Saturday, November 28, 2009

Random Thought for the Day

Those who are determined to fail quite often succeed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Capitalism in its Current Form Needs to Die

In 2007 alone, the chief executive officers at these companies collected combined total compensation of $118.6 million—an average of $11.9 million each. That is 468 times more than the $25,434 an average American worker made that year.
-from a report by HealthCareforAmericaNow.Org
When your economic system produces outcomes like this, where the executives of a protected (read: functionally monopolistic) industry make exorbitant amounts of money for figuring out ways to not provide the service which is their companies' reason for being, something is broken and needs to be fixed.

Now don't get me wrong. I am pro-capitalism. I agree with the market fundamentalists that it's the best way to drive innovation, which makes everyone's life better, or at least should. But when the rules are gamed such as to produce outcomes like this (or, worse, outcomes like Goldman, Sachs' current balance sheet less than a year after they helped nearly drive the economy over a cliff, taking themselves with it), then the rules need to be changed.

Myself, I favor the installation of both a ceiling and floor to compensation. I think that, until the entirety of humanity is brought into the twenty-first century in terms of access to education, health care, and economic opportunity (which would solve at least half of the world's problems right off the bat), that anybody being allowed to make more than, say, half a million dollars a year is, quite frankly, obscene.

Yeah, yeah. I can hear the grumbles already, that I don't really believe in capitalism, that I'm nothing more than a dirty fucking Marxist bent on redistributing wealth away from the productive class towards the great unwashed, and hey, to you maybe I am (I consider myself post-Marxist, personally, but opinions being like assholes, everybody gets one). But I'm really a radical democrat (note the small d). I believe that every American citizen, upon paying their taxes, ought to get to say what those taxes go towards paying for. So by all means let corporate boards compensate their executives as richly as they like. They'll take home a half mil and they can decide what the rest should be used for, and that can be their reward for being so high-powered and smart, or whatever justification it is they offer for their ridiculous and obscene compensation packages.

But that's beside the point. The point is that the system we have is broken, and will doom us, both as a nation and as a people (perhaps even as a species) to the inevitable slide into Imperial Senescence and Banana Republic-hood, and if we don't fix it we'll deserve every bad thing that happens as a result.

And no, I won't be happy about it. Schadenfreude's not my thing. I love this country, and all the good things it stands for. It's too bad the fuckers making all that money denying coverage and preventing competition don't feel the same.

Another Brief Thought

The assignment of blame, satisfying though it can be, does not constitute the solution to any problem.

Monday, November 23, 2009

For Kendal

When I was driving home, I listened to this album a lot, and every time this song came on I thought of her.

Shoes and Other Feet

We have heard a lot of outrage over the past several weeks from Tea Party Patriots around the country that no matter how loud we protest, no matter how often we go to DC, no matter how large our crowds are, Congress is not listening to us.
-from an email sent to Tea Party Conservatives (hat tip Tbogg and TPM)
Well, now you guys know how NION felt. Sucks, huh?

Pretty Sure this is Not Satire

Scrooge is skeptical that many would prefer death to the workhouse, and he is unmoved by talk of the workhouse's cheerlessness. He is right to be unmoved, for society's provisions for the poor must be, well, Dickensian. The more pleasant the alternatives to gainful employment, the greater will be the number of people who seek these alternatives, and the fewer there will be who engage in productive labor. If society expects anyone to work, work had better be a lot more attractive than idleness.
-Michael Levin (hat tip to DougJ at Balloon-Juice)
The funny thing is, it almost (almost) sounds reasonable when you read it, horrifying though it is. But then, a lot of libertarianism does, with its cutesy cutting of corners and knowingly limited vision of what society is and should be for. Ebenezer Scrooge is a savvy businessman, and if he has managed to accumulate so much wealth and manage it with only one employee, why, he should be lauded and lionized for his canniness, not hounded in his bed by ghosts who want him to feel bad for the people he's screwed over. For all we know, the man operates the then-equivalent to a modern payday loan operation, lending at usurious rates to those who have no choice but to borrow, whether their circumstances be their own fault or no. Levin even goes so far as to say that Bob Cratchit ought not to have had so many children if he didn't think he could afford them (a very libertarian notion, as libertarians are notoriously anti-child, being not much more than children themselves), and suggests an invented character, Sickly Sid, who also needs an operation, just like Tiny Tim, but who now will not have it, since his father was planning to finance said operation with money that Scrooge is now giving (giving) to Cratchit, out of some misguided sense of charity because he had some bad dreams on Christmas Eve.

