Friday, December 19

Christmas Letter

Hello, Friends.

What a great morning to spend writing my end of year letter. It’s been snowing since late last night, and a full foot of fresh snow muffles the scraping of shovels on city sidewalks. Schools are closed, and there’s hardly any traffic on the roads except for the brash battalions of plows and valiant if lumbering buses. Ben is still sleeping, and Mady is hoping to make it into the Milwaukee airport by this evening and from there perhaps even to Madison. It isn’t entirely sure she’ll make it, but then air travel never seems reliable any more, does it.

What a lot of once taken-for-granted circumstances have changed over the course of this year; the debasement of air travel seems the least of them. Economic growth, retirement, and job security seem elements of the past, along with such once all-American standards as respect for personal liberties and political self-determination, respect for immigrants who remind me constantly that my own grandparents came over penniless and without anything but hope and determination in their pockets. The most fundamental tenets of our Constitution and the foundation blocks of our national history have been chiseled and eroded lately, stained and camouflaged and shrouded. The election of Barack Obama shines a light, yes it does, but the fog is thick, and the call of the foghorn sometimes seems lost or just plaintive among the high drama of prowling pirate ships, as forces of chaos clash with Western ideals of civilization. These are heady times. I am grateful for everyone of intelligence who is called to public service this year. I am particularly grateful there seems to be a full raft of them. I wish them all luck and health and wisdom. I’ll even do my best to tolerate an inaugural blessing delivered by Rick Warren, although I believe you couldn’t stop me from covering my ears.

It’s a time when it would be easy to slip into despair. I was unemployed for most of this year, without health insurance or income or much in the way of local references, having just returned to Wisconsin last fall. Generous, caring friends and family, along with my own obstinate hopefulness sustained me, and I am now finally working at a satisfying position within the University’s Department of Economics. Having glimpsed one wintry utility bill, I am hoping to stay here for the foreseeable, unknowable future. I already miss the freedom I did manage to enjoy during my long spell of unemployment, though; joblessness is far from being all bad, especially since my mom was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease this last February, and my unemployment not only allowed me to spend many lovely days with her and my dad, but also to raise nearly $16,000 in donations for research into the debilitating disease that is claiming her. It feels lately like everyone I know is losing someone they love, without any ability to prevent it or even to stall it. Our hours together are precious. I try not to waste too many of them, though I admit to hoarding a few hours every week for my runs, which seem nearly as important to me as breathing.

My two kids are great as ever. Mady is finishing up her work at CU in Environmental Engineering and working on various projects with NASA, the USGS, and Engineers Without Borders; she will graduate in May. Ben took a semester off from his political studies at Lewis & Clark to work for the combined campaign of Obama and Mark Udall in Colorado. They were both here for Thanksgiving, giving me particular reason for thankfulness and will both soon be here for Christmas as well, so I guess you could accurately say I’m among the happiest people in the universe.

I hope you are too. You are in my heart and my mind, along with so many good memories and fine hopes of seeing you again before too much time flies by us.

May 2009 find us all shoring up our selves with love and intelligence and sharing that wealth with the world.

Thursday, November 27

My Favorite Thanksgiving Poem

This isn't mine; it's W.S. Merwin's. I first discovered it about six years ago, when the fall of the Twin Towers was still as stunning a loss to our sheltered and complacent lives as the slaughter of the people of Mumbai must be today to the people of India -- or is no other population so sheltered from loss and risk as we Americans even now, even now that we know all so well that no nation is an island.

In any case, I share with you this poem. I find every word and every pulse of it true, and if I were reading it aloud to you my tempo would start slow and sonorous then quicken like steps down a forest path as the light fades (go faster, faster) until finally it all winds down and is done.

I don't know its title. I do know its meaning.

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and the fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark as it is

Monday, November 17

The Hand That Signs the Book and Shakes My Own Will be the President's

My mom just returned a book to me, my rather beat-up paperback copy of Obama's Dreams of My Father. My mom, though she won't admit it, is pretty much a Republican. That is probably the surest way to identify a genuine Republican: their disavowal of party identity. To admit you are a party member is a little like admitting you are not an individualist.

Despite her longstanding practice of voting Republican, I had loaned Obama's memoir to her many months ago at the beginning of the long and anything-but-lonesome primary trail. It is, after all, a smooth and easy read, unencumbered by lofty analyses or intricate arguments, a memoir pure and simple and really quite nicely written, a story of a boy growing up in America without a set racial identity, without a lot of money, and without a father present, the story of a young man deciding to be somebody, somebody good. I gave it to her because even back then, my Republican mom had already begun dropping interesting tidbits like, "our future President," when referring to what I think of now as Phenomobama. I left my battered paperback on her coffee table. "You might enjoy this," I suggested oh so casually. "Keep it as long as you need. I've already read it.

A few months later, she confessed she'd given up reading it, but asked if she could loan it to a friend who was interested in Obama. Sure, I answered with only a minor sense of loss. Sure, why not.

Why not? Well, apparently my battered little book may be worth something more than a vote from some errant Republican in northeastern Wisconsin; my book, you see, bears the Obama autograph. Yep. And so does his second book, which I own in a more properly respectable hardcover, The Audacity of Hope. There it is, on the frontispiece of each, in big loopy letters that hardly look like the kind to represent the calligraphic identity of the most heralded and possibly powerful man on the planet: Barack Obama.

He signed these both for me when I was still living in Denver, on an author's tour shortly after he published the second book. Soon afterward, he would declare his candidacy. But on that day in October, when I stood in a long, sinuous line with hundreds and hundreds of other Coloradoans to have a chance to pass by his table in the Event Room of the great Tattered Cover Book Store in downtown Denver, we all knew he was something special, but none of us knew what he was ready to make of his specialness. But there was something in the air. Something that made us wait outside the book store well before it opened. Something that not only allowed us the hours of waiting in line before he would walk into the room, but to chat happily with total strangers, to feel a puzzling sense of sharing something special with everyone waiting in line with us.

It was a sense that would grow stronger and stronger, until it culminated on Election Night with exuberant celebrations in the parks and the downtown avenues of all the major American cities. And my mom's friend, when shown the President Elect's autograph in the book she was being lent, demurred. "She said she couldn't possibly take responsibility for borrowing a book this valuable," my mom explained as she placed the paperback into my hands. I rifled the pages, approving, as only a true book lover can, the suppleness of their movement, the evidence of their usage. I set it back onto the bookshelves, right next to Obama's Audacity.

I won't loan them out again. My mom's friend was right; they're too valuable. Even if these two books were worthless, I plan to keep them until either my brainwaves cease or my attention span forgets them. I'd keep them just to remember the spirit that filled that storeful of people waiting to pay homage to a slim African American Senator who'd written two books. I'd keep them to remember the sense of hope we felt for the first time that long day in line. This is a time to remember. Whatever happens in the Obama administration, this moment of hope must be remembered and cherished.

As for my mom? Who did she vote for? Ah. A true Republican never divulges their vote. It's private. Especially if she voted for a Democrat.

That said, I regret, at that book signing two years ago, my bone crushing grip of Obama's slim and oft-shaken hand. I'm sorry, Mr. President (Elect); I forgot how many handshakes you must endure in the course of one day with your admiring public.

Saturday, November 8

New Deals and New Dealers

We did it. Our jangled nerves have been solaced by at least one glorious night of jubilation, of dancing in the streets like I haven't seen since we pulled out of Vietnam. (I don't follow sports teams, obviously, nor their fans' celebrations.)

One glorious night of jubilation, followed by a day or two of Election Night Stories. Where were you, how good did you feel, did you laugh or cry or hug total strangers; who do you know who was in Grant Park on a Tuesday night in Chicago?

But now we're done with all that. The pace of life is crazy. Election Day seems like it was weeks ago,not just days. Somehow the change of clocks and its built-in time warp contributes to this sense of unreality, as does the abrupt change from the summery temperatures of November's first week. Winter barged through the screen door without knocking this week, and four feet of snow fell in the nation's midsection, along with a few flakes here in Madison. I kind of think the Not-So-Great Plains deserved this dumping, for being the only noticeable chunk of the nation to find Sarah Palin a fit choice for Vice President.

Abruptly, we are back at the present moment, no longer with our eyes on the prize but our eyes on the mess in the locker room. The economy is no longer something we will meet on some ideal day with a new administration's perfect mix of intelligence and care and ingenuity but rather something that confronts us right now, a snarling ogre standing toe-to-toe with us, breathing hotly into our faces the stench of decomposition and disease. A battalion of somber faced economists stands in a protective shield behind Obama as he holds his first conference as President-Elect. This is where we are. These are the new soldiers.

At the time of this writing, Obama has not yet designated his pick for Secretary of the Treasury, although the pressure for him to do so quickly is so intense that I pause to periodically recheck news sources. Understandably, at a time when even the experts seem to be scratching their heads for economic cures or even palliatives, we are hoping for someone more capable than those working for the present administration, those who have so deeply failed us. For this reason, it is deeply, deeply disappointing to see Obama so seriously considering someone out of the incriminated past: Larry Summers.

Summers, as you may know, held this same Cabinet post under President Clinton. He was an Alan Greenspan crony, a Good Ole Boy, an anti-regulation free market globalist. He still is, by all we know. He is, in other words, one of those who allowed this crisis to brew, one of those who kept turning up the heat of the economic burner. He is not what we need now. We need a Real New Deal. We need real change, President-Elect Obama, now as much as we did a week ago. We don't want to go backward. It is time to move forward.

