Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Some last thoughts on Hillary

I'm voting for Obama today, but I think those supporters of Obama who have demonized Hillary are naive, childish fawns who still believe that "politician" and "authentic" can be used in the same sentence. And I do not trust the cult of personality rising around him among these folks. Hillary 20 years ago was every bit as committed and full of hope -- if not more so -- as Obama today. What she's done is learn the game, make the hard decisions, and worked her ass off.

But I see Hillary as a tragic figure, worthy of Shakespeare. I think that her years in the trenches have made her and her circle of trusted advisers incapable of breaking out of the toxic boxes the right put them in during the Clinton years. It sucks, and it's not her fault, but she's so deep in to the history of toxicity between the baby boomers on the left and the baby boomers on the right that she will never be free of it all.

Somewhere inside her, though, there is a little girl who dreamed of being the first woman president, a smart young woman who cared about children's rights and who worked on their behalf, an ambitious young feminist who wanted to make the world a better place, an intellectual who devoured policyspeak and became on expert on many things. Vote for Obama yes, but don't carry malice for Hillary. It's misplaced and unbecoming, and believe me when I say that your golden hero too shall fall, will roll in the mud of the Potomac, and will leave you disappointed and shaking your head.

It's what politicians do. And we revere them at our own risk.

Caveat emptor, all you Obama True Believers. And spare some slack for Hillary Rodham.

Misagreeing with my kid...

... yup, despite Allie's fervent support for Hil, I've finally decided to pull the lever for Obama.

The bottom line: he's WAY more likely to beat McCain in a general election than Hillary is. As much as I love my daughter's innate wisdom, this is a political call. Here's a nicely put argument from my pal James about the electability issue:

"Obama is more electable. That's not something everyone agrees on, of course, but there are two big reasons I think so, and they both have to do with voter turn-out: 1. He's bringing in far more "new voters" than Hillary. There's no reason this wouldn't continue into a general election. 2. There is so much animosity against Hillary Clinton on the Right that her candidacy could well propel conservatives to the polls just to vote against her."

I think he's right. Young people, poor people, African-Americans, all will turn out in droves to vote for Obama and many will stay home for Hillary. And against America's favorite warm and fuzzy right-wing uncle, we're gonna need all the turnout we can get. I feel sad for Hillary, but I gotta go not with my gut (as everyone thinks we should) but with the realpolitik of electability.

In the end, I thought the "realpolitik" vote was for Hillary, the idealistic one for Obama. And I didn't trust the idealism. It was only when I saw that the realpolitik vote is for Obama that I decided to pull the lever for him. As for his lofty feel-good speeches and the "Yes We Can" video, that's just packaging, and while I love a good package as much as the next fella (no pun intended), I'm way past believing in politicians. I want the Democratic Party to win, I want the coattail effect of the presidential ticket to be as good as possible at the state and local levels, and I want the regulatory agencies and courts stocked by a Democratic administration. That administration will be headed by an evil hypocrite regardless of its name being Obama or Hillary, because ALL POLITICIANS ARE EVIL HYPOCRITES. I just want to slay the freaking Republicans. Period.

Presidential politics, kid-style

Lifelong lefty Daddy can’t decide who to vote for today, torn between inspiring symbolism and hard-knocks realpolitik. But 5-year-old daughter Allie has been dead-set since she was 4 and a half. “I vote for Hillary,” she has maintained right throughout, “because I want a GIRL President!”

We were driving past Prospect Park on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon a couple months back, when we saw a little mini-rally for Hillary. A bigger kid, maybe 8 or 9, was there with her mother, holding up a red, white and blue Hillary sign. I pointed it out to Allie, who peered from the confines of her car seat.

“Are there any other girls besides Hillary running for President?” she asked logically. Her mother and I said “No, just Hillary.” Allie’s response was even more logical: “THAT’S DUMB!”

We explained to her that the person running against Hillary was Barack Obama, and that we liked him too. Allie held firm to her pro-Clinton stance. We shot each other a glance that said: Shall we go down the road of race here? We did, basically because Allie had already seen the movie musical of “Hairspray,” which sparked a long chat about how some mean people had treated brown people very badly in our country and how hard it has been for brown people to be free. (Allie talks about color, literally, not race, and she refers to people as being either peach or brown.)

So there in the car we started explaining that her beloved Hillary would indeed be the first girl president, and that would be awesome. But the other person running for president against her, Barack Obama, would be the first brown president and that would be really great too. And, more importantly, we said, we like both of them. They are both nice people.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s good.”

