Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ugh. More Car Trouble.

Fate is a topic I've addressed on here before. I don't really believe in predestination, but I certainly think that there is some truth to the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. What happens to us seems to be some arcane combination of things we've brought upon ouselves, mediated by random chance. We articulate our wills- these in turn meet the wills of others, and then there's the hand of chaos poking at us. I guess I can't help but anthropomorphize the experience.

Anyway, Monday night made me think anew about this. I went out for dinner, and was on my way home with the comfortable anticipation of being able to enjoy a few hours without obligation. I was satisfied and looking ahead fifteen minutes, instead of paying attention to what I was doing. This is not a good strategy for safe driving. My cell phone began to buzz, and I fished it out of my pocket, and in the next instant I was crashing into the guard rail on the entrance ramp. Just like that I had a brand new trouble. And somehow I think I must have needed one.

Sometimes I just have the intuition that something's going to break. The past few weeks have been chaotic, and have disrupted patterns and routines that I have built over a period of years. I'm really not complaining... many of the recent events and occurrences have been sought after. I've worked toward a certain set of results, and I have had the pleasure of realizing a few of them. It's been very enjoyable, yet simultaneously hectic. And this weekend I was already quite aware that I was in a state of chronic overstimulation. I was having difficulty fully processing the feedback loop.

Last week I did a complete 180 degree turn coming down a narrow exit ramp. There was a thin layer of snow on the road that I didn't anticipate, and I managed a controlled slide rather than ramming a car at the end of the ramp. I had to stop for a moment and catch my breath. Apparently, that was my free pass. Instead of paying heed to that omen, I continued apace. But this weekend I would have told you that I had begun addressing the building tension in earnest. I guess I was flat out wrong. Either that or I just wasn't quick enough at slowing down. And now I have a buckled right fender to remind me of the possible consequences.

The damage to the car does not affect its functioning. My friend and I pulled the plastic (or whatever Korean auto bodies are composed from) away from the tire. Another friend helped me change the front right-turn signal. If I file a claim with my insurance company, then I'm in for the $500 deductible plus a premium hike of (I estimate) about $300 per annum for the next five years. I'm told by my friend that if I order the parts, then he can do the work for me. A new front headlight unit and a fender will cost me about $280. I just have to wait until it warms up a bit so he can do the work outside. It's not going to look like it came out of a body shop, but I'm really not concerned about cosmetics with this car. I just want it to get me where I need to go until I am done with the payments (in about 30 months).

If it's true that Americans identify with (and are identified by) their cars- then it's probably natural for me to drive this thing around with a smashed fender. I don't normally stand on appearances. I'm much more concerned with functionality and structural integrity. The automobile is a mere conveyance, not a status symbol. Sure I'll probably get it fixed within some reasonable period. But if people take offense to the sight of a car with a fender of mismatched color, then it's on them. It will be just one more filter between me and the assholes.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pittsburgh's Own - Marty Griffin.

Why it so difficult to find anyone on local AM radio with any objective and/or credible commentary? I've been listening to "investigative reporter" Marty Griffin during my lunch break for several months now. I'm appalled at his disingenuous facade of impartiality. He fashions himself as some kind of renegade maverick questing for difficult truths. His self-aggrandisement has reached the level of the formation of "Marty's Army"- the ranks of which are filled by naive locals who trust in Griffin's claims of integrity. Their confidence would be better invested elsewhere.

Griffin certainly has a spotty history. He was actually forced out of a job with television station KXAS in Dallas, TX for allegedly conspiring with a supposed "victim" (and topless dancer) to fabricate rape charges against Dallas Cowboys Erik Williams and Michael Irvin (1997). Griffin's attempt to manufacture a big story unravelled when his partner recanted her testimony. His prevarications resulted in a $2.2 million settlement pay-out from KXAS to resolve a defamation suit on the part of the accused. Of course this turned out to be the perfect resume builder for a job with our hometown KDKA. Despite the abject failure of his adventurism, Griffin admits no wrondoing.

Our "hero" has continued his record of flawed "journalism" in the town of his birthplace (Griffin was born and raised in Shadyside- which only confirms my prejudices about that neighborhood's inhabitants). In 2006 Griffin set up the Reverend Brent Dugan of Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon. KDKA did a sweeps-week promotion for an upcoming Marty Griffin report about (in Griffin's own words) the "uncovered, possibly illegal, activity by a local minister, activities which, at the very least, violated the rules of his denomination" (sic). While Dugan wasn't named in the promotions, his image was clearly depicted in the promo spots. Apparently Griffin had been following the Pastor in a month-long investigation of public sexual behavior centering on an adult bookstore- which turned out to be homosexual relations with a consenting adult. The story was never aired due to calls from a concerned party close to Dugan, who told the station that the Pastor was considering harming himself. Evidently Griffin never bothered to notify Dugan about the station's change of heart. Dugan killed himself with an overdose of aspirin and alcohol.

One can only guess at the limits of harm Griffin is willing to cause to victims of his shoddy and unprofessional reporting. In a brief google search, I discovered this account of further manipulation and outright lies in an "expose" of the spending of student activity funds at CMU.

Particularly rankling is Griffin's latest campaign to smear the teachers of the Baldwin School District (who are currently on strike). Griffin seems to miss no opportunity to misrepresent the facts of the situation. He starts his argument by comparing Baldwin's test scores against those of Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Claire. He makes absolutely no mention of the radically varying demographics between these areas. At one point he claimed that the teacher union was requesting a 6% salary raise. When confronted on live radio with a correction by a representative of the union, who pointed out that the figure was absolutely wrong- Griffin hastily changed the subject without any admission of error.

Even more infuriating is his outright dismissal of social class inequities in the comparison and consideration of district test scores. This is an easy stance for someone born and raised in Shadyside. He says "forget about single mothers"... forget poverty levels and demographics... something must be done, and "Marty's Army" will do it! His solution is (quite predictably) privatization. That should come as no surprise... he graduated from Central Catholic High School. But he continually refuses to acknowledge that private school performance can't rationally or fairly be compared to that in public schools, due to the fact that PSSA's are not mandated in private schools. He also glosses over the fact that private schools have a self-selected sample of students, the vast majority of which come from families who make more than the median income. The most reliable predictor of student performance is family income level.

What galls me most about Griffin is not his skewed political perspective (I'm used to that), but rather his pretensions of populism. He claims too often to be beyond partisan politics. If there is any truth to Griffin's non-allegiance, it is due only to his relentless drive to advance his own career- regardless of the harm he cause to others. That obsession would naturally preclude all other loyalties. The ultimate advance to be expected from "Marty's Army" is Marty's own self-promotion. Believe me- this isn't about the foot soldiers or the nobility of the fight.

Extra Bonus: To read information about Marty's bigotry toward Gypsies, CLICK HERE and scroll 2/3rds down the page! Highlights include his characterization of an entire ethnicity as "thieves, criminals and freaks", and his assertion that they all engage in inbreeding!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Louis Farrakhan Bids Followers Farewell.

Louis Farrakhan (age 73), longtime head of the Nation of Islam, gave his farewell speech to his flock yesterday with the words "My time is Up". His speech was oddly reconciliatory considering his track record of controversy. He suggested that Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammed would "embrace each other with love" if they were on stage with him. He stressed that the currrent conflict in Iraq is the result of Bush and other leaders putting greed above service. His words resonate with those of critics from all sides of the political spectrum- "Our lips are full of praise, but our hearts are far removed from the prophets we all claim."

Farrakhan has an unlikely personal history for a revolutionary. When he was a kid he played violin in the Boston Civic Symphony. He appeared on television on a popular variety show. He briefly attended school at a teachers college. Later he became known as a calypso singer, performing under the retrospectively ironic pseudonym, "The Charmer". It was during this time that he became inspired by a young Malcom X. Shortly after he joined the Nation of Islam in 1955, its iconic leader Elijah Muhammed ordered all musicians to forego their craft, and Farrakhan gave up the potential wealth and satifaction of his promising career.

The young activist rose quickly through the ranks of the organization, and attained the position of Minister of the Boston Mosque. Ten years after his initial commitment he became head of the very influential Harlem Mosque, and served in that position for an additional ten years. In 1978, Farrakhan was involved in a power struggle for the fate of the Nation of Islam. In 1981, he and a few supporters splintered off from the NOI, and proclaimed a return to the traditional teachings of Elijah and Wallace Fard Muhammad. They renamed the official media organ (calling it "The Final Call") and consolidated their power. In 1995 Farrakhan reached the apex of public exposure by organizing the Million Man March. Though actual particpation was estimated to meet only half of that figure, the demonstration is said to have been the largest in US history.

Farrakhan was heavily criticized by the mainstream press for his comments arising from the Jesse Jackson "Hymietown" flap of 1984. In responding to alleged death threats against Jackson, Farrakhan made a speech that was dissected for imflammatory remarks. At that time he was being attacked by the Jewish community for his perceived anti-semitism. In answering claims that he was akin to the archetypal figure of evil for the Twentieth century, Farrakhan truly did say that "Hitler was a very great man." But he did so in context of a comparison between the German leader's uplifting of his people and the struggle for black rights in America. Little attention was given to his caveat that he was "not proud of Hitler's evil toward Jewish people", nor his refusal to be labeled along with the white man's "wicked killers".

But Farrakhan has a history of remarks containing political and cultural insensitivity. He famously referred to Jews, Palestinian Arabs, Koreans and the Vietnamese as "bloodsuckers". He has perpetuated the infamous "Elders of Zion" myth by claiming that "the Jews" own the Federal Reserve. Yet he took a step back from his invective with a 1998 call for all peoples of the world to "end the cycle of hatred". He also formed a relationship with a small anti-Zionist, Orthodox Jewish group called Neturei Karta. But he seemed to have a difficult time separating completely from his history of intolerance. As recently as 2006 he has said that it's the "false jews that are promoting lesbianism and homosexuality". Yet it is not entirely easy to dismiss all of Farrakhan's analysis as simple racism or bigotry. He has displayed a more politically nuanced view by claiming that "Zionists have manipulated Bush and the American government and our boys and girls are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for the cause of Israel, not for the cause of America".

