Friday, March 30, 2007

Money for Millionaires

Okay, it's true that campaign contributions are worth more than votes. Campaign cash is now used like a battering ram to bully the other players into submission.

I've been getting a lot of e-mail asking me to make end of quarter contributions to various political candidates and PACs. I'll never give a dime to a candidate. Never have, never will. I volunteered for Dean, but that was different. Contributors and the campaign itself paid my way, and they got their money's worth. But give to powerfully connected millionaires? Not gonna happen. I just can't see these guys as charities.

It's just another kind of horse race that Americans really go for. They even seem to respect a candidate's ability to raise money. Has his keeping close on the fund-raising coattails of Hillary Clinton made Barack Obama a legitimate candidate at last?

That would be sad.

Because that is the kind of cigar-chomping cash that made George W. Bush a legitimate candidate.

If we really want campaign finance reform, if we really want better candidates and a government changed for the better, then giving boat loads of cash to candidates, in record amounts a year and a half before the election, is not the way to do it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Spirituality is to Religion as Astronomy is to Astrology

Let's go back to my delving into the spiritual quest (see ABN, March 20). The title of today's post comes from that last-day-of-winter post.

"Spirituality is to religion as astronomy is to astrology." This is probably that post's highlight, and it gets at the heart of the matter -- and the rationale behind my distinctions between secular spiritual quests and religious spiritual quests.

Aphorisms sell in America, because the audience's collective attention span is just about long enough to fit in a few sentences. Paragraphs eat up air time, and who no one gets to give two minute answers on television (except maybe on Charlie Rose).

So here's the sentence: "Spirituality is to religion as astronomy is to astrology."

If you google the phrase "spiritual quest," you'll find that many, perhaps most entries that come up are not strictly religious. Spirituality and the "spiritual quest" have become more commonly used by a less devout crowd. Hellfire is out. Hope and happiness are in. The crux of the quest is spirit, having spirit, sort of like "being yourself" while being a really "good" person at the same time. Damnation is SO last millennium. It's now so much more about the here and now and delving into things like yoga and singing and volunteering and giving and paying attention and mentoring and studying psychology and philosophy, learning to more deftly articulate the gray areas between "strict science" and literal doctrine. It's not all or nothing anymore. There's more give and take, which is a much more realistic sort of quest for humans to be on, considering how varied and imperfect and learning and yearning we are.

The gurus of spiritual matters now realize we already suffer enough, no need to pile on fire and brimstone. All that old stuff left most of the flock in the dark anyway or in a hall of mirrors. Yes, goofy jargon still creeps into a lot of self-help fluff, and you're right to be skeptical of New Agey claims to clairvoyance and all manner of assumptions based on (so far) unobservable occurrences. In some of its more inspired and yet imaginative guises, various spiritual quests ignore and even deny some pretty obvious and varifiable facts. Some even deny the need for facts. The most extreme say that there really IS such a thing as facts or even A FACT, but that is, alas, fundamentalism of another sort.

At its best, the spiritual quest is, more than ever, based on finding out more about our own emotions and mythologies, more about how we think and why we think and feel the ways we do, more about what life for other cultures and species is like, and in a word, more about reality.

Big word, REALITY, and this discussion will take more time. More to come, and in the meantime, of course, I'd be happy to hear from you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On Fighting Terror With Terror

An influential mentor of mine, an author and former American Studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin , keeps up an ambitious stream of article and discussion forwards to and from recipients around the world. Bill recently expressed concern that he hoped the current botching of the "war on terror" would not dissuade further and future attempts to "combat" terrorists. There was even the implication that torture might be 'a necessary evil' of 'winning this war.' Such implications caused concern for some of his listservees, that his take might be too conservative.

Here's my response:

It seems to me that fighting terrorists is like fighting a fever. Or worse, as is the modus operandi of the current administration, it's like performing unnecessary surgery (on the wrong appendage) while half drunk on heavily spiked Imperialist Punch.

Fighting terror with terror is like fighting a jihad with a crusade.

Whether guerrilla fighters or government fighters, the use of terror is a symptom, not the underlying disease. Fighting terrorists with guns is like giving aspirin to a cancer patient.

Most Americans, most Iraqis, and most of the people paying attention to this clash, now feel that not only is this war not the answer but that, in this case, war is not the answer. No one is coming up with a version of war they feel might work.

Brave as we'd have to be, it seems it's time (perhaps it's ALWAYS a good time) to step up to the plate to try what Gandhi and King insisted upon -- mind over military. And goodness, not greed: clean water, clean energy, healthy croplands, food, acknowledgement, sovereignty, honesty, compassion, an overt hand out instead of hands up at gunpoint.

How about fighting terror WITHOUT terror?

I say we offer to give such divergent cultures their own space back. We don't win by trying dictate or force the outcome. We don't win by expecting others to respect us. (What invading force would you respect?) We win by having "the enemy" disrespect us less.

