Saturday, June 26, 2010

America's Bleeding Ulcers

That's how Stanley McChrystal described the aftermath of his recent campaign in Marjah: a "bleeding ulcer." Even the General himself does not count Marjah as a win for our side. So our country now has two open sores, both potentially lethal, to contend with: the war in Afghanistan, which after ten years of bleeding men and resources, we are STILL losing, and the oil spill, which continues to make its suffocating assault on the Gulf.

This week, however, the story of the wrenching separation of Stan McChyrstal from his job as commander-in-chief of the war in Afghanistan managed to temporarily upstage the news from the hemorrhaging Gulf. The question on everybody's mind was, what on earth prompted McChyrstal, who is no dummy and certainly knows the unbending rules of military protocol, to diss his civilian counterparts in Washington and to allow his aides to make mocking comments about them to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine? Didn't he realize that the sarcastic little caper might just cost him his job? Well, it seems that McChrystal and his aides and the reporter were all stranded for a week in Paris because of volcanic ash, and they ended up carousing together, while waiting for a plane to get them to Berlin, en route back to Afghanistan. Paris is not exactly a beloved haven for military jocks. And make no mistake, unlike David Petraeus, McChrystal IS a jock. Petraeus, by contrast, is much more politically refined and savvy. Both are good at what they do.

So, was this a deliberate and calculated insubordination by McChrystal and his gang, or was it merely (as David Brooks suggested in one of his recent columns), the sort of barracks-style "kvetching" that soldiers routinely engage in, admittedly usualy below anyone else's radar? Brooks feels that we just lost a good man because of our "culture of exposure," which has become more obsessed with inner soap operas than with job performance. The media circus has compromised our privacy, he claims, chased good people from public life, and most of all, it has elevated the trivial over the important.

Is that the simple explanation for what happened? if McChrystal is right about Afghanistan really being a bleeding ulcer, then perhaps he did not want to be officer-in-chief of a doomed enterprise. This was always supposed to be "our last. best shot," according to Obama, when he sent McChrystal in to take charge of the COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy, and so far at least, it isn't working. You may have noticed, if you follow these things, that the big summer offensive in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, has been "postponed" until Fall. We'll have to see if it happens then, or not.

Generals don't like to lose wars. It is not far-fetched to think that perhaps at some level. McChrystal wanted to be relieved of responsibility, so as not to be blamed for the inevitable defeat. I've always thought he seemed like a neat guy, so I'm sorry to see him go--though obviously, we should all be going along with him. Maybe he can take up knitting for a while--nothing permanent, you understand.

As for the other, ever-advancing, bleeding ulcer in the Gulf, on June 25th the US government doubled its official estimate of the amount of oil spewing to 2.5 million gallons/day, or the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill every four days. Five thousand feet beneath the surface of sea a bizarre scenario continues to play out. Fourteen submersible robots work day and night to help contain the leak. The video cameras of the gushing hole are attached to them. They are pilot-operated by men in special recliners sitting on land and using eleven monitors, DVD video recorders, a sonar screen, and joysticks they can move around. The robots help to hook up fluid connectiors, hoses and plumbing, install new oil recovery systems, and build the relief wells. All fodder for the next James Cameron film or video game producer. The robots also collect data and monitor the scene, but they cannot work in hurricanes. According to a super user on Huffington Post, once the borehole collapses--which every expert says is what is actually happening--it won't matter how many robots you have or whether relief wells are drilled or not.

On a more jolly note, I went to see The Karate Kid last week. It's really good, and the scenes in the middle of the movie where Jackie Chan takes the kid to a Buddhist temple high up on a mountain in China are truly extraordinary. As a former tai chi practitioner (for ten years, I was mesmerized by the woman standing in one-legged crane pose on the claw of a stone dragon located at the edge of a cliff--while simultaneously hyponotizing a live cobra. Any mistake or startle, and she would either be bitten by the cobra, or fall a million miles down the mountain. That scene alone was worth the whole movie. It should become the inspirational logo for our terrible times.

