27 January 2009

Bret Michaels And His Hair

Ever since I started this blog - and long before that, when I used to publish my magazine - I always struggled to find and maintain the right balance between "serious" commentary and the more frivolous side of life and pop culture.

The people who are mainly interested in politics would complain when I wrote about some "silly" punk rock band, and the music fans would bitch at me if I had too much of that "boring" politics. And of course nobody ever bothered to tell me when, at least in their opinion, I had gotten it just right.

But quite a few people read this blog, so I figured I couldn't be doing too badly. Until, that is, I did a little research and found out exactly what people were reading when they stopped by here.

Well, as it turns out, THE most popular topic, BY FAR, on a scale of about 50-1, is an item I wrote nearly a year ago called Does Bret Michaels Wear Hair Extensions? In fact, not only is it the most popular item on this site, it also comes up as one of the top ten sites on THE WHOLE INTERNET if you do a search for "Bret Michaels Hair." "Bret Michaels Hair Extensions?" Numero Uno.

So, not that I want to put on airs or anything, but it is a bit humbling to be regarded as one of the world's leading experts on Mr. Michaels' hair (or, if the overriding weight of public opinion is taken at face value, the lack thereof) when a) I've never met the guy or even seen him in person; b) I've only seen his TV show one and a half times ever; c) All I did was ask a single innocent question, namely, what was he keeping hidden under that do-rag of his?

But looking back at how the Bret Michaels hair saga has played out, it seems as though my innocent question may have snowballed into an internet-wide wave of public inquiry that finally forced Mr. Michaels, less than a month later, to acknowledge that his bandana concealed a mixture of "my hair and the finest extensions Europe has to offer." Which was a great relief to his many fans who'd been living in fear that the over-the-hill rocker might have been sporting tacky American extensions.

Naturally, there were those who weren't willing to let Bret's forthright admission stand, instead insisting that those weren't extensions at all, but a full-fledged wig. I personally stayed out of this controversy, having lost all interest in Bret Michaels, his hair and/or his television show shortly after making my original post.

However, once it came to my attention what a vital role I had played in uncovering one of the great cultural mysteries of our time, I found it incumbent on me to check up on Mr. Michaels' progress by tuning into an episode of his new series, which seems to be operating on the same premise as last year except that this year he and the skanky hos are, for reasons that haven't become clear to me yet, traveling around the country on a big ugly tour bus.

But Bret is still supposedly hot stuff, and the "girls" are still as willing as ever to demean themselves for the dubious privilege of being pawed by him, and the only other thing I noticed before fast forwarding to Sober House was Bret rejecting a gift as being insufficiently flash. "Doesn't she realize I'm a rock star?" he mused aloud, and I'm like dude, that was 20 years ago! At least! Nowadays I think you'll have to settle for being a novelty act with a extensive line of do-rags. And the finest extensions Europe has to offer.

What A Difference A Week Makes

Seven days and little of the euphoria has dissipated. Despite the predictions of cynics and McCain supporters, both of whom I number among my friends, President Obama has thus far done little to disappoint and a great deal to enthrall.

I think what impresses people most - even among those who had their doubts about Obama or did not support him at all - is the dramatic difference, visible from Day One, between his Presidency and that of his predecessor. Whether you agree with the new President or not, it's hard not to appreciate hearing thoughts and views expressed in clear, coherent sentences and paragraphs. And again whether you agree with him or not, it's comforting to feel that he has given some serious reflection to what he's saying and doing, and that this whole being President thing is not just some frat boy lark to be skated through on the strength of a few slogans and a lot of jokes.

Obama has let me down in one way, at least potentially: my initial understanding of the giant $825 billion stimulus bill leads me to believe that a large part of this immense deficit we're running up will be relatively ineffective or downright squandered. Perhaps he needs to deliver hundreds of billions of tax cuts in order to get the Republicans on side (not that it seems to be working, as they seem to be continuing to spout the same ideological gobbledygook that got us into this mess in the first place), but even the spending portion of the stimulus package seems too heavily geared toward old-fashioned giveaways and social spending and way too little toward the genuine job-producing infrastructure investment we were promised.

Personally, I don't see much benefit to the proposed tax cuts. Sure, it'll be nice for people to have an extra $500 or $1,000 in their pockets, but the effect this will have on the economy is negligible. In the first place, the people who will benefit most from it are those who are still employed rather than those who have lost their jobs and are already paying few if any taxes. Secondly, the amount of money it gives back is chump change, relatively speaking, in that most people are not going to use it to rush out and buy a new wide screen TV and thus jump start the (Asian) economy, they're going to put it toward a mortgage or rent payment, or pay down some of their credit card bill. Laudable actions, sure, but about as likely to have any lasting effect on the economy as those few hundred billion in public funds already poured down the banking system rathole.

Remember, it was George Bush's lunatic idea (supported by many Democrats, to be fair) that we could massively increase spending, especially military spending, while massively cutting taxes, that put this country so far in debt that national bankruptcy is not completely out of the realm of possibility. The logic of cutting taxes still further at a time when we are running up bills the size of which are completely unprecedented in the history of the Republic has thus far managed to elude me.

But let's leave that alone for the time being and question instead why more of the $450 billion not being devoted to tax cuts isn't being spent on the major - and long overdue projects - that will not only create jobs, but also lay the foundations for future development and growth once this financial crisis is past. Things like high speed rail linking our major cities, a 21st century broadband network for the entire country, construction of new schools, rehabilitation and re-use of foreclosed and abandoned housing. Yes, there are provisions for all of this within the bill, but pathetically small provisions in the overall scale of things. And, one has to wonder, once this much money has been spent, where on earth will any money at all be found to rework the health care system or pursue many of the other laudable aims of the Obama administration?

But one hesitates to question or criticize too much, because Obama is riding such a wave of good will and good faith that it seems preferable to assume that he knows what he's doing and that the answers to these and other questions will come in good time. And certainly he's barely put a foot wrong anywhere else during his first week in office: the swiftness with which he's moved to reverse some of the more idiotic and self-destructive Bush executive orders impresses, but so too do his diplomatic skills. Beginning with his inaugural address overture to the Muslim world, and continuing with yesterday's interview with Al Arabiya, he has taken the first vital steps toward repairing the immense damage done by the Bush administration's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to international relations.

And not content with reaching out to one set of seemingly intractable foes, today he went marching into a still more pernicious lion's den, the Republican Congressional caucus. I halfway expect him to show up at Guantanamo one of these days to personally interview the prisoners there and convince them that America's not their enemy after all.

Dramatic gestures aside, though, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the Obama administration thus far is the feeling, so long absent, that someone both competent and caring is in charge. This may be pure delusion on my part, of course, and for all I know, Obama could be every bit as confused and frightened as I am by the magnitude of the problems facing our country and the world today. But if he is, he's doing an outstanding job of not showing it, and since politics, like finance and virtually everything else, ultimately involves the ability to inspire confidence in others and oneself, I'd say he's off to an outstanding start.

24 January 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 1

Jan 19 12:06 pm

It’s been a while – maybe a few decades – since I’ve been on an intercity bus in America. A few Greyhound rides across the country and up and down the West Coast have left their mark on me, to the point where I expect any bus trip lasting longer than a few blocks across town to be more of an ordeal than an adventure.

But with the alternatives offered by Amtrak being almost nonexistent – there were a couple trains leaving between 3 and 5 am that I could have caught – and shockingly expensive, I opted for a $35 round trip on the semi-legendary Chinatown buses. Semi-legendary in the sense that while I’ve been hearing about them for years, I’ve never actually seen one, and also with regard to the rather gray area, legally speaking, in which they appear to operate.

There’s no bus station, for example; passengers are instructed to gather at a vaguely designated corner – the actual street address doesn’t appear to exist – in the lee of the Manhattan Bridge. After 20 minutes or so of milling around, we are led by a woman shouting indecipherably to another spot a block away where a bus – presumably ours, but bearing no destination markers – sits waiting.

It’s neither worse nor better than I expected. With the exception of the TV screens – non-operational, as it turns out – dangling at intervals from the ceiling, little has changed from the bare-bones standards of Greyhound buses of yore. Though it’s impossible to say at first glance how many of the passengers are, like me, headed to Washington for the inauguration, it looks like an Obama crowd: a lot of 20-something whites and African-Americans from a somewhat broader age range. The one demographic curiously lacking on a Chinatown bus? Asians; apart from the driver, I count only one or possibly two.

We’re underway now, headed uptown, whether to pick up more passengers or toward one of the tunnels, I do not know. Looks like the former, though, as we’ve already passed up our opportunity to turn off for the Holland Tunnel, and I can’t picture an operation like heading south with empty seats.

Trying to fit all my necessities into a small day pack, I wore several layers of the clothing I’m counting on to keep me warm on the Mall tomorrow, which may end up keeping me more than comfortably warm on today’s bus ride. The one exception is my toes, which despite the rugged, waterproof, all-weather and terrain boots I’ve encased them in, feel unaccountably cold. I hope that’s not a bad omen for tomorrow.

