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Tuesday
Sep132016

Trump, Clinton, and Honey Flavored Figs

In Table Talk, Plutarch tells how Democritus eating a fig was surprised and delighted to find the fig had a taste of honey. He called his servant and asked where the fig had come from. The servant named a particular orchard and Democritus demanded his servant take him to the orchard so he could investigate and discover why the fig tasted of honey. His servant told him it was not necessary because she had placed the figs in a vase that had contained honey. To this Democritus said: “Your telling me that makes me angry. I intend to pursue my idea, and I will seek the cause as if the sweetness came from the fig itself.”

Democritus was an empiricist. He believed that reality, and indeed truth, are found in empirical observation. And yet, when confronted with the truth, that is the facts of the matter, he nonetheless headed off to the orchard to investigate the source of the figs flavor. In other words, even for an old empiricist there are times when the power of imagination and belief trump evidence and facts.

Such a story can make us smile. Poor old Democritus going to the orchard on a fool’s errand. Unfortunately, in a democracy the human predilection to forget the facts when they do not adhere to our beliefs sucks big time. When it comes to politics and voting, we should all be empiricists. However, more than not, we are mostly believers. The actual facts, if they are contrary to what we already believe to be true, are simply cast aside, in much the way Democritus cast aside the honey coated vase.

My neighbor is a fascist. He would never call himself a fascist, and being a good American, for him fascism, communism, socialism, and Nazism all meld into one vague ever present evil. But trust me on this. By definition, he’s a fascist.[1] He loves Donald Trump and sees him as the savior of the United States. When I ask Bob why he thinks Trump is qualified to be president and commander and chief, he says that Trump is an amazingly successful businessman and straight talker (he is also immensely impressed that Trump is not a politician and thus has absolutely no political experience – I’ve written about this: The Three Almost Requirements for Political Office in the Unites States of America). Putting aside whether or not a businessman by default is also a good politician, the following facts are utterly irrelevant to Bob: Trump…

  • Bought Trump Plaza hotel for $400 million. It was later repossessed by the bank.
  • Bought his yacht for $29 million. It was later repossessed by the bank. Built four casinos at a cost of $3 billion. Later he filed for bankruptcy and went out of business.
  • Started Trump Airlines and never made a profit. Later his planes and helicopters were repossessed by the bank.
  • Created Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, and Trump Mortgages. Afterwards they all went out of business.

Apparently this is the short list of the great businessman’s accomplishments in “building great structures” and creating “thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs”. The point is, however, that Trump’s actual record as a businessman, that is the facts, are completely irrelevant if you are a Trump true believer.[2]

I found myself almost instinctively thinking Clinton is dishonest and that the Clinton Foundation is a fraudulent organization that simply enriches the Clintons and their friends – and I’m going to vote for her! The actual facts were hard to accept. Let’s begin with the Clinton Foundation.

A majority of people think the Clinton Foundation is corrupt, and while I didn’t think the foundation was sponsored by Satan, I did buy in to the general impression. It is fair to raise questions concerning the integrity of the foundation given the amount of money coming and going in such a large charity. Billions of dollars always raise the possibility of conflicts of interest. To be honest, I did image that the Clintons used the “foundation as a slush fund to reward their friends, or, alternatively, Mrs. Clinton using her positions in public office to reward donors.”  

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending who you are and where you stand, CharityWatch doesn’t agree. Indeed, the independent watchdog in April 2016 gave the Clinton Foundation an A rating. The reality that people seem unable to accept that the foundation is not a hot bed of corruption does not change the facts.

The foundation’s mission statement: Works to improve global health & wellness, increase opportunity for women & girls, reduce childhood obesity, create economic opportunity & growth, and help communities address the effects of climate change. CharityWatch reported that 88% of the funds raised for the Foundation are spent on programs to realize the goals in the mission statement relative to the cash spent on fundraising, management, and general expenses. The Foundation spends $2 for every $100 raised from contributions. There is virtually no evidence of fraudulent behavior in the charity, and yet the general impression of corruption persists.

Some 68% of Americans believe Clinton is fundamentally dishonest. In fact, the majority judge Trump to be more honest than Clinton. As it turns out, Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize winning fact checking organization, judged Clinton to be the most honest candidate in the 2016 presidential contest, with Bernie Sanders a close second. Trump’s rating put him more in the category of pathological liar. But never, mind, the majority of Americans believe Trump to be more trustworty than Clinton. It might, therefore, be interesting to compare Clinton’s and Trump’s truthfulness scores. The truth is often hard to believe.

It has been a long held political philosophy in the U.S. that democracy is safe in the hands of a well-educated citizenry. Unfortunately, we often determine our vote, not based on the evidence, but on our emotions. In the face of the facts Democritus went to the orchard anyway. In the face of the facts, Americans believe Clinton to be dishonest and Trump to be a great businessman. The facts be damned. Let’s get out there and vote with our hearts.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger


[1] The relationship between fascism and democracy is dangerously intimate.

[2] However, the facts can become relevant if as a true believer you conclude they are lies propagated by an evil liberal media and left wing bleeding hearts.

Tuesday
Jul122016

Dancing Alone at 3 A.M.

I’m a night person. That means I don’t go to bed until somewhere between two and three in the morning. I bet it’s usually around three. When I’m working on a writing project I write between ten and three. But when I’m not working on a book, I am either watching TV, reading, or listening to music until the early hours.

3 a.m. is a magic time. I sense that my half of the world is asleep, or at least most of it is. It’s being alone in a very good way. It’s a kind of freedom, though perhaps not liberation. Sometimes as the time approaches three and I am listening to music, I dance in the middle of my study or the living room. Perhaps a little air guitar. I do this because I know that absolutely no one will see me. My wife is dead to the world at that hour. There is virtually no chance she will see me, and if she did, I’m confident she would never let me know. Dancing alone at three in the morning is sublime. I should emphasize this has nothing to do with being intoxicated. At 3 a.m. I’m always as sober as a Sunday morning. Yes, I guess the dancing is liberating.