My friend Bill Rutherfoord writes in response: "Well, I think it's clear that neither Obama nor anyone else can convincingly pretend the damage in the Gulf region is reversible, and I agree with you that the near term I expect to see conditions dramatically worsen, and like it or not, for some, crane pose on a precipice may be the best available prescription for concentrating the mind in our present eco-apocalyptic game of Stare Down the Cobra."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Artists Boycott BP Support of Tate Gallery in UK

I've been asked by my friend in England, James Marriott of PLATFORM, a collaborative Arts Organization that has worked for many years on projects to stop harmful extraction practices by BP and Shell Oil in the Niger Delta and the Canadian tar sands, to inform my artist friends and blog followers of their current protest action. It is directed towards halting cultural institutions like the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery from accepting corporate support from these companies in the future. If you are interested in participating, you can check out their website for more info. PLATFORM will be publishing a letter in The Guardian, which you are invited by James to sign. If you would like to sign on to this letter, to be published on June 28th, please email


Dear Suzi,

Next Monday, the Tate will celebrate 20 years of BP sponsorship at an exclusive summer party, The Guardian reports today. BP executives will enjoy cocktails with curators and artists at the Tate Britain, even as crude oil continues to wreak havoc on the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, Platform launches ‘licence to spill’, a new publication that explains why we think cultural sponsorship by oil companies like BP and Shell is unacceptable.

Faced with the devastating impacts of oil extraction on rights, the environment and climate change, the Tate and other major cultural players are turning a blind eye.

This summer, the Tate has the chance to re-consider their deal with BP – details of which have been kept a secret. Public scrutiny and pressure will be a decisive factor in their decisions. You can email your opposition to BP's sponsorship of the Tate to:

Nicholas Serota (Head of Tate)
Penelope Curtis (Head of Tate Britain)
Judith Nesbitt (Chief Curator at Tate Britain)
Rebecca Williams (Head of Department - Tate)

Please copy in on any correspondence.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How to Make an Orange Alligator Smile

A few things nudged my ailing, embattled, Gulf-oil-syndrome soul towards good cheer this past week. One was hearing my favorite song in the world on a homemade CD that John, visiting me on Sunday from Boone, brought with him as a present: For some reason, the lyrics and melody of "Lady in Red" light up my heart like no other--and I had not heard it in a very long time. Now I own it, and could easily play it for you right now, if you were here. [Illustration: "Lady in Red," painting by VJ Helm]

The second bright moment was seeing the new film "Babies," directed by Chris de Burgh. For immediate raising up from the dead, I recommend this hilarious movie. Enjoy the African baby, Ponijao from Namibia, who happily drinks from a mud puddle, while Hattie, the baby from San Francisco, participates in her mother's yoga class, and the Mongolian baby, Bayarjargal, drags his prone but patient cat on a string across the floor of the family yurt. The film follows four babies around the world from their birth through their first year. There is no dialogue, but it's an opportunity for unremitting laughter, and I frequently howled. This was a welcome change from weeping.

Then came my chance discovery during the week of a poem in the New Yorker, which spoke directly to my emotional state when I found it:


To live each day as if it might be the last
Is an injunction that Marcus Aurelius
Inscribes in his journal to remind himself
That he, too, however privileged, is mortal,
That whatever bounty is destined to reach him
Has reach him already, many times.
But if you take his maxim too literally
And devote your mornings to tinkering with your will,
Your afternoons and evenings to saying farewell
To friends and family, you'll come to regret it.
Soon your lawyer won't fit you into his schedule.
Soon your dear ones will hide in a closet
When they hear your heavy step on the porch.
And then your house will slide into disrepair.
If this is my last day, you'll say to yourself,
Why waste time sealing drafts in the window frames
Or cleaning gutters or patching the driveway?
If you don't want your heirs to curse the day
You first opened Marcus's journals,
Take him simply to mean you should find an hour
Each day to pay a debt or forgive one,
Or write a letter of thanks or apology.
No shame in leaving behind some evidence
You were hoping to live beyond the moment.
No shame in a ticket to a concert seven months off,
Or, better yet, two tickets, as if you were hoping
To meet by then someone who would love to join you,
Two seats near the front so you can catch each note.
--By Carl Dennis