There comes a point when it is not worthwhile to patch old pants. There comes a point when an old tree must come down. There comes a time when enough is enough, and it is time to stop stuffing money into the pockets of bankers and financiers and automakers who never cared about us in the first place. They have not demonstrated that they have learned anything from this present crisis any more than Larry Summers has. Don't give money to Ford and GM; give it to the entrepreneur who needs it to start making little electric cars in a big way. Don't give power to Summers; think Joseph Stieglitz perhaps.

Change, Mr. O. We didn't stop needing it at the moment you won the election.

Monday, November 3

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

As the cover of this week's The Economist says, "It's time. America should take a chance and make Barack Obama the next leader of the free world." Yes.

Go vote for him. That's all I have to say until I can breathe again.

Thursday, October 30

The Hallowed Eve of the Election

It must be nearly Halloween. Leaves are rolling down the streets like little, rickety tumbrels. Squirrels are darting about in perpetual panic with large chunks of pumpkin engorging their cheeks. The sky seems permanently gray, and the windowpanes of my old house are rattling in a noticeably colder wind that makes even the young people walk with something of a old woman's hunched shoulders.

It's a frightening time, even though I am not scared of witches. My neighbors are probably witches, and they are some of the jolliest, friendliest and most kindly people I've met since I moved here. Last Halloween all four of them showed up at my door, four smiling and beautiful witches. That was the first time it occurred to me that they were really and truly witches. I've never asked them, but then I've never asked any of my neighbors about their religions and no one's ever asked me.

Halloween, for real witches, is the end of the old year, the beginning of the new. It's a celebration, most complete when commemorated with a large bonfire (aka "bone-fire") and a feast. And what holiest of feasts would ever be really and truly well-attended without setting a place or two for the dead: Oh my goodness, it's Elijah! Death roams the material world on this night, looking for those it may claim. Putting out food on your porch may help keep Old Man Samhain from knocking. He is not the one you want pulling out a chair at your table.

So light three candles and welcome the new year. This is the end of autumn, the beginning of the dark months, especially in the northern lands where the Celtic people lived, starting these ancient traditions. Light three more candles and add a Western tradition: Blow them out with one hearty puff and don't forget to make a wish. Make it a good wish, and none of that silly business about wishing for three more wishes. It's a scary moment in time, so make it a good wish.

Wish what? Wish for an Obama victory in four days' time. Wish for an Obama landslide, so we know he has a clear mandate. Wish for enough Democratic victories that some change will actually happen. Who cares whether you personally like Nancy Pelosi. We need change; we need real change. Wish for our future, for the sake of our children; for my friends' brand new baby who will enter this grand old world on just about the same day we count up our electoral tallies. Wish her a future; fill her bassinet with songs of hope and freedom.

Wish, and while you're at it, don't neglect to vote. This is not just about wishful thinking, not just about magic. But there is a little bit of magic hovering high in the air, so go ahead this Halloween: Make a wish and while you're at it, kiss a witch, for we are working here toward the elimination of the arrogance and intolerance of the global hatred that's accompanied an upsurge of religious fundamentalism. Make a wish that this will prove to be the beginning of a new year, one full of new intelligence.

This may be the scariest Halloween I've ever spent, not knowing the outcome of Tuesday's election. If you know any good spells, please let me know, keeping in mind that my pantry's low on eyes of newt and toes of frog. Maybe something with tofu?

Tuesday, October 28

BHO: The New Deal, Real Deal

Last night, I was enjoying one of my usual wild nights--you know, curled up on the couch under a pile of afghans with a heavy stack of books and a cup of chai whose heat didn't even last the short steps from the kitchen to the living room--and I came across some quotes that I found particularly heartening and wonderful. (OK. I was reading Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It's a little better, isn't it, than spending nights reading the phone book? A little less pathetic?)

I'd like to share them with you now. You know, spread the excitement. Pass the chai. Or maybe we could switch to wine now that there are two of us gathered here huddled over the big brown book.

"These unhappy times call for the building of plans ... that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." FDR, 1932

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." FDR, 1937

"Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much." FDR, 1942

"It is not a tax bill but a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy." FDR, veto message, 1944

Do any of these sound familiar, timely, relevant? Do they ring some bells? Somehow they bolstered me, lent me assurance that given sound and intelligent leadership maybe we will figure out a way to better times again.

One week until Election Day. I am still worried and working for Obama. As the little sign on my wall reminds me, "Pray like hell, then do something!"

Monday, October 27

In the Chute At Last

When you're running in a race with a big field, the finish line is usually set up in what we call "chutes." These are basically lanes, which channel runners in neat order over the finish line. Now, seeing the finish line in any race provides a swell of energy, pride and happiness, but after a really long race, entering the chutes is, well, it is my vision of what nearing heaven must feel like.

You see, there's this point in a really long race, if you're giving it your utmost, when your legs turn to stone. And when flesh and blood petrify like this, something obviously happens to the neurovascular circuitry that allows brains to send messages to muscles, because it becomes increasingly difficult to even keep those limbs in motion, to order them forward. If you've climbed in the high mountains, where oxygen is depleted, you've probably also known this phenomenon. Legs, never mind their terminating feet, might as well be miles away from the command center of the brain for all that they respond to orders like "Keep going!" or, more foolishly, "Speed up!"

And then you see the archway of the finish line, and hope swells. You find yourself thinking with longing about abstract ideas like putting on a final burst of speed, dazzling the spectators, winning your age group. Not too much of that happens usually, if you've been giving your all throughout the long miles preceding, until the chute lines enfold you. And then, like Dorothy and her entourage crossing into the Land of Oz, color returns, pain disappears, music becomes audible, doubt is vanquished. The battle's won.

We are entering the chutes of this election, and in the chutes, some of the pain and hysteria is already beginning to recede. Soon we will be done hearing about wardrobe expenses and renegade ministers, wondering whether McCain really does suffer from PTSD or just looks like it, fretting about how an unmarried teenage girl and her dropout boyfriend became role models for our families. We're in the chute. Obama is starting to give summation speeches, and I wish I could be there to hear one in person, since he had to cancel his last scheduled appearance here in Madison last week. We're in the chute, and the pain and pettiness and squabbles will start to fade away, in preparation for McCain's concession speech late on the night a week from now, in which we can hope he will reach out across the aisle once again.

Why will it be McCain's concession speech rather than Obama's? Not because McCain abandoned the integrity which initially drew supporters his way. Not because his proposed Vice President is a shallow and uninformed redneck wearing Gucci and Dior. McCain is going to lose because he simply missed the message. When he pounds his fist on the podium in front of him and declaims, "Barack Obama wants to share the wealth!" he doesn't hear the voices inside the skulls of even those who support him, those persistent voices telling those of us who, unlike McCain and his fancy wife, constitute the declining middle class of America, "Yes. and I would like that; I would like to share in the wealth of those few wealthy Americans, those few who aren't hurting, those few whom the Republicans have favored with tax breaks and corporate incentives and social policies that have hurt me and my family."

He totally missed the fact, and Obama did not, that the gap between them and us is enormous and growing and divisive. Redistribute the wealth? You betcha.

Monday, October 20

Helping Each Other Down the Stairs

Readers of the Wall Street Journal and other press-subscribing Republicans (mustn't take this for granted now that Joe the Plumber and Todd the Snowmobilist are the party's new standard bearers, replacing those disgraced investors) have long been familiar with Peggy Noonan, but I just made her acquaintance. I have to admit I never listened to the speeches she wrote for President Reagan. I didn't listen to any president's speeches back then. But lately, as I've struggled to understand what has become of the US and the global economy we've apparently driven into the ground, I've been paying attention to a lot of new voices. Right now, I'll accept wisdom from anyone, and I don't expect to find myself with a surfeit of it doing so!

Peggy Noonan has long written a column for the WSJ and recently she had a small new book published that for a week got a decent amount of attention. Patriotic Grace, it's titled, What It Is and Why We Need It Now. A plain-spoken, easily read book that is hardly bigger than a mass market paperback, it's her perspective on what we really need to be focusing on as Americans today, I mean, right after the banks get back to serving each other instead of us and oil prices start to bubble back up to unaffordable heights again. What is it Ms. Noonan would have us devote our best and brightest energies to addressing?

That old Republican gig: Armageddon. Yep. In one guise after another, whether it's a Rapture or Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Bomb in Iran or the Bomb in North Korea but heaven knows never the many bombs in our own arsenal, the right is always ranting about the last day, the ultimate destruction, the anthrax, the suitcase bomb, and oh yes the swine flu. I'm sorry, but I'm sick of hearing all this. Come what may, this is not what I will build my life around. I spent my grade school years covering my head with my skinny little arms, hiding in the coat racks of the elementary school corridors and under the little vinyl desks of the classroom, to save myself and my future progeny from the fallout of a nuclear bomb attack on America. I watched my neighbors dig an enormous hole in their backyard so they could survive the inevitable Russian attack. I am not going to live like that again, now that I'm an adult. It was strange enough to do so as a child.

Peggy Noonan's right about a lot of things, though; we will probably live to see another attack on us, probably on our own soil, probably every bit as horrible as the falling of the towers and the crashing of our innocent arrogance. And we are not prepared for it in terms of emergency procedures, and the Department of Homeland Security is a bumbling fool in a hall of mirrors. But she is wrong that this is what we should be concentrating on as a nation with one common purpose, one all-consuming patriotism. Forget the notion of building a sense of "Patriotic Grace" that will see us through a debilitating terrorist attack; let's start working instead on something altogether more encompassing: a sense of global grace. Let us start to work with other nations, and define ourselves and our mission not by how we respond to those who hate us but but how we respond to those who need us.

