and I quote

september 2008

click here for permalink September 27, 2008

A sad synchronicity. On my last weekly trip to the library, I picked up Absence of Malice on DVD, it being one of those semi-classic films that came out just a tiny bit before my time that I've never seen. This is actually an enormous category but you'd be surprised how many of them turn out to have been directed by either Sidney Lumet or Sidney Pollack — the latter being the case with this one.

Paul NewmanI put it on first thing this morning while I was getting ready to go outside. Since I can't just do two things at once, I was also searching online for an update on some random, unrelated thing. The first result that came back was an ABC News story and the site had a thin, black "breaking news" headline running across the top of the page saying that Paul Newman had died of cancer at 83. Damn.

Saddened and completely derailed from my original search, I glanced back over at the movie, just in time to see Paul Newman make his entrance at that exact moment wearing jeans and a plaid worker's shirt. His face was chiseled, lean and tan in striking contrast to his silver hair and his eyes flashed with anger as he softly announced his presence to Sally Field, who promptly spilled a cup of coffee all over her desk.

"I would like it if people would think that beyond Newman, there's a spirit that takes action, a heart, and a talent that doesn't come from my blue eyes." — Paul Newman

Damn... I hadn't even known he was in this movie so it was something of a double shock. I read the headline again, then spent the next hour reading his bio on IMDB and looking through hundreds of pictures; over the years, his face remained a study in perfect proportions. His features were not so much aristocratic as they were architectural; from his early days at the Actors' Studio in crisp black and white to his later years, making entrances with Joanne Woodward on his arm, his signature blue eyes flashing with vitality and wit.Newman & Woodward, 1957

Married within a year of their first meeting on set in 1957, the pair celebrated their 50th anniversary in January 2008, their years together spanning almost the entire length of his career.

"I don't think there's anything exceptional or noble in being philanthropic. It's the other attitude that confuses me." — Paul Newman

On IMDB, I am reminded that Sidney Pollack also died this past May — and indeed, we are deep into the "twilight years" of an incredibly influential generation, not only of filmmakers but many of the 20th Century's most outspoken intellectuals and political activists. It fills me with dread when I think about the fact that Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Gore Vidal and Jimmy Carter are all in their eighties. Of course, if they were women, we wouldn't have to worry so much — at 88, Helen "the watchdog" Thomas is still standing up for Freedom of the Press from her seat of honor in the front row of the White House press briefing room. ("Thank you, Ms. Perino!")

Gore VidalOn Democracy Now earlier this year, Amy Goodman did an interview with Gore Vidal which was taped at his home in California and aired over the course of two days. The tone of their conversation was morbid, to say the least, leaving one with the impression that this man, after decades of activism, criticism and campaigning for Progressive/Liberal/Democratic causes, had given up hoping for a better world. He had seen a better world, it now seemed he was saying, and, if he had known at the time that it would all be downhill from there, he might not have bothered to stick around for so long.

He railed against the current administration, about the state of activism or the lack of it, about the way the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been not just shredded by the Executive branch and swept aside by the Judicial, but are now being actively dismantled by the Congress with a Democratic majority. Worst of all, the People, in whose name those documents are written, have effectively done nothing to stop it. Think of all the damage that's been done in less than eight years — and it took his generation half that time to defeat Hitler.

It was a profoundly depressing, demoralizing two days; and yet it made me wonder, what will we do without these booming voices of dissent? Think of Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn; in terms of sheer information storage and computing power, losing either of them would be like losing a Library of Congress.

One thing that does make me happy and gives me hope is how passionately, productively political so many of today's leading men have become — like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo di Caprio and Matt Damon. It must have been heartening for Paul Newman to see that his legacy of philanthropy and dedication to expressing his political ideals both onscreen and off, were so well-respected and were being emulated by the next generation.Paul Newman

"I'd like to be remembered as a guy who tried — who tried to be part of his times, tried to help people communicate with one another, tried to find some decency in his own life, tried to extend himself as a human being. Someone who isn't complacent, who doesn't cop out."
— Paul Newman (1925-2008)


click here for permalink September 22, 2008

homeless in Vancouver[Found on Flickr,
robert the bear's
Living on the Street
a series of beautifully
stark but warm black
and white images of
Vancouver's homeless.]

It's weird but I don't usually think about the economy on a national scale, or the fluctuations of The Market, as effecting me on a personal level.

Of course I know they are connected and the connection occasionally demonstrates itself in ways that are very concrete. Like when the "dot-com bubble" burst back in 2000 and all those overinflated Internet start-up companies with whimsical business models started dropping like dominoes — including the one that I worked for.

