Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reflections in a Dangerous Time

This essay was written for


LEXINGTON, Mass. -- As bombs daily turn considerable swaths of civilization to rubble, this has been a month of landmark celebrations in my family.

On Monday, Kathy and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary on a sultry, sunny day, taking a ferry to and from Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, biking eight miles through the National Seashore’s big dunes, stopping for beer and lobster before the boat cut through the waves back toward Boston and the sun set, blood red, through the gathering dusk. It was a day to share memories of more carefree times, especially of that day in the Rocky Mountains when a girl with freckles, a big smile and speckled eyes came up to an Eastern dude desk clerk at Grand Lake Lodge in Colorado to ask for the simple pleasures of hot water and a bar of some sort to hang across the closet in her pine cabin to hold her clothes. The desk clerk -- that was me -- solved the second problem; I cut a hanger rod from a tree branch. And therein began the illusion of competency that carried me through the first few years of what’s been a mostly rock-solid, but occasionally bemusing, lifelong affair of opposites attracting.

On Tuesday, I scalped a pair of sweet Red Sox tickets to share my brother Dennis’ 60th birthday with him. We watched the Sox’s first one-hitter in some time from 15 rows behind the home team dugout, keeping movement to a minimum in the evening’s 95-degree heat.
“I feel like a kid again,” Dennis said as we entered the ball park. And, indeed, baseball and beaches have held the greatest constancy in our decades of often intense and embracing times together. The beach part came on Saturday, when I took Dennis on Birthday, Part 2, a kayaking trip through the morning fog and mist near his home on Cape Ann, a gentle journey that in reality was also a diversion to keep him away while the guests arrived from as far away as Los Angeles for a surprise party to mark his six decades of life.

In the midst of this all, Kathy and I struggled all week with what should be the last day for our beloved golden retriever, Casey, a California-born dog whom we bought a few months before moving East again in 1994 after seven fond years on that other coast and who, now 12, has a menacing tumor growing beneath his ribs. There is no good time, no good day, to say goodbye to a dear friend. Nature forces that call.

So it’s been a week of passages, of reflection on time and loss, of memories, most sweet, some bittersweet. These passages have been respite from a world seemingly gone mad. Last month, I read a book called Saturday by Ian McEwan, a post-9/11 novel that follows one day in the life of London neurosurgeon. It begins in the pre-dawn hours as the insomniac doctor watches a plane, its wing on fire, head toward Heathrow Airport. He fiddles with the television news and speculates whether a terrorist is in the cockpit. Only the routine and competency of work and the love of family bring periods of peace to Dr. Henry Perowne. The underlying edge of life in a world always on the verge of something cataclysmic is never far away.

The book has stayed with me in a month that began when ceiling tiles in Boston’s Big Dig tunnel collapsed, killing a woman, but sparing her beloved husband, as the two headed to Logan Airport at night to pick up a relative. The same day seven bombs (I believe an eighth was defused) exploded in the crowded commuter trains of Mumbai, India), leaving a bloody trail of carnage and more minutes of silence in yet another major global city to mark the lives of the innocent and random dead. (“Some world we live in,” I said to Kathy that night. “If you drive your car, the tunnel wall collapses on you. If you opt for the train, a bomb goes off.”)

The killing seems to have grown more wholesale as the month progresses. A United Nations report says more than 100 Iraqis a day now are dying in brutal acts of sectarian violence. Thousands more are fleeing their homes in the country to which America brought gunboat “democracy,” shifting the balance of power in the Middle East sharply toward Iran and various Islamist extremist groups who are anything but concerned about freedom and liberty. The blood and bombs of Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah still fly.

What to make of this world, especially when the United States careens under the leadership of a man quite unable to grasp its dimensions and one prone to listening to the neo-con crazies whose friends on Fox News keep predicting, almost gleefully, that we are at the start of World War III?

I have few answers to this world landscape. Too often, it leaves me numb. Perhaps my brother Dennis is on to something. He has turned to a film form of myth-like documentary, "In Search of the 36," as he records the lives of people whose contributions fit the bill of those wise men of Jewish tradition who selflessly make things well through their good deeds.

I think he's on the right track. It’s an old and idealistic concept. but for the moment I can think of no better. What if we all find a way each day to reach out to those we love and those we don’t know, to consciously make one small gesture to bring kindness and acceptance to a world evicerated by violence.

Pass it on, as the movie by that name said. If ours is to become a better place to live, we all must reclaim it, one small act at a time.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Emperor Has No Clothes


The nation's 230th birthday should be a day all Americans celebrate what’s made this country great – freedom of speech, of thought, of religion; equality; diversity of perspective, race, ethnicity, interest. But if you keep your ear tuned to the speeches of Republican politicians today, I bet you'll hear the national holiday used as a soapbox for bashing the less patriotic among us (read -- anyone but them).

