Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Virgil Meets the Duckheadtail Crocodile

Last Saturday Virgil found a new friend in, of all places, Lynchburg. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at the Maier Museum in conjunction with an exhibition of the work of two artists, Sue Johnson and Pam Longobardi. I wasn't familiar with the work of either of them, so I was wasn't wildly enthusiastic about accepting the invitation. It turns out I was dead wrong. Fortunately the curator, Martha Johnson, gently persisted, sending me extensive documentation, and when I glimpsed the portrait of Virgil's fabulous new potential soul-mate in Sue Johnson's catalogue called "The Alternate Encyclopedia," I knew I was supposed to go--at the very least for Virgil's benefit. Virgil prides himself on his reputation for eccentricity and likes to burnish it any chance he gets, (I also received, subsequently, a folder of information from Pam Longobardi, and was also very drawn to her current project, "Drifters," but more about this in a separate post.) Meanwhile it was refreshing to leave the war zone of economic collapse and immerse myself instead in the Borges-like pantheon of Sue Johnson's creatures.

Sue describes herself as a "surrealvisionarymorphicnaturalist," who inhabits a parallel universe in which James Audubon, Max Ernst, Walt Disney, and assorted birds and animals all take tea together, like nineteenth-century dandies, at Alice's table in Wonderland. Incorporate into this cast of characters the likes of Pegasus, Peter Cottontail, and the Ugly Duckling, subject them to dissection as if they were scientific specimens, throw in a few old Bestiaries, anatomy charts, a bit of botany and genetic engineering, and you enter the eerie but utterly irresistible world of Sue Johnson's encyclopedias and cabinets of curiosities, where everything seems scientifically real, but not quite. "I'm very drawn to cross-sections," she says, "as a way of exposing things we don't normally see."

I am also drawn to her free-associative, evocative writing, as well as her images. "The Alternate Encyclopedia," for instance, also contains an alternate Table of Contents, from which I steal the following eccentric tidbits:

"Spelling bees suspended across the globe...Snakes in liquid...The last buffalo sighted ion Duluth....Common workman's wrench and deep-sea shrimp are relatives...Plastic bags prove their worth...Olive loaf aids digestion...Startling proof offered that moon is made of compressed moon-rock material...Local zoo now empty." Sue Johnson teaches at St Mary's College in MD. You can check out this work on her website for more treats at:

As for Virgil, he remains in awe at all those ducks reincarnated in a brother crocodile's tail. He has determined that if the ducks all quack at once, or if they whistle the entire parts of string quartets, it registers at the oceanography lab in Tokyo. Even the sound of one duck quacking is almost more than he can bear, and inspires him to dance along, something he just loves to do..

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Lesson of Buttons and Bonnets

It's still No. 1 on the hit-parade: The Economy. Forget UGH, or AARGH. This week's phrase-making addition to the vocabulary of revulsion is, well, AIG. (Pronounce it "egg," or "eck," and you'll eventually get to "ick.") Those 70-odd bonuses, paid out it would seem, with government bailout money, to CEOs, has set the entire country on fire. We could see heads rolling in the streets before it is all over. So far, we're not allowed to know the names of the recipients, because it could be their heads rolling, quite literally, given the onslaught of threats (to strangle entire families with wire coat-hangers, for instance) that have been issued by an enraged populace. This latest injustice is a stone in the public's shoe, as one NPR commentator stated, that has to be removed. That's putting it mildly; it reads to me like a possible prelude to a home-grown French Revolution--which is why Congress plans on clawing the money back through taxes.

"It seems as though it would be pretty easy to upend a bonus contract that must read something like: 'If you ruin the world economy, we’ll pay you an extra million,' " quips Maureen Dowd, Queen of Snark, in the New York Times. "What President Obama should have said to the blood-sucking bums at A.I.G.," she writes, "many of them foreigners who were working at the louche London unit, was quite simple: 'We stopped the checks. They’re immoral. If you want Americans’ hard-earned cash as a reward for burning up their jobs, homes and savings, sue me.' ”

Obama, however, still has some tricks left up his sleeve. He will probably turn the tables and use AIG as an example to catalyze public support for significant regulatory reform. Republicans, eat your heart out!

Meanwhile, it's probably no accident that every second cartoon in the New Yorker each week pertains to the economy. Infusions of humor injected into the public's stiffened jaws allow them to briefly shake, jiggle and bounce. A good laugh never hurts. So this guy comes up to a hot-dog stand on the street intending to inquire about a job. But there are already eight other men huddled under the umbrella, tongs in hand ready to serve a hot dog to the next customer. "Sorry," reads the caption. "We don't need anyone at the moment." Then there are the two women standing in front of a store front whose window is filled with sale signs of 50-75% off. "Finally!" one says to the other, a smile breaking through her furrowed brow. "Cheap is the new black!"