And it goes both ways. We don't have to respect our enemies, and we don't have to love them. But it would be good for all if we disrespected them less. That's not acquiescence. That's neutrality. Taking a series of announced and reliable steps back is not cutting and running. It is what's good for every relationship: creating healthy boundaries.

From Central and South America to Asia and Africa, we've been crowding countries with our contractors and corporations and the CIA and our super-sized, mega-militarized cavalry for a century. Maybe if those angry foreigners had their ownspace back, they'd back off, too. And both sides would win.

Some might wonder how long the positive effects of such a move might take. But how long does the military way take? It ain't quick. Especially when it (this war) more often than not seems to be taking steps backward, not forward.The goal shouldn't be to fight a more effective war but to effectively replace the war with something better, something bigger-hearted based on the thinking of better minds.

Let's make a clear and distinct shift toward peacefully sharing our bounty with the world, and the world will respectfully repay the favor.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Elizabeth's Choice

Elizabeth Edwards said this weekend:

"You know, you really have two choices here. I mean, either you push forward with the things that you were doing yesterday, or you start dying."

Why are so many people critical of the Edwardses' decision to proceed full steam with their campaign? In her interview for 60 Minutes, Katie Couric questioned Elizabeth's choice to keep up the campaigning so clumsily and relentlessly that many viewers were taken aback. John Edwards was kind enough to say the questions were honest and fair and what everybody else was asking each other.

Of course, the Edwardses hope that this decision forges an impression of indomitable spirit and beating the odds, the kind of aura a candidate for president needs to get ahead and stay ahead, fending off all comers, no matter how bulldogged the competition.

Well, in the face of chronic illness, a lot of people go on with whatever they want to do most, whether it's garden or compete for a top spot on American Idol, sail around the world or campaign the job of First Lady.

I wish Elizabeth Edwards well. But no matter what happens to her health in the months and, if she beats the odds, years to come, I respect her choice this week.

Elizabeth Edwards is fortunate to have the guts and gumption and good will and ambition to smile in the face of such adversity. A lot of us must envy her, realizing we'd be sitting on the edge of our beds, morose and overwhelmed.

Perhaps she will suffer episodes of being morose and overwhelmed as well, but she knows that she has a rather captivated audience and that her grace will be the most important aspect of her role as wife and campaigner from now on. The issues and even her conviction will not matter as much as her bravery. Hemingway famously defined bravery as "grace under pressure."

I realize that there is much symbolism involved and that Americans consider the First Family to be this culture's royalty, but to be more blunt than even Couric could be, John Edwards does not owe us a healthy wife. He doesn't owe us a family at all. The office is for one person, and Elizabeth is not running for office. She is running for her husband, and that in itself is a fine thing. It is a very courageous and smart kind of love she is showing to a nation that could use more of those virtues.

The implication is that we can focus primarily on extending our lives, or we can focus primarily on making our lives as rich and exemplary as possible. But truth be told, besides a bit of support for keeping one's chin up with a positive attitude and aggressive medical intervention, we don't really "fight" cancer or "beat" it. Doctors and drugs and medical procedures do that work for us.

Cancer may be the leprosy of our times, but it is not rare. It is common, nothing less than a plague. And even without traumatic or chronic illness, as Edwards herself reminded her family and a huge audience, the human condition is fatal. So the trick is to make this month, this season, this year count, not according to the terms or expectations of others, but according to our own terms and desires. As Elizabeth Edwards' legacy legacy belongs to her and to her alone, our legacies belong to each of us alone.

So we might ask ourselves (or ask again): Am I, according to my own terms, making some personal (some might say spiritual) progress? Or am I just drifting along. perhaps consuming more than I am giving back? Am I doing things to challenge and improve myself? Am I growing, whatever that means to me?

I suppose the bottom line is: Am I proud, or how often am I proud, of how I am spending my time, spending my life?

Monday, March 26, 2007

More on No Impact Man

My gosh, I left a comment to No Impact Man's blog with a link to my blog and a post about the NYT article "The Year of No Toilet Paper," and I TOO got hate mail today! The comment at my blog suggested that, since I'd chosen as a young man not to have children, then why not take that one BIG step further and kill myself.

Actually, that argument has been made to tread lightly gurus for decades, but it's more spite than sense. As Colin reminds us, this is about living a likeable life, not wanting to flush life down the toilet, much less hating it so much or suffering it so acutely that you want to end it. hey, there are already enough suicidal specters out there as it is.

I say that all treading lightly experiments are, indeed, about loving ALL of life and people, near and far, the very IDEA of people and life, and CAN WE coexist in such numbers with healthy ecosystems and other big mammals? I'm really curious to see if we can pull this off -- or better yet, pull us back from the brink of doing so much damage to El Mundo Grando.