We’ve turned onto 42nd Street and have just passed Grand Central. Memories come flooding back from some of my first trips to New York City as a teenager, one visit in particular that involved an all-night bus ride from Detroit to attend a march and rally against the Vietnam War in April of 1967. I was a new convert to the antiwar cause, having only a few days earlier undergone a Damascene conversion from bellicose patriot to bleeding heart hippie, and so intimidated by the apparent sophistication and worldliness of my fellow travelers that as near as I can remember, I spoke to no one the entire way there or back.

Still, I never for a moment regretted making the journey. I marched at the back of a crowd variously estimated at between 150,000 and 400,000, and by the time we arrived at the United Nations, I was so far removed from the stage that I could only just make out what the speakers were saying, and could see so little of them that I had to take on faith that they were who they were purported to be.

There was Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor turned antiwar activist, and unless I’m mistaken, Stokely Carmichael, who sounded pretty angry, not just about the war, but almost everything. Then came Martin Luther King, already internationally renowned as a civil rights leader, but having recently lost some of the general approbation he’d enjoyed since coming out so strongly against the war.

I don’t know if it was one of Dr. King’s less memorable speeches or if being a callow, self-absorbed 19 year-old left me unable to grasp the full import of what was being said. But it made no great impression on me other than that, as I kept having to remind myself, I was in the presence of a very great man. I had no way of knowing that less than a year later he’d be dead of an assassin’s bullet; still less could I have imagined that 42 years later, on a national holiday dedicated to his memory, I’d be traveling from New York City to Washington to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American president.

As we passed the Port Authority, great Ivory-sized flakes of snow began to fall. To this day I can never see or hear mention made of that building without thinking of Sharyn. The Good Witch of the Lower East Side, I’d called her, and looked up to her almost as though she really did have supernatural powers. In reality – something which by 1968 I had only a tenuous grasp on – she was a frightened, vulnerable kid who at 15 had run away from her home in South Jersey and who, upon arriving at the Port Authority, was met – seized upon, really – by a friendly stranger who offered her an apartment and a job.

The apartment turned out to be one of the many abandoned buildings in Alphabet City, the job turning tricks for businessmen uptown. Throw in a budding heroin habit and you might say she was all set for life in the big city.

That’s where I came in. As messed up as she might have been, by April 1968 I was worse: penniless, homeless, and, should the police or FBI catch up with me, facing a long stretch in prison. A year earlier I’d come to New York convinced it was up to me to save the world; now I couldn’t begin to see how I was going to save myself.

Sharyn took me in and took care of me, though I would never admit it at the time. It was her prostitution earnings, what little of them she was able to hang onto, that kept us alive, and it was her compassion and street smarts that gave me my first lessons in how to navigate the urban jungle we inhabited.

But the idea that I could count on her was severely shaken the night she almost died of an overdose, and though I tried to keep in touch with her after I left for California, she never wrote back. 41 years later, as I roll through the South Jersey farmland of her childhood, I find it almost inconceivable that she’d still be alive today.

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 2

3:02 pm
Pennsylvania/New Jersey

Now, like Washington, we’re crossing the Delaware, its sullen, steely waters flecked with ice sheets and black birds that from above look implausibly like the heads of human swimmers. I don’t know if we’re supposed to stop at Philadelphia. Mostly, I suppose, I’d prefer not to, for the sake of saving time, but part of me wouldn’t mind. For all my travels, it’s one of the few big American cities I barely know at all. I’ve passed through several times on the train, but apart from that my only Philly experience was in the dead of winter and the dead of night, that time Darrell, Eric and I tried hitchhiking from New York City to Michigan.

We’d been sitting around in the Ypsilanti hippie hovel from which we were about to be evicted, bored, alienated, and desperate for something to happen.

“We should go somewhere,” I said. “New York would be cool.”

We didn’t even have money for food and been relying on the free pizzas furnished by a friend working at the nearby Domino’s, but I had a checking account. A checking account with no money in it, true, but in those trusting days, it was no problem for threee disheveled and unkempt young men to turn up at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and pay with a check for three youth fare tickets out of there.

Friends often asked me afterward why, if I was bouncing checks anyway, I didn’t spring for round-trip tickets instead of one-way, or why I didn’t take any extra checks in case it became necessary to pay for other things like, say, a place to stay or, you know, food.

The short answer was that I simply didn’t know, the slightly longer one that somewhere in the back of my befuddled mind I harbored the fantasy that we wouldn’t be coming back, that we’d be starting a new life in New York, one in which money, the lack thereof, or the need to work to obtain it, would somehow no longer be a factor.

What happened instead was that the preternaturally warm December day that had encouraged such optimism gave way to a sudden cold snap, the rough-hewn street freaks who’d offered us a place to crash morphed, at least in our fervid reckoning, into drug-crazed killers, and by nightfall we were shivering in doorways along Second Avenue, feeding on the day-old bread we’d cadged from a couple of bakeries.

There wasn’t much to go back to in Michigan. Our landlord had turned off our heat several weeks earlier in retaliation for our refusal to pay rent, but as long as the kitchen stove still worked, we could at least warm ourselves by huddling around the oven. Compared with the very real possibility that we could freeze to death on the streets of New York City, that kitchen began to look downright attractive.

We left as soon as it got light, but a day’s worth of hitchhiking took us no more than 20 miles into New Jersey. As it got dark again, and the temperature dropped toward 0, we ignored the posted warnings and tried hitching on the turnpike itself instead of at the entrance ramp, reasoning that if we didn’t get a ride, at least we could count on being arrested and carted off to what would hopefully be a nice warm jail.

When after an hour or two neither of these eventualities had come to pass, we opted for what we’d been discussing as our last resort. A few hundred yards up the road sat a police car, its idling engine filling the air with great clouds of steam. We walked up to it, knocked on the window, and offered to turn ourselves in.

“For what?” the cop asked, seeming slightly annoyed at being disturbed.

“Well, for hitchhiking on the turnpike,” said Darrell.

The trooper took a few seconds to process this information before replying. “Oh. Then get off the turnpike.”

Actually, we told him, we’d much rather go to jail, but the harder we tried to convince him, the less inclined he was to take us there. He finally drove away, leaving us to contemplate the likelihood of being found dead on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, a fate lacking even the modicum of glamour afforded by meeting our demise in a New York City doorway.

That’s when the hippies saw us. They pulled off the road and said, “We’ll take you to Philadelphia.”

“That’s not even on the way to Michigan, is it?” protested Eric, and the hippies said no, it wasn’t, but at least it would be warm there, and there’d be food. “You can stay with us tonight and make a fresh tomorrow.”

So began my only real visit to Philadelphia, and even then I saw little and remember less. They drove us through deserted, late night streets to their converted warehouse loft, a concept none of us had heard of, let alone seen in 1967, fed us huge steaming bowls of hippie stew, and after some sort of tribal confab, decided that $80 in communal funds should be used to put us on a bus to Michigan in the morning.

Most of my experiences with hippies up to that point had been with people like ourselves: broke, hustling, eking out a mean, hardscrabble existence on the margins of society. These were the first hippies I’d encountered who not only appeared to have plenty of money, but were also willing to share it.

“We get a good feeling from you guys,” they said. “We know you’ll pay us back when you can, one way or another.” I was touched, deeply touched. All three of us were. And all the way back to Michigan we talked about how far out the hippies had been, and how repaying them would have to come before anything, anything at all we might have planned for when we got back.

But we never did. Other, more pressing needs intervened, mainly involving food and/or drugs. A week later I was homeless, a month later, running from the law as well. 1968 would be a tough year, not just for me, but for the country. We lost Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and, some would argue, our innocence. My last, best hope, at least the way I saw it, was that American society would collapse to the point where the charges against me might be overlooked or forgotten.

Things have a way of working themselves out in the long run, and eventually they did, though not without attendant measures of gloom, despair and disillusionment. As my legal troubles receded and my material prospects brightened, I often regretted – indeed, was ashamed – that I hadn’t paid the hippies their money, or at least kept in touch with them until a time that I could afford to. I can only hope that they didn’t suffer unduly for want of that $80, and note that because of their generosity, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Philadelphia.

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 3

5:01 pm
Passing Baltimore

As it turned out, our bus never gave so much as a glance in Philadelphia’s direction, instead speeding southward through a remarkably placid countryside, at times awash in dappled sunlight, at others pummeled by driving snow squalls. Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, none made more than a passing impression until we approached the outskirts of Baltimore, a city where I’ve actually spent some time and was curious, almost anxious, to see again.

Obama had been here three days earlier, following a similar route to ours, only by train, and stopping at each of the major cities to address the crowds. My Baltimore friends had spent much of the day waiting in the cold for the President-to-be and cheering wildly for the speech they finally got to hear. I wished I had been there, wished I could have seen how Obama’s message of hope and change had played in a city so desperate for either of those things.

Baltimore could serve as a poster child for urban decay, but could serve equally well to illustrate the indomitability of the human spirit. Against a backdrop of a ruined economy, endemic crime, and corrupt and incompetent administration, there were those still who loved this place, who proclaimed it by way of park bench logos to be “the greatest city in America.” Young artists and musicians enthused about the cheap rents, but also about the sense of endless possibility.