Farrakhan hasn't limited his commentary to Israel. White people in general have proved to be a bit of an obsession for him. In 1994 he pointed out that, "Murder and lying comes easy for white people". This is to be understood in the context of the teachings of the venerable Elijah Muhammed, who preached that white folks are a race of devils created (actually grafted from the original humans- the Blacks) by an evil scientist named "Yakub". But fortunately for the paler among us, Farrakhan has a slightly more nuanced position- "White people are potential humans- they haven't evolved yet". I, for one, can find some comfort and hope in that position.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tales of Employment Woe- Part IV

After the completion of my masters degree in counseling, I knew that there would come a time when I would try to apply what I had learned to help other human beings. I had a hunch that I lacked the proper empathy to make a life's work at it, but I wanted to find out for sure. So I started combing the classified ads for opportunities. I found a company located in the South Side that managed the residential programs of adults with mental disabilities. They offered me an entry level position in therapeutic staff support. My first clients were an unlikely pair of non-verbal, developmentally disabled roommates (here referred to as T. and M.).

T. was a bobble-headed caucasian who carried around a perpetual goofy grin, and slobbered over everything. He was difficult not to like. However when he decided to return affection, he had the bad habit of seizing a handful of his target's hair and refusing to let go. He had tremendous upper body strength, and you had to stay still until you could somehow manage to cajole him to release you. In the end you had a headful of spit-logged hair. M. was a middle-aged man who shambled around like a primate. If you looked him straight in the eye, he would get threatened and start whooping like a howler monkey. I had difficulty processing M. His most nasty habit was politefully called "digging", and consisted of him inserting a finger into his rectum and prying out fecal matter. He also absolutely refused to wipe himself after a bowel movement. As staff support, you were expected to stand next to him in the bathroom while he did his business. Then he'd stand up, put his hands on the sink, give you a big smile, and wait for you to wipe his ass. I suspected that this was his way of torturing his keepers. I found out after about a day and a half that he was perfectly capable of cleaning himself. He was pissed. I couldn't figure out why no one had ever discovered his trick. They all maintained that he just wasn't able to do it. I decided quickly that this job situation didn't quite meet my desires. I might have stayed on longer had I not found out that both T. and M. suffered from infectious hepatitis. The only way I found out about this relevant fact was because I asked why there were biohazard stickers on all the wastebaskets. I thought about T.'s slobber and M.'s digging, and I came to the conclusion it just wasn't worth $7 an hour.

Because I threatened to make a ruckus about the house manager's "little secrets", the company assented to giving me an alternative position. Now I was the employment specialist for R., a 19 year-old autistic male with epilepsy, ADHD, mild schizophrenia, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. That last diagnosis meant that R. was quite contrary. The previous employee in my new position had quit because R. had kicked her in the chest when she went to rouse him for his job. R. didn't like getting out of bed. He also didn't like showering, cooking for himself, working, brushing his teeth, cooperating with his roommates, listening to staff, or suggestions. That was inconvenient since the company's philosophy revolved around the concept of "least restrictive environment". This meant that you could never, under any circumstances, make a client do something- regardless of whether or not it was actually good for him. You couldn't give orders or even take away privileges as a consequence for misbehavior. You had to use every bit of creative psychology at your disposal. But the reality was that when R. didn't want to do something, he simply didn't do it. And his refusal was compounded by almost constant pressure from management to find R. a job. His last work experience (for another employee's moonlighting cleaning business) ended when he was discovered masturbating in the lobby in a downtown office building. He had very little shame.

In the few months I worked with R., the closest I got to getting him to participate in something useful was having him volunteer at a homeless shelter. R. was obsessed with the homeless, mostly because he harbored a deep desire to run away from his residence. He constantly talked of wanting to live under a bridge. So instead of serving up meals as he was expected to, he just walked around interrogating the homeless folks about their lifestyle. I tried to keep an eye out for him as I peeled carrots in the kitchen. When I decided he was going to help, he demanded that I bring him home immediately. Usually he just wanted to be left alone to play videogames. He detested his roommate K., who was a foul-mouthed boy with Down's Syndrome. K. was notorious for abruptly punching staff in the face with no warning or reason. He loved Michael Jackson, and had a whole stack of shrink-wrapped copies of "Thriller". Every week or so he would go completely ape-shit and tear up his favorite tape. Then he would cry and sulk until he got a replacement. I loved him when he sang the title track and tried to do the "moonwalk" while interrupting his own song with strings of profanity. It was a pretty nice set-up for me when R. refused to leave his room during my entire shift. That happened quite often. After awhile my supervisor got frustrated with my lack of progress with R., and transferred me yet again.

I now found myself working with J., a drastically overweight middle-aged bear of a man. He loved bowling and the Three Stooges, and for a few weeks all I had to do was take him to the lanes on Tuesdays. The rest of the time I watched cable and cut up jackpots with the rest of the staff. I was the only white staff member at the house, and saw more BET than I ever could have anticipated. It was fun kicking back for awhile, as J. was another client who usually refused to come out of his room. But I still had to bear up under the provocations of D. (J.'s housemate). D. loved to pick at everyone and was constantly inviting people to touch his "wiener". He would come on all friendly-like, feigning interest in your life until he discovered that you had a girlfriend or a wife. He stored that information away until he got mad, and then he'd tell you what he would like to do to your girl. And he knew that you couldn't punch him, so he pulled out his bluest material. Nobody ever suggested that D. find a job.

But eventually J. decided that he'd like to get a job at the local Wendy's. I was not pleased with this decision, but resolved to repect it. Unfortunately the store manager was very compassionate, and she agreed to let J. work the grill. I thought I was off the hook when J. refused to get dressed for work his first day. After ignoring my knocks at the bedroom door until Moe was done fucking up Curly, he abruptly burst out of the room, clad only in a pair of holey tighty-whities that he never changed (depsite unopened stacks of brand new undergarmets in his bureau). When I suggested that he might like to skip work, he silently put on his best outfit and got into the car. Resigned, I drove him to his new life in the fast food industry. As I expected, he quickly tired of the repetitive task of flipping burgers. When I delivered crucial information about "Juniors" and "grease", he shouted back at me- "You look like grease!!!!" When he had enough of yelling in my face, he went in the back to sit quietly and chain smoke cigarettes. There I was, masters degree in hand, finishing out J.'s shift at the grill. I related the situation as best I could to both the store manager and my own supervisor, but the former was too permissive and the latter was unsympathetic. I couldn't get Wendy's to sack J., and I wasn't allowed to help him quit. So I worked two more shifts at the grill and then turned in my own resignation from the company. I decided that the human services industry could do just fine without my help.

I followed up with a short stint as a neighborhood crew manager for the 2000 US census, and then I went back to school for a brand new professional certificate. I fortified myself with the many pleasant memories of my life in the workforce, excelled in my return to the life of a student, and soon found a place in the world of public service. But that's another story for another time...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tales of Employment Woe- Part III

When I was in my early twenties I was simultaneously trying to get a masters degree in counseling, and attempting to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I've already mentioned working in coffeehouses during this time, and it was through that work that I decided I'd like to help open a cafe of my own. I met this kid (who I'll refer to as T.) from Florida, who had a monthly annuity from getting hit by a Shop Rite truck when he was younger. We decided to go ahead and write a business proposal for the very first internet cafe in Pittsburgh. He worked on the numbers, and I formulated the conception.

I must have had some facility with the written word, because we were able to use this "proposal" to convince several investors that we were onto something. No doubt the assurances of T.'s future income went a long way in persuading these folks that our plan was viable. Things moved fast, and before we could catch our breath construction was underway at a storefront on the main street of the fastest developing area in the city. T. had elaborate interior design plans drawn up by a local firm. In fact his approach was so financially daft that he soon exhausted his initial supply of investment. Eventually he got around to asking me for some emergency funds. Of course I had none, but he persuaded me (with a personal promissary note) to take out "fast cash" on my credit card for a bigger share of ownership in the business. Now I found myself in the unlikely position of "angel investor". Like everyone else I believed that T. would be financially solventduring his entire lifetime, due to his settlement money. But he had the same approach to running the business as he had for building the store. Everything was elaborate and wasteful. I watched, increasingly dubious, from the sidelines. The cafe only lasted for a few months of operation before it went into an ignominious bankruptcy. Foreshadowing was supplied by a phone call from the local off-track betting business- a blank company check was found on the floor. It turns out that T. had a fairly significant gambling habit, and he was using operations funds to leverage his strategic financial plan... a plan that involved blind wishes, comp cards, and trips to Atlantic City. Unfortunately he fled the area before we could track him down and break his legs. Meanwhile I had gotten myself into a deeper hole.

I found myself once again working in bars. Now I was relegated to a bar-back position because I was too cranky to work the door. This might have been a low point if I had been "with it" enough to reflect upon my circumstances. I found myself staring at the blank ceilings and walls of my squalid apartment. I was a mess, and if it were not for the compassion of an old friend I might have sunk even lower. D. was an account representative for the most prestigious public relations firm in Pittsburgh, and after seeing my living conditions he resolved to get me a job with the company. I was soon hired on as a part-time employee in the market research department. The position initially involved cold-calling the public, with the purpose of getting them to participate in consumer surveys.

