Sunday, November 23, 2008

Candles and Moths

"He said, and I quote exactly: 'Is that the candle the moth flew into, and his abdomen got stuck, and his head caught fire?'"

The line is from "The Writing Life" by one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard. I want to say that I am currently acting out the moth, as I try to put out the fire in my head and slowly retrieve my thoughts, after so many months of obsession with poll numbers and campaign kerfuffles. (Valiantly she tries to unstick her abdomen from the candle of the computer where it has been trapped, and move on to Other Things.) But it's not that easy, because it turns out that although we may have won the election, our country is still out on the ice, slipping ever more deeply into economic collapse. Every columnist I read is sounding the alarm: we cannot wait to turn this around until January 20th. By then, it will be too late.

So the moth flies into a different candle--this time, her love of reading books. The ones that have fallen by the wayside, been abandoned, and sprouted into piles during this historic campaign when there was nothing else to do but follow the news, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, online, on television, in magazines, newspapers, whatever. Talk about alligator wrestling! Whew!

At the mere mention of alligator wrestling, my old alligator mentor, blogging partner, and adept protege, Virgil, suddenly appears out of nowhere, unapologetic for his long absence. He's been hanging out with his tribe, it seems--a multiracial, multiethnic group of alligators who spend a good part of their time processing algae into a protein supplement for Third World nations-- and writing his autobiography. He shows me a photograph (see above).

To my astonishment, Virgil is sucking on a chipotle and drinking a bottle of Virgil's cherry-flavored cream soda, a company in which he now owns stock, enticed into buying by its exemplary name. He is dressed in gray overalls but is carrying no baggage, except the old navy-blue beach bag in which he likes to keep a copy his favored book of the moment, "The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meergeren," and his beat-up, red diary.

"It's sooo wonderful to see you," I say. "How are you doing?"

"I'm doing great, Yaar (Virgil's longtime nickname for me), except for this nasty cramp in my groin," he replies. Then Virgil tells me how he has thought about this moment many times, imagining the day we would finally see each other again, not in a photograph, not in a blog, not in cyberspace at all, but in reality. Pausing, heron-like, for a long moment, he then does a handstand on one paw, all his muscles tensed as if for flight. The chipotle falls out of his mouth.

"I'm relieved the huge saga of twisty deceit and exorbitant spending of those scads of dollars is finally over," he says. "And that we now have a national treasure for our new president. His work is so sprightly and steeped in the history of the period, I predict he will continue to reap favorable reviews
from the populous ranks, who are just beginning to shed their anxiety and depression accrued over the past eight years. Perhaps our new political titan will do something the likes of which the world has never seen before, like rubbing our social ills with alcohol, or becoming the champion of bipartisan connoisseurship. Something about the current state of the world seems to have been created with him in mind, so ready-made for the job is he turning out to be. Surely our sincere and scrupulous new angel will put an end to all the crapulence, fraud, worm holes, quislings, and political soilage with his smooth management skills, genius calibre, and personal greatness. This is someone who can read the public mood perfectly!"

After these meaty comments, Virgil announces that he needs to go: "back to my thought experiments, pungent eau-de-cologne, and a universe of endless, banging-and-bursting motion. With that, he shoots me a last toothy grin--and then, like a weather vane that turns both to the north and to the south, Virgil vanishes. I try my damndest to watch where he goes, leaning over the desk to see better, but he just disappears into the crack between the worlds again, and I am staring into a blank wall.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Terrorist Pal Speaks Out

I've been away in Asheville for a few days, where I gave a lecture on the University of North Carolina campus that was sponsored by the Black Mountain College Art Museum. They are featuring the work of women alumnae, and that is how I was invited to speak, having spent a summer session at BMC when I was a mere slip of a girl, just out of high school. However brief, those two months, as I expressed it to the audience there, were a "defining moment" in my life: my official entry into the world of artistic bohemia. I never looked back.