That's the thing about libertarians. They're just anarchists who lack the courage of their convictions. They think that humanity clawed its way out of the jungle and built cooperative society and civilization just to recapitulate the state of nature (in the Hobbesian sense). They like the laws guaranteeing their property but don't want to pay the taxes that guarantee the prosecution of those laws. They think it's just fine that society has winners and losers, so long as they are the winners. They think that both parties in any transaction negotiate from an equal position, and that if one party is disadvantaged then it is surely that party's own fault, even when it isn't.

It is, in short, facile bullshit of the worst sort, an after the fact rationalization of the fact that they got their toys and they don't want to share. It makes you wonder what they tell their kids on Christmas morning when there's no presents under the tree.

"I'm sorry, honey, but you didn't earn any Christmas presents this year. I know you think it's mean, but Daddy is teaching you a valuable lesson today. If you want something, you have to go and earn it for yourself. If Daddy let Santa come and give you presents for free, you wouldn't value them as highly as you should, and you might grow up with the expectation that life owed you a living for free. Also, and I hate to have to bring this up during the holidays, but you're late on this month's payment for that playpen you enjoy so much. Remember how Daddy said he would be willing to finance it for you, but you had to pay Daddy back? Daddy gave you very generous terms on that loan, but you're in default now. Your payment is more than thirty days late, so Daddy is going to have to repossess that playpen and try and sell it to recoup his loss. I know you think I'm just a big old meanie, but you'll thank me one day when you're as rich as Daddy because you learned the valuable lessons he's teaching you today. Honey? The kid has soiled herself again. Time to put in some more of that uncompensated labor you seem so fond of."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

There's much in this world that's savage and horrifying, that will break your heart and confound your understanding and shake your faith in the justice and beauty and rightness of things. But there is also magic and wonder and days when the sun bursts through the clouds and suddenly the grey is silver and the silver becomes gold as the gathered clouds are scattered and flee beyond the horizon. Days when levity overcomes gravity's ineluctable pull and loads are lightened for reasons the conscious mind isn't really equipped to understand or make sense of.

I had such an experience recently, and I would like to tell you about it, if for no other reason than because it happened and I can't tell you why, though it may very well have saved my spirit and soul from the muck they were mired in. It was, perhaps, just a coincidence, something that just happened. Something for which there is and was a perfectly logical, rational explanation, that I'm making more of than is really there to be made.

The possibility is very real that that is the case and that I'm just grasping at straws for my own (understandable) reasons. I'll let you decide what to make of it for yourself. Here is what happened:

After my mother's death this past summer, we held a memorial service in her honor, which was well-attended and considered by all to be a success. The arrangements were mine to make, along with some help from my aunt, and we did our best to honor the spirit in which Mom had lived her life. There were pictures, and flowers, and a eulogy, of course, and I and others spoke afterward, celebrating her life and the ways she had touched us all, and afterward many of us retired to her favorite haunt and raised a glass or two in her honor. I think she would've been happy with it, had she been there. And who knows? Perhaps she was.

Shortly after that, I left town and went home for a couple of weeks. It'd been exhausting, all those days and nights in the hospital, all those decisions and arrangements that I had to make, and I needed more than anything to just be away from it all. It was during this time that my mother's wishes were fulfilled and her body cremated, the cremains, as they're called, delivered to the funeral home for me to come and retrieve.

Luckily, another aunt was able to retrieve them for me, and so they were waiting for me when I returned to begin the process of unwinding her life, of going through Mom's things and fixing up her place, and generally taking care of the business at hand. I knew, somewhat, what I thought Mom would want, in terms of a funeral, or at least what seemed to me to be the thing to do, and who should be there, but for one reason or another, it just never seemed the right time, and so Mom remained with me there, set up on a little shrine with some pictures and other mementos. I would talk with her, sometimes, and make her drinks here and there when I was having one, and weeks and even months passed in this way while I lived and worked in her home, getting just a little crazier with each passing day.

