Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ohio, USA

Ohio, Ohio, that’s all the chattering class is talking about. The fate of our nation rests with Ohioans. We’re told that the election all comes down to these 18 electoral votes. Gazillions of dollars are being poured in for radio and TV ads; 188 million at last count. I would think a saturation point would have been reached by now where the message falls on deaf ears, irritates the listener and might work in reverse. I’m almost ready to drive there and establish residence in time to vote.

There is much to admire about Ohio, topographically, geologically and historically. The geography dictates the climate which in turn plays a part in its political leanings. The southern border is the Ohio River, with Kentucky and West Virginia on opposite shores. This is part of coal mining Appalachia and Cincinnati (a blue inner-city dot in a sea of red) Sections to the north are Blue (Akron, Cleveland, Toledo), now wooded, were covered with glaciers at one time and are termed a glaciated plateau. The central area (Columbus) has a different soil and population, roughly divided as the nation is.

According to some Ohioans there are 4 seasons: Winter, Still Winter, Almost Winter, and Construction.

Between 1877 and 1923 Ohio gave birth to seven presidents, more than any state before or since. If the country ended at the Mississippi River it would be just about in the middle but it is still regarded at the beginning of middle America. What could be more American than its claim to be the home of hamburgers, Life Savers and baseball?

When I think of Ohio several great cities come to mind, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton and Akron. Yet the capital and largest is Columbus. Amazingly, 50% of the United States population lives within a 500 mile radius of Columbus and half of all North America is within a one day drive. Is that possible?

There is a piece of history between Connecticut and Ohio, little known except, I suspect, by Ohioans. After the Revolutionary War Connecticut claimed a strip of land extending into Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and eight other states, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They called it their Western Reserve. To pay off war debts they relinquished the land however a chunk in northeast Ohio, once called New Connecticut, still retains institutions with that name. One such is Case Western Reserve University. Moses Cleaveland headed the team of surveyors in 1785. The “a’ was dropped from his name when they named the city of Cleveland on Lake Erie, after him.

The major cities vote Democrat and have mayors and Congressmen of that party yet the state legislature is weighted with Repubs. Senators are often split. At one time Ohio had 26 electoral votes but has been in decline since 1968. They don’t call it a Rust Belt state for nothing. It has voted for the winning candidate all but twice in the past 100 years. Winning Ohio is regarded as essential for Romney. No Republican has ever been elected without it but Obama has other paths to reach 271 electoral votes.  It is, in a way, a microcosm of our whole country, sharply divided on urban / suburban / rural lines. With the Republicans in charge of polling places, early voting and their playbook of dirty tricks this election could well hinge on provisional ballots which are counted on the 17th. We may not know for a while whether to whoop it up or go into mourning.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Scale

In those days there was always a scale. A mortar & pestle, ointment slab and a torsion balance scale. A drugstore was unimaginable without it, like a barber without scissors or a shoemaker without nails in his mouth smelling of glue.

I watched my father place weighing papers on each side, adjust the bar until the sides balanced, then tap powder from an apothecary jar; sometimes it was crystalline granules, sometimes more powdery or it could have been black and gooey like ichthammol. I saw him finesse the spatula, remove a smidge, add back a half-smidge.

On the other side he placed weights, grains  and scruples. The apothecary system, before metric, was still in use.  It was a vestige from ancient times when pharmacists were sorcerers, bark and berry-pickers, shamans and alchemists, when potions brewed in smoky cauldrons, eye of newt, feather of finch.

When he opened any jar a breath of the old world escaped.  Flowers of sulfur bloomed.  Ammonia mingled with camphor, aloe with fennel. There were leaves macerating, volatile oils in the air. They would cling to his smock and his pores. I inhaled a lungful. It has lodged in my memory vault safe from this deodorized world.

My father weighed and measured everything and not only when he presided between globes of colored water. He calculated benefits of doing against risk of refusing, as if the scale was in front of him. I don’t know if that deliberation was an extension of his pharmacy, or if he brought it in with him. 

In his quiet passion he ground Nazis into dust with his pestle. He carried immiscible voices inside himself, vehemence and containment, unsayable curses and hummed songs. With an enormous silence he balanced the scale.

There was an incoherent complaint addressed to the world bellowing from my mother which he swallowed. He converted it to a hidden fist against racism and the ruling class. Yet he could neither overthrow the government or my mother. The effort to keep the scale at equipoise was his special grace.

The air he gave off was equal parts resignation and the assertion of a low decibel rage with competing vapors from elixirs and fluidextracts. It was as if fetid rhizomes and pungent roots were vying against odiferous buds and intoxicating herbs, having reached some conciliation.      

