Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Big French FU for the EU

Well, Bush, we might have known it, no? I don't know much about European politics (I suspect we have something in common there, eh, you and me?) but I do know a big fuck-you when it stares me in the face. Leave it to those Frenchies to screw things up for everyone, right, Bush? I mean, remember a couple of years ago, when you were planning for your war? You didn't get much help from those frog-leg eaters back then, did you? Being a something of a Brit still, in my heart of hearts, I have to admit to a certain innate prejudice when it comes to my former neighbors across the Channel. Centuries of it, really. Of course, in my younger days, when I was still living over there, some of my best friends were French. It's not French people I take issue with; it's just "The French." You know what I mean?

And I take comfort in the recently ascertained fact that I'm not alone in my nasty prejudice. Did you catch that piece--I think in the New York, but maybe the Los Angeles Times the other day? About these researchers who had polled people (a random sample, I'd be willing to bet) in any number of European countries on their opinions about The French? They came up with a score of adjectives to characterize them, and not one of them polite. I wish I'd kept the list, Bush, so that I could share it with you now. It was everything fom "arrogant" to "pompous" and "self-centered." I'm sure that "chauvinistic" would have to be in there somewhere: was M. Chauvin the creation of the Baroness Orczy in The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of my all-time favorite books when I was growing up? Or did she borrow him from the history of the Revolution? I honestly don't know.

Anyway, I do remember that the last word on the researchers' list was "dirty." Now that's going just a bit too far, wouldn't you say? Even I, with all my prejudices, would not have come up with that particular offensive word. Their showers don't work too well, it's true. But after all, they did invent the bidet, which I believe to be one of the world's greatest achievements in the field of plumbing. Give credit, right, where credit's due?

But listen, Bush, I bet you're having a bit of a chuckle over this one with your Rumsfeld, to see "old Europe" in such disarrary. I myself am frankly a bit disappointed, but not surprised by the contrarian spirit of the French. Although spectacularly uninformed about the Common Market and the European Union, I was counting on them to provide some counterweight to the American hegemony in the world at large. I was looking forward to what I fondly imagined to be a kind of United States of Europe. But I guess that won't happen without a constitution, so it's back to the drawing boards for now. A pity.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day

I'm saddened, Bush, to find myself embarking on yet another jeremiad against your war on this Memorial Day. I grieve for those many more of our good young people who have died since this time last year. I'm also angry about their deaths. As Andy Rooney put it last night in his Sixty Minutes rant: it comforts us to say that our our soldiers "give their lives" for their country. But, he added, angrily, "they don't give their lives: their lives are taken from them." This morning, the television stations were showing pictures and telling the stories of some who died. It's heartbreaking to think of so much promise lost, so many families left to grieve for years to come, so many children who will never know their father--or their mother.

All this for a war whose necessity is increasingly in question. I recall those minutes from 10 Downing Street, released and published only weeks ago, which proved beyond question that you, Bush, had made the decision to go to war long before the stories that your people cooked up to validate the decision. What a dreadful commentary on our media that we heard so little about this stunning revelation! What a dreadful commentary on us, the American public, that the media judged the story to be of insufficient interest to us to give it play!

And now you and your people have succeeded in dividing the country yet again by insisting that those of us who oppose the war do not "support our troops," and are therefore at once unpatriotic and despicable in our disrespect for their sacrifice. How often can we say that we "support our troops," with all our hearts, but not the war in which they are sent to fight? That we honor and respect the courage of those men and women who serve their country, but not the misguided policies that put their lives at risk?

At this very moment, as I write, you are bloviating to the nation about courage and sacrifice and the "highest American ideals." Your Rumsfeld has just finished with his contribution to an event that purports to honor the dead, but which you are using as a pretext to justify your actions once again to the American people. There are those of us, however, who need to hold you accountable for those actions. We need to remind you that you gathered support for them with blatant lies and deceptions; that you rashly sent our troops to kill and die, well before all other options were exhausted, and in the face of world-wide opposition; that you abused, and continue to abuse, the power of your presidency to promote an agenda far removed from the will of the majority of those who entrusted you with this office.

To compound the false justifications for this war, you have bungled its conduct inexcusably. Your Rumsfeld, ignoring the sound advice of generals experienced in conflict, and post-conflict, proceeded on the arrogant assumption of "Shock and Awe"--the notion that the superiority of American military technology was alone enough to guarantee a speedy victory and resolution. How many men and women, American and Iraqi, have died--and continue to die--as a result of this unjustified presumption? How many Iraqi lives would have been spared with sufficient troop strength to keep the peace, once military conflict was complete? How much ill-will and hatred would have been avoided, had we been more prepared to mend what we had broken, with our bombs and our artillery? How much less easily would the insurgency have taken hold, had we been at pains to provide the Iraqi people with the security and the physical means to rebuild their lives?

And now, today, Memorial Day, you stand before the nation and proclaim the need to honor the memory of the dead by "completing their mission, by defeating the terrorists, and building a safer world." It's my own sad conclusion, Bush, that the "mission" was only theirs because you foisted it upon them; that your policies and attitudes have bred and multiplied the very terrorists you claim to be at war with; and that the world is a far less safe place for an America that sees in military action an acceptable way to impose its will on other nations.

Again, I grieve for the dead. I grieve for the wounded, and for their families. Above all, I grieve for a country that seems so confused about what it stands for that it has lost its spiritual and moral compass. In a rapidly changing world, we cannot prosper without the ability to change ourselves.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Where Are the Men?

Today, Bush, I am resolved to sit with a single question: Where are the men? Here's the reason: I have been invited next month to attend a gathering of fifty elder men from the international ManKind Project up in Sisters, Oregon--a strange choice, perhaps, for a gathering of brothers, but there you have it: Sisters--and to be their keynote speaker. I am at once honored by the invitation, and trembling in my boots for fear that my own small share of wisdom will appear foolish and irrelevant to this group of distinguished other men. They are all elders. They are seasoned warriors. They have all "done their work", in the sense that they have looked deeply into their own lives, their own intentions, their own sense of mission. Their own souls. They have struggled with their shadows. To revert to yesterday's "Star Wars" metaphor, they have immersed themselves in the dark side, and have succeeded in touching upon the good side of the Force.

What can I say to them, Bush, these men of great depth and experience, who have been through their battles and emerged the stronger and the wiser? I'm unsure how it will work out, but I have the strategy: I will consult the oracle. I will use today's newspaper, page by page, to tell me where the men are, and what the men are doing in the world. The Good. The Bad. The Ugly. I will acknowledge my complicity in their actions. I will ask each of us, at that gathering, to acknowledge our complicty. For I see these men in the newspaper to be ourselves. Just as I see you, Bush, in these diaries, to be myself. My own worst enemy. My own best friend. We'll see today, Bush, how this strategy works. It will be a day of adventure into the unknown. Wish me luck.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Sound and Fury

I had some hopes for the latest extravaganza in the "Star Wars" saga, Bush. I went to see it yesterday, buoyed by favorable reviews, and in the expectation of some good escapist fare. I'd heard it was the best in the series since the first "Star Wars", the only other one I'll confess to having seen--though I do have some vague recollection of having seen the second, perhaps on a television rerun. Was that "The Empire Strikes Back"? Anyway, unless your tastes run to the truly juvenile, I'd suggest you give this one a miss in the White House screening room. (Try renting "The Corporation" instead. You'd get a kick out of that one, Bush!) To quote the Bible, as you're fond of doing, this one is "all sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I was as seduced as anyone by the first "Star Wars", and its struggle between good and evil which managed to be both titantic and engagingly whimsical all at once. So what if it seemed a tad simple-minded? It had the broad, symbolic sweep that epics are supposed to have. It had a touch of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey", a touch of the "Song of Roland" and "Beowulf": heroic humans, locked in the battle for the survival of a people against the deadly forces of evil oppression. So what if the Force seemed a tad New Age-y, and the Empire a bit neo-Nazi camp? The spirit of the thing seemed young, energetic, enthusiastic, optimistic. The foot soldiers--whether animalistic or robotic (I'm piling up a lot of "tics" here, Bush!)--had the charm of freshness, and seemed the product of a truly original imagination.

Alas, they're a tired bunch nowadays, Bush. We barely got the beginnings of a smile out of Artoo Deetoo (sp?) and C3PO (again, sp?) this time around. The antic, semi-human creatures from the animal world and the mutant kingdom have none of the freshness of the original Chewbacca (returning here in barely more than a cameo appearance, along with an army of superfluous clones) and those fantastic denizens of the space bar. Forget about the pragmatic skepticism of a Han Solo. This time around, the humor pales beside the preachiness, and that gently ironic twist in the values of good and evil gets sacrificed to deadly seriousness. The battle scenes--always the mainspring of the epic, whether literary or cinematic--are endless and, worse, routine. Even the special effects, once so wondrous, seem only drearily spectacular. Space ships collide and crash land, explosions happen hugely, everywhere, great rivers of molten lava flow as the backdrop to the action of light-saber wielding knights--and all for what?