Noonan said her book was engendered at a moment when the Capitol rotunda was being abruptly and summarily evacuated because an errant plane had violated its protected airspace. In fleeing the building, she noticed an elderly woman in a wheelchair stranded atop the stairs until a pair of men picked her up, chair and all, and carried her down. In that, Ms. Noonan found such horror that she began to formulate this book, because "Before this is over, we'll all be helping each other down the stairs." But where Ms. Noonan finds that troublesome, I find it somehow comforting. As a Democrat, I readily confess that I've long had the hope that we will continue to find ways to take care of one another--perhaps to a Republican, that prospect is not as calming.

Saturday, October 18

Change: One Vote, One Election, One Candidate at a Time

At a tripartite talk last night by independent media darlings Bob McChesney, Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman, a packed theater of self-congratulatory Madison liberals, largely gray haired or beyond, applauded our apparently superior understanding of, well, almost everything. Though the event was held under the aegis of the seven-year-old Wisconsin Book Festival, it was really a fundraiser for two local media: WORT radio and WYOU television. Buckets were actually passed down the long rows of middle class activists; it was just like being back in church. I left feeling like the independence of the book festival had been somehow compromised, in sort of the same way Goodman spoke about the prevalence of private enterprise at both parties' national conventions this summer.

Now, I'm not out to trash Amy Goodman. I admire her enormously, and watching her long pale hands moving through the air like birds as she spoke, I was deeply moved by her unquestionable commitment, intelligence and integrity. If the left had more people like her, we would see less of people like Ms. Palin or Rush Limbaugh, less of the histrionics of Fox News and Ariana Huffington alike; we would have more understanding of the realities that impel political action in our world. The success of people like Palin and Limbaugh and media phenomenon like Fox rests upon ignorance; knowledge unseats them. And no one digs up knowledge as capably as Amy Goodman today.

Which makes me wonder what happened to her cohort, Mr. Scahill, whose talk was aimed at booting us off our computers and onto the streets. Perhaps it's his relative youth showing, but a lot of us have done the street thing; a lot of us in this particularly gray audience not only had plastic handcuffs clamped around our wrists, but had tear gas burn our eyes, truncheons pummel our shoulders. We don't run so well any more; frankly, we're better off writing these days. And indeed. How presumptuous to state that street action is the only way to really effect change. How traditional and how uncreative an approach is that! We have had street action varying from violent revolutionary action to silent sit-ins to marches large and small in all parts of the world, and this is still where we find ourselves today. Perhaps being on the streets, like being ensconced in a chair with a laptop, is insufficient.

Right now, we need to see the big picture, which is Obama's picture right now. We actually do need Obama to win the election in less than three weeks. We cannot endure Mr. McCain, the old man with PTSD and an anger issue backed up by little Ms. Voodoo with the Beehive. Yes, we don't want to exclude third party candidates, as young Mr. Scahill kept scolding us, but neither is this the historic moment to start building an addition in order to enlarge our living quarters! Everything these alternative media people said is technically correct, but they show no wisdom. Barack Obama is in the truest sense an African American. I don't think any of these speakers understand how big it is that he is about to win the presidency, maybe because they weren't part of the civil rights movement.

It is not time for the left to gather in halls and boo the shortsightedness of those who are working so hard to get Obama into office, to criticize them as being facile and cowardly and inadequate. The left, after all, could be there in masse at this night-time meeting because they had no meaningful political action on their schedule. Is it better to sit at a lecture given by speakers you have listened to regularly, to applaud them when they agree with you, even when they are advocating action and all you are doing is sitting on your butt in a nice old theatre? As we sat there, all across the country, thousands of earnest Obama volunteers and field organizers were still hard at work, calling voters, inviting them to talk, urging them to join the conversation American must have now and next January, when there's an administration ready to be part of it all. The gray hairs and young bloods are all too willing to criticize Obama for what he is not addressing; they don't really seem to care that we need him to get elected, because there is only one other imminent option, an utterly untenable option.

We must remember that Obama is an African American. Significantly, there were not many African Americans in the audience last night. There remains a different reality for African Americans. Obama cannot devote his campaign to talking about welfare and the poor, as these middle class, middle aged Prius drivers would have him. If he does, he is just another black man, someone to ignore, someone to brush off. To take his historic place, he has to be every inch a middle class man my parents might boast about when they call me up to say, "A black man joined our church this week. He seems very nice." These moments make us wince, perhaps, but we need to get through these moments, and bring the population with us. There are so many people out there who still don't want a black man as President. Sarah Palin can have a redneck, secessionist husband and an unwed, pregnant daughter and a prospective son-in-law who's dropping out of high school to work in the oil fields because she has the enormous privilege of being white. Obama doesn't have that. Obama has to be perfect.

And the alternative media, charged as they are with being the watchdogs of American government, as each of these speakers made clear, could better occupy themselves bringing us information instead of trying to tell us what to do with that information.

Thursday, October 16

Impolitic Impoliteness and Impotent Impatience

And another thing about the rudeness of Republicans in this campaign: Interrupting!

As both my children have told me many times over, people who interrupt are not really interested in listening; they are interested in telling. I've been working hard on being a better listener, which is a lot easier now that I live alone, I must confess.

But if either candidate is really to manifest the change they both profess to represent, they are going to need to listen, and after watching all the debates, I have to say that it's painfully clear that John McCain listens only long enough to find an opening for repudiation.

Interrupting another speaker is not a sign of importance, but impatience. Impatience is not a quality we seek in our leaders. On the website, "the largest site in the world on all aspects of how we change what others think, believe, feel and do," the experts on how to listen in order to influence others list the following two conditions atop their list of when NOT to interrupt: 1) When you think of something to say and 2) When they haven't finished.

Poor John McCain. He used to command respect. Now, he can't even hold on to his self-respect for the two minutes granted his opponent to reply, and his premature ejaculations from across the burnished table render him increasingly pitiful and certainly less presidential.

Wednesday, October 15

Rudeness and Self-Loathing on the Campaign Trail

If you've read many of my recent blogs, you may realize my take on this campaign season is settling in around one issue, and it's not, as perhaps it should be, the economy. It's rudeness.

Now I know full well that our present economic disaster is what really demands our attention, and I have probably been working harder than most right-brained artistic sorts to gain sufficient understanding of investment finance and free market economics that I feel capable of voicing opinions and expressing them to my representatives in Washington. But I'd rather you read people like Paul Krugman or Dean Baker or Joseph Stiglitz. They are all much smarter than I on the issues and are actually quite understandable when they try to be. Or, better yet, watch "The News Hour" on PBS. Meanwhile, I want to talk about rudeness.

It started raising its ugly head at the Republican convention, most notably when Giuliani began speaking derisively of Obama's community organizing. By the time Sarah Palin claimed the podium, the crowds were well-primed and juiced. They have hardly stopped booing since. If this is not a sign of negative campaigning, I don't know what is. And it's gone way beyond the simplistic put-down of booing, way beyond. In fact, when I hear what people are shouting out in response to the Republican candidates' baitings, I feel even sadder for our country than I do when I look at the Dow Jones vacillations. What is it in McCain's following that makes them so much more apt than Obama's supporters to shout out hateful, negative slogans and epithets and even vile and vicious responses like "Kill him!," "Treason!" and "Off with his head!" (see Frank Rich's column in the 10/12 NYT). And why do McCain and Palin just stand up there and smile or offer only the most tepid of reprovals in response to this surge of hatred?

The best commentary I've seen yet on this was from an article by Bill Bishop in the 10/13 You should definitely check it out if you're interested. He documents very well what's been taking place at recent Republican rallies and opens the door to discussion of how homogeneity breeds hatred. I read it and remembered what I'd found in researching the ethnic diversity of Republican delegates to that convention a couple of months ago a diversity that was basically non-existent (see blog archive). I'd like to take Bishop's insights a little further. I went looking for additional information in the dusty reaches of my bookshelves.

There, I pulled down a dusty reader's copy of a book published in 2004 called The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. Though its title struck me as being quite the antithesis of what I've been thinking about crowds, I ran down the chapter titles and opened the book to the chapter entitled "The Difference Difference Makes." And there is was, right there in black and white in a book based on the premise that people in large groups arrive at better solutions than individuals do, "The key to this whole process is diversity."

Now I'll be fair. Surowiecki makes it clear that he is not talking about sociological factors when he cites diversity as being essential for good decision-making; he is talking, in his words, about diversity in a "conceptual and cognitive sense." Still. In a room full of white, middle class, fundamentalist and evangelist Christians, how much conceptual and cognitive diversity, seriously, are we going to find? In the McCain campaign itself, how many African Americans do we find at the top? How many Hispanics? If Joe Lieberman is McCain's claim to diversity, it is no wonder the campaign is so woefully lacking in the freshness of vision we as a nation need so desperately.

But hatred, which is what we are hearing arise from the crowds cheering in response to Sarah Palin's baiting use of words like "terrorist" or the Republican's deliberate mention of Obama's middle name (what other candidate can you think of whose middle name was ever used, except to distinguish W from Senior Bush?), is a great unifier. Tyrants and despots through time and across the globe have used hatred to hold together their supporters, virile hatred, hanging out hand-in-hand with its simpering fiancée, fear. "Common hatred," wrote Eric Hoffer in his landmark study The True Believer, "unites the most heterogeneous elements. To share a common hatred, with an enemy even, is to infect him with a feeling of kinship."