But she never switched her vote.

This weekend, on the eve of the big primary, her six-year-old friend Bryn called. The batteries on the phone’s handsets were dead, so Allie and Bryn had to use speakerphone. We wound up glad they did.

Bryn: “This morning I went with my Mommy around the block knocking on people’s doors to tell them to vote for Barack Obama.”

Allie: “I’m voting for Hillary because she’ll be the first girl president!”

Bryn (confused): “What?”

Allie: “Hillary is the first girl president.”

Bryn: “What’s a squirrel president?” (I am not making this up.)

Allie (laughing): “Not SQUIRREL president, GIRL president!!!”

Bryn (laughing too): “Oh, yeah. Well I told my Mommy and Daddy I want Hillary. But they disagree with me.”

Allie: “They misagree with you?”

Bryn: “Yeah, they like Barack Obama. But I want Hillary Clinton.”

Their teleconference on presidential politics was instructive, and maybe even inspiring. I just may have to do a write-in vote. For the squirrel.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodbye Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is dead.

He made it to 84, not bad for a depressive man who had lived through the firebombing of Dresden and his mother's suicide.

Living through death, any death, is like taking a blow to the head or the guts, as you know if you've been there. Something as simple as holding my own mother's hand as she exhaled her last breath in a hospice in Arizona left me depressed, shell-shocked and angry for years. Kurt Vonnegut's mother suffered from bouts with extreme depression and mental illness, and sometimes, during the Great Depression, vented it on Vonnegut's father in plain earshot of the son: "When my mother went off her rocker late at night, the hatred and contempt she sprayed on my father, as gentle and innocent a man as ever lived, was without limit and pure, untainted by ideas or information," he has written. She killed herself.

As a prisoner of war of the Germans in World War II, Vonnegut was locked in a basement in Dresden and put on a work detail, making vitamins, when the Allied bombs hit. He emerged the next day with his captors, who put him to work combing the vaporized ruins, gathering up the torched, rotting corpses, of which there were many. He was a very very young person, like the 19- and 20- and 21-year-olds we have sent to stare too damn long and hard at death in Iraq. Like them, Vonnegut stared at death and the madness of war and human cruelty more deeply than many of us ever have to. I'd like to say more deeply than anyone should.

Vonnegut took the blow of his mother's suicide and withstood the pounding of cleaning up corpses in Dresden. It may not feel like it when you read books like Slaughterhouse 5, but in the end his withstanding that hit, taking that blow, and staying on his feet, communicating with us, for the next 60-plus years, is the kind of triumph of spirit that he would surely pooh-pooh. He spun his depression into a satirical, dark art that was hilarious and profoundly depressing at the same time. He did what we all want to do: he made meaning out of all this sad awful shit we're surrounded with.

He pushed ahead in his ambling, rambling way, and before he got done, he had written some of the most influential stories of the twentieth century. Kids like me read them, and our older siblings, and some of our parents -- the people in the 1960s and 1970s who saw through the curtain of deceit and technocracy to the brutality underneath. Kurt Vonnegut was the antidote to all those cruel, detached geniuses of the 20th century, Robert MacNamara, to Adolph Hitler, to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and Pol Pot and the rest of the corrupt, bankrupt geniuses who could work so hard and burn so bright on the scientific and highly rationalized project of ripping flesh from bone.

Vonnegut brought those bastards low, because he made death and human frailty real to us.

When I was a kid, in the 1970s, there were three artistic voices that called most loud and clear to me: Bob Dylan, Robert Altman, and Kurt Vonnegut. Their work steeped me in a brew of pathos, humor, violence, and sorrow that, it's no exaggeration to say, made me what I am today. They were the guys who were a generation older than my peers, who kind of made the map I've used. I can't say for certain if they mapped only what is really there and offered a way through the bloody mess with integrity, or if they simply chose to travel only on the roughest terrain, ignoring the easy roads. Eithher way, for me, it's been tough going following in the tracks they laid down.

Unlike the kids a scant half-generation after me, who came of age in the Reagan era's boosterism and willfull detachment from hard reality, I never could trust any leader. Never could accept a pat answer. Never could stop laughing at the self-serious, or crying at the way we waste our brief moment on the earth. Dylan, Altman, and Vonnegut, as formative material, made it hard for me to believe in having a career, a country, or a calling. I have never been good at pretending that spending lots of money on meaningless crap was a good way to live, or that something as silly as a story about God could redeem us.

