In my lifetime it has seemed to me that American political anger is pretty much a constant. From time to time that anger finds a candidate. From time to time that anger also finds and takes down an incumbent or two—or fifty. In fact political incumbency seems threatened right now in 2010. Certainly unease from the persistent economic downturn would bedevil any sitting president. But looking down through history it seems there’s a kind of buyer’s remorse at work in American politics. A landslide for a president can become a slide in the polls and even the loss of control of congress in just 2 years. The landslide mandate for change becomes a cloud of anti-government anger in the short time it takes to get to the so-called “off-year elections.”
Back in high school when I was utterly clueless about what I might do for a living I thought about being an actor. I had done numerous plays in the local community theatre in Western Michigan, where I went to high school. I was the lead in our high school musical. I played a Greek guy, Zorba the Greek, in fact, in the Kander and Ebb show, "Zorba." The opening song from that show was “Life is…” The first line, “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,” is a compelling, if questionable concept for a kid in high school thinking about what he might do when he grows up.
Andre Agassi talked to us this morning, and while I generally have little or no interest in what memoir-hawking celebrities have to say, he talked about something that surprised me. Yes, his life story is all about his tough father and the agony of being a tennis prodigy urged on by an ambitious parent. He told a great story about how his dad put 9-year-old Andre up to a game against sports legend Jim Brown years ago on a ten thousand dollar bet, the family’s life savings.
I asked Agassi whether the frustration over his own life has parallels with grown up golf prodigy Tiger Wood’s current struggles. Agassi guardedly said that he understood how living in a bubble created by stardom can lead to bad choices. Then a few moments later, while talking about the boarding school he created in his hometown of Las Vegas, he said that the most important thing in life is choices. “Education is about choices,” Andre Agassi told us and he openly wished he had made more conscious choices in his own life. It made me think about my goals as a parent.
It was spooky.
I listened to President Obama's speech from the Oval Office and it seemed less like an announcement of an important historical moment (the ending of combat operations in Iraq) than a laundry list of stuff we all know is going on. We all know the war is over yet there are still 50 thousand troops in Iraq. We all know there is a surge of fighting in Afghanistan, and we know that the economy is still in trouble. The president sounded like someone who had just sworn off some questionable behavior, trying to turn the page knowing that he'll be living the consequences of his past actions for some time to come. Or maybe it was like the lament of some heartbroken soul watching another relationship go down the tubes hoping for the best next time around. In short, the speech had the zinging, upbeat, optimism of say, a Hank Williams country tune.
I just spoke with a hopeful banker on the show and it really brightened my day. Hartie Spence is the President and CEO of Lakeside Bank in Louisiana. That may sound a little more impressive than the reality of Mr. Spence’s new gig, but then most banks have tortured metaphorical names like “First Federal Mutual Providential Acceptance Savings Bank and Trust Company,” designed to reassure people about the safety of their money.
My college roommate died sadly and horribly in the fall of 2004. He had done something heroic and to my mind incomprehensible earlier that year when he donated a kidney to his sick nephew. My old friend Bob was in perfect health, in the prime of life. He loved to race cars, and was a Porsche fanatic. In school he had a Lancia Scorpion two-seater and an old BMW 2002. He was a world class car nut and his sense of risk was born out of taking 25 mile an hour street curves at 70 mph without hitting the brakes. He knew how to do a drift U turn without breaking a sweat. He was a brilliant physicist and could explain his driving excesses in calm momentum equations. Bob knew what was safe and what was not. So when he donated his kidney I couldn’t imagine anything going wrong.
Every Chilean knows these words:
I go Voy
I come back Vengo
I climb up Subo
I climb down Bajo
What’s it for Todo para qué
Nothing for me Nada para mi
They are from “A Miner’s Song” written by political martyr Victor Jara in 1961. It’s now the anthem of the 33 miners trapped below ground in that copper and gold mine in Northern Chile. They can’t be freed for months and are subsisting on morsels of food and rationing their minds in a regime of self imposed tasks, cleaning, walking, talking. Trying to create a structure to a life in the dark below ground. The song has a famous, if sobering, stanza: I am a miner, I go to the mine, I go to death, I am a miner. “A la muerte voy.” The people of Chile know what is at stake here and it’s partly why the whole nation is down by that mine imagining what they might be doing if they were in this dark place cut off from everyone they love, from life itself.
We talked this morning about the loss of so-called “indigenous cultures” in our series, "The End." The fact that industrialization is driving certain cultures to extinction isn't new. However, in our globalized world, what constitutes preserving cultural traditions that are under threat? Is the world to embark on a kind of super sequestration of everything indigenous to keep it isolated from what might change it? Under this model the planet becomes a giant museum, with walls between gawking real people and the preserved “exhibits.” There is also a second model where the changing and mixing of cultural identities becomes a kind of preservation. We may lose certain tribes in the Amazon, in that they no longer live there, but do we lose everything about them?
