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Thought for the Week

During my time in the camps, I had got to know the enemies of the human race quite well: they respect the big fist and nothing else; the harder you slug them, the safer you will be.
--Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Liar of the Week

Gosh, there were so many to choose from. But in the end, it has to be someone on the White House team. In this case, Condi Rice:

The fact of the matter is that when we were attacked on September 11, we had a choice to make. We could decide that the proximate cause was al Qaeda and the people who flew those planes into buildings and, therefore, we would go after al Qaeda ... or we could take a bolder approach.
How do I know she's lying? First, because whenever anyone says 'the fact of the matter' (or even: 'to be perfectly honest') he/she is about to lie. Second, because this explanation for the invasion of Iraq gives the Bush team a character trait it is not known for: subtlety.

One little problem: These are not chess players. They are 350-pound nose tackles.

Still, in this case, it's a lot better to lie, I guess, than to tell the truth. That would just encourage the terrorists.

This Week in Iraq

Coalition casualties have now reached 2,175. The Administration predicts a long war, even if Iraq chooses a 'democratic' government. So we may yet--it'll take years and years, but it is possible--top the 58,000 lives we squandered in Vietnam.

Knowing what's ahead, I feel so bad for every parent who has to bite his or her tongue as a beloved child enlists.

Tales of the Reconstruction

Longtime Swami reader Patti Racz went to Louisiana to help out. She met amazing people. From her dispatch:

The most memorable was an inmate of the Louisiana State prison system. Prior to the arrival of any real help, this shelter was operated by a group of prison trustees and the deputy sheriffs who guarded them. These men, apparently, worked countless hours and performed the Herculean task of keeping the few hundred evacuees safe and as comfortable as possible. They carried water from the endless puddles and newly formed streams to allow toilets to flush, kept the area as clean and manageable as possible, cooked and served the meager food supplies and provided personal care to the bedridden. There were multiple opportunities for them to run, to blend in with the thousands of wanderers. Yet they stayed the course, continued to care for those with overwhelming needs and refusing the option of freedom.

This particular inmate, whose name I never did learn, sat outside and smoked a cigarette with me after he finished buffing and waxing a hallway floor. He told me the story of his incarceration; he had served less than a third of his sentence with more than a decade to go. Tears formed and spilled down his cheeks as he spoke. "I thought I was tough. I lost my heart in that prison, I had to, it was the only way I could survive that hell. I was so sure it died inside of me. And, then, being here, ma'am, I found out that I surely ain't dead. Nobody dead could hurt this bad. These folks here, they suffered so much makes my life seem not so bad. This storm, ma'am, it was God's way of giving me back my heart."

There was talk that the deputies would speak for these men, hoping to negotiate early releases. I knew of a program at home that would sponsor him. His eyes lit up for a moment. But, then, he would not share his personal information with me, "they be watching us, Ma'am, I won't be doing nothin' to get us both into trouble. Just keep me in your prayers and I be prayin' for you." I never saw this man again. The Greenhouses in Gaza: Who's Telling The Truth?

A dear friend who passionately loves Israel sent a disturbing piece by Si Frumkin, a columnist for the Jewish Observer of Los Angeles.

Some background: As the Jews were pulling out of Gaza, a handful of extremely rich and well-connected American Jews reached into their pockets and produced $14 million for the Israeli settlers who were leaving some 3,000 greenhouses behind.

Let Mr. Frumkin tell the story--one side of it, anyway--from here:

During the months of preparation for the Israeli withdrawal there were many questions on what should be done with the greenhouses. They were state-of-art agricultural marvels with their own sophisticated temperature and humidity control systems, they turned out millions of dollars worth of produce yearly and they were a source of employment for thousands of people in an area where close to 40% were unemployed.

Should these marvelous structures be destroyed? Moved? Abandoned? And then a wonderful and heartwarming solution was found. A small group of wealthy American Jews decided to buy the greenhouses from Israel and donate them to the Palestinian Authority. One of the donors was former World Bank president James Wolfensohn who put up $500,000 of his own money. All in all, $14 million was collected, the deal was done and appreciative Palestinian spokesmen announced that the greenhouses would become the cornerstone of the future Palestinian economy.

Happy ending for all, right? Palestinians get the greenhouses, Israelis get $14 million and the small group of admirable Jews in America get the warm feeling of having made the world a more tolerant and loving place where Arabs appreciate Jewish kindness and are less eager to murder Jews, right?

Well, no, not really.... Just an hour or so after the Jews left Gaza thousands of Palestinians swarmed into the empty settlements. The Palestinian police watched the mob demolish the abandoned synagogues and set them on fire. They also watched with interest as part of the crowd turned on the greenhouses - breaking windows, taking plates of glass, wiring, computer and electronic parts and irrigation pipes and timers. It didn't take long - after a few hours or so the greenhouses that it had taken years to build were just so much junk.

The greenhouses will not be rebuilt. The Palestinian economy, such as it is, will continue to be mired in corruption, hatred and violence. They will suffer -- but they'll never admit that it was their own fault.

[As for]... the naïve rich Jews who thought that the Arab reaction to their gift would be based on logic and not on inbred hatred. You lost $14 million and, you know, I am glad you did. Awful, right? Makes the blood boil. Then you remember: In this part of the world, you're lucky if there are only two sides of a story.

Consider this report, from a newspaper owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, one of the American donors:

"It was our work for a long time and it was supposed to help even more people now," said heartbroken Zaki Karim, 51, a Palestinian who worked at greenhouses in what was the Gadid settlement. "But it's a mess."

Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Qusa insisted the damage was limited to 30% of the 4,000 or so greenhouses --- and blamed most of the vandalism on spiteful Jewish settlers. "The Palestinians damaged so little you can't even count it," he said.

The World Bank reported 90% of the greenhouses were intact when the Israelis left. Facts on the ground reveal that much of that bounty is now gone....

In the nearby Neveh Dekalim settlement, there were no soldiers to stop 29-year-old Samir Al-Najar and his eight-man crew from demolishing a half-acre greenhouse. Al-Najar insisted the land was his family's before Israel occupied it in 1967 and that he was reclaiming it.

"I want to reorganize the land so we're clearing it out for now," Al-Najar said as two workers carried off a stack of tall metal support beams. Asked whether he intended to sell the materials, Al-Najar shook his head. "We'll probably rebuild with them, but I want the greenhouses to be our own, not Jewish ones," he said. And how about this, from Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who has long lived in occupied territory and is generally considered to be 'sympathetic; to the Palestinians:

1,719 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip from the end of September 2000 until today; and according to various estimates, some two-thirds of them were unarmed and were not killed in battles or during the course of attempts to attack a military position or a settlement.

Based on figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, of those killed, 379 were children under the age of 18; 236 were younger than 16; 96 were women; and 102 were the objectives of targeted liquidations during the course of which the Israel Defense Forces also killed another 95 individuals who, according to the military too, were "innocent bystanders."

Some 9,000 Gaza residents were injured; 2,704 homes to some 20,000 people were razed by the IDF's bulldozers and assault helicopters; 2,187 were partially destroyed. Some 31,650 dunams of agricultural land were left scorched.

What talent it takes to live for 35 years in a flourishing park and splendid villas just 20 meters from overcrowded, suffocated refugee camps. What talent it takes to turn on the sprinklers on the lawns, while just across the way, 20,000 other people are dependent on the distribution of drinking water in tankers; to know that you deserve it, that your government will pave magnificent roads for you and neglect (prior to Oslo, before 1994) to the point of destruction the Palestinian infrastructure. What skill it takes to step out of your well-cared-for greenhouse and walk unmoved past 60-year-old fruit-bearing date trees that are uprooted for you, roads that are blocked for you, homes that are demolished for you, the children who are shelled from helicopters and tanks and buried alongside you, for the sake of the safety of your children and the preservation of your super-rights. Were the American donors 'rewarding' the settlers for developing land that wasn't theirs? Was the Palestinian response so predictable as to be a propaganda victory for Israel, well worth a few million American dollars? Were the American donors suckered as to the value of the greenhouses?

It's often said, "Two Jews, four opinions." Add the Palestinian views, and it's suddenly Rashomon. I don't know what to think about this. Do you?

The Beauty Part

Listening to 'Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1'--Jackson Browne's new 'live' CD--I time-travel back to 1966. I was 20, and, in my prodigious way, writing a piece about a young singer for a national magazine. We spent the afternoon together, we had dinner, and then Billy James, her manager, said he had a little surprise.

Billy James is a man to be taken extremely seriously. He had been at Columbia Records when Dylan came along, and he had recorded the first known interview with him. He knew everyone in LA. He had a magnificent wife and a radiant son. He wasn't the Pied Piper, but he surely had the Piper's private number.

We repaired to Billy's hotel room. An herbal remedy was produced. Candles were lit. Billy switched on a tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder. And a man and woman sang:

I say goodbye to Joseph and Maria
They think I see another sky
And from my fallen window I still see them
I'll never free them from the sky

The song was 'Colors of the Sun.' The singers were Jackson Browne, then unknown, and Nico, the Andy Warhol protege who sang with the Velvet Underground. The effect was magic.

There were a few more songs on the tape. When it ended, Billy told me about the singer-songwriter who grew up in the Republican stronghold of Orange County--no kidding; its airport is named after John Wayne--and who surely had some kind of future.

Well, yes: Jackson Browne turned out to be the West Coast Bruce Springsteen. More melodic than The Boss. More lyrical. More personal (I can't imagine Springsteen writing a song like 'Here Come Those Tears Again'.) More political. And, on the flip side, less of a showman. Less of a generational statesman.

'Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1' is a lovely CD because it strips the songs to their bones.

Thought for the Week

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
-- Buckminster Fuller

Weekend Thoughts: Harriet Miers

Was that the longest holiday weekend of your life? When it started, the sun was shining and the Yankees were on a roll; by the time it ended, rain had flooded the streets and the Yankees were finished for the year.

I read, thought, gnawed my nails over my thoughts--the usual weekend activities. The only diversion was dribbles of information about Harriet Miers, the President's choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.

Re Miers: It's weird. All the people who believe, as Miers does, that George Bush is a genius seem to oppose this nomination. Why? Do they suddenly want government officials to have actual qualifications for important jobs? Or do they fear that she's a secret swinger--her friend, the Texas judge, seems to be an actual boyfriend, rendering all those '60 year-old virgin' jokes obsolete--who just might not agree with this President's 'culture of life' philosophy two decades from now?

I know it sounds petty to say that if all these wingnuts hate Miers, I'm for her. But that's sort of how I feel. Yeah, she knows as much about constitutional law as Caligula's horse--but do you think Bush's next candidate will know more? Some of the women he passed over are borderline insane; they love the fetus and hate real people, and as for sex, they only like it straight, no chaser. And there's always the chance--Bush is never not vindictive--that his next choice won't even be a lawyer. I mean: If Ann Coulter (an actual lawyer) turns Bush down, there's nothing to stop him from appointing Loose Canon to the court. (And don't think it hasn't occurred to her.)

No. Miers is a disaster. But there are worse candidates. Let's--for a change--keep them caged. Let's cheer for the mouseburger whose office is down the hall. And let's urge Congress to confirm Miers fast, before we learn too much about her.

Stewart Simonson

Name doesn't ring a bell? Well, he's the government official standing between you and death from the flu.

You may want to know, therefore, if he's up to the job. Check out his credentials:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness Stewart Simonson lacks a medical or public health management background. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1986 and a law degree in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin, and worked as legal counsel to Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson from 1995 to 1999 before following his boss to Washington when Thompson was tapped to be Health and Human Services secretary. According to his HHS bio, Simonson previously served as corporate secretary and counsel for Amtrak.
Feel better? Knew you would.

A 'D' in Lamb's Blood on the Door

The government is off to its usual late start on the possible bird flu crisis. Note the 'possible'--it's totally unclear if this disease can make the jump from bird to human, and then from human to human. But if it does happen, the Bush team can rack up numbers that will make everyone forget Iraq and Katrina. In 1918, 50 million died from the flu. There have been huge advances in medicine since then--still, with jet travel, that outsized number is entirely possible.

Is there is a way to escape this disease? Well, vaccine. Nope. Not if this Administration can help it. Tell drug companies to stop making Viagra and do a full-tilt conversion to flu vaccine? Ha! Much better to have Congress give the President the power to use the Army--all 15 soldiers not otherwise engaged--to quarantine neighborhoods where the disease is raging. Which makes sense. To them, anyway: Millions die and we get martial law.

Well, not everyone will die. There might be enough vaccine for two per cent of the American people. Think they'll be the poor? The minorities? The Democrats? I don't. I think we'll see a few everyday American get their shots on the 'Today' Show, and the rest of the vaccine will be quietly diverted to the rich, the powerful--the big donors to the Republican party.

And the rest of us? The way out is through the Old Testament view of a disease this powerful--the flu as the plague. And how did the Jews deal with the plague once before? They smeared lamb's blood on the lintels of their doorway. And the angel of death spared their First Born.

This time, the afflicted people are not the Jews (though they're included). They're the people who voted for Al Gore and John Kerry--the Democrats. So if bird flu becomes a pandemic, let those who voted against Bush paint the letter 'D' in lamb's blood on their doors. And may the angel of death pass over their houses.

Is this cruel to the people who voted for Bush? I think not. He warned everyone--before each election--that we were making significant, life-or-death choices. And despite his fairly obvious intellectual, moral and career liabilities, tens of millions of people voted for him. And now they want to buy it all back? Sorry. As I always say, actions have consequences. He told you, people: life or death. And so many bought into his idea of a God who smites. And they chose death, thinking it was life.

Well, maybe it is.

Eternal life.

Do You Have These Symptoms?

My pal the shrink writes:

My sensitive patients are all suffering, unable to set boundaries to keep out the chaos lately, of the world. Mindfulness and detachment, witnessing, falls short. They cannot keep the devils at bay from their psychological doors. Souls suffering. I spend the days finding ways to help shore the psyche filters and strengthen the psychic anchors that keep them from floating in the great empty and darkened abyss of global misery.
Is this you? If yes, congratulations--you can still look at the world as it is and not lie about it. If not, the bad news that seems to be looming like the iceberg that took the Titanic down is going to be a huge surprise for you.

But seriously: I need to deal with this. And I'd like your help in thinking my way out of this 'too-sensitive-to-live' crisis. As Noel Coward said, 'Champagne for my sham friends, real pain for my real friends.' So...real friends....to the mail or message boards, please. Let's get these feelings out in the open....

Cindy Sheehan Met Thich Nhat Hanh: Her Life Changed

Two veterans of foreign wars met the other day. Here is part of Cindy Sheehan's report:

"I have arrived. I am home."

This was the first sign we passed as we started on our walk. Thay told us we should say those phrases with every other step. I have arrived. Every second we live is a new arriving in the present. I see so much conflict and struggle in our world because we don't live in this second. We are worried about the next second and mourning the past second. Camp Casey taught me to live each moment in the arrival moment. One of the reasons I have been able to remain so calm in the face of an onslaught of troubles and evil is because I realized in Camp Casey that I could not struggle against the current of my life and change my destiny any more than I could bring my son back from the land of the dead. Each second of each day is our precious arrival and we should honor each moment. Another holy man, Jesus Christ said: Why worry about tomorrow? Today has enough worries of its own.

"I am home."

I met a new friend today named Jewel whose son was a medic on the front lines in Iraq and has tried to commit suicide three times since he returned from the desert of pain. The distraught mother, who is beside herself with worry, said if something isn't done about it and if her boy doesn't get help ... he is dying. His superiors will not allow him to be diagnosed for PTSD so he can't get the treatment he so desperately needs. Jewel is Buddhist and I told her: "You realize your son died in Iraq." She replied to me: "We have all died because of this war." She is right. On April 04, 2004, Cindy Sheehan died, but Cindy Sheehan was born... The Beauty Part

Edward R. Murrow's son was my classmate at a New England boarding school. He had an extra typewriter, and I had none, so I borrowed his little Olivetti portable--which just happened to have been his father's. Was it the machine Ed Murrow used when he was traveling? I like to think so.

For a young writer-in-waiting to have a connection to Edward R. Murrow--no matter how oblique--is not a small thing. Murrow was the symbol of journalistic integrity when the word still meant "a firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values." In his wartime dispatches for CBS radio, he had only to say "This...is London" and American listeners knew that whatever followed was as close to the truth as they were likely to hear. And he was as brave as he was talented--he flew in twenty bombing missions over Berlin, and was one of the first correspondents to report from the Nazi concentration camps.

George Clooney has just written and directed about Murrow, using his signature sign-off as the title: Good Night, And Good Luck . It's the kind of movie that makes you want to know more about its subject--but instead of sending you to a biography, I suggest you go directly to Murrow's work: The Edward R. Murrow Collection.

Thought for the Day

Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But every one of us --- every single one of us --- knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies.
--Senator John McCain, calling for passage of a bill that would clearly define the rights of prisoners. For some reason, the White House opposes such clarification.

Naked to Our Enemies (Thanks, Mr. President!)

I resumed daily blogging a month ago. The feeling at Beliefnet and at Uptown Central was that the hurricane was a significant event. It changed things, or had the power to change things --- pretty much everyone saw that something was awry. And so we thought it would be good to chronicle that for a month.

I cease daily blogging today (and return to once-a-week essays). And as for a report card....boy, were we all wrong. Things changed, all right, but not for the better. Things got worse --- they devolved. As this rate, we'll be climbing trees and using leaves to clean ourselves and fighting over bananas before the New Year.

I'll do you a favor: I'll spare you the list. If you watch 'The Daily Show' --- or Letterman, Leno or Conan --- the jokes are better than any blogger's list. Laugh, clown, laugh: It beats really dealing with the ugliness of what's happening in...well, you-name-it.

But let's not look back. Let's go current, and consider the President's speech about terrorism today. From The New York Times:

President Bush used some of his toughest language today to assert that the war in Iraq was vital to a crucial struggle against terrorists who he said intended to build a "totalitarian empire" of global reach.

You see this stuff, and by now, you know it for what it is: the opposite of truth. The war in Iraq is vital to nothing. The country eager to build a 'totalitarian empire' is the United States.

The president also said:

We were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001, and Al Qaeda attacked us anyway.

Could you explain this? I mean, even the White House has --- grudgingly --- admitted there was zero connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda. (Fox never admits this, which is why tens of millions think Saddam bombed the World Trade Center.) So what does that sentence mean? In English. What....does....it....mean?

It means, five years into this presidency, that the man can't think. He surrounded himself with smarter people who used to do his thinking for him, but they are in danger of being dragged off to jail, each and every one of them, and now he is alone.

It's Shakespearean:

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I had served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies

I'll translate. He's a Christian who doesn't go to church. A king who has served only himself and his own kind. His enemies? I don't mean the Democrats --- a bigger pack of cowards was never assembled under one banner. No, his enemies are Korea and the oil states and the many tentacles of Al Qaeda. Jackals, all of them. Sadly, as they bare their fangs and contemplate crunching his bones in their jaws, they are including all of us among their targets.

You're gonna miss working through this intellectual/emotional disaster with me five days a week? Doubtful.

Do You Really Want to Go to Florida?

Florida. First in election fraud. First in overpayments to hurricane 'victims' in the weeks before an election. And now, first to encourage its citizens to carry guns --- and use them, even without clear provocation.

That's right. On October 1, the Shoot First Law went into effect in Florida. It allows Floridians to use deadly force when they feel threatened --- even in a public place.

A guy gives you a look (or doesn't). You can cap him. No problem.

Yes, it's your NRA....always looking to make life more interesting (and violent). Feel like writing someone? Start here.

John McCain: Not Really the President's Man

Here are McCain's complete remarks in support of a bill defining torture.

Mr. President, war is an awful business. I know that. I don't think I'm naïve about how severe are the wages of war, and how terrible are the things that must be done to wage it successfully. It is a grim, dark business, and no matter how noble the cause for which it is fought, no matter how valiant the service, many veterans spend much of their subsequent lives trying to forget not only what was done to them and their comrades, but some of what had to be done by their hand to prevail.

I don't mourn the loss of any terrorist's life nor do I care if in the course of serving their ignoble cause they suffer great harm. They have pledged their lives to the intentional destruction of innocent lives, and they have earned their terrible punishment in this life and the next.

What I do regret, what I do mourn, and what I do care very much about is what we lose, what we -- the American serviceman and woman and the great nation they defend at the risk of their lives - what we lose when by official policy or by official negligence - we allow, confuse or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, our greatest strength - that we are different and better than our enemies; that we fight for an idea - not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion - but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.

I have been asked before where did the brave men I was privileged to serve with in Vietnam draw the strength to resist to the best of their ability the cruelties inflicted on them by our enemies. Well, we drew strength from our faith in each other, from our faith in God, and from our faith in our country. Our enemies didn't adhere to the Geneva Convention. Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But everyone of us knew, every single one of us knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or countenancing such mistreatment of them. That faith was indispensable not only to our survival, but to our attempts to return home with honor. Many of the men I served with would have preferred death to such dishonor.

The enemies we fight today hold such liberal notions in contempt, as they hold the international conventions that enshrine them such as the Geneva Conventions and the treaty on torture in contempt. I know that. But we're better than them, and we are the stronger for our faith. And we will prevail. I submit to my colleagues that it is indispensable to our success in this war that our servicemen and women know that in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to their country they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should govern their own affairs and their relations with others - even our enemies.

Those who return to us and those who give their lives for us are entitled to that honor. And those of us who have given them this onerous duty are obliged by our history, and by the sacrifices - the many terrible sacrifices -- that have been made in our defense - we are obliged to make clear to them that they need not risk their or their country's honor to prevail; that they are always, always - through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss - they are always, always Americans, and different, better, and stronger than those who would destroy us.

God bless them as he has blessed us with their service.

The Beauty Part

Walking to work, my wife and I used to see them on their morning stroll through Central Park.

The man gave off just the faintest suggestion of 'burly' and --- at the same time --- 'frail.'

The woman was a stick figure. Really. From a distance, you could not imagine that her legs could hold a body up, even one as slight as hers. And, if you did not know her, you might think, 'Will someone please buy that bulimic a milkshake and make sure she keeps it down?'

Then we'd get closer and say, 'Oh,' and we'd keep our distance, although, in fact, we knew them slightly --- Joan Didion and John Dunne.

I knew John's brother Dominick and Dominick's son Griffin much better, and my wife and I were extremely close with his nephew Tony and his niece-by-marriage Rosemary. But, instinctively, I gave the Dunnes space. It always seemed they were having a serious conversation and that the future of Western literature depended on its satisfactory conclusion.

Still, it was lovely to see them together. They both wrote at home, they looked over each other's work, they had dinner together --- after decades of marriage, they were inseparable and glad of it. Yes, Joan had MS and John had a bum ticker, but year after year, there they were, getting away with it.

And then their only daughter Quintana took ill. Seriously ill, in-a-coma and near-death ill. And they came home from seeing her in the hospital and John sat down to read and have a Scotch. And then 'he stopped talking' and 'slumped motionless.' Joan had a card in the kitchen with the phone number of a hospital on it --- 'in case someone in the building needed an ambulance.' She called. People came. They worked on John and then they took him to the hospital. A man was waiting. He was not wearing scrubs. 'I'm your social worker,' he told Joan, and, as she writes, 'I guess that is when I must have known.'

Joan Didion's book is The Year of Magical Thinking.

Thought for the Day

Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.
-- Somerset Maugham, 'The Moon and Sixpence'

George Bush and Harriet Miers: They Get Along So Well They Never Talk

As many of you know, I wear several hats. This is one. Editing HeadButler.com is another. I am scrupulous about keeping my political and spiritual views --- the views expressed here --- out of HeadButler.com, which is intended to be a cultural concierge.

But some days, the columns merge.

Like today.

On HeadButler.com, I was writing about The Moon and Sixpence, by Somerset Maugham. I began by saying:

We think we know the people in our lives. And why not? We know their past and their stories, their quirks and jokes, their strengths and foibles. And because we tend to see the future as much like the present --- only with more money, some lines in our faces and cooler cars --- we think we can predict how our friends and loved ones will age.

And then someone goes and gets a sex change. Shows up astride a motorcycle, with an American flag on the back of a jean jacket. Has a meltdown over some political issue and stocks the house with weapons.

We see such people as Exceptions. After all, most of us keep on going, with our old ideas, to the end of the line. Wisdom lies in the Middle Path, the balanced life, the known way. So those Life-Changers have to be freaks, don't they?

Lord knows, it's easier to think that than to wonder: Is it possible that we really don't know anyone? That we are, in the end, strangers to one another --- no matter how close we are? And that, if we are not energetic, we are strangers to ourselves as well?

And then I turned to Drudge, and saw this link to Time Magazine, which ran a a 'Sampling of the Writings of Harriet Miers.' From that piece:

An indication of her stance on gay rights comes from this questionaire from the Lesbian/Gay Political Coalition of Dallas Miers filled out while running for the Dallas City Council in 1989. In it, she supported full civil rights for gays and lesbians and backed AIDS education programs for the city of Dallas...

I moved on to The New York Times, which ran a piece about Bush's press conference defending his Supreme Court nominee:

"She's a woman of principle and deep conviction," Mr. Bush said of Ms. Miers, his White House counsel. "She shares my philosophy that judges should strictly interpret the laws and the Constitution of the United States and not legislate from the bench."

More, from the BBC:

Some politicians of both left and right have questioned Ms Miers' experience. She has never sat as a judge.

Mr Bush said because of that people would "guess and speculate" on her opinions. "I don't have to guess and speculate," he said.

He said Ms Miers was a woman of principle whose judicial philosophy would be the same in 20 years time.

Which is to say: President Bush really doesn't know Harriet Miers as well as he thinks he does.

And that is not a good thing. As Justin Frank notes in his deadly accurate psychological study of the President --- Bush on the Couch --- George Bush needs to feel safe:

Though he is strong in so many ways, Bush is at his core a fragile man. That much is apparent in his frightened eyes, in the staged theatrics of his appearances; spontaneity itself is unsafe for him.

Miers has said she adores the President, that he's the most brilliant man she's ever met. With that declaration of loyalty, she joins Karen Hughes and Condi Rice in forming a shield against his critics: George's Angels.

The only problem: She was so busy saying 'yes' to him that he never thought to ask her a serious question --- about abortion, or anything else. Now he's as surprised as his conservative 'base.'

Harriet Miers, for all her embarrassing lack of experience, is a better choice than most of the other women Bush might have nominated. That's good news for us. But in the White House, you can bet they are scrambling to turn their frowns into smiles.

The Beauty Part

So what is The Moon and Sixpence about? Charles Strickland, a London stockbroker and a bore. Married 17 years. Two kids. No opinions of note. 'There was no reason to waste one's time over him,' the narrator --- a stand-in for Maugham --- concludes.

But then Strickland bolts. Leaves the wife and kids behind and heads to Paris. Another woman? Everyone assumes so. The narrator goes to Paris on a mission. And finds Strickland alone.

Strickland's explanation: He wants to paint. Yes, he's 40. He doesn't know if he has talent. But nothing matters --- he must paint. The question: Does he 'have the right'? And should we judge him by his conduct --- or only by his work?

Thought for the Day

It is far easier to conquer others than to conquer oneself, because the former can be attained by recourse to outside means, while the latter can be achieved only with one's own mind.
--Mahatma Gandhi

L'Shanah Tovah

The Jewish New Year. We don't usually celebrate the Jewish holidays. But Little Uptown is of an age when we have to start to tell her something. And apples dipped in honey--yes, she can learn about sweetness. So it's off to Rosh Hashanah dinner for the Uptowns.

5766--may it be a good year for all.

When a Guy Thinks You Want Him Dead

Our government doesn't like Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. Some have suggested he'd be better off dead. So Chavez has made some very independent decisions:

Venezuela has moved its central bank foreign reserves out of U.S. banks, liquidated its investments in U.S. Treasury securities and placed the funds in Europe, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Friday.

"We've had to move the international reserves from U.S. banks because of the threats," from the U.S., Chavez said during televised remarks from a South American summit in Brazil. "The reserves we had (invested) in U.S. Treasury bonds, we've sold them and we moved them to Europe and other countries," he said.