The problem is, the cynicism of Kurt Vonnegut is not really of the armor-plated, diamond-hard variety one sometimes detects in the voice of a T. Coreghessan Boyle or a Frank Zappa. Vonnegut's was the jaundiced eye with the tear in it.

Altman's humor, Vonnegut's pathos, and Dylan's cruel jokey wordplay all grew from, and in turn triggered in me and my generation, a kind of laughter that tried, in vain, to hold back the tears.

With Altman and Vonnegut both leaving the planet this year, I can only feel a sense of wonder that I have made it this far myself. I recently got a wonderful job; I am raising my daughter with a joyfulness I never expected to find in myself; and I write a little to give vent to this sorrow the world inspires in me. No one save my own parents has had a more profound influence on me than these masters of the darkest terrain. But I have found, as I believe they all did, that the point of mastering the darkness is to make it through.

Kurt Vonnegut tried to take his own life at least once, with booze and pills -- in the 1980s, unsurprisingly. And rereading Slaughterhouse-5 and some of his essays earlier this year, it came clearer to me in middle age than it ever did in my youth just how dark and unyielding was his view of our futility. And yet...

And yet he came to feel like a fixture in the world, and he never died until he was old.

So it goes.

His work may not offer a lot of reasons to be cheerful. But his work, and the fact that he made it to 2007 at all, offer plenty of reasons to stick it out.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's a Life Worth?

It's a tired question: What's a life worth?

Well, being the good Reaganites we all are by now, we leave most questions like this to the magic of the marketplace. So what will the market bear for my bones, my body, my dead self? There are dollar figures we can put on transplants for medicine and donations for research. Let's say I'll donate all my organs (the healthy ones), suppose all my blood will be drained and used; some college pre-meds can do weird experiments on various tissues while my skeleton may hang nicely in your daughter's high school science class. Some of these exchanges must have a relatively unassailable number we can put on them.

I'm sure there's a kidney transplant for someone in me, and I've got a lotta spleen. My liver can't be in the best shape, what with my late 1970s adolescence filtered through it, and lately just the steady stream of Advils for my middle-aged aches and pains -- so many toxins over the years.... Put my liver in the debit column, then, but still: we can do the math and ballpark my net value.

Maybe unlike me, you have led a relatively clean life, ate well, light drinker, no hard drugs... Right off the bat, you've got a competitive edge, I imagine. Besides the advantage in liver recyclability, your lungs might be better, your heart more robust. You are probably worth more dead than I am. Huzzah -- there's a good chance you're worth more alive, as well.

This market will no doubt value someone lower who has lived longer and had to endure more health *issues* as we say. For instance, when my wonderful old Daddy died a week shy of his 91st birthday, my Mother and I found ourselves on the 2 extensions of her phone, at opposite ends of her house, teaming up to answer questions from the man at the Arizona Center for The Advancement of Medicine (ACTAM). This fine organization runs a program where, if you donate your body to science through them, they take care of the entire cost of transporting the deceased from his final resting place and then magically bringing the "cremains" to your doorstep in a box -- after, of course, "harvesting" the useful bits (it's a word that always jarred me, called to mind the exact wrong associations somehow, of fecund earth and bounty, ruddy farmers stooped to happy toil -- not my image of the lab in Phoenix where my Dad's cold body was rolled onto the slab from the body bag it traveled north in, from the Tucson Heart Hospital in a minivan with the ACTAM logo painted on the side.... not really harvest imagery somehow).

Anyway, there are me and my Mom, flooded with grief and bereft as it gets, and the ACTAM guy on the other end of the line is doing his pre-harvest due diligence, asking about the reliability of my Dad's organs, checklist-style.

"Quadruple bypass in 1989," my Mom replies.

I jump right in: "He had -- what , Mom, half of it out in that bleeding ulcer operation when I was a kid?"
"Yeah, at least half of it," she says.

We are starting to giggle. The prostate? Long gone. The bladder? Please. When we hang up and find each other from our separate corners of the house, we're laughing with the tears running down our cheeks. Tolling it all up, given the differential between what little his remaining tissue will fetch versus the going rate for cremation -- hell, just the gas money round-trip between Tucson and Phoenix, plus the cost of that little plastic box they put his charred old bones in -- we just may have pulled the heist of the century.

Anyway, my point here is simply this: We as a people tend to listen to the market. We believe, by now, there's little if anything that can't be privatized, commodified, weighed and slapped with a price tag in an amount that someone will pay. And if we apply that cold logic to a life, then we are left with the unescapable truth that SOME LIVES ARE WORTH MORE THAN OTHERS. If Sophie could have had Milton Friedman with her on the train to Auschwitz, her choice may have been easier to make.

