Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Environmental Atrocities of Bush...

I'm a big believer in karma, and one reason for that is that I see it coming back to me. I used to be one of those annoying people (maybe I still am!) who would make a controversial statement in a way that implied that it was a position with which everyone already agreed. I did this on purpose, almost to bully the listener into agreeing with me. Today, visiting Andrea's sister, I happened to be the one who had to answer the door to a person who was going door to door trying to get people to write letters about the "Bush administration's latest environmental atrocities."

To me, an atrocity involves bodies stacked up in a gymnasium, machine guns, and mass graves hidden deep in the countryside. I don't mean that Bush has been good for the environment. I just mean that this hyperbole isn't helping anyone. There's similar hyperbole on both sides about the Social Security privatization bill.

I think that there is huge frustration with the political discourse in this country, and I think I know why. It's that so much is made of so little. Every controversy has to have a hero and a villain. It's not enough to just disagree with Bush's environmental position. We have to paint him as evil, and worse, we have to find some special interest group that's responsible for his position and make sure everyone knows they are evil too.

I just want to say that Bill O'Reilly is one of my heros these days. Not because I agree with anything he says, or even because I like him. The reason he's my hero is that he has a bullshit detector a mile wide, and he uses it to out people who don't have the courage of their convictions. Instead of seeing him as a villian, we should see him as a teacher. When I was in Minneapolis for IETF, I watched a couple of his shows. It was very interesting.

it turns out that there's a movement now to inform high school students of what it's like to go to war - to prepare them so that when they hear the sales job that the military recruiters give them, they won't fall for it. So Bill got two folks who are involved in that movement up on the show. One of them is a high school teacher. Bill asked him (paraphrasing, because I have a lousy memory), "so are you saying that kids shouldn't serve in the military?" "No, I don't mean *that*!" "Okay, so we need volunteers in our volunteer army, right?" "That's not the point." "Okay, so don't you think that you're harming the country by discouraging kids from doing their duty, by telling them what military service is like?"

At this point I'm thinking the words I want to hear from this high school teacher: "Bill, are you really saying that we should lie to our children to get them to go to war for us?" Bill handed it to him like a straight line. But he was trying to avoid taking a positive stance against military recruiting, so he just let Bill keep beating him up until they ran out of time.

What's the common element here? A lack of willingness to state the truth when it's uncomfortable. We all do it. We're afraid that people will think badly of us. But what winds up happening is that they do in fact think badly of us, because we didn't speak the truth as we saw it, and they can see us doing that. This is why the "flipflop" epithet sticks so successfully. Instead of trying to just be honest, we try to manage the message. This is how we wind up with environmental atrocities, I think.

The fact is that I have no idea what the details are of most of the things we hear about in the news. I don't know how many people have been killed in Iraq. I don't know whether Iraqis are better off now than they were before we shocked and awed them. I don't know whether privatising social security is a tremendously bad idea, or just a somewhat scary idea that could turn out badly. I have no idea what George Bush's intentions are. Why? Because we do not have a political discourse that is based on trying to get at the truth. There is no debate. There is simply the position that Bush is Good, and the position that Bush is Evil, and a lot of long, loud, strident diatribes from both sides espousing one of these two positions. We can't possibly hope to get anything good out of this battle of the diatribes. And I can't really do anything about this problem by adding my ignorant voice to the other ignorant and learned voices screaming "atrocity" at one another.

So what I need to do is to do my best to tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me, and to try to help people to understand each other when I see them having problems understanding each other.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

New York

I was watching a TV show tonight - I'm in a hotel in Minneapolis trying to do something meaningful for the good of the Internet, so I have cable, which is unusual for me. The TV show was about someone who couldn't deal with the aftermath of losing his wife when the twin towers went down, and the hijinx that ensued.

I had a thought. I'm not sure what to make of it. The thought was, "I'm not a good enough person to live in New York." Weird, huh?

