Monday, November 28, 2005

A Friend Indeed

A friend in need is a friend indeed, the saying goes, and this weekend I learned how true this is.

Saturday morning I experienced severe chest pains and was briefly hospitalized for what seemed to be a cardiac problem but turned out, thankfully, to be something quite different and treatable at home with medication. The interesting thing was the reaction of people close to me.

Not realizing quite what the pain was, and insistent on doing what others wanted me to do that day, I drove a young relative to his noon train out of town, a friend to a manicure and picked up another friend at one of our airports.

As I drove in pain, occasionally wincing and sighing, the first spoke of downpayments to buy real estate. I attribute his response to his 20-something youth. It takes age to respond with empathy to another's needs.

Still driving in pain, the second, manicure-bound friend, who had expressed concern about the youth missing the train when I called her about my pain, lamented that she wished she knew what to do.

The third friend, at last, began to tell the usual story of her flight and stopped in mid-sentence at my first wince ... "what's the matter?" From then on she lavished concern, empathy, and helped me navigate through the medical system.

If this were a parable, the storyteller might then ask, who was the friend indeed. Most readers won't need to think much about this.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

All things counter, original, spare

When Gerard Manley Hopkins thought of things to be thankful for, he composed an odd list:

"For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

"All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim ..."

I won't dare match him. Here's a more mundane, less pastoral list. I am thankful for:

the people who wake up earlier than me
to turn on running water and electricity and city buses and taxis
and traffic lights and traffic,
all so I can commute to work;

the privilege of being able to complain
about commuting to work
in one of the world's most
comfortable, green, designed cities;

novels (LeCarre, Crichton, Asis, Kazanzakis) and
The New Yorker and America and the nights
whiled away
absorbed in them;

Ludwig, my teenage Benz,
in whom the aesthetics of form and function
express the beauty of human minds;

Earl, may his karma keep on growing,
and Ephram and Amy, may they find true love,
and Luka and Abby, who may have found it,
and Bree and Susan, who will desperately keep searching;

those people important to me, you know who you are,
even if you've walked out on me,
or I've pushed you away,
or we haven't yet figured out
how to love and be loved.

That's it. Pass the pumpkin pie.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lapwing vs. Christians

The sheer mean spirit in which some responses to my last blog were written reinforces my point: Jesus may have been a nice guy, but you can keep his followers.

And no, the same is not true of all other religions.

Ariel Sharon and Meyer Lansky aside, most people will be hard put to find Jewish authors of murder.

Muslim caliphs were more tolerant of the "People of the Book" than the Christian kings of medieval England and renaissance Spain, both of whom expelled Jews, to the point that for 500 years under Muslim rule in the Balkans and the Mediterranean both Christians and Jews flourished.

Hindus are by teaching syncretistic. They have been more apt to absorb from other religions than to persecute. Granted, the British taught them a lot about ethnic hatred.

And where is the Buddhist massacre or slum or child-raping monk?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jesus vs. Christianity

What are we to make of the differences between the Jesus of the gospels, setting aside the historical questions, and the Christian religion?

Jesus presents himself as a charismatic rabbi who gives ambiguous signals concerning his own identity; Christianity asserts Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.

Jesus preaches a divine order that upturns the human order, particularly as regards socioeconomic privilege; Christianity feebly affirms almsgiving and sets up specialists of charitable doing, but entreats the bulk of its adherents to submit to the existing, unjust human order.

According to Jesus, religious ritual is almost invariably of secondary moral significance in a follower's way of life outside worship, in particular in relation to human needs; Christianity has developed elaborate rituals, rubrics and sacramental theologies and even sets apart its ritual leaders, creating a Sunday religion of empty gestures.

Jesus asserts that peacemakers are blessed and that if someone strikes your cheek, you should offer the other cheek to be stricken as well; Christianity blesses armies and the right to wage wars called "just."

Jesus tells his followers to rejoice in persecution; Christianity has persecuted those who do not adhere to its beliefs or its ecclesiastical rules and regulations.

Jesus in the gospels comes across as an impressive charismatic figure who nonetheless leaves the observer stunned, puzzled and thinking. Christianity comes across as a religion that provides some an entertainment to distract masses from the struggles of reality.