If I’m watching TV I’m more susceptible to sentimentality. I abhor sentimentality, except when it’s 3 a.m. I can be reduced to tears by a sentimental sugar coated film that I would not even contemplate watching at 9 p.m. Indeed, I would mock it without mercy at 9 p.m. Is this detour into schmaltziness good for me? I don’t really know. I’ve learned to accept it, however, in my defense this acceptance took years. As with the dancing, I would never watch these horrible cheap morality plays created to manipulate my emotions and not nourish my mind and spirit if I knew someone could see me watching. Just last night I watched Morgan Freeman, a failed, forgotten writer, drinking himself to death be transformed and resurrected because he spent a summer next-door  to a divorcing mother and her three delightful children. My God, Freeman was also in a wheelchair because of a drunk driver running a red light years ago. My tears flowed like a revivifying river as Freeman stopped drinking, started writing, and learned to love again as the girls hugged him back to life. Oh, and he had a dog! An old dog! I sincerely hope these Disney moments are not liberating.

Often though, as the clock pushes close to the magic hour I am sitting quietly in a comfortable chair just thinking, and remembering. What’s fascinating about these early morning remembering sessions is I have no idea what episode or people of my past will surface as half the world sleeps. Last week, I was sitting in our snug (a small room with my big brown chair, bookcases, a small cabinet, and art from around the world on the walls). I had set my book aside and dimmed the lights. And then, for no rational or irrational reason at all, a girl I knew when I was a boy came to mind. I did not remember her name, but I did see her face both clearly and vaguely at the same time, if that makes any sense. I suspect we knew each other at the time of puberty, but the relationship was not burdened with sexual tensions or romantic fantasies. It was just a very nice friendship. With a girl.

We both lived in families that went to church, she in a catholic family and me in a protestant one. In those days Catholics and protestants didn’t worship much together and we thought that silly and, more importantly, restrictive of our friendship. We set a plan to worship together, but I don’t think it ever happened. I’m almost certain her parents would not let her come to my church. Though perhaps I’m wrong. Who knows?

I do remember clearly, almost vividly, a night we sat together looking at the stars. We both voiced the belief, with impressive conviction, that out there in the universe were sentient, intelligent, self-aware species looking up at the stars. We both desired to be alive when our species made contact with at least one of them. Somehow, that awareness and desire brought us closer together. It was a very special night with a friend sharing imagination, wonder, speculation, and hopes. It was glorious. Being young wasn’t all bad. And sitting in my snug at 3 a.m. I missed her. I wondered what happened to her. Could it be possible that she too remembers that night? Probably not. Most certainly not. I have no idea why I remembered it.

I have to confess, now that it is almost 3 a.m. and I really don’t feel like dancing alone, it saddens me that I will be dead long before we discover that life exists elsewhere in the universe. I’m not talking about First Contact. Just the proof that somewhere some microscopic bug lives and thrives and reproduces who is not a resident of planet earth. I know this is a silly sadness, perhaps a child’s sadness, but in honor of the intelligent, imaginative, desiring girl, I’m going to hold on to it.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Monday
Jun062016

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Democracy

In July Democratic Party delegates will meet in Philadelphia to select either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton to be their candidate for president of the United States. Here in Washington, a funny thing happened on the way to selecting the state’s Democratic Party delegates to the national party’s convention. Or, at least it was funny to me, a new comer to the state.

The Democratic Party in Washington held caucuses to decide how to divvy up its delegates between Sanders and Clinton. I went to the caucus for the first time in my life and it was an interesting affair. We were broken up into regions according to our addresses where we tallied the number of votes for Sanders and Clinton, checked to see if anyone wanted to change their vote, selected nominees to be delegates, and then went home. It took less than a half hour. At the point where we were asked if we wanted to change our vote, the floor was open for discussion and debate. Most of the people there were Sanders supporters and I experienced some of the almost worshipful loyalty I’ve heard about in the media. Some spoke up for Clinton. Everyone was pleasant and polite. It was an interesting experience and I was glad I went.

Throughout the state of Washington 26,314 Democrats attended caucuses. There are 3,973,623 registered Democrats in the state. Thus, 5.8 percent of the state’s registered Democrats participated in a caucus. Or, 94 percent of voters did not. Of the 5.8 percent of those who did show up to vote, Sanders got 72.7 percent of the votes (19,159) and Clinton 21.1 percent (7,140). Bernie supports were rightfully happy, but as Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times said: “This also means that Bernie Sanders landslide win was earned with the backing of just 4 percent of our 4 million registered voters. Can you call something a peoples’ revolution with that few people.” 

Some weeks after the caucus I received in the mail a ballad for the Republican and Democratic parties primary in the state – the Republican Party holds a primary, not caucuses. On the form you had to first select whether you were a Republican or Democrat and second, to vote for the candidate of your choice from the appropriate party. I didn’t know what to do with the damn thing, but just in case I ticked Democrat and then voted. Apparently, since the GOP holds a primary the state of Washington also gave Democrats the chance to vote in a primary too. On the last day of voting the Democratic Party in Washington announced it would ignore the results of the primary. It had every right to do that. Political parties are private organizations, not public. They can select their delegates and candidates to various offices any way they want. The Democratic Party chose a caucus system. It has been suggested by some that holding a primary, that cost the taxpayer millions of dollars, where one party has in reality already chosen its candidate and the other party ignored the results was a huge waste. But there you go.  

666,000 registered Democrats voted in the primary. Clinton won 54 percent of the vote and Sanders 46 percent.

The Democratic Party of Washington has assigned 74 delegates to Sanders and 27 delegates to Clinton. The party has 17 superdelegates. I have no idea how the superdelegates will vote, but it is assumed most will go with Clinton.

It has been claimed that Washington is a “Bernie state.” I’m assuming that most Democrats in Washington knew the primary was a waste of time and yet a lot more of them voted then attended a caucus. We don’t know what would have happened if the primary were official and every registered voter had voted. Clinton supporters couldn’t be blamed for thinking Hillary would win, and Sanders supports couldn’t be blamed for saying no one knows. But I think it is safe to say Washington is not a Bernie state through and through.

Some say that the primary results expose how undemocratic the caucus system is (see Seattle Times). Still, Sanders did win the parties official means of assigning delegates, and he won big. As a result, the Sanders supporters are demanding superdelegates join the Sanders “revolution” or face the consequences. Apparently some Bernie supports have started a campaign to challenge any superdelegate who does not support Sanders with an independent at their own coming election (see The Spokesman-Review). On the other hand, some Clinton supporters claim that Washington is actually a Hillary state, given the results of the primary, and that superdelegates should therefore go with Clinton.

Interestingly, even though the caucus system only resulted in 5.8 percent of Democratic registered voters actually voting, no one is protesting, quietly or loudly, about the disenfranchisement of we the people in Washington. Winning is everything and trumps principles every time. So why Sanders supporters are often outraged about the unfair system of selecting a candidate, a system that hurts their man, we have heard no loud protests about undemocratic practices here in Washington. No one is bemoaning the fact that their candidate one a “big mandate” on 4 percent of the vote. As for Clinton supports, I haven’t hear much at all from them. Perhaps they recognize they lost the game as it is officially played at this point in time and thus have no grounds to complain.

