Sunday, March 27, 2011

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

These days, I often get the blues. I get out of sorts, more than I'd like. So I try to hold back, in conversation and in print, wanting not to be a BBC prophet of doom, determined not to puncture all those protective bubbles of well-being that keep others afloat in their personal worlds. Maybe, as in the Psyche myth, it might be better not to shine that bright light on Eros--because once you shine the light and get a really good look, your golden world may fall apart. Knowledge comes at a price.

With respect to Libya, Tom Friedman warns that we need to be cautious about intervening in places that could fall apart in our hands. But isn't everything already falling apart? Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, concedes that there are no predictable outcomes in Libya. Nobody knows what will happen. Hillary insists there were no desirable options, and Obama himself, off camera, has described the decision to intervene in Libya as a turd sandwich. Dennis Kucinich, Congressional Democrat, wants to impeach him for eating turds without first consulting Congress.

All this hasn't stopped everyone else from having an opinion about what to do. Everyone has his or her own distinctive wiggle on the subject, say, of Libyan intervention. (Devil you do, devil you don't.) I say we should do this, and you say I would rather not have done that. What if Qaddafi doesn't leave? What if he does? Why take action in Libya and not in Syria, or Yemen? Why not somewhere/anywhere else? How on earth will we ever know it when we're done? Why are we even doing this, anyway?

"Obama acts as if leading the free world is an inconvenience" Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham stated recently, as if he would do a much better job of eating turds than the president. ("You try it!" exclaimed my friend Hakuin, when I told her about his comment. "It's the title of the book a teacher-friend of mine is writing," she went on to explain. "An exasperated version of you should try walking a mile in my shoes,)

Obama doesn't want to put America in the driver's seat, or be the ringmaster running the show. He doesn't want to be seen as the enemy of Arabs around the world--an attitude often criticized as if this were a weakness, or a bad thing. Obama's Bad: let's be blunt, he hates the whole idea of American Exceptionalism. (Perhaps the time has come, said the Walrus.) How easy is it, when there are no easy answers, to persist in asking futile questions? How easy is it to insist on knowing a future nobody can predict? More pertinently, in a world where it's become impossible to know anything for sure, why not dip into how much you know better? Rip the confusion. Be "outspoken."

On the bright side, at least Halliburton won't be moving in any time soon to rebuild what we've just destroyed. As for me, I'm ready with one suave stroke to bury the whole musculature of everybody's opinions in the Virginia hills. That includes my own. Here's the simple truth: we rushed to the side of Libyan rebels and in all likelihood prevented a massacre. It's not really a war; it's more like when Eddie Fisher rushed to the side of Elizabeth Taylor, after her husband, Mike Todd, was killed in an accident. "He rushed to her side to comfort her," Taylor's daughter writes in Vanity Fair, "but eventually he made his way around to her front." Maybe we'll get that lucky, too.

I read In the same issue that Truman Capote once owned a mynah bird, which he carried on his shoulder wherever he went. He taught it to squawk "Fuck you!" at frequent intervals, and that sent him into gales of laughter every single time. Maybe we should consider trading in our opinions for mynah birds? As in: put on your pearls, girls, we're about to go bird shopping.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Survivor Guilt

Last spring, it was the unbearable lightness of being induced by watching thousands of gallons of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico every day. That nightmare scenario dragged on for months, without anyone knowing the end of the story. Would the well ever get capped, and if not, would we all be swept away in a tsunami of oil? That had to have been the most ghastly scenario I had ever experienced in my lifetime. Those deadly weeks of anxious waiting while engineers and scientists applied heat, applied cold, applied anything they could think of, to stop the bleeding.

It seemed to me then that some safety lock had been taken off the world--and that a face-off was occurring between the forces of man-destroying-nature and the forces of nature-destroying-man, destined somehow to end badly for both. A gaping wound had opened in the world, with sirens of alarm sounding that would never go away. Eventually the well got capped, and the pain dissipated--only to return again in other forms.

In rapid succession, floods of biblical dimensions inundated parts of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Australia; an earthquake struck a major city in New Zealand; maniacal blizzards pounded the US all winter long. Pandora, her hair on fire, leapt out of the box in the Middle East. And then the triple whammy of a monster earthquake in northern Japan, followed by a killer tsunami, and now, radiation leaks from the Kukushima nuclear plant, which grow grow greater every day. And once again, more deadly weeks of anxious waiting. Will they be able to prevent a nuclear meltdown? What will mad Qaddafi do hext? What will Obama do?

"The only thing President Obama seems decisive about is his indecision," declared an editorial in London's Sunday Express this week. Discussions of ineffectual leadership were once again buzzing through the internet. "What should the US do about Libya? What should the US do about the Middle East in general? What about the country's crippling debts? What is the US going to do about Afghanistan, about Iran?" Yeah, what? What, as a matter of fact, would YOU do? When in doubt, bash Obama. That usually works.