Foreign exchange reserves held by the central bank stood at $30.43 billion as of Sept. 28, according to central bank data. Words are sometimes as potent as deeds. Actions have consequences. Children learn this. The White House? Never.

'Jesus Told Me to Prosecute Tom DeLay'

Why did Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle go after Tom DeLay?

Jesus told him to.

According to a new film, Earle hates the money-changers in the temple:

The root of the evil of the corporate and large-monied interest domination of politics is money. This is in the Bible. This isn't rocket science. The root of all evil truly is money, especially in politics. People talk about how money is the mother's milk of politics. Well, it's the devil's brew. And what we've got to do, we've got to turn off the tap.
Guess Earle didn't get the memo about all this cronyism helping to bring us the kingdom of God.

Proof That Bush Doesn't Read Swami--or Anything

Remember last week? Generals reported that Iraq had--at most--one functional battalion that could stand up to the 'insurgents'?

Well, here is George Bush on that subject:

President Bush said Saturday he is encouraged by the increasing size and capability of the Iraqi security forces, touting progress on a key measure for when U.S. troops can come home.
Embarrassing, isn't it?

A Real Reason to Loathe Bill Bennett

Okay, maybe he was unfairly pilloried for that remark about aborting black babies. But how can Bill Bennett explain this away?

Reed Hundt writes that back when he was chairman of the FCC he spent some time seeking support for legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. He asked Bill Bennett if he'd be willing to help:

"Since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education. Well, I thought, at least he's candid about his true views." Note to message board posters: Why not ask Loose Canon if she still supports Bill Bennett?

The Beauty Part

So I wrote a piece about Tim Russert and the way he treated Aaron Broussard of New Orleans on 'Meet the Press.' Here's the whole piece--Tim Russert and the Dead Woman: Real Men Always Cry. If you're in a hurry, here's the conclusion:

I cannot remember an important story I've done that did not, at some point, reduce me to tears. The mother of an 18-year-old who was lynched by the KKK but who told me that any proceeds from her lawsuit would go to those who were really hurting--afterward, I sat in the car for a long time before I was together enough to drive. Touring the bedroom of a Harvard-bound girl who'd been killed by a hit-run driver--of course I cried with her mother. And there were other stories that demanded I sit in the victim's chair, so I'd have some idea what kind of hell that was.

And when I went to write, more tears. But you never saw them metaphorically splotching the page. For me, the writer's task in telling a story roiling with emotion is to tighten a vise on the reader until he can't help but feel the impossibility, the sheer awfulness, of the situation. And then, with one anecdote, with a seemingly minor quote, you breach the levee of the reader's ability to cope--you push him/her into empathy, into tears....

My problem with what Tim Russert tried to do to Aaron Broussard is not that he'd never raise the bar so high for an Administration official. It's that he can't feel--for anyone. There's a great interview to be done with Donald Rumsfeld that ends with Rumsfeld in tears; Russert hasn't a clue how to do that. Ditto Rice. Maybe even Bush.

An interviewer can't take anyone to a place he won't go himself. And it's not simple to go to those places. Therapy, meditation, solitude, a good relationship--these all help. But just as nutrition is barely taught in nursery school, empathy is rarely mentioned in the training of journalists. And so one of the greatest techniques of the trade remains an open secret: In private, real men always cry. Thought for the Day

Art. 13. Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention. In particular, no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest.

Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity ... No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.
--Geneva Conventions (even Donald Rumsfeld concedes that these apply in Iraq)

Hey Kids! Get Three Free Tunes Before We Sign You Up to Die in Iraq

When the Army National Guard isn't making its enlistment numbers, desperate measures are required. Offering kids a bag of dope would be a good idea--but maybe not. So how about three free iTunes, as our way of thanking you for letting us talk to you?

Really. I'm not kidding. Here's the ad.

More Progress in Iraq

A hundred Iraqis killed in two days. Sorry. We don't count dead Iraqis. Some odd custom of our Army.

But who cares. There's urgent bad news about Iraqi soldiers:

The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at "Level 1" readiness than there were a few months ago. Although Casey said the number of troops and overall readiness of Iraqi security forces have steadily increased in recent months, and that there has not been a "step backwards," both Republican and Democratic senators expressed deep concern that the United States is not making enough progress against a resilient insurgency. One battalion is 1,000 soldiers. So much for the 130,000 Iraqis that Bush and others have, at times, said will soon be combat-ready. A thousand. At this rate, we get to leave in 2020. Or never.

The #2 Guy at Al Qaeda

Man, that bin Laden is clever. He seems to have at least 30 "number two" guys. That, anyway, is how many we seem to have captured since 9/11. Someone made a list.

The Really Cool Thing about Torture

In an old-fashioned war--like Vietnam, when we dropped napalm and more bombs than were used in World War II--there is the danger of killing too many people too quickly. If that happens, the war has to end. And that's a bummer if we don't think we've killed our limit.

Now take a war like our current campaign against the citizenry of Iraq. We've declared that all soldiers not under our command are 'terrorists.' And so, when we capture anyone suspicious, we see no reason not to torture him.

Usually it happens that the poor bastard is only guilty of being male and young. So we have to release him. But of course the guy we release is not the guy we arrested. Now he hates us. And is, perhaps, poised to help the insurgents/terrorists/whatever kill us and any Iraqi who has sided with us.

So when we talk about torture and how many we kill or maim and how many 'they' kill or maim, there's are two other numbers we really ought to consider:

l) How many Americans will die because we have motivated Iraqis to kill them?

2) How many Iraqi dissidents won't surrender because they know they'll be tortured--and how Americans will die trying to kill them?

Depressing. But it gets the numbers up. And big numbers--that's the American way. Two thousand dead? Hey, that's just a warm-up. If we drive all our allies away and can't find Iraqis to stand with us, we can fill coffins at the Vietnam rate.

The Beauty Part

Did you know that coffee is America's second-largest import (after oil)? And that America buys about 25% of the world's coffee crop every year. This is enormous buying power, this is what it means to have a real impact on an industry. And so there are key phrases you want to master: 'fair trade' and 'shade grown' and, of course, 'organic.' These phrases tell you two things that will warm you as much as a mug of coffee on a cold morning. First, the farmers who grew these beans took the trouble to grow them correctly. Second, those farmers were paid a fair price for the beans.

Many companies sell organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee. But in my experience, only one distributor takes that live-right philosophy a step further. Like: whenever possible, orders in its home city are delivered by bicycle. Like: orders in neighboring areas are delivered by biodesel-powered truck. (They use soy oil as fuel.) Like: when they send you your coffee, an actual human being writes 'thanks!' on the packing slip. And one more nice touch: Buy 10 pounds, take 15% off the bill. A tip of the hat to Peace Coffee.

Thought for the Day

This war is really, really bringing your positive efforts to the level of zero.
--Hidayet Sefkatli Tuksal, a Turkish activist, to Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who is touring the Middle East trying to figure out ways to improve America's image.

The Heroic Army Captain: What, Sir, Is Our Policy on Torture?

He tried to get the Army to pay attention. It didn't. So Capt. Ian Fishback went over the Army's head. Now the Army's main interest still doesn't seem to provide clarification and guidance to its troubled officer--it wants to harass him and the soldiers who have also offered damning testimony.

Fishback is the latest in a series of 'ordinary' Americans who have retained enough of their religious and spiritual education--Fishback is a devout Christian--to stand up to our disgraceful embrace of torture. Here is Fishback's letter to John McCain:

I am a graduate of West Point currently serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry. I have served two combat tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I served in the Global War on Terror, the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq.

While I served in the Global War on Terror, the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. On 7 May 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's testimony that the United States followed the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and the "spirit" of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan prompted me to begin an approach for clarification. For 17 months, I tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command through battalion commander, multiple JAG lawyers, multiple Democrat and Republican Congressmen and their aides, the Ft. Bragg Inspector General's office, multiple government reports, the Secretary of the Army and multiple general officers, a professional interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, the deputy head of the department at West Point responsible for teaching Just War Theory and Law of Land Warfare, and numerous peers who I regard as honorable and intelligent men.

Instead of resolving my concerns, the approach for clarification process leaves me deeply troubled. Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is a tragedy. I can remember, as a cadet at West Point, resolving to ensure that my men would never commit a dishonorable act; that I would protect them from that type of burden. It absolutely breaks my heart that I have failed some of them in this regard.

That is in the past and there is nothing we can do about it now. But we can learn from our mistakes and ensure that this does not happen again. Take a major step in that direction; eliminate the confusion. My approach for clarification provides clear evidence that confusion over standards was a major contributor to the prisoner abuse. We owe our soldiers better than this. Give them a clear standard that is in accordance with the bedrock principles of our nation.

Some do not see the need for this work. Some argue that since our actions are not as horrifying as Al Qaeda's, we should not be concerned. When did Al Qaeda become any type of standard by which we measure the morality of the United States? We are America, and our actions should be held to a higher standard, the ideals expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Others argue that clear standards will limit the President's ability to wage the War on Terror. Since clear standards only limit interrogation techniques, it is reasonable for me to assume that supporters of this argument desire to use coercion to acquire information from detainees. This is morally inconsistent with the Constitution and justice in war. It is unacceptable.

Both of these arguments stem from the larger question, the most important question that this generation will answer. Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is "America."

Once again, I strongly urge you to do justice to your men and women in uniform. Give them clear standards of conduct that reflect the ideals they risk their lives for.

Capt. Ian Fishback, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina No point waiting for my conservative colleague to weigh in. So over to you, message board posters--what do you make of this?

And Jesus Said: 'Don't Come to Me With Crystal Meth in Your Nose'

Life is messy. So the seers tell us. But when the media gets hold of a story, it gets poster simple, doesn't it? Especially when it's the story of a white Christian woman held hostage by a black escaped killer. She reads to him from America's best-loved book--'The Purpose-Driven Life'--and they weep together, and then he lets her go. Happy ending!

But now it's book time--and to sell it, Ashley Smith tells a different story:

Ashley Smith, the woman who says she persuaded suspected courthouse gunman Brian Nichols to release her by talking about her faith in God, discloses in a new book that she gave him meth- amphetamine during the hostage ordeal.

Smith, who has been in a mental hospital and has flunked out of drug rehab programs, says the seven-hour hostage ordeal led her to stop using drugs. She says she has not touched drugs since the night before she was taken hostage.

"If I did die, I wasn't going to heaven and say, 'Oh, excuse me, God. Let me wipe my nose, because I just did some drugs before I got here,"' Smith told the Augusta Chronicle.

She writes that she asked Nichols if he wanted to see the danger of drugs and lifted up her tank top several inches to reveal a five-inch scar down the center of her torso -- the aftermath of a car wreck caused by drug-induced psychosis. She says she let go of the steering wheel when she heard a voice saying, "Let go and let God." Joke title for this book: 'The Meth-Driven Life'

The Beauty Part

When John F. Kennedy was a schoolboy, he was no scholar. Indeed, he was such a cut-up that he was often found sitting in the corner for some infraction or other. On such occasions, notes were sent home. And then his father, the fierce Joe Kennedy, would deliver the ultimate threat--if you don't stop misbehaving in school, we won't let you read the next John Tunis book.

John Tunis is on my mind because, this weekend, the Yankees and Red Sox will face one another for three games that are, to their fans, important as the World Series. A good time to remember what baseball meant to us as kids--in my life, it was a Religion--and to read one of the great Tunis books, The Kid from Tomkinsville.

Thought for the Day

People walking in here, this is a surprise for you! Don't stand here looking like you know what's coming.
--A TV director of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' in Biloxi, Mississippi, as victims of Hurricane Rita waited for Laura Bush

What's Wrong, Son?

Look at the beginning of this White House briefing. Does it not look as if President Bush got a terrible piece of news five seconds before he stepped on stage? Note: this is government footage.

Lynndie R. England: Patsy

You remember the Army clerk photographed--with cigarette and leash--with naked Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. She was sentenced yesterday to three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.

From The New York Times:

"I was used by Private [Charles] Graner," she said. "I didn't realize it at the time."

She said she was drawn to Specialist Graner, a member of the same unit, because he showered her with attention and made her feel safe.

"He was very charming, funny and at the time it looked to me like he was interested in the same things I was," she said. "Now I know it was all an act, to lure me in, I guess." The 'act' didn't stop there. Graner testified that his superiors knew all about the torture and humilation. (Alas, no officer was present the night the photos of England were taken.) Given all that we have learned since these pictures were released, that is entirely credible.

But it is the meta-policy of the United States that men in authority are never actual authority figures. They hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil. (What do they do? Beats me.)

So it's perfect--dramatically perfect--that the woman who got screwed by her superior has been screwed again, this time by the court. Let's pass out cigars to the men in the Army, the Pentagon, White House. Well done, gentlemen!

$250 Million

That's how much gets handed out each day as the Reconstruction of the South moves forward. Did you get any?

About 'Their' Atrocities

A message board poster writes:

Swami says in his column that silence in a response to atrocities must mean that the person of silence secretly enjoys those atrocities. Why does that apply to torture committed by US Soldiers, but not bombs and killings committed by terrorists?
That's a trick question.

First, who are these 'terrorists'? Assuming we're talking only about Iraq, the correct term is 'insurgents.' (Yes, some terrorists from other countries--we have no idea how many--have shown up in Iraq, but that was, I believe, at the express invitation of President Bush.) We could also call at least some of these people 'homeland defenders,' as it is inarguable that this war began with an unprovoked American attack and invasion. Let's say it again for the lipreaders: The US invaded Iraq.

The wrong answer to the trick question: 'No, I won't condemn the insurgents/terrorists/ whatever--they're defending their homeland.'

Which leads to the 'gotcha' followup: 'Then you support the killing of American soldiers?'

And then we stumble off into the night, in the virtual equivalent of a bar fight.

Sorry. Swami won't play that game.

The flaw in the poster's question is that it makes Swami responsible for everyone on both sides (and, in fact, there are more than two sides here, something the White House forgot when it launched this war). I wish I had such power. I wish my view even dominated 'our' side. Because 'our' side is all I can be concerned with.

The poster's view seems to be: 'If they don't stop torturing American soldiers, we might as well go on torturing and killing them.' This is schoolyard logic. And it's one very good reason why wars, once started, last a long time--once you devolve, once you take that backward step into barbarism, it's very hard for an adult, peaceful voice to be heard.

The whole and entire point of this war--if we are to take the most recent White House lie as a sincere statement--was to bring democracy to an unfree country ruled by a tyrannical dictator. The bottom line there is that democracy is superior to tyranny. And indeed it is--when democracy takes the high moral ground. But that high moral ground isn't just slogans. It isn't about posturing. It's about being better--visibly better.

The high moral ground means we build schools in Iraq. It means we get the water pumping, the electricity surging. It means no graft. ($8 billion gone; hello?) It means we hire Iraqis, whenever possible. And it means we honor the traditional rules of war when it comes to treating detainees and civilians.

A democracy would blow up Abu Ghraib within days of learning what went on there.

That would have been a fairly obvious way of restoring the faith of democracy-inclined Iraqis in the United States.

So why didn't we do it?

I don't have the answer. My dark suspicion: Because we are not the people this message board poster thinks we are. Because we may speak of freedom and justice, but when we deal the cards, we hand out despair, torture and death. And...because we--some of us, anyway--really get our jollies seeing Arab men squirm when we arrange them so they're stacked like gay firewood.

And so it falls to American patriots--real patriots, not the schoolyard bullies who can't tell an insurgent from a terrorist--to cry: 'In the name of God, stop the torture! Stop the killing! Stop the damage we are doing--not just to the Iraqis, but to our own country--before it is too late!'

The world sees us as a rogue nation, a strutting thug who batters anything in its path. The proof: We have no allies (except the Brits, who are desperate to bail) in Iraq. Soon we'll go it alone.

So let me ask you, message board poster: Are we right to torture as a continuing instrument of policy? Is the problem that everyone either 'hates our freedom' or is just too dumb to see our good intentions through the haze of torture committed by a few rotten apples? Or is it possible that our country is on the wrong path--and that almost everyone on the planet knows this except hard-core defenders of the current policy?

You tell me. But limit your answer, please, to what the United States should do. Because the last time I looked, we don't have much control over the Iraqis--like: none at all.

The Beauty Part

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and the small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.
That's the first paragraph of 'In Another Country,' one of the 'Nick Adams' stories. Don't know them? You should. They're the first stories published by Ernest Hemingway.

Thought for the Day

According to reports, President Bush may be drinking again. And I thought, "Well, why not? He's got everybody else drinking."
--David Letterman

Did the President Just Play 'Let's Make a Deal' with 'Brownie'?

I'd heard the rumors. But there are always rumors when someone who used to be a two-fisted drinker finds himself in a very public crisis. But then The National Enquirer--yeah, people say it's inaccurate, but it seems to win every lawsuit--came right out and reported the President was drinking:

"When the levees broke in New Orleans, it apparently made him reach for a shot," said one insider. "He poured himself a Texas-sized shot of straight whiskey and tossed it back. The First Lady was shocked and shouted: "Stop George!"

"Laura gave him an ultimatum before, 'It's Jim Beam or me.' She doesn't want to replay that nightmare - especially now when it's such tough going for her husband."

Bush is under the worst pressure of his two terms in office and his popularity is near an all-time low. The handling of the Katrina crisis and troop losses in Iraq have fueled public discontent and pushed Bush back to drink.

A Washington source said: "The sad fact is that he has been sneaking drinks for weeks now. Laura may have only just caught him - but the word is his drinking has been going on for a while in the capital. He's been in a pressure cooker for months.
Now we learn that Michael Brown--remember? "Brownie," the head of FEMA--has returned from the shadows. According to CBS News:
CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger reports that Michael Brown, who recently resigned as the head of the FEMA, has been rehired by the agency as a consultant to evaluate its response following Hurricane Katrina.
You say: Huh? Is this another example of White House cruelty--just the daily effort to toss out one news item a day that crushes liberal spirits? Or is it...something else?

From Jane, at Firedoglake:

....according to sources within the Enquirer itself, the source for Bush's drinking story is -- an incredibly pissed-off, recently scapegoated head of a federal agency who thinks that BushCo. done him wrong.
Take a wild guess with me: Brown. Now let's play this out. The White House knows Brown leaked bigger than the levees. And that he was witness to a lot of stuff that would play really badly for the Administration. Say, Dick Cheney announcing he's not coming back to Washington to bail out a bunch of black Democrats in New Orleans. Or Bush not grasping what was going on. Or Condi Rice announcing, over speaker phone from New York, that she'd just found her dream pair of Manolos.

If you were Karl Rove, what would you do? [Murder is not an option, though I note that two men, Anthony Ferrari and Anthony Moscatiello, have just been arrested in the killing of the business partner of Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist who had hooks into every important White House office.] You'd get Brownie back inside the tent, tee him up for a medal if you have to.

Is this what happened? I dunno. But it's got a real world feel to it--a lot more real world than the "freedom's on the march" blather they put out for the mentally enfeebled to lap up.

Has It Come to This?

I've done some weak things in my life, but I've never hid behind a woman's skirts. The President? He's less proud. So Laura Bush will do an 'Extreme Makeover'--among the top 15 shows last season with an average 15.8 million viewers:

Laura Bush will travel to storm-damaged Biloxi, Miss., to film a spot on the feel-good, wish-granting hit "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Mrs. Bush sought to be on the program because she shares the "same principles" that the producers hold, her press secretary said.

In its standard format, the popular ABC series finds hard-pressed but deserving families, sends them away for short vacations and then, in a whirlwind of carpentry and appliance-shopping, gives them new homes. This time, though, the show will broadcast from an underserved shelter near Biloxi, where a convoy of trucks stocked with everything from mattresses to pants will arrive, courtesy of Sears, one of the show's sponsors.

It's not clear exactly what Mrs. Bush will do, but Tom Forman, executive producer and creator, said he is hoping that she'll just pitch in and help unload.

"We got a call from the White House saying, 'What are you doing and if you need help, just let us know,' " Forman said. "We said here's what we're doing and if the first lady would like to join us, we'd love to have her." Wake me when she's booked on Jon Stewart.

One Good Thing About 'The Passion of the Christ'

Hart Viges was troubled by what he was doing in Iraq, but the soldier didn't turn against the war until he saw a movie:

Despite his growing horror with what he was experiencing, it was only when he watched Mel Gibson's film 'The Passion of the Christ' that he decided to file for conscientious objector status. "I consider myself a Christian and I thought Jesus wasn't talking smack," he told the American-Statesman newspaper, in his current home of Austin, Texas.
The Least of These

We know about the nursing homes and hospitals that had no rescuers in New Orleans. But jails--now there's a scary fantasy: locked in a cell as the waters rose. But that's just what happened:

As Hurricane Katrina began pounding New Orleans, the sheriff's department abandoned hundreds of inmates imprisoned in the city's jail, Human Rights Watch said today. Inmates in Templeman III, one of several buildings in the Orleans Parish Prison compound, reported that as of Monday, August 29, there were no correctional officers in the building, which held more than 600 inmates. These inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, September 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level.

According to inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, they had no food or water from the inmate's last meal over the weekend of August 27-28 until they were evacuated on Thursday, September 1. By Monday, August 29, the generators had died, leaving them without lights and sealed in without air circulation. The toilets backed up, creating an unbearable stench.

"They left us to die there," Dan Bright, an Orleans Parish Prison inmate told Human Rights Watch at Rapides Parish Prison, where he was sent after the evacuation.

As the water began rising on the first floor, prisoners became anxious and then desperate. Some of the inmates were able to force open their cell doors, helped by inmates held in the common area. All of them, however, remained trapped in the locked facility.

"The water started rising, it was getting to here," said Earrand Kelly, an inmate from Templeman III, as he pointed at his neck. "We was calling down to the guys in the cells under us, talking to them every couple of minutes. They were crying, they were scared. The one that I was cool with, he was saying 'I'm scared. I feel like I'm about to drown.' He was crying." Somewhere there is a man or woman who read this news report and said, 'Damn.'

No Blacks Need Apply

And somewhere there is a man or woman who read this Wall Street Journal report [subscription required] and said, 'Good.'

When Katrina's flood waters began to subside, Socrates Garrett hoped his family-owned construction company would win a government contract to help clear the debris.

Instead, Mr. Garrett says, white-owned competitors in his hometown of Jackson, Miss., won a string of contracts in the storm-ravaged areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. He says the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which controls the purse strings for the tens of billions of dollars in federal money earmarked for the effort, told him it had a standing contract with a Florida company. He has registered his firm with the companies awarded major federal contracts but has yet to win any Katrina-related business of his own. Meanwhile, the dozens of vehicles he owns sit idle despite a region-wide shortage of such heavy equipment.

"We're right back to the old network, and we can't get in," he says. "They're just giving the contracts out without a competition. But they won't give a contract to a minority firm. It's like they're turning back the clock."

During a recent New Orleans City Council hearing, for instance, a half-dozen minority business owners said they were being left out of the rebuilding effort, and Council President Oliver Thomas told Mayor Ray Nagin that he was living in "Neverland" for thinking black businessmen would receive a significant number of government contracts. At a meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Nagin said minority contractors would have to struggle to win work unless federal funding guidelines were changed to give local officials more control. "The money flow is not conducive to locals making decisions," he said.

The tensions were also on display last Saturday, when more than 100 minority businesspeople turned out for a meeting with federal contracting officials at a university campus in Jackson. According to attendees, several angry business owners walked out when they were told that the best option available to them was to bid for subcontracts from the out-of-state companies that have won the biggest project awards.

Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, who organized the meeting, says his staff has been unable to locate any federal contracts for Mississippi that went to minority firms. "What the president says about making sure local people profit sounds good, but after the sound bite if you don't put the policies in place to make that happen, it won't happen." Two hundred and fifty million dollars a day is being doled out in the South. $250 million every single day. Did you get your share?

The Beauty Part

As everyone who has taken Beatles 101 knows, George Harrison became enamored of all things Eastern at the height of the group's popularity. In the mid-'60s, he and John Lennon were the catalysts behind the Beatles' trip to India and their meditation retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Thus began the craze of meditation in the West. And thus spawned a handful of songs from the Beatles and Rolling Stones that featured the drone of sitars and the philosophy of mental relaxation.

Crazes pass. Commitments are tested and reaffirmed. George Harrison threw himself into the study of Sanskrit chants. He became more than a devotee--he was the best known Hindu on the planet. A very modest Hindu at that, with a light touch in discussing his religious practice: "I have my beads. I remember when I first got them, they were just big knobby globs of wood, but now I'm very glad to say that they're smooth from chanting a lot."

But unlike, say, Tom Cruise, George never preached. Indeed, he was an anti-salesman: "From the Hindu point of view each soul is divine. All religions are branches of one big tree. It doesn't matter what you call Him just as long as you call." As for chanting, it was a non-denominational activity. "What you're trying to do," he explained, "is just trying to remember God, God, God, God, God, as often as possible."

In l996, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar attempted to do just that. George produced the CD, so you may imagine the clarity and crispness. As background music, it is peaceful and refreshing. At medium volume, it's great for yoga or stretching. Cranked high, it hits you in the chest and opens your heart --- if you're 'emotional' about anything when you listen to this CD at volume, prepare to deal with it. Or just wallow in the beauty of Chants of India.

Thought for the Day

I can see it like a movie screen. We were outside of (a city in southern Iraq) watching as bombs were dropping on the town. We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat, we weren't in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat said, 'You know, this war is so f-- illegal.' And we all said, 'Yeah.' That's who he was. He totally was against Bush.
--Spc. Russell Baer, on Pat Tillman, the professional football player turned American soldier, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan

'Mr. President, I Lost My Husband'

If you know anyone who still supports the wretched war in Iraq, you might send him/her this video. It's short. It's powerful. And, yes, a Kleenex is a good idea. Watch the anti-war commercial.

It Didn't Stop with Abu Ghraib

Officers knew. Officers approved. And so the torture of Iraqi prisoners became not just policy. It was fun:

Three U.S. army personnel --- two sergeants and a captain --- describe routine, severe beatings of prisoners and other cruel and inhumane treatment. In one incident, a soldier is alleged to have broken a detainee's leg with a baseball bat. Detainees were also forced to hold five-gallon jugs of water with their arms outstretched and perform other acts until they passed out. Soldiers also applied chemical substances to detainees' skin and eyes, and subjected detainees to forced stress positions, sleep deprivation, and extremes of hot and cold. Detainees were also stacked into human pyramids and denied food and water. The soldiers also described abuses they witnessed or participated in at another base in Iraq and during earlier deployments in Afghanistan.
You won't see a word about this in Loose Canon's blog. Or on any of the right-wing sites. And not because this is 'opinion' or 'propaganda.' I can only guess that the righties think torture is just dandy. They actually like it.

Crazy? I used to think so. But these 'patriotic' Americans never, in my scan of their sites, say anything critical of these blatantly counterproductive, illegal, un-American activities. So you kinda of have to conclude that... they're into torture. It... thrills them. In that way people have of getting off on stuff that's just a little too sick to share with their friends. Either that, or they're so morally vacant they can't imagine what it's like to deliberately inflict pain.

If I'm wrong, LC, feel free to speak up.

Tim Russert Picks on the Wrong Guy: 'That Wasn't a Box of Cheerios They Buried'

There are millions of people who watch 'Meet the Press' without thinking much about why. Perhaps their parents watched it, and so they've always watched it. Perhaps they're interested in current events. Perhaps they savor the lively exchange of views that can occur when a seasoned journalist interviews a newsmaker.

I avoid this show. For me--and, increasingly, for many others--Tim Russert is no journalist. He's a government apologist who wouldn't dream of more than a perfunctory grilling of a Cheney or Rumsfeld. Oh, he throws one fast ball. But after that, he can't find the zone--he's determined not to strike the big guys out.

Little guys? Different story. You will recall the emotional moment a few weeks ago, when Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard talked about a woman who died in the New Orleans flood. On that appearance, this is what he said:

Mr. Broussard: Sir, they were told, like me, every single day, "The cavalry is coming." On the federal level, "The cavalry is coming. The cavalry's coming. The cavalry's coming." The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard Nursing Home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama. Somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.
On Sunday, Tim Russert had Aaron Broussard on again. There was lots to say. But Russert wanted to replay that tape. Afterward, he had some bones to pick with Broussard:

Mr. Russert: Mr. Broussard, obviously that was a very painful, emotional moment, but let me show you some of the...