Sadly, for me at least, nothing. Good and evil, which provided the moral core of the earliest "Star Wars", have somehow lost their energy and meaning here. The Force, as the old joke had it, has truly become the Farce. There is, as Gertrude Stein (a great American, if ever there was one, Bush: a true ambassador) famously remarked "no there there." The truth is, I cared nothing for a single one of the characters. It was all head--that is, it was all concept--posing as heart and soul. Even those tentative thrusts toward a contemporary political relevance and weak feints toward your current administration (with talk about the distinction between "republic" and "empire", and the dangers of the unchecked power)--even these fell flat. In all, it was a dreadful disappointment. Coming back home, I was glad to find "The Last Samurai" on TV, and watched it to remind myself what a pretty darn good cinematic epic looks like. Even on a small screen, and with a minimum of special effects.

What's truly sad about this flop is that, to judge from reviews and attendance figures, we seem as a country to be feasting on this pablum. At the performance we attended yesterday, the trailers promised at least another five such vacuous, concept-driven, sound-and-fury epics for the summer. Are we all so benumbed with violence and war that it becomes our primary source of entertainment? Are we all so bereft of critical acumen?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Kissing the Baby

Remember where we left off yesterday, Bush? Talking about image, and making things look good for public consumption? Well, not much later I picked up a copy of the New York Times and there you were, at it again. Kissing the baby. A tender, loving Bush, clutching the innocent, sleeping little baby in his hands, brushing his lips gently at its rosy cheek, with mom looking on, ecstatic, and crowds of other smiling moms in the background.

What a picture! And how shameless, Bush! All this to promote your opposition to the new effort to expand federal funding for stem cell research, and your threat to veto any bill that comes your way. To protect the “lives” of thousands of embroyos—-whose real chance at life is infinitessimal, and whose chance at being perpetually frozen or simply discarded is proportionately huge—-you are willing to sacrifice the lives of countless human beings already living, some of them in great pain and suffering. Science and technology—-also God’s gifts to the human species—-have already begun to sketch out the enormous potential of the stem cell in both healing and preventing untold suffering, but you choose to ignore this source of future miracles in favor of antiquated religious cant.

I might accuse you of playing politics around this issue, Bush. And I do believe that a part of your position is a pandering to your “base” of evangelicals. More frightening still, however, is the thought that this is the genuine Bush that’s speaking here: that our president is a man of profound and stubbornly-held antipathy to anything that science or reason has to offer, a man who clings to a truly primitive, unimaginative, literal-minded understanding of religion and opposes anything that threatens to expose its fears and frauds. To paraphrase a thought of the late Carl Sagan: how is it that such people can’t embrace the vision of a god so good and great as to create a human intelligence capable of such extraordinary advances? Why does their God have to be so small-minded, so incapable of change, so restrictive, so intolerant, so punitive? This is divine wisdom? I just don’t get it, Bush.

Anyway, back to that picture: I only wish you could expand the compassion you show for that mother and child to include the rest of the human species and its suffering. That would be something, Bush. That would really be something.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A Foul Deceit

Is there no end to the dishonesty of your administration, Bush? Is there no depth to which you will not sink in order to make yourself look better than you are? Is there no shame?

I’m talking, of course, about Pat Tillman, who was portrayed by your spin masters as the hero who led his troops into battle and died gloriously at the hands of the enemy. You needed a true blue American hero particularly at this time, we know. The news about Abu Ghraib was coming out, and a good-news story was needed to burnish the army’s image a bit. The heroic death of a football star who had given up a spectacularly promising career to serve his country was a Godsend. We could all feel a little better for his noble sacrifice.

The truth, as we now know, was something different. It was another story of bungled action, senseless death. But how could your folks announce, with Abu Ghraib hitting the television screens, that we had also killed our own hero? What a desperate and cynical distortion they resorted to, though! What abject twisting of the truth to suit your political interests! The audacity is breathtaking. Surely your people had to know the truth would come out sooner or later? Or did they not care, assuming blithely that, when it did, there would be other prevarications they could come up with, other slighty enhanced versions of the truth?

All this for the sake of your image, Bush. And your Rumsfeld’s, and the Pentagon’s. Not to mention America’s image in the world. Is it all, only, about making things look good, for public consumption? About creating a reality that the electorate will buy—-if only to be discarded or revised at a later date, when it would become inconvenient? But meanwhile, what a foul deceit to perpetrate on this young man’s family! What a terrible betrayal of a man who generously gave his life for the honor of fighting for his country in your war!

Are you blushing, Bush? I truly hope so.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Up or Down:

An up or down vote. That’s all they were asking for, Bush. Your Republicans made it sound so clear, so fair, so simple. They are good at this, your people: making things simple for simple minds. Finding the language to sell the product, no matter whether the product is a worthy one or not. No matter whether it’s what we need or not. The important thing is that it’s your product, and you want us to buy it.

So this up or down thing was all about those products that you want us to buy. Those judges. They are yours. They will fall nicely in with your corporate line. No matter that you had already sold us 200 or so products in this line, here were ten more that you wanted us to buy, and you were furious when a few us said no thanks, we didn’t like them. So the sales language got down to the deadly simple: an up or down vote.

Yesterday I sat for an hour and read Senator Barbara Boxer’s eloquent speech to the United States Senate on this matter. She spoke at length about the history of the filibuster, about the Senate rules on the filbuster, and about the constitutional duty of the Senate to advise and consent. She spoke about the filbuster as a built-in protection against the potential tyranny of party politics. And she spoke at length about her opposition to your nominee, Janice Rogers Brown, whose judicial record she described in unsparing detail—-a record of decisions so extreme as to be almost unbelievable in their radical conservatism. Thirty-one times, as a Supreme Court judge in the State of California, she stood alone against six of your Republican judges, Bush, and a single Democratic judge to assert positions so outrageous, so extreme as to defy all mainstream American thought. Check it out.

I mean, have you actually read the record of this Janice Rogers Brown, Bush? Or was she nominated simply on the strength of her background; because she’s black, because she rose from poverty, because she (altogether admirably) overcame all obstacles to reach her goals? Because, despite her radical positions, she can be the poster child for the African American success story? And because she could be sold, cynically, under the guise of diversity, and still promote your ideological agenda?

A simple up or down vote. It sounds so clear, so simple. Until you bother to do the math, and realize that a simple up or down vote in the current Senate means the rigorous, arrogant assertion of pure Republican power, as though that in some way reflected the will of the electorate. Your folks have dumbed down the American people, Bush, to the point where they go no further than the sound bite. They don’t do the math. They’ll swallow any lie that’s told in language simple and clear enough for them to understand. To the point where we are all nothing more than good consumers of your truth, your ideology, your product.

Up or down. Black or white. With us or against us. The axis of evil. The war on terror. Support our troops. Drink Coca Cola.

In my opinion, Bush, the “compromise” that I hear about this morning is a sham. At best it’s a stall to save the Senate’s face, to avoid the “nuclear option.” It’s an appeasement. Janice Rogers Brown still gets her up or down vote.

Monday, May 23, 2005


One thing I’ve learned about judgments, Bush: when I catch myself making them—as I do all the time in these diaries, I admit it—I can readily understand that they’re just as much about myself as about the person or people I’m judging. (And that applies equally to all my judgments about you. Agreed.) When I find myself complaining that so-and-so is a lazy bum and full of shit, for example, if I manage to awaken myself from that all-too-familiar unconscious, blaming mode into conscious thought, I generally realize that the one who’s really the lazy bum and full of shit is actually none other than myself.

It’s a healthy—and sobering—exercise. You might try it sometime. Here’s one for you to cut your teeth on: I saw you quoted in the New York Times (I think it was Saturday’s edition; maybe Friday's. No matter,) in answer to a question about those pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underwear, apparently smuggled out by a guard and published first in one of the British scandal sheets. The questioner must have asked if you thought that their publication might further inflame the insurgents, or trigger another round of violent protest in the Middle East. Your answer? “I don’t think a photo inspires murderers. They’re inspired by an ideology that is so barbaric and backwards that it’s hard for many in the Western world to comprehend how they think.”

So here’s where the game gets interesting. Go along with me for one moment. Let’s just suppose that your judgment in this instance, as is so frequently the case, could serve you as a mirror to your own good self, what might there be to learn? I mean, in all honesty? Think Abu Ghraib. Think torture. This inprisonment without the possibility of legal representation, let alone trial. Think death penalty (back in Texas, Bush.) Think Shock and Awe, and the bombing of civilians. Think creationism, the denial of science, the rejection of research with the potential to save the lives of millions. Think abstinence sex education, and the denial of information on birth control or the distribution of condoms, world-wide, with devastating results to more millions of human beings...