Obama spoke their language but then upped the ante, not asking in so many words as JFK had what they were going to do for their country, but essentially delivering that precise challenge. This new government, he seemed to say, will not be about the benefits you might hope to receive but about the contributions you will have the opportunity to make, not about patting ourselves on the back for our brilliant accomplishment in having been born or become Americans, but about what we will do to show ourselves worthy of that legacy.

In my life I’ve never seen an American political leader receive the adulation Obama has. Kennedy came close, but even then only by dying. I suppose Lincoln or FDR in their day might have inspired equal or greater devotion, but in my own time I’ve mainly witnessed a succession of mediocrities occasionally interrupted by an ephemeral flash of competence and respectability. If America were Rome, might this be akin to the string of venal and half-witted rulers, with an average shelf life of about 18 months, who sleepwalked the Empire through its final days?

Where might Obama fit into this equation? As a Trajan or Hadrian, who restored good governance to Rome after a shaky half century that had seen the likes of Caligula and Nero? As a Diocletian or Constantine, who brought a fading Empire back from the brink and postponed its demise by at least another century? I resolved to ask Bella’s opinion at the first opportunity.

Bella was the main reason this trip was possible. Though I’d contemplated coming to DC for the inauguration from the moment Obama claimed victory in November, the cost and unavailability of hotel rooms alone had seemed sufficient to put the kibosh on any such plan. It was only last week when I remembered that Bella, a university lecturer in ancient history would be coming to Washington about this time to take up a research fellowship, accompanied by her partner Danny, one of my oldest and best English friends.

A quick email interchange revealed that they’d be arriving the night before the inauguration and produced an unsolicited invitation to stay with them at the Georgetown flat the university had provided for them. I hesitated, thinking it might be a bit much to pop in on them during their first night in a new city and country, but then reasoned on the other hand that I could help them get their bearings and act as a sort of guide to the events about to unfold, the likes of which, I felt quite sure, they would never have witnessed in their native land.

The English as a general rule just don’t do great outpourings of patriotism, or collective emotion of any kind, which is why the dramatic displays of public grief over the death of Princess Diana had come as such a shock to the national psyche. When a British Prime Minister, even a much loved or hated one, is unseated, there’s no great hubbub about it. He or she simply packs their bags and vacates the premises, while the new PM, following a ritual visit to the Queen, simply shows up the following morning and goes to work.

I was living in London in 1997 when the election of Tony Blair put an end to 18 years of Conservative rule. While many households, ours included, stayed up most of the night to exult and toast the election results, there was nothing to compare with the exuberant street scenes that greeted Obama’s victory. The next morning dawned warm and sunny – statistical anomaly at any time of year in Britain – and as we waited for a bus we joked about Labour already having sorted out the notoriously unreliable weather.

But then the bus didn’t turn up when it should have, and within ten minutes we were back to more characteristic carping about how this new lot were probably no better than the old lot, and that bus service, like the weather , would only continue to get worse, never better. Ten years later, bus service had against all odds improved, but not much else; the weather was if anything worse than ever, and the voters seemed poised to vote Labour out of power every bit as ignominiously as they had the Tories.

“But this time things will be different” seems to be a mantra for Americans, one that will perennially distinguish them from the British, and which regularly crops up in the American part of my sensibilities, only to butt up uncomfortably against the layers of cynicism, irony and detachment acquired during my years in London. Like, I suspected, any sane person, I wanted to believe that Obama marked not just a new beginning, but a total departure from the paths of noisy desperation trod by my country these past – God, how many years had it been now since hope or optimism of any kind were seen as anything but a sucker’s game?

With a start I realized that our anticipated stop at Baltimore had amounted to no more than a flying visit to a travel plaza by the side of an expressway, many miles from anything resembling the Baltimore I knew, and that we were already speeding along toward the outskirts of Washington.

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 4

5:47 pm
Entering Washington

Just like that the sylvan stateliness of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway gave way to the first strip malls and parking lots of the nation’s capital. The twilight settling in took the harshest edges off what by any measure was not the prettiest part of town. At the first major intersection, a cluster of floodlit white tents proclaimed itself an “Inauguration Welcome Center.” On closer examination, it proved to be an open-air souvenir shop staffed entirely by African-Americans and offering ever form of Obama memorabilia imaginable. Similar roadside stands – or, more often, single individuals clutching a handful of pennants, balloons, or badges – cropped up with increasing frequency as we neared the city center.

The last block and a half of our trip proved to be the longest, or at least the most tedious. So smoothly had traffic flowed for most of our journey that the driver had seldom needed to touch his foot to the brake pedal, but with our destination on H Street in tantalizing sight, we succumbed to the long-predicted inaugural gridlock.

I lost count of how many times the lights changed before we were able to move at all. Like a child unable to sit still, I stood up in my seat waiting to be discharged into the chaotic streets, but to no avail.. Did we really have to wait until the bus had turned that seemingly impassable corner? Couldn’t the driver simply open the door where we stood and set us free?

Then at last I was on the pavement, assailed on all sides by the cacophony of a street bazaar with only one product: Obama, stamped in words and pictures on every possible surface. Did you want Obama earrings, belts, sneakers, notepads, hoodies, binoculars, whistles, bells, sunglasses, hats, track suits? All were not only available but being hawked passionately by almost exclusively African-American salespeople. Anyone still clinging to racist stereotypes of blacks as work-shy or unmotivated would, I thought, have a difficult time explaining this phenomenon.

I’ve been in cities before where great crowds were gathering in anticipation of vital or life-changing events, but never before had I experienced the extent of the electricity coursing though the veins and arteries of Washington’s body politic. The vendors – and many of their customers – may have been African-American, but the celebrants came in all shapes and colors, and, judging form their accents and regalia, from all corners and classes of the nation.

Torn between reveling in the spirit of the streets and hurrying out to Georgetown where I could relieve myself of my backpack and make plans with Danny and Bella for the morrow’s adventures, I did a bit of both, and even toyed briefly with the idea of paying a flying visit to the still-open Smithsonian. But ultimately I opted for the longish trek out Massachusetts Avenue, past embassies and hotels and apartment buildings of varying degrees of pomp and grandeur. It was not an uninteresting journey, but nonetheless tended to drag a little, owing to the lengthy blocks and the unnecessarily large spaces between things. I was reminded of the similar row of stately yet a trifle too ponderous buildings lining the southern flank of London’s Kensington Palace Gardens.

A couple of the hotels I passed were hosting black tie celebrations for white people. A considerably more mixed and less formal do was in full swing at the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) hall, but even that resolutely working class affair didn’t look like one I could successfully crash. The sound of a chanting crowd in the distance heralded the first gathering at which I would be unhesitatingly welcomed, or at least not turned away.

Somewhere on the order of a thousand people had gathered in the center of Dupont Circle. From the noise they were making, it was clear that they were agitated about something, whether for or against it was impossible to tell. I cut across lanes of stopped traffic intending to find out; the first thing I saw was a tent adorned with a sign advocating medical marijuana, followed by a great cloud of strange-smelling smoke rising up from the crowd and rolling lazily in my direction.

It was unlike any marijuana smoke I had ever smelled, though, and I recognized it as the scent of burning sage in the same moment that a voice from the stage informed me that we were participating in a ceremony to cleanse the capital of the evil spirits which were meant to have infested it of late. A shaman – who, as it turned out, was a woman, leading me to wonder why she hadn’t been introduced as a sha-person or sha-woman until I hypothesized that she probably got round the problem by spelling it “shamyn” – was brought forth to lead the incantation.

Mama Dada, she was called, from Brooklyn, NY, and with the accent to prove it. She spoke with the rising rousing tones but none of the mellifluousness of a deep-fried Southern preacher as she urged – hectored might be more accurate – her audience to “shake it out, shake it out, shake those feelings out.” Listening to her was neither inspiring nor pleasant, so I moved on, stopping only at the Metro station to buy a ticket in case I needed to take a train in the next two days. Though I’d read that you’d only get a commemorative Barack Obama ticket if you bought it on Inauguration Day, mine came out emblazoned with the 44th president’s likeness, and I counted that as a score.

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 5

Jan. 20
10:30 am

Though this was my third or possibly fourth visit to Washington, I’d never seen Georgetown before, and it was quite a revelation. No less so to Danny and Bella, who found it compared favorably with their familiar haunts in the West of England. “This is not at all how I pictured America,” Danny kept saying, and to be frank, neither had I. A rarefied haven for the wealthy and well-connected it may be, but on the surface it resembles nothing so much as a tastefully understated village of the sort you might encounter in a Disney World replication of Ye Good Olde Days.

By the time I awoke people were already streaming down our normally quiet street, bundled up against the cold and headed in only one direction. We were about two miles from the National Mall and anxious to set off ourselves, but Bella sensibly and/or schoolmarmishly insisted that we stop for breakfast, a decision that may or may not have cost us our chance of obtaining a vantage point in front of the Washington Monument rather than slightly behind and to the left of it.

