinadi) or if Abi spent time in Heber, Utah, but somehow they must like the name. “He-BEAR, no a la calle!” I heard his mom call out to him today from the front yard.

Right now little Nimbe prattles away in mom’s and dad’s bedroom in Spanish, and dad labors with what remains of his missionary Spanish from more than fifty years before. Yesterday we got on the I-chat on mom’s and dad’s computer, and there was my sister J--, in Utah in 100 degree heat, who had originally taught Abi in Houston those years ago. The adults maneuvered the computers to catch the squirming kids for each other, and I heard her Spanish begin to grope from its sickbed of slow forgetting.

There were moments of discomfort, of two worlds coming together: like tonight when they cooked dinner for us, my parents dug in as soon as our plates of enchiladas were on the table. Abi and Herlinda only came to the table later with their food, and I felt weird about that. Or mom asking Abi if he would not like to come back to work at the deli nearby where he had worked before, when Abi is a successful subcontractor making hundreds in a good day. But these are small things. We feel their pride, their struggle. Herlinda tries to pronounce words of English. I enjoy their kids’ liveliness, roly poly as kittens. Literally: they climbed atop the big exercise ball in the basement, Abi trying to hold them atop it, but always sliding off into a heap. We feel connected – not only through this church I have disavowed (which Abi does not know), but through a human connection, a sharing of resources.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

savin rock park utopia

At Chick’s Drive In (founded 1950) we sat on the white painted cement benches and ate soft shell crab and onion rings in the sun, surprised at this new vantage point on New Haven harbor, observing the number of hugely fat people waddling out with trays of food. I wondered why it was taboo for bartenders to serve weaving patrons but not kosher for waiters or ice cream servers to turn away the fat (I suppose the big difference is that no one expects the obese to die, or kill another, from this sweating scoop of ice cream, this wheezing slab of steak. Their dying is slower, less legally traceable to any one restaurant). The face of the building was a grey crenellated concrete as seen in industrial parks and storage units. Was it possibly ever seen as modern and attractive? “The Best Customers in the World Walk Thru these Doors,” read a sign. We were happy.

Looking at the Marilyn Monroe photos and others of grinning white men, dead owners, I imagined this place, right across from the beach, as a racial flashpoint in the fifties and sixties, as “uppity” blacks tried pushing their way into white-T-shirted proletarian haunts such as this, semi-public for their proximity to beaches and parks. Just a guess, of course, a haunting from the woodwork of the place, lets say. Now it is mixed. I saw mixed race couples canoodling. Kitchen and counter staff of all major races goofed orders and ignored people. But it was all for the best in my case: two stuffed clams with melted butter would have cut days off my lifespan.

Afterward we drove along the shore to Savin Rock Park, a long public promenade. There, too, all races and ethnicities walked together, walking absurd poodles with neon pink leashes, bulldogs like mythical Chinese beasts, dachshunds in dresses; holding hands or skateboarding, crinkling their faces at the stink of the sea. I mentioned to Shane that I had not seen a similarly common space in New Haven. The green is a great space, but embraced by none. That’s because it is a racial border line, he said, between Yale and the city. York Square is the same. I walk into Popeye’s with Brendan and everyone’s staring!

But here, what joy: no fear, no loathing, no pretension (not beyond recommended daily dosages). Old folks sat on benches with the names of dead on them, and I felt like I was in China again as pop music boomed from speakers and people of all ages danced the Macarena. An old man with wispy white hair and batik shirt gyrated. Little girls were unafraid in front of dozens of watchers. It was a mundane utopia. Have I ever seen public dancing in this country? I don't think so. A Turkish or Caucasian girl wore a veil, walking with clipped stride. Post-Maya manga-eyed moppets played on the grass. Two black bikers, the Ryderz from their flamboyant jackets, helmets back off their foreheads, strutted their bikes in the parking lot. Massive restaurants covered with wood shingles – Jimmies, Turks – served food to acres of cars parked about them. The architecture was brutal and the asphalt cracked but for once in Connecticut I have found a place not segregated for the poor nor enclaved for the rich, between the extremes of Madison and New Haven.

zounds! empire of loons!

militant birds smash holes in the scoreboard
chattering crass bulletins of war against us
Zounds! Aves shoma-ye musuh yang setia bist*leaflets screech
in mishmash person-speak but all interpreters have gone over to them
sparrow fists knock out lit-up Gap ads willy nilly
youth go dark once sun-browed they shudder gimpy
they fumble with a smoke but it’s a target
for bird insurgent brushfire and brash beak-snippery
and precision plucking haywire the Birds its real now bitch
Gad! slapstick congeals even Conan falters into yogurt tomfoolery
bushwhacked guanxi goons fry in gravy boats snitching on
Prada primping bald-faced lynch mobs
pelican commandos burst confetti
on bewildered media handlers entreating wildebeests armed
against gandy-dancer lobbyist plots in the swooping zoom
browbeat of hamfisted squirrel jihadis
large-livin’ defense contractors take the fifth in bivouac waffling
those insomniac albatross Bushmen furrow brows from on high
a sizzling is heard hard and red insane as tactical nuke witches
a blistering Big Mac looms in the last frippery of sunset
loons trumpet jitterbug blitzkrieg and Freeport stock sags at last
amidst poker chips and laws shrilly splattered
on our neckties we squabble in hope of GPS amnesty
our lips move jabber-praying O hawkish kingpin
O Boewulf blogspirit O space shuttle puncture wound
this endzone brouhaha thriller is up
this titanic dither of ticker tape is done.

* birds are your loyal enemy (Latin Persian Indonesian German)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

poems by strobe

as usual, i was surfing randomly through blogs for fun, and came unexpectedly upon some mad mad poetry, of a violent ripping ecstatic force! god, it makes me feel like my poems are some kind of genteel stately old woman uttering calm phrases at a long dark table. . . this strobe is unbelievable. some of his/her poems go too far towards incoherence and absurdity i think, giving us nothing to hang on to, but many of them give you enough of a line, a story, a cast of voices, to be buffeted by madness and still hang onto some shreds of sanity, which look even more pitiful after the tsunami of words has dripped away.

looks like Strobe did what i did: wrote stuff for a couple of years and suddenly and finally decided a blog was about the only way he could realistically get people to read his writing. so he posted like 135 posts the first month!! i think there were like 16 views of his profile. but his writing kicked ass i thought. good writing shines through, does it not? i hope. . . which is not the same as saying good writing will make money or gain great fame. but it does sear itself into the flesh of those who have touched it. rock on, oh sutralectric poet!

look at "oblivion" on sorry i could not see a way to link it to this blog.

Flying Shards of a Better Tomorrow: Bush uses Time Machine to Prevent Nuclear Attack on the US

Flying Shards of a Better Tomorrow: Bush uses Time Machine to Prevent Nuclear Attack on the US

an irony of history

I heard a startling story from Micheal Hodges, author of AK-47, the Story of the People's Gun, on the radio just now. He told of seeing stacks of AK-47s stacked in a park in an Israeli city in 1982, evidence of the victory over the Palestinians in Lebanon. After some research, Hodges found that those captured weapons were shipped by the CIA to "our" jihadis in Peshawar, Pakistan. It is very likely, he said, that Osama Bin Laden's encounter with the AK-47 occurred with a gun shipped in by the CIA.

Mahmood Mandani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, gives an excellent account of the United States' role in creating non-state terrorism as a tactic of the late Cold War.

recording mom

My parents are leaving home soon for a long mission. They are old, and I think how it will be when they are gone and their voices no longer heard. So when I moved back to their home after my funding dried up in New York, I decided to record them.

The first few times my brother and I recorded Mom and Dad, Dad was the one telling stories of personal moments with humorous honesty, while Mom tried to provide a comprehensive chronicle of the family. Not only was her narrative rather flat, absorbed into the Family – “and then so and so went to X school and so and so moved to the third grade –“ but every one of Dad’s honest moments, such as the struggle of being bishop of a congregation of working class people, or the lousy aspects of a certain house, were met with an incredulous look, a raising of the eyebrows, as if honest reflection were a personal insult to God. Or to the idea that (perfect) appearances must by upheld at all costs.