So if the market seems like a crude way to measure the value of a human life, okay, there are other ways to judge these things -- and it's true, pegging our existence to the dollar does feel tawdry. What about the retibution factor, the value of a life weighed in a court of law? Is the playing field of justice a level one?

Well, no. Many states have the death penalty for those found guilty of killing a cop. But if you shoot a proofreader, you may get life without parole, or even find yourself back out in polite society after 15 to 20 years of hard time.

Further, if you decide to shoot someone like me on the street one evening and you happen to be relatively wealthy, there's a far better chance that you'll get off entirely or face a lesser charge than murder one. On the other hand, if you're a black man, and you were walking down the street where I was shot but you didn't shoot me, and you don't have the money for a dream team of legal eagles or anything else that rhymes, you could likely still go down for this one -- my assailant will be free, and I will remain unavenged.

The point here is also simple: as in the marketplace, so too in the halls of justice do various lives wind up being deemed worth less or more.

So what about in war? Can we find a standardized answer to our question in the maelstroms of Iraq?

As of this writing, just a few more than 3,000 American service men and women have been killed in The Bush-Cheney Memorial Sonic Barbecue in Iraq since March of 2003. Four years of a short and easy war, and 3,000 mostly very young Americans gone for good.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a day after we honored the birthday of another American who was killed by a terrorist attack, 100 Iraqis -- a full one percent of the 1,000-day American death toll -- died in a single day of sectarian violence in Baghdad alone.

For the year 2006, according to the United Nations, 34,452 Iraqis were killed in the war's spiralling violence -- the total number of American war dead, times ten, and then throw another thousand-plus in for good measure. And that's one year of Iraqi casuallties against the full 47 months of American deaths. (Remember the UN? They're those wimpy pussies who actually had Saddam Hussein reined in pretty good before the neocons got their way.)

This represents the first time that the UN or anyone has been able to do an annual casualty count on the Iraqi side, and it's actually allowed us for the first time to find a way to standardize our currency of living breathing bodies. Don't believe it? Well, at first glance, I grant you, the disparity in raw numbers, when balanced with our own consciousness, makes you wonder if we don't consider our lives more worthy of discussion, of comprehension, or mourning -- just as a police officer's life might be more worthy of revenge than yours. Our media coverage and our bumper stickers might confirm this suspicion, might seem to indicate that one American soldier's life weighs more heavily in the cosmic balance than that of an Iraqi, when judged in column inches or special reports, when meted out in slogans and soundbites. But I want to lead you back to the cold, unbiased chalkboard to do some math with me, and try to answer this question once and for all.

There is one way to crunch these grim numbers that evens out the worth of all the lives lost, a standard like gold that all these bones and organs and all this blood can be pegged to.

Here's the formula: Add up the 2006 casualties in Bush and Cheney's war -- the 34,452 Iraqi and the 824 American deaths -- and you come up with 35,276.

Now let X stand for the dollar amount of Halliburton's total profits from the same period, calendar year 2006.

Divide X by 35,276.

We should all be worth so much.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Praise Song and Requiem

Alvin was cursed and blessed three times over, a bisexual black man with an artistic temperament.

Raised in the mean South Bronx of the 1950s, Alvin was diffferent enough from the other kids in the neighborhood that he learned how to fight, and how to end a fight fast.

Alvin's personal wars weighed a ton. Maybe Vietnam didn't look so bad by comparison. He joined the Navy in the mid-60s and found himself surrounded by men. His sexuality blossomed like a tough flower stabbing up through the slats of a Navy warship. And his art blossomed alongside his sex: he photoghraphed his fellow sailors in various states of erotic thrall, nude and fragile there in the bosom of the US Navy. Bodies, naked, cold and alive during wartime. Alvin was the ship's cook, and three decades later I was fortunate enough to have him serve me the same salt cod, the same greens, the same delicious corn and potato mash that he made for the men he photographed, the men he fucked, the men he went to war with, back in the '60s.

With these men he was told to stand on deck one day, exposed, as US warplanes did a flyover and delivered a payload of chemicals down onto the unsuspecting crewmen.

Then the checkups started, weekly "visits" with the shipboard Navy doctors, who duly noted it all down in little notebooks: the changes in respiratory health, the immune functioning or debasement thereof, the white blood cells, the tumors....