Even if we had made it out front, we wouldn’t have seen much of the actual event. True, we would have had an only partially obscured view of the Capitol, though even a good pair of binoculars wouldn’t reveal much of the action on its steps 1.2 miles away. In exchange, we would have lost our opportunity to watch the proceedings on the giant television screens lining the sides of the Mall. Another five, maybe even three minutes and we wouldn’t even have been able to claim the spot we did, far enough up the hill to see over the heads of people in front of us, all but one very tall fellow who compounded that crime by wearing a ridiculous hat that added another four inches to his height, and his partner, who insisted on holding a camera aloft during most of the ceremony.

“It’s a television screen, you ninny,” I kept wanting to tell her. “You’re taking pictures of a television screen.” But this was neither the time nor the place for snide or unpleasant words, and if anybody beside myself was thinking them, they remained unspoken. All of us were still reeling from the spectacle we had become part of, streams, rivers, oceanic tides of people pouring forth from every available street to fill every available corner of the 309 acre Mall.

I marveled at Danny and Bella’s willingness to endure the cramped conditions, the 28 degree temperatures – probably in the teens if you factor in wind chill – for the sake of observing this alien ritual, but they seemed nearly as excited as I was. Periodically a brass band would strike up somewhere, playing the Sousa or Sousa-esque marches that called to mind some 19th century extravaganza of bombast, oratory and patriotism, at which William Jennings Bryan might have bloviated against the mankind’s crucifixion on a cross of gold.

The TV showed us various dignitaries arriving at the Capitol, and since there was no commentary, the crowd added its own. Ted Kennedy received a rousing cheer, as did Bill Clinton; Jimmy Carter’s ovation, while warm, was slightly more subdued. The first President Bush, hobbling on a cane and looking shockingly older than anyone seemed to remember him being, was greeted with a restrained – or simply strained – silence, while a wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney, resembling a defeated Darth Vader or, as Danny observed, one of Satan’s minions from whom the Dark Lord had abruptly removed his powers, got a resounding chorus of boos.

That was nothing, of course, compared with the reception awaiting President Bush. I doubt any President in history, especially in the course of a solemn state occasion, has had to endure such a dramatic and vociferous rejection of all that he has stood for. “Everyone throw your shoes at him,” one man yelled, and if the weather had been even slightly milder, he might have had quite a few takers.

“I almost feel sorry for him,” said one woman, but she was quickly shushed by her neighbors. Bush himself was clearly not taken by surprise; he had steeled himself in advance and maintained a stern but unruffled mien that betrayed little hint of hurt, uneasiness or anger as his successor and anyone remotely related to his successor enjoyed an ecstatic, rapturous welcome.

At last Senator Dianne Feinstein launched the ceremony itself, to shouts of approval of the woman in front of us, who had come from San Francisco by way of Austin, Texas. The same woman hissed viciously at the introduction of Pastor Rick Warren (“He’s very right wing,” she explained), but Obama’s choice as Designated Preacher proved to have been a wise if impolitic one. Warren delivered an invocation that was sufficiently Jaysus-fraught to satisfy all but the most strident Bible-bashers (the sort, for example, who had set up shot at the entrance to the Mall with banners reading, “Obama is not the way; Jesus is”) without alienating the tentatively or blatantly irreligious. I snuck a peak at Danny and Bella, whose experience with impassioned public prayer is nearly nonexistent, and detected nary an eye roll.

Then came Aretha Franklin, with whom I have a little bit of history. As a boy I’d heard her singing with the choir on her father’s – the Rev. C.L. Franklin – weekly radio broadcast, as a young man I’d bought and sung along to her pop and soul hits, and now here we both were, many years down the line, she as a national institution, and I – well, on more than one occasion it’s been suggested that I belonged in one.

“Oowee, look at that hat,” squealed several members of the crowd, I being one of them, and indeed it was a wondrous, multi-cornered hat of which, it turned out, much more could be written but will not be here. She sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in a goose bump-inducing soul style, straying sufficiently from the original melody that when I asked Danny and Bella what they thought of this remaking of their national anthem, they both looked blank.

“It’s ‘God Save The Queen,’” I pointed out, “with American lyrics.” “Dreadful song, I completely loathe it,” Danny offered. “Absolutely dire,” Bella chimed in, before both acknowledged that the American version was a considerable improvement. An all-star quartet performed something called “Air and Simple Gifts,” prompting me to observe that this was somewhat classier than I would have expected to hear at any recent inauguration.

“These are educated people,” Ms. Austin-cum-San Francisco informed me, and indeed, that was the impression being conveyed. Then Barack Obama, having taken the oath of office, began to speak and removed any doubt of that assertion.

John Kennedy is the only other President I have heard who could so effortlessly and naturally wield such stately and measured tones, but Kennedy’s rhetoric was more ethereal, almost airy-fairy. No less thrilling because of it, but Obama’s eloquence is more of the hands-on, down-to-earth variety. It too thrills and inspires in more than adequate measure, but goes a step or three beyond in its ability to command a full measure of devotion from his listeners. Right now, I swear Obama could lead these assembled multitudes headlong into the sea, or headlong into the all-consuming maw of an invading army.

It’s a little frightening, almost: who is this man who in the space of a couple years has come from near-obscurity to stand Colossus-like astride the world? How could the clunky, leaden banalities of our recent leader so suddenly give way to such lofty Ciceronian discourse? And yet, in this moment, who else is there? Who else could attract the trust not just of Americans but of long-alienated allies and even some implacable foes?

Cheers and exultations and “amens” resonated across the Mall when the new President told us it was time to put away childish things, promised to restore science to its rightful place, assured us that no matter how weighty or daunting the challenges confronting us, they would be met. At various times the camera would cut away from Obama to show George Bush looking grim and befuddled or Bill Clinton watching in transparent wonder at the complete and utter mastery displayed by the man he had only last year claimed wasn’t qualified to be President.

It was odd that they saved the poet until after the main event. As a boy I watched the venerable Robert Frost, then in his late 80s, reading at President Kennedy’s inauguration, struggling manfully on even when his lectern caught fire. But even Frost, at the time arguably the nation’s greatest living poet, wouldn’t have been foolish enough to go on after the President. This poet was no Frost, and the crowds quickly began to melt away, with many people shaking their heads in bewilderment.

We took a brief detour to the base of the Washington Monument to see what we might have been able to see had we arrived earlier, then joined the queue to exit the Mall. With only a handful of exit points, it was taking far longer to leave than it had to get there, and we ended up walking all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. I took a penny from my pocket to show Bella Lincoln’s portrait on one side and the Memorial we stood in front of on the other. “Ah, like a Roman coin,” she offered. “They often had monuments on them as well.”

Later that night I told her about my Obama-as-Roman-emperor theory and asked where she thought he would fit in the lineage.

“I see what you’re getting at with some of the later emperors,” she said, “but I think a better analogy might be with Augustus, who pretty much created and defined the institution.”

Normally this would not constitute high praise coming from Bella, who despite having devoted her life’s work to the study of Rome, is almost overtly anti-Roman when it comes to matters of the Empire. But for the sake of our discussion, she was willing to temporarily suspend her disbelief. For this moment, at least, we could agree that the ability of an Augustine Obama to reinvigorate and reshape the American dream might not be an entirely bad thing.

“But what about the potential for abuse?” I asked. “Right now Obama could probably declare himself Emperor-for-life without encountering a whole lot of resistance.”

“I think at this point we might just have to trust him,” she said, her voice trailing off. “He seems like a good man…”

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 6

Jan. 21
9 am

Bella had to report bright and early for her first day at the research institute, leaving Danny and I to our own devices. I had only a few hours before having to be in Chinatown to catch the bus home, so we meandered through Georgetown, following Wisconsin Avenue down to the banks of the Potomac before discovering the delightfully picturesque Chesapeake and Ohio Canal walk that led us halfway into town.

Danny and I had forged our friendship over the course of a dozen years of walks that took us all over London and, in more recent years, an ever-widening swath of Southwest England. Sometimes the walk is its own point, more often it’s merely the backdrop to an ongoing conversation covering politics, philosophy, economics, science, and most things in between. Danny holds a doctorate in biochemistry but makes his living as a journalist with one of Britain’s leading dailies, where his beat consists mainly of animal stories and the paranormal.

Not the cutesy-wutesy sort of animal stories, though he is not above the occasional two-headed dog feature; his primary stock in trade consists of ferreting out animal abuse in all its forms, as when he recently risked life and limb to expose the factory farming of pigs on the Polish-Russian border. Another time he used me and a couple other friends as undercover agents to investigate the claims of a renowned London psychic. She predicted that within a couple years I’d be living on an island, and before you point out that by moving to New York City, I effectively fulfilled that prophecy, you should know that I asked her myself if that would qualify, only to be told that she was thinking more along the lines of something with palm trees.

Right now, Danny told me, he’s working on a project studying the interface between science and religion (“…are not mutually exclusive,” I started to sing, before telling him about the Screeching Weasel song whose chorus begins with that line), and by the time we’re done talking about that and Richard Dawkins, toward whom we share a similar degree of disdain, we were walking up to the front of the White House.