I mean, it does seem to me that these and other egregious examples of your policies at work are rooted in that America-first, supposedly Christian ideology you embrace. An ideology—if you’ll forgive me—so barbaric and backwards that it’s hard for many in the Western world to comprehend how you think.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Imp of the Perverse... Revised

Sorry, Bush, to have been so preoccupied with my own little dramas these past couple of days. Today, though, we get back to our favorite topic: you.

Here's the thing: in view of the Bolton nomination, and now the looming crisis in the Senate over your judicial nominations, I've had it in mind to do a piece around what Edgar Allan Poe felicitously called the "imp of the perverse." It occurred to me that this mischievous, sometimes malicious creature might be the instigator of what a large number of us, out here in the real world, consider to be your utterly outrageous nominations, so inappropriate to the job description as to be incomprehensible to any rational appraisal. I mean, John Bolton, who so evidently despises the U.N. and everything it does? In a world already deeply suspicious of the United States and its role as a member nation? And your judges? Whose records show nothing but contempt for the rights and values most of us regard as vital to the basic fairness of our society? I mean, Bush, come on, be serious!

So the only way I could begin to understand these nominations was by attributing them to this imp of the perverse--a deep inner impulse to do exactly the wrong thing, exactly the opposite of what might be expected of you, just for the perverse excitement of it. I imagined that perhaps you were getting your jollies out of shocking us all and making us mad at you. I thought you might just be having fun, sticking your thumb in the eye of conventional wisdom and watching the results. I could almost have liked that quality a bit. I could have sympathized. I think I have something of that same imp in me. Or rather, to be truthful, it's something I secretly aspire to, without really having the guts to go ahead and act upon its urgings. There's something almost, well… admirable and healthy about that kind of subversive attitude.

So here I am, all ready to write this piece about the imp of the perverse, when you jump in with both feet with your threat to veto a serious and much-needed bill expanding funding for stem cell research--a bill that is backed, apparently, by even quite a number of your Republican folk. And this new pronouncement raises the bar ominously. Because the imp of the perverse still seems to allow for a little humor, a little element of mischievousness, a naughty-boy quality that remains a bit endearing even if irritating, even if at times destructive. But this new threat, from yesterday… Well, this is way beyond the imp of the perverse. This comes from something more like stubborn, ideologically-driven ignorance. To my mind, it's in the same category as the thinking (non-thinking) that disputes decades of well-founded research on evolution and demands the teaching of "intelligent design" in our schools. It reflects a totally unimaginative, fundamentalist, literalist view of the world that is so scared of the potential benefits of scientific and intellectual research that it retreats into sheer, blind, stubborn denial.

I was explaining my theory of the imp of the perverse to my neighbor at dinner the other night, Bush, and he was unpersuaded. He was more inclined to subscribe to the theory of your willful ignorance and ideological tunnel vision. I must say, in the light of this latest pronouncement, I'm more inclined to agree with him than I was at the dinner table. I might even have to abandon my theory, which would be a pity: it was a lot more fun… and a lot less frightening.

Friday, May 20, 2005

For Sale

Well, Bush, the "For Sale" sign went up yesterday. The house in which we have spent the past thirty-plus years of our lives is on the market. It's hard to describe the depth and complexity of the feelings involved, but a little history might help.

We bought the house in 1971, pretty much on impulse. We weren't particularly looking for a house, and never dreamed we could afford it. I guess we couldn't really. It was a stretch. But there we were on our morning walk around the hill where we were renting, and saw that "For Sale" sign outside this big old Spanish house on the crest of the Franklin Hill. Not even married at the time, we called the realtor and took the tour, and I decided then and there we had to buy it. Trouble was, the mortgage would be $250 a month, a whole $30 more than the rent we were paying. Where would that extra come from? Well, we agonized during a Christmas trip to England, and were happy to find the house still on the market when we got back. Put our money down. Moved in.

Many of our friends at the time were aritsts. When escrow closed, we invited a bunch of them over and handed each a paintbrush. We liked to say that each beam in the living room was an unsigned painting by a different young L.A. artist! Working in the Rental Gallery at the L.A. County Museum, Ellie was learning that the city was not hospitable to its artists, hearing their crying need for showing space--and watching some of the best of them leave for New York. We now had a big house, lots of wall space… a perfect match. So she wrote a manifesto and opened up the Ellie Blankfort Gallery.

One of the few show places for the emerging artists, the gallery became something of a mecca for those interested in the L. A. art scene. We stripped out the dining room of furniture, and that became our exhibition space--small, but serviceable: sometimes, if the paintings were big, there was room for only three of them. The rest of the house was a continuing group exhibition, rotating every couple of months. Ellie was curator; Peter, the preparator. (It was around this time that the house was featured in the Sunday "Home" section of the Los Angeles Times.) The openings brought in scores of visitors, and even some important collectors. By 1976, the gallery's repuation had reached New York--even Europe. That year, eight of Ellie's artists were selected, in an unprecdented coup of a single gallery, for the Whitney Biennial. And that year, too, came a knock on the door from city officials: the gallery was violating zoning laws, and had to be closed down. Ellie went private.

The house cotinued to be a rendez-vous for artists, poets, writers. Peter, a poet and art critic of growing reputation, brought in his graduate classes from USC, along with visiting poets and scholars from throughout the country. At the same time our daughter, Sarah, was growing up, starting at Franklin Elementary School, just down the hill: she was to spend her entire childhood here, and her teenage years, so the house was often filled with the joy of children's play and laughter.

In 1982, we decided on a huge remodel. Until that time, the downstairs was divided into a number of small rooms, including the living room (configured much as it is today), the dining-room/gallery, a den, and at the back a laundry room, a long, pullman-style kitchen, and a tiny breakfast nook in the northwest corner. With the help of a young architect, Howard Laks, we redesigned and extended the entire downstairs, consolidating the space and pushing out the western and northern walls--with the support of a massive new I-beam--to add a considerable area to the floor plan. We built in the "pit" as the focal living area, turned the den into what is now the dining-room, added in the long kitchen counters and the buffet, and extended the visual reach with the French doors that lead out to the garden.

At the same time, we converted the "maid's quarters" in the southwest corner into a small office, and appropriated its large closet to expand the adjacent bathroom with a double shower. Upstairs, we pushed the bath out onto the newly-built balcony, adding to the light and space in the bathroom area. And outside, we added the spa and the deck, and re-landscaped the back garden. The flagstone apron in front of the garage, along with the steps and the path to the front door, was added much later, in 2001.

The art collection the gives the house some of its special quality is mainly the result of years of friendships with artists and activity in the L.A. art community. The pottery was collected in the 1970s--mostly at garage sales and swap meets--in a great, exciting treasure hunt that lasted through that decade and on into the 1980s. In recent years, the house has been home to thriving artists' groups, which meet here regularly to thrash out the cultural and aesthetic issues of the day.

In short, this beautiful house has been enriched by our involvement n the culture of our time, and we in turn have been enriched by its peculiar serenity, its wonderful vistas of the natural and urban environments, its solidity, and the security it offers. We have lived here with joy, and leave it in the knowledge that it is time, now, for the house to foster other lives, and other interests. We wish it well.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Not Much Today...

I didn't catch the news last night, Bush, but I did catch a headline suggesting that your Frist is up to his no-good games regarding the filibuster. I hope there are enough Republican senators who'll stand up to this blatant power play. One thing I can be sure of: it's going to backfrire on Frist personally: he'll never have a chance at the presidency if he pushes this through. He may get what he wants today but as I suggested in yesterday's entry, getting what he wants may prove more difficult than not getting it. If I have time, I may come back with more later in the day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Getting What You Want

Sometimes it's tough to know which is harder, Bush: getting what you asked for or not getting what you asked for. Not getting what you asked for involves some disappointment, sure, but at least you're left with the status quo, the familiar. There's some reassurance, settling back into that. Getting what you asked for means accepting responsibility for it. Means having to make the changes to adjust to this new possibility in your life--an adjustment that may require great physical, emotional, and intellectual effort. And, yes, even spiritual effort.

I'm talking about this offer I mentioned a couple of days ago, on a new house. Well we got what we asked for. Our offer was accepted. Now we have to live with the consequences and accopanying responsibilities--the first of which is to sell the grand old house which has been our home for nearly thirty-five years. This will be a wrench. Everything that has happened in our lives--nearly half my life, in my case--has happened here. All the joys, and fears, and sadnesses. The earthquakes, literal and metaphorical. All the pain. Our daughter, Sarah, was born here and brought up here. And left here, when it was time to leave home. We must accept the consequence of her anger and her sadness now, for in some ways she has never left. In many ways, it's still home to her. As it is to us.