This fellow Jesus seems at least worth considering. Christianity, on the other hand, leaves a great deal to be desired.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In Memoriam

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange:
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark! Now I hear them,
Ding-dong, bell!

-- William Shakespeare

In memory of my father (1921-1980), who died Nov. 15.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Don't Cry For Me, Mar del Plata

Mar del Plata, known to Argentines as "La Ciudad Feliz" (The Happy City), became an unhappy place last week. The middle class resort of choice for roughly a century hosted a summit conference on trade and a popular stadium rally to decry the globalization of greed for the few and poverty for the many. The metropolis also became the site for the overshadowing violent acts of a few who seem unconnected to either peaceful assembly.

Who were these rowdies and why were they there?

My Argentine sources tell me this is part and parcel of what has been going on for several years at least. The party or candidate most likely to benefit from the appearance of disorder hires a bunch of thugs to go smash things while political events are going on. Citizens engaged in the peaceful expression of grievances get branded as "violent," when in fact the violence comes from the established order.

Agents provocateurs.

The French is not incidental. The use of agents paid to provoke violence, to "force" the hand of the law to come down with its full complement of counterviolence, was first documented in the 19th century uprisings in France, in which the government sent spies to falsely radicalize action and create an excuse for repression.

If Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, it is because Argentina has long been influenced by the styles of France, in politics as in fashion. Peronists, in particular, with a history leading back to the radical right of the 1930s, have always employed thugs; and their example has been emulated by other segments of the political spectrum.

In this case, however, the Peronists had nothing to gain. President Kirchner, a left-of-center Peronist, was not impressed with the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Nor are his colleagues in Brazil, Uruguay or Venezuela, to name a few.) A peaceful protest was enough to provide the symbolic popular sentiment against FTAA to justify his opposition.

Someone else stood to gain from violent disruptions.

A U.S. president who knows nothing about policy, except what his svengalis whisper to him, had sat in on the deliberations of 33 heads of state looking bored and annoyed that everyone was not praising and applauding him. The FTAA, his proposal, fell so flat that it failed resoundingly, despite diplomatic efforts to paper over that fact. Indeed, the conference was such a disaster that President Bush hastily and rudely departed before the summit had ended.

How difficult can it have been for the CIA chief of station in Buenos Aires to make a few calls and get a truckload of rowdies in the streets of Mar del Plata?

What a convenient smokescreen for yet another Bush foreign policy failure! The violence created at last the pretext for repression. A city that was already under siege (schools were closed and half the city was walled off from the summit proceedings) witnessed a violent police response and the predictable deaths.

The violence, not the lawful protest nor the trade summit failure, became the leading item in the news cycle. The 30-second attention span of the public was distracted from the truth. No one will ever know.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dan Quayle eyes

Hitting a deer's rump with a car makes such a loud noise. A thump that's more than a thump, but just short of an explosion.

You wonder what's broken. You're amazed that the animal gets up and walks away.

Then you stop. Later on. Where you can stop safely.

You'd swerved. You almost missed the animal. A few inches more and it would have been a clean getaway for both of you.

The headlight on the side that nicked the deer is smashed to smithereens. How did the deer do that and walk away?

You think of the deer's eyes ... Dan Quayle eyes ... eyes caught in a headlight. You'd honked. You swerved, you braked. You almost killed yourself.

Damned car! Should've walked.

Friday, November 04, 2005


"The number you have dialed has been disconnected," the recording said. Can't be. That number worked for 40 years.

Roofers called to say they were on their way. A bolt of shivers -- the dreaded aunt! -- struck every diner's spine when the phone rang Sundays, the roast beef served. Canvassers called for Jimmy Carter. Aimless hours of murmurings caressed lovers' ears.

All these ran through the lines that reach the black bakelite telephones. Do they still belong to the telephone company? Probably. Who knows!

The roofers never came. The aunt is dead. Jimmy's gone on from the White House to build your house, especially if you're poor. The lovers, well ...

More things change, the French say, the more they stay the same: Plus ça change, plus la même chose. It's not true.

She died. The house has been emptied out. The phone's been disconnected.