Mr. Broussard: Sir, I've never looked at that. I've never heard that. I'm sorry. You take me to a sad place when you let me hear that.

Mr. Russert: Well, it was important, I think...that our viewers see that again because MSNBC and other blog organizations have looked into the facts behind your comments and these are the conclusions, and I'll read it for you and our viewers. It says: "An emotional moment and a misunderstanding. Since the broadcast of [Meet the Press] interview...a number of bloggers have questioned the validity of Broussard's story. Subsequent reporting identified the man whom Broussard was referring to...as Thomas Rodrigue, the Jefferson Parish emergency services director. ...Rodrigue acknowledged that his 92-year-old mother and more than 30 other people died in the St. Rita nursing home. They had not been evacuated and the flood waters overtook the residence. ... When told of the sequence of phone calls that Broussard described, Rodrigue said 'No, no, that's not true. ...I contacted the nursing home two days before the storm [on Saturday, Aug. 27th] and again on [Sunday] the 28th. ...At the same time I talked to the nursing home I had also talked to the emergency manager...to encourage that nursing home to evacuate...' Rodrigue says he never made any calls after Monday, the day he figures his mother died... Officials believe the residents of St. Rita's died on Monday, the 29th, not on Friday, Sept. 2, as Broussard has suggested."

Mr. Broussard: Sir, this gentleman's mother died on that Friday before I came on the show. My own staff came up to me and said what had happened. I had no idea his mother was in the nursing home. It was related to me by my own staff, who had tears in their eyes, what had happened. That's what they told me. I went to that man, who I love very much and respect very much, and he had collapsed like a deck of cards. And I took him and put him in my hospital room with my prayer books and told him to sit there and cry out and pray away and give honor to his mother with his tears and his prayers.

Now, everything that was told to me about the preface of that was told to me by my own employees. Do you think I would interrogate a man whose mother just died and said, "Tommy, I want to know everything about why your mother just died"? The staff, his own staff, told me those words. Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued. Tommy could tell you that he sent messages there through the EOC and through, I think, the sheriff's department, "Tell Mama everything's going to be OK. Tell Mama we're coming to get her."

Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man's tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death? They just buried Eva last week. I was there at the wake. Are you kidding me? That wasn't a box of Cheerios they buried last week. That was a man's mother whose story, if it is entirely broadcast, will be the epitome of abandonment. It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother's died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can't get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff's office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?

What kind of agenda is going on here? Mother Nature doesn't have a political party. Mother Nature can vote a person dead and Mother Nature can vote a community out of existence. But Mother Nature is not playing any political games here. Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we're living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you're in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything's a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.

Mr. Russert: Mr. Broussard, the people who are questioning your comments are saying that you accused the federal government and the bureaucracy of murder, specifically calling on the secretary of Homeland Security and using this as an example to denounce the federal government. And what they're saying is, in fact, it was the local government that did not evacuate Eva Rodrigue on Friday or on Saturday....And, in fact, the owners of the nursing home, Salvador and Mable Mangano, have been indicted with 34 counts of negligent homicide by the Louisiana state attorney general. So it was the owners of the nursing home and the local government that are responsible for the lack of evacuation and not the federal government. Is that fair?

Mr. Broussard: Sir, with everything I said on Meet the Press, the last punctuation of my statements were the story that I was going to tell in about maybe two sentences. It just got emotional for me, sir. Talk about the context of everything I said. Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That's for history to document. That's what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn't come. The Red Cross didn't come. I'll give you a list of people that didn't come here, sir, and I was here.

[...] When somebody wants to nit-pick these details, I don't know what sick minds creates this black-hearted agenda, but it's sick. I mean, let us recover. Let us rebuild. If somebody wants me to debate them on national TV, hey, buddy, be my guest. Make my day. Put me at a podium when I got a full night's sleep and you will not like matching me against anybody that you want. That person is going to be in trouble. If this station or anybody else or any other station wants to do that, you just give me a full night's sleep, sir. I haven't had one in about 30 days. But you wind me up with a full night's sleep, I'll debate every detail of everything you want, sir.

Mr. Russert: Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, we thank you for coming on and correcting the record and putting it in context. And we wish you well and to all your people in the recovery. And we hope to talk to you again. Nonsense. Russert will never talk to Broussard again--you can bet on that. He tried to bully a real man, to nitpack and carp. And the real man stayed real.

The only thing that would have been more satisfying? If they had been in the same room. And Broussard had come over the desk like a comic book hero and stomped Russert. Put him out cold. But given the low state of Russert's consciousness, that might not have made much of a difference.

And the mainstream media wonders where the customers are going!

The Beauty Part

J.R. Moehringer's father, a noted disc jockey, was out of his mother's life before J.R. was old enough to remember that he was ever around. ("My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing.") His mother, suddenly poor, moves into her family's house in Manhasset, Long Island.

A boy needs a father. If he doesn't have one, he needs some kind of man in his life. Or men, because it can indeed take a village.

J.R. found his men in a bar. They were great characters--in their way, they were also great men. Moehringer took notes on them, and, for years, thought he could turn them into a novel. He couldn't. Then 9/11 came along. Nearly 50 people from Manhasset died in the Towers; Moehringer, who was by then working in the West, came home to write about his home town. No jokes here, just funerals, and "the kind of crying I could tell would last for years."

So he wrote this remembrance. We can see in these pages that those men--and J.R.'s mother--did a helluva job on this kid. And he has returned the favor with an act of love, a remembrance that picks at every scab and still delivers hope. I couldn't put The Tender Bar down.

Thought for the Day

From Freud we learned long ago to suspect, when a fear seems out of proportion, that it has been bloated by a wish.
--Philip Slater, 'The Pursuit of Loneliness'

Sex, Sex and More Sex: But Where Is God?

Some days you come to the keyboard clueless. You say a little prayer. And before you know it, God is doing your work for you.

This morning, I was still glowing from a miracle I witnessed last night--a rare New York concert by Boubacar Traore (scroll down to 'The Beauty Part'). The papers, the blogs and the TV had one fixation: Hurricane Rita. I care, but not really. I mean, the government seems to have this one covered. Until events prove otherwise, you can only say 'good luck' and hope for the best.

Then I started thinking about sex. Not for lack of anything to do. But because I only scratched the surface of the Catholic Church's stiff new rules about gays in this space yesterday. And here was the mail coming in, click click click. And--thank you, God--it was all about the same subject: sex.

First up: Daily Sally had sent me her take on the Catholic Church sex scandal in Philadelphia. Terrible charges. Decades of cover-ups. And, of course, the ritual stalling for time on the part of the Church:

The local Archdiocese response so far has been to adamantly deny most charges (quel supris!) and claim the report has an "anti-Catholic" bias. What chutzpah. Tell me please, what in God's name is more anti-Catholic than abusing children in the name of God -- and then hiding in His House to escape deserved and just retribution?
Next up: a story from California, about a 14-year-old student who was expelled from a Christian school because her parents are lesbians:

"Your family does not meet the policies of admission," Superintendent Leonard Stob wrote to Tina Clark, the girl's biological mother.

Stob wrote that school policy requires that at least one parent may not engage in practices "immoral or inconsistent with a positive Christian life style, such as cohabitating without marriage or in a homosexual relationship..."

School administrators learned of the parents' relationship this week after Shay was reprimanded for talking to the crowd during a football game, Tina Clark said. But it's the punchline that had me rolling:

Clark and her partner have been together 22 years and have two other daughters, ages 9 and 19.
Twenty-two years! My three marriages added together don't add up to 22 years. But longevity and stability don't matter--those 'parents' are gay.

Third up: Time to Do Some "Outing" in Vatican City, from Steve Clemons:

I visited the Vatican in early August and met a person who is deeply "embedded" in the world of those who run Vatican City and who govern the global machinery of the Catholic Church.

According to this person's estimation, he guesses that a "conservative estimate" of those cardinals and senior church officials who are gay is about 50%. Practicing, as opposed to just flirtatious, homosexuals at the highest levels of the church are probably about 30%. Those are some numbers!

And then something occurred to me. As Philip Slater points out (above), people obsessed with 'deviance' usually have some attraction to it. That's how we find the neighborhood homophobe is so often the creep perving the Cub Scout troop. The folks who are always checking out their 'gaydar'--maybe they just ought to give in to their curiosity.

But context matters too. And the context we're enduring is a war that dehumanizes the men and women who fight it--and, also, the folks at home. So I looked into War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges. And there it was, just as I recalled:

[In Yugoslavia], war and sex were the stimulants to divert a society that was collapsing....There is in wartime a nearly universal preoccupation with sexual liaisons....Sex in war is another variant of the drug of war.
I'm not going to say that if the war ended, this obsession with sex--especially sex that some call 'deviant'--would end. I think we're too far gone. There's too much political advantage to be gained in pointing a finger at gays. People who don't have much can get too much 'satisfaction' feeling more 'righteous' than people who color outside the sexual lines. And a White House with few reasons to exult can at least point out a First Family that couldn't be straighter--at least on the surface.

In decades of close study of this subject, the one thing I think I've learned is that there's nothing more personal than sexual identity--nothing more specific, nothing less subject to generalization. We're all wired differently. And so the secret of sexual happiness lies in finding someone whose wiring works with yours--not forcing yourself into a definition of "normal" that doesn't always apply to you and never really applies to anyone.

And God? I don't know about you, but I wouldn't look for guidance in any book written two thousand years ago (and more). And while it would be nice to think an 80-year-old virgin could give you some relationship pointers here, it's a very unlikely proposition.

God in my bedroom? Every night. But not condemning. Blessing.

The Beauty Part

If Boubacar Traore were an American actor, he'd be cast as the wise old caddy. He certainly looked the part. The gentleman from Mali wore jeans, a blue oxford shirt, a loose tweed jacket--a relaxed look that takes considerable thought. On his head, a checked wool golf cap. On his wrist, a tasty gold bracelet. But what you mostly notice is the face: ebony, unlined, the very picture of amusement and peace.

Boubacar does a little two-step as he plays. When he hits a major groove, he prances. A solo prompts him to slide out of the spotlight and play in the dark. And when he finishes a song and the ovation comes--as it does after each and every number--he holds up his hands to stop it and then, with resignation and modesty, taps his heart.

When performers are knockouts in Mali, it is apparently the custom to shower them with money. Several times during this concert, women left their seats to dance around Boubacar and rain dollar bills upon him. It's a charming gesture. But inadequate--Boubacar Traore is a master, and when you're in that league, what you give to your audience is beyond price.

Thought for the Day

I'm telling you right now, I wish New Orleans was dry and Washington was under water.
--Tom Waits, at a benefit concert for New Orleans

Pope Benedict the Last

An extremely reliable friend who was in Rome covering the funeral of Pope John Paul told me he'd never seen a gayer spectacle outside of the West Village. 'The monks were cruising one another--as they were lining up for the funeral,' he marveled.

So I was concerned to read, in The New York Times:

Homosexuals, even those who are celibate, will be barred from becoming Roman Catholic priests, a church official said Wednesday, under stricter rules soon to be released on one of the most sensitive issues facing the church.
Obviously, this is madness--it's a recipe for dramatically downsizing the Church.

I mean: There's a shortage of priests as it is.

Eliminating gays from holy service would be like banning kids from the Dominican Republic from playing shortstop.

But...wait! It's not as draconian an edict as you'd think:

The church official said the ban would pertain only to candidates for the priesthood, not to those already ordained. He also said the document did not represent any theological shift for the church, whose catechism considers homosexuality "objectively disordered."
In other words, one more generation of gays and pedophiles--please note: they're not synonyms--can escape detection if homosexual priests just practice their black arts with some discretion. Excellent! Hypocrisy is a human trait. And we wouldn't want the Church to be--literally--Holier Than Thou.

Still, it's a useful indicator that Benedict's papacy will be hard-line right-wing. If the Catholic Church were a stock, even a novice investor would short it--before Benedict is through, the rush for the doors will look like today's news photos of drivers fleeing Houston.

And Speaking of Hypocrisy, I Give You.... The President of the United States

'Freedom is on the march,' the President likes to say. Perhaps not, if you're a woman in Saudi Arabia. From SFgate.com:

President Bush decided Wednesday to waive any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Washington's closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism, for failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers.

In June, the State Department listed 14 countries as failing to adequately address trafficking problems, subjecting them all to possible sanctions if they did not crack down. Of those 14, Bush concluded that Bolivia, Jamaica, Qatar, Sudan, Togo and the United Arab Emirates had made enough improvements to avoid any cut in U.S. aid or, in the case of countries that get no American financial assistance, the barring of their officials from cultural and educational events, said Darla Jordan, a State Department spokeswoman.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Kuwait - another U.S. ally in the Middle East - were given a complete pass on any sanctions, Jordan said.... The White House statement offered no explanation of why countries were regarded differently. Jordan also could not provide one. On the other hand, the Justice Department and FBI are about to crack down on pornography in America --- though no one involved seems to understand who decided that fighting smut was a big priority. Maybe it's this: guys who like the kinky stuff will have to go to Saudi Arabia.

A Day in the Life of the War

From Today in Iraq:

Bring 'em on: Iraqi police colonel and driver assassinated near Baquba.

Bring 'em on: Three US convoys attacked by roadside bombs in Baghdad and Taji.

Bring 'em on: Four Iraqi government workers killed, two wounded in Baghdad ambush.

Bring 'em on: Two Iraqi journalists assassinated in separate attacks in Mosul.

Bring 'em on: One US soldier killed, six wounded by roadside bomb in Baghdad.

Bring 'em on: Oil pipeline ablaze near Kirkuk.

Bring 'em on: Nineteen Iraqi border guards executed by insurgents near Balad.

Bring 'em on: Heavy fighting reported in Ramadi. If this is winning, what does losing look like?

The Beauty Part

First day of autumn. Dial it back to l874 and Jean-Francois Millet's Haystacks. Lovely, yes?

Thought for the Day

I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers overflowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
--John Fogarty (Credence Clearwater Revival), 'Bad Moon Rising'

FEMA: Sending Ice to...Eskimos?

Nothing makes sense about this St. Louis, Missouri report. Trucks filled with ice for Katrina victims sent to...Maine?

The truck drivers NEWSCENTER spoke to said they went all the way down to the gulf coast with the ice -- stayed for a few days -- and then were told by FEMA they needed to drive to Maine to store it.

The truck drivers, who are from all over the country, tell us they were subcontracted by FEMA. They started arriving over the weekend, and city spokesperson Peter Dewitt says as many as 200 trucks could come to the city by the end of the week.
Has anyone who lives around Portland, Maine seen these trucks? And if they're real, let's not ritually blame FEMA. Let's find out which subcontractor is making a pretty penny per mile hauling this ice to...well, your town could be next.

Sharon Olds: 'Sorry, Mrs. Bush, I Won't Come to Dinner'

The National Book Festival will be held in Washington on September 24. Laura Bush, said to be a passionate reader, invited Sharon Olds, a poet who has won a National Book Critics Circle Award, to dinner at the White House. Ms. Olds has refused. The Nation published her letter to Mrs. Bush:

I am writing to let you know why I am not able to accept your kind invitation to give a presentation at the National Book Festival on September 24, or to attend your dinner at the Library of Congress or the breakfast at the White House.

In one way, it's a very appealing invitation. The idea of speaking at a festival attended by 85,000 people is inspiring! The possibility of finding new readers is exciting for a poet in personal terms, and in terms of the desire that poetry serve its constituents -- all of us who need the pleasure, and the inner and outer news, it delivers.

And the concept of a community of readers and writers has long been dear to my heart. As a professor of creative writing in the graduate school of a major university, I have had the chance to be a part of some magnificent outreach writing workshops in which our students have become teachers. Over the years, they have taught in a variety of settings: a women's prison, several New York City public high schools, an oncology ward for children. Our initial program, at a 900-bed state hospital for the severely physically challenged, has been running now for twenty years, creating along the way lasting friendships between young MFA candidates and their students -- long-term residents at the hospital who, in their humor, courage and wisdom, become our teachers.

When you have witnessed someone nonspeaking and almost nonmoving spell out, with a toe, on a big plastic alphabet chart, letter by letter, his new poem, you have experienced, close up, the passion and essentialness of writing. When you have held up a small cardboard alphabet card for a writer who is completely nonspeaking and nonmoving (except for the eyes), and pointed first to the A, then the B, then C, then D, until you get to the first letter of the first word of the first line of the poem she has been composing in her head all week, and she lifts her eyes when that letter is touched to say yes, you feel with a fresh immediacy the human drive for creation, self-expression, accuracy, honesty and wit -- and the importance of writing, which celebrates the value of each person's unique story and song.

So the prospect of a festival of books seemed wonderful to me. I thought of the opportunity to talk about how to start up an outreach program. I thought of the chance to sell some books, sign some books and meet some of the citizens of Washington, DC. I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country -- with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain -- did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism -- the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.

I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness -- as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing -- against this undeclared and devastating war.

But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it. Bravo, Ms. Olds. And to all poets--our 'unacknowledged legislators'--who say 'no' to Mrs. Bush.

Robert Kennedy Jr: 'God Speaks to Us in the Wilderness. But What If There Is None?'

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. gave a speech last week. He was on fire. The most spiritual passage:

We've lost touch with the seasons and the tides and the things that connect us to the 10,000 generations of human beings that were here before there were laptops.

And that connect us ultimately to God.

I don't believe that nature is God or that we ought to be worshiping it as God, but I do believe that it's the way that God communicates to us more forcefully.

God talks to human beings through many vectors. Through each other, through organized religions, through wise people and through the great books of those religions; through art and literature and music and poetry.

But nowhere with such force and clarity and detail and texture and grace and joy as through creation. We don't know Michelangelo by reading his biography; we know him by looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

And we know our creator best by immersing ourselves in creation. And particularly wilderness which is the undiluted work of the creator.

If you look at every one of the great religious traditions throughout the history of mankind, the central epiphany always occurs in the wilderness. Buddha had to go to the wilderness to experience self realization and nirvana. Mohammad had to go to the wilderness, climb to the summit, wrestle one angel in the middle of the night to have the Koran squeezed from his body.

Moses had to go to the wilderness of Mt. Sinai for 40 days alone to get the Commandments. The Jews had to spend 40 years wandering the wilderness to purge themselves of 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

Christ had to go into the wilderness for 40 days to discover his divinity for the first time. His mentor was John the Baptist, a man who lived in the Jordan valley dressed in the skins of wild beasts and ate locust and the honey of wild bees and all of Christ's parables are taken from nature. I am the vine; you are the branches. The mustard seed, the little swallows, the scattering of seeds, the lilies of the field. He called himself a fisherman, a farmer, a vineyard keeper, a shepherd.

The reason he did that was that's how he stayed in touch with the people. It's the same reason all the Talmudic prophets, the Koranic prophets, the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament prophets. Even the pagan prophets like Aesop they did the same thing; they used parables and allegories and fables drawn from nature to teach us the wisdom of God. The whole speech is great. And disturbing. Especially if you have kids. Or care even a little about the future of our country. Read the rest here.

Where Politics and Religion Meet

DailyKos.com--a site that has consistently identified and supported liberal candidates--now ventures into religion. Its new site is Street Prophets. Those who believe as I do that works are as important as faith may want to check it out.

The Appointment That Wasn't

Planned Parenthood pretends to be puzzled.

First, FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford appointed a vet--an animal doctor--to the position of acting director of the Office of Women's Health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. His name is Dr. Norris Alderson, and he was to replace Dr. Susan Wood, the women's health expert who resigned to protest the FDA's refusal to approve 'Plan B' emergency contraception as an over-the-counter.

Soon after the FDA announced Alderson's appointment, it was withdrawn--and Teresa Toigo was announced as the new director.

What happened? Katrina. The revelation that Michael Brown was in no way qualified to head FEMA. It wouldn't have looked good, would it, for a vet to be in charge of women's health.

The Beauty Part

It's Stephen King's birthday, a good day to praise his book 'On Writing'.

Subject, verb, object: for King, that's the 'secret.' Verbs are active, not passive. 'I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.' Want to be a good writer? Read! A lot! And then write! A lot! And write fast: The first draft of a novel should take no longer than three months. Rewriting: If you haven't removed 10% of your previous draft, you haven't done it.

What's great is that King doesn't sit back on his throne in the pantheon and hurl thunderbolts of advice, he offers great examples. Takes you through his own errors. Shows you how you can fix yours. Oh, what a friend we have in Stephen King.

Thought for the Day

Day No. 1: And the Lord God said, "Let there be light," and lo, there was light. But then the Lord God said, "Wait, what if I make it a sort of rosy, sunset-at-the-beach, filtered half-light, so that everything else I design will look younger?"

"I'm loving that," said Buddha. "It's new."

"You should design a restaurant," added Allah.
--Paul Rudnick, 'Intelligent Design,' in The New Yorker (9/26/05)

Iraq Casualties: We're Getting There

The latest figures: 1,903 American soldiers dead. And, as we all know, the more who die, the more we must stay in order that those who died didn't die in vain.

By that logic, we should race to get to 2,000 dead soldiers, the better to defend the Administration's position. Let's see. Four died today. If we continue at this rate, we'll top 2,000 around Columbus Day. A holiday. Bet no one will notice.

Bottom of the Ninth Inning

Yesterday's note ('Decline and Fall') inspired a batch of email, all saying pretty much the same thing: 'I've been having trouble getting through the day. Thank you for giving me hope.'

I know what they mean. Katrina ripped the veil off. It's one thing to shoot an innocent child (like there is another kind!) in Iraq. It's another to see corpses in your own country floating in the streets. And then to know that many of the dead could have survived, if only.... And then to hear the politicians, with their words that never quite touch the reality of what we saw. And now, the companies rushing in to profit....

Today, I told Mrs. Uptown I'd love to be Mariano Rivera, the 'closer' for the New York Yankees. He comes in to pitch the 9th inning and preserve the lead, and that is what he does. Tons of pressure, to be sure, but he lives for it. He needs to matter, to be important, and, man, is he ever. This year, he has 40 saves--for the third consecutive year. Is there a worker in America more effective than Mariano Rivera?

I mentioned my Rivera fantasy to a friend, a healer. She wrote back:

I understand his appeal for you. He has power to finish a job, and we are systematically being deprived of any power to do anything. From a male point of view, lots of men are being frustrated to a very dangerous point because they (you) can't do a thing about what you all perceive as a threat.
I had mentioned that writing this blog sometimes makes me literally ill. My friend commented:

Not being able to act can make you literally sick. That's what they all have to answer for. Tying people up so they can't move and then doing provocative cruel stupid things. The behavior of bullies who hide behind others.

It would be really lovely to have a nice BAT and be able to use it, eh?

For the first time since 2000, after watching CNN for hours, I felt bloodlust and knew I could bludgeon certain people to death and continue until they were pulp and I was unable to lift the bat any longer. This, from one of the most peace-loving women I know. I'm no conspiracy theorist--I don't, like some of you, think dynamite was used on the New Orleans levees--but I do think the White House masterminds are playing a dangerous game of psychological warfare. Their aim: to make those who are sensitive and caring--like my friend the healer, like you, like me--feel enraged and impotent. Why? Because they want us to be ineffective.

When law-abiding, peace-loving people want to club the king and his court--and if the Secret Service or other law enforcement types are reading this, there's no danger of this happening; you'll do better to investigate the uber-patriots who run meth labs in Kansas--we are reaching what looks like a crisis. A mental-health crisis. A spiritual crisis.

It looks like this: We who are not of the corporate, ruling class see ourselves in danger of losing everything. (That's one reason we identify with the victims of Katrina.) But we can't speak up, because 'they' are watching, ready to put us on the 'downsize' list if we make trouble. We trade our masculinity/autonomy or whatever for the mortgage/school fees/food.

We are thus invited to hate ourselves--even as we hate 'them.'

Think I'm making this up? Let's just look at NBC's Matt Lauer. He wasn't exactly Brian Williams or Geraldo Rivera during the worst of Katrina--but he was agitated. A few days later? He was laying lots of blame on the governor and mayor and, it seemed, going out of his way to defend Bush. Rather like Tim Russert, also on NBC. Rather like MSNBC anchor Lisa Daniels who suggested that President Bush's "likeability factor" would make him more popular than ever when the floodwaters finally subside. Of course: NBC is owned by GE, which is one of the biggest defense contractors. What's Russert or Lauer's manhood worth compared to the profits GE can make if the war in Iraq goes on and on and on?

Were NBC newscasters told to have a cheerful slant on anything coming out of the White House? Doubtful. They didn't have to be told. They knew--just as you know how to read the signals in your office.

This is not to say that GE is unpatriotic in that it wants soldiers to die for no cause so long as it makes money. It is to say that our entire system is painfully out of whack. That this imbalance is not sustainable. That we will see people crack under the strain of living a lie. And that this process--though apparently necessary, if we are ever to come to our senses--is going to be very painful.

What can you do? Thwart the powers that be--survive and prosper. Eat better, work out more. Maybe take in a little less news. Maybe upgrade your cultural diet. And so on. An old Ingmar Bergman movie began with an aphorism: 'A virtuous woman is a sty in the devil's eye.' In much the same way, happy and vibrant Americans--Americans who look fear full in the face and then spit--are a sty in the eye of the White House Misery Squad. So do try and get happy. It's almost the most radical thing you can do.

Food Fit for Soldiers--But Not Survivors

Having encouraged you to stay sane, here's something to make you crazy. From The Mirror, of London:

Hundreds of tons of British food aid shipped to America for starving Hurricane Katrina survivors is to be burned. US red tape is stopping it from reaching hungry evacuees. Instead tons of the badly needed Nato ration packs, the same as those eaten by British troops in Iraq, has been condemned as unfit for human consumption.

And unless the bureaucratic mess is cleared up soon it could be sent for incineration.

One British aid worker last night called the move "sickening senselessness" and said furious colleagues were "spitting blood."

The food, which cost British taxpayers millions, is sitting idle in a huge warehouse after the Food and Drug Agency recalled it when it had already left to be distributed. Scores of lorries headed back to a warehouse in Little Rock, Arkansas, to dump it at an FDA incineration plant.

The Ministry of Defence in London said last night that 400,000 operational ration packs had been shipped to the US. But officials blamed the US Department of Agriculture, which impounded the shipment under regulations relating to the import and export of meat.

The aid worker, who would not be named, said: "This is the most appalling act of sickening senselessness while people starve. The FDA has recalled aid from Britain because it has been condemned as unfit for human consumption, despite the fact that these are Nato approved rations of exactly the same type fed to British soldiers in Iraq. Under Nato, American soldiers are also entitled to eat such rations, yet the starving of the American South will see them go up in smoke because of FDA red tape madness." This story hasn't been picked up by an American paper. Anyone in Arkansas know anything about this?

The Beauty Part

He moved to Chicago at 18 because his friends had gone there, scored factory jobs and returned home in hot cars. He played harmonica, so he hung out at Muddy Waters' home club, where a waitress friend told Muddy, 'You ought to hear this boy.' Muddy liked his style and the way he didn't push himself on his betters; he had the kid sit in. And, inevitably, Muddy shared some secrets.

Little Walter came next: 'We became friends right away. He had me sit in with him. He wouldn't invite me or anything -- he'd just walk up and hand me his harp and microphone and say 'Play, boy,' and leave me so he could go over to the bar or talk to some woman or something.'

It was a great life. Music, women, booze--the South Side of Chicago had everything but money. But by 1967, when he was just 23, he got a record contract. His first CD: 'Stand Back!' It's a classic--from Charlie Musselwhite.

Thought for the Day

What a girl called "the dailiness of life"
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
"Since you're up ..." Making you a means
to a means to a means to)is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.
--'Well Water', by Randall Jarrell, in 'The Complete Poems'

Decline and Fall

I once wrote a book with a Mafia guy. He presented himself as a gent, but he turned out to be a thug. A charismatic bully has a way of getting into your head, and this guy did--it seemed he had the ability to read my mind.