However, from this new boy on the block, the whole thing looks like quite the democratic mess. Me, I’d like to see the party go to an official primary system. It seems clear more people would actually participate. And, by the way, that opinion has nothing to do with who I support in the contest. But whoever wins, I’m not going to stay home and sulk on election day if my choice is not the Democratic candidate. I’m going to vote anyway.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Monday
May302016

Phenomenologist Me and Hillary Clinton

Following on from my last blog entitled Existentialist Me and Trump

If I were a phenomenologist, which I profess to be this week, I’d be spending my time trying to describe the phenomenon that is Hillary Clinton. As a phenomenologist my concern isn’t so much what or how Clinton is or isn’t in reality, but how Clinton the phenomenon presents herself in my experience. That is to say I need to sidestep, or even strip away, abstractions, ideologies, authorities, emotional associations, and concentrate on Clinton and nothing but Clinton as I experience her. But even a cursorily glance as the task reveals that that will be difficult in the extreme.

First of all, I don’t know her personally. My “knowing” her is through the media which edits her speeches, pronouncements, tweets, photos, policies, clothes, relationships, for a particular purpose. That purpose may be to flatter or demonize her, but it is never neutral. Depending upon who you listen to, she is an amazing statesperson or a murderer. And, of course, Hillary Clinton as a phenomenon is not actually a single person. She’s a melding together of two people, a national political creature not seen before. She is Hillary and her husband, and from now on we must refer to her as HillaryBill. How could it be otherwise? She is a woman, after all. And in case you, through some distorting political corrective lens, forgot about Bill, or purposefully decided to ignore him, the Republican Party nominee, the proto-fascist or neo-fascist or just plain fascist Donald Trump, will never ever let you forget Bill. Trump is an expert in generating hatred.

That’s not all. There are Bernie Sanders supporters, Tea Partyers, and my neighbor Bob across the street, who are all there to tell me who and what HillaryBill is. And finally there is HillaryBill. SheHe isn’t running for president to be my best friend. SheHe really doesn’t want me to know what brand of toilet paper shehe uses, and quite frankly I don’t care. But as a dedicated phenomenologist what am I to do given that the person I experience is only filtered images? As a phenomenologist I can get to the heart of what a cup of coffee is, but how to get to the heart of who and what HillaryBill is?

First, as a way of beginning, I must recognize and accept that the HillaryBill I experience is a combination of truth and lies, fact and fiction. That’s all I have and I have to live with that or just give up. Second, phenomenology liberates me into recognizing and accepting that my experience of HillaryBill and my description of herhim has legitimacy, regardless of what Sanders supporters, Tea Partyers, fascist, media, and my neighbor Bob might say. They, individually or in chorus, should not determine for me my description of HillaryBill and whether or not I will vote for herhim.

I experience HillaryBill as a paradox, indeed, I want to say a great paradox. When she can get a job, she can be quite good at it. Even Republicans said she was a good, if not excellent, Senator. Many say she was a very good Secretary of State, though when shehe was in that role Republicans turned into a political hit squad that spent, and is still spending, millions of taxpayer’s dollars trying to bring her down. Interestingly, they may yet succeed (hold your breath for the FBI).

Unfortunately, HillaryBill just isn’t very good at the we-the-people-interview for the big job. The longer the interview goes on the worse shehe gets. It always starts out full of promise but ends up full of despair. I suspect that in both the past interview and this present one, she thought, perhaps assumed, it would be a short interview. Admittedly, she has to deal with being a double shehe target, but as the interview goes on she has a   tendency to frazzle, turning a decent articulate person into a mean spirited inappropriate person. Way back when, when it began to look like Obama was going to win the day, shehim got downright nasty. Yes I know, politics is nasty, but she got nasty in ways that most of us who share at least part of her worldview found unacceptable. The flirtation with racist attacks just didn’t go down well.

She’s not a great orator, but she very intelligent. Shehe can demonstrate supreme patience and dignity (the hours of testimony before a Senate committee dominated by hateful Republicans over the Benghazi deaths[1]), and can become impatient and petty (declaring victory in the Democratic Party nomination process before several states, including California, had gone to the polls). Shehe is a great supporter of women’s rights and also a great supporter of the status quo. Shehe proclaims a passion for the common man and woman and is a friend of neo-liberal capitalism. SheHe is obviously qualified to be president and she brings some much baggage with her that she has employed a fleet of 747-8 wide body cargo plans to simply lug all that baggage around with her – which includes a couple of FBI investigations that will not be completed until after shehe is nominated. (Has there ever been a candidate running for the nomination for president of the United States under investigation by the FBI on issues of national security and financial fraud?) At a time when anti-establishment candidates are pulling great crowds and often winning support (see Trump, Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the UK, for example) shehe is establishment through and through.

The phenomenological issue of describing the phenomenon slides into the existential question of what should I do. Well, given the Republican Party has gone over to the Dark Side the answer is simple. Vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, even if it hurts. Hell, I’d vote for Mickey Mouse if he were running against Trump.  Donald Trump is the least qualified and most dangerous person ever to be nominated by one of the two major parties.

If it hurts so much just stay home and don’t vote for anyone, I hear you say. Democrats are good at staying home because they are either apathetic or sulking. They are then great at complaining about how Republicans run the country. Interesting strategy. Let’s see. In 1968 Eugene McCarthy supporters could not vote for Hubert Humphrey and we got Richard Nixon and Watergate. In 1980 many Ted Kennedy supporters could not vote for Jimmy Carter and 27% of them voted for Ronal Reagan instead and the Reagan Revolution followed which lead us right up to 2008. In 2000 a lot of Democrats could not see voting for Al Core so voted for Ralph Nader and we got eight years of George W. Bush and his version of creating a neocon reality.[2] In 2016 if Sanders supporters can’t vote for HillaryBill or HillaryBill supporters can’t vote for Sanders, we get Donald Trump.

As far as the argument that a Trump presidency will usher in a Bernie progressive revolution, please! For heaven's sake get real. The stakes are too high. That’s like shooting yourself in the gut to demonstrate the need for Obamacare. And history is just not on the side of that argument.

