Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sent from my iPod at 3:45 in the morning

Tonight, as I am about to climb into bed, I have a song in my head.

It's Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" which I heard today while watching The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on TV. In the darkness, as I change clothes, I listen to this mental background music and my son's slight asthmatic wheeze. He's in our bed because we have house guests, and they're in his room. I don't realize that my wife has moved to the floor. My son must have been tossing and turning quite a bit to take over the queen-sized while I wrote downstairs, his revenge for being displaced. His tossing and turning won't have any effect on me once I reach my usual near-coma state of sleep.

Before I climb in next to him , I suddenly realize I've unconsciously replaced the word "Peace" with "Sleep".

Yes, I'm climbing on the sleep train.

Sounds nice.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tennessee's Free-Market Utopia Fire

If you haven't heard the story yet, some firefighters in Tennessee showed up to a burning house, found that the owner hadn't paid the annual $75 fee for fire protection, and watched as his house burned to the ground. Besides all the family's belongings, there were three puppies inside.

I don't fault the firefighters. They were following procedure, and under that kind of system, if they put out fires for people who didn't pay, no one would. But that's the problem. It's a thoroughly crappy system. I'll bet more than one of those firefighters was thinking the very same thing as they stood there and watched a house burn down.

Now, you're expecting me to write that this isolated (and admittedly strange) incident points to a larger issue. I won't disappoint. Because this not only points to a larger issue, but specifically refutes a whole line of argument used by anti-tax activists. When people talk about cutting taxes, without fail, they say "waste, fraud, and abuse". The line is used so much that, at the O'Donnell vs. Coons debate for the Delaware senate seat, Wolf Blitzer asked Christine O'Donnell what she'd cut from federal spending and specifically added, "And don't just say waste, fraud and abuse, because everybody says that." (She said she'd cut "waste, fraud, and abuse.")

People like me say, "Be specific. Do you consider public education waste, fraud, or abuse? What about police protection? What about firefighters?"

"No, of course not," we're told. "I mean those other things. The carpet in the statehouse was too expensive. And over here is a guy who is cheating the system to get disability when he seems fine to me. And that public education campaign got one billboard more than was necessary. It all adds up, you know."

And it does. But never to the total these folks want to cut taxes. For example, letting the Bush tax cuts expire would add 3 trillion dollars to the annual budget of the federal government. That's 3,000,000,000,000. 3 million millions. That's $3258 per man, woman, and child. Mostly paid by the top 2% who would still be paying less than they paid under that Robin Hood socialist Ronald Reagan. It would take a lot of cheap carpet, eliminated billboards, and prosecuted fraudulent disability recipients to acquire that amount of money. But it could sure teach a lot of kids, put a lot more cops on the streets, and put out a lot of fires in rural Tennessee.

The Tennesee example shows that the anti-tax jihadists aren't really interested in balancing the budget. That's a red herring. If they were, you'd see Tea Party candidates talking about cutting military spending, Medicare, and Social Security. According to the non-partisan CBO, that's the only way to balance the budget. You could cut all non-discretionary spending and only leave those three programs, and we'd be in the red forever. Read that again. Forever. There just isn't enough coming in to cover the costs of our military and our aging (and increasingly long-lived and medically treated) population. But how many Tea Party candidates will acknowledged this? None. Zip. Rand Paul did before he got out of the primaries. Then the sacred cows became sacred again. But the most holy of holies, the desire to cut taxes for the rich, remains intact, too. And mathematical reality cannot kill either one.

So if these folks aren't really serious about balancing the budget, what do they really want? They'd be the first to tell you that "utopianism" is a bad thing, the origin of progressivism and socialism and all their favorite boogie-men. But if you dangle the notion of a free-market utopia, they salivate. This was one of the dreams of the Bush team: When Saddam was gone, they'd have a sandbox in which to play out this free-market utopia fantasy. It would be great. Adam Smith's invisible hand would rule this new nation, and it would do the work of bringing about democracy and the rule of law because Iraqis would see that these things were in their financial best interest. Paul Bremer's "de-Baathification" program, which was ostensibly designed to get all Saddam loyalists out of the government, was directly connected to turning all kinds of government programs over to private (mostly foreign) companies. Sure, these disaffected former civil servants would run off to join the insurgency and wage a war that would cost U.S. taxpayers over 750 billion dollars (that's a thousand millions, or over $2,400 per man, woman, and child in the U.S.), but a lot of private businesses would make billions in return, and that would eventually sort itself out in the wash. The bloody, bloody wash. And if, in the end, the 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and 4425 U.S. service members think the cost is too high, well, there's a guy in rural Tennessee who can tell you that you'd better figure out how to pay for a free-market utopia or about half this country will tell you it's your own damned fault.