Our little corner of the company was peopled by the motliest group of ne'er-do-wells and temps that you could find downtown. In order to make as many calls to random strangers as we did, we needed to cultivate an attitude of irreverence. We asked folks what they thought about toothpaste, Katie Couric and convenience store hot dogs. It was brutally demeaning work. Eventually I was assigned additional tasks during the slow periods of the shift. I began to input the data collected from the surveys. I liked this, as I could put on headphones and lose myself in some Zen-like state of office rapture. My supervisor always sat me in some isolated and unused cubicle, and left me completely alone while I worked. Once in awhile I would get up to wander the three floors of the company and stealthily raid the cold cut trays left out after executive meetings. After a few months I actually found myself preparing reports for the head of the market division. Often I didn't like the client, and so I made sure to impose my own personal touch onto the findings. No doubt this completely destroyed the integrity of these $100K contract studies. But I always figured it was the fault of management- for putting this responsibility in the hands of a part-time, underpaid peon. Despite my own initiatives I soon found myself being cultivated as a full-time staff writer. I went out to lunch with the director and we talked about my future there. He was appreciative of my abilities, but stressed the importance of maintaining a professional appearance for meetings with clients. I went home and thought about this for a bit, and decided that I hated the clients. I didn't want to work for peoiple I despised.

For awhile I stayed on in my initial role. I went outside and through the motions of questioning bystanders on the street about inane product choices. After awhile I would be overwhelmed by the absolute emptiness of my job. I woud find a diner, sit down by the front window with a coffee and donut, and watch the parade of delusion outside. Some of the most enjoyable times at that job were found in sitting in the office in the evening with a few co-workers, discussing the drones in the advertising department and surfing the net for comic relief. Evidently the inefficiency at that company ran deep, because shortly after I left the entire branch was shut down by headquarters. I heard hushed stories of embezzlement that ran to the highest levels. Everyone was doing something that they shouldn't have been doing. In retrospect it makes a lot of sense. It would require a complete lack of cynicism to believe that anyone in the public relations sector derives meaning or reward from playing his/her particular role in society.

Having been through some of the worst of what the corporate world had to offer, I was now ready to turn my attention elsewhere. I decided to try my hand at human services. I genuinely thought that I had learned enough about my fellow animal to "make a difference".

More to Come! Part IV Tomorrow??

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tales of Employment Woe- Part II.

In college I spent a lot more time trying to figure out what type of job I could bear than I spent actually working. At one point I thought I might enjoy working in a greenhouse. The first flaw in the plan was that it was summer, and thus extremely hot work. The second problem could not have been anticipated. The owner of the place tipped the scales at 300 pounds. She was a lady in her forties who, for some reason I never figured out, never bathed. By that I don't mean she showered once a week- I mean that I doubt she ever took a bath. She wore a do rag on her head, and I sware that you could see twigs and chunks of things sticking out from underneath. When she waddled by she would leave a stench which combined the worst parts of puke, shit and body odor. Even among all those flowers, that stink would linger for a full five minutes after she passed. Needless to say I didn't stay long in that job.

I also spent two years working as a bouncer in a hippy bar. It wasn't a position that required too much fighting. The worst part of it was the manager's love for the Grateful Dead. Every Wednesday she would have the DJ play bootleg tapes of the band. This would last from 8PM and extend to closing at 2AM. There was never any respite. And the crunchy clientele was always bitchin' how I was never "kind" enough. I always refused their offers of acid in exchange for letting their preadolescent girlfriends into the bar. Somehow that made me a conspirator of "The Man". I mostly just sat at the door, reading and trying to avoid eye contact. It's not that I had fully developed my contemporary detachment, but rather that I already knew what kind of invitation eye contact is for a hippy. The last thing I wanted was to be trapped for hours in one place with some fool forcing his drug-addled road stories on me. Sometimes the place could be amusing. I remember one time when some oldtimer was eating habanero pepper wings, and he unthinkingly rubbed his eyes. He was convulsing on the floor, and his head was swelling like a nitrous balloon. Looking back, it definitely had its charms. The whole situation was made a bit better by the fact that the bartender I worked with always looked the other way when I wanted to drink at work. So I did that a lot.

Coffeeshops were also beginning to come into vogue during my early twenties. I learned the difference between a cappucino and a latte, and could identify about 5 different templates for "cool". Fortunately most of the patrons just wanted to crawl into a corner and read their Rilke. But once in awhile we'd get a real live one. I recall this one homeless-looking guy who would buy a small cup of coffee, and then pour it right into the garbage can. Then he would fill the empty cup with cream, and go downstairs to the bathroom. He'd turn off the lights and chug cream in the dark, and then come upstairs for a refill. He had the typical sour smell of old fashioned poverty. I never bothered him. Of course, there'd always be a co-worker who would flirt with every teenager that came in. That was always fun and a little pathetic to watch.

For awhile I worked at a coffee joint in the uptight nouveau riche area of the city. I hated those people. Just to give you an idea of what type of neighborhood that was- I was once taking a cigarette break on the walk in front of the store, when a middle aged woman came strolling by with her 5-year old grandson. They walked by a convertible sports car, and the woman stopped in her tracks, jerking the arm of her young charge. She pulled her hand in front of her mouth and gasped... She said, "See that car? Grandma covets that car!" That was what those peopole were like. There was one pinched yuppie woman that tried to give me a hassle about the word "cappucino" being spelled incorrectly on the menu. She said it was an insult to her "Italian heritage", and that she was going to complain to the manager. It took all my restraint not to toss the drink on her chest. Instead I simply asked her, "Do you want a drink, or are you buying a lifestyle?" It took her a bit to process that before her sour face melted, and she stormed out of the cafe. The funny thing is that the owner had been standing next to me during the entire exchange. We laughed about that for the rest of the day.

Eventually I became too embittered to continue in the service industry. I decided it was a good idea to join an exterminating company. The one I chose to work for specialized in the eradication of stinging insects. The uniforms were paramilitary style, and with our respirators and chemical applicator guns we looked like a SWAT Team. I passed the requisite certification tests, and went out on the road with an experienced warrior. That line of work presented a lot of grueling tasks... among which was shimmying through attic crawl spaces to get to particularly volatile hives. This was in late spring, and we sweltered in our clothes. I had a lot of fun squirting the outside of suburban tract homes with carcinogenic chemicals, but the stuff inevitably came into contact with my own skin... and the smell lingered on me even when I wasn't at work. Still I enjoyed the wholesale destruction of insects, and I probably would have stayed on longterm had I not been fired by the owner for being a bad driver. I couldn't really blame him either- I wouldn't have insured my driving at the time.

More Tales of Employment Woe? But of course! Part III coming soon.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tales of Employment Woe.

Given yesterday's post, I thought I would share some of my previous work experiences. It's rare that anyone would work only one job during the span of his/her life. I worked in plenty of circumstances, especially in my twenties when I was casting about for a career plan.

My very first job was as a paperboy. I'm not sure whether kids are even allowed to deliver papers anymore. But it was fairly common up until the eighties. Now that I think of it, that system set up the perfect opportunity for some pervert to snatch up an unsupervised victim. I generally delivered the news as early as 6AM, and rarely saw other people along my route. Besides being bit by a dog (which would somehow become a theme in my life), it was a fairly comfortable routine, and provided me with a pocketful of spending money. Sundays editions were grueling though, and required the use of an ancient metal cart. When snowstorms hit on the weekend, it was particularly difficult to drag that cart through the snow. Collecting money for subscriptions was the most rewarding part of delivery. We made our money primarily off tips, but the best bonus I ever had was the sight of a particularly hot customer, who used to run around in her bikini. She was shameless, and often invited me inside for a soda. Her husband was a bit of an asshole, so I was glad he usually wasn't around.

In my senior year in high school, I decided that I might enjoy working at the grocery store (a Food Lane). My position was C.S.A. (customer service assistant). What did that entail? I had to reshelve products that shoppers would pick up and then impulsively set back down wherever they were when they decided against paying for it. I also had to feed all the empty packing boxes into a crusher, and through the garbage into the walk-in compactor. My employment at Food Lane was short-lived. One reason for my quick departure was the requirement of joining the union. My first check was written out for $4 and change, after union dues were subtracted. This simply wasn't worth it. Especially since my manager kept threatening to make me crawl inside and clean the abovementioned trash compactor. It smelled awful, and the rooom it was in was covered with pallets so the rats would run underneath and not be tempted to bite you. That was too much to ask from an adolescent with no dependents.

When I was in college, I got a job as a nighttime security guard. I had to make hourly patrols of an industrial building that made little scheduling books called Daytimers. I enjoyed being around all that imposing and enigmatic machinery, and the ghostly feeling of being alone in the plant resonated in a pleasantly shivery way. I wouldn't have known how to operate any of that stuff, but I spent hours dreaming up potential plots of mischief. Soon I was asked to transfer to the construction site of a water treatment plant. The guy that showed me around the grounds told me to be careful on my rounds, because there were open electrical lines laying all over the place. There was no light (other then whatever ambient rays came from the moon and stars), and on rainy nights the conditions were particularly precarious. In addition to strange wires in puddles, you had to look out for unexpected pits in the ground, as the terrain was constantly changing with the work being done. For the first week I actually did those hourly rounds. I explored the great yawning chasms and strange edifices of the incomplete plant. Eventually though, I quit walking around altogether. I'd just sit in the trailer listening to music or reading. Sometimes I would just sleep through the entire shift. On a few occasions I invited my girlfriend for a visit, and made sure she brought a bottle with her. We'd drink whiskey and then play around. Good stuff. You can't beat those work conditions. I never felt especially guilty about my negligence, because anything worth being stolen had already been taken before the security company was hired. We were simply there to act as a deterrence. There was nothing we could have done anyway. The plant was isolated and we worked without being armed. There were also wild dogs that occasionally ran around. I loved that job.