Last night, when for once no one had anywhere to go, I told Shane to bring down the microphones, and Mom and Dad sat in their usual place on the smaller sofa. We began with food. I thought we were going in the same direction when Dad said, “at first we’d bring our own food to the Big E (Eastern States Exposition) for lack of money. It was only later that finances got better, and we would go up to gorge ourselves.” My brother and I laughed at this apt, vivid verb, its low key usage springing doors on a hundred memories of all of us standing, wolfing down baked potatoes in the Maine building, or nibbling clam fritters in the Rhode Island building, or blueberry pie or funnel cake, as crowds flowed around us. . .but Mom acted offended.

“We did not gorge ourselves!” she said.

But somehow over the next couple of hours she stopped being the scold on the sidelines of the story and became an actor in it. She made frequent comments making clear her approval of liberatory changes. “Oh, I remember what a difference it made when Susan began wearing pants to school! Think about trying to climb the jungle gym in a skirt or dress!” But more than this was her letting go of her memories, letting them out for us to hear.

It began with talk of Drive Ins, I think. Both of them eagerly talked of this odd cultural development, this wish to eat in one’s car, the worry about dripping ketchup on one’s pants, or letting conversation falter, the ease of scanning the people in the surrounding cars. Then it moved on to clothing, and Mom suddenly flowered with praise for her Mom’s sewing skills. And her own. “I still remember the dress I made in sewing class in middle school. It was pink and green with a white belt I bought. And it looked so good on me!” Dad looked on with an amused, affectionate smile.

She went on to tell how she had acted in various church or high school plays (something I had not known), “even touring around with ‘Patsy’ to Fort Cove, to Heber, to what was that little town. . .” We laughed at her pride in these metropolitan triumphs, at her story of the arm breaking off the sofa in one play, at her thrill in kissing the boy. “Oh, we had so much fun!” she said, adamant and surprised all at once.

In her beloved remembrance of the vivacious girl she had been, I could see that it was reappearing unbidden, inhabiting her old pudgy body, animating the still-sparkling face. And Dad beside her, lips pursed in an attempt to suppress his merriment, that quirky crooked little smile we had dubbed “Kermit the Frog,” still the shy kid pleased as punch but not about to say anything daringly sweet.

But the utter joy of the memories brought sudden tears, almost as soon as she mentioned something called the Dance Festival, and she waved her hand for us to stop the recorder. She had lost her composure but the beautiful thing was on its way out of her anyway. And our interest was piqued. In fits and starts she said the annual Dance Festival was when all the LDS girls in Utah of a certain age would dress in the same costumes and dance all at once in a stadium or arena.

“One year we all wore white,” she said, lips pressed together, “It was so beautiful.” I asked why they stopped the Festival soon after she took part and she said there were just too many girls to fit. Dad had seen it once, thousands or tens of thousands of girls whirling and forming at once. He also recalled a mass singing event in the egg dome of the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, half the seats taken by young singers, a gale force that vibrated the seat under him.

It sounded to me as if some odd fetish or vision of youth had prevailed on the old Leaders, some wish to see or hear young people formed into one sea of heavenly power, waves of overwhelming voice or spectacle, bursting out from the center of Zion. Now the church is all about low density sprawl, decentralization, modest temples all over the world, a denationalization of the church (even while keeping power tightly held in the Mormon Vatican in Salt Lake).

But for my Mother, to be part of that divine sea, locking arms and twirling giddily with her girl friends, dresses flaring in the clear evening light, was a treasure of memory. They were at that moment the very center of the Saints. Unlocked, this treasure memory was both painfully real and painfully far away, across the dark waves of forgetting. I switched off the tape recorder reluctantly, still transfixed by the glimpse of Mother before she mothered us nine, of her transfixed at the strength of her own adamant joy.

Friday, July 13, 2007

n.korea proposes peace talks

here is the link to the story:

We see today one of the clearest reportings of North Korea's wish for a peace treaty between the US and itself. Rarely does the US media report on these frequent statements, choosing instead to focus on bizarrely translated, rhetorically overheated propaganda statements about turning the south into a "lake of fire," etc etc.

The reporting was still hedged around with the usual we-can't-trust them wording. But the last line of the story was telling. After explaining why these people were untrustworthy -- again reporting some of their rhetoric -- it reads that the US and South Korea had not given any response.

North Korea is begging us for a peace treaty. Just because they surround their requests with macho posturing does not mean they do not want it. It just means they refuse to let their call be seen as a surrender.

North Korea is not democratic, clearly. I have no intention of praising or supporting their political system. My only point here is to stress that they are a weak, isolated, desperately poor country which realistically threatens us not at all. We, the US, hold all the cards. It is time to make peace with them. They have no chance of democratizing while we tighten our grip around their throats (much as in Cuba).

Or do we not in fact want peace, or democracy? Is it perhaps better to continue holding them by the balls, strangling them into submission?

The Official Media here in the US has done a good job over the years of bowing to government wishes and portraying North Korea as evil, erratic, dangerous, untrustworthy, all half truths, all expressed so as to keep up public support for America's belligerent policy of isolating and ruining the country and regime. The media did a great job serving the state, editing out our crimes and magnifying theirs. But it is time for peace.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

reply to starfire: moral gated communities

Starfire, your comment (on "Screaming Bloody Murder") made me reflect on what I had written. I think some of what you object to -- though you did not say so -- was how I characterized my own opposition to Israeli occupation. I said, this opposition is no touchy-feely, New Age-y type of thing, no every life is sacred kind of thing, etc etc.

Why did I use those terms? In fact I do feel every life is sacred. In fact I do respect much of what the "New Age" movement (whatever it is) attempts to do.

Here is the reason, I think: I am tired of peace and human rights activists being shoved out off the mainstream by innuendo and cheap labels, particularly ones which "feminize" ideals like peace and justice as expressions of weakness, cowardice, lack of touch with reality.

My aim was correct, I think: to oppose this type of characterization. I see more and more that the goal of peace is far braver and more excruciating than the urge for war. And yet -- why did I perpetuate the coincidence of "the feminine" with "the weak and deluded"? In my frustration with the tactics of the Right, I simply took their innuendos and threw them, symbolically, in their face. And as they dripped off their faces (in my imagination), these innuendos retained their basic shape -- a derision of "the feminine" and a subtle valorization of "the masculine."

But your comment -- with its veiled critique -- made me pause. I had written the piece, "Screaming Bloody Murder," to critique Likudnik Zionists. But having it read by Starfire made me wonder if I was letting myself be pulled too much into their implicit logic of Male=force=strength=confrontation and Woman=weakness. So -- thanks for that, Starfire! It is important to have things read from different directions, because we position ourselves as writers in different ways depending on who we might think will be reading. Next time I write a polemic against the right, I should be braver to stand up for a totally alternative way of being and thinking. Sure, throwing back the innuendo that smeared one is useful, and needed, but it also needs to be transformed into something deeper.

As for your other points. Who are Islamist extremists? I am not sure they have a single identity. In every country they fight different political battles, many completely mundane: new sewers, new schools. I can understand you disliking extremist religious discourse, and I can agree with this -- including, of course, the extremist, exclusivist discourse of Buddhists, Christians, Jews, as well. But I think it is more important, not to fear a particular group (one which is only a group in our own nervous mind), but to analyze what has allowed such groups to spread. And, uniformly, the answer -- with differences by country of course -- is lack of democracy, repression, colonial occupation. If some who fight these conditions use the banner of Islam, why ought we to fear them? Can we not oppose both those unjust conditions we and they oppose and oppose those parts of their discourse we find objectionable? Can we not condemn both the radicals who took over Islamabad's Red Mosque and the brutal tactics that ended in their deaths?

All people deserve equal rights to life and health. As long as this principle is violated -- and it is, freely -- radical religious groups will proliferate. They need to be opposed, but what angers them must also be recognized as real and legitimate grievances.

For example: in India, the Hindutva movement is a radical Hindu movement which feeds on dispossession. I oppose their exclusivist attempt to turn India into a religiously exclusive state. But how can I not ignore that they are growing because normal politics has failed to address the brutal injustices of life in that country?