And now we must take on the practical--and emotional--responsibility for that downsizing we have been talking about so glibly. The new house is much smaller. We will have to clean out the closets, sort out years' worth of books, and magazines, and long-playing records. We'll both have to strip our wardrobes of all those things we haven't worn for years, but hold on to anyway, just in case… I'll have to throw out thirty-five years--and more--of dusty files, old manuscripts, notes, records… whole file cabinets and boxes full of them. I have always been scornful of other writers, who think themselves so important that each draft of every manuscript is preserved for posterity, to be pored over by scholars as they do over Shakespeare or John Keats or James Joyce. Well, look at me, Bush! I have the first draft of poems written fifty years ago!

We've both had something of the pack-rat in us. Something of the collector. We have racks filled with paintings and drawings: even here, we lack the wall space to hang them all. We have shelves full of the pottery we collected at garage sales and swap meets, mostly back in the 1970s when these things were still affordable. What a great treasure hunt that was! We still have every piece of it--except the ones we lost in the 1993 Northridge earthquake: a ripple of it hit our hill with devastating force.

In a word, we have now to contemplate the need to sort out all this clutter from our lives, and make some clear decisions about what is truly important to us, and what we can let go of. The letting go, of course, can involve both pain and great relief. The upside to all this is the thought that the clutter itself is emblematic of the accumulation of unneeded STUFF in our lives, and we now have the rare opportunity to clean up the interior part as well as the exterior. I myself have been aching for this opportunity for quite some time. I think we both have. Now we have to get down to actually doing it. So send some good thoughts our way, Bush, when you have a moment to spare. We're in for quite a ride, in the next couple of months.

Oh, and by the way, the new house is beautiful!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


I was somewhat bemused, Bush, to say the least, to hear your Rice announce that the Newsweek article about the reputed disrespect for the Koran by American prison guards--the story that led to riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan--had "done a lot of harm" to America's reputation in the Muslim world. It would surely be a grave infringement of journalistic propriety if it turns out that the story was innacurate, as now seems to be the case, given Newsweek's retraction. It's curious, though, isn't it, that the story was leaked by a "government official"? And it does conveniently provide someone else to blame for the "harm" done to our reputation in the Middle East.

I mean, pardon my cynicism yet again, but what on earth could add one iota to the harm already done by your administration's policies over there? The faulty intelligence and false accusations that excused your preremptory attack on Saddam's Iraq? (I notice with some satisfaction that Paul Krugman, in his New York Times column earlier this week, took the trouble to draw attention to those leaked minutes from 10 Downing Street--the ones that proved beyond a doubt that your mind, Bush, was made up long before you led us to believe; and that the "WMD" were no more than the pretext you had cooked up to muster the political support you needed. Why is it that this damning document has hardly merited more than passing attention in the American media?) How about your failure to anticipate the post-invasion sectarian animosities and the insurrection? The failure to prepare not only for the security of the Iraqi people, but for the provision of basic necessities like electricity and water? Were these not equally the cause of "harm" to America's reputation?

Or how about your administration's adamant refusal to hold itself accountable for the scandals at Abu Ghraib--and quite possibly elsewhere? And your eagerness to exonerate all but the lowliest of military ranks? Or the slaughter of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in our bombing raids and under the rain of our shells and mortars? Not to mention, on a broader scale, the apparent unconcern, for your entire first term in office, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is seen by most in the Middle East as being the root cause of Arab discontent and the rallying cry of the terrorists?

So far as the Koran is concerned: as I understand from the news media I tune into, there are many stories other than Newsweek's currently abroad in the Muslim world about the disrespect with which it is treated by American soldiers and American prison guards. And almost more important than whether they are true or not is the fact that they are widely believed. In fact, it seems that many regular people--not merely terrorists, then, and not merely "insurgents"--are ready to believe the worst they hear about Americans, and it is our country's words and actions, sadly, that support them in their belief.

Isn't it, then, just the slightest bit ingenuous for your people to be heaping abuse on Newsweek, as though that magazine bore the entire responsibility for the "harm" done to our country's reputation? Are your critics, here and in the Middle East, approaching the truth when they suspect that the magazine's retraction comes in part at least as the result of intense pressure from your heavy executive and political fire? That the story was, in fact, an accurate one? The saddest thing for me, Bush--given our country's recent record of self-serving deception, lies, false intelligence, miscalculations, misunderstanding of deeply-rooted cultural and religious lore, and even torture--is that I myself am ready to believe it to be true.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A Note for Joan

Thanks for your response the other day. My email reply was returned as undeliverable, so here's a quick personal post for you: I always appreciate hearing from readers, and ask them to pass on the URL to others, if they like my entries. As for watercolors: if you can't find them in museums you'll find there's plenty of information available in art libraries. I have a wonderful book in my own library entitled "American Watercolors", beautifully illustrated with the best American work in the medium. You'll find it in most good art libraries, I'm sure. Anyway good luck with the efforts! Best, PaL

Getting personal

You’ll forgive me, Bush, if I’m a bit preoccupied today with personal matters. I know there are big things out there to get worried about: I think of the Newsweek story that caused riots in Afganistan, the “nuclear option” that your Frist is threatening, your Rice’s surprise visit to Iraq, the Bolton nomination, and so oo. But all I’m thinking about today is the house that Ellie and I saw last week—and the offer we’re about to make on it tomorrow. We meet with our real estate advisors tonight to draft it out. And tomorrow, an hour before we make the offer, there’s another house we need to take a look at….

We’ve been thinking about downsizing for some time now. We have acted on that impulse in some ways already. A single example: I traded in my prized Jaguar for a Toyota Prius, and have been delighted with the change. I have been busy preaching that it's time for us each to think about somehow occupying less space on the planet, and demanding less from its resources, so I feel the need to practice a little more of what I preach. We have been living in our big old house at the east end of the Hollywood Hills for more than thirty years now: we bought it in 1972, remodeled in the early 1980s, and filled it with all the passions of our lives. We brought up our daughter there, so it contains not only all the material things we have accumulated in all those years, but also incalculable layers of memory: earthquakes, both literal and emotional, Bush. You know what I mean. It’s not only a beautiful house—and it is that: it’s also, more importantly, a beautiful home.

But it's undeniably too big for us at this moment in our lives. We rattle around inside it, and long for something a bit more smaller, a bit more intimate, a bit more accomodating to the age we have now reached and to our current needs. We’re looking, too, for change. The house feels encrusted with years’ worth of life’s accumulations. It has started to feel a bit stale, a bit musty. We need a breath of new air. The house itself needs a breath of new air, a new lease on life, with new people, perhaps a new family…

So here we stand, excited, at the brink of a whole new way of living. The house we’re looking at is only a couple of blocks from where we have lived for all these years, but offers a different view, a different perspective on the city, a different angle of vision from a different part of the hill. It’s smaller, more compact, easier to maintain, more intimate. It’s also—an important consideration for us—in move-in condition, beautifully remodeled and updated. There are a few improvements we COULD make, for our own purposes; but none we actually NEED to make. We WOULD need to take a careful look at everything we own, and make some serious decisions about what we love so much that we couldn’t part with, what we could not live without, and what we could part with, no matter how important they might have seemed, and how painful it might be to let them go. That’s a part of the downsizing we have been thinking about: disencumbering ourselves of a lot of the stuff we don’t actually need to clutter our lives with.

It’s all a huge challenge. Enough of a challenge just to think about. I can scarcely yet imagine what a challenge it will turn out to be, to move out of a home of thirty-plus years—and a challenge that is not only physical, but emotional. There will surely be a lot of wrenching pain involved. And yet… in my experience, change is ALWAYS for the good, no matter how radical. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to work this out, and looking forward to having to sacrifice the daily comforts and expectations of my life, and building it anew.

Thanks for listening to all this personal stuff, Bush. We’ll get back to your problems soon enough, I’m sure.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


Sorry, Bush. I don’t seem to be able to shut up, do I? In spite of my intention not to post today, these thoughts came up about the day ahead:

This day

As I see it,
this is a day about mind.
It's a day about mind-full-ness
and thought-less-ness
(for the mind is greater than the brain
that generates thoughts: the brain
is a tool of the mind.)
It's a day about mind-training,
about a long, slow learning to teach the mind
to do our bidding
rather than its own.
the mind is a great and powerful tool
but also a puppy dog;
it likes to invent
its own fun and games; it likes
to wander off into the woods
to play.
So this is about the training
of that puppy dog
to play our games.
This day is about training;
about practice.
It's about learning the discipline
that practice brings.
It's about the practice of mind-full-ness
of having our own mind.
It's about focusing the power of mind
to do the work we want,
to create those things that we want
to create.
This day is all about mind,
the power we have
to have it work for us,
daily, in our lives,
toward the fulfillment of our dreams.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Other Fish

Tomorrow I won't be posting on this weblog. Sorry, Bush, I have other fish to fry. I might well miss Sunday, too. If I do, then I'll hope to be back in touch on Monday.