Workers were just beginning to dismantle the reviewing stands from yesterday’s parade, and in the meantime, we had the opportunity to get a look at the President’s home from a much better vantage point than that normally afforded tourists. The first time I came to Washington in October 1967 – I was with that bunch who were going to levitate the Pentagon, if you must know – I took a stroll up to the front gates and saw, or at least thought I did – LBJ at an upstairs window, staring disconsolately out into the night.

But on my more recent visit, I’d discovered that visitors were no longer allowed on that side of the street, and had to observe the White House from considerably farther away. However, that rule did not seem to be in effect today, and our only obstacle to an unobstructed view was the steady stream of African-American parents bringing their children to see where President Obama lived.

And even the little two and three year olds seemed to understand that this was a very big deal, asking where the President slept, and if he ever came out to play out in the yard. One tiny boy looked up at his mom and said, “Pres’ent ‘Bama’s nice, isn’t he?”

I marveled at what a different world these children would be growing up in, one in which the world’s most powerful and – at least for now – most-loved man was someone who looked like them, and how different, too, it would be for the parents who would be raising them, who could now in all earnestness say, “Eat your vegetables, study your lessons, and you can grow up to be anything in this world that you can dream of being.”

The President had reminded us in yesterday’s speech that not so long ago – within memory of some of us – a black man could legally be refused service in many restaurants. For the most part, you couldn’t even see a black person on TV, except for the occasional servant or clown. Millions of people were told, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, that it didn’t matter what they said or thought or did, that their contributions to the national gestalt were neither needed nor wanted.

It’s tempting to say that everything has now changed, and of course on one hand it hasn’t – black men still rot in prison and beg on street corners in horribly dispiriting numbers – but on the other hand, it has. It seems silly now, but in 1960 there was a real question about whether a Catholic could or should ever be elected President. Once it finally happened, it became a complete non-issue, and I think the same thing is about to happen with African-Americans. A few years from now – or sooner – it will become hard to remember or understand how or why this country nearly tore itself to pieces over the non-issue of race.

When I got to Chinatown chaos reigned supreme. You couldn’t get down the sidewalk for all the backpack and sleeping bag-toting people who hoped to climb aboard the next bus north. I stood in line anyway, even after I’d been told I’d probably have to wait till the next bus or the one after that, and to my surprise, managed to snag one of the last couple seats, right up near the front.

Our driver coming down had been a quiet, middle-aged Chinese man, but our driver going home was a youngish African-American man and not very quiet at all. Well, he could be, and was at times, but when he had something he wanted to communicate, you heard about it.

“Yo, listen up!” he said, before we pulled away from the curb. “I want you all to know that this is my bus and on my bus I am the captain. There is only one authority on this bus, and I am it.

“Now rule number one on my bus is that there will be no trash or garbage left on the floor, under the seats, on the seats, or in the overhead bins. You will take all your trash and garbage with you. I know it’s a shame I have to speak this way to grown up people who should know better, but that’s just what it is. You got me?”

When a few people nodded their assent, he demanded to hear from everybody, and once he had, shouted, “Okay then, let’s roll. OBAMA!”

Obama was invoked at several points of the journey: when in our Baltimore stop, a young woman tried to push her way on to the bus without a ticket, he demanded, “Are you related to Obama?” Before she could answer, he added, “Cuz I don’t care if you are, you ain’t getting on this bus.” When a young Frenchman tried a similar tactic, the driver turned to and asked, “Any of you speak French? Tell this guy oui-oui-Obama, no bus!”

When a couple were late getting back to the bus after a rest stop, he started to drive away without them, declaring, “They can get a ride with Obama, cuz I sure as hell ain’t waitin’ for ‘em.” But his greatest ire was reserved for Maxine, a fur coat-clad 70-something Jewish lady who sat directly behind him and talked pretty much nonstop on her cell phone for five hours.

She first ran foul of him by propping her foot up on top of the ledge in front of her, leaving it dangling a foot or two from his face. He said not a word, just turned and glowered at her for a lot longer than he should have, considering that were traveling up Interstate 95 at 70 mph in the opposite direction. She was slow to grasp his meaning, but when she finally did, gave no ground.

“What? That’s not bothering you, is it? My foot’s clean. It doesn’t smell. It’s not in your way.” He glowered and glowered some more, and when she got up to go to the bathroom, announced to the whole front of the bus, “She says her foot don’t smell, but it does, it smells like old lady perfume mixed with stinky old lady feet smell.”

When Maxine continued jawing loudly on her phone, he called out loudly, “Can I have everybody be quiet for a minute?” Such was the authority in his voice that the bus went dead silent – except for Maxine, who after a couple minutes started looking around uneasily trying to figure out why everybody was laughing at her. Then the driver put the radio back on twice as loud, which of course meant that Maxine had to talk twice as loud, and more or less genial chaos ensued.

The radio was tuned to an R&B station, and many of the riders, about two thirds of whom were African-American, would sing along with the more popular songs. In between, the DJs played and replayed excerpts from Obama’s inaugural address and gently ribbed the President about his dancing prowess. “We need y’all to send your CDs and videos to the White House so the man can learn how to step,” they said, before going on to announce that Hillary Clinton had been confirmed as Secretary of State and launching a segment for people to call in and describe how they were going to respond to Barack Obama’s challenge to better themselves and the world around them.

All the way back from Washington I’d been writing in this journal – by hand, as for the first time in years I’d chosen to travel without a computer. And the R&B station on the bus ride home was the only contact I’d had with the mass media since starting this trip, Danny and Bella’s new flat being without radio and TV. So for the first time since, well, ever, I’d experienced a major public event without the help of commentators telling me what I should be thinking or how I should be feeling, or for that matter, what anyone else in the country was supposedly thinking or feeling.

And you know what? I kind of liked it that way. I think I may try it more in the future. But most of all I liked the bus rides, the street scenes, the crowds on the mall, the gentle camaraderie, the shared sense of promise and purpose that seemed to be washing through the streets of DC and all the way back to New York City. It’s starting to look more like the America I always wished I could live in. I wouldn't mind getting used to this sort of thing.

19 January 2009

He Had A Dream

Pete Seeger is almost 90 years old, just a few months younger than my mother, and like anyone his age, has seen quite a bit of history.

However, because of his lifelong political activism, we can safely infer that he's seen a bit more than your average 90 year old, and when he took the stage at yesterday's Lincoln Memorial concert - in the rather singular situation of having had soon-to-be President Obama open for him - to lead half a million people in a stirring rendition of "This Land Is Your Land," I couldn't help marveling at what must have been going through his mind.

Here was a man who was already getting along in years when he marched with Martin Luther King on the day of the "I Have A Dream" speech; could he have ever in his wildest imaginings pictured a day like this? I'm 30 years younger and I'm pretty sure I never did.

It was a day when, as Dr. King said, "all of God's children could sing with a new meaning," and sing they did. When half million people raised their voices on "America The Beautiful," is was no longer an ideal or aspiration; for that shining moment, it was self-evident fact.

Martin Luther King predicted that the events of August 28, 1963 would "go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." Thanks to his vision, his genius and immense personal courage, we may now have now lived to see a still greater one. Thank you, Dr. King, thank you to all the lesser known but similarly brave souls who walked with him, and thank you, America, for being worthy of his dream.

18 January 2009

Literary Notes

You know things are about to take a turn for the surreal when you look around at a poetry reading and see CHRIS GRIVET standing behind you.

But there the former STEINWAYS drummer was, looking studious and thoughtful as could be, and all I could think was, "Wow, dude really was serious about pursuing interests beyond pop-punk."

"Whadda ya talkin' about?" Grivet protests when his presence at such an august literary gathering is challenged, "I got plenty of culcha." He also informs us that he's actually in three new bands, not two as previously reported, including a rap group and a hardcore outfit, none of which involves him playing drums.

But before going any further, it's only fair to note that I'm guilty of embellishing a decent story for the sake of making it an outstanding one, that the august literary gathering actually took place in the back room of a bar on the Greenpoint/Williamsburg divide, and that while quite a lot reading was done, only a little of it was poetry. Or none, perhaps; it's not always easy to distinguish between poetry and prose now that poets can't be bothered to use rhymes and you're not looking at it in a book (general rule: if the words are arranged funnily on the page, it's probably poetry and there's a better than average chance that it sucks).

If you think that marks me out as a narrow-minded philistine, you're probably right, and if the truth be told, I'm probably a more unlikely sight at a literary event than Chris Grivet. I don't know why, either, because if they're anywhere near as good as this one, I've been missing out. Let me reiterate, though: this event featured little or no poetry. I'm not ready to become that broadminded yet.

My friend Michael was supposed to meet me there and periodically texted to say he'd be there soon, but then stopped texting and wasn't. One reason I'd hoped he'd come was that I was afraid I wouldn't know anybody there, but as it turned out I did; in addition to the aformeentioned Grivet we had JONNIE WHOA OH, JACKIE O, FRANK UNLOVABLE, and, in a real surprise, JOEY PERALES, who connoisseurs of old school East Bay punk will recognized from his work with BLATZ and DEAD AND GONE.