Synchronistically, I have to say I also enjoyed the "Shouts & Murmurs" column in the March 16th New Yorker by Paul Rudner: "Confessions of a Pilgrim Shopaholic." The narrator, one Rebecca Hamshill, is living in Plymouth Colony, having arrived there in 1626. During her first year in the New World, she traveled to Boston to purchase a thimbleful of salt, and five years later, she goes back again to get another one. "I am out of control," she reports. Her mind is consumed with nothing but thoughts of spending.

At one point, she points to the story of another profligate like herself but in the Virginia Colony, who bartered her second child to a local tradesman for a wooden button (all this could have been written by James Howard Kunstler on a good-hair day, were he more funny, but it wasn't). Other women became so envious of her button that they ripped her limbs from her torso and ate them. (AIG palookas beware! It could happen to you.) Eventually her demon of greed requires a public exorcism, presided over by the town pastor with all the villagers repeating the Lord's Prayer.

As the villagers lay their hands upon her, the demon cackles and swears: "A bonnet! Bring me another bonnet! A peaked black bonnet as fine as any widow's!" At which point, Rebecca loses consciousness. When she wakes up the next day, her demon has vanished, "gone back to his fetid underworld."

The word "underworld" unexpectedly conjures up Virgil, my alligator assistant, who arrives suddenly, smelling of hair oil and some kind of food. He nods his head in vehement approbation, and starts making the random, spontaneous remarks that are his trademark, and so often oddly appropriate.

"This is Hello Day for all those CEO political lepers," he says. "You see what can happen to folks who crave too many wooden buttons and black bonnets. My advice to you all is, do not be purposely troublesome. The mojito fountain is no longer operating as usual--so Baby, it's time to meet the bath water. If not, you too will probably be going the way of the auk and the dodo, falling into extinction."

Then, after a pause, I see Virgil step out, an ordinary alligator again, and make his way back to the terminal.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tiptoeing through the Economic Jigsaw

Many in the top brass on Wall Street are wondering whether Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner is the right man for putting these economic bad times behind us. Being an amateur in fiscal matters myself, I'm hardly qualified to judge, but I can say this much. After watching an hour-long interview this week with Geithner on Charlie Rose, Geithner comes off as someone with phenomenal powers of persuasion.

I've watched dozens of these Rose interviews, but not once have I ever witnessed such heights of concentrated alertness from any mere mortal. Not for a nanosecond did Geithner ever unglue his eyes from those of his interlocutor sitting across the table, nor pause to search for the precise word he needed. No momentary confusion or obfuscatory verbiage ever tainted his unassailable flawlessness at every point. In Geithner's vision, the economy is like some intricate jigsaw, in which all the disparate, ailing pieces merely await the right puzzlemaster, perhaps Geithner himself, able to reassemble the parts in one suave stroke, bringing coherency out of chaos again. Completely absorbed in his words, I had to wonder if Geithner could be right--could indeed be a one-man antibody for a rogue economy, who might actually succeed in setting things right again, if we would just follow his lead. I was certainly tempted to surrender to his expertise and suggestions of inevitable recovery. But then, a short time later, I went back to my reading of James Howard Kunstler's novel, "World Made by Hand," (which I promised to blog about in my previous post), and was immediately stopped dead in my tracks with wondering: When is happy talk like Geithner's merely cosmetic? When is it useful? When is it dubious?

The contrast between Geithner and Kunstler is nothing less than startling, like a long-running movie made by two different directors. Kunstler's mortuary novel is set in a little backwater town, Union Grove, in upstate New York (where the Battenkill River runs into the Hudson). Not only has economic recovery not taken place, but a couple of unspecified terrorist attacks have destroyed several major metropolises and vaporized the Federal Government. Ocean surges during a hurricane have left parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn uninhabitable. So what is the world, as seen through Kunstler's eyes, like after collapse?

Here, from my notes as I went along, are some key elements:

"Among us survivors were many who were confused and despondent," states the main character, Robert, who has lost his wife to encephalitis, his daughter to flu (there are no antibiotics or refrigeration), and his son, who took off at age 15 and has not been seen or heard from again. It's the end of the fossil-fuel-driven economy; there are no no laws, no infrastructure, no industry, no oil, no automobiles, no radio, no TV, phones, mail, or recreational shopping, no coffee. In this scarred remnant of our previous existence, people live by fishing, trading, and carpentry. Survivalism mixes with an unrelenting sense of loss: "It was chilling to reflect on how well the world used to work and how much we'd lost...I tried to avoid nostalgia because it could destroy you." In Kunstler's anthropology of the future, those individuals whose lives happened in the old days are the ones most devastated by this scarred world that has become a salvage operation, its scattered populations making do with lumber and sheet metal collected from derelict buildings, and getting by with the good will of helpful neighbors. In short, there has been no return to "normality."