That indefinable drugstore smell may be the exhalation of natural forces. Dank, serpentine shoots that live unseen in deep soil, cut, dried and triturated with sun-soaked tendrils ever-climbing and their stored breath released.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Night In Court With The Supremes

Wasn’t that Franz Kafka being dragged out as I was coming in?

I rise to plead my case facing the robed justices behind polished wood. I cite Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v Wade and Bush v Gore but I still haven’t any idea what I am arguing.  My words are garbled. It doesn’t seem to matter because the justices aren’t listening, having already made up their minds. There is no courtly love in this court, not since Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband, Marty, died two years ago. He was the gourmet cook who probably turned Antonin Scalia from a medium to an extra large. He hasn’t exploded yet except with his acerbic tongue.

No longer are nine justices visible. Clarence Thomas has leaned his chair so far back, to catch up on his sleep, that he is parallel to the ceiling and out of view. Justice Ginsberg, at 4 ft. 11 inches, is slouching a bit and has disappeared below the bench. The remaining seven have forgotten I am here, all except for Nino Scalia. He wears a bumper sticker on his forehead and a Tea Party T-shirt under his robe. I can hear him think how my short-sleeve shirt is further proof that the second amendment grants everyone the right to bare arms.

Anthony Kennedy is seething because John Roberts has usurped his former role as the celebrity swing vote. Kennedy is now under Samuel Alito’s spell which has him programmed to shout out some epithet about broccoli during Obama’s next State of the Union address.

Is that Elena Kagen, a Manhattanite, and Sonia Sotomayor, from the Bronx, planning their dissent? Along with Ginsberg, from Brooklyn, they will meet on the subway, take in an opera, play a little softball and get to work. If I'm sliding into second base I want these three women as my umps.

I overhear justices Breyer and Ginsberg comparing their resignation letters. Both are fed up with the Court's drift to the right. They have their letters waiting in draft trusting Obama will be the one to make the call replacing them.

Scalia calls himself an Originalist. He regards the Constitution, like the Bible, as etched in stone, dead as the moose head on his wall. He devoutly believes our Founders’ words fell from the firmament, divinely inspired, including the way they abdicated suffrage rights to the states which limited the vote to propertied white men. I point out that in our first election the turn-out was 1.3% of the population. Our Founders elected our Founders. Irrelevant, he says. Ask any fertilized egg-person at conception. Ask any multi-national corporation-person. Ask me, Nino.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Consumer Politics

Americans are nothing if not consumers. Not only do we love to buy gadgetry, cars, and houses but we have come to think like consumers. Choices are weighed as if everything is a commodity. We buy into an image, a project, an idea and we cultivate a persona to sell ourselves.

There must be more to life than having everything. (M. Sendak)

We even approach elections, the market-place of ideas, with a similar mind-set. The candidates become salespersons offering themselves for consumption. We, in turn, gobble up the messenger as much as the message. We sniff out their sales pitch for deceit or empty rhetoric. I think we over-estimate our sniffer and get  less than we bargained for.

Three characteristics come to mind which seem to me more pronounced now than ever before, passivity, instant gratification and external thinking. If only I had this then I could do that. It has been suggested that it robs us of our creativity which comes from within. A consumer-based society is self-serving and insatiable.

We have become spectators to these debates the same way we watch a football game from the couch. Points are scored, gaffes noted, aggression is admired just short of hostility. Sportsmanship marked by civility and grace wins points as long as it isn’t perceived as weakness. We demand satisfaction. In short, it is theater. Performance trumps programs.

In last night’s vice-presidential encounter both candidates articulated their party’s position. They clashed as their principles clash. The faithful walked away satisfied that no ground was ceded. Who knows what the fickle few were shopping for? Were they looking for an imagined drinking buddy? Would they buy a car from this guy or that one? 

Does a debate offer us a glimpse of how decisions are made? I don’t buy it. Today’s version of the Repugnant party is characterized by fear and loathing. George W Bush got reelected by creating a climate of an imminent terrorist threat. His muscular foreign policy sent troops abroad with losses exceeding 9/11. Yet he presented himself as a benign fool. If the Bush years were a used car lot we bought a lemon.

Ultimately democracy relies on informed participation. To the extent that these debates promote a consumerist passivity they do a disservice. Perhaps they arouse the respective bases but how are the numbers moved in polling? I fear low-info voters, if they watch at all, are swayed by superficial images of frowns and smiles, posture and delivery rather than substance and veracity. Under the chrome and polish there’s an engine. One party is inclusive and will deliver us broad-based security, healthcare and common sense; the other will move us counter-clockwise and drive off-shore to the Cayman Islands.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Are we over the first debate yet? Not quite. The benefit of time and subsequent shocks and awes will bury the memory, Republican euphoria and Democratic dejection. However what lingers for me aside from the feeble presence of Obama is the emergence of the new Mitt. Obama was not prepared for this sudden transmogrification. It isn’t only that the president played softball fouling off pitches right down the middle while Romney played hardball. What happened was that Obama didn’t recognize Mitt’s newly reconstituted lying and denying persona.