In my local paper, an essay by a writer, Linda Hopkins, who lives in the Appalachian mountains of Stuart, VA, expresses exactly what I am feeling:

"...I wake up to this darkness every day--I feel it coming closer and though the oil were flowing into my back yard. There are times it overpowers all my thoughts...Now when I look at any unsullied seashore, I see those grim images [in the news] and can no longer view it without a vision of the oil hell of the Gulf of Mexico...People tell me to turn away from the news when I tell them how it upsets me. But I must watch, I am part of this tragedy being played out. Because I drive a car, use gas and oil in myriad ways. I have been complicit in the making of this undersea monster. To look away would be the act of a coward."

It's hard to look, and very hard not to look. Meanwhile today, U.S. scientists have significantly boosted their estimate of how much oil is leaking into the Gulf. I just listened to President Obama's crisis speech delivered at 8pm from the Oval office. It lasted exactly twenty minutes. Not one word said about plugging the well or stopping the spill. They were the words of a man who still has not yet looked the Medusa in the face. It's as if. after your favorite Grandma has died, the doc were to try to reassure you by saying, "We are doing everything we can to bring her back from the dead, and we won't stop until we succeed."
Would you believe him?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Orange Alligator and the Black Tide: Day Fifty

A fisherman from Louisiana breaks down and weeps on TV, as he tries to talk about the devastation in the Gulf. BP's Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles repeatedly insists that no massive underwater oil plumes in "large concentrations" have been detected. But a report on Greenwire states that researchers aboard the F.G. Walton Smith vessel on a two-week cruise traced an underwater oil plume 15 miles wide, 3 miles long and about 600 feet thick. The plume's core is 1,100 to 1,300 meters below the surface, they said.

A professor of English at a college in W. Va., just back from a trip to visit his daughter, who is a student of Marine Hydrography at the University of Southern Mississippi, writes an essay about his visit there, published in my local paper. He begins his article with this paragraph: "In one climactic scene in the disaster film "2012," thousands stand numb, disbelieving and helpless in a collective embrace, as a giant, crushing tsunami approaches. On a visceral level, that's the impression I have of the northern Gulf Coast region." Talking later with a group of researchers from USM, he finds all of their comments to be remarkably consistent: once the oil hits the unprotected and vulnerable marshes, bayous, and estuaries, the obliteration of the eco-systems will be irreversible.

In a neighboring column on the same page, that oft-ridiculous syndicated columnist and right-winger, Cal Thomas, produces yet another rant declaring that the evidence for the "myth of global warming," or climate change, is "sinking with a greater force than melting icebergs, if they were melting, which many believe they are not." Thomas considers the idea of human activity warming the planet has never had a real consensus anyway. To quote his precise opinion on the matter: "Most of us may not have gotten an 'A' in science, but we can sense when we are being bamboozled." For this unadulterated claptrap, Thomas actually receives a salary.

Meanwhile, as I catch momentary glimpses of the underwater BP videocam on TV, it is obvious to me that the flow of oil has doubled since a twisted riser was cut off last week to provide better access to the pipe. It becomes harder and harder to comprehend what conditions will be like by the end of the summer.

The photo shown above is of an AP photographer journalist, Rick Matthews, as he jumps into the Gulf for a few minutes some forty miles off-shore, in order to take photos. Within five seconds he was unable to see anything. "The only thing I see is oil," he reported. "The oil is so thick and sticky almost like cake batter. It does not wipe off...I think to myself: no fish, no bird, no turtle would ever be able to clean this off themselves."