I would like to tell you a little bit about the reason for my neglect, because it has to do with some broadly cultural issues that I know will interest you. Ellie and I have worked extensively over the years, in a number of different ways, with studio artists, and we are now offering the first in what we hope will be a series of day-long workshops called "Building a Practice." It is intended for those many, many artists who are serious about their studio work but have not, for one reason or another, managed to attract the conventional trappings of "success": for artists, that usually means gallery exhibitions, sales, inclusion in important collections and museum shows, reviews in the press, and so on. The truth of the matter is that these rewards are available in today's art world to only a privileged few, and that most artists will need to find alternative ways to find the fulfillment they are seeking in their lives and work, and to keep on track in their studio despite all art world discouragements.

It's frankly a very personal thing for me, Bush. I've never thought of myself as anything but a writer, and have achieved what many would regard as enviable success: I've published several books, some of which have been well reviewed in national newspapers. I've published literally scores of articles, art reviews, and book reviews in national and international magazines. And yet… and yet I still couldn't dream of making a living as a writer. I still feel sick to my stomach every time I go into a book shop and see the mountains of books being published every day; and when I check out the bestseller lists and see only the old, safe, familiar names, along with those of a few celebrities who get there only thanks to their celebrity. It's not about writing any more, Bush. It's not about quality of thought. It's all about the potential for commercial success. Well, nearly all.

Which is fine for business. That's how it should be. But not fine for the arts, or for the artist. To get to the top is part fluke, part luck, and sometimes part genuine talent and relevance to the issues (including the art issues) of the day. But for every one who scales the heights, there are twenty, thirty, fifty, who are no less gifted as artists--some, indeed, far more--who have to find that inner core of motivation and conviction in themselves to keep them going in the studio. Artists, in a word, very much like myself, even though in a different medium. It's a constant, daily battle, and a tough one. That's why I feel I have something to talk to them about, some common ground. That's what Ellie has been doing, these past ten years and more. Responding, coaching, encouraging, helping to keep fully motivated. We've had to develop some survival tools, and that's what our workshop is about.

I've often said that a part of the problem is the art schools. For fifty years and more, they have been churning out graduates with BFAs and MFAs, and with expectations to become "professional" artists. Trouble is, there's no such thing. Not the way I look at it. A "professional," in my lexicon, is someone who earns a living doing something--law, medicine, education… The artist as I see it--and I wrote an essay once on this very subject--is by nature and temperament an amateur. Bad word, these days, it seems. But I happen to love it. There was a time when amateur was the highest calling: it was something you did out of pure passion. There was a time when even the greatest scientists were amateurs. The great explorers and discoverers who opened up new horizons were not "professionals." They just did what they did because they were called to do it, it was in their hearts and their guts and their blood, despite sometimes grievous, sometimes even fatal consequences.

I like to think of "practice" as one answer that works. It’s not the only one, for sure, but it has worked for me--at least most of the time. I shifted the term over from the meditation practice that I started some ten years ago, and which has been a daily commitment for about eight of them. In part, it's a simple discipline--the discipline of just showing up each morning at the same time, with the intention of getting it done, no matter whether I feel like it or not. It's the quality of sheer persistence. It's also a good way to develop the ability to focus the attention and stay mindful, to be clear about what it is I'm doing. And a good way to be clear about what I want. These are all things I can practice on a daily basis, and which assure a kind of satisfaction in themselves every time I "put them into" practice. When I miss, I know that there's something missing in my life, something important, and something that contributes to my sense of well-being. To my happiness, if you will.

So this is what I'll be doing all day Saturday, Bush. Trying, as best I can, to pass some of this along, in the hope that it will be helpful to some other person like myself, caught up in the struggle to remain true to a particular vision of my life, in an age which often does not seem to welcome or respect it. You can see that by Sunday I might have earned a rest. Wish me luck, okay?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Special Entry: for Leigh

I ran into my friend Ross at the gym yesterday. He told me the story of his brother's recent death, from AIDS, after 25 years surviving the disease. Ross told me more than he says here, about the neglect and heartlessness of the medical insurance business when it comes to cases they deem hopeless--or too expensive for their corporate pocket books. It's a terrible, yet all-too-familiar story in today's America. Here's Ross's tribute to his brother, in his own words; and his implied indictment of a society that fails to care enough for its least fortunate:

"It's been a tough few days. Yesterday my 3 brothers, 2 nieces, and nephew in law, and I went to the hospital and said goodbye to my brother Leigh. We brought Bach on piano on a ghettoblaster. We held him as the respiratory therapist removed the breathing tube. He was awake and we were with him. Finally peace. It was the most natural thing to do. 59 years....25 years with AIDS. A long time fighter, he got sick around 1981, before anyone even heard the term GRID (gay related immunodeficiency syndrome). I went with him to a nutritionist specializing in AIDS once per week in 1983. Main treatment....3 pounds of turkey meat daily. He used a non-medical approach to healing for the first 15 years...when everyone was dying. I remember visiting him when he was sick with high fever of 105 for weeks.

Treatment......organic juicing 4 times daily. He would call me and request the specific vegetable or fruit he was craving. He did not use AZT or DDI or antibiotics when others died on them. He started a group called "HEALING OURSELVES" which met once a week for years in 1992-1993. I attended some of them. Ozone therapy, Juicing, Exercise, super high Vitamin/Antioxidant drip infusions, etc, etc, etc. I learned some thing I am sure. Do not depend on the doctor for your cure. Be the responsible person for your own health.

I'm rambling. I am unconciously wording my brother's eulogy. He was my big gay brother. My only gay brother. He did everything first. He was wild. He competed in the Van Cliburn Piano competition in the 1980s. He was a strict piano teacher. He composed 50 original music pieces. He wrote books of poetry. He was an AIDS activist. Leather, motorcycle, vocal. He was not afraid to scream his anger. He picketed with the AIDS groups that were violent but effective in getting new drugs released. He TOLD HIS STORY to his world at every chance. He brought his piano students and parents together in 1991 (50 students) and announced that he was retiring from teaching piano due to AIDS. He felt he could not hide his condition any longer and that it was the only responsible thing possible. Parents would be afraid to have their kids being taught by a person living with AIDS.

He lost his ability to walk and care for himself in 1995 and he moved in with me for 2 years 96-97. It was hell. He began to recover with combination therapy and re-learned how to walk. He told me to fuck myself and moved out in 9/97. He then lived in West Hollywood until 12/04 when he was evicted and ended up on the street with no care. He was severely handicapped for these last 8 years. Electric wheelchair. Incontinent of urine and feces. Mentally unable to fully care for
himself. Always smelly. Often angry. Intensely emotional. Playful like a puppy. His total companion for these last 8 years was his dog BESSIE. She loved Leigh totally like no-one else could.... and he loved her... unconditionally. They played together daily. She ate what Leigh ate. He was hospitalized 4 weeks ago with pneumonia and died yesterday.

What will I learn from my brother Leigh? How to be unafraid in the face of disaster? How to live? How to die?

I love my brother."

Those Activist Judges...

Yet another activist court at work this week, Bush! Busy thwarting the will of the people. It seems now that the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided Tuesday that your Cheney was not obliged to reveal the composition of that select body he consulted with while developing your energy policy. The joint suit filed by the Sierra Club (those wild-eyed, tree hugging liberals) and Judicial Watch (a bunch of wild-eyed, trouble-making conservative legal eagles) was turned down on the basis that "even influential participation" by who knows what Ken Lays and other (corporate? surely not!) consultants did not give them an actual vote on the National Energy Policy Development Group that your Cheney headed, and that presumably made decisions about the nation's energy policy.

What policy, you may ask? Well, I ask, Bush. Hard to determine. Aside from occasional raids on the acreage of our national patrimony, it seems to have been largely laissez-faire throughout your tenure in office. Laissez, that is, the corporate interests to faire whatever they deem necessary to turn their profits. We've talked about this before, you and I. Notably absent from that policy has been any substantial or consistent effort toward conservation, or any serious support for scientific research into alternative energy sources. The bill that is currently under consideration in the US Congress is, according to the Sierra Club's chief attorney, nothing more than "an energy industy wish list." Not being as well-informed as I might be on the subject of this legislation, I'm inclined to credit what he says. It fits the pattern.

At any rate, the difference in this deplorable story between a consultant and a lobbyist seems negligeable. You'd think--I'd like to think--that there might be some interest, in the higher echelons of your administration, in the kind of transparency that lends the government its credibility. But no. Your Cheney has fought tooth and nail for this week's decision for the past… what? Four years? And the Supreme Court lent a convenient hand, last year, when the issue threatened to raise some uncomfortable questions during your re-election campaign: they provided you with a timely postponement until after the election. (This, I recall, was the occasion for the famous Scalia duck blind argument, explaining his refusal to recuse himself in view of his fine duck-hunting relationship with one of the principals in the suit.)