It was a difficult time, for lots of reasons, and as the days and weeks passed the pressure inside mounted until I was sure I would burst. It got to the point where I made the decision that I needed just to go, even though there were projects left to do, and so I made arrangements to have them done and prepared to start the long drive home. There was just one thing left: Mom's funeral.

She hadn't said, in her Last Will and Testament, how she wanted her remains to be disposed of. Though she was clear she wanted to be cremated, she'd left it up to me the what to do with the cremains. I'd decided early on to give her back to the ocean. She'd grown up on the water in Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm, and spent her childhood on the beach and in the water, back when Florida was still an underpopulated paradise, before Disney and the developers came and turned it in to what it is today. Indeed one of the things I'm most grateful for, though it makes me cry to remember, and probably will forever, is that I was able to take her to the beach one last time at the end of my penultimate visit, before the end became imminent and she began the business of dying in earnest.

I'd thought at first of renting a boat for the day, whenever it was, and doing the whole burial at sea thing, but it didn't seem quite right, and would have involved getting the various brothers and sisters together in close proximity with no escape for anybody. They're a fractious bunch, and while I'm sure they have their reasons I'm also sure that that was not the vibe I was looking for for my mother's funeral. So I decided that I would give her back to the ocean, but that the ceremony, such as it was, would be held on the beach. My aunt and uncle suggested Phil Foster park, a place where Mom and her siblings had spent a lot of time during their childhood, but when I went there to scout it out it just didn't feel right. It's essentially a giant, paved-over boat ramp these days, and while there is a beach of sorts there, it's under the bridge, and dirty, and just wasn't the place I wanted it to be.

So I did some looking around, and found John D. MacArthur park, a mile-and-a-half stretch of virgin Florida coastline just a little ways north of Riviera Beach, a place where you couldn't see any hotels or beachfront development, without a foot of pavement or big crowds of sun-pinked tourists with their radios and umbrellas and screaming packs of kids and old folks. It was exactly what I was looking for, and I knew as soon as I set foot on the beach that this was the place.

I called the relevant people and let them know, and my uncle did a little research and discovered that the outgoing tide was early in the morning, and so on the day after Halloween we all met in the parking lot at 9 am. I'd been up very late the night before, drinking too much and talking with Mom on the patio, with the fence open so we could see the lake and the sounds of revelry here and there in the distance, but I still managed to be the first one there.

I think Mom would've been proud. She always did want me to get up earlier and be more on time to things.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The beach was lightly populated, and we only had to walk a few dozen yards to be away from what few people there were. We said what little there was left to say, and I walked her out into the waves, fully dressed, and laid her as gently as I could in the water. We threw a dozen roses in with her, and though the waves were wild and the ocean was rough, only one came back, washed up on the beach to await the next tide. We emerged, dripping with sea water, and that was that.

Now comes the magical part.

It's windy at the beach. Always. The air over the water and the air over the land are different temperatures, and the differential means that the hotter air over the land rises, drawing the cooler air over the water inland. Now mind you, today was not the windiest day, but there was a noticeable breeze even down low near the ground, and I expect that up high it was even windier.

Some friends of the family had brought a mylar balloon, and we'd all written our last goodbyes on it in the parking lot. We said goodbye, and each of us touched it in turn. Then we released it, and something I can't quite explain happened.

Despite the wind, the balloon rose, straight up into the sky. We'd all expected the breeze to carry it inland and out of sight quickly, but instead it floated, almost purposefully, straight up, until we could only just barely see it.

And then it stayed there, directly above us, lingering as we watched, as if Mom were watching us from up there, saying her last goodbyes to us just as we had said them to her. For minutes on end we stood there, just watching in wonder and amazement as it floated there above us, watching us back, it seemed. It moved a bit, yes, but there it remained, almost directly overhead, while we all stood, shading our eyes from the glare of the sun, almost unbelieving that such a thing could happen. It was a very Mom thing to do, that lingering, because we were the people she loved best in all the world, and I knew that she would want to watch us for as long as she could, just as we wanted to hold onto her.