Alvin and his shipmates were guinea pigs in a military medical experiment. They had been exposed to Agent Orange in advance of the Army bringing it full-on to the jungles of what had once been French Indochina. It happened a lot during Vietnam. It happens all the time, as the continuing rise of Gulf War Syndrome attests.

When I moved in to the apartment across from Alvin's in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1999, Alvin was a massive presence, the Mayor of the block and the Lord of the stoop. He was imposing, a huge, dark-skinned man who always seemed to be sporting equal parts black leather and kinte cloth, kind of a gay S&M version of a Black Panther. His ornate jewelry was masculine, yet strangely beautiful -- usually twisted hunks of amber. He would hold court for hours on the stoop into the summer nights, smoking and telling tales of his sexual adventures on the piers as he sat in a little chair, regal with his mahogany figured African walking stick by his side.

As bridge-and-tunnel weekend kids cavorted around the streets -- skinny and white and rich -- having S&M theme bachelorette parties at a tourist trap restaurant nearby, Al would spit at the curb, and suck his teeth. "These children," he'd mutter. "They don't know.... If they want to see some EQUIPMENT, they can come up to my place." He'd pause, then raise his voice indignantly. "I got equipment!"

At this point, Alvin also had cancer. Lots of it. And advanced diabetes was robbing him of his circulation. It was a fifth-story walkup, and Alvin took a long time to make it down the stairs, longer still getting up. On bad days his stoic little moans would echo softly through the tenement halls. He leaned on his African carved walking stick, and he bit his lip. If you happened upon him and he didn't have time to adjust his expression before you saw him, he looked like a sweet, scared child.

Alvin told stories, colorful tales of his life in the 1970s, bar fights and drug deals, and sexual escapades that made even libertine me blush like a Victorian granny. Stories of driving his Econoline van down to the waterfront and throwing the doors open and getting laid as the sun rose. Of runaways staying in his bed, of jealous husbands, of jealous wives.

Alvin took photographs. That was his main art form and he was dedicated to it until the end. He left behind rolls of film, some developed, some printed, some just sitting there, that taken together attest to the vibrancy and the squalor, the tenderness and the ferocity, the dreamlike wildness of New York City in the 1970s. No AIDS. No 9/11. No urban renewal. Just a scrawl of horny technicolor beauty across a broken gray landscape.

Alvin belonged to a time and a place that is disappearing. More accurately, his presence refracted back the light and the color of a whole vivid world become a mirage. It dances like a fever dream as it fades from reality. It is the pre-AIDS gay world of New York City's piers and bathhouses, bars and illicit street corner fucks at dawn. Where untamed artsists like David Wojnarowicz painted hallucinatory murals that were terrible and gorgeous, beautiful and obscene, on abandoned warehouse walls. It is the wild side that Lou Reed suggested some of us might try taking a walk on. You can tsk-tsk it away, or you can romanticize it, but somewhere between those exaggerated reactions, it simply WAS. It was real life.

And the giant space it has left, not unlike a hole in the ground, serves to remind us that everything we take for granted, that seems as natural to us as air, is really fleeting, and will die.

Alvin died in a hospital room uptown. All of us who cherished him had a big party in his honor -- we laughed at stories and wondered at the many facets of this sweet, scary, genius outlaw freak lover pussycat mountain of a man, this artist whose canvas was everywhere.

And then we all went our separate ways.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Love & Death at the age 3 and eleven twelfths

We took our daughter to see Charlotte's Web last night. (And it was a remarkably well done adaptation of the book; I wept intermittently throughout the whole thing. I seem to have completely lost my ability to ignore how sad and poignant everything in the world is, so now I outcry my wife and daughter at the movies.)

The daughter -- whose fourth birthday is a month away -- saved all her tears for afterward. This was interesting: She was happy, totally enjoying the movie etc., and then when we left the theatre she just burst into tears. We asked her if anything in the movie had upset her, and she said, no, it was Mommy hugging her -- "I have enough love!" she said, absolutely wailing. "I didn't like you hugging me! I have enough love already!" she reiterated at the top of her powerful little lungs. It was WILD.

Our theory: Charlotte's death may have caused a little displaced reaction in her. She loves to talk about death (including her cool theory that the actual bodies of people who have died are encased within the statues that commemorate them), but this was the first time she saw death rendered emotionally and with an orchestra score on the big bright screen in the dark dark room -- a rite of passage in the cinematic and emotional life of every child.

Later, feeling better on the walk home, she clarified that "I love you but I have enough love right now."

And then, once we were home and getting her ready for bed, she said with cheerful urgency: "I need some love." And threw her arms around both of us. As always, it was impossible not to comply.