The three primary elements of phenomenology are: description, phenomena, and intentionality. Intentionality is tricky but in extreme short-hand it speaks to the realization that the human mind, or consciousness, is always of or about something outside itself. The philosopher Franz Brentano put it this way: “In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on.”[3] And as Sarah Bakewell says: “ Nothing else can be as thoroughly about or of things as the mind is…”[4] Some would say it is through intentionality that we keep in touch with the world. It is aboutness and directedness. It’s the fact that we’re almost always thinking about something outside ourselves.

As a good phenomenologist, my intentionality, my directedness, does not embrace some abstraction, some ideal, floating in the inner recesses of my mind. It embraces the phenomena that I experience. If HillaryBill survives the email and Clinton Foundation scandals and it is Trump versus Clinton, then I have nothing to worry about. It will not be an election where I’m confronted with the difficult task of deciding between my two ideal candidates. Nor will be it be an election where I have the pleasure of voting for my one ideal candidate. Ideals are out. One candidate will be unqualified and dangerous and the other flawed and damaged.  

By the way, if the HillaryBill, shehe, herhim nonsense annoyed you, it should have. Actually, it should have made you mad as hell.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger


[1] For an actually history of attacks on U.S. diplomats and facilities go to Mother Jones and Wikipedia.

 [2] Jonathan Freedland. A plea to Hillary’s Democrat critics. The Guardian.

[3] Brentano, Franz. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. P. 88.

[4] Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. New York: Other Press, 2016. p. 45. It is Bakewell’s book that has inspired this blog and Existentialist Me and Trump.

Sunday
May152016

Existentialist Me and Donald Trump

If I were an existentialist I’d be sitting in a café asking myself: Who am I? What should I do? I say “if I were an existentialist”, but I’m quite sure somewhere along the way I was, or still am. I’ve embraced phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, hermeneutics, and postmodernism. The who am I question seems worth pursuing and my flirtation with all the above intellectual paradigms was at least in part an attempt to answer that question. In fact, I wish I did know myself better because, let’s be brutally honest, time is running out for me. We only get so many trips around the sun.

However, the thing is, I don’t think I’m very good at it, that is the self-analysis necessary to get to the heart of the question, let alone the heart of the answer. I’ve always been uneasy about the search for true identity, suspicious of the motivations that drive the pursuit. In an essay I wrote in Notes from 39,000 Feet, called Theological Hospitality, I said:

[I]f you can't talk about things as they are, you might as well talk about yourself. Or, if you don't have the confidence to be honest about how complicated it is to know how things are, you might as well sound confident about knowing yourself. It is, of course, preposterous, since talking about one's self is not the primary point and there are no real grounds for believing we can know ourselves better than we know reality. Just look at the disciplines of neurobiology and evolutionary psychology. Besides, ideal sincerity can be distracting if not boring. Better left on the talk show couch.

I’ve always been and always will be a being who embraces, more than all the above philosophies, a hermeneutic of suspicion. (See Hermeneutics and the Half Empty Glass) And so, I tend to focus more on the existential question: What should I do? A present that question has one big fat “if” attached to it. What should I do if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States? I realize that almost no one believes that that will happen. Sanders and Clinton supporters when not yelling at each other, and not mocking Trump and labelling his supporters fascist racist buffoons, assume their respective candidates will crush Trump in the general elections. I do recall that when Trump announced he was going to run for the Republican Party nomination, we all laughed, hard.

Yes, I know the Electoral College is not on his side. I know he may have alienated Hispanic Americans, African Americans, women, daughters who don’t want their fathers to date them, sensible people, intelligent people, people who don’t like torture, people who don’t like walls, Republican Party leaders, various countries, and so on, but consider this. Regardless of how many millions of people go to Sanders’s rallies (and how thoroughly the media ignores them all), it does look like Clinton may get the Democratic Party nomination for president. At present she is the subject of two FBI investigations. In one she is being investigated for the possible mishandling of classified information while Secretary of State. So far the FBI has found no criminality, but the investigation goes on. In the other, Clinton is being investigated for accepting donations through the Clinton Foundation from corporations and governments who were at the time in discussions with her State Department for weapon contracts and policy benefits. The FBI has said that they cannot finish their investigations before the Democratic Party convention beginning on July 25th in Philadelphia.

Imagine what will happen if Clinton, the Democratic Party nominee, is indicted for one or more crimes during the general election. Imagine what Trump and the GOP would do to her. “Criminal Clinton” has a certain ring to it. I’m aware that Clinton supporters claim, possibly correctly, that the FBI investigations are politically motivated. But if she is indicted during the election, that won’t make a damn bit of difference. And, yes, she is innocent until proven guilty, but who will care? One charge speaks of national security and the other corruption. Trump will devour her.  

Or imagine there is a terrorist attack in the United States a couple of days, or even weeks, before election day. I know George Clooney said Trump will never be president because Americans aren’t afraid of anything, but would you put your money on Trump losing under those circumstances? 

So indulge me. Clinton is indicted on one charge and a “minor” terrorist attack takes place before the election (tens killed instead of thousands). The next thing I know, I’m avoiding watching the inauguration of Donald Trump as the president of the United States of America. He quickly introduces, to his Republican Party Congress, legislation to curb the freedom of the media because he hates being criticized. He signs a contract to build a wall on the US Mexican border. He introduces a digital program to identify and locate all Muslims in the country. He introduces legislation denying travel visas to all Muslims “until he can straighten out the mess”. He signs an executive order allowing guns in schools. He reinstitutes torture. He begins conversations about the possible break-up of NATO. He invites Putin to lunch. He has an affair and brags about it. He puts a bust of Mussolini in the Oval Office. So, I ask myself: What should I do?

Well, as a good existentialist I know that my existence is predicated on the fact that I have the freedom to make decisions (existentialism is not just about staying up late, having a lot of sex, and drinking apricot cocktails). I believe, or at least hope, I can change the world. I ground my decisions, not in highfalutin detached ideas, but in the reality of my lived experiences. Because I am free, responsible, and authentic, I know I must continually invent my own path.

And so, I decide to stay home and shun all news, all conversation about politics, all TV shows, films, articles, essays, short stories, books, and poetry that touch on contemporary political themes. Or, I decide to get myself arrested. In Trump’s America I’m not sure there is much in-between decision.

Of course, “get myself arrested”, while a literal possibility, is also a metaphor here for acts of protest and resistance. However, given that Trump publically, vocally, enthusiastically tells his supports to use physical violence against those who oppose him, I need to be fully committed. We’ve already seen protestors at Trump rallies be surrounded, forcibly ejected, grabbed, pushed, sucker punched, slammed to the floor and kicked. Alma Gore, who painted a portrait of Trump with a small penis, was assaulted on a public street by a Trump supporter. It’s a beginning.