For a few years I worked at various day summer camps. I supervised the sports program at a local arts camp. I was responsible for amusing up to thirty indulged brats at a time. Somehow I got through that with no major injuries. I was pretty popular with the other counselors because they got a nice break from the kids. It was a chichi camp at an all-girls college, so needless to say there were plenty of diversions for me. I got to play the role of the rough and dangerous lower-class male. Young rich chicks are suckers for that. I'd play up the Bukowski act, and I could do no wrong. I was consistently catered to.

I was also the token goy at a J.C.C. travel camp. A lot of my friends were Jewish, and so it wasn't difficult to insinuate myself into the place as an interloping heathen. We took those pre-adolescents to Toronto and Orlando. The majority of these kids were from very wealthy families. They had all the latest gadgets to divert them on the long bus rides to our destinations. It was fun, especially when we could arrange to go off on our own at night and find some trouble. Of course the drinking age in Canada was 18. We drank in shifts. That made looking after the kids at the underground super-mall that much more fun. The most surreal trip we took was to Amish country and Hershey Park. Watching this strange sect, with their habits out-of-time, baffled these urban kids.

I felt accepted during the years that I worked for the J.C.C. camps. They seemed to embrace me despite my differences. I even got to work as a landscape handyman before the sessions began. I'd throw on the headphones and spend an early summer morning painting a barn, or piloting the riding mower through the tall grass. All that ended for me when I got caught at the camp pool one night around 2AM, skinny-dipping with some sixteen year-olds. Of the three of us involved in our enthusiastic pursuit of the corruption of minors, I was the only one to be cited by the bemused cops that caught us. I guess membership has its privileges.

Coming tomorrow-- Tales of Employment Woe II!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My Worklife.

It's probably inevitable that the American worker steps back periodically to reassess his/her choices. It's certainly something I am tempted to do. I have a pretty good job. I get a decent salary for the cost of living in Pittsburgh. I have a great benefits package, and I only work about 50% of the total days in a year. I have a large amount of autonomy in the workplace. My career choice is almost universally considered to be a "noble profession". And my job is not all that vulnerable to the arbitrary sways of the economy. When I start ruminating over alternatives, I don't come up with too many realistic options. Yet I don't think I was born for it, like many in the profession do. I don't even know if I believe in that kind of "calling". When I do dream big, I picture myself taking photography, drawing, and writing for a living. The difficulty is that I would want to choose my own subject matter, and this is where the fantasy usually breaks down.

Anyway, I can make a list of things I don't like about my job. My commute adds up to over an hour and a half every day. I have to get up at 6:10 AM, and I am decidedly NOT a morning person. I have very little in common (politically, socially, culturally, or interests-wise) with the people I work with, and around. I am confronted with a perpetually evolving set of onerous regulations and requirements that dictate my choices at work. And every day I must deal with a complex and sometimes difficult mix of personalities, while trying to stimulate the personal growth of all involved. No matter my mood, it's simply not an option to keep to myself on any given day. Like it or not, I am a role model.

While on balance I am guardedly happy about my situation, I couldn't honestly say with any confidence that I will spend another 24 years in my current position. When contemplating my furture, I am more likely to consider it over a few years, rather than decades. Life is unpredictable and I have always wanted to experience a broad range within the possible. But unlike those who are never satisfied, I usually don't ponder what could be better. I more often imagine how things could be worse. This trait usually keeps me grounded, and probably explains why I have held my current job for six years.

There are many jobs that I would never want to be stuck with. Some in this category are jobs I I have already held. For instance- I hope I never find myself working in the corporate world again. My two years working for a public relations firm, for loathsome clients I would have never chosen to srvice, were some of the most empty years of my worklife. Similiarly, although I think I would be pretty good at sales, I don't think I would enjoy the constant pressure of having to meet quotas. Plus, I think I would end up with an even lower regard for humanity than I have now.

I have never applied myself to the arts of the handyman, so it looks like any type of craftsmanship profession is out. I believe that I could find some facility in working with my hands, but it seems a little bit late in the game to switch directions. And I have no desire to get back into the service industry. That was the story of my twenties. It was in bars and coffeehouses that I first developed signs of an incipient misanthropy. I'm simply not capable of putting up the kind of front required to make the average consumer comfortable for the length of his/her stay. Maybe if I owned the business I would be motivated to do well in the service field, but otherwise I can't see myself going back to that kind of life.

Perhaps I could find fulfillment in some type of civil service or human services job. I think I could prove to be a very competent administrator. But compared to my current job, the benefits of that sector would be minimal. And so this is how it usually goes when I engage in this train of thought. None of the other possibilities seem very attractive. I've never had a job as good as I have now. That certainly doesn't mean that there isn't one coming to me down the line. But for now, I am apt to draw the easy conclusion... and to appreciate what I have.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

E. Elias Merhige, "Begotten" (1991)

Several years ago I came upon a concentration of praise for a very obscure film entitled Begotten. Directed by E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire, Suspect Zero) and released theatrically in 1991, this 78-minute work manages to be one of the strangest of all movies. There is very little in this film in the way of conventional narrative. What makes it compelling is its odd look- filmed in a grainy black-and-white, and overexposed with a disjointed quality, as if individual frames of the film were removed to give it a herky-jerky look. It's somehow not surprising to learn that the film required eight months of postproduction work. While there is no dialogue whatsoever, the soundtrack is eerily effective.... with noises that include the chirping of insects, the sound of tearing flesh, and a subtle heart pulse.

The story is really rather minimally sketched. At the beginning of the film we see a sexually ambiguous figure disembowleling itself. Later, in the credits, we learn that this is "God". The scene is extended way beyond any semblance of comfort. We watch the character spasmodically gash itself, and its insides splash out onto the floor. Finally "God" expires, and 'Mother Earth" materializes from beneath to masturbate the member of the deceased figure. This action ends with the self-impregnation of "Earth". From that point forward the film traces Earth's wanderings as she gives birth, and is eventually killed and eaten. Other than that there isn't much of the action that I can really describe. No doubt a semiotician can discover a multitude of symbols in Begotten, but the rest of us are left to guess at the director's intentions.

Despite its challenging nature, this film does command a trancelike attention (at least intermittently). If you are able to suspend your usual powers of judgment and analysis, you might find a strange enjoyment in watching Begotten. My reaction was oddly mixed. There were times that I laughed at the absurdity of the imagery and its sheer power to shock. Like an extended and dark Rorshach test, one's response to this movie is partially determined by individual personality and aesthetics. Of course this is always so with art, but in this case it is especially applicable because of its dissonance and minimalism. It defies easy categorization. Inevitably some viewers will be too disturbed to watch it in its entirety. Others will quickly tire of it and shut it off. Yet others will brand it with the label of "pretension" and discount it.

If my description of Begotten intrigues you, then I suggest you track it down and watch it. But once you make that decision- I implore you to watch without preconceptions or expectations. If my meaning gets transposed on your experience, then I believe you will have lost an interesting opportunity. Don't sit down to it with food. Don't watch it with someone who is likely to chatter or complain through a difficult film. Don't choose a time when you are either too alert or too sleepy. And don't blame me if you hate it, because many will. But then again... maybe you will be engaged by its alien charms.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Unsustainable Strip Mall Existence.

Today I found myself travelling through the netherworld of a typical American exurb. This setup is repeated countless times across the national landscape, and people pass through without ever reflecting on its meaning. It represents convenience, familiarity and "progress". Yet it is an insidious sign of the homogenization of our culture. It's Walmart, Sam's Club, Best Buy, Starbucks, McDonalds, Target, Barnes and Noble and a few dozen other chains that dominate the newest of public spaces. There are no sidewalks and no pedestrians. No one bikes or walks their dog there. You won't find anything resembling a public square, where people could congregate outside, milling among other members of the community- because there is no community. There is no residential development integrated seemlessly within the area. That would be impossible.

If you go to grab lunch at one of the many franchise restaurants, you will find that 90% of the menus are identical, regardless of the marketing scheme of each location. The food you'll eat will be bland and inoffensive. There will be no distinctive flavors to startle your palate. Your environment wil be carefully manufactured to appear authentic to whatever cultural influence the eatery claims... but upon closer inspection you will find nothing but artifice and illusion. After lunch you can get in your car and drive 500 yards to a store for some shopping. Everything you pick up will have been mass produced thousands of miles from whatever location you are in. These products will appeal to your sense of belonging and identity as a US citizen. The packaging will be elaborate, but the quality of the items will be suspect- as none of it will have been manufactured with a sense of craftsmanship or durable simplicity. Everything is made with its obsolescence predetermined by careful research and the logic of accounting. You will be lulled into a series of robotic, trancelike movements as you subconsciously negotiate your consumer experience.

Far from upsetting people, this cookie cutter existence is actually sought after. Many Americans actually form their identify by conforming to the demographic imperatives that corporations invent to sell their products. Meanwhile anything of any significant cultural value is pushed to the margins. For each big box store that opens its doors, dozens of independently owned businesses are pushed out. People who have struggled to create their own specialized merchant shops are forced to relinquish their dream of being their own boss. And all the individual character and charm that has been built through the history of a specific place (whether city, region or town) is lost forever. That is the reality of the American Way. People even empower their leaders to export this "freedom" to the rest of the world in an orgy of global corporate imperialism. Because if Iraqis or Afghanis had strip malls, then they would finally understand that "we are right". Never mind the origins of human civilization... this is survival of the fittest (or should that be "fattest").