The term "extremist" and "radical" are too fuzzy. We ought to distinguish between nihilists like those who send truck bombs into markets -- "internationalist revolutionaries" -- and people who use religion to rally for human rights and better living conditions -- "nationalist radicals." The former are attempting to destroy existing states violently; the latter work within political frameworks for a particular community. Hezbollah is an example of the latter, and cannot be lumped in with Al-Qaeda. Hezbollah's leader is quite pragmatic. Sheikh Nasrallah opposed those within the party who wanted an Islamic State in Lebanon. He refused to ban women from going to the beach, from driving, and the like. He is radical, and he is nationalist (which means opposition to Israel), but he is not a nihilist and he is not a revolutionary bent on destroying the existing state or people of other religions. This distinction I describe is not my own: I think I got it from Mahmood Mamdani, anthropologist in New York, whose book "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" is excellent.

In short: I am more concerned at the roots of radicalism than at radicalism itself. Anger is the last right of the dispossessed, and if it is often misdirected -- well, the best we can do is oppose their excesses in the best ways we can, peacefully, while recognizing their core of real grievances. Finally: righteous anger has a powerful creative, and destructive, power. Like a fire, there is danger there, but also something sacred and true.

So -- while I decry the hooliganism of some members of Hamas in Gaza, I do not think that they are somehow worse than Fatah simply because they are "Islamist". On the contrary: while Fatah are thugs who had sold out to the US and Israel, Hamas is an independent thug. Which means they are fighting with the common people against the occupation. They are not fighting in the best way, I think. But their right to fight I cannot deny. Ultimately, if I were in that prison camp, would I be acting better than them? I doubt it. And I don't know if anyone can really make such a claim with confidence.

I hate the kind of gated community critique that is so common, the kind of horrified superiority taken by American commentators, tsk tsking at Hamas as though they were animals consumed by anger. As if we in that situation would not be consumed by anger! Anyone would be. To pretend otherwise is to live in an emotional and political gated community, pretending to float above reality. But we not living in Gaza are just privileged, and lucky: not better. Just farther away. This "gated community" superiority is just rancid, and nauseates me. Sure, Hamas is brutal. But try telling me if you were treated like animals with all your family you would not resort to brutality! Who can guarantee they are so angelic -- especially Americans who have never faced a day of injustice or humiliation in their entire lives -- that they would sit in that hell and politely ask the Israelis for their freedom! They dare to preach to the poor and oppressed how to be more genteel -- polite -- grateful for the scraps of pity thrown them by the UN.

Did the fighters for American independence use total civility and deference to King George? Absolutely not. They used anger, and violence. And they were far more privileged than modern day fighters for independence in the developing world.

You gated community commentators, blogging from your moral heights: tell me you could last one week as a resident of Gaza without being angry, without wanting to pick up a stone or a gun. How is it that people of such comfortable lives can presume to understand or advocate for the poor and oppressed? It beggars belief.

Imagine a dog which has been tortured all its life by a cruel master. This dog is full of rage and wish for vengeance, but most of the time all it can do is snap at the master, biting its ankles. Imagine a fat, comfortable dog, never beaten in its life, looking on and with an attitude of scorn and superiority, saying: such manners! What a brute! I would never be so angry! How very uncouth. . . These are the voices of the gated community moralists, privileged in their utter divorce from hardship, preaching to the people crowded together in the slums beneath their gates. Ask me why I, also privileged with a comfortable life, am also angry at this moral superiority, and that is another story. For another time.


"Where is that catnip plant we bought, honey?" came my mom's voice from the front door.

"I planted it right next to that rock," said my dad, shuffling outside. "Here it is. This looks like a weed," he said, pulling up an anonymous plant next to the cat nip.

"It's still in the pot!" exclaimed mom with a hint of a complaint in her voice. "Come here, Charlie," she said, laboriously pulling our big calico cat toward the plant. Charlie nosed about bored, nudging mom's pant leg and flopping on her side.

"She's the cat that's not a cat," chuckled dad.

Mom was determined. "Here, Charlie," she said, plucking off a tiny sprig and pushing it toward Charlie's nose.

In a flash Charlie had sprung to her feet looking spooked and frightened. She sniffed at the sprig on the ground cautiously, as if it had bitten her. We laughed, surprised.

"Maybe she needed to smell it crushed," mom said. "Hey look -- she's chewing on the plant!" Charlie snapped up the little sprig and was chewing the leaves.

"Listen to those birds chatter!" said mom. She pointed them out to us, tiny finches with beaks full of straw and flotsam for their nest. One was in the rhododendron and the other was on the roof. Both were vocal. But Charlie was paying them no attention for once.

I could not believe the older group of kids I taught today: third to fifth graders, I think, some of them were swarming me after class, asking me how to say "It's lunch time," in Chinese, or "suck" or "Honey Nut Cheerios." And I had only taught them "nihao" 30 minutes before! It makes me wonder: are these kids in summer camp the best students in their classes? Or just the ones whose parents push them to enroll? Because I highly doubt that group of 15 was typical. I mean, the younger kids were pretty sharp, but these older ones were intellectually voracious! They were writing out the couple of characters I put on the board with great effort. Even little James, who had refused to do anything, was soon busily writing out "good" and holding his paper up for me to see. Wow. They are an explosion of energy.

The new boy in the younger class was incredible. He had been seated off by himself by the previous teacher for misbehavior, I guess, but before long he was jumping out of his seat to make himself heard. At the end of class he even borrowed a couple of my flashcards and wrote the characters by himself -- in outline form! In other words, not as line for line copies, but eyeing them and drawing the shape of their calligraphic strokes! When we said Good Bye to each other, he stood, put his hands together, and made a little bow. A cross of Thai and Japanese posture, I think. No Chinese bow like that, even in the rare occasions they do bow. But I copied him -- copied his imagined Chinese-ness. I honored his desire.

And to think: all this excitement stirred up only to lead to nothing. In two weeks I teach my last class! What a waste. This country does not see that language is not like other subjects, where ability improves with age. Language learning ability is not rational in the main, but imitative, artistic. This ability declines with age. We should be teaching 6 year olds foreign language just like we should be teaching advanced chemistry to high school students!

black and white nostalgia

I don’t know what it is about black and white photos or film that triggers nostalgia for me: even images of a most brutal sort – Civil War dead stacked by a trench – are easily turned in a sentimental direction, perhaps by the use of dramatizing, History Channel narrative technique: “When the Allies came to the camp, they could hardly have been prepared for the sight that greeted them: the dead seemed to be walking.” Perhaps it is the sentimentalizing and dramatizing techniques – fiddle music and the crackle of a campfire overlaid with Ken Burns’ voice – that makes us believe the world was less brutal before color. Or at least, their brutality was somehow more picturesque, or it “made more sense” in their ways of thinking, fighting for logical things like bread, nation, or religion.

There are a few exceptions. There are old photos here and there that are so stark one cannot help feeling sure they were taken a week ago in Iraq, such as the photo of a skeletalizing corpse from the Battle of the Somme which appeared in a book on WWI I read in my youth. It is in my memory to this day, like those bones in mud. But such photos do not fit easily into story lines. They disrupt; zombie corpses won’t be kept down. Their edges are sharp, cutting into the coherency of the story told, seizing the eyes of audiences at the expense of logic and plot. Thus such photos tend to be let go, drifting away into archives and buried there.

My view of the Taiwanese colonial era is fraught with these mixed feelings. Accounts of Japanese planes bombing aboriginal resistance fighters jostle with sepia longings borrowed from group photos of the women’s league or army recruits, posing at the train station in kimonos, or drilling in a field, all beautiful youth from times long before my own. It is amazing how easily I can try to wriggle into such photos: me a 34 year old American, gazing at photos of 1934 Taiwan. There is no passport for the eyes, however, no immigration checkpoint for identification, no language barrier for fantasy or desire. And I desire.