Personally I'm finding it a bit difficult to go on about my normal business as if none of this were happening. I continue to stand my lonesome watch as the guilty survivor, trying to process my part of the global pain, fear, and suffering.

"You don't want to become like that woman who has no future because she won't wear perfume," Virgil taunts, having appeared suddenly, like a Bedouin in the night. Today he is offering himself as my guide through hell--he wants, he says, to read me his favorite quote:

"...And when they ran out of rats, they chewed the bark off the mainmast." "Our wound," he continues, "is a genuine quantum phenomenon. Will it destroy us or wake us up? Is it a wave or a particle? I have three jokes for you."

"This is no time for jokes, Virgil. I can't laugh anymore. Or even try to laugh. About anything. Just stick me with a fork. I'm done."

Breaking News: US has launched military strikes inside Libya. Radiation found in Japanese milk, spinach.

It's all going to be A-okay, you just wait and see.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Oyster Mania

Ever since a restaurant called "Lucky" opened up in Roanoke, I find myself having a love affair--with oysters. Flown in fresh from the Rappahannock River a couple of times a week, the oysters get shucked by a bald-headed special-hire, who looks like a kung-fu master, and then immediately brought to the table by an enthusiastic waitress. Eating oysters at Lucky's is like inhaling helium. Maybe it's the high zinc content, in combination with all the other minerals like calcium, iodine, iron, potassium, copper, sodium, phosphorus, manganese, and sulphur, but a good helping of oysters makes the whole world, which these days can seem pretty bleak, look and feel better again. Apres les huitres and a good glass of chilled white wine, my mind stops acting like an engine ready for takeoff.

This past week I have been able to indulge my new passion several times. With the result that I am worrying slightly less about Libyan youths--armed with rocket-propelled grenades they don't know how to use--being mowed down from the air by Quaddafi's mercenaries. An editorial, written by a novelist recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize whose father is a "disappeared" political dissident in Libya, and published in the New York Times today, describes the fighting witnessed firsthand by one of his relatives on the ground there:

" 'Treachery, cousin, treachery,' he said when I asked what he had seen. 'Qaddafi’s army forced the women and children out into the streets and placed snipers on the rooftops. Whenever we tried to approach, they shot at the civilians.'
He went on to describe the horror of seeing a child shot in the head with a 14.5-millimeter round: 'The skull exploded like a pomegranate.' "

Libya may seem far away to us, but a dangerous civil unrest is escalating right here, courtesy of Scott Walker, the Gadaffi-like Republican governor of Wisconsin, who is engaged in dismantling labor unions and stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights. As of this writing, the originally peaceful protests in Madison have begun to go rogue across the nation and turn violent.

At night, in my dreams, I find myself navigating with difficulty through excited crowds, trying to get across check points in an unidentified place. The last time I was at Lucky's, the oysters had not arrived, but they did serve this special drink with a mystique: key lime martinis. I'd hardly drunk half of it when I happened to look out (through the plate glass windows) and saw a girl dressed in black, bobbing along on stilts. A minute later she was followed by another one, and no, I was not hallucinating. Right after that, a young woman in a white gauze tutu with flashing red lights underneath it, came inside to greet my friends, whom, it turned out, she knew. She turned out to be a performance artist named Beth Deel, and explained that the folks on stilts were practicing for the St. Patrick's Day parade next week.

Oysters can be expensive in places other than where they are harvested. A single oyster at Lucky's now costs $2.25, which is 25 cents more than the $2.00 a day I read is the daily wage that 40% of Egyptians live on. (It's a statistic that causes me to wonder if I should tie my tongue in a bow.) The price doesn't include that requisite glass of French muscadet (Coing de Sevre 2008), a crucial element in the equation of making me feel like a guest at Gatsby's house in late winter.

That night we ended up going for coffee at the girl in the gauzy tutu's cafe, two doors down from Lucky. It's a tiny, raffish place, pertly called "Get" in honor of its special affinity with the restaurant (as in, just add the two together and Get Lucky!). Going to the bathroom, I had to pass through a mini-boutique of vintage clothing ( while Beth Deel made me a hot chocolate. There were books scattered around the cafe area for casual reading, but no chairs. Just a few stools, and a monograph on Julie Taymor (think "Spiderman," NYC) on one of the narrow counters. With Beth's permission, I made off with one of her books "Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age," a compendium of essays edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan. In return, I promised to bring her a copy of "Living the Magical Life, on the occasion of my next oyster binge, this coming Saturday.

All in all, it was a super happy evening.