Even beyond the aesthetics and the cultural loss, I often speculate on the ultimate ramifications of building this type of society. What will happen to the exurbs when cheap oil recedes forever into history? All of the money that has been invested to build these strip malls and highways will be wasted. With the illusion of perpetual growth, we have mortgaged our future. This is an unsustainable system. And the irony is that many of the people who choose to live in the housing development sprawl of the exurbs bemoan any type of taxation for "social programs". They have escaped the problems of the cities, and have decided that they need not bother with other people's problems. Yet they fail to see the hypocrisy in their political beliefs. They believe that they have made their lives through their own self-reliance, without government support. But their lifestyles would be impossible without the highway subsidies that are funded with tax dollars. They wouldn't be able to maintain their detachment from social problems without the cheap energy bought and paid for by huge military expenditures- all financed through public spending.

The politics promoted and enabled by the thinking of such exurbanites has proven to be a failure. The United States government is hopelessly in debt and its existence is artificially propped up by foreign investment. The US dollar is the currency of the oil trade, and thus it has a tenuous value. When the energy paradigm shifts, the entire economy is going to suffer. As the costs of fossil fuels rise and people begin to default on their mortgages... and the supranational corporations begin to enter bankruptcy... will those in the great sprawl be mired in the crumbling dust of their artficial dreams?

Will they crawl back to the cities in defeat? What type of reception do you think will await them?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Full Day of Figure Drawing.

Wow, I'm exhausted. As some of you may be aware, I've been haunting the figure drawing sessions around Pittsburgh for about eight months. Today I visited two separate sessions. I'm working on a project called "The Book of Life". Like this blog, it's work that demands an almost obsessive amount of focus and discipline. "The Book" requires me to complete over 750 drawings. They are drawn with Onyx uniball fine-point pens and decidedly non-archival paper (if you don't already know what I'm drawing on, I'll leave it to you to guess).

Before I started "The Book", I never drew the human figure from life. It's a pretty incredible experience- if you haven't already tried it, I recommend it heartily. I've learned a lot about light and the infinite varieties of the human body. Growing up in a body-obsessed society, and surrounded by images of the "ideal" figure, it's easy to lose sight of the reality of material existence. I've yet to see a model who looks like 95% of the people I see in the popular media. But I have seen enough to realize how many illusions I used to carry around with me. Old men and women, the young and the middle-aged... they all do the figure drawing circuit.

At the rate it's taking me, I expect to be finished in a year or two. Luckily I have several places where I can go to get this done. My staple is at Panza Frame and Gallery in Millvale). We draw there every Thursdy from 7-9PM, and the cost is $7 per session. It's run very professionally, but there is an informal quality among the participants that is very enjoyable. Once a month, there is a session at the Brew House in the SouthSide called Barely Brunch. This is usually on Sundays, from 1-5PM. The cost is a bit more at $15, but you get to draw two models (and they provide food).

I've also just learned about an open session at the art building on the campus of CMU. Earlier today I threaded my way through the byzantine pathways of the campus and finally found the correct room (#313). This is a formal and quiet session that is run from 6-9PM, every Sunday. They have individual, adjustable drawing tables... and the best thing about it is... IT'S FREE. If seeing naked people isn't your thing, you can always check out Drink 'N Draw at the Brillo Box in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield. They dress their models in costumes, and construct elaborate themed backdrops. I've seen drag queens, lingerie models, and a biker. You need only come to be surprised. It's every other Tuesday, from 6-9PM ($10 fee, $1 off drafts). It's a fun group of people. Unfortunately, I can's use costumed models for my "Book of Life". But that doesn't stop me from going every time.

One complaint I would make about the variety of sessions in this town is that they generally all rely on the same small pool of models. This no doubt is due to the nature of the work. There aren't many folks who will pull their clothes off in a room full of complete strangers for $35-50 per session. I certainly wouldn't do it. But this means that I end up with many drawings of a small, select group of people. I'd like to get more variety into my "Book of Life". Do you want to be saved (while making a bit of extra cash?) Let me know, and I'll point you in the right direction.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Interview With John Morris.

John Morris is an artist originally from Queens, NY. Armed with a growing dissatisfaction and an innovative concept, Morris moved to Pittsburgh in 2004 to open up Digging Pitt gallery. Its flat files contain the work of more than 180 local, regional and national artists. The Digging Pitt is accessible via the internet at both its homepage and blog.

Merge Divide: Ok... so first off, the obvious question... Why would a successful artist living in the absolute center of the art world move to Pittsburgh?

John Morris: That's a long story. You have to have some idea of what life is like in NY for most artists. It's easier to sell work, but you have to reach an insane level to have any security. Some of my friends had left and I was nursing a deep grudge against the art world.

MD: How did you develop a grudge against the art world? What was the nature of the grudge?

JM: Well, I think that the scene today doesn't seem to to have a whole lot to do with the quality of the work. Most of the good artists don't have galleries and those that do are on some kind of product driven treadmill.

MD: But you had found some success in a Brooklyn-based gallery called Pierogi. Why don't you say a bit about the nature of your relationship with that gallery.

JM: Ok... Another long story. But I guess one would say they discovered me.

MD: I know that they played a large role in your development as an artist. But Pierogi also seems to have affected your thinking on the role galleries play in the art world. Besides their connection to your career, what did you take away from your experience with Pierogi?

JM: Well, to give some perspective... I did little subtle drawings. I had years worth of work, but most of it was hard to photograph and I was also too broke at the time to have it done. Getting anything seen by anyone was very hard... let alone getting anything shown. I don't think there were many people with a serious interest in seeing new stuff. So I was just so grateful and blown away when I heard that there was a guy who just looked at stuff in Brooklyn.

MD: I think that there are probably many readers that aren't familiar with Pierogi. They came up with an interesting approach to showing art that was based around a flat-file system. How did you originally process that idea when you discovered it?

JM: I read this NY Times article about alternative dealers at what was called the Gramercy Art fair in NY. One of them was an artist who had asked other artists he liked to have portfolios of their work in his place. The works were kept in architectural file drawers and the inventory had grown to include close to 300 artists. I also heard that the guy was always interested in seeing new work. When I saw it, it kind of blew me away.

MD: What kind of effect do you believe it had on the art scene in NYC?

JM: First of all, I wish the effect had been greater, in that I don't think that anyone has pushed the idea to the kind of scale that would be needed to tear down the current system.

Still, it's been huge. I guess at least 10 artists affiliated with the gallery have been in Whitney Biennials, and many more have been picked up by galleries. Also Pierogi played a big role in developing new collectors.

I don't want to exaggerate, but there were practical parallels between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. There was a vast sea of artists, but most of the scene was underground. Putting a large array of the work being made there in one place helped people realize that something huge was going on.

MD: So yeah. You brought this concept to Pittsburgh, believing it was exportable. How do you think the difference in the size of the existing market affects how this concept plays here?

JM: Basically, I just didn't think it mattered much. Art has a global market. There are art fairs and there is the emerging potential of the internet. And yet the whole system seems trapped in a high-cost place not well suited to producing work. In the time since I started the gallery, Pierogi has opened up a big annex in a depressed city in Germany called Leipzig. I now do see some flaws in my thinking.

MD: How do you gauge the reaction to the Digging Pitt Gallery?

JM: I just don't know. In Brooklyn, you had a huge pool of people who got the gallery concept and seemed to understand how it was different and why it was needed-- Artists who saw it as a way into the system, collectors who felt priced or frozen out, and a lot of other people who just saw it as a place for dialog and interaction. Here it's much more a job of selling the idea and making people understand it's value.

MD: What do you think makes it so difficult to convey the concept of a flat file gallery in Pittsburgh?

JM: Well, I hope that the reason isn't that there are just not enough people here interested in art; that is a possibility. I do shows, have parties etc... But, the idea of a bunch of porfolios lying in cabinets is going to be interesting to a crowd that is strongly commited to seeing work.

I also don't think that there is anywhere near the difficulty of getting into shows in Pittsburgh. Relative to the number of artists, there is a lack of exhibition spaces in NY. A lot of my Pittsburgh artists are in shows all the time, so getting them excited about the flat files has been hard.

MD: So given your experience so far in Pittsburgh, what are three things that you would like to see change here?

JM: I think that in NY, Pittsburgh has a fairly good reputation. The International, Warhol, and Mattress Factory all have lots of weight... as does CMU. To be honest, I feel a bit ripped off. My sister lived here and I came through town and liked it. Then I did a little research and came across stuff about the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, AIR, The Brew House and I thought-- awesome... people would be happy to see me here... and that I was coming to a place sincerely commited to building an arts community. I kind of don't feel that way now. I kind of feel that I am working alone.

MD: I'm not sure that answers the question. How about this... In an ideal world what would you see as the role of the Digging Pitt in the local community, and in a broader sense?

JM: Locally, I hope that the gallery can become a central focus and gathering place for people who are interested in art, and that the files can help show people how much good work is being done here... and help link Pittsburgh to the world.

I also hope the gallery can grow in a way that can make it a signifcant entry point for artists into the system.

MD: Well... I wish you all kinds of luck for future success. Thanks for taking the time.

JM: Thanks a lot for talking to me. My last major interview was with some birds.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Erie Collar Bomber Case... Solved (!?)

A month ago, when I was inundating myself with stories of serial killers, I had occasion to reflect upon a very macabre incident that occurred not far from Pittsburgh. In 2003, in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, an Erie pizza deliveryman by the name of Brian Wells was caught after robbing a PNC bank. The police who apprehended Wells quickly learned that things weren't as they initially seemed. Wells was wearing a crude collar device which he claimed was a bomb. The cops were initially suspicious, but eventually they gathered enough self-doubt to call in a bomb squad. As the specialists were arriving on the scene, the collar device blew up, killing Wells immediately.

