Friday, June 29, 2007

Split in Two

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It happens every summer. I get caught, for a time at least, between Plainfield, Vermont, and my home in suburban Chicago, a foot in each world as if I were stepping into a canoe as it drifts out into the lake while I am being split in two with one foot on land and one in the boat.

After a week at the Clockhouse Writers Conference (CWC) held in the idyllic confines of Goddard College just outside the quaint and sophisticated state capital of Vermont, I sit, usually in the bar at Burlington International Airport with a beverage, as I try to puzzle out where I belong.

I muse about the dorm room – with a shared unisex bathroom down the hall and the cafeteria about four city blocks away. I remember my first trip to Goddard. I was terrified that I would end up in a hotbed of militant feminists intent on emasculating me. I had an arrangement with my therapist that if I got desperate, she’d fly out and get me. I didn’t call. I fell in love with the experience instead. I became the token male member of a lesbian group. Talk about irony. For the first time in almost ten years, I found a place I truly fit, a place where I was loved and accepted for who I was, warts and all. Goddard has become the place I feel most myself. Each semester I returned – as much for the fitting in as for the education – until I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing. Now I go back to the CWC every summer.

A week at Goddard both exhausts and energizes me, and I sometimes believe that if I stayed longer, I’d explode. That doesn’t mean, however, that I want to leave.

So I sit at the bar drinking Ketel One with too many olives in a Goddard-induced dream dreading the return of reality when my flight departs. The bar has wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Green Mountains in the distance. The haze on the mountains turns them from green to blue, to gray, and sometimes the mountains vanish completely, melting into the clouds. In the foreground are the runways and hangar of the Green Mountain Boys Air National Guard. The Green Mountain fighter jets take off and land occasionally, but more often play joyful tag, almost touching down one after another. Then, barely above the tarmac, they accelerate abruptly into the ether and shatter the air with sound.

I sip my drink, munch on olives, and grieve the end, for another year at least, of intense connection. But as I sip, I know that people whom I love just as deeply wait for my return to the Chicago suburbs where I live in a Father Knows Best suburb. The houses are well kept, tree branches intertwine over the street, and the sun shines golden on us all year long. Everyone waves when they drive by or stops to chat if we’re walking. We all pick up after our dogs and mow our yards regularly, and we have block parties in the summer with grilled steaks and ice cream.

Too soon I become entangled in pre-flight security screenings and the wait for my plane to board. The woman who has checked tickets for the last few years is so cynical she makes me laugh. She says she won’t answer the phone on her day off or after six at night because her boss might be calling her to come in for extra work . I always check in on line and get an aisle seat. She refuses to have the internet in her home – and she certainly won’t fly. The TSA screeners in Burlington are . . . vigilant. This year they scold me for packing my carry-on too densely as they unpack it with their blue gloves. The battery charger for my camera draws their attention because I stuck it into a shoe.

Years ago, when I first flew out, even before Nine- Eleven, the security screeners treated all the returning Goddard students as if we were terrorists, ready to blow up plane after plane. Now they are more polite. They insult us with their condescension as they explain as if to three year olds why they must look more closely at our luggage. They are always my first step back to a reality where people don’t trust and hold each other up.

Then I sit at the gate. This year the plane was delayed for an hour. Weather messed everything up across the country. I sat and read until we boarded the plane , and then sat in my aisle seat next to a young couple who live in Joliet.

I survive the trip. I’m happy to be home. Yet part of me always longs for Vermont.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Unintended Consequences

Please click comment at the bottom of the blog and respond. Let me and other readers know what you think.

When I lay awake this morning around five, trying to go back to sleep, thinking about what I was going to write this week, I had a great idea about how we humans create our own problems, mostly because we choose what’s worst for us instead of what’s best.

I fell back asleep again, woke around seven, and lost the polished essay I was going to write here today. Coleridge, likewise in a dream created Kubla Khan, the poem that begins:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

I don’t have his opium problem, thank goodness, and this is close to what I meant to write:

We too often forget the best in ourselves and make decisions based on the moment and what feels immediately good instead of what will be best for us in the long run.

I do this every day when I vow to go to the gym tomorrow. Tomorrow of course, seldom comes.