When I was a kid, I lived in the country, in the boondocks, and I went to New York once for a protest against cruise missiles. This was during the cold war, when we were afraid that cruise missiles would destabilize the situation in Europe. Weird thing to look back on, considering how it all came out, and the horrible *other* things they're doing with cruise missiles now.

Anyway, when I came to New York that time, I thought New York was something like hell on earth. You have to understand, I grew up surrounded by greenery. My eyes were not accustomed to finding beauty in the visual gibberish that is the city of New York. To me it looked like a place that was falling apart, and that could only be full of misery.

The truth is that when I was there, in 1982, New York wasn't in great shape, and there was a lot of misery there. Really, there's misery everywhere, so New York can't be an exception. But then life happened, and I spent a bunch of years on the west coast, in pursuit of some kind of happiness - a house in San Francisco, a real lasting relationship with an interesting woman, a successful career.

The house turned out to be a lesson in the origin of the word "mortgage." Death. The relationship wasn't good for either of us. A visit to a good friend in New York, whom I do not see enough of anymore, led me to thinking that maybe there was something good about New York, and my eyes were a little bit adjusted to the visual jumble of a city after so much time away from the soil. So when my life in San Francisco blew up in my face, I moved to New York.

I lived there for a year and a half. Wonderful things happened there. My life blew up a second time, but in a good way this time. I wound up having to leave, to live in Bisbee, Arizona, to pursue what I had begun to see as a meaningful direction in my life. In Bisbee, I met my wife. We now live in Tucson. Tucson is wonderful. I am happy to be living there.

But there is something about New York that still draws me. It's not an unkind thing - not the pain of withdrawal. It's more that when I see New York, there is something vivid about it, something true, that I miss. There is something about New York that is paradise. Most of us see New York only on TV, in TV shows like the one I saw tonight, with the caring hostage negotiator, the gruff cop, the pampered yuppie. I got to see a different New York when I lived there.

New York is nothing like what you see on TV. Sex and the City shows a tiny piece of a bit of a scene that some New Yorkers live in, so in that sense it's true to life, but it doesn't give you a feel for what it's like to breathe the air of New York as your own. I lived near the World Trade Center towers when I was in New York. I used to shop in the mall underneath the towers. I would go there in the morning, to Ecce Panis, to get a cheese brioche to go with the coffee I brewed at home.

The walk would go like this: I'd put on my overcoat, take the elevator downstairs, step out onto the sidewalk. The wind would be blowing down Greenwich street toward me. I'd walk by the Deutsche Bank building, and see all the people inside at the little corporate cafeteria there. I'd walk further up the street, past the local grocery store, with the too-expensive food. Usually I wouldn't see very many people. But then I'd walk in to the World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center, in addition to being a very tall pair of towers, was a center of transportation - the PATH train from New Jersey dumped its passengers into a station underneath the towers, and they would then walk up into the mall under the towers to go either to their places of work in the towers, on Wall Street, or whatever, or they would cross into the Metro station and take a train uptown or across to Brooklyn to go to work.

It's impossible to describe the feeling of that crossroads under the towers. I would walk in, chilled to the bone from the winter wind, past the HMV record store, into the underground plaza. A wave of people would be walking up from PATH trains. Try to picture it: I'm not talking about a line, or a column. Imagine if you had a cup of water, and a large bowl, and you held the cup of water above the bowl, and suddenly upended it, so that the water all came out of the cup at once, in a ball, and fell into the bowl all at once. It was like that. The people were the ball of water, and the PATH train escalators were the center of the bowl, and this happened continuously during rush hour - there was no sense of pulsing. It was just a steady flow. And this was not a small plaza - it was probably half the size of a city block. And nobody bumped into anyone else, there was never a voice raised, as I walked directly through this flow of people to my own destination and back there was never a moment of discomfort or a feeling of me being in the way or them being in the way. We just flowed through each other, like water does.

Having that many people all in one place is something that, if you have never experienced it, is hard to imagine. If you live in Claremore, you just can't imagine it. If you live in Northfield, you can't imagine it. You have to go there, and experience it. If you open yourself to the experience, I can't imagine that you could be other than moved by it.