The victim was a solitary man, who lived in a small house with three cats. He spent much of his time watching movies and playing music. By hook or by crook, the anonymous Wells became the focal point for a dastardly scheme. On a routine delivery to an address that didn't exist, Wells was allegedly accosted by gunmen. They attached the explosive device to his neck and chest, explaining that he must follow a set of instructions meticulously, or he would die. His first mission was to procure $250,000 from a specific bank. He was told that he would be watched, and if he tried to seek help he would be killed by remote. Next he was to proceed to a nearby McDonald's parking lot to get more notes. This is where the police stopped this devious scavenger hunt. If Wells had been allowed to continue, he had a series of steps to follow that would have (supposedly) deactivated his collar.

This information was gleaned by police after Wells' death. They found the pages of instructions on his body after the fact. Investigators also discovered a crafty single-shot shotgun made to appear like a walking cane. Witnesses at the bank reported seeing Wells with the cane earlier. An FBI team put together a profile for the mastermind behind the crime... a perpetrator they referred to as the "Collar Bomber". Whoever was responsible was thought to be mechanically-inclined, a pack rat and very frugal. Money was determined not to be the primary or sole motive for the plot. And it is accepted that this person was not working alone.

Early on an Erie resident and high school shop teacher (William Rothstein) was the primary suspect. He came to the attention of the authorities when he phoned them to report a body in his freezer. Evidently he had helped his ex-fiancee (Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong) dispose of the hapless victim (Jim Roden) after she killed him. He claimed to have been paid $2000 for this service, as well as cleaning up the crime scene. For some reason he balked at carrying out the plan of feeding Roden's body through an ice chipper.

Sadly (?) Rothstein died of Leukemia in 2004. He was certainly a suspect character, with a history of involvement in criminal schemes. But until his death he maintained complete innocence in the case of Brian Wells, even going so far as to leave a written statement to that claim in his house. His lawyer relates that Rothstein passed a polygraph test, and therefore wasn't considered a suspect in the Wells murder. Meanwhile, Diehl-Armstrong remains an interesting suspect. She has had four significant others suffer unexplained deaths. Tellingly, when arrested for the murder of Roden, she fingered Rothstein as Wells' killer.

Along with Rothstein and Diehl-Armstrong, there are other strange figures lurking on the periphery of this sordid tale. When Rothstein was originally arrested, a registered sex offender and fugitive named Floyd "Jay" Stockton was found at the older man's house. Stockton had a history of rape, burglary and theft in Montana and Washington. He was also a skilled mechanic. His ex-wife claims that the handwriting on the Wells notes matches that of Stockton. And then there's the mysterious death of Robert Pinetti, a co-worker of Wells at the pizza shop. He died of a drug overdose three days after Wells was murdered. Is there some connection between the two deaths?

There has been speculation that Wells may have been more than an unsuspecting victim. He is said to have been obsessed with a scavenger hunt contest featured in the local newspaper. Could his involvenment have been an elaborate ruse gone wrong? Could he have been duped into playing a role in a drama with a hidden script? Did he know the Collar Bomber?

I've been haunted by this strange incident for quite awhile. And today I heard on the radio that the case has been solved. Indictments are expected to be issued next month. Must I really wait that long to find out the answer? I would think that those involved are already in custody, possibly for other offenses. Otherwise I doubt federal authorities would announce, with such confidence, that this cold case has been resolved. They are officially on record as saying, "The government knows what happened the day of the incident" (see link). There's a lot of buzz around Diehl-Armstrong. Earlier this month it was reported that she is bringing suit against the iconic Geraldo Rivera. Is this a case of ,"where there's smoke, there's fire"? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bruce Wagner's "Wild Palms" (1993)

In 1993, ABC aired a little-remembered miniseries with elements of cyberpunk called Wild Palms. Conceived by Bruce Wagner, the show was obviously influenced by the idea of David Lynch's Twin Peaks- a serial television production that built on themes of conspiracy, surrealism, and post-modern wierdness. Produced by Oliver Stone, approximately five and a half episodes of the show were completed before the network decided to pull the plug. It's fairly clear that its creators cobbled together the main threads of an extanded and complex plot to bring resolution in about 280 total minutes. Wild Palms suffers from a forced ending to a compelling setup, but there is still enjoyment to be had in watching it.

The pilot episode introduces us to a normal-seeming family living a posh lifestyle in a near-future Los Angeles. Slowly things begin to unravel around the businessman-father (Harry Wyckoff, as played a bit too obviously by an overwhelmed James Belushi), and he falls into a web of intrigue involving corporate politics, virtual reality technology, a Scientology-like cult, and designer drugs. And then things get weird. Character after character is added to the mix, and the viewer is left to sort out the shifting allegiances, as the existence of two powerful secret societies is revealed. As Wyckoff bumbles around trying to understand what is going on, we learn that his reality is not at all what he has come to think of as his life. As we progress through the episodes, we receive an escalating series of surprising revelations that lead us to a plot of consequence for the entire world.

Each episode was directed by a someone different... mainly people with television experience, as is natural for such a project. But between them they have also created some films- such as Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow), Point Break (K.B.), The Chocolate War (Keith Gordon), Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (Peter Hewitt), State of Grace (Phil Joanou) and Three O'Clock High (P.J.). From the pedigrees of these creators, one might expect a mixed bag. And largely that is what we receive. Some sequences are particularly stunning, while others are laugh-out-loud funny. No doubt the reduced budget of a network television series partly contributes to the inconsistencies of this series. There is some continuity in the set design, which convincingly elicits an amped-out and rapidly stratifying "City of Angels". It's all bright walls, sleek surfaces, and modernist decor.

The dialogue is only rarely intelligent, but not blatantly distracting. Wagner has some literary pretensions, as he can't help but stuff his characters with quotes from Yeats and Whitman. He's also tried to incorporate a vaguely neo-noirish patter, without much success. It doesn't help that the cast is jam-packed with hammy and ham-fisted actors. Even when their performances are effective, it is mostly because of their aptitude for melodrama. But surprisingly this works quite often; this is Los Angeles after all. And seeing the campy stylings of scene-chewers Angie Dickinson and Robert Loggia is a lot of fun. Dramatic moments are accentuated with classic rock and early electronica tracks that provide an extra edge, a la Scorcese's Goodfellas or Anderson's Boogie Nights.

Much has been said about the social commentary of Wild Palms. One could make the case that Wagner was prescient in his formulation of a politician using the media to manipulate public opinion and behavior. Similarly, its not a stretch to believe that some extra-governmental cabal could be working behind the scenes to seize the reins of power. New technologies are employed to effectuate mind control of a public enchanted with new electronic sensations. Yes... we're familiar with that. Also, the idea that a media company can become so monolithic that it dominates an entire industry is not a novel idea today (nor was it when this miniseries was aired). But I think that the strength of Wild Palms lies in its twisted flow chart of relations and alliances. It's a lot more fun to try to figure out what everyone is up to... rather than to try to glean some substantial meaning based upon Wagner's predictions for the future. If you sit back to enjoy this with minimal expectations, you have a better chance of being entertained for a few hours.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Yeah, um... Valentine's Day.

Ah... Valentine's Day. One more in a long list of consumerist scams- a boon for the U.S. Greeting Card Association. We are all supposed to trot out and buy candy or flowers for our girl, or (?) power tools for our boys. Inevitably a group of well-intentioned professionals is going to buy a plastic phallus with an attached electrical cord for one of their lonely co-workers. This happens every year in workplaces across the country, always eliciting the same round of uncomfortable laughs.

I always think about the many people who are either without romantic relationships, or mired in poor ones, and how they feel about this "holiday". It's a great day for these folks to feel sorry for themselves. The history of despair on this day starts for many in elementary school. Little kids make and decorate little shoeboxes to use as containers for the cute mini-greetings that their classmates make for the entire class. That's the best case scenario. This is supposed to be an occasion for every kid to feel special- which is at its core a silly proposition, since every kid is supposed to get a card from every one of the other students. If the children feel duty-bound to drop these notes, then they really have no meaning at all. And sometimes a particularly unpopular child will open up his/her little box to find quite a few missing from the expected total. Others will pry open the envelopes and find hastily scrawled scratchings that say much about how little regard was put into those wishes.

Of course the litany of pain continues through the initial break-ups we experience as we age. Often the wintry trials bring dissatisfaction, and one finds him/herself newly single on February 14th. Or even worse, relationships are artificially extended to meet the fateful date, and then terminated afterward in the wake of a box of stale chocolates. And the participants of these former couplings have missed out on the annual "Black Hearts" events at the bars, where bitter singles gather to choke down their bile with shooters and cheap beer.

True insight into Valentine's Day can be gleaned from a close examination of a festival of antiquity, celebrated on and about this date. On February 15, ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia. Noble youths would seize this opportunity to run wild and naked through the streets, striking the innocent bystanders with shaggy thongs (this, at least, is how Plutarch tells it). I 'm not sure what this meant for young lovers, but it doesn't sound like something that necessarily led to romantic bliss. The word "Lupercalia" obviously derives from the wolf, and it is an appropriate title because the day was meant to observe the she-wolf that suckled the founders of Rome. Traditionally, two goats and a dog were sacrificed in her honor. So maybe you should kill a dog for your loved one this year?

We could also look for meaning to the Catholic Saint in whose honor the holiday has been named. Pope Gelasius 1 designated February 14th as the feast of St. Valentine in 496 AD. There is a legend that (on the day before he was martyred) Valentine sent a love note to his jailer's daughter that was signed off with "From your Valentine". In that vein, perhaps we could celebrate his passing with the type of last meal he would have preferred... I'll let you readers work that out for yourselves.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Snow Day.

So the snow is a'falling, and the entire show has ground to an abrupt stop. Taking a ride around town, I see people struggling to keep nature's residue off their things. It looks futile as the precipitation falls so quickly that their work is soon reversed. I keep thinking about joining the fray, and then reconsider... with concerns about the way I've been treating by body. If I were to exert myself, I would want some resolution. I'm not going to risk losing my breath to put things stable that I know will run to flux in a moment. It took me a good ten minutes simply to clear my car so I could go for a mocha.