It should be noted that I have always been, am presently, and will forever be a coward. Also, one of my core beliefs, the kind of belief that helps you answer the question Who am I, is that I should be informed and engaged. So, the decision between hiding in my bedroom and possibly being beaten up and arrested is a difficult one. Perhaps it’s about time I earned my red badge of courage. It’s been a long time since Vietnam and South Africa. Will the day come when we old lefties, after winning the battle against America’s first truly fascist president, miss his presence because our virtue is only authentic when opposed to his vice? Will the answer to the question who am I be: I’m a political combatant? Time will tell. But in the meantime, apricot cocktails anyone?

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Monday
May092016

To Weep in Winter

Sex, Fingers and Death as told in Yana. The Yana people live in Northern California in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Coyote: To Weep in Winter

I had one of those moments sitting in the living room by the sliding glass door to the back garden. I was reading a book called A Coyote Reader by William Bright. Coyote is a character in Native American mythology and storytelling, and is still alive and well today. In Native American religion Coyote, sometimes called Old Man Coyote, is one of the First People Who survived the coming of human beings; the First People were a race of beings who lived before we came along. They were god-like, but often in the myths they worked with The Creator. They had tremendous power and, working with The Creator, created the World as we know it, including our human life and culture. But with the coming of human beings the First People were replaced and transformed into the things of the world: rocks, trees, plants, animals. Thus Native Americans refer to the First People as Nighthawk, Beaver, Coyote and so on.

Listen to this contemporary Native American poem, A Song for the First People:

When you learned that human beings were coming, you changed into rocks,
Into fish and birds, into flowers and
rivers in despair of us.
The tree under which I bend may be you,
That stone by the fire, Nighthawk swooping
And crying out over the swamp reeds, reeds themselves.
Have I held you too lightly all my mornings?
I have broken your silence, dipped you up
Carelessly in my hands and drunk you, burnt you,
Carved you, slit your calm throat and danced on your skin,
Made charms of your bones. You have endured,
All of it, suffering my foolishness
As the old wait quietly among clumsy children.
Now others are coming, neither like you nor like men.
I must change, First People. How do I change myself.
If no one can teach me the long will of Cedar,
Let me become Water Dog, Betterroot, or Shut Beak.
Change me. Forgive me. I will learn to crawl, stand, or fly
Anywhere among you, forever, as though among great elders. [1]

In the Native American understanding of reality life is endowed with the spirit of the First People. Coyote is one of the First People who lives on in human form. In mythologies and stories Coyote is a Glutton, Lecher, Thief, Cheat, Outlaw, Spoiler, Loser, Clown, Survivor, and perhaps most of all, a Trickster. He embraces all the goodness and evilness of human beings. Most importantly here, it was Coyote who introduced Death into the human experience.

On the day I was sitting by the sliding glass door the weather outside was cloudy with a light rain falling. My mood, perhaps my spirit, mirrored the weather. I was troubled, though I don’t remember why. I was in one of those, pondering moods, perhaps best left on my own. I was reading a Coyote myth entitled Sex, Fingers and Death. Coyote is speaking to three creators - Cottontail, Gray Squirrel and Lizard, who are, of course, First People:

Coyote said,
"I don't like people to be so many.
"The women are very many,
the men are very many everywhere,
the children are very many everywhere.
"The people don't die,
they just get old.
"There's no poisoning by magic,
here's nobody to weep in winter,"
so he said.[ii]

As I read those last two phrases I stopped realizing intuitively the myth was not just going to be about the death of our bodies, but would be telling of the introduction of poisoning and weeping into life, the things of death. Two things happened when I began pondering the reasons we human beings choose death, death being the desire to poison life: in negative assumptions about others, in lying, in hardness of heart, in hatreds, in racism (well, all the isms), in forced poverties, in injustices, in creating weapons of destruction, in destructive conflicts between individuals, tribes and nations. The list is seemingly endless. But, and I kid you not, as all this poison was flowing through my mind and into my heart, the sun broke through the clouds and for a moment the greyness lifted, the sky brightened and warmth came through the sliding glass door unto the back garden. Despite myself, I began to feel lighter as well, and of course warmer. My spirit, despite itself, lifted and life was becoming somehow good, or at least better than it had seemed only moments before. I thought - well actually wondered because the power of poison should never be underestimated – could it be possible that despite everything my, our, natural response is to choose life, to feel good, think well of others, to do justice, show compassion and to seek peace. Could it be that there is such a thing we might call a natural ethic of life, and if so, why do we seek to weep in the winter. I read on:

The Creators said there would be no death, but Coyote persisted. Then the Creators said there would be death, but people would raise to life again on the fourth day, that a sense that life would prevail. Coyote argued:

Why should they come back to life?
When they die, they'll die.
When people die we'll weep.
People will weep,
when their brother dies,
when their sister dies,
when their child dies.[iii]

Coyote wins the day and when “the rain turned to snow” and a man was poisoned and died. However, and interestingly, “the people did not weep” because they did not yet know about the ways of death. The man was buried in a shallow grave, but “he did not like death” and started to move in his grave.

He was about to come back to life,
he who had died.
Coyote was looking at him,
he kept on watching.
The dead man came up this far from the grave.
Coyote jumped up,
Coyote jumped on the dead man,
he pushed him down in the earth.
"Die!" said Coyote.
Coyote raised his foot,
he did like this,
he forced the dead man down with his foot.
"Why are you coming back to life?
" Die! Die!"
So he did,
forcing him down with his foot.
And the people said nothing against it.
Coyote looked at the grave and
nothing moved.
Truly, the man was now dead for good.
"Now!" said Coyote,
"Cry! weep!
"Now the man is dead,
now we will never see him again.
"Come on!
Put on white clay for mourning!
Come on! Smear your faces with pitch!"[iv]

The clouds covered the sun again and I was cold again. My heart sank with the image life trying to come out of the grave only to be stumped back into its whole. Forgiveness fighting its way out of the grave. Love and understanding, justice and peace, communion and community, hopes and dreams, joys and embraces, new beginnings and new life, all fighting up from the grave only to be beaten back. Misunderstanding and lies, angers and hatreds, division and conflicts, despair and alienation, sorrows and coldness, all stamping life into the grave. An almost desperately choosing death, which sitting in the cold seemed more natural than an ethic of life. Everyone shouting:  Now Cry, Now Weep, Now Mourn. This desire for poisoning and weeping. However, the story does not end there. The Creators made a rattlesnake and put it the path of Coyote's young son. Young Coyote is killed.