Think of this as an oil tsunami, in slow motion. that seems to be dividing the world up between people who are feeling like they've been blowtorched, and people who are going about their business as usual and still enjoying life.

"I've been reading your blog." writes an artist friend in New York, Angela Manno. "I completely resonate with your fears and woes, however I am incapable of putting a lid on it. It seems everyone I speak to is pissed off, frightened and aware of the severity of the situation. And if not, they are willing to listen. I suppose I'm lucky in this regard. But then, I'm living in NYC and hang out with Quakers. I'm sure this will change when I go to Colorado in another month. They live in a bubble and don't want it to burst. They are a lot happier, though. . . "

Her email continues: "I spent the afternoon yesterday writing about the hemorrhage in the Gulf and crying to the point where I had to do something to take the edge off -- I had no pain killers in the apartment so I went out for a drink. What's more, I too wrote a review of Bill McKibbin's Eaarth, for the Quaker environmental Journal, "Befriending Creation," that I write for on occasion. There's some kind of alchemy that has gone on between reading it, the gusher in the Gulf and my psyche. I feel the need to do something and at the same time feel helpless. I thought about going down to help and then thought of the toxic situation and what will happen when a hurricane brings all that poison inland and destroys people's drinking water and turns everything black...I have so much to say about this. I am trying to create a blog and to submit my thoughts to other venues. I don't know how it can help, but perhaps it will help this headache."

I'm more than willing to share my blog, if it is useful to folks like Angela.

"One thing [more] I'd like to comment on," Angela writes, "is the discussion of 2012 and how this event relates: We know everything in nature has a function -- we breathe out CO2 and plants breathe it in. One creature's waste is another's food. What is the function of the oil reserves where they are, undisturbed? Amazingly, no ecologist can say. To my mind, the enormous pressure these veins of oil are under might maintain a kind of balance with all the mass (and all its pressure) that is above them. Empty them out and could we be looking at a massive collapse of the land masses? Did that sink hole in Ecuador have anything to do with the Deepwater Horizon incident?"

"The Hopi," she goes on, "have prophesied that as we near the Day of Purification, 'You will hear of the sea turning black, and many living things dying because of it.' Can there be any doubt that this is what sensitive people feel deep in their guts, that we are approaching the time when a critical mass of offenses against the Earth will manifest and, in an instant. wipe us off the planet?...Perhaps the most disturbing thing that I read in Eaarth was getting clear about the missed opportunity we had 40 years ago to pre-empt what has befallen this beautiful Earth. That the Club of Rome and E.F. Schumacher and Carter and the majority of Americans agreed with limiting growth. And then the Powell Memo changed it all. And the lies kept on coming and they have changed policy and Congress and public opinion and the courts and the schools and the media and our very synaptic connections. Right up to the present where Larry Summers, Obama’s chief economic advisor can state: 'There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.' "

So that's who's running the show, according to Angela. And that's why we cower in an attic waiting, waiting. "I suppose I should find the right fiddle. Or become a combatant in what Quakers call 'the Lamb's War.' ”

It seems that the border between normality and hysteresis is invisible until you find yourself on the wrong side of it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A New Virgil Arrives on a Beam of Venusian Light

It is now six weeks since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The combined "top kill" and "junk shot" operations have both officially failed, and BP itself seems about to go down as well. Who will pay for and carry on the clean-up if that happens? The U.S. Justice Department has announced the launch of a criminal investigation into the cause(s) if the spill, having discovered that BP alone is responsible for 97% of safety violations in the industry. (Exxon for instance, has only one.) BP has now lost $75 billion in market value, and oil has begun to reach the shores of Mississippi and Alabama, and is currently edging into the Florida Panhandle. The nightmare continues.