Indeed, at 10 am on that Wednesday morning when the long-dreaded meeting was called, we all dutifully filed into the room and took our seats on desks or leaned against walls with arms folded like sullen teenagers as we were told that the company could no longer afford to pay us — as of, mm, let's say, noon. That made the whole "dot-com" collapse story pretty real for me.

Two years later I never associated the harrowing period I spent between jobs with any broader economic trends. Maybe I was too preoccupied with trying to find a job before my landlords could evict me and the government could pull the plug on their "support services." I beat the latter but not the former — the government checks that were barely covering the rent didn't actually stop but they slowed down and paused often, and long enough to make the point moot as far as my landlords were concerned.

In the end, I was unemployed for just under a year, during which time I spent at least five days a week sending out resumes, signing up with placement agencies and taking the bus out to godforsaken office parks in far-flung suburbs for interviews and rare temporary assignments. I dutifully sent in weekly job search updates to a government office and turned up at least once a month in person, bright and early in the morning and dressed for success. As required, I'd cheerfully sit through an interview that would last five minutes as they scanned my resume and then told me that it didn't look like I really needed their advice.

Since that better-forgotten episode going on five years ago now, I've learned that my time in that system was far from anomalous. While I was trying to do everything right to get back on my feet, and out of their hair, as quickly as possible without downward-spiraling into actual poverty in the process, it turns out they were doing everything they could to cut their costs by 30% in three years. Mission accomplished, it turns out — they reduced their budget by $581 million by imposing strict pre-qualifying criteria, threatening time limits, refusing benefits to more and more people and lowering benefit payments across the board. [For the full report, see Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group]

One thing we don't know yet, and may never fully know, is how many members of Vancouver's burgeoning homeless community can be traced back to this "social experiment," to use the words of the researchers referenced above?

According to the only organization that's keeping track, Vancouver's homeless population has increased by 131% since 2002. While "the number of sheltered homeless in 2008 is virtually the same as in 2005," this is largely because the availability of shelters has not increased since 2005, despite the fact that homelessness doubled between 2002-2005. If you count the people they found sleeping in alleys, parks and doorways, or waiting in soup lines, their numbers have increased by 364% since 2002. (Full report.)

The Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, so far conducted in 2002, 2005 and 2008, takes place over the course of a single day and is performed by volunteers who meticulously search their assigned neighborhood searching for homeless people. So, the resulting numbers clearly represent a bare minimum rather than an accurate estimate. In fact, the 2008 report states that "an additional 398 people found were perceived to be homeless [but] refused to be interviewed or were sleeping" and were therefore not included in the official count.

Interestingly, my search for Vancouver statistics and information led to a report on Seattle's efforts to address their homelessness crisis, which apparently met with exemplary results:

"In 2002 Seattle voters approved a 7-year Housing Levy of $0.15 per thousand of assessed value to raise $86 million [towards] 2,044 units of affordable and low income housing. This was the fourth housing levy approved by Seattle voters since 1981. King County unveiled a 10-Year Plan to end homelessness in March 2005 and have reported a 10% reduction in street homelessness each year." [Full report.]

x-menI lived in Seattle in the early 80s and I can actually remember the exact moment I first became aware that there were people in the world who were homeless, and understood what that meant, not on the news but in real life. I was ten years old and it was a Saturday which meant one of three things; if it was sunny, cruising around in the parents' Subaru hatchback hitting yard sales all day; if it was rainy, hitting Pike Place Market while the crowds were at a minimum — comics and Marilyn memorabilia at Golden Age Collectibles and coffee at the original Starbucks, back when it was just a mecca for devoted locals.

That particular Saturday, we did the third option; forgo the drive downtown for a closer and somewhat less crowded window-shopping destination; University Avenue, home to the palatial University Bookstore and Seattle's fledgling goth scene.

We were weaving our way through a sporadic crowd outside the dingy McDonalds that marked the street's midpoint when a young man standing in the shade of the cheerless yellow awning pressed a small xeroxed leaflet into my hand. This was far from uncommon; "the Ave" was home to dozens of competing record stores, poster shops and dive-y cafes so people were always handing out flyers or coupons in the hopes of enticing customers into one of many artsy but uninviting holes in the wall.

I smiled and thanked the young man, still walking briskly to keep pace with my parents. We were a couple of paces away by the time I looked down to read the flyer in my hand and noticed the sign language alphabet printed on one side, a plea for donations on the other. I felt someone clutch at my arm and I spun around, startled. The young man put his hands up in an apologetic gesture, then motioned to the piece of paper I was holding and then pressed his hands together in a pleading gesture that I'm now certain is universal.