And that wasn't all. As the balloon rose, I felt the weight of the weeks and months that had passed since her death lift from my shoulders with it, as if Mom were taking it with her, a final parting gift to her only son. At a time of great sadness, when by all rights I should have been bawling my eyes out (as I am right now, writing this), I felt as light as the air and as free as the the wind, all the stress and sadness that had weighted me down made light and fluttered away on the breeze.

We waited and watched, the nine of us there on the beach, our grief forgotten in the sheer amazement of the moment, until some strange subliminal signal had passed and we found ourselves back on the beach, looking at each other, all of us knowing somehow that it was time to go. We looked back up, to say one last goodbye, but the balloon was gone. She'd slipped away while we weren't looking, off to whatever was next. Which was also a very Mom thing to do.

A Brief Thought

Those who claim the stimulus package didn't work because the economy hasn't totally turned around in the last six months are like people who think global warming doesn't exist because we still have winter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the Subjective Nature of Objects

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.
-Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
I've been thinking about things a lot lately.

I don't mean that in the usual sense of the phrase, that I've been thinking about the various happenings and vectors and relationships and narratives in play at this stage of my life, although I've certainly been doing that, too. No, what I mean is that I've been thinking about things; about objects, devices, and artifacts; and most especially I've been thinking about their capacity to take on subjective meaning in the context of their relationship to myself and others as perceiving beings who appear to persist through time. I generally assume that the way it works for me is much the same as for others, but given the wall of unknowability that lies between each of us and the world I'm going to let that particular philosophical sleeping dog lie and presume a certain degree of, if not universality, then at least applicability, in what follows.

Take this, for example:

This is my Pentax K1000 35mm camera. Now, to someone else, this is just an old (some might say classic) 35mm camera, and one's reaction to seeing the picture of it is, if not determined, then at least colored by one's relationship to photography, its history, technology and the history of its technology; by fascination with or lack of interest in old things; by nostalgia for days gone by and a time when technologies were simpler and, paradoxically enough, more difficult to operate; or by any number of possible considerations, which are too numerous in their possibility to even begin to enumerate here. Suffice to say that the object, while remaining itself, provokes different reactions in different people, thanks to each's individual world-view, associational chains, and particularity in space, time, and history.

For me the picture and, more importantly, the object it depicts have a significance that can't be surmised by an other just by looking at them. See, I have history with that camera, and not only that specific one. Allow me to explain.

When I was thirteen, I started working as a soccer referee on weekends, for a number of reasons, not least of which was that they paid me. Now, at that age, having money of your own is (or at least seemed to me at the time) a strange and wondrous thing. Others, perhaps, have had a different experience of life, but for myself the notion of buying things for myself, with my own money, without having to ask my parents to buy them for me, was a new and mysterious thing that I didn't, honestly, quite know what to do with. Being that my needs were simple, I spent very little on myself, and would give anyone in the lunchroom who asked a couple of bucks to buy whatever from the cafeteria. What the hell else was I going to do with my money? For all I knew, money was just for buying things, and there weren't enough things I needed or even wanted to spend all of my newfound wealth on. After all, video games were still just a quarter back then.

But I did buy one thing, one big thing, that I remember and kept and had forever and ever, and that was a used Pentax K1000 camera very like the one in the picture above. I spent $100 on it, a huge sum to me at the time (never mind adjusting for inflation) at a used camera store my father took me to.

It was the first big purchase I ever made on my own behalf, and I used, abused and treasured that camera for many years. I loved it. Loved the weight of it; the old school credibility it exuded in the face of what were at the time incredible new innovations in 35mm photography, things like autofocus and autoadvance of the film in the camera. Loved taking pictures with it, loved the quality of the shots and even the difficulty of having to balance aperture and shutter speed and focus before taking each one. I took it on adventures, documenting strange peoples and the faraway lands where they lived. And though I never really delved into photography as a craft, I loved dabbling in it as an amateur, and I loved my camera, both for what it was, and for what it meant to me. It had, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, taken on an aura, a particularity and authenticity that was unique to its presence and history in space and time, even if that aura was perceptible in full only to me.