But the trip did cause me to fall behind in my blogging. Also I have to confess, there is some post-election paralysis. How to find thrilling topics now that the most vivid experience of our lifetimes has come to a wildly successful conclusion? Can you top this? Well, today there was an interview on Salon, the online Newsletter, with that notorious terrorist gridded into countless stanzas of the Republican campaign, William Ayers--O ye of the former Weather Underground. I'd often wondered why Ayers never came forward with his own version of the story. But now, it seems, he has, including the reasons for his silence during the campaign. He has come forward at this point because his memoir, which describes the whole period of that era 40 years ago, with all the projected the rage and helplessness about the Vietnam war, has just been published.

The interview, of which I am posting select excerpts below, is by Walter Shapiro, who also knew Ayers casually, from living in the same Chicago neighborhood as Obama. The full interview can be found at:

I think John McCain and Sarah Palin owe Ayers a public apology. See if you agree after reading this.

From the Salon interview with Bill Ayers by Walter Shapiro:

"Were you there in Grant Park for Obama?

I was there for hours and I couldn't leave and I'll tell you why. I've been in larger crowds of people before, but I've never been in a crowd that large where there was no edge of anger, there was nothing that people were trying to push against, no one was drunk, there was no gluttony. It was simply a gathering of pure joy. Something that would have seemed unimaginable just a couple of years before was now inevitable and unforgettable. Everyone wanted to be there. And the sense of unity and the sense of hope was really palpable and lovely.

So I take it you voted for Barack Obama?

Of course, what were the choices? I voted for Obama and I was delighted that he's been elected. And, of course, we have to embrace the moment. It was a moment when the American people overwhelmingly rejected the politics of fear, the politics of war and militarization, paranoia and the acceptance of the shredding of our constitutional rights. It was a sense of "let's move beyond that." And so, of course, I wanted to be a part of that, and we need to embrace that. I also think -- and this is where we need to move in the future -- that we cannot believe that presidents save us. They cannot save our lives. We have to do for ourselves the important work of transformation, the important work of reframing the last eight years, the last several decades, into something more hopeful.


But I e-mailed you during the campaign and asked, "Do you want to talk about this?" And you said, "Thanks, great to hear from you, but not at this time."

Well, what I didn't want to comment on was the political campaign. I didn't want to enter into that. The reason is simple: I thought that I was being used as a prop in a very dishonest narrative -- and I didn't want to be part of the narrative and I couldn't find a way to interrupt it. Anything that I said was going to feed that narrative. So I felt that part of this was the demonization of me -- certainly that I'm some kind of toxic agent that has to be feared.

The second thing, and perhaps more important, is that I was being used to try to bring down this promising new leader by the old tactic of guilt by association. The idea that somehow -- and this is deep in the American political culture -- that if two people share a bus downtown, have a cup of coffee, have several conversations, that somehow means that they share an outlook, a perspective, responsibility for one another's behavior. And I reject that. That guilt by association is wrong and we shouldn't buy into it.

Do you feel diminished by Obama repeatedly referring to you throughout the campaign as just some "guy from the neighborhood"?

Not in the least; I am a guy from the neighborhood. And I'm proud of it ... And the neighborhood being Hyde Park, which is a very close-knit, very friendly, very politically diverse, very racially diverse. You have all kinds of poles there. You have [conservative] Judge Richard Posner on one pole and Louis Farrakhan on the other. And everything in between. It's an interesting neighborhood, a college town [the University of Chicago]. It's close-knit. It's kind of like Wasilla, Alaska, except that it's different.

What have your impressions been of Obama over the years?

I met him sometime in the mid-1990s and, as I said, I know him about as well as thousands and thousands of other people do. And like millions of other people, I wish I knew him a lot better now. My impression of him from the start was that this was the smartest person who walks into any room he walks into. An incredibly bright, an incredibly quick person. A compassionate, kind person. And everyone who knew him thought that he was politically ambitious. For the first two years, I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago. And that's where my imagination ran out of steam, apparently, because clearly he had his sights on something else and I'm delighted for him and for the country and the world that he was able to accomplish this.