"Your child is dead,"
so said all the people.
Coyote wept and danced with grief.
He put dirt on his face and
acted like a crazy man.
The People brought young Coyote
back home.
Coyote said, "Friends," speaking to the Creators.
"Friends, you said people should come
back to life, after they die.
"I don't like weeping so much.
"Make him come back to life!"
"Weep, weep!" said the Creators.
"You said people would cry.
"Weep! weep!"Put white clay on your face,
Put pitch on your face!
"You said people would weep,
So weep."[v]

It is a story about why we are so hell-bent on choosing Death and Destruction over Live and Creativity. It is also a morality tale reminding us that ultimately poison is not selective, that death leads to weeping for all.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger


[1] Wagoner, David. Who Shall Be the Sun? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978, p. 14.

[ii] Bright, William. A Coyote Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 107-108.

[iii] Ibid., p. 113.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 114-115.

[v] Ibid., pp. 116-117.

Tuesday
Apr262016

The Art of Attractions: On Books and Writing

The other day I went into Seattle to sit in a decent café and browse in a good bookstore. I haven’t done either in a long time and given the privilege of my life that was a sin. I was on my own so had no one else’s schedule, plans, desires to contend with, no necessity to appear gracious and understanding. I enjoyed taking my time in the bookstore, luxuriating in the fact that there was nowhere I had to be. Eventually, after wondering around from shelf to shelf, genre to genre, I bought two books: The Vegetarian, a novel by Han Kang, and The Art of Fiction, an essay by James Slater. Both authors were new to me.

There are too many books in the world for me to read them all. I don’t even have the time to  read the ones that I’m interested in (it may be more accurate to say, the ones I’m attracted to). And forget completely the books I would be attracted to if I had the time to find them. As it turns out, I was attracted to The Vegetarian after reading a review in The New York Review of Books, or The Guardian, or The Observer, or The New Yorker. I can’t remember which, but those are the places I read most book reviews. I wasn’t thrilled with the cover, but what can you do? The Art of Fiction I simply saw sitting on the table in the bookstore. My attraction was first the cover and second the book blurb. The bookstore had a café, of course, so I got myself a latte and opened the Salter.  

James Salter is a novelist with a more than interesting backstory. I’ve never read any of his books, but after completing The Art of Fiction I may just give him a try. In the essay Salter spoke of a number of things, but one that stood out for me was his thoughts on an author’s “voice”, or as he would say, “style”. He wrote, “You have to have a taste for what you’re writing. You have to be able to recognize when it’s gone bad.”[1] He says new writers have no voice, that they are influenced by the authors they read. I certainly have been influenced by Kurt Vonnegut. And of style? “Style has substance – so Nabokov said, and his own style demonstrated it. He wrote the way he spoke, only better.”[2]

I’ve always associated books with writing. When I read a book I often want to write one too. I have no idea if this is a common response to reading. I’ve never asked anyone. However, I doubt that is true for everyone. Why this happens to be so in my case is a mystery. As I have said before in my blog Ray Bradbury Died, and It’s Personal, when I was a little guy I hated reading and writing. I had a unpleasant physical reaction to even thinking about reading a book. Now I love reading and that is largely thanks to a wonderful teacher and her daughter, who was younger than me at the time, who invited me to her house on Saturday mornings. There she and her daughter taught me to read. Amazing when you think about it.

My point is, however, that though I’ve acquired a desire to write, it didn’t really become a vocation until I retired. Oh, I began writing a sci fi book when I was in high school about a post apocalypse world (how original!), but I never finished it. I did show it to my girlfriend at the time and she absolutely loved it. I should note, she was rather fond of me and her critique probably wasn’t reliable. After all, she once wrote, “I’m very confident that this year will be one of the best of my life, thanks to the most wonderful guy in my life! You’re different from any guy I’ve ever met; you’re sincere. I hope I can only make you half as happy as you’ve made me, and we’ll have a great future ahead of us. Love always…” I must report we broke up that year, the year that was to be the best in her life. Who knows, maybe it was anyway, or was precisely because we broke-up. As for my sincerity, I do wonder if sometimes I emulate sincerity so well people take it for the real thing. Who knows?

While reading The Art of Fiction, I did wonder what would have happened if I had committed myself to writing in my late teens and early twenties. We’ll never know. I might have found my voice, my style. Now I fear it may be too late. (Is “finding” one’s voice an act of discovery or creation?) As I rush towards 70 years old (few years out still, but it seems to be steamrolling towards me at light speed), I can admit that which I could never have comprehended in my mid-twenties. I have a limited number of hours left to live my life, and some of those hours need to be wasted in an often futile attempt to fend off melancholy. My style may be lost to moods and time.

For the moment let’s put aside whether or not I’m a good or bad writer. Let’s just admit there are varying degrees of goodness and badness in writing. The line between good writing and bad writing is often hard to locate, but when you cross over it, in either direction, you definitely know it. Also, a person can be a bad writer and a good storyteller, or a good writer and a bad storyteller. I think I may have the knack for storytelling and if I had the time, I might have become a good writer as well. Once when sitting in a Pizza Express in London with a good friend by the name of Peter, he said he had finished reading The Woman in White Marble and that “I had found my voice.” Now as I see the end in sight of my second Drake Ramsey mystery, I am desperately hoping Peter was right.

When I come across good writing and storytelling, it’s a supreme pleasure and often for me what makes both good is a mystery. Oh, I have a general idea or feeling for why it is good. When you read a beautiful sentence you know it. When you finish a well-structured novel you know it. But I don’t necessarily know it in a way that would enable me to duplicate it. When I read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson I was blown away. How did he do that, I asked myself. I’m no literary theorist so any thoughts on how he did it would be less than helpful. But I do know this: I don’t write like Johnson and so there is no sense in trying to copy him, or Nabokov, or Vonnegut, or Morrison for that matter. Copying someone this late in life is a waste of time. Might as well go for broke and at least pretend you’ve got style.