I knew two of the featured performers as well, CRISTY C. ROAD, author (and illustrator!) of the recently published Bad Habits, and BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH, noted English instructor who's also been in a bunch of bands you might have heard of. I had been under the impression that since this was a "reading," Blake was going to read. So, apparently, had he, coming prepared with some newly written material, only to discover that he was expected to sing a few songs, which he did, masterfully, adding an ex tempore tale about the tundra, which for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained, was the theme of the night. Cristy, who, she revealed, once interviewed me for her zine sometime back in the 90s when she was about 15, read a blazing bit of rhetoric about several New Year's Eves including her most recent one in Brooklyn, and though she (unnecessarily) apologized in advance that it might be too long, it was mesmerizing. I got a copy of her new novel, on which I will report back in a couple weeks time.

I also enjoyed the work of ZACK LIPEZ, who read - hilariously - about a cloned woolly mammoth coming to live in Williamsburg, and RYAN DODGE, who created a portrait of a self-obsessed 20-something who at first made you nearly cringe (one woman actually left the room because she didn't want to hear about this presumably fictional character shaving his pubic hair), but who gradually drew you past his outer bravado and posturing into an inner world where you actually began to feel rather touched by his rawness and vulnerability.

Actually, there wasn't a bad reader out of the batch. Even the MC, who, if he's not already pursuing a standup career, has clearly missed his calling, was a delight. And in a turnabout from the normal state of affairs, it was fascinating to see the room packed for the reading and then empty out the minute a band started. Shame, too; it seemed like a pretty decent band, with a banjo, even, but everybody seemed anxious to adjourn to the bar and talk about, well, literary things, I guess. By the time I walked home, the sky had clouded over and the temperature had risen into the low 20s for the first time in a couple days, and it felt almost luxuriously warm. A good night. I'll have to keep an eye on this literary racket, especially now that all my favorite bands are breaking up. Watch for Grivet and me trading rhymes at your next poetry slam.

17 January 2009

Waiting For Obama

Way back in November I started grousing about why, having elected a new President, we had to wait two and a half months for him to take office. In Britain, and in most other countries with a parliamentary system, the new Prime Minister goes straight to work the morning after the election.

It's tradition, of course; our lengthy interregnum (it used to be considerably longer, as some of you will know; until halfway through FDR's Presidency, Inauguration Day wasn't until the 4th of March) was established at a time when our newly elected leaders had to make their way to Washington on horseback over uncertain roads in the dead of winter. And of course there was (and still is) that ridiculous rigmarole with the Electoral College: regardless of what happened the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a new President isn't actually elected until the middle of December.

Never mind, though, the waiting is nearly over now, waiting that has been especially frustrating and fraught with anxiety this time around as a leaderless and seemingly rudderless country has continued to stagger toward financial Armageddon. Outgoing Presidents understandably diminish in significance as the time for their departure nears, but Bush has plumbed new depths in the lame duck Olympics, presiding over what might be more properly dubbed a zombie administration. Dead as a doornail yet still twitching, still capable of running amok and wreaking havoc.

In contrast to the unholy presence still stalking the White House, we have a President in waiting who, for the first time in many people's memory, looks, acts and speaks like a President. I know some of you felt that Clinton fit this bill, but while he was more adequate to the task than most, he never fully convinced me. The first Bush, while downright statesmanlike when compared with his son, was still a bumbling martinet that someone memorably described as the human equivalent of post-nasal drip. And as for the present Bush, well, the best that can be said for him is that he's lowered the standards of governance to a point where a Kang and Kodos duumvirate could look appealing.

I've had the TV on in the background all afternoon as Obama's train journeyed down the Eastern Seaboard on its way to Washington, and I stopped writing to listen to his speech in Baltimore. I don't mind admitting that the man had me in tears. Maybe I'm entering my second childhood, but I haven't been so inspired, so filled with hope and anticipation, since as a starstruck 13 year old I waited for John F. Kennedy to mount the Capitol steps.

If anything, I'm more impressed with Obama. If he hasn't quite reached the rhetorical heights that JFK soared to, he's getting very close, and I find his overall message more consistent and substantive. Watching him pull together a governing coalition when, at least on paper, none is needed has been a wonder to behold; it's getting harder by the day to find even a Republican who has much bad to say about the man.

With the exception, of course, of right wing talk radio. "The radicals have taken over," Sean Hannity bellows, but he barely seems to have his heart in it. Even Rush Limbaugh sounds resigned to a near-term future of growing irrelevance. This could all change, and quickly, if Obama makes a spectacular mistake early on, but so far the man has barely put a foot wrong. It's almost scary, in fact, to see the awe and devotion he commands. I don't think there's been an American politician in my lifetime, any and all of the Kennedys included, who came close. I suppose one can't help wondering what would happen should he choose to use that power for evil purposes, but part of his strength is that on one wants to think of him as being capable of such a thing.

Obama has done a superb job of convincing us that he plans to be President of all America, and that being the First Black President is almost incidental to him. As it may well be, but it's hardly incidental to the tens of thousands of African-Americans who turned out to watch his train come through or to hear him speak in Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore. Or who are already gathering on the Mall in anticipation of Tuesday's swearing-in. An enduring image for me will be the husky black man who stood alongside the train tracks somewhere in Maryland as the President-elect's train came rolling through with Obama and Biden waving to the cheering crowds.

Slightly rough-hewn and wearing a peacoat and watch cap, he could have been a warehouseman or a dock worker, or the slightly menacing character you might consider crossing the street to avoid if you're out alone late at night. He stood watching impassively until just before Obama came level with him, and then suddenly, somewhat awkwardly, pulled off his watch cap and stood there bareheaded in the January chill until the train had passed.

What I'm getting at is that this man did not look like someone in the habit of taking his hat off for anyone, had probably not planned on taking it off for Obama, and yet was caught up in the moment just as so many of us, of all colors and communities and religions and parties, were caught up and lifted up by a President-to-be who, rather than pander to our base self-interest, spoke to what is noble and admirable in us as a people, who rather than offer us a chance to line our pockets and feather our nests, challenged us to look more deeply into ourselves and what we are capable of offering to one another.

I normally avoid like the plague any reference, other than caustic, to the hippie songs and sentiments of my youth, but it's hard not to be reminded of that line advising writers and critics to "keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again." Something momentous is happening in America, something potentially more momentous than anything I can recall, and where it will end is anybody's guess ("Don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin"), but it's impossible to deny that the times indeed are a-changing. Six months, a year or several from now we may be moaning that it was not at all the sort of change we'd bargained for, but for the moment I'd prefer to suspend disbelief and cynicism and let myself get caught up in this great national (and worldwide, really) outpouring of hope and faith.

With that in mind, I'll be leaving for Washington myself on Monday, intent on somehow being a part of it all. I don't have tickets to any of the events, and chances are I'll never get close enough even to see the new President in the flesh, but I want to be there nonetheless, to be in my own small way part of history. 41 years ago, acting on a similar impulse, I jumped into a friend's car and rode 16 hours so I could be there for the siege of the Pentagon in October 1967. At the time I was part of a ragtag army of disaffected youth who openly espoused the destruction of America; today I travel with a far mightier army, one far more representative of the true nature and spirit of this nation, come to celebrate and save it.

16 January 2009

Half My Friends Are Drug-Crazed Idiots

But none of them, at least as far as I know, has pulled a move quite so boneheaded as BOY GEORGE, who's now been sent to prison for 15 months for himself imprisoning and attempting to torture a Norwegian rent boy.

None of us likes to make light (what am I saying? of course we do!) of someone else's troubles, especially when they're almost certainly a result of drug or alcohol abuse (Boy George's own lawyer, pleading to the court for mercy, likened his behavior to that of a "drug-crazed idiot"). If we've had our own substance abuse problems - as yours truly most certainly has - our reaction is likely to be twofold: on one hand, we're tempted to get up on our high horses and make snide comments, on the other, we're overcome with a mixture of relief and gratitude that somehow we managed to dodge that particular bullet.

So I never took anyone hostage - at least not physically - nor did I, as did George in a previous adventure, call the New York City police to my apartment and complain that someone had been stealing my cocaine, though there was that time I called the Ann Arbor police after being up all night on acid because some kid was skulking around the neighborhood checking doors - including my own - to see if they were locked. Because of being on acid, of course, I had to weigh the morality of cooperating with The Man in helping them arrest an oppressed member of the underclass, which took at least half an hour or what seemed like it - you know how time gets away from you when you add a couple thousand micrograms to an existential dilemma - and when I finally made my choice and the cops showed up, the perp was of course long gone and I, suddenly aware of my precarious situation (not only were my pupils the size of dinner plates, but there was dope of all kinds lying in plain sight around the apartment), could only stammer a description that consisted of "He was black, wearing a black shirt, black pants, all black" to which the cop responded sardonically, "So you saw a black guy dressed all in black? Okay, we'll keep an eye out for him, and maybe you ought to think about getting some rest" (it was dawn, and the morning light was not, I suspected, being kind to me).