In the psychic war that accompanied the writing of the book, I often felt defeated. As if I could not win. For his part, he presented my every attempt to escape his dominance as doomed. No matter what, he was going to prevail--he was, he said, just one of those guys who don't lose.

But he did lose. I got him out of my life, and then he pulled some stunt that got him locked up, and then he got out and committed a larger fraud, and then, as the Feds were closing in, he killed himself. Forgive me, all of you who are better people than I am, but I laughed when I heard the news.

George Bush is no Mafia thug, but I realized last week that I had ascribed to him the magical powers I used to think Luigi had. Namely, that he can't be beaten.

Yes, his polls are doghouse putrid. And that speech in New Orleans fooled nobody. And he can't win the war. As a psychic warrior, all he can do is that weak thing--he can say he 'means well.' But here is what's in my head all day: George Bush controls Congress. The press still bows down. He's going to get this Supreme Court justice and maybe even the truly wretched candidate that follows. He's 'The Terminator'--you can't stop him.

Then I realized. I don't have to stop him. I just have to stand up to him. And join with others who feel as I do. And not worry too much about the day-to-day results, because it's going to look as if he's unstoppable.

And I have to remember--most of all--that nobody's in more danger of losing control than a control freak. The bottom line fact: George Bush is not used to failure without subsequent rescue. He's not used to people blowing him off. To the widespread assumption that he and his cronies are corporate gangsters whose only real skill is the legal transfer of wealth from the government to a handful of companies.

He's a weak guy, and he can't take this kind of rejection, and he's gonna crack. Which could be terrible for the country--scary! spooky! downright frightening! But he called this tune, and now it must play out to the end. The crack in the mirror is just the start. The general collapse is straight ahead, and he'd going for it, full speed.

So do not despair. Stay the course, brothers and sisters. He just might not be coming back from this one. Stay the course.

What's a Billion Dollars Between Friends?

Looting in Iraq. Old story. You don't care. Well, try--a billion ain't small. From The Independent:

One billion dollars has been plundered from Iraq's defense ministry in one of the largest thefts in history, The Independent can reveal, leaving the country's army to fight a savage insurgency with museum-piece weapons.

The money, intended to train and equip an Iraqi army capable of bringing security to a country shattered by the US-led invasion and prolonged rebellion, was instead siphoned abroad in cash and has disappeared.

"It is possibly one of the largest thefts in history," Ali Allawi, Iraq's Finance Minister, told The Independent. "Huge amounts of money have disappeared. In return we got nothing but scraps of metal."

The carefully planned theft has so weakened the army that it cannot hold Baghdad against insurgent attack without American military support.... There's much more. Force yourself to read it all.

How You Can Help Your Government Bring Democracy to Iraq

Doing anything with your tax cut? Anything meaningful, that is?

Well, you now can do something completely original with your money. Why be like everyone else and give to Katrina's victims when you can help create a democracy in Iraq?

Yes, that's right. You can donate to a US-government-backed project: Iraq Partnership.

Hey, $8 billion (or more) earmarked for the Iraqi Reconstruction can't be found. And as you just read, another billion got stolen. So the water in Iraq is spotty, the electricity sucks. And it's going to take money, honey, to fix all that.

You in or out? Love America or hate it? Thought so. And, hey, you never know, maybe they'll name something after you.

A Note to Message Board Posters

Last week someone posted this on the message board to your right:

Ms. [sic] Kornbluth is working like hell to get a liberal, left wing Democrat back in the White House.

Hate George Bush, hate the Republicans....in essense [sic] saying elect an extremist left winger to the White house [sic] next time to help carry on the Marxist agenda. The 'Ms.' tells me this is a newbie. The rest says this is an operative of the Free Republic crowd; they go to 'liberal' websites and dive-bomb the boards. They're known as 'trolls.' You don't feed them (react to them). You just regard them as compliments--they think you're big enough (or important enough) to bother.

Another post from last week:

Swami, why the easy and inauthentic dip into regional stereotyping with your "Mississippi and Louisiana are notoriously corrupt"?
Now this cheeses me off. Unlike She Who Shall Not Be Named, I do a ton of reporting before I write. And I usually link to a news site--not an opinion site--to support my views. So one time I'm in a rush, and I don't put the link in, and someone gets all over me.

'Easy and inauthentic,' my friend? Consider Public Corruption in the United States, a 2004 report from the Corporate Crime Reporter. Go to page 6. You will see that 'the most corrupt state in the country is Mississippi.' North Dakota is #2. And #3? Louisiana.

Suggestion: You wanna fact-check a Beliefnet blogger? You won't have to look hard to find there is Another. Why not go there? If 'gotcha' is your game, who knows what you might find?

My Weekend with Bob Dylan

As the Dylan orgy starts on PBS and music stores, my pal Sally Swift writes in Daily Sally about her collegiate weekend with Bob:

One morning in late June, my friend Karen and I were awakened far too early by music coming from the open window directly opposite ours. At first groggy, then annoyed, then stilled by the plaintive, haunting sounds drifting through the clear morning air. We listened, confused, and said to each other, "God, that's incredible. I didn't know Dylan had a new record."

I'm sure I've telegraphed the punchline. There was no new record, at least not yet. It was Dylan himself, a house guest of the next-door neighbor, sitting in his room, playing and singing... There's more. Savor it all.

'Get Your War On' Goes to New Orleans

It had to happen--floating corpses have their say. Get Your War On. Guaranteed to offend.

The Beauty Part

'The Koln Concert'--66 legendary minutes long, recorded in 1975 --- isn't like anything else. For one thing, it's completely improvised. Keith Jarrett takes a simple figure and explores it, then starts again, a strategy that requires enormous courage and thinking at super-computer speed if the pianist hopes to avoid cliche--and Jarrett, astonishingly, does avoid every cliche. For another, it involves so much more than piano. Jarrett is really playing duets with himself; he hums, taps his foot and sighs, and the microphone gets it all.

Jarrett doesn't pay rapt attention, he is rapt attention; he's so into the music that he merges with it. If there's a greater argument for mindfulness--being in the moment--I don't know it. That kind of consciousness tunes the listener's consciousness. An artist takes a technique--improvisation, in this case--far beyond its old borders. Inevitably, this pulls his audience to a new place. Generally, this experience is accompanied by a lot of moaning and an ever-shrinking audience.

Not in Keith Jarrett's case. 'The Koln Concert' was a huge seller when it was released. It has sold hundreds of thousands of CDs over three decades. It's now a certified classic. It deserves to be--this is very accessible music. You don't have to know anything about jazz to love The Kohn Concert.

Thought for the Day

We're going down down down in quicksand
Our country's law is left in slippery hands
So many educated yet no solution
We're going down down down in quicksand.
--Abdel Wright

The President's Speech

I didn't watch it--Mrs. Uptown has declared our home a Bush-Free Zone, on the theory that the President's penchant for not telling the truth will leach out from the TV like fog in a horror movie and make its way into Little Uptown's room, and, overnight, she'll turn into Regan, the kid in 'The Exorcist'--but I read it. And I noted these words:

The government will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems.

Our goal is to get the work done quickly. And taxpayers expect this work to be done honestly and wisely. So we will have a team of inspectors general reviewing all expenditures.
What the President failed to mention:

1) He has already made sure that companies need not pay prevailing wages to local employees in the rebuilding effort. This guarantees that those at the bottom of the economic chain lose twice. First, they lose their homes; now, as rich companies get richer, they must struggle for solvency. Jimmy Breslin got it right: 'The poor can never be made to suffer enough.'

2) Louisiana and Mississippi are notoriously corrupt. And, I'm told, the New Orleans Mafia is quite powerful. 'Teams of inspectors' are to no point--the stakes are too high. Anything short of a special prosecutor is just PR.

3) The usual suspects have already nabbed fat no-bid contracts. Judging from the names of the corporations lining up in the trough. this is going to be Iraq all over again.

4) Karl Rove. The President didn't mention the Master Fixer's name last night, but as The New York Times reports:

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary ...indicated that Mr. Bush would not use the speech to name a "reconstruction czar" to oversee the effort. A number of White House officials have advised the president to name such a czar, with Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of forces in the 2001 war in Afghanistan, being a favorite of Republicans who are pushing the idea.

Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort. Rove? What has he ever run that wasn't followed by charges of dirty-dealing and fraud? What if he gets indicted for his apparent role in the outing of a CIA deep cover agent? And even in the best of circumstances, isn't he needed in Washington to tell the President what to think?

Ten Americans Who Could Run the Reconstruction Right

What if putting Rove's name out there was just a test? What if the White House would--for the first time ever--consider appointing notable Americans not obviously beholden to Republican and corporate interests?

In that spirit, here are ten Americans who could, I think, get us some results from the $200 billion this reconstruction is going to cost our children:

ROGER ENRICO: Twenty years ago, when Roger was CEO of the Pepsi division of Pepsico, I wrote his book, 'The Other Guy Blinked,' with him. What a lesson in leadership and commitment that was! This guy ran a demanding business all day, then worked me under the table at night. Inquisitive and demanding, compassionate and warm, tough and loyal--Roger was the complete CEO package. If you were in an alley fight, this is a guy you'd want at your back.

KRISTIN BREITWEISER: The most visible of the 'Jersey Girls'--the others are Mindy Kleinberg, Lorie Van Auken, Patty Casazza, and Monica Gabrielle. They lost their husbands on 9/11 and asked one question ('Our husbands went to work one morning and didn't come home. Why didn't they come home?') over and over until they simply overwhelmed a recalcitrant White House. We owe the 9/11 Commission to these women. Surely they could stand face-to-jowl with construction companies.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: For her book, 'Nickel and Dimed,' she worked minimum-wage jobs and showed exactly how hard it is to live with dignity In her new book, 'Bait and Switch,' she explores what Bush economic policies have done to the middle class. Think she can read a balance sheet? I do. And as for connecting with workers, no question.

BOB PITTMAN: I worked for him for five years at AOL, and I'd be shocked to hear there's a tighter executive on the planet. His directives are unsparing, even for executives--public transportation is a good thing, cabs are acceptable, black Lincolns sitting for hours at the curb are borderline felonies. Early in my tenure, when we were both working in Virginia, far from our homes in New York, he ragged me for never getting together with him. 'If I had an assistant, I'd get out of here early enough to have a social life,' I shot back. 'Nah,' he said, 'I don't need to see you that much.' Managing a turnaround? Yeah, he could get 'er done.

ELIOTT SPITZER: He's as ambitious as Rudy Giuliani, and ten times as competent. And he's a Democrat, which gives the White House a good chance to show that at least one decision in two terms isn't based on political loyalty.

CAROL FITZGERALD: Over eight years, Carol turned bookreporter.com--one of the most unlikely ideas for a Web-based business: book reviews, book chats and services to writers and publishers--into a network of sites that pretty much owns books on the Web. And she's done it on a shoestring: $2 million in income over 8 years, 3 employees in the office, a large, mostly volunteer virtual staff. As her business partner, I'm in awe of her integrity, work ethic and willingness to speak blunt truths. Could she run a reconstruction? Hey, she could run anything.

HARRY PARKER: He became Harvard's crew coach in 1963, when he was just 27. For the next 6 years, Harvard did not lose a single intercollegiate race. His crews won 18 consecutive races against Yale. His winning percentage from 1963 to 1997 is .806--he is, very probably, the most successful coach in any sport in the whole and entire world. As a leader, he is sparing with praise, long on inspiration. His philosophy: "To build a winning crew, select the right athletes, place them in the proper seats, and allow for the freedom to create. In other words, hire the right people for the right jobs and manage with a long, loose leash." Just what the White House says, and never does.

JAMES SINIGAL: Co-founder and CEO of Costco--the 'good' version of Wal-Mart--he has made it a point to treat his employees fairly. And still he produces profit. Apparently it can be done.

HAROLD MOORE: Mel Gibson played him in 'We Were Soldiers,' a film that only hints at his greatness as the leader of American troops at the first battle between US soldiers and the Vietcong. He flew in to Ia Drang on the first helicopter. He led his men from the front. When he saw men from another company beginning to haul one of his dead soldiers out of a foxhole with a harness, he snapped, "No you won't do that. He's one of my troopers and you will show some respect. Get two more men and carry him to the landing zone." When it was over and it was time for Moore to turn over command, he requested a full battalion formation. One soldier recalls, "We stood in formation, with some units hardly having enough men to form up. Colonel Moore spoke to us and he cried. At that moment, he could have led us back into the Ia Drang." Think of him as Patton, but with a bigger heart.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: He's already played the President, and he wasn't half-bad. Acting is the least of what he does now; he's an artful producer and a productive activist. He eats issues for breakfast. He can meet a budget. And he's survived studio chiefs and studio accountants--he knows the game.

Not that the White House could care what you think, the place to send your suggestions is comments@whitehouse.gov.

The Beauty Part

In a grand 1920's home, a New York society matron's Italian lesson is just beginning. 'Midway along the pathway of our life,'" she recites with a trill, "'I found myself in a forest dark'--we say: a dark forest, don't we?--'because the direct way was lost.'"

But her reading of her beloved Dante ("Dante and Shakespeare: they seemed to know everything") proceeds no further. First she calls a friend for a quick gossip. Then she consults with the cook, plays with a new puppy, gets her husband's golf clubs to him, disposes of symphony tickets, thrills to her lover's call. And so on for 28 minutes as Ruth Draper, the grande dame of the one-woman show, adjusts her voice for each caller and interloper so precisely that, by the end, we know almost everything about this woman--and her world. This remarkable monologue is on The Art of Ruth Draper.

Thought for the Day

I don't think the President should have taken responsibility.... I don't blame the President. I blame the American people. Y'all knew the man was slow when you voted him in. You can't blame the blind man for wrecking your car when you're the one who gave him the keys.
--Wanda Sykes

The President's Potty Break, Explained

By now, everyone who forwards emails--you know who you are! Please stop! I saw it on my own!--has seen the note President Bush wrote to Condi Rice at the United Nations yesterday: 'I think I may need a bathroom break.'

Beyond hoots of derision, you've also heard the Instant Analysis: The President is like a small child, and he was asking Condi for permission--like he was a kindergarten kid and teacher had to write him a note.

Cute. And very, very satisfying to masochists who plan to spend the next two years moaning about life under Bush. (How upset about the prospect are they? Upset enough to post on message boards and forward accounts of the President's latest outrage to people who agree with them. Which is to say: upset in a kind of self-referential, politically useless, entirely to the President's advantage sort of way.)

Say I: that explanation is wrongheaded. Yeah, it tees you up to feel superior to him. But in year five of this guy's Presidency, doncha think you ought to be a bit....beyond that?

What I think: The President wasn't communicating that his bladder was full. He was saying that he'd had enough of the UN. That he was bored. That he wanted o-u-t. 'Bathroom break' was code--a witty way of expressing an unacceptable thought. Yeah, it was a weak joke...but so is he, kids, so is he.

'The Tears of Autumn'

I've just read a remarkable novel about the JFK assassination, written by Charles McCarry. You've never heard of him because this novel first came out in 1974. It was a bestseller. And then it disappeared.

The Tears of Autumn is a great thriller, with a startlingly original answer to the question: 'Who killed JFK?' In its pages, Paul Christopher--a brave and brilliant CIA agent--thinks he has figured out whodunnit and sets out to prove his theory.

But what really blows the mind of a first-time reader in 2005 is how much JFK was--in McCarry's view, anyway--like George Bush.

In Paris, visiting his spymaster a month before the Kennedy assassination, Paul Christopher meets a close colleague of the President. The man has seemingly cloned John F. Kennedy, Jr. He is brash. He uses words like 'freedom.' He talks excitedly about 'action.' When Paul suggests that sometimes it is best to do nothing, he snarls: 'Buddy, that's not the style any longer.'

McCarry creates a conversation between Paul Christopher and another veteran agent:

'They got into the White House and opened the safe, and the power they discovered took their breath away. 'Christ, let's use it!' Power really does corrupt. They think they can do anything they like, to anyone in the world, and there'll be no consequences.'

"But there always are."

"You know that," Patchen said. "For those who never smell the corpse, there's no way of knowing." Later in the evening, someone mentions a rumor: The president works on his putting game in the Oval Office when he's making a decision. JFK's colleague confirms this:

"Yes, the boss putts occasionally. He'll do it at the damnedest times. The other day a couple of us came in with a recommendation. It was serious stuff. A decision had to be made - the kind of decision that would drive me, for instance, into agony. But his mind is like crystal . . . He got up, grabbed his putter, lined up a shot, and tapped it across the rug. We all watched the ball roll. Somehow - this will sound corny, but it's true - we all suddenly saw that golf ball as the symbol of the fate of a nation. Not a very big nation, not our nation, but a nation. The ball ran straight into the cup. 'Okay,' said the boss. 'Go.'"
Go. Do it. Or not. Like flipping a coin. That's how it's done when you work on gut instinct. Or have a Big Idea you can slot everything into.

The problem, of course, is what happens next. Buddhists--and est graduates--know that some problems disappear if you don't pick at them. Other problems need to be studied, then attacked. There's no General Theory that applies.

Except this, perhaps: If you don't deal with Real Problems now, it's likely you'll see them again--as Crises. The levees in New Orleans, for instance. No estimate I've seen suggests they would have been more than $50-75 million to fix (even in a city as mobbed-up as New Orleans). Now the bill is $200 billion--and that doesn't factor in the human costs.

I hate to sound like Robert Fulghum, but this is a lesson little kids learn: Put things away. Clean up after yourself. Powerful men don't have to do this. They snap their fingers, as if they are all-powerful. And everyone suffers.

But it's really impressive how buff and butch and manly they are, isn't it? Worth every penny your kids will have to pay for their boneheaded errors.

Iran at the UN: Deja Vu All Over Again

The source: Aljazeera. But it's quoting the Washington Post, so don't tune out:

U.S. officials tried to gain support of their allies on referring Iran's case to the UNSC by presenting an hour-long slide show that included satellite images with uncomfortable assumptions about Tehran's nuclear program, The Washington Post reported.

The Power-Point presentation, titled "A History of Concealment and Deception," has been presented to diplomats from more than twelve countries. Several officials said the briefing ignores ambiguities in the evidence about Iran's nuclear ambitions and skips alternative explanations.

Several officials said the presentation reminded them of the flawed briefings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction given by the then-secretary of state Colin L. Powell to the UN Security Council in February 2003. "I don't think they'll lose any support, but it isn't going to win anyone either," said one EU official who attended the recent sessions. And you still don't think we'll find some reason to bomb Iran?

Is Charity for Suckers?

A new idea, and not one I necessarily endorse. In Charities Are For Suckers, Ted Rall argues thus:

Hurricane Katrina has prompted Americans to donate more than $700 million to charity, reports the Chronicle of Philanthropy. So many suckers, so little foresight.

Government has been shirking its basic responsibilities since the '80s, when Ronald Reagan sold us his belief that the sick, poor and unlucky should no longer count on "big government" to help them, but should rather live and die at the whim of contributors to private charities. The Katrina disaster, whose total damage estimate has risen from $100 to $125 billion, marks the culmination of Reagan's privatization of despair....

Why should New Orleans' dispossessed have to live in private shelters? We live in the United States, not Mali. There's only one reason flood victims aren't getting help from the government: because the government refuses to help them. The Red Cross and its cohorts are letting lazy, incompetent and corrupt politicians off the hook, and so are their donors.

It's ridiculous, but people evidently need to be reminded that the United States is not only the world's wealthiest nation but the wealthiest society that has existed anywhere, ever. The U.S. government can easily pick up the tab for people inconvenienced by bad weather -- if helping them is a priority Your views?

Maybe FEMA Was Right

When last we checked--just yesterday; scroll down to 'And Don't Think It's Better Now in New Orleans'--FEMA was making it difficult for Kenyon International to collect bodies in New Orleans. And we all said, in unison, 'Bad FEMA!'

Well, maybe we were too hasty.

Raw Story has a different take:

Kenyon is a subsidiary of Service Corporation International (SCI), a scandal-ridden Texas-based company operated by a friend of the Bush family. Recently, SCI subsidiaries have been implicated in illegally discarding and desecrating corpses.

Louisiana governor Katherine Blanco subsequently inked a contract with the firm after talks between FEMA and the firm broke down. Kenyon's original deal was secured by the Department of Homeland Security...

In other words, FEMA and then Blanco outsourced the body count from Hurricane Katrina -- which many believe the worst natural disaster in U.S. history -- to a firm whose parent company is known for its "experience" at hiding and dumping bodies.

The Menorah Gardens cemetery chain, owned by SCI, desecrated vaults, removed hundreds of bodies from two cemeteries in Florida and dumped the gruesome remains in woods frequented by wild hogs, investigators discovered in 2001. In one case, a backhoe was used to crack open a vault, remove corpses and make room for more dead bodies.

SCI paid $100 million to settle a lawsuit filed by outraged family members of the deceased.

A secretary at the law firm that sued SCI over the Florida cemetery scandals gasped when informed that FEMA had outsourced handling of Katrina victims' bodies to an SCI subsidiary. 'Oh, good lord!" she said.

Peter Hartmann, general manager of the Menorah Gardens Cemetery chain, was later found dead in his car from carbon monoxide poisoning outside his parents' home in an apparent suicide.

Waltrip, chairman of SCI, is a longtime friend of Bush's father, former President George Herbert Walker Bush. The firm's political action committee donated $45,000 to George W. Bush's 1994 gubernatorial campaign. The company also contributed more than $100,000 for construction of the George H.W. Bush presidential library.

I wonder: There was no other company that could do this work?

The Beauty Part

The President, chastened by his bumblemouthed remarks about hot times in N'Orleans when he was just a boy--of 35?--will surely make the city sound like a pillar of civilization from here on. In that case, this CD could be a sanity check. It's got a lewd, ass-shaking boogie-beat, atmosphere thicker than Louisiana fog, production that emphasizes the sensuality, molasses-thick lyrics that don't aspire to profundity--Lafayette Marquis by C.C. Adcock is a worthy successor to Dr. John and John Fogarty.

Thought for the Day

Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared it [government] down pretty good.
--Tom DeLay, House Majority Leader

Right Ruling, Wrong PR

So a U.S. District Judge has ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance's reference to one nation 'under God' violates the right of school children to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God."

Good ruling. A no-brainer, really. Assuming, that is, that we don't live in a theocracy (a point that seems to elude the Right, which can--and does--conjure up fictitious 'proof' that our Founders intended this to be a 'Christian' nation).

At the same time, a terrible ruling. The fact is, there are some fights that are better not fought. Because even when you 'win,' you lose.

This is one of them.

There are precious few parents who care--deeply care--if their kid is exposed to two words in a pledge recited by rote.

There are, however, a great many Americans who will regard this ruling as the wrong-headed decision of an 'activist' judge. Those Americans will then cheer when Bush nominates a wingnut for Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court. And their cheers will drown out the very sane protest against that nominee.

Sometimes good law is bad PR. In other times, I might have felt differently about this ruling. I might have said, 'Let's get this debate about God in public spaces out in this open.' But we're very far down the line toward losing some large battles. My side needs to be strategic, not doctrinaire.

I wish this suit--and this ruling--never happened.

Give It Up for the Nurses

When you're sick, a woman in white is as close as you're going to get to an angel. A report from the post-hurricane front:

Here in our shelter more displaced Orleaneans have arrived. Most of them come from one of the poorest areas, unable to leave under their own steam because of lack of personal transportation or pre-existent illness.

They arrive in whatever clothes they had when they were evacuated. Yesterday when one of CNA's RN's went to get one of her male patients mobilized, she had a surprise. She asked the patient where his shoes were. They were under his cot -- size 13+ and still wet from the water. He had walked in those shoes for 5 days before his rescue. We had no shoes large enough. The RN's went to a local K- Mart after their 12 hour shift and presented a new pair to him this morning.

Also yesterday it was a patient's 84th birthday. Everyone sang Happy Birthday. She started to cry and soon there was not a dry eye in the shelter.

Two nights ago, our RNs went looking in K-Mart for something special for an elderly lady. She has been a widow of many years and her life and joy were her two dogs and 'mama' cat, as she called her. She was unable to save them as they drowned before her -- she is deeply grieved by their tragic loss. So CNA RN's Vicky and Victoria came back from K-Mart with stuffed toys that now have a place on her cot just as her pets had done for many years.

Since I arrived here, this is what I've seen RN's doing -- good solid nursing care. Here it's mobilizing elderly people. Wound dressings. It's assisting them with the daily living needs they cannot do for themselves. It's about enabling them to find some of their dignity and self-respect -- even as they share their 'bedroom' with 50+ others in a sports hall.

Nearly 150 Nurses are on the ground now providing direct care and supporting exhausted caregivers. 1,000 more signed up to go, and a jet carrying 50 of them will leave for Baton Rouge Thursday morning.

Now we need your help to "Send a Nurse to Help." Every dollar you can spare will be spent directly to transport, feed, and house the RNs working in the disaster zone. Click here to learn how you can help. Sounds like a great, great cause. I'm breaking open the piggy bank for this one.

And Don't Think It's Better Now in New Orleans

Hard to believe, isn't it--we're still hearing about bodies in the streets of New Orleans. According to the Governor of Louisiana, the problem is FEMA, which refuses to simplify matters for Kenyon Worldwide Disaster Management. From The New York Times:

Kenyon officials said they had been struggling under cumbersome conditions to execute a task that gets grislier by the day. The company, which has a contract with FEMA to respond when called, arrived Sept. 1 but was not asked to begin recovering bodies until Sept. 6, said Bill Berry, a company spokesman.

The company's 100 or so workers have bunked in a funeral home in Baton Rouge, forcing them to drive four hours round-trip each day, and Kenyon officials said they had repeatedly asked for living quarters in New Orleans.

On Sunday, Kenyon officials told FEMA that they would not enter into a contract with the agency and would pull out as soon as a replacement was found, Mr. Berry said.

Mr. Berry said he did not consider it appropriate to discuss why the company did not want to continue working under FEMA. But he had high praise for the state, which reached out to Kenyon after the company notified FEMA on Sunday that it would not accept a contract.

"I can't say enough about the Louisiana state people," Mr. Berry said. "They heard our problems, and they simply fixed them. It's beautiful to see a general sitting there from the National Guard saying, 'I can do that,' and it's done." Which leads us to....

Edgar Hollingsworth

Mr. Hollingsworth was rescued yesterday in New Orleans, SIXTEEN DAYS after the hurricane hit. He's 74. Here's a picture worth 1,000 words.

Edgar Hollingsworth should be dead:

In the past few days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ordered searchers not to break into homes. They are supposed to look in through a window and knock on the door. If no one cries out for help, they are supposed to move on. If they see a body, they are supposed to log the address and move on.
Luckily, a National Guardsman broke the rules. His men beat in the door. And there was the naked, near-dead Edgar Hollingsworth.

And you thought you were angry last week....

Wait! He Didn't Take Responsibility

I have now seen the video of President Bush acknowledging that things went wrong in the government's response to Katrina--and that he bears ultimate responsibility. Yeah, he said the words. But when you look at it, you'll see that he was distracted and uneasy, like a kid forced (in this case by Karl Rove) to apologize for something he things he didn't do. But look for yourself (scroll down).

I thought he was human. My bad. Promise not to make this mistake again.

Brian Williams Really Does Need Vin Diesel

The government says it's changed the rules for the press, and that if there are problems it's because a couple of grunts don't get it, but it certainly sounds as if a significant number of soldiers aren't making it easy for the press to cover the continuing disaster that is New Orleans. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

A long caravan of white vans led by an Army humvee rolled Monday through New Orleans' Bywater district, a poor, mostly black neighborhood, northeast of the French Quarter.

Recovery team members wearing white protective suits and black boots stopped at houses with spray painted markings on the doors designating there were dead bodies inside.

Outside one house on Kentucky Street, a member of the Army 82nd Airborne Division summoned a reporter and photographer standing nearby and told them that if they took pictures or wrote a story about the body recovery process, he would take away their press credentials and kick them out of the state.

"No photos. No stories," said the man, wearing camouflage fatigues and a red beret.

On Saturday, after being challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims.