I say trying to live well and honorably is about loving wildlife and the last remnants of wilderness. And it is about loving ALL of life, as it is, in the contexts and conundrums and societies and challenges in which we find ourselves. Right now, today, here.

Colin (Mr. "No Impact Man") calls himself a schlub, but he's getting his fifteen minutes of fame (maybe more) for stirring up good debate for a good cause. Unfortunately, he's become another target for petty spite as well. There's always been a lot of petty spite to go around. It ain't the new game in town. And maybe turning off the lights and taking the stairs (and giving up the housekeeper and beer) aren't the newest games in town, either. But what's good comes back around again. Like trains or bicycles. As gorgeous and graceful and efficient as these transport modes are, they might look old-fashioned to some, but they're just as much about the future. Thoreau's experiment was about the present and the future. My ongoing experiment in treading lightly (sort of) is about the present and the future. Colin's experiment is about the present and the future. I'd rather stand tall even for small things than cook up slander and suggest others slouch toward denial or decadence, turning away from the beauty of the big things, the very biggest things. Like love.

We can only be responsible for ourselves, not everybody. And love, which I insist this is about, is not about making demands or taking control or shouting shoulds. It is about taking responsibility and taking care of ourselves and others, IF we can. The best we can do is do things we're proud of for a long time to come.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Crossing Paths With Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen is part pirate and part priest.

For decades, this prodigious author has been plundering the planet for scenes, for stories, for plot, for action and adventure he can turn into books. He doesn't take the treasures he finds away, except in memory. From the Amazon and Africa and Asia and Antarctica, he bears his severe and soaring witness away in little water-resistant notebooks full of scribbles he'll rework again and again.

In person, Matthiessen is a curious bird, a writer who is also a master story teller.

He's an excitable raconteur, downright boyish in his enthusiasms and yet worldy-wise in his skeptical take on things, the powerless and the powers that be. He spins his yards with a gravelly voice and with hands that seem to dance and soar like little jets and wings. He pauses to give the deeper undercurrents of a tale, the moral of the story, and speaks with subtle gestures caught in the furrow and the wrinkles of his brow and his deep set eyes, yet his hands are all over the map, so eager to show us, to express to us where he's been and what he found there.

Matthiessen is masculine yet soft, a boxer from the old days, and still boyish in his overt passions and enthusiasms and mannerisms. His mind and career have been tethered not to home but to boats and small planes and rough and muddy trails. For a man, he is distinctly migratory, filled with an insatiably curious and attentive wanderlust. At 79, almost 80, he remains ambitious and yet impish.

The renowned adventure traveler, pilgrim and author is a rakish sort of guy. For decades, he's been outward bound to the remote nooks and crannies of the planet, plundering it for stories, yet at the same time endearing himself to the natives near and far.

[to be continued, check back]

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"The Year Without Toilet Paper"

That's the title of an article just published online at the New York Times. It's about a family of three who live in a normal apartment near Union Square in Manhattan who have chosen to go a year consuming as little and as lightly as they can. The lights are few and dim. The TV and refrigerator are turned off. The food is local only. The transportation is hoofing it. And as things they used to use run out, there are homemade substitutes, or they go without. Hence, the toilet paper.

Treading lightly is a game, of course, but then so are most attempts at living unconventional lifestyles, whether as a yuppie for a year or as a monk for the duration. And let's keep this in context: billions tread lightly in other parts of the world, and hundreds of millions go without toilet paper.

New York is, in some ways, the nation's most efficient city, but again, in context, this family's experiment (we could call it trial) is an extreme attempt at leaving only tiny footprints, a blog and a book deal (so American!). So it's a game. At least it's an insightful and instructive game. It gets you thinking. I recommend the article, which you can see here, for a while, until it's archived in Times Select.

There is a growing stream of readers' comments associated with the "Year Without TP" article, which asks the question, "What would you sacrifice for a more environmentally sound life?"

Here, slightly revised, is the comment I just contributed:

How about choosing, as a teenager (at 17, I think, after reading Walden), to... never cause a pregnancy, much less have children; to never own a television; to never own a new car (used, at least 5 years old, is ok, high mpg, of course); to own only a few electrical appliances; and significantly, I think, I chose to never own stock. I shop, I consume, but I don't invest.

I am 49 now and have held well and proudly to all of these choices.

I am typing on one of those electrical appliances, but now this laptop is my only computer. I own a stereo, which is 10 years old, and have two speakers, not five. I own a clock radio that was a gift. I own a 1950s vintage blender I got at a garage sale for a dollar. And I am using a microwave that my grandmother used back when Nixon was president. Oh, and I have a cell phone I charge from time to time. But no home phone.

I live with a hot water heater, which is always set on "vacation low" and which I turn off anytime I'm leaving the house for more than a few days. And I just received another gift, a new refrigerator. Several times, for more than a year at a time, I have gone without a working refrigerator, and one of those times was some of 2005 and all of 2006. My new fridge is very much me. It's capacity is a mere 4.4 cubic feet, and it's Energy Star rated. If left on, it might use about $24 of electricity a year, but I clean it out and turn it off as well when I'm going away for more than a few days.