Presumably the truth lies somewhere between Geithner's "happy talk" and Kunstler's grim vision. Then again, maybe not. It's hard to know. "I've read everything on the subprime-mortgage and banking crises I can get my hands on, writes editor Graydon Carter in the current issue of Vanity Fair, "and I still don't understand much of it." (This is the hot new club of which we are all now card-carrying members.) "As far as the global economic crisis goes," Carter states, "part of me thinks that the U.S. has gone off a cliff pretty much the way Wile E. Coyote does in the Road Runner cartoons. He doesn't drop immediately; he's suspended in midair. He knows he shouldn't be out there, but he's not plunging! Filled with hope, he begins to gingerly tiptoe his way back to the ledge. He's almost made it--he's not going to fall! And then, with a puff of dust, he's gone, plummeting far, far down into the canyon. As a nation, we might just be in the tiptoeing stage: we know we've screwed up big time, but we're praying that we can get back to the ledge before gravity takes over."

One thing is sure: there's not much room left to maneuver.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Owning Up to the Mess

In a recent article by Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, she confesses that after his major speech before the Houses of Congress last week, she has finally accepted that Barack Obama really is her president. It became clear to her that whatever difficulties and debacles surround him, Obama convincingly communicates to the public that someone is at last in charge. "Someone's in the kitchen," she says. "Someone's cooking."

"Mr. Obama doesn't do jaunty," she added. "He did not leave people thinking, now I know we will defeat this calamity. But he did leave them feeling, now I know someone's in charge, finally someone's taken ownership of the mess." It's a huge relief, as Noonan says, to have someone in office who is actually minding the store, and to know that this time around, we have a President who is stepping up to the plate. I felt so exhilarated myself by this feeling of relief that I even bought a tee-shirt and a necklace of different colored, blue-glass beads--things I don't really need. For an hour or so I morphed back into being a happy, oblivious consumer, but my high spirits did not last. It didn't take much before I lapsed back into worry mode again, because I realize that no matter who is doing the cooking, we are still fucked. Even if the smartest guy in the room, bar none, serves up the Mother of All Banquets, we may not defeat this calamity. I know to say this is the mark of a "debilitating pessimism," and I will not be looked on favorably for spending time in this dismal place--it is not the way to win friends and influence people--but there it is: my dirty secret. I confess I'm not sure even (my) beloved Barack is ready to face the kind of changes we are probably in for.

The fact that we have moved out of the previous ongoing fiasco of governance into the miracle of real leadership has not stanched the massive hemorrhaging of the global financial system. On his blog, Clusterfuck Nation ( Kunstler, a Peak Oil expert, dares to ask the question nobody wants to ask, because the true answer may just be too death-dealing: Is the USA in recession, depression, or collapse? We're now at 340 pink slips per hour, but the debate continues to revolve around whether to call what is happening a recession or a depression. Except for a handful of folks like Kunstler, no one wants to stare down at ground zero and enlist the dreaded word: ongoing "collapse."

Looking at the world through the President's eyes, normality will return. Economic confidence will return, but "not overnight." The consumer economy will stand on its feet again and resume "growth" mode, albeit not before mammoth cash infusions and technological innovations that will make everything more environmentally sustainable. Looking at the world through Kunstler's eyes, however (a vision which is sadly closer to my own), the consumer era is over for good, and most of what has been lost in 2008 will not be recovered; in Kunstler's words, "enterprises, personal fortunes, chattels, reputations." Technology will not be able to rescue us from our fossil-fuel predicament, and we should be facing that fact, according to Kunstler, instead of imagining ways and mounting campaigns to sustain the unsustainable: "electric cars or diesel-flavored algae excreta," and "drive-in espresso on a combination of solar and wind power."

It's not that Kunstler doesn't support and admire Obama. He voted for him. However, "I fret about the measures he'll promote to rescue the the Status Quo....I am especially concerned," he writes, "about an infrastructure stimulus project aimed at highway improvement at the expense of public transit...[because] the car system is going to fail in manifold ways whether we like it or not." The impossibility of getting car loans or paying for fuel will escalate the impending collapse of an industry already on its last legs and going into bankruptcy. Eventually, Kunstler believes even the federal government will flounder just like General Motors, Citicorp, and other giant corporations have already floundered; eventually even counties, municipalities, and states will all 'join in the bankruptcy fiesta." Maintaining public services like water systems, sewage treatments, and even food distribution will become impossible. Danger and deprivation will be the new and disturbing name of the game. It's not a pretty picture for the human race, and the end is not happy. You can understand why Obama, and the rest of America, refuses to go there. It's just too dark and desperate.

Kunstler has written a novel called "World Made by Hand, in order to give us the feel, in fictionalized form, of what that future may look like when all fantasies of the "growth economy" are long gone. I am currently reading his book, and will probably blog about it in another post. Meanwhile, in the current entry on his blog, he has this to say:

"If we're really lucky, human affairs will eventually reorganize at a lower scale of activity, governance, civility, and economy. Every week, the failure to recognize the nature of our predicament thrusts us further into the uncharted territory of hardship. The task of government right now is not to prop up doomed systems at their current scales of failure, but to prepare the public to rebuild our systems at smaller scales....If the US government is going to try to make remedial policy for anything, it better start with agriculture, to promote local, smaller-scaled farming using methods that are much less dependent on oil byproducts and capital injections."

The post-industrial, post-fossil fuel, post-technological, and post-consumer society will definitely need to have its agrarian ducks in a row, if it is going to survive.