But on Monday, in the Bywater district, that assurance wasn't being followed. The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans. If reporters wrote stories or took pictures of body recoveries, they would be reported and face consequences, he said, including a loss of access for up-close coverage of certain military operations. Gays CAN Die for Us in Iraq

You can be gay and serve in our Armed Forces--as long as there's a war on. The regulation allowing gays to serve dates from 1999, but it didn't mean much until the government couldn't find enough patriots, farm boys, and poor black kids to sign up for its excellent adventure in Iraq. Here's more from 365gay.com:

Scholars studying military personnel policy have discovered a document halting the discharge of gay soldiers in units that are about to be mobilized.

The document was made public Tuesday by Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM), a think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was found during research for a story for the ABC news program Nightline.

The regulation...states that if a discharge for homosexual conduct is requested "prior to the unit's receipt of alert notification, discharge isn't authorized. Member will enter AD [active duty] with the unit. As Rumsfeld likes to say, 'You go to war with the gays--I mean: guys--you've got.'

The Beauty Part

No Direction Home--a Martin Scorsese documentary about Dylan--is about to air on PBS. (It's also for sale.) Starbucks is selling a CD of early Dylan bootlegs. There's a two-CD soundtrack of the Scorsese movie, which tracks Dylan from Minnesota to superstardom in just seven short years. And finally, there's the Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1959-1966, an artfully designed collection of memorabilia that has cool inserts like ticket stubs and scribbled sheets of lyrics.

Lotta Dylan. But--skipping his music--what do you know about Bob Dylan? There will be a quiz. So here's a primer.

Thought for the Day

Everything I've seen needs rearranging
And for anyone who thinks it's strange
Then you should be the first to want to make this change
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game
Do you like the part you're playing?
--Arthur Lee, leader of Love, in the 1968 classic, 'Forever Changes'

StairMaster Fantasy

Mrs. Uptown and I watched 'The Magnificent Seven' not long ago. And giggled at an astonishing moment--the first shot of Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. Now those were real men! Movie-thin, of course. But with testosterone to spare.

I was thinking about this movie when I read how FEMA--in a decision it's now rescinded--planned to keep the press out of New Orleans. I imagined Brian Williams, the media hero of this story so far, deciding that he had no intention of obeying this decree. And so he hires Blackwater, the private security company whose guys are, apparently, allowed to patrol New Orleans with weapons.

Imagine the scene: Brian in that crisp white shirt, surrounded by guys who look like Russell Crowe and Vin Diesel--and maybe Linda Hamilton, from the first 'Terminator'--and Arnold, of course. All of them (except Brian) armed. Unshaven. And striding, in slow mo, toward a bunch of bureaucrats to see if they're dumb enough to block them.

I know why I like this image: It's the wimp--and his new best friends--standing up to the neighborhood bully. Fantasy? Sure. But oh so satisfying.

First Loose Canon, Now George Bush

Am I going crazy, or are these conservatives finding new ways to screw with my head?

First Loose Canon took a sane--that is, intellectually consistent--position about entitlements.

Now, for the first time in the five long years of his Presidency, George Bush acknowledged that the buck stopped with him:

Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.
Okay, so he didn't say: 'I hired an idiot for a key job because he was a crony. And I'm going through my entire staff now to see if I have more idiots in sensitive positions.' But this was at least a start. Still, you have to wonder: Why now?

While I'm grateful for any sign of a recognizable human emotion coming from the White House--well, from the President, anyway; who dares hope for accountability from Dick Cheney?--I don't trust this. The right hand is open. What is the left hand hiding?

Is Iran Next?

Just as neo-cons once frothed at the mouth in anticipation at invading Iraq, now the dream is bombing Iran. Our meddling in their election produced victory for the anti-American hardliners. And Iran is generally regarded as a big supporter of everyone in Iraq who wants us gone.

Which sets Iran up as an enemy-in-waiting.

Obviously, we can't invade Iran--not even if we conscript every alleged thug from New Orleans. But what kind of Air Force does Iran have? Nothing that can compare to ours.

And we have something Iran doesn't--yet--have: nukes. Which may soon be easier for us to justify than ever before. The New York Times reports:

The Pentagon is preparing new guidelines governing the use of nuclear weapons that foresee possible pre-emptive strikes against terrorist groups or nations planning to use unconventional weapons against the United States.

The draft document, the Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations, updates procedures for using nuclear weapons that were last changed in 1995. The plan is undergoing final review by the Pentagon's joint staff and by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and it could be finished in the next few weeks.

The scenarios for a possible attack described in the draft include one in which an enemy is using "or intending to use" unconventional weapons against the United States, its allies or civilian populations. Another scenario for a possible pre-emptive strike is in the event of an "imminent attack from adversary biological weapons that only effects from nuclear weapons can safely destroy." The draft document also envisions the use of atomic weapons for "attacks on adversary installations," including "deep, hardened bunkers containing chemical or biological weapons."

Fun, huh?

So Is FEMA Better Now?

Not according to FEMA staffer Leo Bosner:

Right now as we talk, unfortunately, Homeland Security is actually impeding --- in my view --- impeding the rescue effort. As I mentioned, we're running a 24/7 operation down there and we're trying to do the best we can at FEMA. And we're getting held back because we're bombarded with telephone calls, day and night, from Homeland Security, saying, 'Oh, Secretary Chertoff has a press conference coming up, uh, stop everything and get us this information: Can you tell us exactly how many pounds of ice have been delivered to such and such county,' or, 'Why are the number of rescues different from what they were six hours ago?' They're impeding the effort right now.
Once as Tragedy, Once as Farce

Should Bush's approval rating be linked to interest rates? What can a sock drawer teach you about Iraq? And this 'Downing Street'--he's cute, right? A summer's worth of Get Your War On (discretion advised) awaits you.

The Beauty Part

He grew up in New Orleans, where music is in the blood at a tender age. School was not his thing. By l6, he was a working guitarist and, the books say, a heroin addict. Something went wrong, and he spent a season or two in jail. Something went wrong again--a gun, a disagreement, the details are AWOL--and he was shot in the hand, ending his career as a guitarist. But New Orleans was the right place, right time; he had cut his teeth on Fats Domino, Little Richard and Professor Longhair. The piano beckoned.

As did the particular charms of the mid-'60s. To New Orleans Creole lore, he added the spice of psychedelics. He wore Mardi Gras duds onstage. He invoked voodoo. And soon he was a kind of Cajun Jimi Hendrix--Dr. John the Night Tripper.

Thought for the Day

I'm not saying you don't love this country. I'm just wondering how much worse it could be if you were on the other side.
--Bill Maher, writing about President Bush

Good News: From the Pro-War March in DC

Oh, sure, there were the usual police overreactions at the Pentagon's 'War on Peace' March yesterday. From AmericaBlog.com:

One man who registered for the walk was detained by a Pentagon police officer after he slipped a black hood over his head and produced a sign that read, "Freedom?"

The man was removed from the Pentagon registration area, handcuffed and taken away in a police car. It was not clear whether he was charged or simply detained and the police did not respond to messages requesting more information.

Ann Grossman, 56, from Silver Spring, Md., also carried a homemade sign, which read "Honor Our Troops, Respect Their Lives," that was confiscated by police at the Pentagon.
And there were the usual lies--like Donald Rumsfeld addressing a crowd estimated in the low thousands, most of them federal employees who had been ordered to attend:
Rumsfeld took the microphone to rally the crowd to march again next year. "This is our first March for Freedom and by the size of the crowd, I suspect it will not be the last," he said. Department of Defense materials said organizers will try to hold marches next year in all 50 states.
So where is the good news? In the clean-up. Someone in government is getting really efficient, because just a few hours after the event ended--like maybe two hours, max--the site was totally clean. See for yourself.

Isn't that great! Just ten days after the government couldn't find New Orleans on a map, it cleans up after a rally chop-chop. Makes me feel better about the terrorist attacks Al Qaeda has promised for Ramadan (October 4 to November 4). Or is it that Real Patriots are like Miss Tidy Bowl--and we continue to be at crazy risk from anything more unexpected than Dick Cheney's temper?

More Good News: A Surprise from Loose Canon

A few days ago, my blood pressure dropped enough for me to read Loose Canon. And it sure seemed like a mistake! In a note about New Orleans, LC wrote:

I am hoping that Katrina will force us to take a hard look at a number of things, including corruption and a culture of dependency.
As I understand 'dependency,' it has a special meaning for conservatives--as code for 'welfare and other government money earmarked for poor black people who breed too much, forget to marry and don't graduate from high school.'

So I wrote LC: "Does this 'culture of dependency' include agricultural and tobacco and sugar subsidies, etc, or is this limited to what conservatives would label 'entitlements'? In other words: just poor blacks? Or the Fanjuls [rich Cuban emigres who became sugar barons in this country and are now much, much richer], too?"

LC's response: "I'm very much against agriculture and sugar subsidies, etc. I think they are wrong; if cotton farming is not sustainable without government money, then perhaps it is time to find other ways to make a living. Subsidies go against the notion that the market, not central planning, should be allowed to operate."

Well, knock me over with a feather! Goes to show: People are full of surprises, aren't they? So here's a Swami first-ever: a shout-out for LC. Feels good. Hope it happens again.

Euthanasia in New Orleans: Cruel to be Kind

There's the 'culture of life' and then there's reality. From The London Daily Mail:

With gangs of rapists and looters rampaging through wards in the flooded city, senior doctors took the harrowing decision to give massive overdoses of morphine to those they believed could not make it out alive.

One New Orleans doctor told how she 'prayed for God to have mercy on her soul' after she ignored every tenet of medical ethics and ended the lives of patients she had earlier fought to save.

Her heart-rending account has been corroborated by a hospital orderly and by local government officials. One emergency official, William 'Forest' McQueen, said: "Those who had no chance of making it were given a lot of morphine and lain down in a dark place to die."

The doctor, who finally fled her hospital late last week in fear of being murdered by the armed looters, said: "This was not murder, this was compassion. They would have been dead within hours, if not days. We did not put people down. What we did was give comfort to the end.

"I had cancer patients who were in agony. In some cases the drugs may have speeded up the death process. We divided patients into three categories: those who were traumatized but medically fit enough to survive, those who needed urgent care, and the dying. People would find it impossible to understand the situation. I had to make life-or-death decisions in a split second. It came down to giving people the basic human right to die with dignity. There were patients with Do Not Resuscitate signs. Under normal circumstances, some could have lasted several days. But when the power went out, we had nothing. Some of the very sick became distressed. We tried to make them as comfortable as possible. The pharmacy was under lockdown because gangs of armed looters were roaming around looking for their fix. You have to understand these people were going to die anyway."

Mr McQueen, a utility manager for the town of Abita Springs, half an hour north of New Orleans, told relatives that patients had been 'put down', saying: "They injected them, but nurses stayed with them until they died." Lives in the balance. People under fire. Decisions to be made. Unlike some people we can think of, these doctors stepped up to the challenge and acted. Who would be the first to condemn them?

Meeting Mr. Cheney

You have heard about the guy who told Dick Cheney what he could do with himself--using the very words the Vice President did on the Senate floor. But there is more to that story:

Dr. Ben Marble is a complex guy, to say the least. Some of the lyrics he writes can be considered harsh by some - personally what I've heard is very much on target - but he has a softer side as an organizer of breast cancer fund-raisers, not to mention an ER doctor.

"Thanks to Dubya Gump and Mr. Cheney, gas is really expensive and extremely hard to get anywhere Katrina has destroyed," Marble wrote. "So needless to say, I was extremely aggravated that they wouldn't let me pass."

Suddenly a long line of dark cars pulled up, and they honked at Marble to back up to let them through the barricade that supposedly no one could drive through. That only made Marble madder so he did what most of us would do - or at least consider doing. "I waved a middle finger at the caravan," Marble wrote.

After driving the extra 20 minutes and filming video of destruction along the way, he made it to his home. Marble overheard a neighbor say that Cheney was down the street talking to people. That's when he got the idea to go meet Dr. Evil himself.

"I am no fan of Mr. Cheney because of several reasons," Marble wrote. "For those who don't know, Mr. Cheney is infamous for telling Senator [Pat] Leahy 'go f--- yourself' on the Senate floor. Also, I am not happy about the fact that thousands have died due to the slow action of FEMA, not to even mention the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e. Iraq."

So Marble, who was wearing an old Mr. T "I Pity Da Fool" t-shirt since he was sifting through the wreckage, asked a couple of police officers if he and a friend could walk down to Cheney. They told him Cheney was "looking forward" to talking to "the locals."

"So we grabbed my Canon digital rebel and my Sony videocamera and started walking down the street," Marble wrote. "And then right in front of the destroyed tennis court I used to play on Dick Cheney was giving a pep rally, talking to the press. The secret service guys patted us down and waved the wands over us, and then let us pass." Read what happened next.

The Beauty Part

Virtually unknown in America, Xinran is a legend in her native China--from 1989 to 1996, she hosted "Words on the Night Breeze," a radio call-in show in Beijing. In 1994, someone suggested she meet a Chinese woman with an intriguing story. Her name was Shu Wen.

Xinran spent two days with her--and found that Wen was "one of the most exceptional women I would ever know." Xinran then moved to London and never saw Wen again. But she was so haunted by Wen's story that she has turned it into a terse, 206-page novel.

This is the story: Wen and her future husband, Kejun, were Chinese medical students in the mid 1950s. They married when they graduated. Wen was 26. Kejun was 29. They were blissfully happy. Three months after they were married, Kejun was sent to Tibet with the Chinese Army. Soon afterward, Wen received notice that he had "died in an incident."

Impossible, she thought. He's not dead. And if he is, I cannot leave him in Tibet. And so she set off on an impossible mission: to reclaim her present, her future, her one and only love.

And off she goes--on a 30-year-search. An astonishing book: Sky Burial.

Thought for the Day

Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction.
--Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich


Four years? No way! Feels like yesterday--I can access 9/11 on any sunny day when the sky is clear and the New York City air is crisp as a September apple.

My 9/11 story isn't much. I saw the smoke from the World Trade Center as I walked to work; I watched the news as I walked through the office; I logged onto AOL, where I was then Editorial Director; by that time the second plane hit the second tower; minutes later, I was moderating an AOL chat room, sharing information with tens of thousands of members and trying to dampen their panic. I sat in what I called the "Tom Brokaw chair" for much of the day, and then I walked home. A long walk--maybe 3 miles--and an ambivalent one, because I couldn't resist making the imaginative leap from the instantly dead to lucky me, blissfully alive.

In the weeks that followed, I edited a book about 9/11--"Because We Are Americans"--but I never went down to the hole where the Towers once were. I saw the "Missing" posters, and they were plenty hard to take. Going to the place where thousands of people were incinerated....nope, I'm not that guy.

Anniversaries are tricky for me; they seem arbitrary. And exploitative: This Sunday's Pentagon-prompted event in Washington is no better than a dance on the graves of martyrs. I'm more sympathetic to The Flight That Fought Back, a re-created documentary about Flight 93, which airs on the Discovery Channel this Sunday at 9 PM ET. While it's not shy about pumping up heroic mythology, it delivers the goods--it's very satisfying to see people refuse to be victimized.

Four years have changed the world a lot and not at all. The same clowns who blew off a specific warning of a terror attack using hijacked planes are still asleep at the controls, with consequences that make us less safe and less solvent. It's getting to be old news that they can't do anything right. The new news is that we're in charge, if not of our nation's safety, at least of our own integrity--we've got to stop bitching about our bad parents in Washington and start acting like grownups in our own communities.

So it may be relevant to share this with you: this September 11 is "Compassion Sunday," with the victims of the hurricane firmly in the center of the effort. The service will be held at the Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, and it will be taped and broadcast via the Internet, probably by midweek, at The Compassionate Community.

Finally, I want to take a moment to deal with the frustration I see on the message boards and in conversations with friends--a justifiable rage with George Bush, the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans. Lord knows there's blame enough to go around. And enough cronyism ahead to make the purchase of Halliburton stock, even now, a shrewd buy--and an infuriating symbol of all that's wrong in our country. Meanwhile, our soldiers are dying (and killing) in Iraq for no reason anyone can credibly explain, and children are starving in Africa.

It's very hard to think about all this. And harder to focus on what we might do. In such a moment, screaming comes easily.

But I think about what Brian Williams said last night on Jon Stewart--what pushed him over the edge in New Orleans was the realization that those kids didn't have any of the advantages his kids enjoyed. Starting with food. Ending with education. And I thought: "Good for you, Brian. You got to a place where you could own a feeling."

Feeding children happens to be the obsession of the Uptown family. But so, these days, are little things. Trying to be kinder to people. Holding doors for people even older than we are. Smiling to strangers on the street. Just generally putting a bit more effort out to put a spitshine on a dirty, nasty world.

I firmly believe that the planet is kept in balance not by the laws of physics, but by the psychic force of good holding firm in an eternal battle with evil. I believe the souls incinerated in the World Trade Center surround us and help us; I believe they want a better future for those they left behind a lot more than they want revenge.

On 9/11, I want to look past the ways the government will screw the hurricane victims and the rich will get richer. I want to remember that it was WalMart--mean old WalMart--that opened its flooded stores in the South and told people to take what it needed. I want to think about the armed black kids who didn't shoot, but went out to help. I want to make some small connection to the goodness that fills my email. I want to do my small part to balance the world.

And I want that for you too.

Where Is the NRA?

From The New York Times:

Mr. Compass, the police superintendent, said that after a week of near anarchy in the city, no civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns, or other firearms of any kind. "Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons," he said.

That order apparently does not apply to the hundreds of security guards whom businesses and some wealthy individuals have hired to protect their property. The guards, who are civilians working for private security firms like Blackwater, are openly carrying M-16s and other assault rifles.

Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons.

New Orleans has turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers. While armed looters roamed unchecked last week, the city is now calm. And I wondered: Isn't the right to bear arms an absolute right? Indeed, according to the NRA, the most important right we have? So why is there no outcry from the NRA? Could it be that the guns being confiscated belong to people the NRA doesn't much like?

Wait! Why Are Private Security Companies Patrolling the Streets of New Orleans?

From Attytood:

With FEMA refusing the media unfettered access, and trying to limit photographic chronicling of events and scenes, there is indeed a sinister undertone to events in New Orleans. Bush suspending Posse Comitatus, the presence of Blackwell, forced abandonment of personal property and real estate....it is an eerie picture of a police state in training, as if techniques and strategies are being tested. Good God, we allow the employees of private firms to carry M-16's in an American city?

What about all the firemen, policemen and the NorthCom folks who wanted to volunteer? And what about the other nations that wanted to volunteer their forces? Instead, Bush is recreating Iraq in New Orleans. He didn't want conventional volunteers or forces because Katrina is a money-making opportunity for Cheney, Allbaugh, and all the other bastards. Well, maybe the second time is the charm. Or just a better opportunity for us to see, in our own backyard, what "nation-building" means to this Administration. Either way, it proves--to me, at least--a spiritual point. There's no 'here,' no 'there.' The war has come home? No, the war is home.

The Beauty Part

After World War II, the USSR invited exiles to return to Mother Russia. But the country that "welcomed" the exiles home was a harsh, quixotic police state--no sooner had refugees cleared the border than they learned the horrible truth. And then there was nothing they could do about it.

A remarkable escape movie focuses on two of those refugees: Alexei (Oleg Menchikov) and his wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire). The Russians suspect her of espionage and take her passport. She decides at once that she must somehow return to France. Easier said than done.

This virtual imprisonment takes a toll on the marriage. And yet this is a great love story, for Alexei--a doctor--slowly learns how to manipulate the system to help his family get free. Marie tries another path. Your heart weeps. What is freedom worth? You'll find out in "East-West."

Thought for the Day

Now, for you people who are saying, 'Well, stop pointing fingers at the president...left-wing...the media's being too hard': No. SHUT THE F--- UP! This is inarguably--inarguably--a failure of leadership from the top of the federal government. Remember when Bill Clinton went out with Monica Lewinsky? That was inarguably a failure of judgment at the top. Democrats had to come out and risk losing credibility if they did not condemn Bill Clinton for his behavior. I believe Republicans are in the same position right now. And I will say this: Hurricane Katrina is George Bush's Monica Lewinsky. The only difference is that tens of thousands of people weren't stranded in Monica Lewinsky's vagina.
--Jon Stewart, 'The Daily Show'

Mental Skywriting: New Orleans 2008

You know how, when you let you mind drift, it sometimes actually goes somewhere? That happened to me the other day. I was thinking about the aftermath of Katrina, and of this Administration's penchant for making sure the well-fed eat first, and the next thing I knew, I was looking at New Orleans, circa 2008.

Well, a vision of New Orleans, to be precise. And not my vision, either. Kind of a worse case scenario, really.

It was a white man's paradise.

Remember all those poor black people in New Orleans? The ones who produced babies outside the sanctified state of matrimony? Who drank and partied, stole and murdered?

Well, they're not coming back.

New Orleans is going to be an all-white city (with, of course, some black waiters in white jackets at some of the older restaurants). Think of it as New Orleansland--a destination for lovers of regional cooking, conventioneers and vacationing families. Like Colonial Williamsburg, but with a festival featuring the Village People around Lent.

Dreamy, huh?

Oh, I know what you tender-hearted liberals will say: The poor black neighborhoods of New Orleans were like poor black neighborhoods in any city, just with a higher crime rate--why condemn these people to wander the country in search of a fresh start?

Hey, no need for them to wander. Younger men can serve their families and their country by enlisting; they'll get three squares, health insurance for their families and, of course, death benefits. As for the women...well, the rich can always use good help. And their kids, who sorely lack discipline, can get some in their new homes--I mean, detention camps.

"Detention camps" will take even the drowsiest Jew out of his stupor. I woke from my reverie and gave no more thought to this bummer. But as the days pass, that bummer of a day dream comes back to me again and again, and now I see it just might be a valid vision--New Orleans as the next Baghdad, a shining example of American "democracy."

Let's connect some dots, shall we?

First: Punish the Heroes

The good guys were suckers. They thought we were all in this together. According to this report in The New York Times, they were wrong:

Two Navy helicopter pilots and their crews returned from New Orleans on Aug. 30 expecting to be greeted as lifesavers after ferrying more than 100 hurricane victims to safety.

Instead, their superiors chided the pilots, Lt. David Shand and Lt. Matt Udkow, at a meeting the next morning for rescuing civilians when their assignment that day had been to deliver food and water to military installations along the Gulf Coast.....

"I felt it was a great day because we resupplied the people we needed to and we rescued people, too," Lieutenant Udkow said. But the air operations commander at Pensacola Naval Air Station "reminded us that the logistical mission needed to be our area of focus."

On that Tuesday afternoon, the helicopters were delivering emergency food, water and other supplies to Stennis Space Center, a federal facility near the Mississippi coast. The storm had cut off electricity and water to the center, and the two helicopters were supposed to drop their loads and return to Pensacola, their home base, said Cmdr. Michael Holdener, Pensacola's air operations chief.

"Their orders were to go and deliver water and parts and to come back," Commander Holdener said....

Flying over Biloxi and Gulfport and other areas of Mississippi, they could see rescue personnel on the ground, Lieutenant Udkow said, but he noticed that there were few rescue units around the flooded city of New Orleans, on the ground or in the air. "It was shocking," he said.

Seeing people on the roofs of houses waving to him, Lieutenant Udkow headed in their direction. Hovering over power lines, his crew dropped a basket to pick up two residents at a time. He took them to Lakefront Airport, where local emergency medical teams had established a makeshift medical center.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Shand landed his helicopter on the roof of an apartment building, where more than a dozen people were marooned. Women and children were loaded first aboard the helicopter and ferried to the airport, he said.

Returning to pick up the rest, the crew learned that two blind residents had not been able to climb up through the attic to the roof and were still in the building. Two crew members entered the darkened building to find the men, and led them to the roof and into the helicopter, Lieutenant Shand said.

While refueling at a Coast Guard landing pad in early evening, Lieutenant Udkow said, he called Pensacola and received permission to continue rescues that evening. According to the pilots and other military officials, they rescued 110 people.

The next morning, though, the two crews were called to a meeting with Commander Holdener, who said he told them that while helping civilians was laudable, the lengthy rescue effort was an unacceptable diversion from their main mission of delivering supplies....

The order to halt civilian relief efforts angered some helicopter crews. Lieutenant Udkow, who associates say was especially vocal about voicing his disagreement to superiors, was taken out of the squadron's flying rotation temporarily and assigned to oversee a temporary kennel established at Pensacola to hold pets of service members evacuated from the hurricane-damaged areas, two members of the unit said. Lieutenant Udkow denied that he had complained and said he did not view the kennel assignment as punishment....

In protest, some members of the unit have stopped wearing a search and rescue patch on their sleeves that reads, "So Others May Live." News travels. This is how you muzzle courage. Who wants to work in a kennel?

Second: Your Disaster Is My Opportunity

Who stands to benefit most from the hundreds of billions of dollars that will soon flood one of the most corrupt states in the country? In an email, a reader muses:

I'm having terrible thoughts right now, about eminent domain, and taking private property and handing it over to private developers--because our Supreme Court now says we can do that--and flooded houses in the 9th Ward, and levees that failed and no money for repairs for those levees because they needed it for a war against Iraq.

I'm seeing Katrina as Bush's passport to Urban Renewal for New Orleans, a way to get rid of Those People, and hand their land over to his developer friends. Interesting fact: Some of the companies with fat contracts in Iraq are already on the ground in Louisiana.

Third: Never Forget 'Who's Your Daddy?'

In The Wall Street Journal, some rich whites in New Orleans--whose houses are just fine today, thanks so much for asking--mouth off about what could be:

The mostly African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans are largely underwater, and the people who lived there have scattered across the country. But in many of the predominantly white and more affluent areas, streets are dry and passable. Gracious homes are mostly intact and powered by generators. Yesterday, officials reiterated that all residents must leave New Orleans, but it's still unclear how far they will go to enforce the order.

The green expanse of Audubon Park, in the city's Uptown area, has doubled in recent days as a heliport for the city's rich -- and a terminus for the small armies of private security guards who have been dispatched to keep the homes there safe and habitable. Mr. O'Dwyer has cellphone service and ice cubes to cool off his highballs in the evening. By yesterday, the city water service even sprang to life, making the daily trips to his neighbor's pool unnecessary. A pair of oil-company engineers, dispatched by his son-in-law, delivered four cases of water, a box of delicacies including herring with mustard sauce and 15 gallons of generator gasoline." How do they want the city rebuilt?

The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.

The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out." Now ask yourself: Who is George Bush gonna listen to, wealthy white guys like Mr. Reiss, or a community of gangbangers who blow their money on crack and rims?

Four: So What Do We Do with the Black Refugees from New Orleans?

Some good samaritans loaded two cars with clothes and toys and headed off to a FEMA camp in Oklahoma. Some excerpts from their not-so-excellent adventure:

Two car loads of us headed over to Falls Creek, a youth camp for Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma that agreed to have its facilities used to house Louisiana refugees. I'm afraid the camp is not going to be used as the kind people of the churches who own the cabins believe it was going to be used.

Jesse Jackson was right when he said "refugees" was not the appropriate word for the poor souls dislocated due to Katrina. But he was wrong about why it is not appropriate. It's not appropriate because they are detainees, not refugees.

Falls Creek is very secluded and absolutely nowhere near a population center. The closest route from Falls Creek to a connecting road is three miles on a winding narrow road. After battling that 3 miles over mountains, you'll find yourself about 5 miles from the nearest town, Davis, Oklahoma, population ca. 2000. This is no place to start a new life...

[The FEMA representative] told us that some churches had already enquired into whether they could send a van or bus on Sundays to pick up any occupants of their cabins who might be interested in attending church. FEMA will not allow this. The occupants of the camp cannot leave the camp for any reason. If they leave the camp they may never return. They will be issued FEMA identification cards and "a sum of money" and they will remain within the camp for the next 5 months.

My son looks at me and mumbles "Welcome to Krakow."