Several times, I have gone a year or so without a car, though I traveled with friends. Carpooling is cool. And I have mostly lived in places which had no or minimal air conditioning, even in Texas. I went almost 15 years straight without a/c in Austin, and I now live in a house with one old window unit in the living room that I use as little as I can.

And, as it turns out, I've made so little money that I've kept my contributions to the burgeoning military-industrial complex to a minimum. It would be not only ironic but painful to tread lightly at home but to in any way encourage carrying a big and destructive stick anywhere else.

I write a blog called "A Better Nation" in which I sometimes talk about the "treading lightly" lifestyle, along with other 'state of the world and how's life' stuff, near and far, thinking globally and close to home. I'd welcome your visit.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Vernal Ritual/Spring Thing

Today is the first day of spring, 2007, but make that the first full day of spring. The season actually started at 8:07 last night, EDT, 7:07 CDT, you get the idea. It wasn't even dark yesterday evening, when spring started, but most calendars and websites picked today as the first day of spring. Close enough.

In honor of all things green, I planted three trees today to make up for the struggling magnolia I cut down Monday evening. Magnolias are native to east Texas, but really they're just not at home west of I-45, and they seem really out of place anywhere west of I-35.

My grandmother had planted that magnolia back in the late 50s or 60s. She'd grown up just a little east of where, decades later, I-45 would replace the old dirt trail between Dallas and Houston, along Chambers Creek east of Corsicana. But she really loved the South, as in the Deep South, even the long, lost "Gone With the Wind", "To Kill a Mockingbird" South. She was still wistful for the Confederacy, and she took many opportunities to extend the myth that a relative of ours had been the flag-bearer for Robert E. Lee, and actually that may be true, I'm not sure. My fiesty and at times ferocious grandmother even had more of a soft, southern, old-fashioned accent, not the Texas twang you might think. She had southern airs.

Well, the magnolia in the front yard was symbolic of the South she'd left behind. But it suffered mightily in droughts and often turned crispy brown during the summer. A few dry summers back, I'd had to give it a drastic and unappealing trim. And with things only getting hotter in this neighborhood of the solar system, I decided it was time to go with the flow and plant natives, species truly at home here. Our human legacies linger, but nature rules.

Of all the trees in the Hill Country, the elegant madrone is my favorite. Its slender, smooth-ish trunk and limbs are like dunes, like skin, sort of like crepe murtles, but in its crooks and crevices burnished with rosy and even orange-ish tones. Lovely, worthy of long and longing looks.

But second favorite is the evergreen, always green mountain laurel, with its thick, richly green and waxy leaves and huge clusters of fragrant purple blossoms every spring. Like the madrone, it's a slow grower, but it's all quality time.

I can highly recommend going native, getting your spade and your hands down in the moist, dark dirt. And then sit back, relax, and watch the green grow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What the Heck is a "Spiritual Quest"?

Over the weekend, I was accosted by an old friend for offering the choice of "spiritual quest" on my ABN poll of week before last (see ABN, March 8th). The irony is that this friend is a yogi, and yet he's rather conservative and, as conservatives are wont to be, cynical as well. My friend, admittedly a bit tipsy in honor of St. Patrick (or is it St. Guiness?), was incredulous that I would associate myself with spirituality at all, much less profess to be worthy of offering some spiritual insight.

My friend's take is that this blog sounds angrier and perhaps even nuttier than I mean it to be. I might write bile, as some pretty sharp-tongued wits of the past are my role models in such an off-the-cuff forum. I'll name a few in that guise: Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Edward Abbey. Maybe even Christopher Hitchens and Maureen Dowd. But in my mind, as I write, I am more wistful than outraged. Indeed, I think I've grown beyond being outraged, but I haven't grown beyond being perplexed. This is often a blog about being perplexed, about being akilter, at odds with the culture which churns around me. I write some outrage for the outraged and for readers who crave outrage. (Readers WANT voices besides their own, or, for heaven's sake, they wouldn't read.) But I also have, all along, written the softer side as well, quite often, really, compared to most blogs of political and cultural commentary. Humility, in writing, is prone to be drowned out by the very act of writing itself, which is always, to a large extent, about the writer and always self-motivated. Paid or not, writers (and perhaps especially obscure bloggers) write out of an ancient compulsion. We'd like an audience, but that may be a fantasy. We write for practice. We write to see what we'll say. We write to exercise our self-expression in public, no matter how small or large that imaginary audience might be.

The spiritual journey is also about self-expression, though it can be a much more inward form of expression than blog writing. The two activities are related, at least here. So I'll explore both in my attempts to explain further spirituality and the spiritual quest.