And what does Hoffer say about the origin of these hatreds? "They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt, and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others... the most effective way of (masking this switch) is to find others, as many as possible who hate as we do." If my daughter was 17 and pregnant, and the father of her baby was dropping out of high school, you bet I would feel inadequate; I would feel that somehow, some way, I had failed my daughter as a parent. There are a lot of feelings of inadequacy out there, especially among people who haven't done too well in life. Why do you think that most of the people who are so keen for the Second Coming (and the Rapture!) are people who aren't doing too well economically?

It fills me with such sadness to see crowds of Republican supporters booing and jeering at good people like Obama and Biden, two men who have worked tirelessly to understand and to improve the stewardship of American values in the world and here at home. Neither fear nor hatred is an element of good health, whether you're talking about someone you love or a nation you love.

Tuesday, October 7

If You're Going to Be a Loser, Be a Good Loser

What is with the Republicans and all their booing this year? Have they always been this sophomoric and somehow I didn't notice, or is this a new twist, the reduced vocabulary of a bankrupt policy? Perhaps, to a ticket that does seem to believe "When you've said 'Budweiser,' you've said it all," booing is all that remains of discourse. I mean, take a look at the gilded woman standing primly behind Senator McCain at all those speeches, Little Miss Cindy "I Got Rich Filling Your Gut With Cheap Beer." She doesn't speak, but she sure does dress nicely, and I can't help but notice that gold is her favorite color and wonder just why that might be.

You know, I enjoyed a good long stint of Soccer Momming myself, which I originally assumed was pretty much the same thing as being a Hockey Mom, but I'm rethinking that. Sarah Palin smiles from the podium when her admirers course with boos against Obama. She feeds them lies to fuel this booing. She actually thrives on the booing. That must be a Hockey Mom thing, and if I'm offending any Hockey Moms out there, well I think you should really be complaining to Ms. Palin instead of to me.

One thing we worked on with the little-boys-becoming-young-men on our soccer team through the years of its existence was sportsmanship. Sportsmanship may be kind of an advanced notion for people who think shooting animals who can't shoot back is fair game, I realize, but what it amounts to is this: Be nice. Don't push or elbow your opponents once you're off the field, don't brag if you're winning and don't whine if you're losing. And don't boo. Booing is for people who have no vocabulary. It's like swearing. It's what you do when you don't have any intelligence left.

Which may go a long way toward explaining why Governor Palin and her admirers find it such a perfect means of communicating their positions. And that's all I have to say today.

Sunday, October 5

For Ambient Waves of Radio

Since I moved back to Wisconsin last fall, I have spent a lot of my weekends driving around the state. My travel has for the most part been necessitated by family obligations and celebrations, but the drives have been as important as the destinations. At a time when I don't even use my car in town any more, I love to drive at my new, gas-conscious pace hundreds of miles at a stretch just to turn around in two days and drive back again. I know that long weekend drives may be one of those luxuries our children and eventual grandchildren will find as unthinkably old-fashioned as record players and typewriters and family meals that take precedence over soccer games and high school musicals, but we can hope one part of long weekend drives may endure: Public radio.

Public radio is the best part of driving, no matter what kind of vehicle you're steering. I love it in my old Honda Civic every bit as well as in my sister's Beamer, though I grant that the sound quality's a little better in the German car. Even when you have the great good fortune to live here, where roads (with the notable exception of billboard-blighted Highway 41) take you through landscapes so stunning that sentimental types sometimes have to pull off to absorb the full impact of gorgeousness, public radio is the best part of driving. Yes, even when they're in the middle of a fundraising campaign. Wisconsin Public Radio, DoubleupeeR as we who love it fondly refer to it, reaches nearly every part of our state. It is among the best public radio networks in the nation, a fact shown clearly by the large number of national radio shows that originate here, in studios that you'll usually found tucked away into inadequately or overly heated corners of university buildings no one else would consider occupying.

Indeed, I love WPR so much that I count myself fortunate that I only listen to radio when I'm driving. You see, I have a strict rule about talking on the phone when I'm driving. So, on afternoons like today's, when I'm driving down a highway I drive so often I not only know every speed trap and produce stand, but also how long it took the farmer at the Bethel Road intersection to sell his dying father's Ford truck versus the farmer up the road a piece to sell his enlisted son's ATV, I am invulnerable to the pleas for financial support from my beloved WPR hosts. I won't pull out my cell phone; I won't succumb to the chorus of "Yesses!" that answers each and every argument of my favorite moderators and commentators as they tell me exactly why I should spend three minutes of my drive time donating money today.

I will, of course, pay for this great all-American pleasure, and once a year, I will send in my WPR donation, but it will not be done in the heat of a moment's ardor on a back road winding among the hills of maple and oak trees overlooking round little lakes reflecting a blue sky overlain with brilliant sunshine and the unmistakeable wingspan of an eagle silhouetted up high. It will not be done from the shoulder of this two lane highway where I have paused to catch my breath along with the snatch of a poem that's been buzzing like a nectar-drunken bumblebee among the ragged blossoms of my end-of-summer mind. I will drive home and then I will do it, under the influence of things like mortgage payments and health insurance premiums and the fact that my car needs another oil change from too many drives in the countryside.

You should do it, too. Life without the intelligent discourse of public radio would be travel without roadside wildflowers waving their charming and ebullient heads as you pass, school lessons without recess or jungle gymns or maybe just without mental gymnastics, sleep without dreaming or clean pillowcases, coffee without cream and sugar. Some things must be had, like an occasional weekend drive in autumn no matter what the price of gas, as long as the radio's working. All things considered, this American life would be less worth singing without the broadcasts of public radio.

Thursday, October 2

Harvest 1424: Reaping What Is Sown

Say a combine is rolling down the wheat fields. The combine uses an ungodly amount of gas and the exhaust it spews into the air is noxious, but hey, bread's good, especially freshly baked whole wheat spread with real Dairyland butter and dripping with sweet golden stickiness compliments of the mysteriously disappearing honeybee. The combine is rolling through the wheat fields.

But something goes wrong. Something's amok. The combine starts bucking like a rodeo horse, its powerful cutting tools gouging into the precious soil of our American farmland. It lurches across the rich loam of old Iowan riverbeds, the vast stretches of the Great Plains still alive with memories of the Dust Bowl, the arid eastern flatland of Colorado, where farmers are starting to think maybe windpower is what their land supports best, not corn for cattle or even corn chaff for ethanol. The combine grinds through the landscape of the heartland. The driver's thrown out and ends his life as another agricultural mortality. His wife, running to his aid, hearing his final lamentation piercing the roar of rogue machinery all the way into her kitchen, is also, we must regrettably note, chewed up by the wild and rampaging machine when she tries to extricate him. Sons, hired hands, daughters, brothers-in-law and kind and concerned neighbors: none can stop the machine it seems. It goes beyond the borders of this one farmer's land and continues wreaking its havoc in one neighboring field after another. Aghast, tired, and helpless, the community takes shelter and watches from porches, drinking cider on a early Fall evening.

But, behold. A lone rider comes over the horizon, riding the finest steed anyone on the porch has ever seen, chaps of finest leather, saddle studded with an uncanny amount of gemstones. "Help is on the way!"the tall, bald man shouts, waving a copy of a 3-page memorandum overhead. Soon enough, he is followed by a stampede of 435 men and women in suits. They come within sight of the rampaging combine, then throw up their hands, spin on their heels, and race back over the visible edge of the known world. The neighbors look to one another in uncomprehension. They bring out the harder cider, the one with the raised alcohol content. Hard times call for hard measures. Another posse draws near as the sunset begins to intimate the end of day here in the American heartland. Ninety nine members strong, they ride with a sense of majesty unimaginable to the representative gaggle that preceded them.

And what do they do? They fuel up the combine, shake hands all around, and ride away. The combine continues lurching its destructive path across the heartland. The people on the porch, having finished the cider, have now turned to moonshine.

I would like to thank Wisconsin's great Senator, Russ Feingold, for continuing to stand up for what is truly right, for valuing good decisions over fast decisions, for representing my children and me with such calm and intelligence. The bill passed yesterday by the U.S. Senate not only failed to address the causes of our crisis; it actually added to the debt load carried by American taxpayers and deepened our national credit crisis.

My choice of an agricultural metaphor/parable is not entirely arbitrary. One, this is a Wisconsin blog, after all, a little slice of life from the Midwest, so you must expect things like agriculture to surface from time to time, but there are interesting asides here, as everywhere, like the fact that forty-nine percent of farm accidents involved a discernible factor of haste. Does this sound relevant? Additionally, as the website informed me this morning, "The high accident rate in agriculture is not an accident; it is rather the predictable consequence of specific management choices."

Friday, September 26

Familiarity: The Breeding of a President, 2008

Remember the saying made famous (I believe) by Woody Allen: "I would never belong to a country club that would have me as a member?" That quip used to evoke laughter, a recognition of the powerful feelings of inadequacy that plaque not just scrawny men in oversized eyeglasses but also the rest of us. You know, those of us who aren't in any club, unless it be a poker club or bridge club or maybe a book club.