I was struck by an article in this week’s Economist ("Lexington," June 16, 2007, p. 42) that says politicians are the worst at making bad decisions because the electorate is ill informed and will turn on them any moment. The article says, for example, that productivity is better for the economy than jobs, but the electorate doesn't believe it. Politicians don't want to be defeated so they go along. The article gives the example of the Chinese building a dam under Mao. Hundreds of workers dig with shovels. An economist asks, “‘Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?’ ‘That would put people out of work,’ replies the foreman. ‘Oh,” says the economist, ‘I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.’” Our politicians do the same thing, bowing to popular support and ill-informed citizens who dine on a diet of Paris Hilton and her ilk, rather than thinking deeply about the world they live in. I hasten to add that the media all too often feeds the public a mindless diet rather than challenge them to think.

When electronic technology didn’t exist and people got their news from print media, however, they were probably no more thoughtful.

The upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere is littered with detritus left for the last half century by various nations’ space programs. Will this eventually cause problems? Most likely.

Hundreds of people each day divorce because they married the person who was closest, the most willing, the easiest, the most convenient at the time. The grief for the partners, let alone their children, is tragic.

Thousands of people are killed each year in automobile accidents. Many of those who cause the deaths have been drinking. Others are too old to be competent behind the wheel, but no one is willing to remove their car keys from them. It's not expedient.

Our nation too often feeds children fast food (high in corn syrup and salt and grease and sugar) rather than take the few minutes more to wash fresh fruit or vegetables. Or be a “bad guy.” School lunch programs count ketchup as a vegetable per federal guidelines. An in-law’s niece has refused all her life to eat anything but hot dogs or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and she's now ten. No juice, no fruit, and certainly nothing green. The parents, rather than being in charge, take have created a monster. They also home-school, so at least the little girl is seldom inflicted on society at large. The path of least resistance, once again.

I don’t have a solution for our nation or our planet. But I do have a solution for me, which is to live mindfully, of course, and try to be constantly aware of the law of unintended consequences.

And if I can accomplish this just ten percent of the time, I’ll be doing better than I have in the past.

By the way, I'll be out of town next week, so check out my blog in two weeks.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Marrying the Unknown

I invite you to click comments at the end of this piece, and contribute your thoughts.

When I was in high school I crewed one summer on a Lightning class sailboat in Lake Decatur for a neighbor, one of the angriest men I ever met.

We practiced evenings during the week and raced on Saturdays. We waited at one end of the lake, watched the smoke from the gun and then hear the shot that started the race. I loved skimming across the water of the lake. When the wind caught the sails, Hawley sat at the rudder, held the mainsail line, and managed the centerboard which kept the boat from sliding sideways across the lake. He must have had three hands.

I scurried to do his bidding. I was thin then, and young and agile. With the centerboard deep in the water and the wind pushing against the sails, the boat sometimes lay almost perpendicular to the water. And I sat on the high side, my feet wedged so I wouldn’t fall out, and leaned back as far as I could to keep the boat from going completely over. At other times I managed the jib. It was glorious.

Hawley was the first person who ever swore at me, and he berated me on a consistent, regular basis. I became “too busy” the next summer to crew for him.

And that is probably a tragedy because I didn’t understand the source of his anger. I’m not sure I do now, but I have a better idea. I was the immediate target, but Hawley, I suspect, felt life conspired against him to make him miserable. His only joy was that sailboat, flying across the water, taking him out of his life for a little while.

Hawley and his wife had no children. He was ex-military, and I remember he kept a bottle in the garage where he worked on his boat during the winter.

His wife, whose name I can’t remember, had multiple sclerosis. What I do remember about her is her brittle movements, her unsteadiness, her eventual cane, her gradual decline. And the explosive screaming that came from their house more and more often until they moved. She went to a nursing home or died, I’m not sure which, and he sold the house.

MS manifests itself usually between the late twenties and forty in most people, and Hawley and his wife were long married before she became ill. The drugs available now weren’t available 50 years ago.

A friend’s wife has MS and he handles the disease much differently. Karen takes very good care of herself, and has found help in meditation and diet as well as medication. But she is now pretty much incapacitated and wheel-chair bound.

Stan has the means to hire care for her, and he treats her with kindness. But he also gets away and has time for himself. He travels to visit old friends abroad and occasionally travels east to visit us in the Chicago burbs. While he was here several years ago, he asked our permission to have a girlfriend. He’s still the sunny side of fifty, after all.

We couldn’t give Stan that permission. But we couldn’t deny it, either. It’s not up to us. No doubt he’s found comfort in another woman’s arms, and I can’t hold it against him. Karen’s mind still works, but her body has conspired to imprison her.