Where to begin. Perhaps I'd better take the opportunity to explain, first of all, what "being spiritual" is, or what I think it is, and also what a spiritual quest is. Thus I might make some reasonable attempt to explain (or is it defend?) my spiritual associations and aspirations.

This won't be easy. It never is. And blogs aren't polished doctrine. They're really more like running monologues or, if that seems a bit too parochial and self-serving, they're like dialogues we have with ourselves, our semi-private selves and our semi-public selves.

I can see this train of thought, The Spirit Train, going for some posts and maybe weeks, not all bnuched together but as the spirit moves me. Or I move myself.

First of all, and this is probably the most important distinction to make: being spiritual is not the same as being religious. Not at all. You can be a spiritual atheist just as you can be a clueless fundamentalist.

Spirituality is to religion what astronomy is to astrology.

That's a good line. You can quote me on that!

It is not necessary to believe in the supernatural in order to be spiritual. In fact, as I will sooner or later try to show, I think a good case can be made that piousness, religiosity, deepset beliefs and faith (which by definition is blind and requires a leap from reason and reality) go against the grain of becoming a master of spiritual matters.

Those who believe things which cannot be reasonably proved are prone to being stubborn, near-sighted and short-sighted. Faith is like a rut, a trench, and the faithful often become entrenched, prejudiced, harboring all sorts of grievances as well as feelings of guilt and fear. None of these are aids to becoming spiritual.

It is not that we need an open mind to become spiritual. We do need to distinguish between what is real and what is unverified, between what exists and what we hope might exist. Genuine, really wise spirituality very much deals with the here and now, with reality, with reason and with how things really are.

Think of some people you've considered spiritual or wise. Or consider some who history deems wise and insightful, proponents of what we might call virtuous grace. It's not that their minds are open to nonsense; it's that they exude and express both intellectual depth and emotional breadth -- and that in them, both work well together.

If I had to choose one attribute, one virtue that in the spiritual person shines above all others, it would be compassion. Not sympathy but empathy and not just through sentiment but through insight, not through guessing or sucking up to gain favor but through years of learning, years of philosophy.

Philosophy is the study of life, of this life, life on Earth as it is and as we perceive it to be and imagine it to be (and not be). And the spiritual person is certainly philosophical. Not necessarily in an academic sense. We can learn much from books, but when it comes to spiritual matters, neither books nor gurus nor classes nor outside instruction of any kind can take us as far as we need to go.

The spiritual person's world view is not that of a salesperson. Politicians and preachers and proselytizers of all sorts are salespeople. They've got a product they want to buy, and their product is propaganda. Spirituality is too worldly, too in touch with what we might call (and many do call) "the human condition."

And speaking of that condition, some things do seem to stay the same, and of course some things are always changing. The spiritual person is mindful of the things that tend to stay the same (nature, human nature) and the things that can quickly come to pass (fads, desires, feelings, possessions, relationships).

The spiritual quest is a long and winding road. Children seem to be born going along that road, but sadly, a lot of our spiritual natures are knocked out of us as we are raised, since we're raised not to be good people nearly so much as we are raised to be competent, raised to compete, raised to get ahead, raised to win and to breed winners. And so, in one way, the spiritual quest is about getting back some of those childhood virtues and focusing on them with a mature mind, with practice. The goal is expertise, to become known as a person who sees and understands things as they are and who expresses things as they are and reacts to things as they are with uncommon insight, with goodness and with grace.

More, much more, on this topic in the days and weeks ahead.

Monday, March 19, 2007

If the Election Were Held Today...

Speaking of surveys, Democracy for America (DFA) has a new survey at DFA's website here.

You can vote for any of the 8 hopefuls who have already announced their candidacies.

You can choose "other."

Or you can choose "undecided."

I agree that early spin for the candidate of your choice is good. It may be early, but now is when the spin begins in earnest, with most of the prospective field having already announced. And I started to pick Barack Obama since I think his candidacy would be the most innovative, instructive, interesting and, frankly, entertaining.

But when it came to committing, I had to go for "other" with this comment:

"The problem is: we need a fighter, if not fierce then at least full of brave conviction. I still miss the candidacy of Howard Dean. I went to Iowa and to New Hampshire for Dean. Right now, it seems unlikely I would go anywhere for any of the candidates above."

And I am sure many others are voting "other" hoping for the return of Al Gore or John F. Kennedy or Harry Truman or Franklin Roosevelt to the ring. Or Robert Redford or Oprah, perhaps.

Bill Richardson, Tom Vilsak, Dennis Kucinich, and even Christopher Dodd, unlikely, have areas of expertise that would come in handy, but it seems most of their passions are relegated to pet projects. Who covers the spectrum? Who would capture more than half the votes? These guys are cabinet quality, and why not leave it at that?