The last few week’s news offers these clues:

  • The Republicans ridiculed the “cut and run” Democrats on the House and Senate floor.
  • Select Republicans in both houses branded the press, and particularly The New York Times, as “treasonous” for writing what the president in so many words had already said: The United States is monitoring global financial transactions in the hope of catching terrorists.
  • Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said the Democrats (and by extension the Supreme Court itself) were for extending “special privileges for terrorists” by applauding the court’s ruling that the administration could not try suspected terrorists any way the president saw fit.

Now, I hate an unfair fight. So I thought I'd use Independence Day to prep the Democrats for their fall campaign against George's minions.Democratic candidates, it's time to punch back, take a stand. It can even be fun. Just find your slogan ("we're nicer" won't cut it) and ride it until November.

This is American politics. Five words are ample. I'd recommend "The Emperor has no clothes." Once more, now: "the Emperor has no clothes." If used daily – at least two-dozen times a day -- it's a surefire winner. Repetition is key. Karl Rove and the Republicans have built a mirage of toughness by talking tough – and repeating the same lines as frequently as a parrot on speed.

So try it out for yourselves, Democrats, maybe with a bit of inflection …. “The em-purr-roar has nooo clothes.” And follow that with … “and my opponent and his/her fellow Republican tailors have no thread.”

Think about it: This slogan has promise. “The emperor” opens Front 1. This is the guy who has ignored the Constitution’s separation of powers. He doesn’t believe in The First Amendment: When anyone delivers bad news he either scowls, clears brush, or has his minions shout treason and threaten prosecution. He doesn’t believe in the Fourth Amendment. (“Remember those phone records, my fellow Americans, you thought were private? What else is he looking to spy on – your garage sale receipts?”)

Next, candidates, let your voices rise – subtly, of course.

“And speaking of an Inconvenient Truth, this is the man who has flouted international law and agreement repeatedly. He’s ignored Kyoto and continues to fiddle while the world burns. He’s ignored the most basic of international agreements – the Geneva Conventions -- forged over the two great wars that left millions dead. He’s dispensed endless favors through no-bid contracts to friends, flouting the law. And when Congress passes new laws, he doesn't bother vetoing those he disagrees with. He just ignores them. Is that the mark of a president in a democracy?

It’s time for front 2 – the “neck-ed” part, as W. might say.

“The emperor's party is one of no clothes and imaginary thread. Look closely at his policies and you’ll see that our emperor stands naked as a jaybird – even as all those Republican tailors in Congress tout the beauty of his plummage. The emperor promised to reduce the national debt and then ran up our current version to the ga-trillions, making America the greatest debtor nation in world history. It's your children and grandchildren who will be left with the insurmountable bills."

(Audience chants: The Emperor has no clothes)

"The emperor said we’d capture Osama 'dead or alive' bin Laden. But he forgot to mention he meant capture bin Laden on weekly audio tapes. Then he invaded the wrong country, Iraq, and promptly forgot about this Osama guy all together."

(Audience … you get the picture)

"The emperor vaulted onto a carrier deck off San Diego to declare 'Mission Accomplished.' That was three years ago. Then, with slight variations, he declared it again and again – when we killed Saddam’s sons, when we captured Saddam, when Iraqis elected a Parliament, when the Parliament chose a Prime Minister, when the Prime Minister nailed down his cabinet, when we killed al-Zarqawi. That’s at least six times the mission has been accomplished, but if you glance at the daily headlines, that mission is still hemorrhaging blood. It seems the only rockets going off in Baghdad this July 4th are bringing death, not independence. This is the daily death of dozens of women and children whose only sin is shopping or being born into the wrong sectarian group. It is the death of our men and women, still coming back in body bags that the president and his party would hide from sight."

"The emperor said we were ready for Katrina and then stood by paralyzed as hundreds of Americans died in their homes and thousands more wilted in the heat, waiting for rescue.The emperor has promised us a more secure America and then cut its Homeland Security allocation to vulnerable cities.Is this a man – and a party – that meets its promises? Does this administration really make you feel safe? Is this the guy to whom you want to write another blank check to by electing another Republican Congress – a whole passel of tailors with no thread, a gang of yes-men whose only accomplishment is spinning George W. Bush’s yarn?"

You're out of time, reader? And I’m just getting warmed up. I'm working on the rhyming bit (essential in all campaigns).

“He spends on his friends.”

“He screws up, you queue up”

"He’s fluff but acts tough."

OK I’ll stick to my day job. But can’t the Democrats please pay someone else to do this better?