So what does your Cheney have to hide, the rest of us would like to know? He argues the principle of the thing, as I understand it: that the executive branch should be entitled to consult with whomsoever it pleases, without having to disclose the content of its confidential discussions. But this is the people's business, for God's sake, Bush. Is this not the height of arrogance, for a group of hand-picked men (and women?) to sit in secret and make decisions for an entire nation? I think that as both a voter and a citizen, I deserve to know if Ken Lay contributed his wisdom--not to mention his integrity and his business acumen--to the creation of an energy policy that directly affects the way I live my life.

I gave up on Ralph Nader a long time ago, Bush. I happen to believe that he sacrificed the good of the country to his ego in the past two elections. But I do believe he has it right in his indictment of the power of corporations in the halls of Congress--and, it would seem, in the back rooms of the White House. You can no longer persuade me that this is government for and by the people. It's government for and by the corporate interests.

Sorry to be cynical… but so much for the beacon of democracy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Meanwhile, on the Diplomatic Front...

A hero's welcome in Georgia! So trumpeted the BBC, no less, in its television news headlines last night. And showed pictures of the roaring crowds of tens of thousands that greeted your appearance and your speech in Freedom Square, Tbilisi.

It did occur to me, though, Bush, that what must have seemed like a great personal triumph to you must have felt more like a great personal betrayal to your friend, Vlad Putin. After all, he entertained you and Laura to dinner in his home just a couple of days ago. My God, he even let you drive his car! We saw pictures of you, grinning, at the wheel of his prized vintage Volga--a retro gem. And to return the favor, you travel down to Georgia and basically slap him in the face. You praise your new host country as "a beacon on freedom" in the world for fighting off the Russian influence and achieving its liberation in a relatively peaceful way--with the clear implication that Putin's Russia is the oppressor to be shrugged aside.

I wonder how it must have felt to a proud man who had just reached out the hand of friendship, once again, to hear that distinctive crowing tone of your speech and to watch that complacent little wiggle of the hips as you joined in with those Georgian dancers performing in celebration of their liberation from the Russian dominance. I mean, feelings do count for something, Bush. Right?

Not that you're wrong about the basic facts. I'm sure that your moral and material support for Georgian independence earned you that St. George medal (the first of its kind!) that was bestowed on you. Nice timing, too, on the part of your political and PR folk. The whole thing played well on TV, and it must have warmed the cockles of many an American heart to see the old Russian bear brought to its knees in this public way. Good for the ratings.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel uncomfortable with your diplomacy of American triumphalism. Is this any way to treat a friend? Drive his car with a big grin one day, and offer him a very public kick in the teeth--with an equally big grin--the next?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


This is one you’ll need to see, Bush. It’s an important movie—not one that’s pleasant to watch, by any stretch of the imagination, but one that has a great deal to say about this country and its people. We see ourselves at our very worst, and at our very best. For the first third of the movie, I’ll admit I sat there squirming, mad at the director for subjecting me to what I saw to be a highly contrived specacle of the worst of human behavior, piling coincidence on coincidence simply as a pretext for revealing humanity at its most abject and depraved. Somewhere along the line, however, I got it: this was not so much a “real life” narrative but rather a parable, an exemplary and didactic tale whose contrivances had a moral as well as an aesthetic purpose.

When I talk about a moral purpose, though, I don’t mean that simple distinction between good and evil that I sometimes hear from your lips, Bush—as though the good were all plainly good, and the bad all plainly bad. This film is about moral ambiguity. It’s about rage and violence, and their causes. It’s about racism and social warfare. It’s about immigrants, both legal and illegal. It’s about the abuse of authority and the uncontrollable rage of powerlessness. It’s about the opportunity our society purports to offer to all, and the denial of opportunity to many that goes along with it. It’s about the desire for material well-being, and what humans will resort to in order to achieve it. It’s about villany and heroism, and the narrow divide that separates the two. It’s about our young black men roaming the streets with guns, and our bored suburban wives. It’s about our venal politicians (sorry, Bush!) and our well-meaning social workers. About our callous health and insurance systems, and the desperation of those victimized by them…

I could go on. In short, though, it’s about life in America, and about Americans. Good ones and bad ones. No, that’s not right. It’s about the potential in each one of us for the good and the bad. The good, the bad and the ugly, as that old film title had it. It’s about the rogue, racist cop who has seen it all and isn’t above insulting a mixed-race couple in a traffic stop, feeling up the woman in front of her partner, in a cynical abuse of the power his firepower assures him; and who later finds himself risking his own life to save the same woman from a burning vehicle. It’s about how the woman herself feels about both the violation and the salvation by her victimizer. It’s about a black veteran cop who is forced to compromise his integrity when faced with the choice between promoting a politician’s face-saving lie and saving his brother from a three-times-and-you’re out life sentence.

It’s a film that constantly confronts each one of its characters with impossible moral choices and watches them react. It ends in tragedy for some, and a kind of muted, compromised triumph for others. None of it is easy. As one of the lead characters suggests in the opening sequence, it’s all about the way we come in contact with each other as human beings in today’s complex world. For him, it’s the experience of Los Angeles—the city where we no longer live with that daily touch, brushing up against each other on the sidewalk, in the subway, and end up crashing into each other simply because we miss that touch, and long for it. That’s his metaphor. For the rest of us, watching the film with sometimes unbearable discomfort, it’s a metaphor for our morally challenged lives, no matter whether in Los Angeles or elsewhere in the world.

Let’s not forget, though, the film’s redeeming moments, as when the street gangster restores liberty to a van-load of illegal immigrants, when he could have sold them for five huundred dollars each--men, women, and children. Or the corrupt cop who takes tender care of his unlovable and incapacitated father. Or the bitchy Beverly Hills wife of the venal District Attorney, who comes to recognize that her only true friend is the Salvadoran maid whom she has terribly abused. These scenes offer us a moment’s warmth in this cold, hard look at the real world we have created for ourselves, and a moment of hope for our humanity.

The film ends in a wondrous, impossible snowfall in Los Angeles, a not-to-be-hoped-for ritual of natural purification. A circle of children is seen dancing around the carcass of a burning vehicle--the site of one, last, searing act of moral self-betrayal—in a return to the child’s condition of relative innocence, where good and evil are brought back down to the level of simple mischief, and bring with them less dreadful consequences than do the often tragic choices of adults.

I did not like this film, Bush. It’s not a film that one can easily like. But I do think that it’s a powerful and important exploration of the moral quandaries with which we, as Americans, are faced today. I hope you’ll take the time to see it.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Nix on NY Times Letter--Darn!

Well, I'm disappointed that the NY Times did not accept my excellent letter for publication (I forwarded you a copy last Friday: see Bush Dairies, 5/6. But I imagine with all your travels you might not yet have had the time to read it.) Today's edition published four reactions to Thomas L. Friedman's op-ed piece about education, and I was disappointed because none of them raised the same issue as my letter--that the expectation that teachers should make learning "exciting" and "inspiring" puts an unfair burden on those who are, well, neither, terribly, but rather good-hearted, workaday teachers doing a very hard job in sometimes the worst of circumstances. My other point--perhaps too well disguised in personal narrative--was that effective teaching can take other routes than inspiration and excitement. Discipline, it is often forgotten, is also an essential tool, but it may not be as much fun. Without that discipline, however, I'm sure I would not know my French irregular verbs as well as I do today!

One Young American Solider

I saw a thoroughly impressive young man on "60 Minutes" last night, Bush. I didn't catch his name, but he was, I believe, a lieutenant in the US Army, a recent graduate from Westpoint. Obviously well educated and articulate, he spoke with intelligence and engaging sensitivity about his tours of duty in Iraq--which involved not only battlefield command, but also jobs for which his training had left him surprisingly well prepared: acting as de facto mayor of a city, for example, in which normal services had been disrupted by the war. He spoke with restrained depth of feeling about the loss of two of the men in his command, and what it meant to have to communicate the loss of these two "brothers" to their families back home. If this is the caliber of men and women graduating from the military academy, I have to respect the education they're receiving.

The heartbreaker for me, though, Bush, is to know that men and women like this are sacrificing their lives to support an ideology that does not serve the interests of this country or the world at large. Asked whether he felt the need to discuss the purpose of the war we're fighting with his troops, the young officer readily conceded that this was a daily necessity--to have answers to fundamental, pressing questions about what we're doing in Iraq. His current argument, it seems, it that it's essential to "finish what we started." His interviewer did not push on to the next question--perhaps an unfair or imponderable one: did we do right to have started it in the first place?

Well, yes, he's right, in one important sense. Reason persuades me that we can't just walk out and leave the mess that we have created. And yet... Forget the weapons of mass destruction. Forget the false premise that Saddam Hussein was in some way responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center towers. Forget the absurd notion that Iraq presented an imminent threat to the United States. Forget even the noble cause of removing an obviously evil dictator. What we're left with, Bush, as you so often remind us, is the liberation of an oppressed people and the spread of democracy. The problem that remains, if we're to "finish what we started," is a cultural and historical one that we are hopelessly unqualified to address: the current bloody chaos--which you dismiss all too lightly, in my view, as the work of a few malcontents--increasingly appears to be no more nor less than the latest manifestation of the centuries-old struggle between Shiite and Sunni. "Liberation", in this instance, served only to open up a deep and ancient wound that no amount of American military might can heal. Democracy, as your pal Vladimir Putin noted in another segment of "Sixty Minutes" last night, can only be the internal business of the country involved. It cannot be implanted by intervention from outside, particularly by military invasion. He was forthright in his opinion that you had committed an error of historical proportions, and I imagine that he was not shy about telling you the same. (Did you have a good dinner, by the way?)