I read a book a few years ago called “Servants of the Empire: Hsinchu Men, Japanese Soldiers.” The entire book was a distilled recounting, in Chinese, of old men’s memories of war. They were sent, some eagerly and others not, to China, Korea, the Dutch Indies, the Phillipines, and New Guinea: anywhere the Japanese army fought these Taiwanese men fought too. Alongside these diamond-sharp stories were sepia toned photos and mementoes that attested to the youthful sense of excitement and honor in being sent to fight for the empire. Their photos were prestigious souvenirs: posing bare-chested in drill formation, standing for the camera, sword at one’s side, in exotic Hainan Island.

The ordeals which are the focus of their stories scarcely come through at all in these illustrations, with the exception of a sketch or two one had made, of a lean-to constructed in a prison camp. In the photos I see pride, a pride then evident even now in their preservation and inclusion in the book. It is a pride little mentioned in the stories, probably because the nation to which loyalty was owed changed after the war, when they became officially “Chinese.” Their silent pride sneaks into the book through their photos, though. Even with all the awful tales – the officer shooting a civilian islander and ordering his men to eat – these photos still stand, offering mute rebuttal in their sunny scenes of manhood so glorious in sense of mission, all stilled at the sunny moment when the shutter clicked shut long ago.

It is odd to me that the usual roles of image and story, as with the war in Iraq now, are reversed when I think of those times before color. No number of journalistic accounts of Abu Ghraib’s or other prisons’ cruelties – of which there are many – made any dent in the collective news psyche of the United States. Only when photos began circulating of naked men in hoods did condemnation pour in. All those poor words were so easily ignored. All those pitiful words regarding Bush’s contempt for international law were like a vain moaning of wind in trees. But when I think back to old Taiwan, the photos that form my surrogate memory are records of formal events, events the powers that were wanted memorialized in film. It is through stories that the shock of violence transmits itself, leaping decades.

Yesterday an old voice shattered my colonial era nostalgia. For Mother’s Day, my girlfriend went back to her parents’ place, and I went with her. Her crotchety grandmother was there. Sara has told me often of how she locked her and her siblings inside when she was little, beating them for disobedience, surgically implanting in her a fear of strange situations, amputating bravery.

All that seemed far away in the genial merriment of relaxing around the table after lunch. Sara’s father, who had spent hours repairing a leaky faucet upstairs, came down just as the cake was brought out. Clapping his hands in time, he led us in a rousing song called “Mother.” “I love you, Mother I love you, you are so heroic!” was the chorus, and I smiled to see the old woman clapping her hands as her little appreciated, much burdened son, wife and kids sang this song.

She told stories that were strings of sound. I cannot speak Chinese, and she only speaks bits of Chinese. School was not for girls then. the old woman talked in forceful syllables, broken chunks of stone opaque and strange to me. Suddenly she burst out with a rhythmic “boom boom BOOM, boom boom BOOM!” Sara laughed.

“When she was a little girl,” she said, “She always followed her elders around, wherever they went. Sometimes her Dad would pass the house of a man fought against the aborigines. The Japanese attacked them, and this guy joined the army. But when he came back he had some mental problems. He grew a –“ she reached to the back of her head, “A braid, like in Qing Dynasty times.”

Grandma laughed, repeating the sound that had so frightened her, “boom boom BOOM, boom boom BOOM!” Native war drums, I thought.

“And those braids went around and around his head like this,” and she coiled the braids around her head up to the top, “tied with ribbons.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” I said.

“And when they went by that man’s house in the fields, she was scared. . .he always sat outside his house making that sound,” she pointed at the old woman.

“The drums?” I asked.

“The guns,” she said. Grandma laughed. I could not picture her as a girl. She was the tough old woman who easily wept, she was a paradox. At the funeral of Sara’s brother she had been the picture of resignation, weeping but not sobbing, no protest or cry of grief. No matter how she had locked him in the house he had out grown her control. He had been the thoughtful grandchild, taking her on walks, visiting her and looking after her. The day she moved into her own place, intolerable to her sons, it was he who bought her towels and soap while her own sons played mah-jong. He was dead. Something bad had got him.

It is impossible not to make picturesque the violent past. Even those wars of genocide called the “Indian Wars” (similar to the Japanese wars against the aborigines) mist up in a pathos of lost glory and useless heroism, to the extent that even a hot air movie like “The Last Samurai” can blow it aside. The early scenes depict Tom Cruise’s memories of slaughtering native peoples; the immediacy of the illusory images – even puffed up with slow motion and mournful music – spurs the mind back to the fact that real events occurred, scenes so real they cannot be imagined, lifelike and in color. Viewing such cinematic scenes, in color, convinces one of the impossibility of deploying such visual power, as strong as the original experience.

Grandma’s story was different, chilling me with its dryness, its stark modernity. The man’s behavior sounded like the sufferings of American men who killed in Vietnam, the percussive bangs still resonating thirty years after. She chuckled at her younger self. The man who signed on with the Japanese army went for the money, or the adventure. He got more than he imagined up in the mountains. Was he part of the expedition in which the Japanese studied the art of aerial bombardment? Or where the Japanese herded the survivors of one camp and loosed an enemy tribe on them for beheading? What booms were the ones that would not leave him? And why did the winds of madness blow him back to the Qing Dynasty, which had ended 30 years before?

The story is skeletally spare. At its heart, this story is empty. Within its empty rib cage lingers a man’s memories not known then and never knowable now; a fist not seen but in its bloody imprint. A mystery. The other mystery is how grandma’s sparse-told tale was able, for a moment, to disperse the longing I feel for Old Formosa – a longing that wells up each time I look at black and white photographs taken by missionaries and diplomats.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

the english geisha

Since coming to David’s English Center in Hsinchu, Taiwan to teach, I find I have come into my own as a man with a geisha’s heart. I have been assigned – so far, as of May 21st, 2004, three “private” students, or students whom I meet one on one. The first one is named Jansen, a garrulous and upright corporate number cruncher; the second is waiting for me to give him an English name, and the third, Linda, could not be more different from the two men. It is my sessions with her – her muffled speech and sudden, braying laughter – that convince me of my geisha heart.

The three could not be happier with my teaching. But in truth, what occurs is closer to the geisha’s service of providing conversation in polite, witty speech. The polite speech in question, of course, is English, which in its status as the global language enjoys greater popularity than its twin, the global government in Washington. This polite speech is quite different, of course, from the archaic, exquisitely feminine forms of Kyoto Japanese spoken by the original geisha. But just as it was the training of the practitioner which differentiated crude speech from refined in those pleasure chambers, so it is with me here in Taiwan.

I share a common language with Rich, for example. Rich is a happy-go-lucky Canadian who tends to jump high in the air when live music is being performed. At the Spring Fling (or is it Summer Slam?) held in Kending every April, Rich once stripped off his clothes and in the spirit of encouraging a festive atmosphere, made a running start and belly-surfed across a lawn of rain-wet grass. He wears knit caps, thermal underwear shirts, and rides a skateboard to class. While Rich appeals to a certain younger segment of students for whom English is, among other things, the language of rough-hewn, wild and crazy youth who bungee jump from 9 to 5, rave on weekends, and pray to icons of Kurt Cobain, their solid middle class parents seeking an international form of gentility will not find it in Rich. They will find it in me, so it happens.

Willy-nilly I find myself in the position of witty raconteur with an educated tongue, a friend for pay with better than average credentials. The high price tag that has fastened to me through no conscious effort of my own has made me a popular commodity, and what’s more, a respected one. English teachers in Taiwan are a dime a dozen, and to a person they are 40ish recent divorcees from South Africa, or recent college grads sporting thuggish goatees and tattoos. They find themselves incongruously standing in front of six year olds every morning singing, “If you’re happy and you know it.”

With my degrees from Stanford and Columbia, I am like a geisha in a provincial town rumored to have once entertained the Shogun. A mystique precedes me. The two degrees are social facts over which I exercise no control, and which I consider utterly external to my personality. In any case, it was far easier for me to get those degrees than a Taiwanese person purely by reason of the chance of my native language and education. But the mystique remains.

But the fact of greater relevance to my training is my upbringing in a family of nine kids, child number five and boy number one. I can maintain lively conversation with a toad, if need be, like my small-town beauty of a Mother. Time has mellowed me, however. I notice my mother fidgets and searches about for topics when caught unprepared by a visitor or a lull in conversation. I am calm.