Today, we are sorting through the qualifications for office of applicants for the highest office in the land and arguably in the world. The applicants? Sarah and Barack and Joe. Oh. And McCain. Plus there was Hillary. Mustn't forget Hillary. And I find myself wondering when it was that we decided as a nation that we were on a first name basis with these people, as if we knew them personally, as if they were our family, our friends. I also find myself wondering why it is that Senator McCain has somehow missed the boat on this bonanza of familiarity. No one calls him John. I'm not even sure Cindy does. Of course, I'm not really sure she can talk, though she sure looks good standing behind him, sort of like a Barbie doll really, if you think about it.

I first realized this when I was visiting my parents, and in reference to another city, my dad commented, "Yep. Sarah's husband is going to be there." Now, I have a niece named Sarah who is engaged to be married, and so of course, given that I was in conversation with Sarah's grandfather, assumed he was already referring to Sarah's fiance as her husband. The two are, after all, already living together, a fact that fundamentalist Christians like my parents sometimes deal with by deeming them morally married. And so our conversation stumbled around for a few sentences while I tried to figure out just what the heck Sarah's Jason would be doing here in Wisconsin when he's a professor in North Carolina. Well, my dad, of course, was talking about Governor Palin. Sarah. Everywoman. The one who has the same problems it's presumed the rest of us do: the pregnant teenaged daughter, the baby with special needs, the sister with the ugly divorce proceedings, the husband with the drunk driving issues: Sarah. While we are not supposed to be talking about any of these components of Governor Palin's life anymore, since the woman has practically no substantial qualifications to be on a presidential ticket, we are left with these as the basis of her qualification. She is Everywoman and can apparently do Everything: run a marathon, skin a gigantic animal, see Russia with her own two eyes, stay tan through an Alaskan winter.

Everything, except to hold her own as a world leader. Even Laura Bush has acknowledged this. In fact, Governor Palin cannot even speak coherently to reporters, which is why the McCain campaign has kept reporters at bay for so long. Her media counterpart is probably Katie Couric, who was designated the CBS news anchor largely because of her appeal to the common folk, an audience it was hoped she'd bring with her in her transition from being a daytime talk show host. The two of them share a lot besides shapely legs, most notably a certain perkiness. Well, Katie Couric has learned the hard way that perkiness and a bright smile don't win respect or ratings. Now it's Ms. Palin's turn at bat. Ironically, one of those throwing the pitches her way is Ms. Couric, who doesn't even throw fast balls, just those high, lofting underhand tosses more characteristic of softball pitching. She even helped out Ms. Palin in her interview, when the woman who thinks she could lead our country through one of its most thoroughly challenging periods couldn't think of a word or an answer.

I listened last night to some of the follow-up in the wake of the first Presidential debate. One of the issues all the spinsters addressed was that of approachability, otherwise known as emotional appeal of the candidates or even as likability. On this account, despite the fact that McCain never once looked directly at either Obama or the camera (who was he addressing, anyway?) McCain apparently won. Nearly every commentator found Obama too professorial, too aloof. Maybe he was a little better than in previous debates, but still, he wasn't "warm." It reminded me all too much of the up-tick in Senator Clinton's popularity after she wept in public. Is this really what we are looking for in our President? Someone who's warm and cuddly, whom we know can weep and rage and rudely interrupt others as they're speaking? Someone who's just like us?

Not me. But perhaps you, dear imaginary reader, feel otherwise. Perhaps you feel someone just like you would make a good President to lead us. Me, I'm just glad there is someone better qualified than I and, that said, I leave now to go register young voters, hoping they'll have the good sense to vote for someone more intelligent and better educated than I.

Sunday, September 21

Fighting Bob and the Bobbleheads

Almost exactly 100 years ago, Robert M. LaFollette, then the Republican governor of Wisconsin, seeing what woes beset the good citizens of his state, commenced a concerted lifelong effort to apply the democratic ideas of Lincoln--government of, by, and for the people--to the course of state politics and in doing so launched the boat of Progressivism here in Madison. It was, without doubt, the best ship ever to be floated on our then pristine lakes, and by mid-century its decks were chockful of grateful survivors plucked from the churning waters of surging America industrialization.

The Good Ship Progressive sailed proudly here for three-quarters of a century, under several different pennants. "Fightin' Bob," as his political descendants like to call him, went from Madison to D.C., taking a trunkload of ideas and programmatic blueprints with him to the U.S. Senate and leaving the continuing care and welfare of his beloved Wisconsin workers in the able, willing hands of his first mate, son Philip. Between this extraordinary duo, Wisconsin led the nation in instituting reforms that would not be rivalled in scope by anything until FDR's programs of the Depression. Under the leadership of the LaFollette duo, which formalized itself as an independent political party under Philip's guidance, a civil service system was put in place to eliminate favoritism in hiring by the state. A horrifying incidence of industrial accidents was addressed by the creation of a Workmen's Compensation program. Campaign finance laws were set in place to make sure the vote of the people remained a vote of the common people, not just the owners of industry. A state income tax plan was pioneered here, and revenue sharing among local, county and state government was structured. Unemployment compensation began here under the guidance of the Progressives, too. But things happen. Today, here in Wisconsin as in too many other places, a governor feels fortunate and accomplished to even get an annual debt-dragging budget passed.

"All ebb and flow in the universe," wrote the Roman poet Ovid two millenia ago. "And every shape that's born bears in its womb the seeds of change." Change is everywhere. Children are different than their parents. The sapling under the parent oak is puny and misshapen. One puppy from the litter is adopted and thrives; another forages on the streets for food, and it is this dog who engenders more puppies. Change, as Ovid knew, is ubiquitous and inevitable. It means nothing to say one is an advocate for change; one may as well say one is an advocate of the sun or the wind or the sea. What matters is how one steers change, how one charts a ship's course through the tumultuous seas, what programs one proposes to advance our use of solar and wind power.

A hundred years ago, as the engines of industry roared roughshod down brand new railroad tracks across agricultural America, as immigrant families scrabbled to keep up with dizzying changes in their work prospects and their communities or maybe simply to avoid being run over, Wisconsin progressives stepped up to the challenges and held out a helping hand to the common person. Today, we seem to be holding out a helping hand to the very institutions that have misled and devastated our middle class citizens, and as we bail out the large corporations instead of the individual homeowners, we dare to say it is necessary in order to protect the common man, the taxpayer. The bobbleheads are all wagging, just like the crowds along the route of the Naked Emperor. "Bail out the profiteers now or face recession!" shout the bobbleheads.

Someone should really note, in plain language, that the common man isn't really protected by a government that supports and shores up the very institutions that have robbed him. We, the common man, the taxpayers without loopholes, the invisible men and women, are already suffering in a genuine recession. We need real change. We need new visions. We need Bob. Call us Main Street, if you will, but as the line goes: Call us! Barack, if it's you who answers to the name of Bob today, please speak up, because we're hoping to hear something. It's foggy out here on the seas of change and even the big long solid wail of a foghorn would be of service to us, give us some clue where the shore is, where the shoals. Speak the truth please, speak for us please, and give us some of that audacious hope you used to mention.

Sunday, September 14

Shopping for Votes in the Homeland

Yesterday I showed up in the Republican stronghold of Appleton, Wisconsin, to do my first ever round of door-to-door canvassing on behalf of a political candidate. Why I chose to drive 120 miles to walk from house to house in a steady drizzle of rain instead of doing it closer to home in my personal, progressive turf on the near-eastside of Madison is a combination of personal (my elderly, ailing parents live there) and political (there's a markedly smaller pool of Democratic volunteers there). How Republican is Appleton? Let me put it this way: Appleton is so deeply Republican, so truly Republican, that few there confess to actually being Republican. Here, in a small city that not only sounds like it's the Heartland/Homeland of America, but looks like it, too, independence, privacy and individualism are what is valued, and God above all. In other words, the perfect Petrie dish in which to drop a foreign body like myself. After all, it was this town that made me. I graduated from Appleton High School East in 1971 and fled the city limits just as soon as I could thereafter. That should be sufficient to confer a little immunity to me in this doorbell ringing business; I've already been inflicted with the local germs.

So there I was this Saturday, walking through the unrelenting rain with an armload of glossy flyers and a chest thrumming with anxiety. Why the anxiety? Well, the day before my 79-year-old mother had recounted how, when she told her bridge club I was coming up to canvass for Obama, the women had burst out giggling, "Well, I sure hope she doesn't come to my house!" Please bear in mind that these are old women who actually like me, for the most part, which means the white, middle class woman part of me, the part who likes her countertops clean and her shirts pressed, who keeps her shoes polished and her cup handles all facing the same way. Which is the part of me I'd been hoping to present up here to the good people of Appleton from the other side of their front doors, that most part, my presumed good part. But suddenly that part didn't feel adequate to the challenge of Appleton. To hear that even my mom's longtime bridge partners didn't want to see me through their screened doors increased my inbred apprehension about knocking on strangers' doors tenfold. I found myself wondering whether the pro-choice Obama sticker on my car was really such a good idea.

Frankly, I was nervous about this return to my own personal nightmare of a homeland. I mean, if I were asked to name the ugliest place I've ever been, I would name, without hesitation, Appleton. Despite its well-tended parks, despite its diligently swept streets and broad avenues, despite the neatly arranged pots of bright cerise geraniums and snappy red, white and blue banners bedecking porches painted right on schedule every five years to the day, Appleton manages to suck the soul out of the very concept of beauty. Lush gardens do not spill over walkways in Appleton; poets do not spill wisdom over the airways, and a sense of order can never fill the shoes of beauty, any more than Cinderella's stepsisters can cram their bunioned feet into her glass slipper. In the year since I renewed my Wisconsin residency, I've met several people who have told me that Appleton is a much more interesting and open community now than it was when I lived there, but it turns out all they really meant to say was that Appleton has a tapas restaurant now. Which, admittedly, is a good thing, for sure, but still somewhat woefully short of rendering Appleton "interesting and open."