The time of my life when I could feel reverberations of childish anticipation for the snowfall has passed. I'd rather know weeks ahead of time when I'm going to be released from work. In that way I can plan to use the time to my best advantage. As it is, I'm left to the designs of an inertia built from a thwarted schedule. I can only cast about and improvise an approach from hour to hour. And my mobility is restricted by forces beyond my control. So it's naturally a time of reflection.

Yet it wasn't always this way. As a kid I shared the natural excitement that built from the possibility of a day without school. In that case nature cast its own fingers upon the plans of adults. These were the hands of my parents, my teachers, my neighbors, and strangers. They had a strategy to mold us, and they had a calendar to plot their progress. But unlike the will of God, theirs was fallible. And so the word would come down from somewhere on high, and I'd get to stay at home and follow my whim. This capricious joy was embraced with all of my unformed being. I was liberated, along with my friends, if for only a brief time. And the streets belonged to us, because the adults now feared the snow.

Because the snow provided us our deliverance, we embraced it with the totality of our spirit. We mocked the fears and strictures of adults in every way possible. We tore apart boxes, and rode sheets of cardboard down the steepest hills available. We built ramps of packed ice at the bottom that propelled us into traffic. And then our courage outgrew us, and we threw ice balls at passing motorists. Then exhausted from constant flight, we spent the last of our energy building deities that the profane mistook for jolly snowmen. Let it not be said that we were ignorant of the import of our creations- and that our own suffering did not follow the slow withering of our offerings... while we were back in the restricting arms of our elders.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ramifications of The Plame Outing.

It's going to become increasingly evident that the events surrounding the ongoing Iraqi disaster are destined to leave lasting unforeseen repercussions of great consequence to US society. I would contend that no one truly understands the scope and intensity of these effects. That would be impossible. We've been besieged with these complications since 2003, and there is no definitive end in sight. Any list of examples could only be criticized for its many omissions. Today I was particularly concerned with one issue that is forefront in the news- the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former Chief of Staff for Vice President Cheney.

Libby's attorneys have begun calling witnesses in defense of their client, in a very public attempt to excuse his role in the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame. For readers in need of a refresher, Plame's husband Joseph Wilson was sent to the African nation of Niger to assess the legitimacy of claims that Saddam Hussein was seeking the purchase of components to make nuclear weapons. This was an important aspect of the Bush administration's contention that Hussein was a developing threat to the security of the United States in the wake of 9-11. Wilson returned to the United States with conclusive findings that the suspected plot had no basis in fact. Cheney's office was not pleased with Wilson's public pronouncements regarding his mission, after American troops were unable to find weapons of mass destruction after the invasion of Iraq. The clear implication was that the president and executive branch were aware that they were promoting a false justification for their military operation against Iraq.

In a fit of pique, some elements within Cheney's office sought revenge by compromising Wilson's wife. This was a clear violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (1982). But Libby wasn't charged with crimes against Plame... but rather with obstruction of justice. He refused to cooperate with the investigation of Patrick Fitzgerald (the special prosecutor appointed to the case). This is an especially egregious crime, due to the high political profile of the suspected conspirators of the plot... including Richard Armitrage, presidential advisor Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney himself. Even with the unquestioning cooperation of the rightwing media echo chamber in a full press attempt to downplay the seriousness of the crime, growing public dissatisfaction with the president ensured the proper prosecution of the case.

This entire story is too complicated to understand with cursory interest. Even today, much of the public remains wholly unaware of the gravity of the situation. But there are undeniable ramifications for the future of "democracy" in this nation. Particularly compelling are the lengths members of the media went to protect their sources in reporting Plame's CIA affiliation, citing claims of professional integrity. New York Times reporter Judith Miller chose to go to jail, rather than to reveal the identity of the conspirator(s) before a federal grand jury. Of course, Miller's refusal to bring light to this case elicited ample suspicion that her journalistic credibility was compromised by her own political agenda. But the intricacies of the situation go beyond this supposition.

Certainly I understand the importance of confidential sources to the operation of a free press. If these types of protections were not in place, then the security of government whistle-blowers would be compromised. Without this confidence, the fear of reprisal would keep many of the shady dealings of our government cloaked in secrecy. But when high-placed officials in the executive department of that same federal government cynically exploit this principle in order to advance their own pernicious political aims... then the social benefit of source confidentiality is altogether undermined.

I believe the "fourth estate" has a responsibility to protect its own independence and integrity by resisting such blatant attempts at manipulation. Public officials have no right to hide behind this professional courtesy (and legal defense) in order to attack whistle-blowers- who are the very parties such confidentiality was implemented to protect. If we lose sight of that... then we are ceding the power of the press, and its crucial role in the maintenance of democracy.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Post-Show Comments

Well... here I am on the "day after". By some standards I could say that the show was an unqualified success. The turnout was excellent. A late rush redeemed any reservations I had about that. I got to see a good mix of people... old friends, current friends, gallery owners and artists. The local press was, as expected, flagrantly absent. They have their specific haunts, and seldom venture outside. In terms of sales- nothing would ever be as satisfying as getting close to selling out a show. But I have a long road to travel before I get anywhere close to that kind of success. I'm not even altogether confident that I can reach that point if I contain my work to Pittsbutrgh exhibitions. It's one thing for someone to appreciate your efforts, but a whole 'nother level of commitment for him/her to purchase something to hang on their wall. And it's not like there are legions of serious art collectors in this town.

I did feel that people generally undertsood my conceptualization for this series. I really wanted folks to get beyond statements like "it looks cool". I'll admit that there was an element of that thinking in my own reaction to the work. I've explained that it was the most introspective and meditative stuff I have produced. It was a refreshing change, and I'm glad that people accepted it. I got a number of positive comments about my rationale/justification. One of the pervasive concerns I had about exhibiting abstract art was the possibility of coming off as entirely pretentious. I'm still a bit of a Phillistine when it comes to the art world. Because I wasn't educated in art, I sometimes doubt my ability to engage in the dialogue of the tradition. I guess that's just part of the outsider's predicament. I think it can even be useful to stay in touch with that kind of insecurity.

My initial feelings about the death of my camera (see my artist statement if I haven't talked to you about this) were ironically manifested when I was asked to snap a few shots of the reception. I grabbed the thing from my car (where it's been sitting unused for weeks) and turned it on only to find a white LCD screen. It was temporarily frozen, and I only regained its use today. I guess that you have to watch what you say... even regarding inanimate objects. Sure, I know that animism is medieval superstition. But it's important not to underestimate the power of our own perceptions. My camera's refusal to cooperate with me at the show was indeed a result of my ambivalent treatment of it over a period of months. The warranty has offically worn out, and its existence is heretofore indefinite. Yet I'm beginning to suspect that this camera's story is still imcomplete. We'll just have to wait and see.

If nothing else, I know that people had a good time at the opening. The connections I make with others takes on increasing importance as I get older. It seems to me that the highest end in making art can be found in the interactions that arise from sharing it. This benefit is ultimately ineffable. It can't be measured with a conventional balance sheet. That may be particularly difficult for those engaged in the business of art... but it's a valuable reality nonetheless.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Saturday Morning Cartoons.

Once in a while, after a particularly extended Friday night... I'll wake up on Saturday morning with little else to do but to sit on the couch and stare at the TV. On these occcasions it's rare that I enter this state before noon. I'll dazedly flip through all four channels that we receive with our antenna, and see what is on offer. The pickings are slim. By necessity, my standards of viewing are lowered dramatically. It is at these times that I remember a simpler, more innocent time, when I had a similar lack of discrimination.

For many of my generation, Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly staple. It would have been taken for granted that at 8AM on that most glorious of days that my brother and I would be parked in front of the tube getting our dose of wacky animation. We'd sit on the floor with bowls of Cap'n Crunch, and stare at the screen with utter distraction. I imagine this tradition was a boon to my parents, who were able to sleep in with the confidence that we would be safely and peacably occupied for hours. This quietude was only occasionally broken by a short but intense tussle upon the half hour, when we disagreed about what came next in the program. We each had our favorites, but luckily deals could usually be struck.

Of course there were some slots over which there was no argument. The schedule almost always started with Superfriends. This wasn't one of my favorites, but at 8AM the options were limited. If I had to pick, I guess I liked Aqua Man the best, and of course Wonder Woman held some mysterious pre-adolescent attraction for me. The main alternative was Mighty Mouse, with guest stars Heckle and Jeckle. Those wise-crackin' magpies have to be coolest icons of the classic cartoons. Truth be told, I could have watched them all morning. Every once in a while, we would watch Popeye just for a change of pace. I always preferred the Jazz Age scattin' Popeye- he had more soul than a white muscle-bound sailor should have been allowed.

My brother was a big fan of The Pink Panther. Certainly that had the best soundtrack of anything we'd watch. But alas, the skinny icon was too sophisticated for my immature aesthetic... it would be years before I could appreciate the subtle French-ness of the show. I have to admit in retrospect that I found it a bit creepy. On the other hand, my brother wasn't into Scooby Doo, which I loved. This was during the pre-Scrappy years, when guess stars included the Harlem Globetrotters and Don Knotts. I think I mostly enjoyed the creepy plots with ghosts and monsters, and was always a bit disappointed when the supernatural elements were exposed as hoaxes. I looked very hard for anything that might have been a genuine mystery.

The classic cartoons though... the ones that constituted the centerpiece of our morning... were always the Warner Brothers icons. We knew the plots for all of the Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner and Coyote shorts. And we liked them all... to a fault. They seemed to exist apart from time, and never became outdated. Sure there'd be the occasional sequence that would offend contemporary sensibilities, but those days predated the PC-era that would play some role in killing off the golden age of the Saturday Morning ritual. But in that last gasp of free, uninhhibited wackiness we got to appreciate it all. The standards like Tom & Jerry, Hong Kong Phooey and the Flinstones... as well as short-lived curiosities such as Pee Wee's Playhouse, Dungeons and Dragons, and The Littles.