These are the people that the hatred of Osama's pals was focused on. These are the people that the misunderstanding of much of the United States is focused on. The place they live is very different than the place I live, and I live in a city. It's even more different than the place where I grew up, in the middle of nowhere.

I think it's hard for people who live outside of New York to understand it. We think that the people are somehow different, harder, corrupt, something like that. The aren't. The people I met in New York were as kind as any Tucsonan, as kind as anyone I know in Claremore, as kind as anyone I know in Northfield. They are good people. They are not the people you see acted out on TV, except for a tiny few, whom you never meet on the streets of New York.

And a remarkable number of people in New York are wise, and thoughtful, and sensible. They don't understand what it's like to live in a place where most of the living beings near you are cows, it's true, and sometimes that comes out as misunderstandings with the people who do live near cows. But New Yorkers, from deep in the blue zone, have more in common with the rest of the country than they or the people in the rest of the country know.

I wish... I don't know what I wish. It sounds so hackneyed and cliched to wish that we could all be friends. And that's not precisely what I wish. But it's something like that.

Sunday, March 06, 2005


Andrea and I live in a new development in Tucson called Armory Park del Sol. It's a really neat, innovative development - the houses are very energy efficient (the builder recently won a national award!). A lot of thought has been given to water conservation, and renewable energy, and all sorts of neat stuff like that. And the houses are really, really nice.

So Andrea and I went over to the sales office, which is two doors down, yesterday, so that I could bum a free soda. They're very nice about that. We talked a bit with one of the nice people there about the interesting color that our neighbors chose to paint their house - she was worried that we might think it was too strong. Of course, our house is bright purple, so it would really be hard for us to complain, and in fact we do like the neighbor's house color. We're a bit concerned about the house on the other side, which is going to be much less bright, but there's no accounting for taste.

Anway, we're walking home, up the walk to our house, and a homeless couple walks by on the sidewalk. My mind does an interesting dance - there's the subroutine that tries to be kind and respectful to people who live on the streets, so as not to compound their alienation. That part nods politely to them. Then there's the part that feels like it's incredibly unfair that we have a really nice house, and there are people living on the streets. That part kind of cringes. Normally I don't have to have both parts in my mind at the same time.

I have a friend who just moved out of a seven thousand square foot house. We'd never been to her house, and she didn't tell us what it was like until after she'd left, because we had naively expressed our embarrassment at being in such a nice two thousand square foot house. Our house is quite small by modern Tucson standards.

Andrea and I would actually have preferred a much smaller house, except that we have a lot of friends who are itinerant - not forced to be homeless, but who travel so much that any place they rented or bought they'd live in maybe three or four months a year, so they just couch surf. They tend to descend on us in a horde for five weeks, and then vanish into the wind, only to return a few months later for a repeat performance. It's nice to have them visit, and also difficult.

I have another friend who just sent me email from the Yucatan. Her priority in life is not to have a place to stay, although I think she'd rather have one than not - she's an artist, and likes to paint. She housesits sometimes, and lives in her microbus other times. She frustrates me, because I find her priorities hard to fathom, but I do admire her complete lack of regard for the future, in the sense that she simply doesn't get attached to where the next place to stay is going to be, and this frees her to go to places that I would probably never go. I don't see myself going to the Yucatan anytime soon.

So what's my point? I'm just trying to frame the problem. If you look at the problems that we get upset about as a culture, this one isn't even on the horizon. I don't mean this to make anyone feel guilty - it's just a question. How many people had to die for us to launch a war? How many people die on the street with no roof over their heads? How many people drowned the day after Christmas? Who is the enemy, and how do we fight?

A huge number of people in this country profess that Jesus is their savior. What did he say about how to treat those who harm us? What did he say about how to treat those in need whom we do not know? Why do people listen to those who claim to represent Jesus, but whose words bear no resemblance at all to his words? Who praise Jesus all the time, but don't seem to know anything about Jesus but his name?

Saturday, March 05, 2005


This is what it's all about.