It turned out my apprehensions were all for naught. No one was the least bit disturbed that an outside agitator was scouring these well-swept sidewalks looking for spare votes for Obama. Oh, not that homeowners welcomed me, not that I found the people on the other side of the door lintel open and receptive to political exchange and inquiry, not even that they turned out to be decent and friendly folk even if they did think they'd vote for McCain -- they just simply weren't home. On this cloudy, drizzly afternoon in mid-September, absolutely nobody was home except a few insane dogs who apparently found some kind of bizarre fulfillment in throwing themselves bodily at locked doors and ravaging the careful pleats of the tightly closed draperies.

What does everyone in a place like Appleton do on a Saturday afternoon when it's raining outside? After marking the last address on my soggy list NH (Not Home), I threw my clipboard into the backseat of my Civic and called it quits for the day. Driving by the big Fox River Mall on the way back to my parents' I did a doubletake; the parking lots around this indoor mall were full. Jammed. Like Christmas time in a good economy. Apparently, Appleton is the last place in the country where the middle class still feels secure enough to shop for a living and to work for the shopping. In Madison, the malls are fairly empty. The coffeeshops are full, but you could pretty much roll a bowling ball down most of the corridors of the city's malls and not hit anyone but the bored attendant at the sunglasses booth. But in Appleton, the middle class doesn't understand yet that they're an endangered specie; the parking lots are full of their Ford Explorers and Chrysler minivans, all idling.

My parents added another helpful bit of perspective. "Well, of course everyone's shopping!" they marvelled at my ignorance. "There's a Packer game on tomorrow afternoon after church!"

Oh yeah. The Packers. I think I'm going back to Madison before I learn anything else about the people I'm hoping will find something to appreciate about Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Hupp!

Wednesday, September 10

I Will Not Wear Purple, Yet

There's this poem, a "greeting card poem," as I think of it, which has gained a certain popularity among Baby Boomer women, among my ostensible peers. In part, it goes like this:

"When I am an old woman, I will wear purple." It is, in case you've been one of the fortunate few to never have had it forwarded to you by e-mail ("Send this to your 20 closest friends, while wearing purple, of course!") or done up in flamboyant calligraphy and sent to you on a birthday card that might have said it much more succinctly ("You're old and pathetic, for sure now."), a verse touting the merits of unconventional behavior for the elderly. It is, you should also know, singlehandedly responsible for the battalions of gray haired women who travel in small mobs, all with elaborately festooned and markedly unstylish red hats. No show of "Menopause: The Musical" would be complete without at least one row full of these infamous red hats nor, for that matter, would "The Vagina Monologues."

But lately purple has taken on a new significance. Purple is in. The candidacies of Barack Obama and John McCain, one ostensibly Blue as Biden's pinstripes, the other Red as Sarah Palin's lipstick, have generated a new interest in purple. Need I explain? I think not, but just to make sure we're on the same page I'll give you three keywords: Beyond Partisan Politics. With Senator Obama seeming to represent a change from the Clinton era Democrats and McCain running as a Republican who condemns Republicans, the prospects for purple in this election year are indeed somewhat intriguing.

Tonight I listened to Washington Post columnist and veteran electoral politics observer David Broder speaking on the topic "The View From Washington: Best Prospects for Progress in Bridging Political Divides." Broder was the first speaker in a series grouped together by the theme: Getting to Purple: Beyond the Partisan Divide, presented by the venerable Wisconsin Academy here in Madison, Wisconsin. Broder spoke about why he feels that the stalemate and impasse of our current Blue/Red divisiveness may be on its way out of our political corps. His sense of impending Purpleness is based in large part on his perception of the way McCain and Obama straddle the Boomer generation, one right at the top/old end of the Boomer Gen , the other just a little bit too young. And both of them, Broder probably rightfully points out, are effectively put even a little further beyond Boomerdom than their birth years warrant, one by virtue of his military ethic, more reminiscent of those dating from the post WWII generation, the other because of his mixed race background and childhood spent out of the mainstream, continental U.S.

Broder's analysis rests upon a phenomenon that many have observed: the divisiveness that occurred to my generation, an inadvertent and enduring legacy of the rapid social change that emerged from the crucible of the sixties and early seventies. We, the Boomers, took sides. We asked that everyone take sides. We were strident, both pro and con, and what's more, we have not mellowed all that well as we've aged. Looking around at my friends and at the aging reflection in my mirror (surely it must be a defect in the mirror!), I would say he may be right. My kids do not have the same need to condemn that I feel. They are, one might say, more sensible, more practical, more moderate. More indifferent, maybe? That last one's uncertain.

But the fact remains. I don't want to be purple. I don't want to say that there's a middle ground on abortion. I don't want us to slowly exit Iraq; I want us out NOW! I don't want limited offshore drilling in delicate natural places; I want solar, wind and geothermal to be developed: NOW! I don't want moderation; the continued existence of so many people seems to depend on direct and radical intervention right now. I am a boomer. I crossed the line. And I don't think I'm stepping back over any time soon.

And I'm hoping Obama doesn't start wearing purple, either. Our parties should stand for something.
The cited poem is by Sandra Martz, by the way.

Sunday, September 7

Choice May Not Be An Option Anymore

The question of feminism is being brought up by some unusual interrogators lately, including several able media players, such as Cathy Young at the Wall Street Journal, writing, of course, in the aftermath of Cyclone Sarah. In her 9/15 column, she poses the question, "Can conservatives be feminists?" I would like to reframe the question a little, to something that to me seems a little less rhetorical and more urgent: "Can an anti-choice advocate/apostle be a leader of women?"

Canvassing for Obama last weekend, I had a long and interesting exchange on the porch of a thirty-something woman, a school teacher who had been supporting Ron Paul and now deeply interested in deciding which remaining candidate was best. At the end of our conversation, as we were shaking hands and I was preparing to open my umbrella and head back into the rain, she made one final comment. It was sufficient to stop me in my tracks. "I guess I'll probably decide on the basis of the abortion issue," she informed me. "I'm a thorough pro-life person," she smiled at me cheerily.

You know, I like to consider myself a pro-life person, too, really. As a lifelong pacifist, it's disconcerting to find that I have been robbed of that designation by people who don't really mean "pro-LIFE," but rather "pro-EMBRYO." I mean, if you are really pro-life, then you really need to be anti-war. If you are really pro-life, then you shouldn't advocate dropping bombs on babies in Baghdad or Kabul or supporting governments whose rule is based on the physical slaughter of their opposition. Slay them in debates, kill them with impeccable rationality, but please keep the guns and machetes in your pockets, boys.

When I was a young woman hewing my first pathway through the thickets of thorny issues and the insidious intellectual vines of contentious philosophies of individual rights and governance, I learned that if I was pregnant, badly injured in an accident, and taken, unconscious or incoherent to a local Catholic-run hospital, I might be left to die in favor of saving the fetus in my womb should a choice need to be made. That stunned me. It stuns me equally to hear both men and women rage against abortion while finding nothing wrong with supporting the wholesale slaughter of innocents in foreign countries or denying health care to poor people here at home, accounting for a dismaying difference in mortality rates between the rich and the poor. Yes, I am pro-life and anti-war and pro-choice, and neither Palin nor McCain are either.

A friend suggested to me recently that perhaps we will some day be rid of this controversy over when life begins due to our vastly changed abilities to read activity in the brain. Legal death is now defined by a loss of brain activity, not by heartbeat. Maybe soon we will be able to determine when life begins using this same criterion. In fact, I have to suspect that maybe we could do this sort of brain wave measurement already, if someone made it a priority. Not that I'm so naive to think this would quiet all the turmoil, but perhaps it would give us a legal starting point, just as Roe v. Wade is now our starting point, a place to stand in the thorny thicket.

Which is what I offered by way of perspective to the "thoroughly pro-life person" standing on her porch talking about the presidential candidates with me. Whomever is elected will enforce the law of the land, I reminded her. That is the function of the President. The law is Roe v. Wade. McCain will have to enforce that, just as certainly as Obama. As for the people panicking about the appointment of Supreme Court justices, well, perhaps it's time to remember that we do have a system of checks and balances.

Can an anti-choice candidate be a leader of women? Do women really want to hand over the ability to make their own decisions about their biological functions to anyone? Most of us don't even appreciate being told by someone else how to wear our hair or how much exercise we need; do we really want someone to dictate our what we must answer to one of life's most consequential decisions? Sarah Palin can believe whatever she wants about her own reproductive responsibilities and freedoms, and I will defend her right to do so as firmly as I will defend my own. But I will not willingly allow her to decide the matter for me nor for my daughter nor for the granddaughter I may be fortunate to have some day. And I will certainly not let any man decide what I can do to my own body!

Meanwhile, while I await November's verdict as to whether an anti-choice candidate can be elected the leader of American women, I'll be busy making this world a better, safer, place because you see, I'm a devoted pro-lifer.