With Linda I am most geisha, ears on razor edge and eyes trained on her face. I do not push her. But as soon as I comprehend her question, I gently and swiftly respond, voice soft, pen moving on paper. I am repeating my sentences, almost rhythmically drumming them into her without force. On one side of the paper I note her mistakes of speech: “They looking for workers can help do accounting,” she says, and I glance down, writing “They—looking for . . . workers can help.” But I do not stop nodding, uh-huhing. On the other side, where I write new vocabulary for her, I write “ongoing training.” At the end of the class I go over each mistake and new word, and photocopy it for her. Next time she will have typed it all up, with pencil noting points to clarify.

I cannot help respecting her. Her study is eminently practical, shorn of egotistical dreams of international travel, hobnobbing with Frenchmen in Greece or the like. She is focused like a laser on finding a job. Besides studying with me once a week, she is sitting through a weekend class on electronics for non-specialists, just so she, an accountant, can claim an edge of knowledge when applying to high-tech firms. Her clothes are utterly plain, her hair falling in two long pouffs on either side of her lifeless face. When she cannot answer something she begins tugging at her collar, scratching her neck, and grinning a big horsey grin that is quite disarming. I steady her.

I tell her she can remedy a lack of vocabulary retention by writing words on slips of paper, two a day, and taping them on the wall. She says haltingly she will just see them as part of the wall. I say she can tape them on the wall facing the toilet, where she will certainly see them every day. She laughs and I laugh with her. “As I know,” she says, “Americans often study Spanish.” I respond that this sentence is correct, but “as I know is a Chinese construction.

“Better to say, ‘as far as I know,’” I say, pen moving on the paper.

“As far as I know,” she repeats, nodding. I am all around her, a cloud of hummingbirds, minute, quick, precise, training her as much socially as linguistically. My personal feelings about her are not existent within the classroom – indeed, there are no such feelings. Her money has bought my devotion in one and a half hour segments; I provide it so the heart appears more important than the money, an illusion of closeness based on attentiveness. I am submerged in our interaction. I am a modern day geisha of the empire.

Bodies in Pickup Trucks

Last night on Mosaic, a program made up of clips of Middle Eastern news items, I saw for the first time an Iraqi news program. And, not coincidentally, it was also the first time I had ever seen images of “unidentified corpses.” These corpses proliferate through our news accounts of Iraq, but always in abstract, police-report language. They are found dumped throughout the capital and elsewhere, showing “evidence of torture.” Their numbers are reported, and disputed. The abstractness of their presence is emblematic of Americans’ engagement – or lack of it – in the war itself.

Since the start of the war, the American command refused to venture a count, even in estimate, of the number of Iraqi dead. “Terrorist” dead were announced, with greater fervor into the third and fourth years, as the war went badly off script. In the search for quantities, the American command reacted just as it had in Vietnam, using numbers to obfuscate the essentially poisonous quality of the war. In any case, the pugnacious refusal to pay any attention to the numbers of Iraqi dead punched a hole in the absurd claims that the war was motivated by compassion for the lives (and deaths) of Iraqi people. How was it that the numbers slaughtered by Saddam meant so much before March, 2003, while the numbers slaughtered after that date were considered taboo? The contrast to the scrupulous attention not only to the numbers of American dead but the exact circumstances of their deaths could not be more clear. The compassion for Iraqis was a transparent lie.

In any case, had any of the people screaming about Saddam’s crimes in 2003, conveniently remembered from decades before, uttered anything about them when we were tacitly supporting his brutal tactics against Iran (and, of course, the Kurds which were fighting with Iran)? Suddenly these nameless dead, their names sunk deep in the sands of war for the sake of our righteous stand off with Iran, were recycled for a new significance: the evil of Saddam. And his evil was necessary to prove our good.

From the start of the war, Iraqi dead have been anonymous, ignored, actively avoided by our media. The reasons for this evasion are entirely different from the reasons for evading images of American death, of course. As much as American dead are feted in photographs of their living selves and in interviews with their widows, images of their corpses, whether in the field or in caskets, are suppressed. Even at this late date, when political support is eroding precipitously, the media is a faithful guard dog for the state, so afraid of being attacked it obsequiously keeps our “martyrs” in view only as idealized heroes. The actual hells of their ends are sunk deep in oblivion.

The oblivion of Iraqi deaths stems from the same basic cocooning censorship that hides American deaths, a censorship which is largely responsible for the continuance of this failed and brutal war long after its failure was obvious to planners. The other major reason, of course, is the fragility of the national ego. Apparently, we are too strong – or too weak – to be allowed to “fail,” which, translated into common English, means to “face reality with humility.” So Iraqis are slaughtered – and kept out of sight – for the august sake of America’s Self Esteem. Many of the same people who pile on educational methods which seek to “pamper” the self esteem of school children display an odd enthusiasm for the same pampering when done for the Nation. Many of the same people who rant about “responsibility” on the part of the poor are strangely unable to imagine the same kind of responsibility being taken up by the State. Nation and State are religiously feted, buffered, prostrated to, kept from the stench of corpses piled up on Her altars.

I was shocked to see those bodies, piled like refuse. I have paid close attention to news accounts. My imagination has gone there already. But the real pictures drove reality home like a drill to the skull. Our war in Iraq is clearly worse than a civil war. Like the war in Algeria in the nineties, another horrific slaughter of civilians tacitly supported by our country, (since it was done against “Islamic extremists”), the main tactic is the killing of civilians thought to belong to the other camp. People’s bodies are turned into objects for the sending of messages. How can one not shudder with rage and revulsion and deep sadness when catching a glimpse of bodies violated and tossed into trucks, one shoe on and one off, clothes trailing loosely? How can one view such crimes, done as much by our “allies” in the Al-Maliki government as by the “terrorists” we detest, and not realize that every side in this war is a terrorist? How can one view such images and not realize that while one hand raised in their killing was Iraqi, another hand was American? These bodies are only in those trucks because of our patriotic fantasies of Spring, 2003. If leftist were "objectively pro-Saddam" for opposing the war then, then certainly rightists must bear the burden of being "objectively pro-terrorist" now.

The censorship against bodies now is not done to keep up support for the war but to protect the last line of defense, the psychological Maginot line around the Holy of Holies, that which must not be breached: the stubborn faith that America is essentially better than other states and nations. More and more, this delusional faith cannot survive without censorship and selective vision of the worst kind. Our civil religion of the nation is in peril. And our Official Media is not about to see it fall for something so trivial as the humanity of the victims of Our War.

July 11, 2007

Monday, July 9, 2007

far flows the ciliwoong

Last week I pulled over the scooter I was riding to check out a second hand electronics store. I had just come from trying to teach fifty high school kids how to talk to a convenience store clerks, without much success. The shop was piled high with dusty old TVs and tape decks. A woman came down tiny stairs at my calling. “No, this is all other people’s stuff, being fixed,” she said, “But my husband might be able to being in something pawned if you want. You want a small one? No CD? 800 yuan.” She called him but could not seem to get the gist of what I wanted, so she said I ought to come back next week. “If you are sure you want something, we can get it for you, a thousand and up,” she said, giving me a name card.

My rented room in the big empty house is pretty quiet at night, and I have not “made the move” to CDs. Funny how only a decade passes and CDs are already threatened with obsolescence!

Next door to the electronics graveyard was a little shop advertising Indonesian eats, in both Indonesian and Chinese, which intrigued me. I spent two years in Indonesia right out of college, so I am always curious about how Indonesian contract workers fare here in Taiwan. I walked in and felt flutterings of attention from the few people sitting there as I looked at the Indonesian menu. “What is ‘pangsit mie?” I asked and the woman in charge said it was Indonesian soup noodles. I sat down and looked at the posters of Indonesian singers and karaoke CD collections taped to the wall. When I asked if she had any Indonesian CDs here, the woman making my noodles said, No, and asked, “Can you speak Indonesian?”

“Bisa,” I said, I can.

The woman at the table smiled when I asked if they could speak it. “We all can,” she said, “We are from there. Well, actually, we are from the mainland originally, then we lived in Indonesia, and now we are here.”