During the campaign, how many clips did you see of people like Sarah Palin denouncing Bill Ayers, "the terrorist pal" of Barack Obama?

I'm not a big consumer of television, so I didn't see a lot. I also felt from the beginning that this is a cartoon character that's been cast up on the screen and I didn't feel personally implicated in that character. One of the delicious ironies of a campaign filled with ironies was that the McCain campaign tried to use me to bring Obama down -- and every time that he mentioned my name his poll numbers dropped. Again, I think that's a big credit to the American people. But I did see a few clips. I saw the clip where she [Palin] first talked about Barack Obama palling around with terrorists and the crowd shouted, "Kill him, kill him." That was sent to me by my kids.

I don't know if you remember the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell's "1984"? In Two Minutes Hate, the party faithful gather in front of a television screen and the image of Emmanuel Goldstein is cast up on the screen and they work themselves into a frenzy of hatred and they begin to chant, "Kill him." That's how I felt. I felt a little bit like I was this character cast on the screen. It bore no relation to me. And yet it had a serious purpose and potentially serious consequences.

I was in New York when this was shown and my alderman from Chicago called -- worried -- and wanted to know how I was taking care of my safety. I was touched that she would do that.


What's your biggest hope for an Obama presidency?

Most of all, what I really hope is that we put an end to the era of 9/11, the era of fear and war -- and that's what I think most people hope. That spirit in Grant Park was that spirit of hope and that spirit of "yes, we can." "Yes, we can put an end to this." "Yes, we can reimagine the future." I think it's a time when we could redefine what are we basing our foreign policy on, what are we basing our education policy on. I think this election is automatically a historic moment. It automatically restores a certain amount of goodwill in the world. I hope he uses it. I hope he closes Guantánamo immediately. I hope he withdraws from Iraq immediately. But those hopes aren't idle. They are built on building an irresistible social movement to see that those things happen...

One of the delicious ironies of being in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, was that I was weeping for a lot of reasons. But one of them was that I couldn't help remembering 40 years earlier I was beaten bloody in that same park. And there's something sweet about 40 years later, something unimaginable happening...

We [Ayers and Dohrn] got there around 10:00. We were so glad that we had because it was a moment that we wanted to share. We didn't want to be by ourselves. It was just too sweet. It felt like a page of history was being turned. And, of course, there are going to be challenges, obstacles, setbacks, disappointments, reversals up ahead. But who doesn't want to savor that? Who doesn't want to wish this young man and his beautiful young family all the best in the world because it's their moment. We invest a lot of hope in them. Let's not lose hope in ourselves. But let's wish them all the best."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Monsters Are Toast

We always knew this election was crucial, but nobody could have foreseen the lightning speed with which America would be instantly transformed and redeemed--no longer scorned and despised around the globe but celebrated once again as a source of hope and promise for the world. Nobody could have imagined the sight of so many people staying up all night, dancing in the streets, of giddy tribesmen in Africa shaking gourds at each other, of everyone, everywhere, cheering and weeping uncontrollably.

Even if you voted for John McCain, according to New York Times columnist Gail Collins, you should be happy--in the realization that there are billions of people around the planet who loathed our country last week but are now in awe of it again. We will have a president the world wants to follow. This is huge. The Lincoln Memorial might be getting its gleam back, says Maureen Dowd. "I may have to celebrate by going over there and climbing up into Abe's lap. It's a $50 fine. But it'd be worth it."

After two years of grueling campaigns, race-baiting, underhanded tricks, and an interminable gestation period, the baby was born on Tuesday night--healthy, beautiful, and wearing those special gravity boots that allow you to hang in a doorway upside down. All of which means that everything looks different now--and the monsters are finally toast. (A hat tip for the monster reference to Paul Krugman, who declared in the New York Times that this was the end of an era of being "governed by monsters.") This is no small matter, as one blogger commented, "It's like being dug up after being buried alive for 8 years." And another who said, "we've finally arrived at a moment when America feels like it is supposed to feel."