Would either Hawley or Stan have married their wives if they had known about the disease? I can’t answer for either of them. And I don’t know that I would have married Ann if I had known she had a chronic debilitating disease. She doesn’t, thank God. Stan and Hawley stayed with their wives in sickness and their health. That’s the honorable, manly, courageous way to act.

But the toll it has taken on their lives cannot be dismissed.

Now, a dear friend has had an “episode” that may signal MS. It is a difficult disease to diagnose, and there are many symptoms that mimic other conditions. (Even Dr. House would have difficulty. Of course, he always almost kills his patients before he saves them. I’m not sure I’d want him to be my diagnostician.) Diagnosis of MS involves two episodes at least a month apart, MRI’s, eleventy other tests, and waiting. And at this point our friend hasn’t had a second episode.

We hope desperately that our friend’s first episode was something else. Like stress. Or exhaustion, or – we don’t know what else. And in the meanwhile there is little we can do.

Except pray for her. Please join us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Treason in America

Please feel free to click on comments beneath each entry and share your thoughts.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby has been convicted of perjury for lying to a grand jury over a period of time about the revealing of Valerie Plame’s name as a CIA operative.

Vice President Cheney is “saddened” by the verdict, and tells us what a great guy Scooter is. Where are Cheney’s standards? Is perjury no longer against the law, Mr. Vice President?

Pressure is on President Bush to pardon the poor man. A White House spokesman reports that the president will not pardon poor Scooter “at this time,” leaving the option open for later, perhaps when the president's approval ratings rise above twenty-five percent. In the meanwhile, Scooter is asking to remain at large while he appeals his sentence of a little over two years - and Cheney declares there should be a retrial.

Both scandal-ridden World Bank boss Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, fired as Bush’s Secretary of Defense after his strategy failed in Iraq, wrote letters asking for leniency. What chutzpah! That’s like Medea (who killed her children to spite Jason) applying to be a foster parent or Jeffrey Dahmer battling against Hannibal Lector on Top Chef. On the other hand, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld both became fall guys for the administration and they might think that lends their voices credibility.

And after all, poor Scooter has suffered public humiliation. Scooter gave his life to the Republican Party and became the current fall guy for the administration’s utter contempt for the Constitution. Isn’t that enough?

Outing a CIA agent is treason, by law. When did treason become a misdemeanor? And why did we Americans permit the current Gang In Power (GOP? - oops, wrong vowel) to form a Good Old Pols (there it is, GOP) group that acts with reckless disregard for the country – as long as their own interests thrive?

In the last election in Illinois fewer than 20 % of registered voters went to the polls. Translated to eligible voters, the percentage drops dramatically. Why the apathy? Some people don’t register to vote so they won’t be called for jury duty, which could well cause financial hardship. In Cook County, jurors can be assigned to courts two hours from their homes and be taken from their work. If they work by the hour and don’t get paid if they don’t show up, the $17.20 per diem stipend can send them into a life on the streets.

Others don’t vote because they despair that the political parties act only to further the interests of the parties, not the country as a whole. And they’re partly right. After the promises not to attach pork barrel amendments to important legislation, the Democrats continue the path of their opponents. Who wouldn’t despair? When party agendas become so important, the country suffers. Look around.
But the 80+% who chose not to vote in the last election have abrogated their responsibility to the few, the ones who feel strongly about government, too often the ones who believe the Bill of Rights is outdated, that freedom of speech should be limited, that the separation of church and state should be abolished and a theocracy formed (it works well in Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t it?), and that the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” means that every citizen, regardless of competence, should be forced to carry.

I voted in the last election, and I hasten to add that most of my fellow citizens who also voted still believe in the Bill of Rights, despite the Patriot Act’s attempts to crush it.

The problem with the current administration is that they talk long and loud about a strong America, free from attack. Yet at the same time they preach hate and fear and form policies that create new attackers. How many more times can the president cite September 11, 2001, as the reason for whatever off-the-cuff policy he proposes this time?

If we really believe in a strong America, we must demand that the people who revealed Valerie Plame’s CIA connection be tried for treason. If that’s Cheney, tough. President Clinton was impeached for lying about a blow job, but no one seems to think Bush’s or Cheney’s or any of their advisors’ behavior is worth looking into.

We must take America back. We must begin once again to uphold standards of law and the Constitution. If we fail to do so, a free United States of America could cease to exist. And we may well find ourselves rebelling against another King George.