Anyway, it won't surprise you in the least to know that I happen to agree with Putin on this point. But the fact that I disagree so fundamentally with his commander in chief does not prevent me from being impressed by our young lieutenant. I just wish we could see him serve in a wiser, less ideologically-driven cause.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

For Mother's Day....

...I wrote a poem about fathers & sons. Pretty dumb, huh? Anyway, here it is:


Sometimes I hear his voice
in mine: my father's turn
of phrase, a sudden, plaintive
note, a particular tonality,
a hint of affected modesty.
I hear it when I read a line
aloud, or start to preach
my version of the gospel.

Sometimes, more startling,
I hear my own voice in my son's:
a raising of the timbre to register
a note of protest, indignation,
the anger carefully concealed
behind a conventional politeness
or a charming smile, the quick,
ingratiating deference of tone.

And thinking this, I wish now
I had heard my grandfather,
who died before I could recall
his voice. From his stern picture
I imagine it firm, but gentle,
the master copy of the voice
from which my father's
was imprinted, and my own.

And I hope now, too, to live
for long enough to hear in Joe,
my grandson's voice that echo
of the generations, father down
to son; and perhaps not least
for him to recognize in his,
when he is grown to manhood,
some echo of the sound of mine.

Happy Mother's Day, Bush. Best to Barbara.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Today, Saturday

The thoughtful and sober critique by Gunther Grass of the role of capital in the democractic republic of Germany (see the op-ed page of today's New York Times) should give us Americans pause to reflect on the direction of our own democracy, Bush. As I have intimated often in these pages, a government run according to the dictates of corporate lobbyists can no longer be counted a democracy. That said, I have to confess that I missed the news last night--which perhaps accounts for a different kind of entry today. Read on:

Today, Saturday

I found myself this morning standing
in meditation at the door of my own death.
It was open. I stood on the very threshold,
dazzled. Behind me, everything was darkness.
Before me, light. This was strange, I thought.
I would have expected it otherwise, but no.
Everything I knew in life was darkness.
It was the unknown that was light.
To step forward, into it, I would first
have to say goodbye to everything
with which I am familiar: to the objects
that surround me, to my unfinished work,
to those I love. To those I have not known
and yet have met with every day.
To those to whom I still feel animosity.
I would need to let them go, too.
There would be no opportunity to return.

I did not choose this morning to step forward,
into the light. I chose instead to stand
in quiet contemplation of what lies before,
what lies behind. A moment of silent ecstasy,
and peace. Knowing still that, when it comes,
in reality, in my life, the moment of my death
will not be of my choosing. Still, one way
or another, it will come. I will stand there,
on that threshold, and will take that step,
despite myself. Forward. Into the light.

That's better, no, Bush, than the usual rant? Thanks for listening.

Friday, May 06, 2005

A Learning Experience

(a letter to the New York Times)

Thomas L. Friedman has it partly right when he asserts in today's New York Times that those teachers who best teach us how to learn are the ones who excite and inspire. Another eminently successful method, however, is sheer bloody terror!

As an example I offer Mrs. Smith, the French teacher at my "prep" school (English for rather snobby, elementary-level boarding school.) The most memorable example of her ruthless tyranny was when she forced me--unknowingly, I'm sure, but despite my stenuous objections--to consume a bowl of stew into which a fellow student had but recently thrown up. (Apologies to the squeamish: it does happen to be true.) Hardly lovable, then. She taught the rules of the French language by rote, including the irregular verbs and those ever-elusive genders; and the only excitement involved was the anticipation of a nasty rap on the knuckles with her ruler if you happened to forget.

Inspiring? No, not really. Yet I still remember, line for line, after sixty years, the whole of LaFontaine's "Le Corbeau et le renard." Not useful in itself, perhaps, but I thank Mrs. Smith for having taught me, however painfully, the mental discipline of learning. It's a tool that has proved invaluable in every subsequent learning experience since then.

Crimes Against Humanity

What can they be thinking, those Arab people, when they observe us, Bush? When they see our people--even those they know to be responsible for hideous acts--exonerated, mis-tried, or at most given light sentences for crimes against the humanity of their own? When they see that no one--not one person, Bush--in a senior position of responsibility, whether military or civilian, is held accountable? And when they see their people, by contrast--even those they know to be innocent of any crime--hunted down, imprisoned, kept for years behind barbed wire without the possibility of trial. Tortured. Killed. So what can they be thinking?

I'm talking here about perception, Bush. Not about truth or justice. Not about who's right or wrong. I'm simply talking about the perception of crimes against humanity. And those crimes did take place, on our part as well as on theirs. They are still taking place, no matter which side is responsible for them. The results of those crimes are palpable to those close to them, Bush. We only see the lurid photographs, here in the United States. We only read reports, or see them on our television screens. I imagine there can be few Iraqi families who have not had some direct contact with the horror.

So, right or wrong--though probably a good bit of both--what can they be thinking? I ask myself this question on V-E day, the day that World War II in Europe ended. The day after Holocaust Remembrance Day. While the bombs continue to explode in Iraq. While the innocent continue to be held, along with the guilty, in Guantanamo Bay. While holocaust continues to be perpetrated, this time in Darfur, as the world looks on.

So what are we all thinking, for God's sake, Bush? What are we all thinking?

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Well, Bush, it's always nice when some alert and well-informed reader catches me with my pants down. Metaphorically, I hasten to add. Case in point, my argument, yesterday, for Tony Blair's (relative) innocence in being dragged into your war. Here's a piece that casts your Blair in a different light.

Ah, well. My reader wonders why this news has not received more play in the media. I can only surmise that it must seem a tad stale to them, especially when they have the "runaway bride" to occupy their attention--a big story, Bush, and one that took up a good few minutes of major news time on all three morning shows this very morning! As they used to say, dig it! I have to say it, though, having read this article through and learned to be a little more mistrusting of the British PM: I still kind of like the guy. He's a wee bit saucy. And he's doing good things, I believe, for the British economy in the context of the European Common Market. Anyway, thanks, thoughtful reader. I appreciate the nudge.

But that's not what I was planning to talk to you about this morning, Bush. My curiosity was piqued on reading about those 130-million year old dinosaur bones they discovered recently in Utah. What would your creationists say, I wondered? I heard one argument, which went approximately thus: if God was powerful enough to create the whole world in six days 7,500 years ago, he could certainly have created 130 million year old dinosaur bones at the same time, and scattered them about with such cunning (and such foresight) that they would only be unearthed 7,500 years later, by a bunch of wicked scientists dedicated to disproving His existence. Seriously, Bush. I heard that.

To get myself a little better informed, however, I did take the time to google "creationism and dinosaurs"--and got 57,200 hits in 0.21 seconds! Wonders! So this is the real dope: man and the dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time! No kidding! I never knew this. I always labored under the misapprehension that they were separated by some millions and millions of years. But this is the commonly agreed-upon story on many of the creationist websites. Carl Baugh, Ph.D., Founder and Director of the Creation Evidence Museum (in Glenrose, Texas) has excavated eleven dinosaurs, no less, and concludes that man and dinosaur "lived contemporaneously." He should know, I suppose, as Founder and Director of a museum!

"Dinosaurs & Man Existed together" proclaims BibleProbe.com, anxious to explain away those 130 million years of history. I mean, pre-history. BibleProbe continues thus:

There are many references to dinosaur-like creatures in both the Protestant and Catholic versions of the Bible. However, the word "dinosaur" isn't found anywhere in the Bible because it didn't exist as a word until the 1850's. Prior to that, the most common word used to describe dinosaur-like creatures was "dragon", and that word is found many times in scriptures. The word "behemoth" was also commonly used. The Bible best description of a dinosaur is in Job 41:15-24. Job is a very old book, probably written around 2000 B.C. Here God describes one of the larger dinosaurs. It is said to be describing a Brachiosaurus. It is a giant plant eating animal with strong bones. It is not afraid of anything. In Job this dinosaur is compared to the ancient cedar.

"Look at the behemoth which I made along with you and
which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has
in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly!
His tail sways like a ceder (sic--PaL); the sinews of his thighs
are close-knit. His bones are tubes among the works
of God, yet his maker can approach him with His sword.
The hills bring them their produce, and all the wild
animals play nearby. Under the lotus plant he lies..."