Up until now Romney has campaigned against a fabricated Obama of his own making, a convenient straw-man who is lazy, not one-of-us, a Socialist–Muslim, who has expanded government and done away with the work requirement for welfare recipients. They blamed him for every ill in our times except, perhaps, the BP oil spill.

Now the race has come down to the old Mitt versus the new version. The previous guy had to feed the beast that is the Republican base, the party of unreason, of 19th century racism and Nativism who scream of sacred life at conception but only until birth, the proto-fascists who seek to suppress the vote. These are the American Taliban whose fundamentalism is no less male chauvinist.  You want assault weapons? Mitt’s for that. No regulations? Why not? No taxes? Where do I sign the pledge?  47% of us are grubbers. He spoke the speak and danced their dance.

And now, forget all that. He didn’t really say it….or mean it or he mis-spoke or was quoted out of context. He now most certainly believes in government regulations, in healthcare reform with a mandate. He now supports the Dream Act. He may even favor a jobs bill which his party has blocked repeatedly in Congress. How will this play in Dallas and Baton-Rouge? Wait till the Koch brothers hear about this.     

I don’t want to overstate the case. Basic differences remain even if the rhetorical tone has been softened. He is still the man of many hyphens… out-source, off-shore, flip-flop and out-of-touch. All his fancy dancing didn’t change the stripes. He objects to supporting NPR by allegedly having China write the check (0.01% of the budget) but has no qualms maintaining a bloated Pentagon of 2 trillion Chinese dollars. Does China know they are also paying for our weaponry?

Humans are complex. We have some of Hamlet in us. Indecision, ambiguity, equivocation are all part of our complex nature. We evolve and we devolve. Justice Black renounced the KKK becoming a New Dealer while Justice White dissented on Roe v Wade and drifted to the Right. But Mitt rewrites the soliloquy; he will both Be AND Not Be, depending upon the audience. He might as well debate himself. As Groucho quipped, These are my principles; if you don’t like them I have others.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Spinning A Bad Night

To paraphrase Gore Vidal, 50% of the American people don't vote and 50% are ill-informed. One hopes it’s the same 50%.        

Now we know it is not altogether the same fifty percent. Many avid voters are among the most misinformed. If they kept up with the two campaigns they would have known Romney disowned himself in the first presidential debate of the season. What we witnessed was a quick-change artist who morphed from that guy positioning himself to the right of Bachman, Perry, Cain and Gingrich to the new version of moderate centrist. The robot delivered his lines like the seasoned actor he is.

My sense of the first presidential debate was that both candidates ignored their base and addressed this nebulous body of fickle fence-sitters. Mitt fared better not from anything he said but from what Obama didn’t say.

So much of these events is political theater. If the sound were muted the president was a clear loser. He appeared alternately bored, tired and testy. Maybe it was the altitude, more likely, his strategy gone amok. His body language appeared to be of a man bamboozled and ill-prepared. If he was deliberately trying to be the conciliator, above the fray, avoiding a combative mode, the tactic failed. He looked scolded and demeaned.

Then there is the bubble effect. The president needs to get out more, watch cable news, have a pint at the pub, get into conversation in crowded elevators. If he wants to play basketball go to the public park. Dump Axelrod unless he can disagree with you twice a day, mandate it. Watch Fox News the same way a football coach views film of next week’s opponent. Learn when to expect a blitz, when to call audibles. The best offense is not a defense. It’s an offense.

We saw Obama reprise his role with Boehner and McConnell, ever the conciliator, withholding use of his arsenal. The chattering class on the left was left smoldering. Maybe the Tea Partiers felt the same as Mitt took on his new guise. I don’t know and I don’t know anybody to ask. It could be that the trouncing was only in the eyes of the decideds; maybe Obama won over a few who admired his constraint. The price was too high. We know you're a nice guy; we need more.

Memo to the Prez: Consider your left flank. We can win without compromising core values. We need you to articulate your accomplishments and call out Republican sedition with their congressional obstruction and allegiance to Grover Norquist. We need you to find new language to expose the virulent misogyny of the Republican Party and their attempts at voter suppression. We are waiting for you to assert the Democratic platform in terms of sensible gun laws, gay and lesbian rights, advocacy of the Dream Act and environmental protection.