The title I’m going for for the almost completed Drake Ramsey mystery is The Krewe of Boo Murders. It’s distinctive I think. Of course the editor and publisher might give it a big thumps down. The book is written in the first person, Drake being, hopefully, the reliable narrator. Towards the beginning he muses:

Ever since I moved to New Orleans nine months ago…I’ve been going down to the Café Du Monde in the French Quarter, getting in the take-out line around the back, buying a small bag of beignets and a large coffee au lait, finding a public bench by the café, sitting, watching the tourist, and listening to a three-man band – trombone, trumpet and sax - playing some damn good jazz.

In case you don’t know, a beignet is a square donut covered in white powdery sugar, a lot of sugar. And there’s no damn hole either. The person who created the first beignet was nobody’s fool. I mean, a no-hole donut. How great is that? But the things is, there’s three of those square suckers in a small bag and you really have to eat them while they’re hot. When I first started this routine, I took two of them home and discovered that when they get cold they’re crap. When they’re hot, they’re out of this world. But let’s face it. A deep fried no-hole donut smothered in sugar has got to be reducing my 840,429,424 allotted heartbeats. I’m just saying. Makes you think.

So, one gets the “feel” for the character and his style, which is my style. Much later in the novel, however, we get this from Drake:  

Campanel entered the cabin first. Zuri followed, and as she stepped across the threshold she suddenly stopped in her tracks. Her hands by her side formed into tight, violent fists. Her whole body was tense, like a coil ready to spring. I watched her as she forced herself to ease her fists, her body, and take a first and then a second step forward. As soon as I entered behind her I saw why she had frozen…

It was obvious that Nia had been secured in the far left corner of the bayou cabin. The back wall between the open door and the side wall was splattered with blood. Attached to the side wall was a chain and shackles. The Palmetto branches, that had covered her otherwise naked body, had been placed on the left side of the cabin. Other than the chain, two shackle, and Palmetto leaves, the cabin was empty.

In my mind’s eye I could see Nia lying on her back covered with the Palmetto, both ankles shackled, the chain securely attached to the wall. Looking more closely it was clear that where she had been lying there was the stain of human waste and urine. I wanted to grab some of the Palmetto leaves and hide the image that was settling deep within us.

Whatever my style, it has to embrace both humor and tragedy, beauty and brutality. Well, we shall see. The writing is almost done. You can be the judge.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger


[1] Salter, James. The Art of Fiction. Charlottesville/London: University of Virginia Press, 2016. P19.

[2] Ibid., p. 22.

Tuesday
Apr052016

My Journey Through a Google Time Portal

I tried to keep up with the social media stuff, though my online existence is limited to Facebook, Twitter, and my own website, The Back Road Café. I read that I should google myself from time to time to see what happens. It always seems a bit embarrassing to google one’s own name so I do it late at night when no one is watching. The other night around one in the morning, I closed my study door and went to Google. The result was somewhat distressing.

The first entry for Dale Rominger was:

tDAR: The Digital Archaeological Record A Service of Digital Antiquity
An Archaeological Survey of the Beaverhead National Forest Madison Ranger District
Author(s): Dale H. Rominger
This Resource is Part of the Following Collections: National Archeological Database (NADB).

Well, it was me alright, but Google had opened up time portal and spirited me back to my days in Montana as an aspiring young anthropologists with a specialty in archaeology. I had a very vague memory of driving to some conference with my lead professor, Dr. Dee Taylor, and two other students, both of whom were friends. Actually, Harley and I were roommates, meaning I was living in his house in Missoula as we both hammered away at a M.A. in anthropology. Debra was my on again off again girlfriend, also in the M.A. program. I remember we went with slide projectors and notes and not a little anxiety. Harley’s throat closed up on him and he could barely speak. I rushed out to get him a glass of water. It didn’t help. Debbie did well. I had been off caffeinated coffee for over a year and decided that morning while waiting for my time slot to start again. Not a good move. Nonetheless, it was agreed by all that I had done a great job, casually turning to my slides, abandoning my notes to address the audience more informally. It was my first taste of public speaking. On the way home at the end of the day we kept telling Harley life would go on. He didn’t believe us.

Of course, I had no idea what my talk was about sitting in my Seattle study well past midnight. I scrolled down assuming my address would be below the title only to read: “This resource is a citation record only, the Center for Digital Antiquity does not have a copy of this document.” There was no link to the actual document, but there were links to enable me to share this citation on Facebook, Tweeter, and if I wanted to email a friend. And I could Cite this Record: An Archaeological Survey of the Beaverhead National Forest Madison Ranger District (tDAR id: 239465). Why I would want to share a citation with no content was not explained.

Well, this was more than a little sobering on a cold raining night some forty years after the conference. Why the hell is a reference to a presentation I cannot recall to a small archaeological conference in a Montana town I can’t remember somewhere around 1976 the first item to appear when googling my name? I mean, no wonder I’m not selling any of my books! And to pile on the insults, the actual presentation having something to do with archaeology in Beaverhead National Forest Madison Ranger District was nowhere to be found.

I have kept a few items from this period of antiquity from my own life. I went to a small bookshelf I have in my study closet and found An Archaeological Survey of the Helena National Forest, June 1976, “an archaeological surface reconnaissance of specified portions of the Helena National Forest” conducted July 1 to September 19, 1975. Apparently the purpose of the survey was to “provide an inventory and evaluation of cultural resources in those specified areas where management activities such as timber sales, mining, and development of recreational areas would have potentially disturbing effects.” I say “apparently” because I can’t really remember, but I did write that in the introduction. So, it must be true. What I do remember is getting a hefty per diem (for 1976), staying in a Motel 6 when not in the mountains, and missing my on again off again girlfriend. Why I still have the report on my shelf, having moved it from Missoula, Montana, to Berkeley, California, to Silloth, England, to Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to London, England, to Seattle, Washington is anyone’s guess.

The second document from my Montana anthropology days is entitled High Altitude Aboriginal Occupation in Southwestern Montana. The purpose of this report? To “demonstrate a methodology combining the analysis of inter-site and intra-site data and ethnographic data to deduce cultural behavior” and to “use this methodology to interpret high altitude archaeology in Southwestern Montana”. For this little adventure I stayed in Wisdom, Montana (population 25 way back in 1977) when I wasn’t walking along the Continental Divide. I would go up into the mountains for two or three week periods during which I never met another human being. I would then come down to Wisdom for three or four days. I learned that when returning to Wisdom it was best not to shower before going to the small restaurant for dinner. And it was also best to keep wearing my cowboy hat, though I found this more difficult.