My mother then asked if the churches would be allowed to come to their cabin and conduct services if the occupants wanted to attend. The response was "No ma'am. You don't understand. Your church no longer owns this building. This building is now owned by FEMA and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. They have it for the next 5 months." This scares my mother who asks "Do you mean they have leased it?" The man replies, "Yes, ma'am... lock, stock and barrel. They have taken over everything that pertains to this facility for the next 5 months." Can you imagine: One day you're living in a neighborhood you love, the next you're under water, then you spend three or four says in the Superdome, then you get taken to....an isolated camp in the middle of nowhere. And you can't leave.

"Brownie, you're doing a great job," the President said about the head of FEMA. And by the racist standards of the vultures circling New Orleans, he is.

The Beauty Part

The boy never knew his father. His mother was mentally ill, so her son was taken from her when he was nine months old. A series of orphanages followed. At 12, he was living in an SOS children's village in Montego Bay, Jamaica when Johnny Cash--who had a house nearby and was a strong supporter of SOS--came to give a Christmas concert.

Cash stood with his guitar and harmonica and sang impassioned songs about what was wrong and how it might be made right, and the kid said to himself, "I want to do that." There was a guitar in the school's office. The boy looked at it longingly. The superintendent gave it to him. And the boy taught himself how to play.

Well, not exactly. He stole in order to buy musical instruction books. And then, before graduating from high school, he left the SOS home and turned to crime. In short order, he was caught with a gun--in Jamaica, that's reason enough for a policeman to shoot to kill. But he was spared. And sentenced to five years in jail.

In jail, he began writing songs. And thinking differently: "I sat there, I repented, I said, 'You know what, I don't want to be a part of this crime and violence in this country anymore. You know, I want to make a change.'"

He did. And now he has recorded a CD. His name is Abdel Wright.

Thought for the Day

She related that she urged Bush at the White House to fire FEMA chief Michael Brown.

He said, 'Why would I do that?'

I said, 'Because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week.'

And he said, 'What didn't go right?'

--- Senator Nancy Pelosi (D - Cal), recalling her conversation with President Bush on Tuesday, 9/6/05

He's Back

It took an epic hurricane, and then a mammoth human screw-up, and then an extra-large helping of government lies to do it --- but I'm back.

For a month. Because that's probably all I can take of daily blogging --- as those who come here often are well aware, I found that a year of looking hard into the toilet of the American soul five days a week made me physically ill. I understand very well the obligation I've taken on to my brothers and sisters in the virtual sangha that gathers here, but my first obligation is to see Little Uptown graduate from --- at least --- kindergarten.

A month is also the right length because it's long enough for events to become trends. Will this precious moment --- this deep wound, this great opportunity --- fade into same old same old, or will the Good People finally catch a break? Will we be so swamped by White House lies that we decide it just ain't worth the fight? Will the ripple effect of Katrina knock the economy to its knees, proving to one and all the simplest spiritual truth: It's all connected, every last strand?

There's a jumble of Old Business in my head. It will take a day or two to clear. Bear with me. And keep those cards and letters coming --- as you know by now: no you, no me.

Condi in New York: A Moral Question

There was a lot of press last week when the Secretary of State, on vacation in New York, went shoe-shopping. Gawker reports that at least one New Yorker confronted the Secretary at Ferragammo:

A fellow shopper, unable to fathom the absurdity of Rice's timing, went up to the Secretary and reportedly shouted, "How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!" Never one to have her fashion choices questioned, Rice had security physically remove the woman.

Rice also went to see 'Spamalot' on Broadway. Anecdotal reports have suggested she was booed. But, really, wasn't that the easy way out? Shouldn't a theatergoer have stood up and said something like:

"Madame Secretary, you are as entitled to time off as any of us. But as your employer, I have to wonder why, in this moment of national tragedy and crisis, you are not in Washington, doing whatever you can to help. And I can't find one reason. Your presence here demeans your office, it demeans you --- and it demeans us. Very simply, I cannot sit here and enjoy this show with you in this audience. So on behalf of all decent people in America --- and your better self --- I must, with all respect, ask you to leave. And if you don't, I will. And I would encourage others who feel this way to leave with me."

And having said that, just stand there and stare at Ms. Rice. Talk about a theatrical moment!

Here's my question: Do you think she'd leave the theater? And if not, how many people do you think would walk out?

'I Feel Diminished'

E-mail from a reader:

I am a resident of downtown Houston, Texas. I am very anxious about the current powder keg my city is sitting on and I welcome your future articles about disaster plans. I have been thinking about nothing but that all weekend.

As I cleaned out my storage room for a coworker who has 25 family members living with her in her 2500 sq. ft. home, I realize if anything like that happens here, I'm toast! And I have gotten the message (crystal, crystal clear) that I'm it. No local, federal, state, ad nauseam officials. And I'm okay with it. I just want some guidance in getting with it.

My millionaire employer was overheard telling his ultra-right friends on the phone today that the hurricane didn't kill off enough people and those poor black women with all the babies should just be sterilized while they were here at the Dome since they had no business with that many children or sleeping with all those different men. Now, I ask you, who is really more ignorant? Him or them? I suggested that you could prevent a geometric increment of poverty-stricken births if you would round up the irresponsible men and sterilize them instead. I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm an alien now. I don't care.

I just want to cry all the time --- and I am not personally affected. But, with each diminishing comment people like him make, I feel diminished as a human. And my love for this great country grows weaker and weaker with every crisis. We are not helping each other and I, for the life of me, don't know why.

Thanks, Marie. Let's see if we can find you some fresh strength. Like this...

We Could Be Heroes...

An email from a man who just returned to New Orleans:

Looking north the only thing you can see is water -- filthy, stinking water. Now imagine a group of citizens, men and women, manning an airboat, several flat boats with motors and several without motors, several canoes and sea kayaks. (No official personnel were in evidence and when someone "official" did pass the operation they didn't know what was going on and could not provide any information or assistance.)

Now picture a constant stream of people being carried to dry areas by these boats, getting out of the boats with all of their possessions in plastic garbage bags, and thankfully trudging to a makeshift staging area. This has been going on since Tuesday from daylight to dark. Citizens taking on the task of rescuing their neighbors. We parked our trucks, put on our boots and joined them.

When we asked "who is in charge?" everyone pointed to Tim, a skinny guy in a Miami Dolphins baseball cap. He was joyfully and gingerly helping an elderly lady out of a boat and into a waiting muddy wheelchair. He lived in the Irish Channel and stayed behind after sending his family to safety before the storm hit. (He had not been able to find them since.) To give himself the appearance of an official capacity, he had his driver's license dangling from his neck. We became friends for life within the first 10 seconds.

There were two guys with their airboat flying down Napoleon, then returning 30 minutes later with boatloads of people. I asked Tim what their deal was. He said they just showed up on Tuesday and had been living in their truck ever since. He said they rescued more than a thousand people the first day by themselves. When I asked them about it, between gulps of Miller Lite, they just said "No big deal" and kept on rescuing people.

A news crew wanted to interview them. They said they had too much to do to talk. I think they just didn't have time for anyone that wasn't willing to get wet trying to help --- wet from that filthy, stinking, muddy water.

Some other guys commandeered their neighbor's big flat boat. They had been going deep into the neighborhood to rescue folks from 8 feet of water, usually from their second floors. These guys were wild. They hauled me with them for their last run of the day as the sun was setting. Imagine the sight -- 3 guys, unshaven, the driver with a 12-gauge shotgun strapped to the driver's console and the other two with pistols strapped to their sides, heading into an area known for looters and gunshots fired at rescue boats. On their last run of the day, they rescued 6 people -- one a 94-year-old invalid who could not walk.

And a few more success stories...

We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way. Early in the day, we witnessed a man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhood. He did all of this with a two-by-four.

One of the groups that we rescued were 50 people standing on the bridge. Most of these people had been there, with no food, water, or anyplace to go since Monday morning (we got to them Wed afternoon) and surrounded by 10 feet of water all around them. There was one guy who had been there since the beginning, organizing people and helping more people to get to the bridge safely as more water rose on Wednesday morning. He did not leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who had gotten to the bridge Wednesday. This guy waited on the bridge until dusk, and was one of the last boats out that night. He could have easily not made it out that night and been stranded on the bridge alone.

In a really rough neighborhood, we came across five seemingly unsavory characters. One had scars from what seemed to be gunshot wounds. We found these guys at a two-story recreational complex, one of the only two-story buildings in the neighborhood. They broke into the center and tried to rustle as many people as possible from the neighborhood into the center. These guys stayed outside in the center all day, getting everyone out of the rec center onto boats. We approached them at approximately 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day, and they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops instead of getting on themselves. This at the risk of their not getting out and having to stay in the water for an undetermined amount of time. These five guys were on the last boat out of the neighborhood at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, mentioned numerous times 'God is going to bless y'all for this.' When we got them to the dock, they offered us an Allen Iverson jersey off of one of their backs as a gesture of gratitude, which was literally probably the most valuable possession they had.

The point of these stories? As one writer concludes:

They make it seem like New Orleans has somehow taken the atmosphere of the mobs in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," but my family has been volunteering at the shelters and can count on one hand the number of people among thousands who have not said "Thank you" or "God bless you." Their lives shattered and families torn apart, grateful just to have us serve them beans and rice.

The Beauty Part

As a natural disaster morphed into something else and water turned New Orleans into a stew of despair and disease and death, I searched -- like many others -- for something useful to do. A donation. That was easy. But it was hardly enough. I still had to find a way to explain this tragedy to myself.

Searching for a smart thing to think is difficult when you have no frame of reference. But there are a limited number of stories in this world, and a limited number of responses to them. So I went to my bookshelves, looking for a writer who had contemplated great loss and human folly.

And there it was: 'The Plague,' the 1948 masterpiece by Albert Camus. I think Oprah should make it her very next book recommendation. Here's why.

Thoughts for the Week

The world saw this tidal wave of disaster descend upon the Gulf coast. Now they're going to see a tidal wave of compassion.
--- President Bush

Our infrastructure is devastated, lives have been shattered. Would the president please stop taking photo-ops?
--- Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this (chuckle) -- this is working very well for them.
---- Barbara Bush, mother of the President

Our coffeehouse was looted for the bottled water. I am glad. Those people needed the water more than we do. We are the lucky ones -- we made it out before the storm.
--- Business owner who lost everything to Katrina

In moments of crisis, style dissolves into character.
--- Business guru Warren Bennis

Character is destiny.
--- Heraclitus

Who's Telling the Truth about Katrina? And Why Does It Matter?

Here's a stunner: According to a Gallup Survey, 25% of the American people believe that the sun rotates around the earth.

Another poll tells us that --- among Americans registered to vote --- '38% approve of the way George Bush is handling his job as president.'

That's like an all-time low. Nixon was more popular.

But it's really worse than 38%.

I don't know how many in the Earthcentric cohort are registered to vote --- or, for that matter, can even read --- but given how the worst are passionate and the best lack all conviction, let's say 15% of them voted. Three guesses who they voted for in the last election.

If 38% think Bush is doing a good job and we know that 15% of them are certified cretins, that leaves a resounding 23% of the American people who are not known to be idjuts who currently support our President.

One might ask how a President can hope to govern with approval numbers that low.

The Received Wisdom --- even among traditional 'Bush Is God' supporters like the Wall Street Journal --- describes Bush as "damaged" and "weakened."

I disagree.

In the upside-down, defeat-is-victory universe of the Bush Administration, reality is for suckers. You like facts? You're a loser. Believe what you read in the papers? Man, that's weak. Here at the White House, we see a bigger picture --- the way America could be, the way it should be. Reality is clay for us. We shape it. Bake it. Decorate it. And serve it up to you, fragrant as a Cinnebon. (That's 670 calories and 34 grams of fat. Mmmm, good eatin'. And good for you, too, so long as, like the President, you burn it off with daily workouts. )

So the White House isn't weakened until it tells you it is.

And that's not what it's telling us today.

Remember those military guys and Southern pols who kicked the stuffing out of the Bushies last weekend for being late and uncaring and barely competent to wipe themselves?

They're recanting today. And why? Because phone calls were made. And these careerists decided they really liked their jobs after all.

Liberal friends of mine have been strangely energized the last few days. They cried with Geraldo when he held that baby and cheered Shepard Smith as he told Hannity off, and they saw a new day dawning in America --- reporters asking tough questions, Administration officials stumbling, some white guy somewhere actually getting fired.

Sorry, kids. You're forgetting a few things.

First is that the White House clamp on the private parts of just about every Republican in Congress couldn't be tighter. Karl Rove has made it very plain: You're with us or with the terrorists. And so Senators and Congressmen who may talk big with a few scotches inside them knuckle under and vote the Party Line. Every single time. What George wants, George gets.

Read it and weep: John Roberts will be confirmed in a breeze. The estate tax will be repealed. And George Bush will look into his own colossal failure --- as he said today, "I intend to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong" ---- and find he did nothing wrong.

All of will make any sane person want to scream, puke, rend your clothes, curse the gods --- and worse.

Several of you have accused me of being 'partisan' when I talk this way --- as if, like Loose Canon, I get my marching orders from higher ups and send them my pieces after they're published and get a pat of the head for my troubles. Nonsense. I'm your basic old-fashioned patriot who thinks the words we use to praise ourselves ought to jibe with our reality.

What I don't get is why so many of you --- especially the folks on the message boards --- don't see that we are now in a crisis much, much bigger than partisan politics.

First, as others are starting to point out, this isn't about a natural disaster. It's about response time to any disaster. If Osama had blown up that levee, FEMA would have been just as lame. Oh, the response would have been snappier. But with Michael Brown in command, not even the Arabian horses would have been saved.

The complete disorganization at the federal level --- when our 'hands-on' managers finally bothered to show up last week, they devoted themselves to totally bureaucratic issues --- is catnip to terrorists, and not just at the Osama level. Splinter branches of Al Qaeda must be enjoying fresh dreams of future glory. Goofballs as government planners, Homeland Security wasting fortunes 'protecting' Wyoming and building bridges in Alaska, the National Guard depleted at home and its equipment stranded in Iraq --- is there any advantage our enemies don't have now?

The bottom line: Our leaders can't protect us. (Correction: Go the library and read the article about Ray Kelly, Police Commissioner of New York City, in the July 25, 2005 issue of The New Yorker. Kelly gets it. And Kelly works it. God bless and protect this man.) Indeed, they don't even seem concerned about protecting us. They do, however, seem very interested in the intersection of power and politics and money. For them, the looting starts now.

Several of you have urged me to "move on." Stop blaming Bush. Get positive. (Give me one more minute, OK, Denise?) The problem with this: memories are short. And Republican spin is very big. Already, although there are documents that prove they're lying, the White House spinners are blaming state and local authorities. You don't have a way to get all the facts. And who would care if you spoke up? So --- sigh --- you'll let this one go by, just as you've let all the others go by.

Except this is the big one. This is the one about your life, and the lives of your kids. This one matters. They're counting on you not to see that, to let Katrina be last week's news. And they're depending on you to be so busy that you'll go into overwhelm mode and fall wearily into their arms --- for you to admit, in effect, that the sun revolves around them.

I repeat: Your life --- your survival, and the survival of all your love --- depends on your paying attention, and paying attention now. Because the newsflash Katrina delivered is that we're all on our own here.

So you need a plan --- a disaster is no time to improvise. Where is the nearest safe place? What's there for you? Do they know you're coming? What can you bring with you?

I understand that this kind of conversation makes many of you nervous. Of course you want resist it, call it 'projection', dismiss it as 'alarmist.' Lord knows it's not what you came to Beliefnet for. Why, you wonder, don't the editors get rid of this lunatic?

But if you believe that nothing is more sacred than life --- and that lives are being threatened by the incompetence of our leaders --- you start to see that we are in a spiritual conversation here. And if you can get beyond the finer points of scripture and doctrine --- if you can accept that the acid test of our spirituality is not what we say but what we do --- you may make the leap to where I am.

Does George Bush mean well? Who cares? What he does --- or forgets to do, or can't be bothered to do, or, in all probability, doesn't know to do even if he had a manual --- now threatens the lives of Little Uptown and Mrs. Uptown. Four years after 9/11, I'm not cutting him any slack. I'm getting busy learning how to keep my family alive if disaster afflicts my city.

In future columns, I'll start to think this out with you. Those who want to help, please write me or post your ideas. The rest of you...you might want to read some of those Old Testament stories.

The Beauty Part

What a strange Labor Day weekend. I was on one of the most beautiful islands on the planet, soaking up sun and sea air by day and gaping at a sky filled with stars at night, but at the same time, my head was in Louisiana. It was very hard doing that bit of juggling.

I suspect that many of you had a similar experience.

Whatever your politics, however much (or little) attention you give to the news, you may well be hurting today --- nerves raw, hopes frayed, imagination drained.

So let us turn to the most healing art: music. And to Willie Ruff, an American genius --- poor boy from Alabama who became a great musician and Professor of Music at Yale --- and his very smart decision to make a solo French horn record in the Venice cathedral that has been home to almost a thousand years of legendary music.

To hear this CD is to be humbled. And right away, at that --- the purity of Ruff's playing knocks you to his knees. It's not the technical mastery that's so powerful, it's the spiritual sincerity. This isn't music: it's prayer echoing in a stone chamber, a collaboration involving Ruff, the composers and the anonymous believers who built this cathedral.

There are a dozen short classical pieces, and then the CD takes a turn to the America South --- to the black spirituals of Ruff's youth. They are wrenching, triumphant, holy in the extreme. And they end, fittingly, as the bells of St. Mark's begin to toll. These harsh days, I need Gregorian chant, plain chant, and spirituals recorded in Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice like I need air.

A Preventable Tragedy Occurs. Whose Fault Is It? The Victims (Of Course)

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
--- Rabbi Hillel

I live in a city where, when the planes hit the towers, guys who weren't on duty --- firemen on their days off, cops on the golf course --- jumped in their cars and raced to the World Trade Center to help. They ran up the stairs, knowing they might not get out. And they stayed longer than they should have, because they knew there were more people to save, and true to the terms of the simple code by which they lived, they died trying to save them. Running toward trouble --- soldiers, cops and firemen are trained to do this. Parents do it as a matter of instinct. Religious people do it as an act of faith. Good citizens do it because --- well, they don't need a reason. They do it because there is something called "the right thing to do," and if you were raised by sane people and not twisted by the circumstances of your life, you know what it is, and you do it. But here is a report of your Federal Government's response to Hurricane Katina and the flooding of New Orleans on Wednesday --- two days into the crisis: "On Wednesday," said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., "reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!" Why were these soldiers not rushing to help? Because no one told them. Because they were waiting for orders. And there were no orders. At the top of the chain of command, there was no commander. No one in charge. How scary is that? The biggest disaster on our shores in a century, and our government's leaders were AWOL. Our President's deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the 9/11 attacks was no fluke. For all his tough talk, the man simply does not know what to do when things go really, really wrong. Careless in good times, he's negligent in bad. Criminally negligent. And now it looks as if as many as 10,000 people have died because of that negligence. (Add that to the nearly 2,000 dead in Iraq, and his numbers are starting to be in the same league as the record number of executions he authorized when he was Governor of Texas.) You have read, by now, how the Federal Government cut funding for flood prevention work in New Orleans because the money was needed for the war in Iraq. How the head of FEMA is such an inexperienced idiot that he was fired from the International Arabian Horse Association --- not exactly a confidence-inspiring credential, even if he had been a howling success at that job --- and did not seem to know as late as yesterday that 15,000 people in the sweltering convention center were without food or water. How Dick Cheney, on seemingly permanent vacation, has decided to let George Bush play the part of the President without his help. And how Condi Rice, instead of coordinating the international response to our crisis, shopped for shoes in New York. And we have seen this government do what it does best, which is to spin a fairytale for a nation of children. The Army finally shows up and George Bush hugs a Negro. Did everyone get the picture? Great. Now let's move on to our real problem...Social Security. Blame? Not the time for it. Gotta pull together. But if we must blame anyone, well...why not blame the victims? They're black. They're poor. And they vote Democratic. (If you think politics has nothing to do with this, you are truly a child. Consider: If Jeb Bush were governor of Louisiana, those people would be alive now.) They were poor, and often old, and not imaginative. They had nowhere to go, so they went nowhere. And then, when it was over, and they were left alone --- with nothing: no services, no communication, no government, no law, no food or water --- they went out and did what people do in that moment. They foraged. Loose Canon and Bill O'Reilly and Peggy Noonan and others on the malicious wing of the Right must be afflicted with a hardness of heart that is life-threatening, for they seem not to be able to distinguish between a tea party and a disaster. In a disaster, you understand something fundamental. Brecht said it simplest: 'First feed the face, then talk right and wrong.' The waters are swirling, help is absent? You go out and get diapers and water and food for your brood. And maybe --- maybe --- you pinch a flat screen TV too, in the odd, misguided belief that you will soon have a livable home again, and electricity, and a life you recognize. Remember 'The Godfather' --- 'A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with machine guns.' Say you condemn the 'looters' in New Orleans. If you do not go right on to condemn the crooks at Hallibuton and the other companies getting rich on the suffering of the Iraqi people, then it is pretty obvious who you are. Racists. Bigots. And please do us the courtesy of not denying it -- 'But I like black people' --- because there really is no other explanation for your vile views. Yes, there are hardcore thugs in New Orleans. And they have stepped into the breach and established their own brand of law. It is the law of the jungle, and it is horrible and ugly. But it is not nearly so ugly as the lawlessness that the Bush government has spawned by its laziness and ineptitute and lack of caring. When those punks cap their l0,000 victim, I'll condemn them. Until then, all the criminals we need to care about are white. Terrible emotions run wild in us these days. Anger. Shame. Disbelief. Hopelessness. Those are hard emotions to deal with. And we have been well-trained by the Bush spinners always to blame the victims --- to put responsibility on people too dazed or ignorant to take responsibility for themselves. For five years, these guys have gotten away with it. For much of that time, people like me have tried to pull the curtain back and show you how they make their cheap magic. Some of you listened. Some of you dared to consider that hard, scary thought --- your government lies to you, and lies consistently. "No one thought the levees would break," the President lied. Don't let him get away with it. And don't let these right-wing pundits make you think they'd behave any better than the New Orleans looters if their kids were hungry and thirsty and hurting. Trust me on this: Once these soft white pundits stopped bawling, they'd cheerfully blow your brains out with their hunting rifles if you stood between them and a week's supply of Evian.

Crises are supposed to bring out the best in people? Then let these filthy racists shut their mouths so that those who want to help can get on with it.

Thought for the Week

To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
--Helen Keller

Deep Thoughts from an Island

Destinations are desirable in direct proportion to how hard they are to reach. It took us twice as long to get to Nantucket as it did to get to Paris. But when we arrived, we were not in another city but another world. I can't believe I'm saying this, but right now, I'd take Nantucket over Paris any old time.

We're sharing a house with friends. They're old Nantucket hands--they've scored a house overlooking the bay that's a local hat trick: charming, old, affordable. The beauty of the house is secondary; the big deal is the location. Everything directs you toward the beach and the water. Blue and khaki are the colors of the day, punctuated by clouds out of paintings by Renoir. At night, I sit outside and look up at the stars.

It seems this city boy has done a lot of stargazing this summer. I've learned few facts about the heavens--after the Big Dipper, I'm pretty much stumped--but I've had some predictable Deep Thoughts, mostly about time, and how long this universe has been around and how brief are our days. Yeah, that deep. But very powerful when you're sitting outside, and there's a warm breeze and the waves sound like small footsteps coming closer and the only action in the sky that isn't millions of years old is the occasional night flight to Europe.

In a setting like this, you very quickly get to What I Believe. This summer, I keep coming back to Pantheism. Taking yourself out of our busy world long enough to breathe in and breathe out without electronic distraction. In New York, I try to get to Central Park for a few minutes every day; I have this primitive belief in the healing power of green. On Nantucket, the healing forces are bigger--to sit outside at night is to be in a natural ampitheater, with a better show than the midnight Pink Floyd extravaganza they used to put on at the planetarium.

The breeze blows the trivial topics away. The biggies remain: work, love and meaning. Increasingly, now that I'm a parent, my thoughts go to children--starting, of course, with Little Uptown.

Little Uptown's best friend had a finger nearly severed last week. Jack is three years old, the first child of lovely people--you can imagine how fraught they've been. Over the weekend, I wrote the father to ask how he and his wife were holding up. "As Jack is, so we are," he replied.

What a breathtaking, eloquent reply. A six-word seesaw, exactly balanced on that comma. It's the parental nightmare: your professional life, your accomplishments, cleverness, health, friendships--a child in the hospital blows all that away. And so you ask your god for the impossible: 'Dear Lord, please spare our child his/her fate.'

Here, Little Uptown's future is far away. Mornings, she plays with dolls and watches Sponge Bob. Afternoons, she builds castles on the beach. I stand in the water with her and swing her like a metronome and hold her up to the sky, and then the world is that face and a powder blue background. In the late afternoon, with a beach towel for a cape, she runs across the lawn, hoping to fly. Here, ice cream can be dinner. She hugs stuffed animals as she sleeps.

I'm always willing to see improvement, but I have trouble imagining how it gets better than this.

Last night I wished--consciously, with all my useless heart--that all children could have such days. And then, as I have all summer, I thought about other children sleeping under this sky: our own poor and hungry, the children of Iraq and Darfur, you know my list.

And then I thought about George Bush. And was struck by a blinding insight.

George Bush: An Appointment with Death

When George Bush--the first child of George H. and Barbara Bush--was 4, his little sister was born. Three years later, Robin Bush was diagnosed with leukemia. She never saw her fourth birthday.

What was the effect of Robin's death on her older brother?

George W. was only seven years old at the time. Although he knew that his sister was sick, George W. did not realize that she was going to die. In a 1999 Washington Post interview, he described how he found out that she was dead. He said that he was at school when he saw his parents' car pull up.

"I run over to the car," said George W., remembering the event, "and there's no Robin." He was sure he had seen her in the back seat, but when he got into the car, they told him she had died.

Unlike his brother, Jeb, who was only an infant at the time, George W. was old enough to grieve himself and to realize how hurt his parents were. He tried to comfort his mother and cheer her up, and she has said in interviews that she didn't realize what he was doing until one day when she overheard him telling a friend that he couldn't come out to play because he had to stay with his mom, because she was lonely. This account leaves out two facts of import. One, that there was no funeral for Robin. (If memory serves me well, I believe George H. Bush's first response to his daughter's death was to play a round of golf.) Two, that George and Barbara Bush never talked about Robin's death with their young son.

George Bush's mental processes are a mystery to many of us--who can imagine how he internalized his sister's death? But half a century later, it doesn't take a genius to see its effect on his psyche. In a word, Bush is petrified of death. And that makes him, in practical terms, a coward. Which is the root of everything that's going wrong for us. A President must be brave, and Bush is not--death haunts him, death has driven him half-mad--and so he is obsessed with projects that put the lives of braver men at risk.

His personal project is immortality, a classic boomer dream; his real religion is exercise. If he jogs and bikes and spends enough time on the stairmaster, he'll become not just fit but bionic--in such amazing shape he might as well be immortal.

Part of that immortality is its assertion: I am strong above all others, a king when it comes to courage. Thus the celebration on the aircraft carrier. Thus "Bring 'em on." So what if that makes Iraq a mecca for terrorists? More bad guys for him to kill.

Of course he doesn't do the actual killing. And he risks nothing--except his reputation in a "history" that he scorns--by sending others to kill. He gains much, however. He is the Commander-in-Chief. The alpha male of his nation. Standing tall in those cowboy boots, he defies death.

Which is not to say he's invulnerable. He's terribly vulnerable--sensitive, easily-wounded, deeply aware of his faults. And so they must be concealed. He didn't spend his 20s masking the pain by drinking a distillery and snorting coke; he flew jets. He didn't luck into good jobs; he was an entrepreneur. The Presidency--which he treats like it's some great inconvenience, a chore that gets in the way of his real life--is "hard work."

He can't go to military funerals or even allow photographs of coffins because he can't deal with actual death. He can't talk to Cindy Sheehan because she reminds him of the mother he didn't have--the mother who wakes the neighborhood with her weeping, who dips her hands in her son's blood. Indeed, he is very much like his own mother, who has said she will not dirty her "beautiful mind" with images of body bags.

