Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Just when it seemed things couldn't get worse


There has been little national exposure for a Miami Herald report that Jeb Bush sent state law enforcement agents to seize Terri Schiavo from the hospice - a plan called off when local police said they would enforce the judge's order that she remain there.
-- Paul Krugman, New York Times

That would be George W.'s brother, governor of Florida -- and, as likely as not, the next Republican presidential candidate. Breathe deeply. We came close to initiating the actions of a police state over the life of a woman who has spent 15 years in a vegetative state and whose husband has won years of legal battles granting her the right to die.

The governor did this after the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, refused to intervene. He did this despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans consider this a family issue, one thousands if not millions have planned for with Living Wills (including, according to one report, Laura and George W. Bush).

What comes next, Paul Krugman is right to ask. Intimidation? Political assassination? Religious McCarthyism? Or is that already here, full blown?

It's hard for me to recognize the country I live in. The President, the man who governed Texas as it led the nation in executing inmates, the man who couldn't be bothered to leave his vacation compound to speak to the world and the families of tsunami victims, the man who led us to war under false premises in Iraq, flew from Texas to Washington, D.C., to sign legislation to make the life of Terri Schiavo a federal case and a federal cause.

For awhile, the whole story seemed too weird for me to take in. I confess. I spent three days hoping the Terri Schiavo story would go away. No chance. Instead it got more front-page ink than the election in Iraq, more than the battle over Social Security, more even than Michael Jackson's trial. The Republicans wanted it that way, reportedly sending a memo saying it was a good story to shore up the party's base (although right-wing bloggers now are questioning the authenticity of this memo). And so, as the Democrats stayed somewhere in their underground bunkers, once again abdicating any sense of true leadership, the Republican right trotted out its crazies in full force, got a 10-year-old arrested trying to break into Terri Schiavo's room to "give her water," forced her husband's brother to hide in the face of death threats and, apparently, convinced the governor of Florida to ask state law enforcement agents to ignore the courts and break the law.

Think about it -- think about it closely. At a time when Republicans are on the cusp of scrapping the filibuster in the Senate and are working hard to infiltrate, distort and discredit a fact-based, skeptical press, this is truly scary news. Who needs conspiracy theories when reality abounds?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Far too quiet on the homefront

I wrote this commentary for the Friday, March 25 edition of The Christian Science Monitor

It was the first day of spring, the second anniversary of the Iraq war, the fourth day of the NCAA tournament. At the liberal church I was attending near Boston this Palm Sunday, the minister mentioned the tough winter that had dumped 108 inches of snow on the area. He said not a word about the 1,524 American soldiers killed in Iraq, at last count.

As I listened, a guest participant in the choir, he talked of the hope and rebirth that comes with spring and of the pleasure of watching college playoff basketball, with its teamwork, fraternity, and enthusiasm. He never did mention the war that slogs on thousands of miles away.

He wasn't the only one who seemed forgetful this anniversary weekend. Antiwar marches in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston drew thousands, but the crowds were far smaller than a year ago. Many news organizations neither bothered to announce these events in advance nor covered them in anything but the most perfunctory manner.

I can't tell whether America is in denial or despair over events in Iraq, but I suspect it's some of each. The denial comes amid a flurry of flag-waving that's followed Iraqi elections and the Bush administration's insistence that peace is breaking out all over because of its own aggressive actions. Conventional wisdom this month is that the president is right. Conventional wisdom has turned an already meek press corps into church mice. But conventional wisdom in this war has been wrong many times before.

The despair, I suspect, keeps many people who are bitterly opposed to this war at home - and deflates turnout at those underpublicized and undercovered antiwar rallies.

Americans, it seems, would just as soon ignore the fact that 150,000 of our troops remain stationed in Iraq; that tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children have died in the crossfire; that some inadvertently have been gunned down at checkpoints where American troops - fearful, with good reason, of suicide attacks - sometimes shoot first and ask questions later; that the tens of billions of dollars we're investing there each year could handily cover health insurance for the millions of uninsured American children. And that even so, corruption in Iraq is rampant, unemployment stands near 50 percent, electricity is off more than on, and nearly two years after the end of "major combat" reporters are still writing about the dangerous drive from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone a few miles away.

If the US government has figured out an exit plan, it's not telling us what it is. No. The message is strictly hail to the chief and let freedom ring.

War is always more palatable when we don't let its reality get in the way. The myth of war stirs pride; the ground-level reality, horror. Distraction may be the path of least resistance. So it's root for spring and the home team. Turn on the TV and watch the battle of college hoops. It's safe. It's prescribed - 40 minutes plus interminable ads that stretch the event to two hours. It's fun. And, except for the occasional elbow to nose, there's no blood.

But then, plenty of Americans seem to think the same holds true in Iraq.

The day after the Palm Sunday service, I told my cousin, who had invited me to the church, of my surprise that the minister hadn't mentioned the war. She said he and many in the congregation in the past have been outspoken in their opposition to the war and that, at times, their views had caused division in the congregation. Perhaps, she speculated, he had decided for the time being to pull back, to heal.