I was checking in on a number of promos and announcements of upcoming “Katrina 5 years after” specials on networks and in print while I was away. In a sense, the destruction and horror of those days in the Gulf can’t be recreated in mere pictures. The frustration of outraged reporters screaming about FEMA inaction, the images of people stranded on roofs, the armed troops enforcing martial law, seem like disembodied moments that don’t connect. They are horrible reminders certainly, but to me, who experienced Katrina far from the disaster, they are like dots in an emptiness of memory. People who actually lived through Katrina’s devastation can probably recall their own desperate experiences more readily than I can recall those days of late August 2005. But vivid feelings do rush back.
Rosanne Cash gave me a wonderful thought to carry with me next week on vacation. Her really wonderful book about some of her most difficult moments is titled “Compose.” In that book she claims that the making of art from tragedy and misfortune involves being lucky. If true, then Rosanne Cash has found much good luck in the midst of some bad moments.
A right to food as a matter of constitutional principle is being proposed in India, which has a population of hungry people that exceeds the population of most whole nations. 421 million chronically hungry people in the world’s largest democracy are not only a gigantic political constituency but also a staggering health problem. India is acknowledged to have the largest population of hungry people in the world and it’s not immediately clear how granting a legal right to food will change this troubling reality. India’s proposal for a constitutional right to food provokes a discussion of how the nature of political rights differs from how we approach biological necessity.
You can’t run away from home when you are a teen without chucking your life off a cliff in most cases. But you can drop out of sight by finding a good book and escaping to a world of adventures, exotic places or even characters that seem to understand you better than your own parents. I ran away to Paris in A Tale of Two Cities back in my teens. I also escaped to the wilderness in Jack London’s White Fang. I lived in a cave for a year in My Side of the Mountain. The depth of the immersion was what attracted me to these great stories. My kids are finding the same escapes. Yesterday, at one point, all four of my readers at home were plopped down on the floor or the couch lost in some book. My big girls love dark dramas and long novels. They gobbled up To Kill a Mockingbird this summer and there were quotes and impressions of Atticus and Scout dropping everywhere. My little guys like humorous books or kid detectives and adventurers who generally outsmart the adults in their lives. This summer it’s a house full of runaways and readers at the Hockenberry home.
The 1958 film “Touch of Evil” was a work of genius from Orson Welles. His character of the corrupt and essentially racist American Police Captain Hank Quinlan was one of the truly evil characters in all of cinema. On the other hand, Charlton Heston’s role as Mexican diplomat, Miguel Vargas who is married to an American bombshell “Susie,” played by actress Janet Leigh, was a laughable piece of Hollywood casting seen from today. Actor Benicio del Toro might be more credible or even Javier Bardem if they ever remake “Touch of Evil”. But the curious power and absurdity of “Touch of Evil,” which was set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, is that it tells a story which mirrors the brutality we see on the border today. “Touch of Evil” could have been set in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas; and novelist, Whit Masterson might have loved the name “Murder City” for Juarez. But that name is more of a descriptive fact than a flight of fancy today.
The Gulf of Mexico/BP oil spill was the top story worldwide for weeks after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. Fixing it was a live media event. A video feed from the gushing blowout preventer was a constant presence on cable television shows. Stock traders seemed to buy or unload BP stock depending on the status of the man-made machines below the waters.
The case of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay detention center focuses our attention on the tension between the passage of time and the apparent difficulty in a political democracy to reconcile issues of security and justice. We, in America, can debate endlessly the potential danger of detainees being allowed to return home or being a threat to the U.S. in future terrorist attacks. We can choose continually to defer to the idea of caution by keeping suspects in prison while we work out the rules for their adjudication. What we cannot do, however, is be certain that our intentions are, by definition, benign or that the only outcome of these cases is some verdict: guilty or not-guilty.
Two stories with medical angles find their way intersecting in my life this morning. I’m not so interested in dwelling on my personal biographical details but our conversation with the world’s first “test tube baby,” now a first time mom, and two people involved in the drama and miracle of premature babies these days sure got me thinking.
I suppose she could have told those kinds of stories. But it was what she said about a simple banana that blew me away.
"It doesn’t really matter what you do with the BP oil,” said environmental activist, journalist and writer Bill McKibben. He said as much to us when we talked to him right as the scale of the BP oil gusher was becoming clear. McKibben’s point was to compare the difference between the effect of just allowing the BP oil to bleed into the gulf unchecked to just burning it as would have happened in cars and power plants if there had been no leak and the oil just joined the huge river of carbon fuel consumption.
All it took was the threat of oil hitting the white beaches of Florida to reignite the political fortunes of Gov. Charlie Crist. Once counted out in the polls and basically chased out of his own party, the now independent Crist is the frontrunner.
20 years ago, history began. Saddam Hussein’s wrong bet on the West – when he invaded Kuwait and assumed the rest of the world would shrug – set everything in motion that we still see unfolding today. The Cold War narrative of European history was ending. The Cold War was the last act of an unraveling of the Napoleonic demons of European History. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was the inauguration of a different narrative.