Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Poetry: Robert Hershon

Robert Hershon
Hand to Eye Coordination

the dart heads for the board
a hand reaches out from dead
center and pulls it in

when it's going good
i can't remember how
it ever went bad

when it's going bad
the bartender pulls
the dart from his forehead
and falls dying into
the ice machine

shit he says
i hate poems about

Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday Poetry: Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash
Portrait of the Artist As a Prematurely Old Man

It is common knowledge to every school boy and even every Bachelor of Arts
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and it is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally important in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And consists in not having done something you shudda.
I might as well give you my opinion on these two kinds of sin, as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don't bother your head about sins of commission because, however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn't be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you get really painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven't taken out and the checks you haven't added up the stubs of and the bills you haven't paid and the appointments you haven't kept and the letters you haven't written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn't as though it had been a riotous red-letter day every time you neglected to do your duty.
You didn't get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forgot to pay a bill,
You didn't slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry, Wheeee,
Let's all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of the things you haven't done,
But they are the things I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn't do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, make sure to do it by doing rather than not doing.

Oh, The Headlines: #3

The front page of today's Chicago Tribune:

Baghdad strategy flawed

I have nothing to say.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I Can No Longer Shop Happily

Okay, I've got a confession to make. I love the Holiday Season. I always have. So much so that I start thinking about it around now—in fact, I made a gift list a few weeks ago. For whom I intend to get gifts, I mean. And that's late, for me—when I was a kid I used to start in June. I love making these lists, love taking three solid December days to stay home and make different kinds of cookies (my face, by the by, is currently sporting some scone-related injuries), and when the time comes, bouncing from store to store in an effort to find objects that will make the people I love happy. Christmas, to me, is devoid of all religious significance (thank you Bill O'Reilly); it's a day, or in my family/social world more like a season, of celebration of loving people, of having these connections and meanings in your life (I never said I wasn't a sentimentalist at heart), and of representing this love by finding and giving objects, or edibles, or events, that you feel confident will make them happy. I love walking downtown in Chicago, or around the city in New York, in December, even for the last several years when the excess of shoppers and the piped-in music and the prepackaged emotion has started to bother me. I still like having a time of year where my culture forces me to think about everyone I love and how to represent by means of objects the reasons I love them.

It is, to use Tyromaven's phrase, one of the most American things about me. In the immortal words of Don Hertzfeldt, "I'm a consumer whore!" "And how!"

But this year, especially, has made me realize where the difficulties lie. I have spent the better part of this year making a conscious effort to reduce my consumer whoredom. For the record, I've always recognized that love isn't proven by objects—it's a metaphor, not an argument—but I'm coming to engage more with the concept of assembling objects, and what it makes us think about our permanence and the permanence of our lifestyle. It could be that this sort of American decadence will outlive me, but more and more I doubt it. And I'd imagine that developing the ability to let it go gradually would be a much better choice than having it yanked out from under me by force.

I cannot let it go so easily. Gifts are neat. So the question is, how am I going to maintain my sentimental connection to gifts as symbols, and this consolidated time of spraying symbols all over my life, without encouraging my consumer whoredom and endorsing decadence?

Plants are one way, food another (I'll admit I make decadent cookies, but it's a start). I like making things I know have uses—one of my constant gifts to my mom now is a large amount of cookies that she will then serve as snacks to the classes she teaches. So knowing needs, or uses—knowing how to fit your gift into people's lives, specifically—is another way. I'm looking for more suggestions and thoughts on this, if anybody has some.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Poetry: Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop
One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master.
So many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And, look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master,
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Milligan has an excellent post about the detainee act, citing a vivid description of Jose Padilla's detention.

Here is what makes all of it, and more, perfectly okay under United States law.

Eh, I dunno what to say anymore. Sustainability matters tremendously, primarily because we're going to have to know how to sustain ourselves, live in a workable and functional way without things provided for us, as this country devolves.

To answer Milligan's question as to how this country is functionally different from a dictatorship at this point, I would say that there is a way out. In fact, there are several ways out, clear ways out that don't inevitably involve risking our lives, at least not yet and not in an immediate fashion. The question is whether we're going to take them, and how we'll convince ourselves and others to do so.

I know the blog's been incredibly bleak lately, and very microcosmically politically focused. I'm feelin' it, but I'll change that up a bit in the coming weeks, since I still have some posts I promised in (and have been working on since) August. I need to know, these days, that the big movements and the small movements both matter, and that most of what's important to me falls into both categories.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Friday Poetry: Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin
The Excrement Poem

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what must have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.

We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the hose oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today's last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Leering Over Your Shoulder

Be warned: this post contains a lot of high language and a lot of anger and paranoia. It's not everything I feel, and I recognize things that mitigate it, but it's a reality that I would like to express.