Justin Frank--the psychoanalyst whose brilliant book, "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President" is just out in paperback--has taken us through much of this deadly psychology. If only there were a happy conclusion ahead. Just the opposite, I fear: Bush's ability to ignore criticism may be seriously eroding. And that means very bad days ahead for us.

It is a law of this administration that the President does not feel our pain. We feel his. When he is attacked, the terror threats miraculously increase. For the sake of his psyche, we live at Code Red.

This was OK when the war was young. We hadn't caught on yet. But now we see that the Emperor has no clothes--and while he may be buffed, he lacks oratical skills. Men and women have died, so many more will have to follow them; that's the new logic for 'staying the course.' Only we're not buying that BS. For the first time ever, George Bush is not just "misunderstood" and "underestimated" --- he's genuinely unpopular.

Everyone talks now about "timetables," but I see one far more difficult to deal with than a timetable for our withdrawal from Iraq. The bigger, more urgent ticking clock: A man who has no filter is about to undergo massive rejection, some of it from his own kind.

I, for one, do not believe he can long endure unpopularity and disapproval. But he is a man of action. He will not take this lying down. He will fight back. He will--in psychological, if not actual terms--declare war on his enemies. That is, on the majority of his fellow Americans.

It may not look that way. He'll cook up some evidence and bomb a country that poses only a modest threat. Or a terrorist attack on America can be exploited to further reduce our freedoms. One way or another, he must prevail--his sanity depends on it.

These are dark thoughts in beautiful days. I so wish I didn't have them. But in a place where only the truest thoughts seem to be coming up for me, these ring true.

Let us pray that there are sane men and women around our President who grasp that he is troubled--and who decide that they owe us their allegiance more than they owe him.

The Beauty Part

SDG. Bach put those initials at the end of his cantatas. They were shorthand for "Soli Deo Gloria"--to God alone the glory.

That sounds, in our time, like false humility. Back then, it was not. Pride of authorship wasn't even a concept in the Middle Ages. The world was tiny then--the borders of your town were the borders of your universe. If you wandered off, you might never find your way back. So people stayed home, did their work, prayed to an all-powerful God and died--usually in their 30s.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was an exception to every common truth of her time. Not only did she live long, she achieved much--and her work as a scientist, writer, and composer has been documented and preserved. She is "the first composer whose biography is known." And although she declared her orthodoxy, she was a rebel who founded a convent of her own.

Her total focus on God as the Ultimate Audience gives this music a gravity like no other church music. To listen to it is to be aware not only of the music but of the spaces between the sounds--a cosmic silence. It's a steady, unchanging silence. Some have called it a "stillness." Whatever you call it, it tunes you, calms you, settles you. This is music as meditation tool, prayer enabler, stress reducer. It intends to link us to the divine, and it does. Whatever your faith, you will be blessed by the music of Hildegard of Bingen.

You Want to Be Part of a Community? Look Around: You're in One Now!

Some comments on the message boards have pricked me enough to leave my boomer lair and weigh in twice in one week--congrats to those posters who got under my skin.

Just to be sure those in the cheap seats can hear me, let me say the same thing three ways:

l) I think it's utterly great that people find a reason to join communities that meet in established churches, mosques and synagogues.

2) I'm not anti-institution.

3) I've got no beef with structured organizations.

The point I was making is a simple one: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Which means: Institutions that refuse to change...institutions that preach the Gospel of Received Knowledge....institutions that make no concessions to new ideas....those institutions are going to have a hard time in the years ahead. Very simply, unless they develop some fresh way of attracting new members, they're going to shrink. Because once you've had an authentic, direct experience of God (or truth, or the political process), you're going to want more--and, I'd bet, want it a lot more than you want ritualized gatherings that demand obedience and celebrate ritual.

So if the Catholic Church decides to conduct the mass in Latin, good luck to the Vatican.

If the Republican Party decides that a woman who's been raped must carry the rapist's child to term, good luck to the GOP.

If a media company decides it's better to wave the flag than dig for the truth, good luck to Fox News.

People have a choice. They vote every day, all day. And when they vote, they tend to choose what pleases them.

This is not to say that the alternative to church, party and mainstream media is a solitary session at the computer in the corner.

What the message board posters seemed to miss is that the Internet is a beehive of communities. Beliefnet is a community. The message board posters are a community.


In the twenty-first century, we will have to practice meditation collectively--as a family, a city, a nation, and a community of nations. The Buddha of the twenty-first century--Maitreya, the Buddha of Love--may well be a community rather than an individual.
That's Thich Nhat Hahn, in "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching."

Get it? The sangha meets here. Right now. This message you are reading links many minds--and spirits--in a community of (I hope) thoughtful seekers. If we keep at it long enough, our little community may become an institution. And its longevity will depend on how flexible it is in the face of changed circumstances.

The great Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was once asked to summarize Buddhism in a sentence. The audience laughed at the impossibility of that challenge. "Easy," he said. "Things change."


But rich white men... powerful religious potentates... media moguls--their first idea isn't to ride the crest of change, it's to hold on to what they've got.

The Newsweek/Beliefnet poll shows how well that works.

Like: not.

Thought for the Week

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
- Albert Einstein

'He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying'

There's something in the air.

The music I'm listening to: The Origin of Fire: Music and Visions of Hildegard von Bingen(1098-1179), a nun who wrote, taught and composed music. Her compositions, she felt, conveyed some of the sense of what paradise what like. Though she was no rebel, her inspirations couldn't have been more unconventional:

And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books...
As I look at my reading list for the rest of the summer, I see, at the top of the pile, the "Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux," the 19th century nun who wanted to be "the heart of the Church" and wrote about spirituality with admirable simplicity. Under that: three more books about direct experiences of Holiness.

So I was amused to read the Newsweek piece on spirituality and find that a massive team of crack reporters has discovered that people want....a direct experience of God. Wild! I'm Exhibit A. That, my friends, is rare. My life and a media perception converge? No way. And yet there it is: Like many others, I'm looking for the Ineffable everywhere but in an established religion.

The Newsweek piece was good, as these packages go. But it was far too timid in its conclusion. What we are witnessing is much larger. It's not just religions that are losing customers, it's institutions of all kinds.

Thanks to the Internet, groups like MoveOn.org are able to mobilize giant peace rallies and vigils. It's not just Iraq that has taken George Bush to an approval rating as low as Nixon's during the Watergate hearings. Something's stirring--people are tired of the old ways, the old lies. They're ripe for conversion by causes that offer high-energy, low-rhetoric politics.

Thanks to the Internet, Mainstream Media is running around like a chicken that sees the ax coming down. Who wants news put through a corporate filter, homogenized and processed until it's tasteless? Better to read a bit of American media, a smattering of the foreign press and then a bunch of blogs that interpret the news and speak in the language of the street.

Authenticity--it's what's for dinner. It's not always a tasty dish, but by God, it's real. And it's served by the Internet, the only mass church that isn't an institution. And which--except for porn, sports and finance sites--doesn't cost you a penny.

So....George Bush is about to tell you a new constitution is proof that democracy is flourishing in Iraq. Most media will roll that lie out without much comment. On the Internet, you'll hear--loud and clear--that Iraq is about to become an Islamist state that will enjoy much closer ties to Iran. Women (who fared pretty well under Hussein's secular government) now will toe the line or face extreme punishment. All hail the Internet!

So....Pope Benedict spent last weekend making nice to Jews, Muslims and kids. That, anyway, was what the Mainstream Media in America reported. What they didn't report: According to The London Telegraph:

Benedict dislikes the trendy, frisbee-sized communion wafers used by John Paul. And, significantly, he made sure that this World Youth Day included a group of young people who advocate the Latin Tridentine Rite, effectively abolished in the 1960s.

Benedict himself loves saying the Old Mass, and is rumoured to be planning to remove all restrictions on its celebration. If he does, traditionalists will be delighted, but others, who regard its Latin text as elitist and inaccessible, will be furious.

Yesterday's display of unity was in some ways illusory: very few bishops in the West - and almost none in England and Wales - share Benedict's belief in the crucial importance of disciplined, beautiful worship. Needless to say, Benedict is no fan of condoms. And he's not big on personalized religion. How could he be? His product isn't about appealing to the consumer, it's about holding the threat of damnation over the consumer's head and forcing the consumer to heel.

But guess what? The consumer has sniffed the coffee being brewed next door. It's heady stuff. Direct experience of God? A God who doesn't hate sex outside of marriage? A God who sees women as equals? Who accepts gays? Those views may be 'bad' theology, but they sure sound good to people who like to think their intelligence matters. That is: educated people with decent jobs and bright futures.

At the present rate of attrition, mainstream political parties, old-fashioned media--and traditional churches--will look back on these years as the end of the Good Old Days. Yes, it may come to pass that the Vatican will have to melt down some of that gold plundered from the Aztecs in order to buy heating fuel. That celebrated newscasters and pundits who now dazzle us with their platitudes will wind up doing weather reports in secondary markets. And that newly-minded politicians like Ohio ex-Marine Paul Hackett--"I called President Bush a 'chicken hawk', and he is, so what's the big deal?"--can, just by telling it like they see it, become national figures overnight.

On one side, we have Rush and O'Reilly pumping out the gospel of the Republican Establishment. And a President who has never made a move that the oil barons and other big contributors don't like. And churches whose pastors somehow can't figure out what Jesus would think about Abu Ghraib--or what people really do together in the quiet of the night.

Increasingly, in order to go along with the program, you have to check your brain at the door.

Increasingly, people aren't doing that.

Yes, the country is divided--between, as I say, the Stupids and the Smarties.

That is: between those who like to think for themselves and people who will believe anything a White Authority Figure tells them.

Thinking for yourself and deciding you believe in Intelligent Design--that's Smart.

Believing in Intelligent Design because some pol or preacher says so--that's Stupid.

What the Newsweek/Beliefnet stories tell us is that more and more Smarties are refusing to be lumped with the Stupids.


The Beauty Part

A great trumpet solo cuts sharper than a laser.

Maybe it's something about a high note, expertly played on a brass instrument. It reminds us that trumpets are the instrument of choice at the gates of heaven. And the instrument that signals the start of battle, the arrival of royalty, the death of a soldier.

The expansion of the trumpet beyond its military and ceremonial functions is not a new phenomenon. It started centuries ago, when composers moved beyond instrumental music as a project to duplicate the human voice. Individual trumpet players, eager to enlarge their repertoire, did the rest--they transcribed music intended for strings for their own use.

Classical trumpet concertos are a revelation--especially when the trumpet player is Maurice Andre.

A Day I Never Thought I'd See

"The hardest part of making peace with your enemy," a boy at the Seeds for Peace camp said on the "Today" show, "is that you have to go to war with yourself."

But enough Israelis did that to make this great day possible. And rich Americans--most of them Jewish--have stepped up to provide millions of dollars to support Palestinian businesses, thus giving thousands of Arabs one less reason to hate their Jewish neighbors.

Of course there was resistance, some of it violent. And the ultimate outcome of Israel's evacuation of its settlements couldn't be more uncertain. No matter. For once on the planet, in a place where no one expected it, sanity has--however briefly--prevailed.

'Days of Awe.' Here they are, unfolding before us.

The Madwoman of Crawford: American Idol

Nobody had a bad word to say about Cindy Sheehan when her son Casey--an altar boy, Eagle Scout and church youth leader--joined the army. And she was, like him, just a number when, two weeks after he arrived in Iraq, he was dead.

Cindy's not a number now. And she may not be who'd you want as your spokesperson, but you go to the anti-war with the soldiers you've got. Of all the 1,800 parents of the American dead, Cindy Sheehan was the first to step up and demand that the President tell her what her son died for. It's her moment. And we who want to end American involvement in Iraq need both to recognize her flaws and put them off to the side --- because she's the one down there, in the Texas sun, pounding away at the President and his war. And, for her pains, being misrepresented--and, more often than not, cheerfully lied about--by everyone from Gordon Liddy and Rush Limbaugh to Michelle Malkin and Beliefnet's own Loose Canon.

On my side of this circus, there's only one question worth pondering: Is Cindy Sheehan the tipping point?

Last night, we witnessed one test of that idea--there were about 1,500 vigils to support Cindy, with between 50,000 and 100,000 people participating. 'The largest event we've ever sponsored,' MoveOn says.

I was one of those people. Little Uptown was another.

I took our three-year-old daughter with me to the Great Lawn in Central Park because I thought it was an important night. Why important? Because it took the participants beyond words. Out of our comfort zone. For my part, way out of my comfort zone--with thousands of New Yorkers walking past us to get to Shakespeare in the Park, I would be one of those 'weirdos' standing with a lit candle at twilight, hoping in some way that this protest/affirmation will lead to peace.

So there we were, father and daughter, in a group of twenty. Nice people, mostly middle-aged women. None had a public face I recognized; these were mostly mothers supporting a fellow mother. Little Uptown was the only kid. She had brought her magic wand, and was in a rocking mood, smiling and waving. I stood with a candle, greeting the New York media folk I knew, all of them surprised (if not shocked) to see me there.

The vigil was timed for what is, in the film business, known as 'magic hour.' The sun was gold, and the moon was full, and you could feel fall coming. It was very much the kind of weather we had here on 9/11, and I couldn't help thinking of that day, and the people I knew who died, and all the people who have died since because a handful of people in Washington had a shared hallucination they wanted to make real.

Those four years have given thinking and caring people plenty of cause to feel broken. But hope springs up where you least expect it. A mother goes to Texas, and, finally, people start to see the war as a personal drama and this moment as a showdown.

But this is only a moment. If we don't build on it, it's like one of those summer TV shows: big in August, forgotten in September.

What will give this moment real meaning? If more and more Gold Star Mothers step forward. If they come to Crawford and stand with Cindy Sheehan. Or go to Washington in September and stand in front of Congress.

Not veterans. Not political protesters. Mothers. Because a man who opposes the war can be labeled: unpatriotic, cowardly, gay. But a mother who lost a child--you watch your mouth around her.

On Monday, I'll tell you the story of a mother who supported a son by her physical presence outside a government building. For now, I'll leave you with an image: Little Uptown waving her magic wand, as if she could grant wishes. If only, my darling.

Thought for the Week

We'll take each new day to give
what we need to do our part
While we're learning how to live
with a lifelong broken heart
--Rodney Crowell, 'Adam's Song,' about the death of a friend's child

On Losing a Child: How Should We Feel About Cindy Sheehan?

Richard Herrin, a Yale student, killed his Yale girlfriend, Bonnie Garland, in the bedroom of her parents' home in Westchester, New York. She was going to date other guys, so he smashed her head with a hammer as she slept. I sat with her father and mother for hours and hours as they struggled to explain what it meant to lose a child.

A few years later, I read about the murder of Johnny Pius, 13 years old and an only child. He had been beaten in a Long Island schoolyard, and then six rocks were stuffed down his throat. I sat with his mother for hours and hours as she struggled to explain what it meant to lose a child.

A few years after that, I wrote a small piece about an 18-year-old New Yorker who had died of cancer. And, again, I sat with a mother as she struggled to explain what it meant to lose a child. A few months later, I sat with her again--her 17-year-old daughter had been killed by a drunk hit-run driver. This woman had, in 18 months, lost two of her three children. I leave it to your imagination to picture what it was like to sit with her the second time.

And then there was Beulah Mae Donald, of Mobile, Alabama. Her 18-year-old-son Michael had been lynched by some Ku Klux Klansmen. Somehow the local cops couldn't find evidence to arrest them, but Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, had found a way to sue them, and, on Mrs. Donald's behalf, he had won all the Klan's assets and bankrupted the organization. I sat with Mrs. Donald in the living room of her apartment in an Alabama housing project for hours and hours as she took me through her son's murder and its aftermath, and how she had, right from beginning, turned her grief over to Jesus and how, now that she had some money, she was going to give it away to people who were hurting worse than she was. Can you imagine?

Those of you who have read this column from the beginning can guess one reason I kept writing magazine pieces about children who die and the parents who survive them--when I was 4, I was on the short list of kids to be kidnapped and killed. Luckily for me, the killer realized my parents weren't rich. Unfortunately for a boy named Bobby Greenlease, his parents were obviously wealthy, and so he was chosen for the kidnapping and the murder. I have always felt that I'm here by a stroke of great luck; clearly, I've always wondered what happens when a family is not so lucky.

But as a journalistic impulse, I also see this: I'm curious how people survive that which might well kill them. Because there's nothing more unnatural than the death of a child. To put that small coffin in the ground and live on--how do people do that? To be more specific: How does a mother of a dead child go on, having carried that child in her belly and fed it from her breast?

In my time as a witness to the unthinkable, I developed a deep admiration for these parents. Their bravery was breathtaking. Sometimes they wept or cursed or shared inappropriate memories because they were out of control and using me as a therapist--no matter, I thought those parents were just as noble as the mothers and fathers who nobly suppressed their tears so they could better tell me their child's story.

In my last marriage, I helped raise some stepchildren I love as if they are my own, and I would come home from these reporting stints weak with gratitude to see them sleeping peacefully in their beds. And now, as many of you know, in this final marriage, there is a child in the household, and the joy of that is indescribable--as is the dread of what it would be like to lose her. Those of you who are parents know what I'm talking about; those who are not can, I hope, empathize.

It is largely because I always see situations in human terms that I have, from the beginning, opposed the Iraq war. Like all conflicts of this kind, it is not about soldiers fighting soldiers; it is about demoralizing the civilian population. And that means killing civilians. The 'insurgents' have a special gift for this. But we're not exactly bad at it, as families who get it wrong at Iraqi checkpoints have learned the hard way.

And then, of course, there are our soldiers, some of them so young it's no insult to call them kids. I've watched "Gunner Palace" and a bunch of documentaries about the war, and I'm dazzled by who we send to fight. Yeah, aging reservists. But also, a lot of kids just out of high school. They have no idea what they're doing. How do I know that? Because when I was 18 I had no idea what I was doing. And my friends didn't either. And you, friend, probably didn't as well.

This is a very long introduction to today's sermon, which is about how we should think about Cindy Sheehan, the woman who has been standing outside the President's Crawford, Texas ranch in hopes of having a chat with him. Her son, Casey, died in Iraq. He was 24.

Mrs. Sheehan has all kinds of views. She has an opinion on Israel. She has a view about her income tax. And, of course, she has a view of the war which is not the one heard on Fox News.

If you have a shred of imagination and compassion, you realize that Mrs. Sheehan is in the middle of a trauma that will last all the days of her life, and you will be glad that you are going to sleep in the comfort of your own bed tonight instead of a motel room in Texas. Which is to say: You will cut her some slack. How much? All you have to give. Because she's in the grip of emotions that are off the charts. She hurts more than--please God--you will ever know.

Cindy Sheehan is a Compassion Test. Your willingness to support her in her grief--whatever your opinion of her politics--says volumes about your tolerance for people in pain who don't remind you of yourself. Me, I think she can be strident. And, sometimes, wrong.

But, dammit, I admire her guts.

I cheer her love for her son.

And I have her back.

We come now to the commentary about Cindy Sheehan by Loose Canon. As some of you know, one reason I stopped daily blogging--not the biggest reason, but definitely a factor--is that I regarded LC, my ostensible debating partner, as an operative of the wingnut branch of the Republican Party. She is one of a bunch of pundits who get their talking points from the Republican National Committee or Lucianne Goldberg or whomever in the morning and then recycle those views, verbatim, in the afternoon. I have tried, since I decided to write longer (and, I hope, better) and publish just once a week, to ignore LC. It's not, after all, as if you can engage in a meaningful dialogue with a political operative.

Alas, because I have decided to champion Cindy Sheehan, I must now condemn every foul word LC has written about Cindy. I'm sorry, LC, but some things are bigger than politics. More important than 'respect' for a President whose most familiar expression is a sneer. A whole lot bigger than the 'Christianity' you profess to embrace.

When Jesus was crucified, Mary had a unique reason to grieve. So does Cindy Sheehan. So do all the mothers--on every side--who have lost children in this war. Give them respect. Stand aside. Lower your eyes. And if you have a tear left, for God's sake and yours, shed it for these poor people who gave all and will get nothing back.

The Beauty Part

It's the best film of the summer. And the music! The horns play cool jazz figures; under them is a groove that could have been created by Booker T and the MGs. And connecting the two are Ethiopian chords that sound exotic, space-changing, hypnotic.

Think desert cha cha. Cuba goes to Memphis. Desert trance music.

Like nothing you have ever heard before.

Mulatu Astatke is the man in charge of all of it: He writes the music, arranges it, and plays piano, organ, vibes and percussion. And--get this--he created much of the music used in this movie from 1968 to 1974. It's mysterious, funky, beautiful. It's Broken Flowers.

Thought for the Week

We can do no great things; only small things with great love.
--- Mother Teresa

Where the Pavement Ends

Ely, Minnesota --- Head north from Duluth, go 110 miles, and just before you reach the Boundary Waters, you hit Ely. Want to go further North? You'll need a boat. And a bit of spunk: Another 20 miles of water and forest, you're in Canada.

Hardy people live here. People with links to those flinty types --- and those who like fishing and nature and a life that looks 'simple' --- come here to summer. It's the ancestral home of Mrs. Uptown's adopted family, so we show up every few years. Which is how I come to be writing this in a cabin with a big lake view.

Sit on the porch, watch hummingbirds feed. Work at one of the four networked laptops in the morning, watch Little Uptown splash around in the afternoon. Drift down to the bench on the dock at night, see more stars than you knew there were. Look out over the misty lake from your bed as sleep descends, and grasp what it is to die in peace.

If you're thinking 'On Golden Pond,' you're right --- and wrong. Yes, this compound of log houses is so far off the map that you can pretend you're Thoreau. But when you've got a broadband network, you can check in regularly with the world --- and around here, everyone does. These are Wellstone Democrats, old-time progressives who haven't lost their spark.

On the coffee mug: 'Democracy means more than a wolf and a fox deciding who's dinner.' On the coffee table: a pamphlet for a terrific school-building effort called the Vietnamese Children's Fund. The founder: a Minnesota kayaking guide. A self-described "moderate" showed up over the weekend. He is the boyfriend of the only daughter, so he was treated with some respect. Some. Not much.

This is the summer of the double reality. Last night, I lay on the dock as our naked daughter jumped happily in the water and, instead of goopy thoughts about the good life, I considered that this same sky covered Baghdad. A child plays here; a child dies there. A child lives a truth of nature here; a child is killed for a lie there. Let the brilliant right-wing pundits --- some of them dispensing their 'wisdom' right here on Beliefnet --- explain that one to you.

My modest takeaway: As religions go, pantheism makes a bit of sense. Ditto Buddhism. Tree, water, sky. There they are. Breathe deep. Be here with them now. And, later, be in your city, at your desk. And don't forget to send a thank-you note to your hosts.

Stop the Presses, Hold the Mail, Cindy Sheehan's Going to Jail

As the mother of an Army specialist who was killed at age 24 in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on April 4, 2004, Ms. Sheehan's story is certainly compelling. She is also articulate, aggressive in delivering her message and has information that most White House reporters have not heard before: how Mr. Bush handles himself when he meets behind closed doors with the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

She's now in Crawford, Texas, standing outside the President's ranch. She demands a face-to-face meeting with Bush. The word is that she will be arrested if she doesn't leave by Thursday.

Mrs. Sheehan met with Bush once before. According to The New York Times, the encounter was revealing:

The White House has released few details of such sessions, which Mr. Bush holds regularly as he travels the country, but generally portrays them as emotional and an opportunity for the president to share the grief of the families. In Ms. Sheehan's telling, though, Mr. Bush did not know her son's name when she and her family met with him in June 2004 at Fort Lewis. Mr. Bush, she said, acted as if he were at a party and behaved disrespectfully toward her by referring to her as "Mom" throughout the meeting.

By Ms. Sheehan's account, Mr. Bush said to her that he could not imagine losing a loved one like an aunt or uncle or cousin. Ms. Sheehan said she broke in and told Mr. Bush that Casey was her son, and that she thought he could imagine what it would be like since he has two daughters and that he should think about what it would be like sending them off to war.

"I said, 'Trust me, you don't want to go there'," Ms. Sheehan said, recounting her exchange with the president. "He said, 'You're right, I don't.' I said, 'Well, thanks for putting me there.'

Mrs. Sheehan's website is Meet with Cindy.com. She would welcome your support.

Intelligent Design

It's profane, but it's smart, and it's a side-splitting view of our future if our President and his supporters succeed in turning 'science' into 'opinion.' Please click on Kung Fu Monkey

The Beauty Part

The last time I was in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, a great wind blew and knocked down millions of trees. Hundreds of thousands of acres were, in a matter of minutes, turned from forest into flatland. I witnessed the damage, but as it was basically abstract for me --- can you picture ten million trees strewn across the landscape? --- I never quite grasped the magnitude of the loss.

Jim Brandenburg did. He probably was acquainted with more of those trees than anyone living in Northern Minnesota, having lived among them --- and photographed them --- for most of his life. Those trees had featured prominently in 'Chased by the Light,' his bestselling book of photographs. Now they were gone. He felt 'humbled' and 'depressed.'

And then he found wisdom. The storm reminded him that nature isn't an object to be owned and shaped by humans. Nature doesn't care what we think. It just is. And it is not available to our judgment or opinion. But we can see -- if we detach ourselves from our personal circumstances --- how there might be growth in distaster. That wind created clearings: opportunities for fresh forests, natural fire lanes, unforseen views. He quotes Zen: 'Barn's burned down....now I can see the moon.'

Thus fortified, he set out to make a new book of photographs, this time of nature's richest season. His plan: print one picture per day. 94 pictures, followed by brief stories about each one. That book is Looking for the Summer.

Thought for the Week

These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among breathren.
--Proverbs 25:18

Beating Despair: A Primer

We went to see Last Days over the weekend--the Gus Van Sant film inspired by the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The reviews were ecstatic, and we knew it would be lovely to look at, and so we upgraded it from a rental months and months hence to a babysitter-worthy out-of-the-house experience.

Ok, it was lovely. And intermittently interesting. But although the film pussyfoots around it, almost everyone who wanders into camera range is on heroin. It's a film, in other words, about addicts. In that stoned universe, there may be a few Beautiful Losers, but there are, mostly, Privileged Victims--rich kids with money and attitude and absentee families. In my college years and their aftermath, I knew such kids. I'm sorry they died, but I'm a whole lot sorrier that smart ghetto kids never got a fraction of the chance that these junkies squandered.

Anyway. Mrs. Uptown and I came out of the movie into a lovely night on the Lower East Side. I was thinking about Cobain and Courtney Love--that is, mired in the facts. Mrs. U, an empath, was dragging her chin on the sidewalk. I cannot reproduce her monologue, but suffice it to say, before we got to the car, she had catalogued all the things that deeply suck about America '05.

She was not wrong. The movies almost universally stink. Most books are Ambien. Too much music is from recycled dinosaurs or kids who know nothing. TV is your choice of lies. The press can't find a keyboard. And don't even start on politics.

As the Uptowns drove uptown, I made the case that this was not entirely coincidental. Societies get sick just like people, and in both cases, illness can be contagious. And in this case, there's a conspiratorial aspect to consider--namely, that the Karl Roves of the world are deliberately and systematically pushing toxins on their countrymen. Call me crazy, but I bet the White House has a Despair Planning Board, with really depressing announcements teed up months in advance. You know....a few days of John Bolton....then some more lies about torture....then the announcement of "progress" in Iraq on a day when ten of our soldiers get blown up....then immunity for gun manufacturers....drum-beating about nuking the nukes in Iran....a cheery account of the President's physical exam....and so on.

The effect on people with any sensitivity is despair. Which isn't surprising. Start with mountains of stupidity and arrogance, toss in a bucket of screw-you, then add a melted glacier and a few million tears from African orphans, and any rational person would think that this Administration can't wait for the planet's Last Days. Oops, I mean: End Times. Or, just as perversely, all these guys care about is Number One--making so much money that it doesn't matter what happens to the rest of us. Behind gates and walls, in the mansions of the rich, they'll enjoy filtered air, bottled water, aged whiskey and the biggest gift baskets Halliburton can commission.

When the fix is in on this scale--when the quality of life is going down the toilet and nobody but you and a few other freaks seem to notice, much less give a damn--you've got every right to be bummed. Kurt Cobain killing himself? Given his options, he made the right choice. Or so you think when you see it through world-weary eyes.