And then, shortly after college, or maybe in my later undergraduate years (memory fails me as to the details), I passed through South Florida to visit my mother, and discovered that the lens that I'd bought with the camera had become stuck.

I remember that I'd just returned from some grand adventure or other, maybe the road trip to Central America, or one of the many cross-country jaunts I was so fond of taking at the time. I had lots of film shot, and no money. Mom of course was more than happy to spring for developing the pictures, and I of course was happy to let her. We were getting along pretty well in those days, which we hadn't always. My mother and I did not see eye to eye on some things. It wasn't so much philosophical disagreement as it was a certain incompatibility of temperament, and it had dogged our relationship for most of my conscious life. We'd spent a couple of years not talking during my late teens, when my upswelling adolescent rebellion ran smack into her difficulties in accepting that I was no longer a child, and it was not until a couple of years after I had moved out that we were able to reconcile and grow to love one another again, or, rather, remember the love that was always there and that almost always exists between mother and child.

But the fact remained that there were things about each other we just didn't get, that didn't jibe on a fundamental level. Yes, we were able to work around them in our personal relationship. We were able to get along, and spend time together, and enjoy what we could of one another. But the things we valued and the ways we approached the world remained somewhat at odds, and my camera and its eventual fate became a perfect illustration of the phenomenon.

Like I said, the lens was broken. The metal around the rim had gotten bent somewhere along the way (an unsurprising development, given the cavalier attitude I tended to have in those days towards my things), and the focus was no long adjustable. Or maybe it was the aperture. I honestly don't remember. It's not important. What's important was that I didn't discover that it'd happened until the last day I was visiting. I went to take a picture and found I could not, and I was, as you might expect, not happy about it, as I was broke at the time and could not afford to have it fixed or buy a new lens.

So when Mom offered to get the camera fixed and send it to me after, I was, if not thrilled, then at least pleased. I say that not to belittle Mom's generosity so much as to indicate the degree of entitlement I felt at the time. Of course Mom would get my camera fixed. That was what moms were for, along with laundry, food, care packages, and unconditional love. That she would offer to do that fit perfectly with my understanding of the world and while I was grateful I was also able to sort of shrug it off without recognizing the generosity for what it was.

A week or two later, the package arrived in the mail, and almost as soon as I opened it I realized something wasn't quite right. That wasn't my camera. Sure, it looked like my camera. Was an identical make and model and functionally indistinguishable from my camera. But it wasn't mine. The scratches that made it particular were missing, or in different places. It felt different in my hand. It was, in a word, wrong. I called Mom to see what'd happened and found that she had, in fact, replaced my camera with a different one. I don't remember the details, but the guy at the repair shop had talked her into exchanging my camera, the one I'd bought with my own money in middle school and taken on countless adventures, whose sole flaw was a lens in need of repair, for another just like it. Perhaps it was in slightly better condition. I really don't remember, and I never understood quite what possessed Mom to do what she did. But she'd traded away one of my most valuable possessions for a simulacrum, a copy, however identical, that was most emphatically not the camera I had bought with my own money so many years before.

I know she meant well, and that there must have been reasons. And I decided, there on the phone, to leave it, and never told her how I really felt. But I was furious inside. How could she do that? How could she not understand what that camera, that particular camera and not just that kind of camera, meant to me? I knew she had things that she'd had forever and that she treasured. How could she not understand, intuitively, that I did, too, and that this was one of them? It was further evidence to me of the fundamental alienness of our different natures, and though I felt very mature just dropping it and not making her feel bad, I also mourned the camera's loss, and mourned a little that my own mother did not understand me.

I could, perhaps, begin my philosophical musings at this point. After all, the ultimate purpose of this piece of writing is to think about things in their thingness and how that thingness interacts with the perceiving subject's experience of the thing and its aura. There's certainly enough to work with already, drawing the distinction between the camera as you, the reader, may experience it and the camera as I experience it, with the weight of my personal history crouched upon my shoulders and warping the experience the way that a large gravitational mass warps the fabric of space-time around it. But there's more, a whole new order of meaning that has recently called itself into existence and settled itself athwart this collection of plastic and aluminum and technical know-how.