“Wow, that’s complicated,” I said, and she laughed. She looked more Indonesian than Chinese to me, and her statement that she had come from the mainland turned out later to mean that her ancestral land was there. She had been born in “Mandian,” in Indonesia, though I could not make out its original Indonesian name until she came up with it: “Banjarmasin,” in West Kalimantan province, part of what was called Borneo.

“Which do you like better?” I asked, and she smiled.

“That’s hard to say,” she said, “Maybe here, since there is less developed, more backward.”

“And the politics there ---“ I said, fishing for comment on the anti-Chinese element in Indonesian nationalism.

“No, that’s really the same everywhere,” she said. “I haven’t been back there in years,” she said as she gave me a steaming bowl of noodles. “But I remember the river, its water was this green color. We would cross it every morning. I have never seen anything like it.”

The cook said, “I like Jakarta better. It is the center, everyone goes there. it is more modern, more convenient than here.”

“Do you know Tebet?” I asked, naming the neighborhood where the Volunteers in Asia house is located, where I had passed days and nights on my way from one adventure to another. They looked at one another puzzled but did not recall the name. I myself had forgotten the name of the larger urban district.

“Oh, I remember,” I said, “It is next to a river, the Ciliwoong! Or is it Ciliwang?. . “

“You’re talking about Cirebon,” said the cook.

“No, no,” I said, “that’s a city on the south coast.”

“Hm,” said the first woman, “It must be on the outskirts, I have never heard of it.” I pictured Tebet’s place on the map that used to hang in the house on Jalan M, a name or two that might be the name of the freeway that ran near it: Subroto? Sudirman? General’s names. I pictured the muddy narrow Ciliwoong and the tiny houses that clung to the top of its steep bank; the sense of wetness, the closeness of rain; the metallic tapping or rhythmic calls of the food vendors with their carts in evening.

“There are lots of neighborhoods in Jakarta,” said the assertive noodle maker. “There’s Gambir, there’s Pondok Baru, there’s Blok M. . .”

“And Kebon Manggis,” I said, “and Pondok Gede.”

“Yes, Pondok Gede too,” she said, oh, the wonderful oddity of Indonesian and Chinese mixing!

“Oh, its been so long,” said the one from Pontianak, and the breaking out of all these names was the cracking of a long encrusted skin that none of them – none of us – had worn in a long time. The power of names is elementary, untranslatable, pulling us back to our own experiences and out to a flurry of images in the collective mind. The three women there in that noodle shop shared this in their past: these names that had not been left behind, and that had not melted into the fabric of their Taiwanese lives. A leftover, unabsorbed.

The noodle maker spoke to me in Indonesian, eager somehow to feel that cadence in her mouth, and I tried to respond, simple phrases falling out stiffly. It was if she were posturing herself for a dance I had long not done. “Leave safely,” she said smiling.

“Stay safely,” I replied, and went out. In small town Zhudong (East Bamboo) I had found a tiny colony of people belonging in different ways to another place – a place to which, I in my own way had also belonged.

Far flows the Ciliwoong.


my japanese alter ego

Sitting next to the running track after teaching Taiwanese high school kids for two periods I look at the girls talking to the teacher in the shade, at the boys playing volleyball, at the boy sitting alone, starting out at what. I overhear a cluster of boys next to me yelling at their classmates, “Look at those misfits!” or “You’re done for!” or “Cut class!”; I overhear them mimicking an American speaking Chinese in undertones when I draw near, hear them wondering if I know Chinese. I see the boy alone get up and walk out of sight behind a building; the three alleged misfits follow him, and I feel an ache, an impulse to get up, walk over, take a look at what is happening, what is being done to him and by whom. I don’t get up. Up in the forested mountains I see the white tonghua have blossomed, big popcorn balls exploding across the slopes. They were just like that, bursting out white from the green, when I left four years ago to return to the United States.

I teach forty something kids. They know I am no threat. A couple of weeks ago at the start of class two cute dogs appeared in the back of the room when the bell rang. “Out! Out! Out!” I shouted, waving my arms after them. They squirreled this way and scuttled that way, this row to that, under legs and desks and chairs. I was steamed. “Get these dogs out,” I ordered the boys who were enjoying the scene most. One took a little plastic spoon of his ice cream and held it out, luring one dog out. Just like that it was back in the other door. My teacher persona was stern as could be, but inside it was funny as hell; inside I was laughing as hard as those cut ups at the back of the class. And they would never know it.

I am learning how to make them fear me. They are like the kids I substitute taught in New Haven in the nineties. They know I am a free agent. They know I am a mercenary, unconnected to their structures of discipline and punishment. There is a heavy stick on the teacher’s podium, with tape wrapped around it. I have not used it. The first couple of weeks they were mildly entertained at my antics. I was outlandish. But being outlandish is no substitute for being menacing.

There is a Buddhist Goddess of Mercy in the courtyard of the big school, in white granite, gazing toward the track, the mountains, the tonghua rippling white across them. But she has nothing to do with the classroom. When I come rolling in at 12:45 before my class students stand in silent ranks in the entranceway facing out, backs to the goddess. They say nothing. They don’t look at each other. Any joke about me or joking greeting is furtive. Even the punished find time to comment on the presence of a foreigner, at least in this town. A military officer walks past occasionally, his place in the school a relic of more martial times. He teaches military discipline and love for country.

Last week the class was bouncing from the start. My best laid plans to teach them how to ask for toothpaste in convenience stores fell like lead. They squirmed, talked, enjoyed themselves too much. You, I said finally, to the girl turned around, laughing, too involved in her world to notice mine. You, I said walking over toward her. I stood there waiting; the class grew quiet; she noticed me. They only seem to grow quiet when one of them is made an example of. Collective admonitions have not done much to quiet them down. She looked down. I did not curse her, but I had plenty of cursing to spare. Sit over here, I said, gesturing at a spot in the next aisle. One third of them sit on little canvas camp stools in the aisles. I don’t want to, she said. Move your seat, I said. The silence told me my restrained anger was working. Their eyes were trained on a drama far more interesting then convenience stores. I steadied myself. I knew I was winning. Soon she was not speaking, just shaking her head. I insisted, in control of this anger and performing it well. I was encouraged by their silence. After she finally moved I saw she was crying. That was when I knew how vulnerable they really can be, how delicate. Collectively, they are a rowdy, tough, crude crowd. But separated from the crowd they are people again.

Even Ned is the same. He is the ringleader, he has the gift of gab. When he is in back he is the motor of something bigger: sarcastic, unafraid, charming, hair spiked up. When I ask him a question he purses his lips and equivocates, head turning slightly this way and that, a boxer bouncing or a politician finding an angle. Today I put him in front after I took away his ice cream. When his classmate took the card reading “diapers,” and chose Ned to be the clerk, Ned told him perfectly where the diapers were. I complimented him with the microphone I am provided. The ones I embarrass I also praise, or tease, trying to send some covert sign that the stern face I showed is not all there is, and that the bad kid I demanded they stop being is also not all they are.

Any assignment I give finds two responses: quiet effort or disregard. The ones who disregard are not dumber, they are just doing all they can to convince themselves that they fit into that adjective. The ones who write down the questions are not smarter; they are just more obedient to power, hoping themselves to attain power. They believe. But the myth of smart and dumb is already on its way to being made gospel truth.

As I walk to the track after class I imagine pulling Ned aside and saying Ned, I believe you are as smart as anyone in here. Then I think that this is not the first time foreigners have walked into Taiwanese schools, a nobility representing all that is masculine and true. Back in Japanese times a Japanese teacher faced classrooms as I do now. In his mind too, the bad and the good were clearly marked; even self-marked, self-identified -- self-mutilated. Before history changed course and American bombers appeared in the skies, the obedient were the smart; the smart were the good. They were good in the eyes of the empire, an empire that proclaimed advancement for all under its sway. Rebels were only hurting their own people, it was said. That Japanese alter ego ached inside like me for the bad ones. They too, way back when, could have had a place of honor in the system, if only. . . That Japanese alter ego looked as I do up at these same mountains with the same white flowers, aching the same ache I do, the ache inflicted on himself – the ache of violence done to others in the name of Right.