Last weekend I saw, through the grace of a family friend, the Goodman Theater's production of King Lear. The forceful, flawed production gave me pause not only about the play itself, but also about the social world, the detainee bill, and some new and disarming thoughts I've been reading about Abu Ghraib.

Robert Falls's production of King Lear took me very much by surprise. I'm accustomed to thinking of the eponymous king as a megolomaniac, a ridiculous, inflated egotist whose ridiculous request to his daughters makes him deserve everything he gets. It's easy, from that perspective, to separate ourselves from him, and even as a good actor can make our pleasure at his fall into schadenfreude, he's still a protagonist with whom we can only sympathize in madness. Falls, however, turns these conventions around. Lear is, instead, the logical leader of a painfully decadent society very much like our own. The production's done in contemporary, if stylized, dress, and the Lear dancing into the banquet hall in a pale blue suit and inviting his daughters up to the microphone for their speeches is not the removed, ridiculous monarch one might expect. Why wouldn't a man who has a cake made of his kingdom, in a room where incompetent white rapper Oswald deejays behind a display of lavish wealth in all its forms (from old-money academic Albany to young drug lord Cornwall), ask his drunk and devious daughters to quantify their love? Immediately we recognize Lear, as we recognize the Paris-Hilton-like Regan and the current of violence and threat bubbling beneath the room. Immediately we're present, immediately we recognize where we are.

Doing Lear in contemporary dress and tone, however, would seem to present the same problems as doing a modern-dress Oedipus Rex: namely, poking out eyes is an integral part of each script, and that's something we rarely encounter in our day-to-day lives, or even hear of among royalty. Falls and his cast, however, manage to create a world in which the undercurrent of violence is present from the beginning. When the unlucky Kent protests Cordelia's banishment, the drunken, slightly ill, tempermental Lear immediately threatens him with his own sword—and the roomful of people simply watches, captivated. No one acts to save the man; it seems to occur to no one. The lavish mansion Regan shares with her husband Cornwall is protected by a ten-foot barred gate and armed guards; when Cornwall puts the angry Kent "in the stocks," the man's limbs are duct-taped together, guards place rubber tires over his neck and soak him with gasoline, and the cocaine-addled Cornwall waves a lighter close to his face. The true threat is not simply that action, but the number of times that the phrase "in the stocks" is used in that scene by any number of people; this is not simply an insane drug lord's punishment, but a form of casual violence known and used in the world of the play. By the time the lights came up on the house for intermission, I realized that the imminent blinding of Gloucester would make perfect sense.

Certainly the production's flawed. The woman playing Goneril is grievously miscast. In the second act Falls becomes unpleasantly self-indulgent—a scene on a landfill-esque battlefield where young soldiers move body bags continues for far too long, for example, and Lear's wheelchair, white bathrobe, and shaft of white light when he encounters Cordelia for the first time since banishing her are really quite unnecessary. But Falls has succeeded in a task I would've thought impossible—or at the very least silly—before seeing his production: he has genuinely made Lear's world ours.

Which matters to me all the more as I become certain that disaster's over our shoulders, closer than we think. I can't pretend that's not a dramatic statement, but nor can I say any longer that I don't believe it. While I recognize that Bush has probably signed several other pieces of legislation that could reasonably be perceived as spelling doom for civilization as we know it, something about the clear doubletalk, immorality, and anti-Constitutionality of the detainee bill seems more egregious to me. The administration can choose which criminals are terror suspects, and a terror suspect, being engaged in combat against the United States, is denied a writ of habeas corpus, whether a citizen or otherwise. To me that seems almost the textbook definition of a dictatorship, yet we're hearing no more outcry about it than about any other measure the administration has taken since September 11. Maybe it isn't, in fact, that different; maybe this just happens to be the one that's smacked me in the face. But it seems more and more that if we pay lip service to the salient elements of a republic, no one's going to bother to read the legislation, and even my beloved Constitution only matters if the violators care about the idea of violating it.

But we don't see. That current of violence, of threats, of boiling over that is present in Falls's Lear is present here. Perhaps it's not quite at the point that it was when Lear asked his daughters for praise, when Cordelia alone presented an ethical (if wimpy, at least in the writing) way of negotiating her father's request. But is there anything that doesn't have to do with money, with maintaining safety and decadence, that Bush can possibly want out of this bill?

Following Dahlia Lithwick's articles on the Supreme Court and the occasional Fraywatch on Slate, I've found a couple of tidbits that have stayed on my mind. One was Lithwick's article on the phenomenon of school shooters, even those who threaten or plan school shootings, being prosecuted as terrorists. Another is that on the Fray (the site's comments section), a startling number of people say that none of what happened at Abu Ghraib can be classified as torture. Not everyone goes as far as Rush Limbaugh, claiming the soldiers' actions were "stress release" or fraternity pranks, but many more than I would have expected see the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as reasonable, necessary coercion. To get information, to make people crack, one must obviously create an atmosphere of fear.