Most of the declared candidates for President of the United States are relatively respectable. But few seem compelling. Attractive as Obama may be, and assertive as Hillary Clinton might become, I just don't feel the fire or the love. Mere respect, mere admiration, mere charisma, mere capability, mere viability are just not enough in politics. The winner usually needs most of these wrapped up into one. But even more, the winner is usually that person most in touch with one of two things, if not both: first, the powers that be, and second, the zeitgeist of the country.

Note that the blessings of the entrenched party faithful as well as the blessings of the mainstream media machine always come above all else.

Friday, March 16, 2007

ABN Survey Says

Thursday a week ago, which would be the ABN post of March 8, I offered you, dear readers and ranters, a poll. Please go to the poll and VOTE. Please. The life of the recalcitrant Mr. ABN depends on it. Do your duty.

So far, the survey says that I should concentrate more on "personal stuff, down and dirty." As with ABN, so goes the nation: More Dirty Laundry! America just can't get enough. So whether you think so or not, or think or don't, please make your wishes known. Make your voice heard. And not only in the poll itself but in the comments as well, at that, at any and at ALL posts.


And don't forget to wear GREEN tomorrow if you are Catholic and ORANGE if you are Protestant or none of the above if you are the usual slob against quaint and cute rituals. Me, I'll be a wistful and philosophical secular naturalist wearing various colors, distinctly including green.

Here's to the blue and green planet, a rare and lovely thing indeed.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Next White House

'Tis the Ides of March, a day to relish political forboding and woe.

Who's on first? Who's up next?

In review, I'm just not that excited about the next presidential election. Been there, done that. I'm still a Howard Dean kinda guy, the way some people still go for Kennedy or Reagan.

I worked for Dean in Iowa (I was there in the room that night) and in New Hampshire just a few few weeks later, on the icy ground, door to door. I may not lift a finger for the next herd or even the next Democratic candidate. None of the strutters signed-on so far get me excited because I now know how even the freethinkers and the good can be fooled and made fools of. There will be hyped headlines from now till then, and that turns me off, big time. We'll be in another horse race to the Twilight Zone.

I think the more interesting question is not who will be the jackass nominee but what the heck will the next White House accomplish.

With his lowly Mr. Rogers cardigans and his loving yet lofty soft shoe, Jimmy Carter blew it early on. And Bill Clinton sure doesn't have much to show at this point for his eight years in the West Wing. I'd much rather have had Martin Sheen for those eight years.

So what can a seemingly positive and so-called "progressive" president accomplish?

What do you bleeding hearts really think even a philosopher king on the progressive side of things could get DONE?

Monday, March 12, 2007

The George and Hugo Show

What a cat and mouse game this is! Georgie runs off to South America to win back some "brownie" points (pun intended), and Senor Hugo goes after him, throwing fiery spit balls from the sidelines. National leaders just don't come any more clever (or quotable) than Chavez.

Perhaps both are spewing vaccuous propaganda, but I'd have to give Chavez the nod for "closer to the truth of the matter." And braver? To be sure.

I hope that some readers will agree that many of us, South Americans and North Americans alike, who appreciate Chavez's role are patriots FOR America. We're just not for the status quo. That's different. Like Chavez, we want what's best for our country and the world, long term and fair in the Big Picture. It's just that we are willing to call a spade a spade, and Mr. Bush, you is the Jack of Spades (Cheney's the Ace).

Chavez reminds many of us of America's meddlesome, often lethally meddlesome, past (and present) in Central and South America and elsewhere in the world. That is not something to be swept under the rug with a round of hugs and a few air drops of building supplies and wheat. With all of his pumped up pokes in the eyes of the Empire, and his pointedly personal taunting of Boy Bush, Hugo gets the American goat, and because of his antics and passion, he does verge on the adolescent at times, but he is actually a champion for a better America, a more overt and less covert brand of politics in this hemisphere.

Chavez thrusts Chomsky in the face of the UN, borrowing from more intellectuals than Bush could name. Chavez holds office without the razor thin clutter of chads, and by popular demand, he has become the world's symbol of both underdog hubris AND democracy feeling its oats.

He offers cheap and even free fuel to poor and rich countries alike. He sends aid to New Orleans. Yep, Hugo is a player, big time, and he's popular to boot (adding even more thorns to Georgie's crown). And who's the president of Columbia? Of Brazil? Of Chile? Of India? No, we know of Hugo and so few others.

Nobody on the world stage plays a better game. Some might say that that's gamesmanship, not leadership, but let's remember that the leaders of rather backward third world countries, running scared and rather defenseless, no matter how seemingly rich or powerful from oil or other resources, just don't have all the options a supposed "super power" does. Hugo holds the stone that says the Empire's brand of "free trade" ain't fair.

The George and Hugo Show is, in some ways, a David and Goliath story.