Saturday, September 6

The Damage in Utero & Other Feminist Issues

The charges have been levied: Democrats are being sexist because we're wondering if the Hockey Mom is our best choice for Vice President. That would be Sarah Palin, Hockey Mom, and mother of a 4-month-old baby afflicted with Down's Syndrome. (Governor Palin, if you object to "afflicted" and have an urge to correct it to "blessed," I would politely ask you to refrain from doing so anywhere within 1,000 miles of me. You may feel blessed with your child, but Trig will one day want to hock his soul to have the lifestyle and the life expectancy of his brother and sisters.)

So. When we wonder aloud whether Baby Trig is being best-served by being handed from person to person under the bright lights and loud noises of the 2008 RNC, we are apparently being sexist, according to the Republicans. And who should know better what sexism is, right, than those who have for decades now protested the E.R.A., abortion rights, birth control rights, even, most recently, the rights of adolescent girls to be vaccinated against Human Papillomavirus? This alleged sexism is apparently a sin of omission, according to both the McCain campaign as well as the right wing talk shows; we have not posed the question of Obama: Can you take good care of your daughters while running for the presidency?

My oh my. How the Republicans twist, even now in the twenty-first century when they're the only ones on the dance floor still thinking this dance form is amusing. Obama is certainly taking good care of his two daughters by running for the Presidency. In fact, if Obama doesn't win this election, the prospects for his two little girls are really scary; John McCain and Sarah Palin, hand in hand and without any meaningful differences, would like to take away from the women of tomorrow anything close to reproductive rights. And yes, ladies and gentlemen of the electoral jury, that includes the right to use birth control, the right to any form of abortion, even the right to use in vitro fertilization. This is what the Right to Life has come to mean.

I just came out of a talk by Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollom, NARAL President Nancy Keenan, and actor David Eichenberg. If you wonder what Eichenberg is doing in this heady company, perhaps you can look to his five sisters or to the fact that he was, as he says, "damaged in utero" when his mother went through the pain and anguish of the JFK assassination while pregnant with him! These three wonderful people were out on one of the finest September days ever to breeze through the city of Madison to tell Madison feminists (including male feminists) how critical our involvement is to winning this election, to remind us how critical winning this election is to the fragile rights we've managed to gain, how endangered Roe v Wade is and what the ramifications will be if we lose its protection and freedom. Every thing they said today was right-on and motivating...until the Congresswoman asked us all NOT to go after Sarah Palin on a personal level, to leave Palin's pregnant daughter and her baby son out of the public debate. For me, to whom the personal IS political, for whom lifestyle and yes, even clothing (think of Cindy McCain's gold dress here, please!) is a statement about who we are and what we believe, that was awfully difficult to here, and I admit my applause was somewhat perfunctory and tepid.

But I will try. However, since I wrote most of this posting last night before I heard these intelligent and hard-working advocates for women speaking this fine morning, I decided I still get to post this, complete with my obviously personal commentary about obviously personal parts of the candidates' lives. The speakers were right, though, and the next time someone says something to me about Sarah Palin's baby or her daughter, I am going to do my best to reply with something like, "And how about the fact that she thinks it's fine that insurance companies pay for Viagra for men but not birth control for women?"

And the next time someone tells me that it's sexist to question whether Palin can be a good mother and a candidate, I am going to remind them that it's also sexist to say that Obama's lack of military service is any more a deficit for him as a man than for her as a woman.

Friday, September 5

The Co-optation of Broken Glass

Lately, we've been hearing all kinds of illusions to a metaphorical glass ceiling. Apparently, everyone's got one, and they've all got a heck of a lot of cracks in them! When you stop to really think about this glass ceiling, apparently as ubiquitous as granite countertops in nicer homes these days, you might just wonder why no one is fixing this damaged ceiling...or is someone?

I'm going to get back to that idea one of these days -- the idea that someone has already summoned a glazier who is, as we sit here reading and writing, hard at work replacing it, perhaps with something a little better tempered. Meanwhile, I am thinking about the big panes of glass at the entrance to our downtown Urban Outfitters store. They're not ceilings, but walls, nonetheless I'm thinking about them because they are definitely cracked, with approximately the same 18 million cracks of that damned overhead pane! And in downtown Madison, cracked glass connotes one thing to anyone fifty or over: Political protest.

This blog is, in part, the story of coming home to Madison, Wisconsin after two decades in the American West. I was an undergraduate here at the UW when tear gas and patchouli occupied most of the spaces between blander molecules of oxygen and carbon. State Street, where Urban Outfitters and WinterSilks and Lands' End and Starbucks now dominate, linking then as it does now the liberal arts campus and the State Capitol, was a place where merchants who lived off student allowances regularly boarded up their storefront windows or suffered the certain consequence of shattered glass. Rocks were lobbed, as well as tear gas canisters; students were slammed into buildings by police in full riot gear, in a way journalists in St. Paul this week can vouch is still accepted law enforcement practice. Shattered glass was a common sight along that historic row of storefronts.

Now, 40 years after the historic demonstrations of 1968 across our nation, shattered glass ushers one into the hip environment of Urban Outfitters, and a woman who doesn't even believe a woman has the right to control her own biological destiny hopes to be the one whose hand, upraised in victory, brings the second highest glass ceiling in the land crashing down. Something is wrong here, and yes, I do need to protest once more. History is being rewritten here. You can buy pre-faded, pre-torn jeans at many of the priciest stores in 2008, and you can bring down the roof as well as the glass ceiling just by being a regular old hockey mom and going to all the PTA meetings because the meaning of this glass has been co-opted and corrupted. History is being rewritten by someone who dots her "i's" with smiley faces, hearts, and little daisies. A cheerleader is on one of our presidential tickets.

I was having coffee with a friend the other day, and she had a certain forlorn look in her eyes when she commented, "I have more qualifications for being Vice President than Sarah Palin." And she was right. Those 18 million cracks that Hilary Clinton noticed in the glass? They were created by the 18 million voters who recognized Senator Clinton's extraordinary strength and wisdom, experience and concern, and love and respect for our American democracy. They have nothing to do with a cheerleader for a man who recommended that his own wife compete in a bare-breasted beauty pageant. They have nothing to do with Sarah Palin.

Thursday, September 4

The White Fields of Minnesota

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having white skin, except that it has a proclivity to get sunburned and a propensity to show blushes and flushes too easily. But when you see a convention floor packed with white faces, all flushed with nearly Pentecostal fervor, there is something terribly wrong, for this sea of whiteness is purporting to represent the best interestsof the whole American people. Fully 93 percent of the RNC delegates were white, a loss of ethnic diversity from previous conventions, while at this year's DNC, 65 percent was white, with Hispanic and Black delegates holding steady percentages from previous years.

Watching the RNC this week made me think all these florid-faced delegates had spent way too much time as spectators at collegiate football games, quaffing way too much weak and soulless beer (probably Bud Light, making Cindy McCain's fortune grow) and following the gymnastics of energetic, bouncy cheerleaders with altogether too much interest and acclaim. Am I the only casual observer who thinks it's notable that Republicans love booing so much? That they revel in mimicry and the mindless incantations of crowd chantings? Even as a college student deeply involved in the street marches of the antiwar protests, I remember feeling diminished intellectually by the expectation that I, along with thousands of my marching peers, was capable of chanting mindless slogans over and over and over. "Drill, Baby, Drill!" is not only mindless; it's sexist and downright frightening. I wonder what symbolic act of rape underlies the chant, or if any of the Republican women lustily chanting along, enraptured in the spell of Sarah Palin, are at all disturbed by the flagrantly male vision, the Great Mother Earth supine below their relentless drills.

Sarah Palin is the mistress of Big Oil. The checks she awarded to Alaskans were taken straight from the pockets of everyone in the lower 49 and the territories who has born the burden of the record-breaking profits recorded by the oil companies who rule Alaska, along with Palin's beloved pipelines. The white faced delegates at the RNC were berserk with happiness.

Me, my own white face is flushed with embarrassment at the spectacle of so many alleged adults shouting like beer-sotted frat boys.

Tuesday, September 2

Plundering New Orleans, Again.

Three years ago, a Republican President fiddled as New Orleans drowned. I have still not forgotten the images of Hurricane Katrina refugees huddled in the stench and squalor of a doomed athletic stadium or the (sometimes erroneously) painted messages on the porches of abandoned houses, "Checked for bodies." Just several weeks ago, another body was found in one of those houses, another tic mark added to the terrible toll.

This week, as Hurricane Gustav rolled in, we had a chance to see what the Republicans of Washington DC along with Louisiana's Governor and New Orleans' mayor have learned from Katrina. On all three fronts of government involvement, apparently quite a lot was learned. New Orleans was evacuated well ahead of time. Evacuation was relatively complete and enforced; staying was not given as an option nor, for longer than residents wanted and eventually insisted, was returning. The National Guard was mobilized, and units across the country were on high alert to ship out down to the overwhelmed bayoux. President Bush set down his fiddle (he has no ear for music anyway--the fiddling was horribly out of tune) and picked up a shovel and a mop, cancelling his opening night speech at the Republican National Convention, along with his pit bull's, the one without lipstick, Dick Cheney's. The Republicans up in St. Paul heaved a sigh of relief so deep and many lunged it blew Gustav just a little bit westward, and New Orleans was by and large spared; at least its levees held.