But why stop at Iraq? Please, please, pick yourself up a copy of Max Berry's novel "Jennifer Government". It's a truly great book, entertaining, funny, fast paced and full of memorable characters and lots of action. It's also the haunting picture of a true free-market utopia. In it, the Nike company decides the best way to get some street cred for their newest shoe line is to hire a mercenary to shoot up some kids waiting in line to buy them. The protagonist, who, like everyone else, takes on the last name of the private company for whom she is currently working, is Jennifer Government. Of course, the privatized government can't just offer an FBI investigation for free using tax payer funds. It's a private company with a bottom line now, too. So Jennifer has to go to the parents of the victims and ask them to pay for her investigation. If she successfully find the killers they will be able to sue them in civil court and may be able to recoup their costs. If not, well, them's the breaks in a free-market utopia. I haven't ruined anything. In fact, I could tell you that her investigation will ultimately lead to a full-on war between Burger King and McDonald's, using the privatized mercenary forces of the U.S. Army and the NRA to wage their war in the streets of the U.S., and I still won't have ruined the book.

Buy a copy.

Enjoy it.

And then tell me it doesn't make you think twice about a strange case of fee-for-service fire protection in rural Tennessee.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Strange Sunday of Marathons and Existential Dread

Today has been a strange day. Strange in that it does not cohere, does not congeal into a narrative the way we like our days to behave. Most days are well behaved. Our routine makes them so. We wake, we dress, we look at the clock four times more than is necessary to see that we are not running late. Those of you lucky enough to have hair are unlucky enough to have to brush it. Then we commute, we work, we commute again. A spouse or parent or child thoughtfully asks us for the story of our day and we tell the abridged version prematurely. Then the next third or half of the day begins. Perhaps you, like my wife, change clothes again. Or maybe, like me, you loosen your tie, un-tuck your shirt, and affect a style that is the mullet of the middle aged professional: We work hard, and we play hard, it says. Only we don't, most of us. We watch our news or cartoons or game shows according to our predetermined age and demographic. At some point we eat, maybe with family at a dinette table, maybe on the couch, maybe standing in the kitchen as close to the microwave and sink full of dirty dishes as possible. At some point we realize that the story of our day needs a climax, and if it isn't provided by a favorite prime time show we check the internet for some email that isn't spam or call a distant friend or look for someone closer to kiss goodnight. And then the story resolves into sleep, with perhaps that epilogue of a bad dream or an anxious waking to double check the alarm clock before it wakes us and calls for our attention four more times the next morning. That is the plot of the day. That is a day that has behaved.

But today has been unruly. First of all, it had the temerity to start on a Sunday. That makes me immediately uncomfortable because I stopped going to church over a year ago and haven't figured out a defined routine for professed agnostics. I usually try to avoid this discomfort by writing until three or four in the morning (my worship, confession, and communion hour, I suppose), then sleeping as late as my wife and son will allow. But today was the Portland Marathon, and we had friends and family running, so we woke early, dressed for the predictable Portland rain (it didn't disappoint), an drove an hour and a half before I usually wake up. We made it in time to cheer on one of my best friends. When I shouted his name he was so focused, and I was so bundled in a coat, a sweatshirt, and a stocking cap, that he looked at me with utter incomprehension that verged on anger. It was a look that said, “Who the f*&% is this idiot?” He quickly recovered and apologized for not recognizing me while still on the run, which was above and beyond the call of duty, but that look was unsettling and fit the tone of the day.

We cheered on our other friend, then met up with my brother-in-law and nephews to cheer for my sister-in-law. The enormity of these runners’ accomplishment was both impressive and humbling. Not only can I not do what they were doing, but I honestly don’t believe I ever could. Sure, my body is capable of training for it, and I have the time and means, but I don’t have the necessary willpower to adopt that kind of discipline. It’s just not in me. Realizing that is a bit depressing. Stupid Sunday.