And we know how that turned out.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Springing Ahead Sooner

Ostensibly, in its infinite ambition if not wisdom, the government has chosen to spring ahead three weeks earlier this year. That's right: don't wait 'til April Fool's Day to set those clocks forward an hour. Tomorrow night's the night.

The good news is maybe millions of people will miss church this Sunday, and the world will turn a tick more secular. Oh, but then those sleepy-headed church goers will just take up the slack with an extra hour of sports watching or mall mongering. Or, as it turns out, bar-b-que-ing.

The government says the reason for the earlier time shift is... to save energy. The idea is that with an extra hour of evening daylight, we will turn on fewer lights. That idea originated back before World War II, when people might really have saved some energy. But now, people don't sit around in the daylight, enjoying some front porch or stoop time idly watching their neighbors stroll by. No, they fire up the car and head out shopping. More recent studies actually show that daylight savings time is good for only one thing: increasing consumption. More sales of just about everything, especially outdoor stuff like grills and golf clubs and greens fees and sports gear and gasoline and take out food (and bicycles, so ok, it's not ALL bad).

I've been a lifelong fan of those luxuriously daylit evenings, thanks to Daylight Time. Twilight at 8:30 and 9 feels so rich and makes life itself seem to last longer. I live pretty far south for an American, and I still go through withdrawal when it gets dark even a minute before 6:30, much less 4:30 (sorry, Chicago!).

But now I'm getting a bit concerned about this extra hour of daylight. It seems it's not about conservation or safety or any added value or virtue. (Want safety? Stay home!) This is really about the cash cows of those carrion-feeding Washington lobbyists, those cash-bagging buzzards getting their filthy upper hands all over our crooked and gullible government again. Those lobbyists would like to get every credit card in your wallet working overtime for their fat cats. They'd even rather keep you fat than happy.

This is government of the shopper, by the shopper, for the shopper.

And now we're telling Day and Night what to do to get us to go even further beyond our spending limits. We're even manipulating the Sun to accommodate our cravings, putting us on the prowl and putting the evening on steroids.

I'm thinking a little more darkness sounds downright soothing.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

VOTE! A Better Nation Blog Poll

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Who's Your Dem Daddy?

A few days ago, a friend and political idealist sent a link to an NYT article saying that Hillary and Barack can only go down from here. And so who's on the rise? How about Bill?

Bill Richardson, that is, the sleeper governor from New Mexico who, from his obscure nook of the nation, can seemingly only go up.

And then there's Maureen Dowd's new column about meeting Mr. Clean Hope Obama in his office, wondering if he knows that campaigns are essentially about conflict.

So let's just see the candidates' left hooks and aggressive jabs, also the knock out punch. I want to see the knock out punch, not Dukakis in a tank, not Bill C's 'I feel your pain' claims to cool, not the closeted alpha male in Gore's closet, not Kerry's demure colonialist.

The candidate who's going to win each election is the one who saves the fight of their life for that campaign. Candidates just can't rest on the laurels of previous skirmishes. They've got to go at the Rovian World with all they've got and lay it on the line.

Gore and Kerry both could have done that, but it seems politeness, handlers, hesitation and some very visible second guessing cost them their political futures.

Show me the best fighter of the bunch, and that's the candidate to beat.

And I don't think it's a daddy this time at all. Maybe Mommy knows best. Not that she's a fun or favorite person, but Hillary might well have the timing and the nerve to deliver the knock out punch.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Happy Days...

...Are Here Again.

America's long nightmare is over.

Over the weekend, it happened.

It seems millions of us got in the habit of that kinder and gentler America Daddy Bush said he was all for. The lions are lying down with the lambs. The common man and woman gently took the reins. Millions of us left our cars behind. We're out leaning over the fences of this great nation of ours, talking to our neighbors, loving them and their kids and pets, too. We're parking our cars. We're walking to the local store with a canvas bag to pick up a few groceries, walking the dog, walking the kids to the park, using any excuse to get out and walk.

We're sitting out in our front yards, drinking tap water and reading books, not thinking about what tools we need to overhaul our homes, just watching things as they are, seeing the passersby as people with whom we live.

We've sold off our second homes, even at a loss, so we can simplify and tread more lightly, and as for those huge piles of crap busting our garages at the seams, well, we held some killer yard sales and donated the rest of that stuff we didn't need no way. We've just sighed that big "enough's enough" sigh of relief. We now spell "relief" L.I.T.E. Tastes great, less filling.

We've moved back into town from the country and from the suburbs.

We've turned off the TV, except for a few special favorites now and then, like a few times a month. Yep, how did this happen? We're not morons any more. No more stuffing our faces 'til we keel over. No more stuffing our bloated souls with the Gods of Hogwash or Hogwarts. At last, we love pigs more than we love bacon. We love saving more than spending. We love life more than imitations thereof. We're real. We got REAL.

We've given up our gym memberships and just started walking from our homes, lifting furniture or big bags of catfood for free.