But the paranoia induced by acid is a minor detail compared with the mind-bending delusions cocaine has to offer. It starts out pleasantly enough, in most cases, convincing you that you are the smartest, sexiest, most fascinating and most vital person in the room if not on the planet. If you've ever seen a couple cokeheads deep in "conversation" (generally consisting of an interminable recitation of banalities presented with the assumption that this is information you and the world have been waiting for all your lives), you might get a feel for the sort of person cocaine most appeals to: those with low self-esteem, the insecure and shy, whose egos, with a bit of chemical goosing, can suddenly run rampant and (especially if you're sharing your cocaine) unchallenged.

Sadly, it doesn't stay the way. The social butterfly effect soon retreats back into its cocoon. The bold self-assurance initially offered by cocaine shifts into a level of paranoia and self-consciousness that makes the thought of interacting with other people almost unbearable (especially if there's a chance they might ask you to share your drugs with them). "When I first discovered cocaine," one addict said, "it made me want to have sex with everyone in the world. But where it left me was locked alone in my room not even able to masturbate."

Quite apart from the social/antisocial aspects, the drug wreaks utter havoc on one's judgment, and this, I suspect, is what went wrong for the no longer quite so boyish Mr. George. It probably seemed perfectly reasonable for him to ask the cops to help him find the villain who'd been stealing his cocaine, and equally reasonable to handcuff someone to the wall and subsequently chase him down the street wielding a bicycle chain. Luckily these were not the sort of activities that appealed to me during my cocaine years - I wasn't even that social - but the many ludicrous risks I did take - sniffing cocaine with one hand, holding a joint with the other, a bottle of red wine between my legs and steering with my knees as I sped across the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the afternoon being one example - didn't seem risky at all to me. In fact, if a cop had pulled me over in that particular circumstance, I probably would have greeted him as a buddy, a fellow man of the world who of course would understand that those silly drug and alcohol laws didn't apply to someone like ME. I would wish him well in his criminal-catching exploits and he'd say "Thank you, sir, have a good day and drive carefully!"

Against all odds I never got arrested or endured consequences more major than wasting all my money and most of my brain cells for about ten years. When I was almost totally broke and my life in pretty much total ruin, some vestige of common sense finally kicked in. I stopped using cocaine cold turkey, and have never touched it - and rarely even seen it - again. That was 24 years ago, and the drug still scares the shit out of me. Not because I think I'll start using it again - I'm pretty sure I won't - but because I know with terrifying clarity exactly what would happen to me if I did.

Maybe not the precise details, but in relatively short order, it would turn me into a babbling idiot, bankrupt me, destroy all my relationships, and kill me. That's the basic progression for anyone gets seriously involved with the drug. Not all at once, at least not for everybody; some people will go for years using it occasionally and show few visible ill effects. That's how my first five years or so were; then a bad relationship breakup combined with a sudden increase in discretionary income sent me over the edge, and it's not the sort of edge you get to come back from. Once you've reached that point, you either stop or - not to be too melodramatic or anything - die.

So as sad as it is to see a once fabulously successful rock star reducing to a convict trying to beg or borrow a few thousand quid to pay his fine and court costs, going to prison may end up being the best thing ever to happen to Boy George. He'll get some breathing space, some time to experience what life can be like with a mind and body not operating at perpetual warp speed - or just plain warped. Most prisons these days offer 12-step programs and other counseling to help inmates overcome their substance abuse problems; enlightened criminologists are well aware that if it weren't for drugs and alcohol, about 75% of those inmates wouldn't be there.

So Boy George gets a chance, and here's wishing him well and hoping he takes it. It might be hard for him to believe right now, but if he does, his life is going to get a whole lot better. Or he could keep on doing what he's been doing, and it will almost certainly get worse. It won't be pretty.

Death Comes For The Steinways

It's been rumored by fans and cryptically and/or blatantly alluded to by members for months now, but today comes the official announcement: THE STEINWAYS, my favorite up and coming American band have now up and gone.

Granted, they haven't been operating under full power for some time, but they've always been the kind of band that wavered between collapse and total transcendence, flipping over into the later category often enough to render their less inspired antics at least tolerable if not downright hilarious.

Don't know what precipitated the final dissolution - well, one does hear stories, but there's no point in repeating them here - but it doesn't look as though the reunion tour will be happening any time soon. All the members of the band have something special to offer, but resident genius GRATH McGRATH is the one to keep your eye on: almost any musical project he associates himself with is bound to be worth hearing.

It's bad enough that the temperature outside is something like 11 degrees, but even if it were the middle of summer, without the Steinways New York will be a colder and lonelier town.

Revolutionary Tool

My first reaction when I heard about Steven Soderbergh's four-hour-plus biopic of revolutionary poster boy Che Guevara: "Well, this is going to suck." Here's one reviewer who actually bothered to sit through it before coming to the same conclusion: Che A Bloated Biopic.

The New Yorker's Anthony Lane is a bit more even-handed (I'd describe it as charitable) in his treatment, and also delivers the better line: "I am aware that Marxist doctrine demands that combatants subsume their individual selves in the common cause of defeating imperialism, and that may well be the key to guerrilla warfare, but is it also a helpful way to run a movie?"

Exclude This

Few phrases have exasperated the general public as much as "guilty but free on a technicality." Although not a huge fan of the Supreme Court as presently constituted, I thought they made the right decision the other day in ruling that inadvertent error on the part of the police shouldn't automatically result in setting an otherwise guilty party free.

In fact, I'd probably take it a step further: while I certainly agree that we need protection against the abuse of power by police, I've long thought that the exclusionary rule as presently practiced has got it backwards. Meant to punish police misconduct, it leaves the police untouched and punishes the public instead.

The New York Times, perhaps predictably, Viewed With Alarm this latest development, but I think they've got the wrong end of the stick as well. To me, the correct way of going about is this: if the police obtain evidence by unlawful means, by all means punish them. Arrest them and put them on trial if necessary. But if the evidence, no matter how it was obtained, is valid, then by no means should the criminal be set free.

If a cop knows he's likely to get fired or even go to jail for violating constitutional procedure, that's a far greater deterrent than the prospect of seeing his arrestee get cut loose. In the latter case, the cop still gets credit for an arrest and can blame the lack of a conviction on an incompetent prosecutor or "liberal" judges. In the former case, the cop gets charged with a crime, but so does the person who had the gun or the dope or the corpse, regardless of how it was found.

Society has a great interest in preserving the rights of the people to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. It has no interest in preserving their right to illegally transport guns, drugs or corpses. The exclusionary rule was bad policy from the start. It should be used to exclude dishonest cops, not to protect dishonest citizens.

Teaching The Teachers

Malcolm Gladwell seems to have been all over the place lately, and he does seem to go on a bit, but as someone with a longstanding interest in education (had the music business turned out as poorly for me as it does for 90% of independent labels, for example, I probably would have ended up in that field mself), I was intrigued by his ideas on how to find and train outstanding teachers.

Through his extended analogy with NFL quarterbacks, Gladwell makes the point that training alone can not turn an untalented neophyte into a good teacher, any more than the best coaching and physical regimen in the world can make a successful quarterback out of someone who lacks the requisite mental and physical ability.

This flies in the face of the past several decades of doctrine, which hold that the key to every sort of improvement in education involves spending more money and implementing more rigorous standards. Gladwell, on the other hand, makes a very convincing case that replacing an average teacher with an excellent one costs essentially nothing yet achieves more than massive expenditures on new classrooms and equipment ever could:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
But how, you ask, are these excellent teachers to be found, or distinguished from run of the mill ones? Not, he suggests, through an ever greater emphasis on "book smarts" or the teaching credential or master's degree courses that have become standard requirements for public school teachers, yet which many teachers themselves disparage as a waste of time or even as an insult to their intelligence.

It's been my own observation than many teacher credential are more about standardizing the quality and style of instruction than about cultivating natural teaching ability in those who possess it and winnowing out those who do not. Gladwell argues that while schools should attempt to attract many teachers, they should not expect or wish to keep most of them. Returning to his quarterback analogy, and then turning to a similar one about financial advisers, he points out that no one would be allowed to continue in those fields for long without producing outstanding results, yet the arguably more important task of turning children into useful and productive citizens is entrusted to anyone who's willing to hang around long enough and jump through the required bureaucratic hoops.

Any attempt to change the existing system would of course run head on into the system of tenure and the deeply entrenched teachers unions who fiercely resist any innovation that might impact on job security for their members. Ironically, despite the present system, turnover is enormous, especially in inner city schools, where wave after wave of teachers trained in suburban diploma mills find they are simply not equipped to cope with life in the educational equivalent of the big leagues.

But perhaps that is as it should be: just as far more young athletes aspire to be star quarterbacks than can possibly succeed, we might be better off if teaching became a vocation to which many more are called than can or should be chosen. How do we get from here to there? Good question, and I'm not sure I have any easy answers. But I'm optimistic about President Obama's choice for Secretary of Education, Chicago's Arne Clark, who shows signs of being able to oppose educational orthodoxy and institute reforms without unduly alienating the unions or the establishment. And I think that in several big city systems, New York among them, we're already moving in the right direction, no matter how painfully slow progress may appear to be.