See, my mother just recently died, and so now everything I associate with her has taken on a new significance. Tempting though it is, I'm not going to poke around the edges of that particular wound right now, not here anyway. But it's added a new layer to the aura of the camera above.

I've had the new camera for years now. Taken it overseas, out in town, and out into the woods. Taken pictures with it that have great significance in my personal life story. It has its own history and chain of associations, which now have taken on an even greater depth than what they had before. Because now the camera is not only a symbol of the place where the Venn diagram of Mom and me failed to meet, it is also a thing that she gave to me, made more valuable now that she's gone, and an object of deeper contemplation for the richness of its meaning to me.

But to the imagined other that you, the reader are to me, the same object doesn't, even can't mean the same thing, even after I've told you the story and explained the history. And, in my long-winded and roundabout way, that's the thing I'm trying to get at.

You see, we rub off on the things around us. Leave a psychic patina of ourselves, the sebaceous oils of our being, if you will, on every thing we contemplate and touch, live with and use. It's not so much that objects are mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected, although it's tempting to go down that road (After all, brain scientists will tell you that your brain will pick out the patterns you are used to perceiving, no matter what the stimulus, and so the act of perception can be characterized as a reflection, since you can only see what it is in you to see, and thus an argument can be made that you only see yourself). But to me this permeability of objects to personal meaning speaks to a similar permeability of ourselves. There's a bond that grows there, not so much a bridge as an intermingling, invisible perhaps in space and time, but there nonetheless. The things around us shape us, just as we shape them, as if Einstein's theory of General Relativity (which is, at bottom, the notion that, through the mystery and magic of gravity, every discrete particle in the universe has a special and personal relationship to every other discrete particle in the universe and affects it, however minutely) also applies to this squishier psychic realm, in ways that haven't yet been explored.

There's no answers here. To those, if any, who've gotten this far in hopes of some amazing insight into life, the universe, and everything, I apologize. I've only really begun to think about these things recently, in response to the process of going through my mother's things. I was amazed at how many of them I recognized, how many were the little boring everyday things that make up any household, but that were the boring everyday things that made up the household I grew up in, that spoke to times long past, subjectivities I'd forgotten, thrown into new and starker contrast now that my world has a Mom-shaped hole in it. I'm still not sure, honestly, what I'm trying to do here, but the persistence in my mind of these things and what they mean to me, and how they come to mean them is something I can't seem to put aside. Perhaps it's only grief, a desire to bring Mom back, or at very least to grasp at the traces she left on the world and thus hold on to what little is left of her. I couldn't say. It isn't possible to untangle all the threads in the fabric of right now and see which is what and why. But we all pass through many selves in the stories of our lives, inhabit many subjectivities, each an outgrowth of all that came before, and just as a song or a smell can bring us back to a self we've left behind or grown out of or even just away from, so too can the things in the world around us take us back, preserve that connection to our histories and those we've shared them with, and there's something there worth exploring, I think. So here we are, and here we go.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Joey, remember. It's socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the poor.
-Joe Biden's Grandfather

Posted Without Comment

For in her latest incarnation, Sarah Palin represents an American stereotype at least as old as the Chatauqua circuit and as new as the American Idol wannabes who get showcased in the early episodes of each new season for their combination of fervent conviction and utter lack of talent. She wishes—she feels entitled—to be Famous, in the way a thirteen-year-old writing fanfiction understands “famous”: Everyone should know her name, and want to be just like her, and love her not for her talents or her achievements but just because she’s Sarah. After all, God wants her to be happy, and how can she be happy if she’s not famous?

-Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice

Friday, November 06, 2009

Jon Stewart truly is the Man

I can't get the clip to embed for some reason, but Jon Stewart's Glenn Beck impersonation last night was the funniest thing I've seen on the Daily Show in a long, long time.

Click here and enjoy.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Posted Without Comment

(hat tip DougJ at Balloon Juice)