So...are you in despair? Good! You have just passed the Smart and Caring test. You're not like The Others. You can still feel. That is Good News.

Let's build on that Good News. With this: You need not feel bad in order to feel anything. You didn't vote for Bush. Indeed, you did your damnedest to send these clowns home. Your mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to survive. Or, in the worst case, to make them kill you. (Why make it easy for them?)

And if you cheer up? Well, if we all got happy, en masse, it would be...radical. Gay people grinning. Liberals laughing. Decent people going about their business as if the government were on the side of life (instead of merely being pro-life).

I'm not saying: Pretend nothing's happening. Something is. And it's scary as hell. But if all you are is scared, then you're paralyzed. Or making bad decisions. Either way, you're behaving exactly as They want you to. Just to make them crazy, you need to Get Happy. Or try to.

And how do you do that? Thought you'd never ask. I'm a big believer in Nature: the colors blue and green, the sound of water, the ripple of breeze, the speed of clouds, the sky even in a city at night. And, of course, culture. Mrs. U channels Bach. I've been getting up and flopping around to the "Car Car Madison," the last song on a wonderful CD by Boubacar Traore (see The Beauty Part, below). Is laughter the best medicine? Then watch Bill Maher and Jon Stewart on TV. Rent Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Single? Sign up for an online dating service. (Yes, I know all about pride. It's a sin, right?) Go to a museum. Call a friend. Find reasons to live, even if you have really run out of them.

Can't do any of this stuff? Run to the doctor and got a prescription for Inner Sunshine.

Finally, post affirmations around your crib. Springsteen: "Ain't no sin to be glad you're alive." Martin Luther: "And even if the world should end tomorrow, I still would plant my little apple tree." Le Rochefoucauld: "No man can look long at the sun or death."

Get happy. Drive Karl Rove crazy. Doesn't just the prospect of that--frowning Suits in the White House, wondering what went wrong--make you feel better already?

If You're Looking for a Hero

Last week The Honorable John C. Coughenour sentenced a terrorist. But as Daily Kos notes, he did something even more important. Here are his sentencing remarks:

The message I would hope to convey in today's sentencing is twofold:

First, that we have the resolve in this country to deal with the subject of terrorism and people who engage in it should be prepared to sacrifice a major portion of their life in confinement.

Secondly, though, I would like to convey the message that our system works. We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution.

I would suggest that the message to the world from today's sentencing is that our courts have not abandoned our commitment to the ideals that set our nation apart. We can deal with the threats to our national security without denying the accused fundamental constitutional protections.

Despite the fact that Mr. Ressam is not an American citizen and despite the fact that he entered this country intent upon killing American citizens, he received an effective, vigorous defense, and the opportunity to have his guilt or innocence determined by a jury of 12 ordinary citizens.

Most importantly, all of this occurred in the sunlight of a public trial. There were no secret proceedings, no indefinite detention, no denial of counsel.

The tragedy of September 11th shook our sense of security and made us realize that we, too, are vulnerable to acts of terrorism.

Unfortunately, some believe that this threat renders our Constitution obsolete. This is a Constitution for which men and women have died and continue to die and which has made us a model among nations. If that view is allowed to prevail, the terrorists will have won.

It is my sworn duty, and as long as there is breath in my body I'll perform it, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We will be in recess. You might want to write the judge and thank him for restoring a bit of balance to a conversation increasingly dominated by zealots and wingnuts. His address:

The Honorable John C. Coughenour
United States District Court
Western District of Washington
700 Stewart Street
Seattle, Washington 98101

Product of the Week

If you live in or near a city where you are likely to be searched, this is the bag for you. 100% cotton canvas. 22" reinforced self-fabric handles. Machine washable. Oh, and it has the 4th Amendment printed on the side.

The Beauty Part

No secret to it--the African masters know how to hypnotize you quickly. Use a pentatonic scale, play a wicked guitar, climb the scale as if it's steps and walk back down, with only the click-click of hand drums as accompaniment. The lyrics? In French. But even if you speak French, they'll be utterly foreign to you--Boubacar Traore's concerns are love for his dead wife, work and exile and prayer. His voice is instantly comprehensible: slow, stately, old as time. Set that against music that gets your toe tapping from the get-go, and you have the blues, straight from the African heartland.

Mali was once the trading capital of the world--remember Timbuktu? Now it's 65% desert. Most of its 12 million citizens farm or fish on the banks of the Niger River. Less than half the people are literate; life expectancy is 45. There is drought. Malaria. And then there is music.

Boubacar was the Elvis Presley of Mali in 1960, as it was becoming independent. You could hear him on the radio every day, singing "Mali Twist." Come home, he cried. Help us build our country. And his brothers heard him, and they threw themselves into building their nation.

He was a hero who didn't make records, so he made no money. To support his family, he became a tailor, then a farmer. His wife died. Crushed, he fled to Paris, where he was a construction worker. And then he was rediscovered. Now we have Macire. The last song is his version of "The Madison." You can dance to it. In fact, you can't not.

Thought for the Week

You think it's hot here?
--God, according to a sign outside a church in Warsaw, Kentucky, where the temperature is currently in the high 90s.

American Pastoral

Those who own pontoon boats believe they are the greatest invention since....oh, the Instant Message. Or maybe the flat-screen TV. They have a point. On a hot day, you load up a cooler with ice and drinks, slap the iTrip device on your iPod and head on out to the river, reggae pounding through the speakers. Anchor. Drink. Drift.

A barge approaches. Minutes later, you experience a few ocean-quality waves. Other than that, time is not a factor--it is blazing hot now, it will be just as hot later, and it's not like you need to be anywhere. Except, later, back on the boat for the after-dinner cocktail cruise.

I have just spent three days like this with my in-laws. In our set, no one thinks of going to Kentucky or cruising on the Ohio River--my cohort runs, en masse, out to the Hamptons. They're missing something: neighbors you actually know, water warm as the Caribbean, kids doing tricks in the water, meals that cry out for the portion police, multiple seasons of 'Friends' episodes.

Yeah, it's hot. But if you've got the right stuff, that just means more of the kind of summer that is widely advertised and rarely found. Well, we found it. Thanks, Linda. Thanks, John. And a shout-out to Austin and Andrew for being so nice to the kid. Heartbeat of America? You guys hold the patent.

Dear President Bush: Appoint Me to the Supreme Court!

The following passage from The New York Times got me thinking...

When President Bush sat down in the White House residence last Thursday to interview a potential Supreme Court nominee, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, he asked him about the hardest decision he had ever made - and also how much he exercised.

"Well, I told him I ran three and a half miles a day," Judge Wilkinson recalled in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "And I said my doctor recommends a lot of cross-training, but I said I didn't want to do the elliptical and the bike and the treadmill." The president, Judge Wilkinson said, "took umbrage at that," and told his potential nominee that he should do the cross-training his doctor suggested.

"He thought I was well on my way to busting my knees," said Judge Wilkinson, 60. "He warned me of impending doom."

Judge Wilkinson's conversation with the president about exercise and other personal matters in an interview for a job on the highest court in the land was typical of how Mr. Bush went about picking his eventual nominee, Judge John G. Roberts, White House officials and Republicans said. Mr. Bush, they said, looked extensively into the backgrounds of the five finalists he interviewed, but in the end relied as much on chemistry and intuition as on policy and legal intellect.

"He likes to have the info, he likes to have the background, but he also is a field player," said Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president, in a briefing to reporters on Tuesday night. "He likes to size people up himself, make his own judgment." And here is what I thought: President Bush and I could get along. Because he's right about that running thing --- after 50, there's no better way to blow your knees out. That's why you don't see me running 15, 20 miles a week. I'm a fitness buff, but my brain is fit, too.

Here's my regime, Mr. President. Three years ago, I started working out with a trainer. A professional rugby player. A very rugged guy--but you know that, sir, you played rugby at Yale. Anyway, three times a week, I lifted weights and rowed sprints, with a solid half hour of cardio to start--and a lot of that time was spent on the bike. If it's good enough for you, sir....

My trainer had to leave New York City. (He has a wife and a baby, and he thought it was just too expensive here. I said, 'What about your tax breaks?' but he said they made no difference to him. Guess he just lacked ambition.) My new trainer is female. And a Brit. In fact, she trained Cherie Blair for a while. She's as tough as the rugby player. And now, in addition to the bike and treadmill, I'm doing some cardio on a new Precor cross-trainer that gets the old heart racing. My knees? Awesome, sir, thanks for asking.

I think you should know, Mr. President, that I could, in a pinch, lift a car-- so I can surely carry your water. With the Attenolol, my heart rate's 120/80. Still working on my weight, but I'm sure that carrying a briefcase would knock off some pounds.

Oh, about the law career. What can I say? I got royally toasted the night before my law boards and ....never took them. So no law school for me. And no legal career. But I covered a lot of cases in my journalism career, and I wrote a book about the criminal prosecution of a Wall Street king that the Wall Street Journal loved, and some of the 9/11 programming I made in my AOL job would make you weep. And did I say it's real tough paying for health insurance when you're self employed? Forget the salary, I sure would like lifetime health care for the wife and kid, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Roe v. Wade? Little problem there. But nothing Karl can't finesse. My Lord, he's something else. But that's something we might best discuss over a cigar at the White House. Can you spell C-o-h-i-b-a?

I look forward to serving you, sir. In fact, praying on it.

Hello in There: Anybody Home?

The elephant in the room? It's the war, of course. As per the Administration's desire and the Mainstream Media's acquiescence, we've moved on to Karl Rove and the Supreme Court. But it says here that Iraq is the number one story, the number one stain on our nation's soul, and the number one reason we're likely to have suicide bombers visit America's cities.

A lot of people are aware of this, and you can find them diving into this tragedy on a number of blogs. These blogs are all what's known as 'liberal,' which now seems to mean that they actually give a damn about the poor bastards who are fighting and dying in Iraq. It's easy to distinguish them from the 'conservative' blogs, where the operative sentiments veer toward meaningless abstractions (mostly 'freedom' and 'progress') and the belief that a desire to see an end to American casualties is somehow equivalent to non-support of our troops.

Here's what amazes me: the general absence of the war as a topic of blogging and posting on Beliefnet. If there were one site where you might expect pretty much everyone to see Iraq as the moral and spiritual crucible of our time, this would be it. But as I poke around, I don't find that.

Could someone explain this to me? Is the war the prime symbol of America's spiritual crisis--I mean its real crisis, not some tricked-up debate about values or culture--or is it not? If it is, what gives with the silence? Or is it just possible that I've got it wrong--and George Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld really do speak for you?

The Name Game

Here's the start of a recent piece about "Political Islam" in France. It ran in the Wall Street Journal on July 11 (no link available). Ready? Here goes:

TORCY, France -- Mourad Amriou slowly warmed up the crowd inside a small mosque on the outskirts of Paris, giving the congregation a pep talk after the Friday evening prayer.

"Just nearby here are Fatimas and Mohammeds who are drinking," said the beefy 26-year-old former rapper, using generic names for Muslim women and men. "Can you believe it? Just around the corner, going to nightclubs. Do you accept it?"

There were murmurs of disapproval as he continued. Life, he said, should center on mosques. Not just for prayer, but for everything from language classes for children to social life. Otherwise, he said, Muslims will become indistinguishable from their French neighbors. "Society has to be based on Islam," he told the gathering.

In France and across Europe, messages like this are finding a broad audience. Compared to the deadly subway and bus bombings that rocked London last week, they may sound mild. There is no call for jihad or violence and the message is delivered by local citizens, not outside agitators. Yet the message is radical: People who are different are held in contempt. Mingling with mainstream society is frowned upon. Society should be founded on one religion: Islam. Ok, now let's change just two nouns. For "Europe," substitute "America." And for "Islam," insert "some Baptist churches" or even "mega-churches." Now read it again. Work for you? Because it sure is working for "some Baptist churches" and "mega-churches."

The Beauty Part

He's dead. And Ivan's associates are saying the usual things. No need to repeat them here--we've all mouthed cliches after the death of a colleague. Leo Tolstoy just took the trouble to write them down.

The visit to the widow? Textbook. Viewing the deceased? Nothing new there. Mourners rushing off to their own affairs as soon as possible? Been there, done that.

And then Tolstoy begins to tell the story of Ivan's life--"the simplest, most ordinary and therefore most terrible." Know that Tolstoy is writing in 1887. "War and Peace," with its 580 characters, is long behind him. "Anna Karenina" was published almost a decade earlier. In the last few years, Tolstoy has renounced fiction; he has been fixated on thinking his way to a new kind of Christianity, indeed a new kind of existence. So we may expect that his view of this unexamined life will be brutally penetrating, a lacerating indictment of bourgeois life.

It isn't. It's something more--and this masterpiece is just 60 pages long. Consider tackling The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Thought for the Week

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product--if we should judge America by that--counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America--except why we are proud that we are Americans.
-- Robert F. Kennedy, at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968 (To hear 90 seconds of this remarkable, electrifying speech, click here.)

A Death in the Family

Last week, when I wrote about the 'Baby Boomer Book of Death,' I was working out two contradictory ideas. One was that Boomers have, all their lives, seen themselves as the center of the universe and so, as a generation, are uniquely unprepared even to deal with the idea of death. We really think: 'Not me! I'm not going to die.' The other is that baby boomers--notably the President and his cohorts--have sent young men and women off to die with not much concern for their welfare and no tears for their demise. As if to say: 'My life is important. Yours isn't, soldier." I was puzzled: Are some lives worth less than others?

This speculation led a faithful reader to send me an email about the achingly recent death of her husband--with a wakeup call at the end:

You can only die once. You can only be taken from your family once. Does it matter that it was an aneurysm and not a terrorist's bomb? I don't care that it wasn't a misguided attempt to glorify Allah that took my husband, but merely a medical anomaly.

Bring our soldiers (one of whom is my husband's nephew) home and spend some of the Halliburton bazillions on goodwill and kindness instead of war and American terrorism, and maybe some of us who remain will have a better shot at dying at home, in bed, instead.

My husband leaves our 11 year old son, four adult children and me. Are we less saddened, less horrified that he died on a tile floor in Colorado at vacation's end instead of by having his head chopped off in Iraq? Yeah, buddy, you betcha. Death hurts, period. A few days later, she sent me a longer note, which she has kindly given me permission to share:

The day before we were to drive home to Texas from a wonderful visit to Colorado, my husband died in my best friend's kitchen. The autopsy said it was a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. I agonized for the hours until the autopsy report that I had inadvertently killed him with my frantic, clumsy attempts at CPR--that somehow it was my fault.

I was deeply concerned that our children not be left with that particular visual for the rest of their lives. I am still grief stricken that our 11-year-old son was present when I was frantically trying to save him. My friend says it was a good thing--that my son saw me trying, not just wringing my hands, but I don't know. No child should have to see his father die, I don't think.

I told the mortician I was concerned about an open casket funeral. He said he thought I'd be pleased, but to come alone, before the children, and I could decide. So, four days after my goodbye in the Colorado kitchen, an autopsy, and a flight back to Texas, I walked into the funeral home to decide if I could allow our children to see him one last time.

He looked dead. He didn't look "good." But he wasn't the stuff of nightmares, either, thank goodness and the mortician's art. They brought me a chair, I sat and for the first time in my life, I wept. Not just cried, because there had already been plenty of that, but wept with all my soul. Have you experienced pure grief? It consumes you. No thoughts run through your mind, no words are formed, just pain, exquisite and total.

And then the Holy Spirit came to me. As a cloud of love, of peace, of joy, of complete and total "alrightness." I was lifted up, and filled. I took a deep breath, and sighed a deep sigh, and started smiling, experiencing the joy and peace that was offered. Where there had been pain, there was peace. I stood and smiled at the corpse, and touched the stiff hair and smoothed the jacket lapel, and knew that this was no more to me than a doll. My man, my husband, my love, was truly at rest, at peace. Among the living, and not the dead.

I went home and went straight to my Bible, where I opened immediately to the verses where Mary Magdalene went to the tomb after Jesus' death and the words leapt from the page: "Woman, why do you weep?"

Several people have told me that I glowed at visitation that night. That I was gracious, comforting, and so totally at peace that it was whispered about all evening. I told my friend everyone probably wondered what great drug I was on (I decided early on to get through this drug free, by the way).

I choose to see God's hand in this in so many ways. If it had happened a day earlier, we could have all plunged off a road and my son and I would have been killed, too. A day later, and we would have been in Kansas or Oklahoma, alone. Worse, ten minutes before, my friend and I had started to leave to look at a piece of property she had recently bought, but as I rose to go, I suddenly said, "You know, never mind. We'll go later." If we had gone, our son would have been alone with his father when he died, and I could not have lived with that.

My son and I are home, we are surrounded by the love and compassion of friends and family. And of God. My stepdaughters each, independently, say he came to them as they cried, to comfort them, and they know because they say they suddenly smelled his cologne and felt comforted. My oldest son swears he felt an arm around his shoulder. We go on.

Death stalks us, you said. Yes, and love surrounds us. We just have to be open to it.

Death hurts, and the pain doesn't go away easily or quickly. But we can choose to see beauty or not. I still hurt, I still miss my best friend, I'm so sorry my son will grow up without him. I'm not really scared... just sad. My husband is in a better place, but we're still here. And I'm tired. Very, very tired.

So, say a prayer for us, 'kay? And thanks for being there. Feel free to send this woman your prayers and thoughts via my mailbox or the message board to your right.

An Historic Moment: Loose Canon Finds Fault with George Bush (Don't Tell Ann Coulter!)

Loose Canon--who is reliably on the side of life--stumbled into the case of Sun Hudson last week. You may recall this nightmare: a sick, poor, black kid condemned to death by the State of Texas, even as his mother pleaded for his life.

LC went on at some length about Sun Hudson and declared the law that enabled Texas to end this kid's life "really terrible."

At this, I perked up, because the Texas Futile Care Law was signed by Governor George W. Bush in 1999. (To be fair, he didn't sign the bill that authorized the euthanasia of children. That was a later bill. But his signature on the 1999 bill opened the door for what followed.)

In a state of considerable excitation, I wrote LC to ask if she knew what she was doing. As we all know, this infallible President demands a level of loyalty the Pope only dreams of. So this was a pretty big step LC took--if she knew she took it. Had she perhaps read my rant on this case months ago and grasped the hypocrisy (or it is racism?) of the Bush position on the "culture of life"? Was she sick of serving up her party's talking points, day after day? Was she, perhaps, preparing to have an original idea about the war? Was she on the verge of a breakthrough--or a breakdown?

LC replied: "I don't know enough about the legislative process to know if this was an attempt to stave off an even worse law or a very bad move on Bush's part."

Ah, there was perhaps a way out: The Texas legislature shoved Bush around. LC wouldn't want to chip a nail clicking around Google, so I did that heavy lifting for her. The 1999 bill passed both houses of the Texas Legislature--unanimously--and was signed by then Governor Bush with no comment suggesting duress.

Interesting tidbit: National Right to Life, the organization that fought to keep the state of Florida from removing life support for Terri Schiavo, helped write the Texas law. (Maybe they knew the Texas law was--wink! wink!--designed to rid the state of desperately ill blacks and Mexicans.)

Anyway. I find this hopeful. LC can parse this any way she likes--in right wing punditry, black so easily becomes white--but you and I know that she has, for the first time in anyone's memory, dissed a law linked to W. And now this black mark goes into Google, where it will follow her around. Let us hope that her fellow conservative pundits are kinder to her than Bush and his successors were to sick people who made the fatal mistake of being poor.

Lies, Lies, Lies

We have no reached the point where just about every word out of the White House is a lie.

The war we're winning and the freedom that's blowing across Iraq? Hmm. Looks like the start of civil war to most observers.

The next Supreme Court Justice will be in the great tradition of American values? Don't hold your breath on that one.

Anyone caught leaking names of our secret agents will be fired. Yes, of course. But first he'll have to be convicted of a crime.

The good news is that it's summer. And hot pretty much everywhere. You wanna get hotter? Go ahead. But it might be smarter to grab a book. Soak in cool water. Brew a pitcher of tea.

"Only connect," said. E.M. Forster. Wrong. Only disconnect. The jokers in Washington will bring themselves down without you. There's nothing you can do for the kids in Iraq. If the Democrats in the Senate can't find their spines, we'll get some yutz of a Justice no matter how many emails you send.

So hug the one you're with. Read to a child. Rent an old movie. Read a real book. Have a pint of ice cream and call it dinner. Go to bed at nine. Life is hard and often mean, and it's up to you to keep your sanity and grab the beauty and make the peace.

Ignore politics and the idiots who make their living off lobbyists. Snap off all television news. Avoid pundits of every stripe, including fakirs/fakers like yours truly. Get outta here, already. And have a blast.

The Beauty Part

An Oklahoma night. The back porch, looking out over fields coming on to harvest. The guy in the rocker has a guitar. Sounds like he can hardly be bothered to play it. His voice is a mumble. But something he's doing is really catchy.

That man is J.J. Cale. He wrote "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" and "Call Me the Breeze" and lots of other songs that have been hits for Eric Clapton and others. Personally, he'd rather make small, perfect records. So he has. And they're ideal summer music. The place to start: The Very Best of J.J. Cale.

Thought for the Week

The way I look at it,
I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours:
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.
--from "Passing Through," by Stanley Kunitz

The Boomer Book of Death

Death used to be an isolated event. In college, a friend saw Gogol in a snowstorm in Harvard Square and, soon after, hanged himself. Another, even crazier, connected a rubber pipe to the exhaust of his Triumph convertible and gassed himself on All Soul's Day. A third, unable to come out, swallowed cyanide. And Vietnam took a few, none I knew well.

It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I watched a man die. He was a venerable New Yorker writer, famous in the literature game. At a dinner arranged for just this purpose, he agreed to call The New Yorker about a job for me. Over coffee, his heart exploded and he pitched over into his dessert. I took that as some sort of sign--I was young, and not altogether bright--and did not write for The New Yorker for another two decades. I also had a young, and not altogether bright view of death--it takes only the elderly and the insane.

Then death came closer. A woman I worked with, had a crush on, a mysterious woman, author of a learned book about Tibetan medicine--dead, fast, of cancer. A classmate tumbled over a cliff in Hawaii; another was beaten to death in Los Angeles.

But as my brother the doctor says, "If you survive the childhood diseases--if you get to 25 --- you're usually good for a straight run to 50." He was right. My circle remained unbroken. Even on 9/11, everyone I know who died was several degrees of separation away.

Boomers--and The Worst President Ever is a prime example--live as if no one passed through here before us. We showed up here right after the war, we've known only prosperity, we made music much better than the junk that followed--we're the only generation that ever mattered. And we will matter at every stage of our lives. Boomers are the Chosen People.

And to prove how special we are....we'll never die. We've got Botox. Pilates. Wonder drugs. (Everything but advances from stem cells, but we can always send out for those.)

That denial of death is surely at the heart of our adventure in Iraq. "They" die. But not our kids. Well, okay, some of them--the inner-city blacks and Hispanics who never had a shot at anything better. The farm boys. The trailer trash. But not their officers, the leadership class; they're boomers. They wouldn't be caught dead in a Humvee.

The right Boomer attitude among most of the folks on my side of the aisle is that we did great things to stop the Vietnam War, and so we don't have to do anything this time out. Well, I'm a Boomer, but screw that--the war in Iraq makes me crazy. To me, it's Vietnam all over again: the rage, the frustration, the absolute certainty that the thing was built on lies and profiteering. But there's a different quality this time: Each day's news in Iraq--our soldiers, Iraqis, even the so-called terrorists--hits me hard. I read a headline and imagine life leaving a body. The last breath. The sigh. The going beyond. This is not the approved Boomer view of death.

I also obsess about horror stories.

Last week, I pondered one image over and over, the take-away from the biggest local news story of the weekend. A Long Island family, returning home from a wedding, in a limo. A drunk, driving on the wrong side of the highway. The crash destroys the limo. The limo driver is killed. And so is one of his passengers--Kate Flynn, seven years old. (The drunk driver, as is always the case, sustains minor injuries.)

Two days later, the girl's mother gave a news conference:

"As I crawled out of the car, the only thing that was left of Kate was her head," said Ms. Flynn, 36, her voice cracking as her mother-in-law, who sat in the audience, began to sob. "And I took her, just that, and sat on the side of the Meadowbrook and watched at the horrendousness going on around me. I sat there for about an hour with her as they cut my entire family out of this crushed tin can."
But, okay, life goes on. As it did in London, with the terror bombs. My heart flip-flopped. And then I noted the number of dead in London almost exactly equaled the number of Iraqis killed by suicide bombers and others in Iraq during that same week. Nobody much cared. What are we to make of that?

And then, on Saturday, Byron Preiss, a man I know slightly--I work mostly with his wife--was on his way to synagogue in East Hampton. In the summer, as Hampton vets know, it's all but impossible to make a left turn onto the two-lane highway--there's just too much traffic. Byron thought he could make that turn; he didn't see there was a bus coming, and that it had the right of way. So he got killed. 52 years old, one of the few innovative publishers, crazy about his wife and their two daughters.

As I thought about Jennifer Flynn and her dead girl, I never really got beyond the sheer, unpredictable horror that life can deal us. I mean, what do you say? That you hope there is a God and a Heaven and that Kate sits at His right hand? That you wish you could hug Jennifer Flynn and take some of her pain from her--and that if such transference were possible, good people would be lined up for miles to take their turn?

And as I thought about Byron Preiss, same thing. Killed on the way to Sabbath services--what's up with that? You breeze out the door, saying you'll be back right after temple, and the next time your family sees you, you're in a casket. And it's not like media; you don't get up. It's real.

The next day, another boomer story, this one via e-mail from my pal Nancy:

My husband Jon, who's 41--he had a massive heart attack one week ago today. His LED artery was 99.9% blocked and only by miracle of g-d is he alive. In fact, where the artery was blocked--the doctors call it "the widow's curse." Lucky for Jon, I "happened" to return home with the baby to find him on the bed complaining of tingling in his fingers. I called 911 which "happens" to be 1/3 mile away from this house and so a medical team was in my front door within five minutes. The ER cardiologist told me that only 2% of people survive out-of-hospital heart attacks of this nature; most die within 10 minutes of the attack. There is no heart failure in Jon's family; he works out and eats basically ok. You get this picture? I do: He's alive and my children still have a father.
And it could so easily have ended the other way, couldn't it? The picture I get--and maybe it's because I'm older, with a late-life child--is that death surrounds us. Follows us. Stalks us. And it chooses the moment of our death. And brilliant achievers though we may be, ain't nothing we can do about it.

"It's not fair," I think, quoting our kid. "It's not right." But there is no "fair" and "right" here, there is only What Is. And as I age, I get a better sense of that. What Is is that every life is precious. That life is painfully short. And that to take away from another person everything he or she has and will ever have--well, you'd better have a damned good reason.

The Context is the Content

Three weeks in France made me look hard at the empty farce of American media. My suspicion:

American culture has stalled. "They" make movies we don't want to see, publish books we don't care to read, release music we can't bear to hear. The answer to every American cultural question is "nothing applies," because there is a schism between the government and the people. The government is crazy and - belatedly - most adult Americans seem to know it; the people have no power and the government knows it. Somewhere ahead we sense there's a reckoning, which makes us uneasy if not outright terrified.
What do we need to understand? That context--how we feel--is as important as content. In fact, is content. For an explanation, with examples, drop in on Innocent Abroad.

The Beauty Part: From the Horse's Mouth

The last book Ludwig Wittgenstein read--the book he read as he lay dying--was 'Black Beauty.' I have always wondered why. Wittgenstein was arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. Although he wrote "Everything that can be said can be said clearly," his linguistic analysis is brainsplittingly difficult. By all accounts, doing philosophy was torment for him. Why, of all the books he knew, would he turn in his final days to a book we think of as a novel for children?

I want to know the answer, so I re-read 'Black Beauty' every decade or so. And this time, as I reach my dotage, I think I see what the lure was for Wittgenstein--'Black Beauty' is not a book about a horse for kids, it's a parable for us all. For more: Black Beauty.

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