I had another flash-fractal moment on Saturday night as I was dining out in a Japanese restaurant with my friends Roger and his lady, Barbara. Roger is an extremely jolly, convivial member of my salon, who loves to eat and drink and laugh. He proceeded to order two "Blue Lagoon" cocktails in a row. They were very blue, and I could not stop my mind from musing that this had to be the most ironic drink of the century--soon to be the only blue lagoon (nicely decorated in this case with slices of green lime and orange) left to us after everything else has been permeated with oil.

"Cut and Cap," the latest strategy to saw off a portion of the leaking pipe, install a new cap, and then pump some of the oil onto a ship, has run into a glitch: the diamond-edged saw being used for the sawing got stuck in the pipe. A pair of giant shears have been comandeered to replace it. "There may be trouble ahead," as Fred Astaire sang to Ginger Rogers during the 1930s Depression, so "let's face the music and dance." My job, it seems, is to lighten up. If this weren't so menacing, so appallingly tragic, it would make for some wonderful slapstick comedy, with BP playing Charlie Chaplin's part, or maybe the Marx Brothers.

Saturday also brought the arrival by post of a newly published book by my old friend, Stephanie Mills, an environmental writer: "On Gandhi's Path: Bob Swann's Work for Peace and Community Economics." It was accompanied by a 3-page letter. Stephanie, it seems, is as distressed by the dramaturgy of the Gulf as I am. "Today," she wrote, "in anticipation of writing you, I caught up with Virgil a little bit, and much appreciated your weighing the pros and cons of disregarding the awful news. Little Miss Eco-Bummer here hasn't been winning any popularity contests with talk of the Gulf oil spill...Indeed I kind of threw myself out of a tea party this afternoon when my girlfriends kept trying to forestall my lamentations...with encomia about how shifting focus and positive attitudes worked wonders for their bad moods. I should quit trying to inflict my dire prognosis on innocent supper companions and let them get on with enjoying their lives. Even though I'm drawn to the worst news like a moth to a flame, it is not a kindness--nor even constructive--to pass it along." It was great to reconnect and resonate with an old friend and colleague who is as distressed as I am.

On Sunday, my friend Jane arrived for a visit with her son. Emerson, bringing with her a gift of the most take-one's-breath-away, stylish, cute, kissable, resplendent alligator addition to the Virgil family (see photo above). Readers will be familiar with my reliance on synchronicity as a trigger for what I need to write about next. Its spectacular contrast to Orange Alligator-- burning out his circuits over the oil spill's cascading effects now permanently disturbing the relations between earth, water, plants, animals, and people--heralded the need for a change of mood. I understood the theme of needing to lighten up even before I found myself inexplicably reading an essay by Lucien Steil (in American Arts Quarterly) about the metaphysical archeology of LIGHTHOUSES.

According to this stunning writer, lighthouses can be seen as potential guardian angels watching over the coordination of the poles and nodes of the world. Lighthouses are markers of resistance and faith against the forces of darkness and dissolution, vitaI lamps of beauty, reason, harmony, wisdom, strength, safeguarding us in a world of dangerous chaos. While civilization is being critically threatened, Steil proposes, lighthouses can inspire us to encompass beauty and harmony in our actions and our works.

As "axis mundi," a monumental magic candle stretching between the volcanic fires of earth and the incandescent light of the sky, lighthouses serve in balancing and controlling the integrity and constancy of telluric fields and geodesic centers of land, sea, and sky. Steil even likens them to compassionate hermits who, by the power of their prayers and thoughts, attract beauty and love and are expressive of cosmic coordination.

"Their express purpose is to carry light in the most remarkable and visible manner, so that even distant ships can be warned or guided. Even through the darkest nights, through the most opaque and starless universe, heavy storms and fogs, the lighthouse's warm and familiar signals can be perceived," the author writes.

Something about this essay seems to conjure an atmosphere of the world as a benevolent place--offering the lighthouse as a symbol of sanctuary and shelter against the deep malaise that is now threatening our collective well-being. While it's signal light is both warning and distress call, it also marks a place of refuge, safety, and sanctuary. Perhaps in dark times what all this means is that we must somehow find our inner lighthouse.