Then came the teachers of Nationalist China, semi-foreigners. And now come me and my like. Facing Communist China, the government here has put Taiwan firmly under the wing of the new empire. Even the opposition agrees wholeheartedly. And people white like me, total strangers to this place, walk the hallways with a mantle of righteous authority. To the good students, we offer the promise of a better shot within the imperial system – of which the national government is a provincial authority. There are rebellions elsewhere, but not here. There are only misfits, sneaking ice cream into class, passively resisting, parodying. But if history were to change course again, what would those good students say about their loyalty to the defunct empire? And would the bad ones become heroes?

The good will find new ways to be obedient, new ways to adapt to power. The same girl I asked after class, “So, do you get when to use ‘the’ now?” will find new imperial representatives and new standards to serve. And Ned will probably be making his way as before, convinced he is no good, but just as crafty, just as gifted, wrapped in tight with the vibe underneath, playing his own game. The change of empires will change nothing.


taiwan's dogs

I used to think I was the only one who paid attention to the dogs here on the city streets of Hsinchu, Taiwan. I figured Taiwanese people looked on them like shrubs, or bollards – albeit shrubs that occasionally changed location. The dogs simply lounged on the asphalt, heads on the white line, or curled up under a parked car, or trotted about on group strolls in the morning. But to me, such dogs with such curious social lives could hardly have been more entertaining, accustomed as I am to the individualistic, territorial dogs of the US.

In my home country, dogs are either pets or guards. In either case, they are attached to a person or place, or both, either kept inside, or kept on leashes if outside, or chained to a fence to scare the bejesus out of pitiful strangers walking by on the other side. At this point keeping dogs in place is probably as much a matter of the legal code as anything. But what we see when we see a well groomed hound trotting along next to his owner is not a copy of the municipal code. What we see is “man’s best friend,” an animal that just is that way, as we are this way, naturally, anytime and anywhere. Dogs are built and made, whether by soul or genetics, to stick by the side of a master who is their friend.

In the US I am never easy coming near a strange dog. Some are friendly; some are hostile. Some are a neurotic mix of both, like the one which licked my face as I got in my friend’s truck but bit at my pant legs when I walked alone into the living room. A dog’s character in the US seems to depend on how it is treated, and what kind of people it is around. Dogs in the US are melded to their social niche.

In Taiwan, dogs have their own social lives. The two species, human and dog, are separate. Humans in Taiwan find emotional satisfaction in members of their own species, and in comic books. Instances of human-dog monogamy are rare here. Though as foreign ways are a prime way to earn profits for entrepreneurs, human-beast love is being offered for sale as the latest thing in modern living. Pet shops appear everywhere. These shops are not for pets, as the name might imply, but for people who purchase dogs as spousal substitutes or interactive fashion accessories. Slowly Taiwanese are catching up to the West. Soon they may have dog restaurants.

I find that I am not the only one amazed at the indigenous dogs, however. Crossing a street in Taipei last week, a young couple were as amused as I was to see a plump old dog plod across with us as soon as the “walk” light appeared. A few days ago in Taipei, another chubster attracted attention from a father and son. It waddled ponderously across the zebra crossing. The man said a few words to the boy, and the two of them followed the hippo-like form with curious eyes. Later I came back to the same crossing, and the dog was curled up restfully on it. A couple of young people smiled down at it as they passed. It had on a collar; it also had a patch of mange on one shoulder. These dogs are neither owned nor wild. They are in between in a way American society could never tolerate. Legal systems do not allow it.

They meander like friendly ghosts through the human world of the streets. They have their social lives, their home turfs. A few years ago I lived in an old soldier’s enclave across from Qinghua University. Every morning when I biked or scootered out of those narrow lanes I would pass the same few dogs lounging about, head often sprawled across the line marking the edge of the road, cars and motor bikes whizzing just by them. There was the dog with out turned, dinosaur-like feet. There was the no neck fuzz ball – but that was a real house dog. The family that owned it was an unhappily poor house. They tossed their fuzz ball in the air with all the delight of playing with a baby. If I left early enough, and sat eating an egg crepe at a breakfast place, I might see a little gang of dogs trotting or frolicking along, touring the waking neighborhood.

It is true that these dogs lack health care, and an American would point out that in the States at least every dog is attached to someone who is supposed to keep it free of disease and road accidents. The dogs here that roam live in a state of civilized neglect, neither harassed nor cared for. As a result they are not going to race toward a busy street the way a pent up American dog will do; nor are they alleviated of pain should they get sick. I suspect the ones that don’t die as pups are pretty tough – the way American people are, the ones without health care.

In the US we consider it animal cruelty to let dogs run wild without owners to care for them. But people without health care? That is the matter of the highest principle of state policy! For is not caring for people who are weak and ill nothing more than Stalinism? At least, such is the superstition of people more concerned about the size of the government than the size of this social injustice. Though you will not hear them warning of big government every time the military bureaucracy’s budget is increased. I guess “socialism” sneaks in through an increase in health clinics, whereas an upping of weapons of mass destruction is just the American way. Funny how it is not the other way around. You would almost think from this definition that the danger was not of socialism but of civilization, and the thing threatened not the “American way” but total hegemony.

Taiwan, to add a final note, like most other capitalist countries, not seen an increase in “socialism” by mandating universal health care – not only for its citizens, but for foreigners working here as well. Perhaps I could write a letter to the wise legislators from Utah and Virginia who insist on their superstitious fear in the face of all evidence to the contrary. But it is hard to convince someone a phantom is not lurking when they fervently believe it is there, just waiting to strike.

Like owner, like dog. The paranoid dogs are in the States, where the paranoid people – sometimes mislabeled “conservatives” – are. Who would have guessed you could see so much of a country’s political culture from their dogs?


Sunday, July 8, 2007

the awkwardness of intersections

Today I went to Guilford to buy a bike lock. As the store’s computer was down, I had to find an ATM machine to pay cash for it. The intersection next to where Lupone’s Drugstore used to be was backed up with cars. Drivers were extremely cautious about the movements of pedestrians – standing with one foot on the pedestrian crossing prompted hesitation, braking, uncertainty. There is a sense that drivers of cars are holding back their superior power in the face of the rights of pedestrians, whose rights are granted due to their inherent weakness vis a vis the drivers of cars.

This situation makes me very self-conscious as a pedestrian. In China, I would push to the middle of the road, waiting for the car to zip by without veering or braking, so I could cross. Drivers of cars are not afraid or self-conscious of their superior size, which makes them obnoxiously pushy in crowded lanes, honking with no shame at all. But on larger streets, they had the right of way. In this situation, as a pedestrian one could predict their trajectory easily and then proceed to maneuver around them. In Guilford this sunny day, however, there was a polite and somewhat tense and awkward negotiation between strangers, each looking at the other for clues. If a pedestrian steps confidently onto the crossing, a car will stop short. They have taken charge. But if the pedestrian is self-conscious of fouling up the flow of cars, or of making four cars wait for his slow steps, he or she may pause. And if the driver is also afflicted with a guilty sense of politeness or power, he may pause as well, fearing offending the pedestrian. What if he suddenly decides to cross, the driver worries. What if my proceeding elicits a dirty look? What if I am rude? So he pauses. The pedestrian gestures, Go ahead; the driver brakes: no, you go, is the exasperated nod of the head.

One car was half way through the intersection when a pedestrian appeared in a separate crossing. The pedestrian looked surprised, stopped short, for the car to continue by. But the car stopped also. Embarrassed, the tall lanky guy jogged across. He felt the pressure of holding things up, of his legal rights causing problems for the majority. He would not have minded the car just slipping by: but this act of generosity by the driver put the spotlight on him. He had to accept it, in order to get things moving again. For him to have stood still and insisted on the car moving first would have elicited the annoyance of a gift turned down. He would be seen as ungrateful. So the yielding on the part of cars is a passive-aggressive gift. I don’t really like to stop, the thinking goes, but I had better, or else I risk making a pedestrian angry and myself look bad. This act of stopping is not an easy going, take it or leave it act of charity. It is “hurry and go so I can keep moving,” a legal-procedural rule masquerading as a favor born of free choice or generosity.