If it were up to me, however, I'd start by completely abolishing requirements for special postgraduate education courses and credentials, and open the field to anyone with a college degree (I note that in my grandmother's day, a high school diploma was all that was necessary to become a teacher, though to be fair, most of today's college graduates - myself included - would struggle to pass a high school graduation exam from the early part of the 20th century). But they would be hired only on a trial basis, and would not achieve tenure for many years, if ever, because the whole point of attracting more potential teachers would be to get a better talent pool to choose from. Hell, there's a pretty good chance I'd try out for the job myself on those terms.

Think it's too risky hiring teachers who haven't been through the master's degree mill? Private schools do it all the time, those same private schools which manage to collect $20-30K in tuition payments from parents who think their kids will learn more there, and who manage to send a much higher proportion of their students to top-flight colleges. Any teachers or education professionals with a good explanation as to why public schools shouldn't follow suit, send it my way.

Truth And Reconciliation Or A New Nuremberg?

With the Bush administration having spent and mismanaged us into a dangerously close encounter with national bankruptcy, with two far from won and possibly unwinnable wars still confronting us, a collapsing infrastructure, a demoralized military, and a growing underclass, you'd think the incoming Obama administration had enough on its plate without making a priority out of redressing some of the more egregious behavior engaged in by its predecessor.

And that's how I suspect they will see it as well, but there's a substantial chorus of critics, mostly on the left, who feel, as does David Cole, that we need to focus our attention on ferreting out and punishing those who authorized physical abuse or, if you will, torture, to be used in the now increasingly discredited War On Terror. And while my first reaction was, "Oh, let it go already, give up the Bush years as a bad mistake and move on," his article What To Do About The Torturers? makes a fairly intriguing case.

I do think it's a bit unbalanced: while he goes into great and disturbing detail about what exactly was done to the detainees, he skates rather quickly over what some of them did or were prepared to do. One of his showpieces, for example, is generally believed to have been "the 20th hijacker," who, barring having been stopped at the border, would have helped fly a plane into the World Trade Center.

But at the same time he paints such a damning picture of the likes of Donald Rumsfeld:

In signing that memo, which approved sixteen coercive tactics, including forcing suspects to stand for up to four hours straight, Rumsfeld scribbled in the margin, "I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?" As that comment itself suggests, these documents chillingly underscore the mundane banality with which cruelty and torture became official policy of the United States Department of Defense.
that it's hard not to go along with his contention that something needs to be done about these people, if only to purge our national history of this deviation and ensure that it doesn't happen again.

He ends up coming down - if only just - on the side of something more closely resembling South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission than the Nuremberg-style war crime trials that some critics would like to see brought against American officials up to and including Vice-President Cheney and President Bush himself.

Recognizing - if slightly regretfully - that such trials are almost a political impossibility, Cole plumps for the next best thing: hearings at which the responsible parties would be exposed and denounced. Although I'm still not convinced that this needs to be the first, or even the third or fourth priority for the new administration, after reading his article I'm inclined to think he may have a point.

The Never Ending Tale

I've actually been compiling a list of topics I want to write about, and it's now spilled over into two pages, so where, you're very justified in asking, are the results of this putative burst of energy on my part?

Well, let's be honest: I parked myself in front of the computer for much of the day, foregoing most of the other things I'd planned, fully intending to at last do some serious writing. And what happened? As is all too often the case, I allowed myself to be distracted by a lengthy - and almost certainly pointless - message board argument.

It's not that I think there's anything inherently wrong about message boards - in fact, I quite like some of them, most notably the oft-mentioned PPMB - or that useful information can't be discussed or exchanged on them. It's just that there are certain topics - the best Screeching Weasel record, for example, or the "true meaning" of punk - that while generating a great deal of heat, invective, and hyperbolic abuse - are never going to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

As the erudite Patrick Smith puts it, "It gets pretty tiring listening to two sides argue with each claiming to be 100% right and the other completely wrong. And the Israel/Palestinian conflict is pretty bad too." He was referring, of course, to what happens when two vortices of intractability meet and become one: a message board argument about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

No, I wasn't foolish enough to become fully immersed in that one, despite feeling the need to throw in a few random comments, but when one of the pro forma Israel bashers turned out to be my old buddy - well, no, I've never actually met him in real life, but we've been arguing across the ether for years - from the Irish Republican Army, who, since they shared a common interest in bomb throwing and centuries-old grudges, has often found common cause with the Palestinian intifada.

He was actually being quite reasonable at first, urging a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine could live side-by-side in peace, at which point I couldn't resist asking him why, if a two-state solution was good enough for the Palestinians, he and his IRA comrades were so violently opposed to a similar approach in Ireland.

I know, red flag to a bull and all that, but hey, I'm only human, and if you've got a lot of time and patience, you can check out the ensuing merriment right here. I won't reiterate all my arguments in this space, but will mention that I'm the offspring of a mother of English ancestry and a father who, while only half-Irish, chose to ignore any blood lines that didn't lead back to Limerick and Tipperary.

So while my mother would get up early to listen to the Queen's Christmas Day message, Dad would inveigh about "the bloody English" at every opportunity (you can imagine his reaction to my choosing to live in that accursed country). He donated money to the IRA, sang rebel songs, would not hear of the Irish ever having done a bad thing or the English a good one, and raised me the same way.

It was after having some disturbingly close encounters with IRA bombs, one in Derry and one on the train line that I regularly used in London, that I began to look more closely at the IRA party line I'd previously accepted as dogma and wonder if there mightn't possible be more than one side to this story. If nothing else, I was quite fond of frequenting pubs and the IRA seemed equally fond of placing bombs in them.

One of my best friends in London was an Irish emigré and an unabashed IRA supporter. He was the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate man you'd ever want to meet until and unless you questioned the morality or efficacy of anything the IRA had ever done, at which point a telltale vein would start throbbing in his forehead and you'd be best advised to vacate the vicinity. At the same time I met other Irishmen, including one whose uncle had been kneecapped and crippled for life by IRA gunmen, who were just as virulently opposed to the IRA and all it stood for.

Eventually, and following several trips to Ireland when the British Army was still in occupation mode, I concluded that very possibly everybody involved was wrong, but that above all the IRA was, despite its having some laudable goals, was fundamentally a terrorist organization and fit neither to govern a country nor to speak for its people.

Nevertheless, I gratefully accepted the cease-fire and tentative peace accords, as did, I think most people, British and Irish. With any luck, the current lull in hostilities will continue until the bitter old men of the IRA and UDA have faded away and a new generation will have stopped placing such all-fired bloody importance on national boundaries and ancient vendettas. Most young Irish people I've met have little or no interest in "the struggle." If only I could have followed their example and kept my mouth shut today, think how much more I myself might have accomplished.

14 January 2009

Just Because We're Ignoring Your Opinion Doesn't Mean We Don't Value It

Every time the MTA decides to raise fares or cut service on New York City subways or buses, they have to go through the charade of holding hearings at which the public is invited to come give its input. As they prepare their present round of wreaking havoc on one of the nation's only functional public transportation systems, a new series of hearings has been announced.

Not that it makes the slightest bit of difference: I can't remember a single instance when the MTA was about to raise fares and then changed its mind because the public showed up and said, "No, we don't think that's a good idea." The normal course of events is this: MTA announces fare hike, thousands of people attend hearings and denounce fare hike, MTA proceeds with fare hike. People grumble and pay it.

Apart from the fact that it's probably required by law, why do they bother? Do they seriously expect members of the public to show up and say, "Yes, MTA, we think it's a great idea to raise fares and cut service! In fact, maybe you're not raising fares enough, and while you're at it, why don't you shut down the subways from midnight to 6 am? That could save even more money!"

Seriously. It's as if your local supermarket put out a flyer asking the neighborhood, "Oh, by the way, how do you folks feel about our plan to raise the price of everything by 25%? Not that we care, because we're going to do it anyway, we just thought it would be nice to know what you think."

There is some behind-the-scenes horse trading on this issue, though, that does involve the public to some extent. If the State Legislature can come up with some more - a lot more, actually - funds for the MTA, some of the price hikes or service cuts could be eliminated. Minor difficulty: the State Legislature, like most legislatures these days, doesn't actually have any money. Some new taxes on automobile commuters and a slice of that federal bailout/stimulus money might do the trick (yes, I know that technically the federal government doesn't have any money either, but that doesn't seem to be stopping them from printing more).

So if you have more faith in democracy than I do, go to one of these hearings and yell at the bureaucrats; maybe the legislature will get the message (oh, and thanks again, Sheldon Silver, for killing congestion pricing last year and losing hundreds of millions in federal funds for NYC. It's nice that you have a limo to chauffeur you around, and too bad about the rest of us, eh?).

Of course you might suggest that the city and state might change its mind about doling out hundreds of millions in public money to the New York Yankees for their new stadium (especially considering that they already had a perfectly good one right across the street), but since the Yankees (the Mets got a similar deal, but playing, as always, second banana in this town, not nearly as much) have already doled out those hundreds of millions to buy new ball players, we're not likely to see much of that back.

Not that I was about to pay the massively inflated prices the Yankees will be charging at their new park, but now chances are there'll be no train to take me there anyway.