We've become more patient, less ambitious, less competitive, more tolerant and peaceful, more meditative, more thoughtful, smarter.

And we're reading a lot more bedtime stories to our children.

And wishing wilderness and all the wild animals everywhere good night.

Lights out.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Gray Week On Wall Street

Last week, I walked down Wall Street, thinking of the shades of gray of those buildings, always in shadow, it seems, and capped off, at the end of Wall at Broadway, by the faintly rose-colored specter of the Trinity Church and the black shadows and stains of its grave stones. An old relic of Christianity's ghosts, now dominated by the relatively fortified, cold, security-cammed, big steel and granite walls of Capitalism, which house the nervous center of the National Barometer.

One of my first posts to "A Better Nation" (see ABN, Nov. 2004) posed Alan Greenspan as the rudderman of our index-driven Titanic. Now the old rudderman is back, uttering the R word, and the Barometer takes a tumble. The man's still got Diety Power in this news cycle. Some of the awe "themarkets" hold for Greenspan comes from the plodding, wise old man tone of his declarative obfuscations. He's telling us how it is, but not straight. Not usually straight, that is. He's a master of predicting the future on the authorative sly.

And so anxious watchers look for certain key words they fear or think they understand, whether taken in or out of context. And so, this week, the R word came up, and there it was, taken out of context, for all to see, and God Greenspan ruled the day others now rue. Is it Greenspan's or the Fed Chairman's job, in rote and consistent tones, to always and forever "calm the markets?" These are bustling and risk-taking institutions, not prone to calm, even on a good day. Is this the kind of easily impressionable economic system we really want? It's not a system, it's a high stakes game show. It's sometimes as theatrical as what happens a few miles up Broadway, full of sound and fury, signifying more bluster than business sense, showing how emotional and mercurial and vulnerable we are, all based on a leap of personified faith, a la the older, now marginalized gods hiding behind the darkly stained church. The myth: that "healthy rates of growth," American style, are healthy. The bigger myth: that we can grow for a limitless string of quarters, that we can grow forever, live forever.

"Recession." He, the Market Diety Emeritus, uttered the word, and immediately, the neurotic markets fumbled the ball. Which should remind us all of one thing: that these markets and this thing called capitalism are neurotic games and gambling matches. The players, both in blue aprons standing outside on Wall Street sucking on their cigarettes and all across the land, placing their bets in their pajamas or talking to Chuck or riding the bulls and the bears at big firms a la Lynch, are not the backbone of our society. They're just fitful, forgetful, faithful, greedy, Type A anxious gamblers and get-aheaders. And the nation they let ride on their roller coaster is just a big casino in the sky called the American House of Cards Casino, open to juggle the coins of the realm 9 AM to 4 PM Eastern Standard Time.

As with other measures of cancerous growth and recession, such as housing starts and the price of a gazillion gallons of gasoline, the markets seem a flimsy and flighty and absolutely neurotic way to gauge the genuine "health" of anything.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Is Obama Black Enough?

Is Barack Obama black enough to be elected president?

This, with slight variations, is the question that is being asked and rather presumptuously answered lately.

Word has it in a new survey today that whites think Barack's black enough while blacks don't think he's black enough.

And of course by "black enough," we don't just mean color but cultural orientation as well, Barack's baggage set, his alliances, allegiances, audience, syntax, demeanor, composure, vocabulary, accent, fashion sense, family, family tree, piety, charisma, character, bulletproof-ability, steadfastness, place in history and long haul legacy.

Case in point: some still insist, however earnestly or in jest, that Bill Clinton was the first "black president," so it is cultural orientation that matters more than mere color.

Is Barack black enough? Meaning is he loyal to his people? And are "his people" just African-Americans or a mixed majority of Americans or, best case, ALL Americans? Jesus, is Hillary Clinton woman enough? Is Bush connected enough or incompetent enough or dumb enough? Is Al Gore man enough or personable enough? Is Rudy Giulliani conservative enough or Middle American enough? Is John McCain his own man enough or young enough? What a bunch of made-for-TV blather!

Many of the conversations shroud all this with concern for a candidate's electability, but let's be straight about this: racism is involved in the larger picture of divisiveness and tribalism. Is a candidate "one of us" or "one of them?"

The question is Racist with a Capital R. Petty and profound and parochial at the same time.

In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Perhaps petty controversies remain for the small and backward minded, but enough time has passed, and enough progress has been made, I believe, that the content of a person's character matters more than anything else. And millions of eager and progressive people of all colors calling for Barack Obama's charisma and candidacy prove the point.

It all comes down not to talk but to VOTES. Or should. If only people were brave enough to cut to the content of a person's character and vote "yea" or "nea" we'd ALL be better off. The world would be better off. Thing is, many in the electorate, perhaps a majority, are not very good judges of character, especially not a revved up for 24/7 TV ad-driven world. And this is the biggest challenge for democracy.