Sometimes if a pedestrian insists on staying put even after “offered” a crossing, a driver will stomp on the gas in aggravation, shaking his head after the polite stop-and-go. The machinery of polite procedure stumbled, caught, jammed for a moment. When the powerful deliberately restrict their own strength to “help” a weaker person, ill will always leaks out, especially if the transaction is done inefficiently. The pedestrian, on the other hand, feels guilty or ill at ease for slowing down the car’s speedy movement, even if he is entitled legally to this priority.

Across the intersection six or seven people stood holding signs reading, “US out of Iraq,” and “Witness for Peace.” One difficulty with dissent is that, regardless of how logically persuasive one’s positions, one feels a twinge of self-consciousness at asking the machine of war to turn back. One feels unimportant, despite an abstract guarantee that one is just as American and shares the same rights of speech as the president, one feels the presence of group momentum and scrutiny, far greater than that of the pedestrian, who at least officially has a right to call a halt to cars. The state is a mechanism much like a road: there is the apparatus, meaning the structure, the departments and officials and budgets. And more importantly, there are the mass of people who cling to the apparatus as they would cling to a life raft: as a power in its own right, existing beyond its own value, beyond questions of logic and morality. The state is an apparatus loved merely for its regularity, its momentum.

The mystery to me is how so many people get themselves so emotionally attached to pure momentum, whether on a road or in a state, without thought or reason, just movement that has and will and must keep occurring. But even dissidents feel that aggressive, implicit pressure keenly. Otherwise, why does most dissent occur so politely, a reminder from the side of the road? “We disagree, just so you know it and our consciences are clean, -- but please continue!” it is only when dissent is angry enough to stride boldly into the intersection and demand an end to fictional politeness that we know dissent means business. A dissent which does not disrupt the flow of the machine is obedient, above all, to that feeling of awkward obligation to the whole – to that unwillingness, which I fully share, to call the bridled aggression of the powers that be into the open – and down on my head!

For their power is bridled, held in check, on the secret condition that we not take our rights too seriously – that we not do anything to slow down the flow of the machine too much (see Zizek’s “false offer”). You have your freedom of speech, goes the logic, and it is “granted” by us to you, on condition that you behave yourselves and not “go too far.” In effect, it s a hidden “responsibility test” that comes out in the public outcry every time the ACLU publicly defends the rights of people accused of terrorism. Those “rights” are not really meant for all – just for good Americans who know how to behave and not “go too far.” They want too destroy us. And these liberal lawyers wanna split hairs about rights?? There won’t be any more rights to worry about after the mushroom cloud! argues the lover of the system. In the public mind, rights are “given” conditionally. But this conditionality won’t be brought up as long as the (weaker, submissive) recipient knows how to behave.

So I respect those people for taking their symbolic stand against the momentum of the apparatus of war. Even such useless, symbolic stands raises the hackles of the war-hungry, proving once more how close beneath the polite social surface lies the fangs of American fascism and its demand of obedience to the true nation. But very few, so far, are ready to disrupt the flow of the machine, for it is only at that moment when one feels the full force of violence at the heart of every modern society. It is a violence roused only when the beloved routine of daily life is upset. It is a violence born of the romance with the machine, whose flow and momentum are the empty, contentless ideology of the system. The idea of the “true nation,” in my opinion, is merely garnish on this essential emptiness, this love of efficient operation, divorced from all questions of any operation’s end.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

letter to rob: sichuan mini bus

Dear Rob, March 9, 2005

There must be something about drinking that the day after I feel great – even if I am tired. The whole two plus hour ride over shitty roads through shitty little towns, I felt happy. “Shitty” here is an affectionate statement of fact. The ride seemed endless: will we ever reach Longchang? But it was endless in a way I wanted it to be, the bus rattling and bumping along, befuddled, as if it had forgotten Longchang was where it was supposed to go. Country people piled on and piled off, lit cigarettes in hand, and squeezed around each other, hauling their bales of goods, of baskets, or suitcases, with them. Two women got on at one place with lengths of sugar cane in one hand and tea eggs in the other, but no one bought. The worn, rusted floor of the bus was littered with wads of chewed sugar cane fibers. I was tempted, but didn’t buy.

The day was sunny, a rare thing, and the air was spring-mild. Houses ran past the bus: the adobe ones eroding in tiny fissures, the blocky cement ones with tiles on the front, older ones of grey brick forming three sides of a square, half new and half old ones of an old brick end stuck onto a big cement and tile thing. I admired the little touches: the way some railings were formed of brick stacked geometrically, or the railings of cement pierced with flowers or stars, or the perfect symmetry of some new square houses: window door window. Cabbages were hung through railings or metal window grates, dozens in a row, hung to dry for making a kind of kim chi. Or they were strung along ropes hanging across the front of houses: green leafy necklaces for spring.

Some fields were flooded with water. Others were fluffy cushions of tiny yellow flowers. The entire landscape was marked, sculpted, demolished by humans.

And in the Longchang noodle house where the woman said the dishes piled in dirty water had been “disinfected” and I sat down anyway, a lean kitten meowed under my table. I dandled a noodle from my chopsticks. The cat batted it down. He doesn’t eat noodles, she said. He eats fish and ganzhe. Sugar cane? I laughed, unable to imagine it, but remembering the pooch I had seen fed a chocolate bar. No, not that ganzhe, she said, and I wondered what this ganzhe was. She tore off a piece of toilet paper from the roll on the table and dangled it until the kitten sprang, and sprang, from the soil-layered cement, taking down the paper a bit at a time. I laughed at the mighty creature’s playfulness, laughed unbridled, and for once I was not laughing more than anyone else: the woman was laughing too. Her face was a blast of incandescent laughter. Not the same face that had said These dishes are all disinfected, relax. Two girls come in in bright-colored coats, cheap yellow and pink comfort, and I told them: there’s also Cat Meat Noodles here. But not enough for two.

Maybe the drinking last night, and bellowing Neal Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” or “As Tears Go By” at the karaoke, released me. I was let go from the build up of tiny aggressions and minute frustrations – the irritation of constantly being looked at, noticed, whispered about. “Yeah yeah, it’s a goddam foreigner,” I say to them inside, when heads turn to look at me. I am at peace now, in front of a little train station. I have one third of a bottle of local booze in my backpack, and I think how fun it would be to drink it with you, in some shitty little town or smoky train, with a few local characters, to kick back and laugh at the tired carnival of life. Of which we are a minute, but still shining, part!

And on the train the profligate surging and cursing and sweating of a ten minute human scrum. A boy’s face was contorted, Guernica-like, turned upward. He and an old man struggled to reach their seats. The loads on their backs sucked them backwards, while blocking the mass of people pressing into the car. A man and a woman were trapped. I helped the man out of his shoulder straps and settled the bag on our little table, and they crowded against us, waiting. I burst out laughing. What a mad, torturous folk dance! It was pure joy, an ecstatic, worthless struggling. Ah! Cried the woman, and a big soft bundle fell off the overhead rack and onto the boy’s face. The old man’s back basket was the linchpin of the blockage. I stood up on my seat and reached over and down and hauled the plastic and bamboo anvil up onto the back of my seat, to let the people flow past.

And later the train attendant, in blue uniform and the face of a battered diplomat, a hardboiled noir elegance, stepped shoeless from seat to seat. Get up, get up, he barked, rooting people up from their places. He reached up and wrenched out badly stacked bundles and bags and ruthlessly rearranged them. What is all this junk? he ranted, are you moving by train? keeping up a patter of pure exasperation that tickled even the people embarrassed. Here, eat these, he said, dropping a bag of oranges in my notebook. As he reached up his jacket lifted and I saw on his belt a skull carved of jade, a belt buckle with an Izod alligator on it, and a shiny alligator-skin-like case with a cell phone in it. He was sweating. Someone toss me my shoes, he called out. Later he stopped and looked at me. How about going to the next car? he asked. It is air conditioned, comfortable.

It’s too cold, I said, I like it here.

It’s safer there, he said, you foreigners require protection.

These three people are good people, I said. I am very safe. They smiled.