When things were at their bleakest, after the Republican convention and the acme of Palin's pitt-bull, lipsticked performance on the stage there, I did a three-part divination using the Thesaurus (which I blogged about in my post of September 9th, called "Beating the Blues"). Like most everyone else I know, I was spooked at the time, scared that Obama might never get to sit down on that chair in the White House and look over the desk top after all. Flipping back to reread the third answer I got--to the question of whether Obama could still succeed against this new, nervy, mettlesome barracuda--it seems even more preternatural now to read what the Thesaurus offered me back then in response:

"Transcend, rise above, surmount, tower over, outreach, exceed, carry off the laurels, bear the palm, wear the crown, surpass, reach a new high, go one better, trump, show quality, shine, excel, assert one's superiority, be too much for, steal the show, outshine, eclipse, overshadow, ridicule, outclass, outwit, get the better of, trounce, rise to the occasion, defeat, tip the scale, change the balance, be up on, be one up."

We, the American people, would be hard-pressed to find a more lucid, sensitive, or elegant new president than "the One" who has just been elected. Each of us, of course, will be attracted to different bright parts of him. For me, it is the graciousness with which he deals with the people who have done their best to cut off his balls. There is even talk now of the new administration linking up with and incorporating John McCain. All I know is that if it were me, I would find it hard to be so forgiving. And that is why I am so excited to have Obama for my president. Most probably I'll never get to have beer with him, but this man will definitely be able to teach me a thing or two about spiritual greatness.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Agony & the Ecstasy

It's crunch time, and the agony of this moment is in not knowing if our candidate will make it over the finish line before the other guy. The ecstasy is when your mind successfully wraps itself around the thought of winning and it thinks: Yes, we can! Actually. Win this thing.

The ecstasy is imagining a time when we no longer live with serial liars any more: all these false warriors, malicious Darth Vaders, puritanical caribou Barbies, and dumbed-down females with pony-tails posturing as Joe the Plumber. Imagine instead not having to grapple on a daily basis with egotism, misogyny, and dangerous, jeering, lunatic crowds. Imagine, and really feel the ecstasy, of all this being moved to the sidelines--waking up instead to an exquisite human being, not another ratfucker, as president of the United States of America.

I am trying hard to picture the rat-eat-rat, dog-eat-dog days being over, to imagine the end of winking, blinking, and hoodwinking, in one fell swoop, the orgy of moral bankruptcy finally ending. I ponder a mass exit from the twilight zone of conspiracy theories, stoked paranoia, and vengeful death threats. "Hitler too built his movement on the backs of an angry, disenfranchised working class," writes Matthew Fox in "The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine," a book I bought after experiencing the violently different arcs of masculinity displayed in the two political conventions. "Fascism will come to America," Sinclair Lewis wrote many years ago, "wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." The agony is realizing just how close we have come to this happening, and still not knowing for sure that we are out of the woods yet.

With any luck, by next week I might be able to let go of my compulsive, insatiable, computer surfing and resist the drag of endless blog rants by everyone under the sun, including my own. I might just get to stop the hand-wringing and redistribute my day outside of cyberspace, returning perhaps to my old humble standby of reading ordinary books again.

A friend of mine just called to say the post-election Obama rally will be held one block from her house in midtown Chicago. Nearby streets will be blocked off by the afternoon, because projected attendance is a very opulent one million people. I have to imagine the ecstasy of that crowd--held together by the spell of glowing tribute to the skinny, know-nothing, do-nothing ("nada, zilch") community organizer who has made community organizing a new model of politics for our age. To imagine anything else, from where I sit, is unfathomable agony--and will probably bring this great world crashing down, its glory ruined, in ways so grotesque as to be not even imaginable.