If that's the case, in one church near Boston and in pulpits across this country, it would be a terrible shame. Because peace in Iraq won't grow out of weariness or polite silence at home.
At some point, Americans will need to reengage in this conflict (and conflict it clearly remains, if one reads the battle-and-bombing stories often buried inside the daily news). If they don't, Iraq, like an earlier war in Southeast Asia, will just keep dragging on.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Visions of the Golden State


My friend Mary and I are sitting on the sparkling green lawn of Alice's Restaurant in La Honda, a place bikers still roar up to on Harley hogs, lots of leather and denim, their heads -- bald or balding now -- swathed in bandanas. The noise of the engines settles quickly, giving way to quiet conversation and the sounds of the countryside.

This is California, where the sun on an early spring afternoon is soft and golden and where each sound rings clear in the dry air. Today the animated chatter of birds dominates. It's 65 degrees. Redwoods reach skyward. The smells of spring, sweet and healing, fill the air. After three months of New England winter, this is paradise.

"Beautiful day," I say to the waitress on the way out.

"Totally California," she answers.

Yup. Totally.

For me, the Golden State has always held magic. I lived here for seven years while working as an editor for The San Jose Mercury News. But discovery still marks each visit, even to places I've been before. Each time I arrive, I feel like an adventurer, seeing a foreign country for the first time. And for a transplanted Bostonian, foreign the West Coast truly is.

I recall reading a column years back by a woman who called herself a "bicoastal personality." It fit. My roots are sunk deep in Eastern soil. I was born in New York City and grew up near the Atlantic coast. I appreciate the brusk directness and intellectual parrying of the best Eastern conversations. I love buildings made of brick and stone, share an appetite to argue sports and politics, value (though too seldom partake in) the breadth and depth of the arts. What's left of my small family lives here.

But nothing touches a Caliornia sunset, viewed from the rocky Pacific coastline, the sun at once flattening, expanding and turning orange as a stray pelican flaps across the frame. Nothing relaxes like spring skiing in the Sierra -- empty slopes, breathtaking views of rugged rock and snow ridges, so much sun that sweaters and long sleeves soon strip away, replaced with a thick coat of blockout and a cold beer. And nothing enchants like the view from San Francisco's Coit Tower, of the city of hills, light and shade to the left, and of the fog rolling over the Golden Gate bridge straight ahead.

If it is California's physical beauty that never ceases to astound, it is its culture that intrigues. I love the easy humor and sense of unhurriedness that survives in a place, contrary to East Coast illusions, that's every bit as driven as much as the biggest billable-hours Wall Street law firm. It's true. California can seem a strange and soulless society. When we lived in Silicon Valley, we knew a young family with two or three high-powered sports cars parked on their lawn, an intricate computer set up in the center of their living room, and not a book, picture or personal memento in sight. There, they weren't all that unusual, young professionals on the move and on the make.

But to them, as others, my wife and I were just Kathy and Jerry. There was none of the probing for pedigree -- family, school, profession -- that starts too many East Coast encounters, the conversation within a conversation to determine whether you're worth talking to at all. In the often curious contradiction that is California, what you see is what you get -- even if what you see is bleached, botoxed and otherwise enhanced.

Yes, this is the land of Perpetual Youth. It can get old as one gets older (and we all do). But I believe in the spirit of Peter Pan, even if my joints don't always agree. I believe in laughter. And I believe the world weighs awfully heavily if that's all we let it do. In California, that just doesn't happen. Eventually, the sunshine burns off the fog, over the sea and in the spirit, too. Perhaps that's why I can't stay away terribly long.

Mary and I stop at another "only in California" destination. An hour from the bustle of the crowded 101 corridor (it was in California that highways first became a life form, as in The 101), over the rugged foothills separating people from the protected and still pristine coast, across from a herd of grazing cows on the emerald hillsides that by late May will turn to straw, sits a tile-roofed, high-ceilinged place named The San Gregorio General Store. You can't buy beans and franks here. But though it was started by a former Stanford University philosophy professor, there's nothing pretentious about it either. Oh, you can buy the complete works of California authors like Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck. There's a section devoted to feminist literature. And they sell some nice silk scarves. But the book collection also includes "Fart Proudly: Writings of Ben Franklin You Never Read in School," an aisle over from the scarves you can buy a hefty iron skillet, and, across from the feminist literature section, the bartender mixes one mean Bloody Mary.

The store is a single big room with something for just about everyone, an apt metaphor for the state in which it's set. Outside my friend Mary strikes up a conversation with an old woman who looks more weathered than the beat up store roof. When her husband died some years back, she sold her farm down the road. Now she lives in a gray wooden house that I gather used to be a blacksmith's shop.

And what, Mary asked, had brought her over to San Gregorio?

"Why my boyfriend," she says, teeth flashing in a girlish grin. So she's pushing 75. It's California.