We came home after lunch with the family. On the way up we’d listened to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and on the way back we listened to The Bugle, two of my favorite podcasts which tap into my preferred vein of humor: irreverence at the current state of the world. These are the kinds of shows that I tell my students about only if they are knowledgeable about current events. Still, while the shows lighten my mood, in the context of the realization about my own lack of willpower they made me feel guilty about my cynicism. I can’t even train to run a marathon. What right do I have to laugh at the world?

When we got home I took a long nap. Apparently I can be exhausted just by watching a marathon. When I awoke I took care of some household business, and then we put my son to bed. We’re past the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but my son interrupted tonight’s reading of the story’s denouement to ask about one of the character’s deaths, and where people go when they die. This was a tricky moment for two parents, one of whom is a Christian and one an agnostic. I tried to explain that our bodies are buried, but some people think we go to heaven, and some people think we just cease to be. I told him that I’m just not sure, and asked him what he believed. This dichotomy was complicated by the fact that the character, Cedric, returns as a kind of ghost. My son announced first that he wants to go to “Jesus-land”, which I told him was great, because it sounded like an amusement park. He wondered if, because we would both be old when we die, I would be his age. I told him that could be, or maybe we could choose our ages and he’d be older than me. He preferred the idea that we’d both be kids of the same age, so we could play together, and I said I liked that idea a lot. My wife told him that she was particularly excited about the chance that he’d get to meet her grandfather, who passed away before my son was born and who was, truly, a wonderful man. Then my son changed his mind. “Maybe I’ll be a ghost. I would come back to my home and my video games. And I’d play pranks!” My wife and I had a good laugh at his delivery of these lines; he used a drooping voice that hit its lowest notes on “home” and “video games”.

But then he became more serious. “But what if there really is nothing?”

“Well then,” I said, “it would be like sleeping with no dreams. Very peaceful.”

“Like a nap that goes on for a thousand years and forever?”

“Whatever happens after we die, it goes on forever, but maybe we go to heaven and maybe we sleep. I don’t know.”

“I hope it’s Jesus-land,” he said.

“I hope so, too,” I told him.

When my wife went to sleep, I decided to go for a run. Partly, this was because I was inspired by my runner friends. Partly it was because a colleague, Tom, has encouraged me to compete with him to see who can run the most miles, and I’m more motivated by a fear of embarrassment than by anything else. I loaded a new audio book onto my ipod and headed out. The Circle K is two and a half miles from my house, so I took my credit card and ID and planned to buy one of those tiny orange juices that come in the barely translucent, cheap plastic containers with the orange milk jug lids. I thought I’d down one of those halfway through a five mile run and be healthy. Instead, I found that they don’t sell those (they might not even make them anymore, for all I know), and Kool-Aid in squeeze bottles hardly sounded like the healthy drink I was hoping for. I bought a kiwi-strawberry Snapple. I misread the label and only when I was at the counter did I realize it’s a “juice drink”, which means it could be roughly anything. Back on the road and listening to my book, War Dances by Sherman Alexie (excellent so far), I got to a story where the protagonist finds a dead cockroach in the bottom of a carry-on bag and wonders if, in its last minutes, it felt existential dread. I realized that was precisely what my son had been expressing.

“But what if there really is nothing?” he’d asked.

So I took out my ipod touch and started writing this while walking in the dark. This is less dangerous than it sounds, though I did walk off the sidewalk once and stuck a foot into some very wet grass. It also served to remind me that, though some writers might also be runners, I will always be one and not the other, as I instantly chose my preferred hobby over my reluctant obligation.

So here I am, walking through the darkness on a silent road at 11 at night, thinking about the plot of our days and existential dread. Tomorrow I will be teaching my Creative Writing students about plot. I’ll tell them about rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But I think I’ll also point out that these things are like grammar. We need grammar to make sense of our writing just as we need plot to make sense of the stories of our lives, but the most interesting writing plays with grammar, upends it in carefully selected ways. Our lives have plots within plots, but they do not behave as Aristotle said stories should. Perhaps we do not come to a marvelous conclusion about existential dread and how to cope with it, or how to protect our children from it. Perhaps we write in the darkness. Perhaps we stumble into the street and get run over before there’s been any climax to our stories. And then maybe we go to Jesus-land.