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.