The Republicans once again lucked out. They didn't have to suffer the ignominy of acknowledging GWB. and his Dick as two of their own and, just to be sure, they cancelled Day One of the RNC. I suspect they were afraid that the lure of the podium might have proven too much for an exiting President still hopeful of adding at least a thin coating of polish to his severely tarnished administration. I mean, there was really nothing for Senator McCain to do, no reason for the convention to be cancelled. It made absolutely no difference to the people of New Orleans or to the weather. John McCain has no special powers. He does not muster the troops. He does not grant aid. He does not wield a hammer or run a pumping station. To pretend that the cancellation of Day One of the Republican convention was anything other than an avoidance of having to host Bush and Cheney in person and to loan an appearance of power to McCain is insulting to the good people of New Orleans, who once again have been booted from their homes and saddled with debt and repair bills while John McCain seized the opportunity for a nap and George wondered how to tune his fiddle.

I'm glad Barack Obama maintained his speaking schedule this Monday and showed up to honor the voters who had changed their lives to make room for hearing him address their economic concerns on this Labor Day. He ended up speaking a lot about the need to help our Gulf Coast sisters and brothers, but he also addressed the 8-year-long storm assaulting not only the Gulf Coast, but every state except Sarah Palin's oil-rich Alaska: the economic storm that has ripped away our economic health and the security of our homes and families.

Palin: The Monster in Make-Up

I have never felt worse about being a woman. I mean, when I was a stick-skinny adolescent tagged with the painfully appropriate nickname "Plywood Oshkosh" after a local producer of those flat sheets of pressed wood, I felt badly. When my flat chest suddenly burgeoned into enormous and fleshy mounds spouting milk like would-be Vesuvians, I felt so alienated from my body and sex I nearly regretted having a baby. Oh and then there have been all the constant, smaller humiliations of being a woman, of acknowledging on a daily basis that yes, there is at least one trait held in common with Britney and Paris and Ivanna and the Olson twins. But none of this compares with the pain of hearing that Sarah Palin is on the Republican ticket.

Why does she bring more pain? Doesn't her enthusiastic political activism as a woman remove her well beyond comparison to the apparently brainless and self-centered antics of fashion-conscious celebrities? Is it just that she's a Republican? Is it just that her upswept hair reminds me eerily of those beehive hairdos inflicted upon an earlier decade? No and no and no and hearty no. What makes Sarah Palin so utterly painful to acknowledge as a woman, her candidacy for John McCain's Vice Presidential spot so terrifying, her potential to claim a spot in history denied any other American woman so revulsive is just that: she might claim a spot in history denied Ferraro 24 years ago, denied Hillary Clinton just this summer and the first woman to win a chance to govern the most powerful nation on earth just might be a woman who denies women the right to control the destiny of their own body. To have an anti-choice woman as a serious Vice Presidential contender is such a serious event that it calls into question everything feminism has accomplished, everything that my age-mates and I fought for back in the seventies, everything that Congresswoman Ferraro and Senator Clinton represented so well: the fact that our bodies do not control our destiny.

If Sarah Palin can abandon her disabled baby and pregnant daughter to run for the vice presidency, I think every bit of my present nauseous tumult of anxiety is eminently reasonable. This is not a seriously thinking, doing woman; this is something of a self-gratifying monster.

Sunday, August 24

Sympathy for the POW

He was a prisoner of war. OK. I'll say straight out and with meaning, "That's very unfortunate, and I'm sorry to hear it. I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone."

He was a prisoner of war who shunned receiving an earlier release than his fellow prisoners. That leaves me speechless. I guess I've always had a hard time understanding blind loyalty. I mean, it's great for dogs, but I highly recommend intelligence as a basis for human decision-making processes in general.

Granted, there are a few circumstances in which primordial instinct overcomes any rational thought. Mothers, of nearly any species with brains bigger than acorns, defending their offspring. People under physical attack by nearly any species bigger than a squirrel. People reading consecutive anonymous mass-generated e-mails proclaiming 1) that Obama is a radical Muslim intent on overthowing Christendom and 2) Obama is a follower of a radical black Baptist separatist intent on overthrowing conservative white Baptists. Sometimes our instincts take over the habitual restraint of rationality.

Neither being a POW nor voluntarily remaining a POW seems to be to have anything to do with Presidential qualifications. What being a POW does mean is that one was captured and held in captivity by an enemy. What refusing early release means is that one prefers captivity to freedom. Yes, I know that sounds ruthless, but it's true. There may be reasons one prefers captivity, but still, one is preferring captivity. Being captured is no more assurance of Presidential fitness than being old is. Oh. Did I say McCain is too old?

He is too old and white and wealthy and his definition of loyalty apparently never extended to his wife. He doesn't want me to have health coverage, but he wants me to pay for his Medicare, which he collects even though he's a millionaire married to a millionaire and God forbid they should show us her tax forms or his medical forms. He was, after all, a POW, and he called Georgian President Saakashvili not only once, but several times during the armed conflict between Russia and the U.S. in South Ossetia. Oops. Did I say the U.S.? Meanwhile, Saakashvili was asking Senator Joe Biden to come to Georgia to aid in diplomatic dialogues. Or was that Vice Presidential candiate Joseph Biden?

John McCain was a POW. That doesn't mean a thing as far as his qualifications or readiness or appropriateness to assume the mantle of the U.S. presidency. Senator John Kerry was a soldier and the Republicans scorned his service record. Our present President managed to somehow dodge all verifiable service even in a peacetime National Guard stint. John McCain served. That's honorable. John McCain was a POW. I'm sorry for that, Senator McCain, but I'm deeply concerned that you seem to think that's proof of your readiness to sit in the great Oval Office. Tell me how I can afford to buy health insurance of my choice. Tell me how I can afford to go to the dentist or to insure the car I can't afford to fill with gas. But don't tell me about your sense of loyalty. I have a dog for loyalty. What I want from you is intelligence and leadership and a sense that you care about repairing the great divide that's widened in our country, between those like you, who have so many houses they can't count them, and people like me, who can't pay to heat the one house that they finally saved enough to buy. I want you to fix what's so broken. I want you to give me the thousands of dollars you collect in Medicare every year at one of your seven houses so maybe I can go to the doctor when I get sick.

Thanks for listening, John. And I really am sorry you were imprisoned all those years. Really.

Sunday, April 27

Is It Over Yet?

Wow. I think the winter may have finally ended. The lake beyond the windows of my second floor study, my aerie, is ice-free. Down at the park on the other big lake, the snow fencing is down, and where it stretched across the gently mounded lawn now college students loll, chasing Frisbees, sex with or without love, and dreams in varying progressions. The big blue barrels of sand at the street corners are gone, too. For most of the longest winter ever, a true record breaking season, they served little purpose but that of underachieving trash cans. Sand supplies could not keep up with this year's snow, more than twice the usual amount, and significantly more than on any other year of recorded weather statistics.

For me, the snow was the least of what made this winter challenging, since I drive so little and have such a minor length of sidewalk for shovelling. But my mom was diagnosed with Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis in January, more familiarly known if not any friendlier for the nicknaming: Lou Gehrig's Disease. In February, I lost my job, without warning or reason, and was left abruptly without either income or health insurance. And in March, I walked my beloved old dog to the vet's clinic one last time and carried him up the six steps, laying him down on the cold steel examining table from which he would never again rise. The snow was nothing, really, and still it broke all records.

It is now April. I wrote this poem for my mom. I haven't yet been able to compose one for the loss of my sense of self-worth or for the love of my dog. But here is this poem, for I hope to recover from this winter despite everything, maybe even because of everything.

Mom, Dying

Doesn't there come a
day when the sunrise
is not sufficient, when
the trailed whistle of
some faraway train holds
no whisper of places
unseen, a day when you
will loosen the grip
of your boney fingers on
my pulse and just slip
into the night I have
pooled at your feet
with my ink? Do you
love me enough to

leave me lonely?

Sunday, January 6

Pennies From Heaven

"Leave the pennies for the gleaners," my mom taught me, lightly slapping my hand when it began reaching for the coppery disc on the sidewalk. "Someone needs them."

I work in retail these days. I have done so for nearly ten years as a full fledged adult. Sometimes I even enjoy it. I have, after all, had the enormous good fortune for most of those years and various retail assignments of putting books into the hands of readers. There is hardly a greater pleasure that does not involve sex or deep love.

But here in Wisconsin, there are several discernible differences in retail. One: they still use cash here, including what I thought was obsolete, the personal check, scratches in ink on paper, torn out carefully and duly recorded in the register, before leaving the register, bien sur. But it is the cash aspect that really unhinges me, for here in Wisconsin, they not only pay with cash; Two: they count out pennies. They have coin purses, and they use them. It's unnerving. Haven't they seen the commercial where the shopper who offers cash holds up the long line of plastic payers,incurring widespread discain? Here, not even the checks are paid by plastic. One gets the unshakeable feeling that these customers, once home, remove the top from an old shoe box and rifle through the business envelopes, plain white, number ten size, lined up therein, where the budget is sorted and recorded, all in cash. These are people, ancient people, who drive to drop their paper check or paper money and metal coinage, into the drop box at the utility company rather than pay by either mail or plastic. These are the people who really don't understand that what they save in postage cannot possibly repay what they lose in gas by driving needlessly across town. These are the hopelessly middle class, no matter how well off they are. Where do they come from?

I hate them, these penny pinchers. The pennies, you may recall, are to be left for the gleaners. I despise these petty people. They will drive back home, all the way across town, if they forget the coupon they intended to use. They'll drive back again, coupon clutched in sweaty palm, to save money. They don't think about gas. It's all about the merchandise. You can't giftwrap gas, after all.