You can still watch cartoons on Saturday morning, but they don't seem to have the charm or appeal that we were used to. Now it looks like they all contain elements of brain-washing. There's usually some moral message to receive. They are much more wholesome today. This takes all the fun out of it. The last thing we wanted on our day off from school was to learn something. Interestingly, they also seem to be relying more-and-more on computer animation. The warmth and comfort of the standards has been replaced by an alien aesthetic that leaves me cold. Everything changes... but I could never have anticipated feeling nostalgia for the type of cheap and easy entertainment that awaited us at the end of every week when we were kids.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Importance of Anticipation.

Now it's just 24 hours until my show. I knew six months ago that it was coming, but I didn't think about it much up to a couple of weeks ago. It's strange how time seems to have gone quickly in retrospect. Even day-to-day, it can sometimes feel like time is crawling. Yet things that happened less than a year ago seem so far distant. The truth is that time is not nearly as immutable as we so often believe it is. I've always had a theory that our perception of time accelerates as we age. When we are new-born, every stimulus is novel... and we can lose ourselves in the experience. As we build associations with things that become familiar, we tend not to dwell on them... and we take them for granted. This process seems to make time fly by. Of course when we are old, there is less and less new phenomena. I imagine that my last few years will progress like the blink of an eye.

Anyway... I like having something to look forward to. Having that makes it easier to get through the mundane chores of life's maintenance that tend to be soul-sapping. I may be wending my way through some gruelingly boring task, but if I can project myself into some image of future pleasure... then I know I'll get through without difficulty. Having summers off gives me an easy and regular destination to travel toward. These few months of winter can take on the characteristics of an Arctic marathon. If I am not anticipating some event, it's easy to get mired in cabin fever and ennui. Every Thursday I comb the local listings to find out what there is to do over the weekend. Every week I know that I'll be drawing on Thursday night. Every other week I know I'll be drawing on Tuesday night. Every First Friday I know I'll be on Penn Avenue, checking out the new openings. And so the years pass.

No doubt all of this is why weekends take on such a momentous importance in our society. These are the sanctioned periods of leisure and relaxation. Watch the weekly procession of revelers, as they head to their favorite "watering holes" for Happy Hour. It's expected. And though I am suspicious of the sheer fun of that tantalizing proposition... I certainly understand the impulse. On the rare occasion when I go out to witness it, I sometimes get depressed at the desperate grasp for deferred enjoyment so obvious on the drunken faces of the participants. It's so obviously "time to let loose". I find myself railing against the whole idea of "work hard, play hard". It seems so empty... so reflexive... as if it's simply an extension of a robotic existence. perhaps I feel this way because this type of behavior is dictated by society. I get the same impression when I hear of people arranging their plans around a weekly TV show, or the big weekend football game. But who am I to judge others when I have my own pleasures scheduled? To each according to their own wants and abilities... right?

Anyway, I knew it was going to be tough getting through another Pittsburgh February. And while my initial impression, upon hearing that my solo had been scheduled for the harshest of months, was a lukewarm acceptance... I've come to appreciate the benefits of the timing. In all the frenzy of putting together the show, I lost track of the passage of time. Now here we are, almost halfway through the month... and I've got the culmination of my efforts directly in front of me. It's gratifying... and even more so to know that my work will hang until April 7th, when the thrill of a new spring will make everything seem brand new once again.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mark Haddon, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (2003)

Authors have shown a widespread versatility in using all sorts of first person narrators throughout literary history. The postmodern world has ushered in the era of multiple perspectives. William Faulkner blazed that trail with his classic The Sound and the Fury. In an era of expanded access to virtually everything that has ever been printed, it would be easy to believe that it's all been done. Yet Mark Haddon, in his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, was able to find a bit of novelty.

Haddon's narratorial voice is an autistic teen named Christopher. The story begins with Christopher's discovery of the death of his neighbor's dog. The hapless canine has been murdered with a garden fork, and Christopher decides that he will try to solve the mystery of the perpetrator. His father, who clearly has his hands full as the single parent of an autistic child, tries to discourage "detective work", but Christopher is not to be deterred. He writes about his explorations, and the result is the book the reader holds in his/her hands.

An autistic narrator is a reliable one, by his/her very nature. Christopher is constitutionally incapable of not telling the truth. The writing is therefore quite literal, as while an autistic person can form a simile, the use of metaphor or intentional humor is quite beyond his ability. This quality certainly makes the work a quick read. Once the intitial mysteries are solved, and additional discoveries are made, the main thrust of the book turns to a desperate flight Christopher makes to London... by himself.

I found the book to be overly predictable, but its not the plot that's meant to distinguish this book from other coming-of-age stories. What makes reading Christopher's story fascinating is the peculiar window Haddon provides on the inner life of a person with autism. The arbitrary nature of his likes and dislikes, the suffering due to overstimulus, the overreliance on logic, and the mathematical approach to understanding life's mysteries all combine to fill out a singularly interesting character. In addition Haddon provides visual representations with which Christopher renders his experiences meaningful. For the most part they jigsaw neatly with the story's thread. There are asides that seem completely off topic, yet serve to demonstrate the odd thought patterns one experiences with autism.

This strangely disjointed book was indeed curious enough to maintain my interest. Apparently it struck a chord with the masses, because it ended up being a national bestseller. That makes me wonder whether or not people chose this work based upon some perceived gimmick, or whether its reputation spread through a network of people trying to understand an affliction that has grown terribly common. In either case the book could have easily come off as exploitation. But there is a refreshing sense of realism in Haddon's writing that seems to preclude mere contrivance.

I don't know whether or not Christopher's narration is an accurate representation of the way someone with autism thinks... but it's notable that Haddon avoided a candy-coated characterization that would make us empathize too cleanly with Christopher in an "aw... shucks, isn't he special?" kind of way. He seems to have included all the dirt and hardship this fictional working class family has to endure as a result of Christopher's affliction. And Haddon avoids the sort of patronage to the political correct that might have been inavoidable had this book been written by an American, rather than a Brit.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What to do about Iraq?

Last night I had a long discussion with a progressive friend about Iraq. He posed a thorny question- regardless of how I felt about the initial invasion, how do I feel about Bush's request to get funding and Congressional approval for an additional twenty thousand troops for the "stabilization" of Iraq?

I must admit that there are no easy answers to this question, as far as I'm concerned. My opposition to troop presence is based on reasons that have remained consistent throughout the entire period of US involvement. Therefore it's impossible to arbitrarily separate my pre-war opinion from what I'd like to see happen in the present. Yet my friend believes that it is necessary. While he was absolutely opposed to the occupation initially, he is now afraid of what will happen in the region if the US pulls its troops out of Iraq. His humanitarian side thinks that we have an obligation to stay until the situation is stable- becasuse (as commonly formulated) when we "broke" it, we assumed a corresponding responsibility to "fix" it. A more practical side of him suggests that the instability of Iraq could spill over its borders and affect other nations in the region. This... my friend further believes... could cause excalating crisis conditions, with tragic implications for the entire world.

Every once in awhile I find myself leaning toward a similar formation of the problem. It's tempting to believe that an indefinitely-sustained US troop presence could somehow do something to ameliorate the terrible conditions that the Iraqis face. If nothing else, they should be capable of assisting in the provision of more than six hours of electricity per day for those in Baghdad, where the largest concentration of American power is stationed. But this hasn't happened. What we have seen is almost four years of complete incompetency and failure on the part of the Bush administration. During this time, opposition to a new Iraqi government has only escalated... despite continued increases in troop levels and spending. There have been no specific objectives outlined, no articulated long-term strategy, and seemingly no systematic approach to a diplomacy that could promise order... let alone peace.

At this point I think it would be irresponsible to encourage a perception of confidence in the Bush administration's ability to bring about an acceptable resolution to a complex conflict that is inevitably spiraling further out of control. 20,ooo more troops... for what? To delay an admission of abject failure until 2008, when the situation becomes the problem of a future executive administration. If anything, we should begin a process of phased withdrawal. Whose benefit do we serve by continuing the occupation? We are encouraging the recruitment efforts of multiple local and regional parties that fight in resistance of a foreign, occupying power. We continue to fill the coffers of defense contractors, and the rest of the United States is left to bear the increasing costs of mismanagement.

I can see the case for retaining several military bases in Iraq... for purposes of emergency response. These would be used exclusively for damage control. Otherwise, control of the country needs to be completely turned over to its people. Blowback is inevitable at this point, no matter when the United States recedes from the disaster that Bush and Co. created. If anything, the administration should beg the international community to invest resources for diplomacy and peace missions. It is a condescending form of paternalism (at best) to think that the United States has any useful answers for a devastated nation on the brink of civil war. Yes... the Bush administration created the problem, and they aren't going to be able to provide a solution. That's certainly criminal, but exacerbating the crisis by leaving it in their hands would simply be compounding the guilt. All that can be done now is to minimize the US role in causing future harm.

There are larger questions impacting the psyche and future direction of the United States. This nation is at a turning point, and must choose between retaining some semblance of a representative democracy or descending permanently into a doomed tyrannical imperialism. The internal challenges we face are so significant, that we would be foolish not to turn inward. We must begin the task of preparation if we mean to have a chance of successfully negotiating the biggest threats of the 21st century. This is not a time for the continued export of outmoded paradigms. If we face this reality now, we may have the opportunity to serve as an example in the future. Otherwise we will serve merely as an object lesson for the emerging world-powers that will soon replace us.