Abu Ghraib isn't torture in the same way that school shootings aren't terrorism. Which is to say, both those statements are correct in some ways and completely miss the point in others. Again, as always, it's a question of kicking 'em in the postulates (a phrase Tyromaven and I coined in recent conversation). The point isn't the lines between torture and extreme coercion and hazing, the point is that all of these behaviors contribute to our social definition. Law has no choice but to be abstract; it's our definitions and thoughts that have to be concrete, and we have to realize how far our definitions extend. If disturbed adolescents are brought to fruition in a culture of violence, a culture that shuns "torture" but wears its "extreme coercion" on its sleeve, and are completely unsupported, in what direction, exactly, do we expect them to go?

Yes, lines have to be drawn somewhere, somehow. And yes, probably there are situations that necessitate torture, somewhere, somehow, as Alan Dershowitz has argued. With those who argue against Dershowitz, though, I would say that the question isn't pragmatic. The question is what we become as a society if, while torturing as may, indeed, somehow be necessary, we think it's okay, we think that society endorses our choice. At the rate we are going, we will very soon look at the society we've endeavored to protect and find we've created a new one by means of this protection. A new one in which we are, inevitably, no longer safe.

That's what happens to Lear in Falls's interpretation: his social assumptions, having lost his daughters and his decadence, are taken from him by force. We, as Americans living in the last days of the Republic (an interpretation coined by my friend Annie's husband), will have the same thing happen to us.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I want to insert a brief story here, because my readership seems to be slightly up and I feel, on such an occasion, like re-introducing the blog and the way I think. I've attempted to insert the Third Rail Theme itself into the sidebar, but to no avail; instead, I want to tell this egotistical story that has greatly enhanced my self-definition.

My bachelor's thesis in anthropology attempted, with varying degrees of success, to combine a few disciplines to examine the director Peter Brook's work. (That project is why I attack any mention of the word "universality.") My advisor, the best college instructor I had the good fortune to know, and my seminar group offered a detailed critique of my third draft that demanded a bit more action than I felt capable of taking. I groaned.

"No, no, it's good," said my advisor, a white South African man of British descent (it's important for you to imagine the accent). "I like how you're throwing things together."

I looked at him.

He looked back at me, clearly exasperated. "Throwing things together like a particle accelerator, not like . . . a mess!"

Which I have taken, and hope I'll continue to take, as a compliment, a goal, and a challenge.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Torture to Watch, Part the Second

Oh sweet jeebus, I no longer know what to say. Read this and this.

And this.

There's also this, from a couple of months ago. It's not so funny anymore.

And finally, though it's ancient and I just never came across it before, this.

So why are none of the top ten most Emailed articles on the New York Times website about the passage of the detainee bill, less than a week later? How had I never heard Rush Limbaugh's comments—why was everyone out there not debunking them the instant they were said? How did only a few of the Abu Ghraib images get into the mainstream, and how did we become so deadened to them so fast?

We don't know anything, and it's not only that we don't know anything, it's that we don't give a fuck when we do. A.J. Liebling once said, "A free press belongs to those who own the presses," but when I think about that in regards to this I see, for what feels like the first time, the genuine inticracies of capitalism in a democratic republic. I feel like it doesn't just belong to those who own the presses, or at the very least those who own the presses don't belong to themselves. We could find out if we wanted to know, because then those who own the presses could make more money and keep themselves on top. But how do we get from finding out to changing things? That goes back to the distinction Tyromaven pointed out on From Moment to Moment, between truth and insight. Right now, as I'm thinking about this, I'm finding the truth about it. The question will be what comes after.

Dahlia Lithwick makes the excellent point in the above article that none of the coercion methods used and pictured at Abu Ghraib would fall under the few explicitly banned methods in the new, improved, passed detainee bill. This deadening effect is starting to seem the oldest trick in the American book. Broadcast images over and over until they're stripped of their horror, until we accept them. We've made them ours, but we've made them ours in the parrotted language of shallow therapy, or in the language of Amanda in my twelfth-grade English class: "Well, that's Sarah's opinion, so you can't argue with it." As if we must justify something simply because it belongs to us.

God, do I appreciate the Constitution right now. The knowledge that somewhere there is a legally sanctioned and foreseeable way out of this is nice. Or at least, you know, nicer than a junta. But given the way the votes came down on this one, will it honestly change anything if Congress goes to the Democrats next month? Or is everybody just too scared and confused? How far do we have to go before we hit a dystopia?

This is not a useful post, though I'm hoping it will take me to useful thoughts. Right now I just, to quote my friend Talia many years ago, "don't know whether to cry or vomit."