-Job 41:15-24

Sounds like a dinosaur to me, Bush. No? Adds Creationism.org, taking the scientific tack:
Carbon-14 dating of carbon buried in the same layer with dragon bones helps to confirm that they are really only thousands of years old. The myth-ions and myth-ions of years never happened; only in the past 200 years has it become fashionable to forget our true ancient history (of thousands of years) in favor of God-hating (or: "bumbling-inherently-weak-god") evolution.

EvidenceofGod.com has its own tricky question: how did dinosaurs fit in the ark? And, of course, an answer:

There is no Biblical indication that God didn’t intend the extinction of dinosaurs before the flood (for whatever reason). If dinosaurs were brought into the ark, it would be difficult to account for space requirements unless they were eggs or very young.

Aha! Smart man, that Noah!

Listen, Bush, this goes on and on. You can check it out for yourself. I could give you the links, but I don't like to make things easier for these folks. And I frankly wouldn't mind so much except that so many of the sites are explicitly addressed to children. It's unconscionable, to feed them this kind of trash. But maybe there's someone out there who can set me straight? I always appreciate a correction from an alert and well-informed reader. Help me out…

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Politics, Actually

I'm wondering this morning about politics, Bush. About our Arnold. Is his declining popularity an indication that people--Californians, at least--are slowly coming to realize that there's more to the state's much-maligned government than simply cutting taxes and taking easy pot shots at "special interests"? Nurses, teachers, firemen… these are now the dreaded enemies of the people, whose promised demise brought Schwarzenegger to the Governor's office, not too long ago? Californians eager to avoid tax increases and cut government spending are now at last discovering that it may be hard to find the "fat" to cut out of the budget, and that some of the lean is essential not only to their declining educational system, but also to their basic health and safety.

How much longer, then, before Americans begin to discover this same hard truth at the national level? How much longer before more of us begin to recognize your tax cuts and your social security schemes for what they are--an attempt to strangle government out of business? And your cuts in Medicare and social services? How much disruption of the country's social structure will we need to watch before we begin to grasp the fact that good government is essential to manage the interests we share--in education, health, security, the administration of justice, the maintenance of a viable infrastructure, and so on? And don't go ranting on to me about "waste". I won't deny it's there, but there's not enough of it to blame for this whole budgetary mess.

Talking of politics, I've been keeping an eye on the British general election from a distance, mostly through snatches of reports on BBC-TV. I can't help but notice that there are assumptions about the value of good government that all parties share, and that the tone of the debate--perhaps for that reason--is less acrimonious than over here. The divisions are not between black and white (or rather, maybe, red and blue) so much as between various shades of gray. There may be accusations that the other man is misguided, or even that he lied, but I don't hear suggestions that he's evil. I don’t hear character assassination along the lines of the infamous Swift Boat Veterans. It all seems very innocent, in that regard. Very polite. I realize there are those who will scoff at the very idea of politeness in political debate, but regard for the other man, along with the ability to actually listen to what he says, do open up the possibility for thoughtful dialogue. American politics seems to have devolved to the level of mindless promotion of one's own agenda, regardless of rationality or good sense.

Anyway, I hope Blair wins, despite his having enlisted the British in your war. I do think that his decision was made in some good faith, and I'm afraid I can't say the same, Bush, for you. I think your mind was made up long before the evidence was invented to support your position. You were deluded by what you demanded to be given by way of intelligence. Blair, as I see it--though misguided by wrong information--was a genuine believer in the moral necessity of war. From the start, there was clearly no political gain for him. The same cannot be said for you.

Ah, well, this may all be convoluted argument to support what is basically a gut feeling: I like the guy. I don't like that he allowed himself to be dragged into your war, but he inspires my instinctive trust. (Did you see the movie, "Love Actually," by the way? With Hugh Grant playing a good hearted Tony Blair PM type, to Billy Bob Thornton's bully American President? No reference to actual living persons, I'm sure!) So here's rooting for Tony, Bush. In spite of everything.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Egypt: A Correction

For the record, an attentive reader corrects me on the 1997 tourist massacre in Egypt. It was at the Hatshapsut Temple, not Abydos, and the victims were mostly Swiss and Japanese, not French. The number of the causalities was 58 killed, and more than 100 injured. My regrets for the misinformation. Still, the substance of my argument remains unchanged. Thanks for the correction, PAL

Win Ugly

"The assessment is that we would succeed, but there would be higher casualties and more collateral damage. We would have to win uglier"--a senior defense official, quoted in the Los Angeles Times

Ah, yes, Bush. Your Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent his classfied Military Risk Assessment and Threat Mitigation Plan to Congress yesterday (where do they get these wonderful titles from, Bush?) It indicated that our military readiness is now at "significant risk." Not--those good folks at the Pentagon hastened to add--not that we're not prepared to get out there and fight in any contingency. And win. Better believe it. No, it's rather that our win would cost us more in terms of time and human lives than we had counted on.

Nice thinking. We would not for one moment want others to think us weak, and attempt to take advantage of our weakness; those evil doers in North Korea, for example, or Iran. Nor would we want them thinking we're not ready to deal with any other hot spot in the world--like the Taiwan Strait, in case China should decide to translate its long-standing threats into action. Hey, we'll rush in anywhere (not Darfur, though: not enough at stake there, for this country) to do battle with evil in the name of democracy. "There's no doubt what the outcome would be," opined another senior official: "but it may not be as pretty."

Pretty, I suppose, as in your Rumsfeld's Shock and Awe. It plays well on TV: a few big flashes and bangs, and it's all over. A bit of collateral damage on the side, but hey… Then it's a nice "Mission Accomplished" photo op--very pretty, too. And then, oh, well, there's a couple more years of "insurgency." More American deaths (it turns out that our troops were dangerously underequipped in the first place, because Shock and Awe was going to take care of the problem and our people would be welcomed with flowers and open arms. Wasn't that the story? And then a bit more collateral damage, as in Falluja. And, in the past few days even, two years later, in the country's capital. So the vaunted American military ends up in the situation your Myers now describes. Let's not say "weakened." Let's just say, likely to take longer to achieve our goals. And to cost more lives. According to our Military Risk Assessment and Threat Mitigation Plan.

Meantime, we spend countless zillions of dollars developing high-tech weaponry to protect against the most improbable of threats, and cut taxes to assure that we go deeper into debt as our military budget escalates and our preparedness plummets. Does all this make sense? Should we not step back at some point and re-evaluate our thinking, Bush? And not only our military planning, but the intentions behind it? Aren't we beginning to look just a tad foolish, as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Just to note...

... in passing: today marks another milestone in The Bush Diaries, the 5000th hit. The last time I mentioned the hit count, we were at 1,000. Doesn't seem like all that long ago. I guess we're small potatoes beside our bigger cousins, but the progress still feels good to me. To be noted, too: May 8th, just ahead of us, will be the six-month mark along this daily journey. Thanks to all readers, whether regular or occasional. Check in with me once in a while--and be sure to include your email if you're interested in a response. Also, if you're enjoying what you read, send on the URL. I can always use more readers! Cheers to all, your PAL. (PeterAtLarge@cox.net)

More About Egypt

As recently returned visitors from Egypt, we were distressed to read about the weekend attacks on tourists in Cairo. From reports I have read, they may well be the work of a quite small band of people (perhaps even a single family, it seems) in revenge for the Mubarak regime's harsh response to last year's attack on Israeli tourists in a Red Sea resort. It does not sound like it's the result of a widespread terrorist threat.

As I mentioned on several occasions in my "Egypt Diary" (an edited version of my weblog entries during our two-week trip, and now available to anyone on request, with an email address), we felt entirely safe and perhaps even excessively protected along the way; our guide, Fadel Gad, made it clear that--with tourism such a vital part of the Egytian economy--the government is at great pains to protect the visitors who come to learn from the remarkable history of the country's ancient civilization. Since the 1997 massacre that left more than 60 French tourists dead at the temple of Abydos, security has been extraordinarily tight: armed guards maintain a high visibility everywhere.

Still, as is so often repeated by our "homeland security" folks here in the USA, the protectors have to get it right 100 percent of the time: the terrorists only once. Ellie and I are particularly sad that they should have pulled it off in Egypt, despite all precautions, and hope that this small band will not succeed in deterring other visitors. Of course, we ask ourselves if we would have been deterred, had this incident occurred in the weeks or days before we started on our journey. We like to think not. But then…

At any rate, we have no great stake in the Mubarak regime: anyone who quashes all opposition as determinedly as he has done these past two decades has earned the hard questioning he now seems to be getting. The promised "opening" of the forthcoming elections to opposition candidates has prompted the kind of anti-government demonstrations that greeted us on our first day in Cairo--and the kind of riot police turn-out that we witnessed on that occasion. But having ourselves encountered nothing but friendliness and warmth from our host country and its people, we wish them a speedy recovery from any damage to the tourist industry resulting from these incidents. And, of course, a fair and peaceful election process. They deserve nothing less.