I tried to hand the paper back to him, saying how sorry I was but that I didn't have any money (which was quite true) but his eyes had suddenly turned desperate and his face, seconds ago a mask of polite entreaty, now seemed to show the ravages of a lifetime of poverty and isolation. He gestured again with a terrifying urgency and spoke with the unmistakable intonation of someone who cannot hear his own voice; "Please... Please."

I burst into tears just as my step-father was moving to put himself between us, placing his hand on the young man's shoulder and firmly but — I think — gently pulling him away from me. I felt my mother's fingers tighten around my hand and then I felt myself being swept forward with my parents on either side of me. I glanced back through the stinging blur of tears to catch the dark, desperate eyes of the young man once more before we were swallowed up by the swiftly-moving crowd.


click here for permalink September 2, 2008

This week, Democracy Now is continuing their coverage of the conventions with two-hour shows broadcasting from St. Paul, Minnesota, where Amy Goodman and two of her producers were arrested Monday on a variety charges like "conspiracy to riot" (that's right, you can be arrested if they think you're thinking about starting trouble) and "interfering with a peace officer" (for example, asking the officer questions like "why are you arresting these people?" or "may I see your badge?"). Ironically, the arrests occurred while they were investigating nearly 300 arrests made by police, many of them "pre-emptive," before the convention had even started.

In another segment of the show, DN spoke with several members of Iraq Veterans Against the War who have held protests at both conventions, marching in uniform against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They conducted one particularly harrowing interview with a former Abu Ghraib prison guard named Benjamin Thompson. Here's an excerpt:

"One of my prisoners at Abu Ghraib — a place where you saw all those photographs come out — you didn't know the half of it... This means God hopes for peace."

He rubs his fingers over the Arabic words tattooed on his upper arm, wipes tears from his face.

"We had ten-year old boys in my camps. We had an eighty-year old blind man in my camp. They were killed by enemy fire, because we did not protect them when they were in our custody. They were not worth protecting... We were giving them food that made them sick. We were giving them water that gave them kidney stones... They were dying from lack of heart medication that they had been on for twenty years. You never heard about this, ever, because of the [expletive] photographs. The Department of Defense focused all of the attention upon those atrocious acts committed by war criminals — my brother and sister military policemen — and then everything else that happened at that prison, to the other 95 percent of those prisoners, went unreported in the media. This is not OK."

The last few words are barely audible exhalations between sobs. His despair is palpable, crushing. You get the feeling, watching this poor kid struggling to find the words to tell the world what he has seen and done, that the only thing holding him together is the hope that sharing his story will somehow make a difference. If only people knew the truth, they would do something to stop it.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend at work told me about one of his friends who had recently returned from Iraq. It was a routine business trip to Baghdad; he spent three days in a modern hotel and met with administrators and city officials about building facilities for elementary schools. Within the Green Zone, a heavily guarded city within a city, the business of life is conducted with a tense, watchful pretense of normality. Everywhere else is off-limits, even in broad daylight. Outside the borders that define the Green Zone there is chaos. It is a constant presence, the menace of unpredictable, wanton violence out there in the spreading darkness.

BaghdadBack in the safety of his home in Vancouver, he found that he couldn't sleep; couldn't shake the memory the feeling of being in Iraq. For two weeks, he lay awake at night trying not to see the streets of Baghdad when he closed his eyes; the charred steel frames and shredded tires of burned-out cars that line the highway; the bodies piled at the side of the road, rotting and unclaimed; the vicious, diseased-looking dogs that stalk the city streets. He tried not to hear the distant, ominous rumblings that might have been explosives taking out a strategic bridge, or a roadside bomb triggered by a convoy of trucks winding through the desert, or a retaliatory "surgical" air strike that you pray is farther away than it sounds.

He can't understand why he finds himself unable to leave the house until there is nothing left to eat and he is forced to make brief, fearful excursions to the corner store. He knows the feeling will pass and that, one day soon, he must return to Iraq. Duty will call. Life will go on. But he feels that he has glimpsed hell and unwittingly brought a piece of it back with him. The fear, awful and all-encompassing, reminds him of something he can't name, something older than history, primal and inhuman. He remembers when Baghdad was a place like any other, a city with a tourist trade, neighborhoods and families, marketplaces, nightlife. He knows he will return to Iraq. Like an uninvited guest at a crime scene, he knows he must now bear witness to the unmaking of civilization.

And so once again
Oh, America my friend
And so once again
You are fighting us all
And when we ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry and we fall
Oh, my friend
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum

You say we have turned
Like the enemies you've earned
But we can remember
All the good things you are
And so we ask you please
Can we help you find the peace and the star
Oh my friend
We have all come
To fear the beating of your drum

The Fiddle And The Drum
by Joni Mitchell

Performed by A Perfect Circle