"I don't believe the purpose of life is to just be happy," Andrew Cohen emails in his quote for this week."Why would God take fourteen billion years to produce highly evolved sentient life-forms that would ultimately develop the extraordinary capacity for self-reflective awareness, simply in order for them to be able to experience happiness? It's my conviction that we are here for a reason, that there is a grand and great purpose to our presence in this universe, and that none of us are going to truly find what we are looking for unless we get over our misguided pursuit of personal happiness and connect with that greater sense of purpose—that ultimate reason for being."

Hidden somewhere between skulls exploding like a pomegranates in Libya and me eating oysters in Roanoke sluiced with lime martinis, there must be, as Andrew suggests above, some "grand and great purpose to our presence in this universe." There must be some reasonable explanation for why they are there (in Libya) being shot, and I am here (in Virginia) enjoying myself. I intend to continue looking, with the same passion contenders on "Survivor" search for the hidden immunity idol, until I find it. And. if ever I do find it--that grand and great purpose--I promise you will be the first to know.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to join me, I am quite willing to share some oysters, just as long as we get there on the right night.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unfit to Rule: After Me the Deluge

The phrase (attributed to Louis XVth and refering to a flood, storm, or political disorder) is usually interpreted to mean "If you think I was bad, wait until you see what is coming." Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, known more for bluster and buffoonery than for memorable contributions to society, has definitely been channeling his inner Louis XVth of late.

In the multiple populist uprisings currently ricocheting across the Middle East and North Africa, Libya's scenario has got to be the worst, and the most grotesque. With his universe of ineffable gaudiness now under siege and blood everywhere in the streets, Moammar Qadaffi has offered the Libyan people a deathlike embrace: "I am a warrior. I am not going to leave this land, and I will die here as a martyr."

This is a man who travels everywhere with a luxury tent (which he once pitched on the White House lawn), and whose bodyguards are all women. His normally constant companion and confidante, a Ukranian nurse, has recently fled his side for the safety of her home town, Kiev. In Qaddafi, according to Bobby Ghosh in Time magazine, "the Arab youth revolution faces a foe unafraid to push back brutally--and the watching world sees a ruler immune to reproach or reason." Today Qaddafi is a caged tiger trapped in his own palace, issuing orders to paid militias to shoot at random into protesting crowds, and making incoherent speeches about how much his people love him.

Years ago when I still lived in London, I was friends with the painter Francis Bacon, a man who championed colorful eccentricity and outrageousness. Asked once by an interviewer who, among the world's most famous people, he would choose to spend a night with if he could, Bacon sent shock waves across Britain when he unhesitatingly replied, "Muammar Qaddafi." Remembering this story now, I can only wonder, if Bacon were alive today, whether he would still give the same answer.

Each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way, says Steve Coll (paraphrasing Tolstoy), but surely having a national leader whose long-term derangement has escalated up the ladder to delusional insanity beyond reclaim, must be a source of monstrous horror for the Libyan people. Commentators on the scene have described being reminded of the last mad days of Hitler, hiding out in his bunker. "Can't repeat the past!" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" History has an inbuilt preposterousness and its own self-reflexive arc.

Meanwhile pundits around the world are on edge, chewing over the question of whether or not the Arab world is ready for freedom, concerned that revolutions can result in worse tyrannies than the ones they overthrow. A scarcity of democratic institutions in that part of the world--especially in the case of Libya--and the potential for protracted violence, has elicited fear, skepticism, and exhilaration in equal measure, depending on where you look or who you are listening to. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (who spent weeks live-blogging from Tahrir Square) tackled the issue head-on in his regular column on Sunday. "Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?" he asked. And then, holding the victory banner high, he gave his answer:

"The common thread of this year's democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage....I've been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I've seen--defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?...The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through...I'm awed by the courage I see, and it's condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren't ready for it."

Kristof claims that he is feeling more hopeful about the world than at any time since 2001. And he credits "Obamaism"--i.e. its themes of nonviolence, youth-driven social media as engines of change and limiters of autocratic brutality, and the universality of rights as listed in his post-presidential speech in Cairo--for having planted fertile seeds that took root in what is happening now. In June 2009, Obama declared in Cairo: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

I've got both fingers and toes crossed that Nik Kristof is right: that young people in the Middle East are going to succeed at overthrowing decades of oppressive autocracy. I'm on an email list that sends inspirational quotes by Andrew Cohen once a week, and this week's quote seems synchronistically relevant:

Breaking through Gravity:
"A human being trying to catalyze the emergence of a higher level of consciousness is like a rocket ship trying to break through the gravity of the Earth's atmosphere. The gravity that we are endeavoring to release ourselves from is the historical weight of our conditioning, both personal and cultural. If we can generate enough vertical momentum to propel us beyond the boundaries of who we have been, we will find ourselves in uncharted territory."

Let's all hope the rocket ship of revolution makes it through the gravity of oppression and fulfills its mission of liberation. A lot is hanging on the outcome.