Believe it or not, Wisdom had a second hand bookstore (Wisdom was surrounded by Montana farms, so while the town had a population of 25 people, the area had a lot of people, relatively speaking). In the bookstore I found A Brief History of the United States, published 1871. Inside the book were folded aging brown pieces of paper, I think written by Edna Cardwell. One piece of a paper has the name Edna Cardwell at the top and then begins: “On Queen St. in Portsmouth at a tavern door about one hundred years ago there lived a woman by the name of Mistress Stavis.” There is also a report on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a paper with the words “They have a lovely dance room” at the top and “I was into Earnest’s room yesterday” at the bottom.  

I remember a few things from those Wisdom days. In the small restaurant I sat at the counter. I was reading a small copy of War and Peace with paper not unlike that in a Bible. The rather attractive woman who was always there behind the counter and served me each time I came in, asked me one day why I read the Bible so much. I showed her the book was War and Peace, but it didn’t make much of an impression on her. When I finally left Wisdom at the end of the summer the woman gave me the coffee cup I used each morning. I was quite moved one day when I stood on the very top of the Continental Divide, one foot in the East and one in the West. At night along the Divide, the Milky Way was as big and bright as life itself. I remember on one particularly beautiful day walking up a creek, which became a stream, which became a trickle, which became a moist patch near the top of the Divide. I sat there looking at that patch of wet for some time, in my mind retracing the flow in reverse, imagining the river down below that now I knew started as a wet patch at high altitudes. I had found the source. One day at dusk I sat on a high bluff looking down on a huge stretch of lowlands. I watched a couple of wolves run down a deer. The smell of sage was ever present. As I sat there, watching the wildlife, the sun disappearing, I felt organically connected to the earth, to Earth, and took a handful of soil in my hand and watched the stars appear in the sky. It was one of those experiences that are not easily articulated, an experience that probably necessitated me being alone. Later that night it rained like there would be no tomorrow. I remember that being away from human beings for most of three months was probably very good for me.

None of this has anything to do with my Archaeological Survey of the Beaverhead National Forest Madison Ranger District. I am pretty confident that that presentation is lost to history, more invisible than Edna Cardwell’s story about Mistress Stavis. As it should be.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Mar152016

One Year Home: Calculating my Health

For thirty years I paid for my healthcare through my taxes. I was happy to do it. That meant when I went to my GP at our local surgery because I had the flu or when I went to the hospital for major surgery, no one asked me for money. No one asked me for my insurance information. No one denied my care because I didn’t have money or insurance. I was just taken care of. In the UK that is called the National Health Service and it’s been going strong since 1948. (Some years have been stronger than others. The Tory Party dislikes, or even hates, the NHS on ideological grounds. As a result, the NHS tends to be weaker when the Tories rule the land, but that is not to imply that Labour governments are perfect.)

The three basic principles of the NHS are that:

  • It meets the needs of everyone;
  • It be free at the point of delivery; and
  • It be based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

Because the NHS is paid for by the taxes of the people in the country, it is indeed a “socialist” program and institution. Because of that simple fact, because it is paid for by the people for the people, such an approach to national healthcare is offensive to the majority of Americans (44% of Americans supported Obamacare, with 56% against. By party affiliation, 75% of Democrats, 27% of Independents, and 14% of Republicans favored the law overall). It is also important to note that Obamacare is far from the kind of socialized medicine of the UK or Canada. Obamacare demands that every citizen have health insurance from a private company, or if they cannot afford insurance from a for profit company, they sign up for government assisted care. After living for thirty years with the NHS it is difficult to comprehend American attitudes towards healthcare. Here it really is business first and care second. I watched a Republican presidential debate at which the candidates were asked what should be done with a veteran who could not afford healthcare. One candidate said he should die in the street and the audience applauded. When in Italy I had lunch with an American woman (it’s a long story) who told me with complete confidence that the people of England hated the NHS because it was socialism and provided terrible care. When I informed her that I lived in England for years, had had excellent care from the NHS, and that the popularity of the NHS often polled in the 80’s, she told me I was wrong. How do you respond to that? The actual truth was dismissed because it ran contrary to her ideology. Ideology trumps the facts. Ideology is more important than the actual care of human beings. (I have written about the American irrational attitudes towards social programs in the past: I’m a Member of an American Socialist Collective.)

I’ve been back in the US for a year. Because of my age and the fact that my wife works, my primary insurance is Medicare and my secondary a private health insurance company. That means that most of my medical care is financially covered, though not all. Yes, my healthcare is no longer free at the point of delivery, but I can afford to be cared for. I’m fortunate to be middle class. And yet, every time I walk into the doctor’s office or pick up a prescription I know it is costing me. I suspect the notion of walking into the hospital for triple by-pass heart surgery not resulting in large bills, is incomprehensible to most Americans. It’s not their fault. I must seem incredibly naïve to my American friends.  Of course, you have to pay something! There are no free lunches!

For the record. The NHS wasn’t free either. I paid for it through my taxes. However, the way the healthcare system is financed is crucial. In the American system you could never say: Everyone’s needs are met; no money is demanded at the point of receiving care; care is based on clinical need not a person’s ability to pay.

From icosystem.comWhat all this means in practice for me now that I’m back in the U.S. is more interesting than dramatic (the lack of drama is solely because I can afford health insurance). What all this means is that every time I see my doctors I calculate, at least vaguely, the cost. For example, I have had to see my doctor three times in a two weeks period. The resulting bills have started coming in. Now each time I see my doctor I think to myself, “This is going to cost.” I know, it’s crazy because I can afford it, but I can’t help myself. On my last two visits it was necessary to check my heart – I’m fine, but it needed to be done to eliminate heart issues. When she was done my doctor sat with me and said she would refer my to a heart specialist for further tests if I wanted. It was an interesting moment. I sat there and thought, “If I were in London I would probably do it, but now it will cost. So, hmmm…”

I suspect that my friends and acquaintances here would find my hesitation and questioning interesting, if not silly. But after thirty years being cared for by the NHS it is difficult not to notice that here you’ve got to pay each and every time for each and every procedure.  

Now some home truths. First, I’m getting great care here and, as I have said, it is not a  financial hardship. Second, I’m very aware that I received good to excellent care through the NHS partly because of where I lived. Third, Obamacare is making healthcare more affordable and available for Americans than it ever was. Fourth, the Tory Government in the UK is in the process of selling off the NHS bit by bit (some of the companies taking over healthcare have begun to suggest that the principle free at the point of delivery be revisited). The reason the NHS is being privatized: Ideology and economics, of course. Tories share the American dislike of socialist programs and in privatizations a small percentage of people get rich, or richer.  

I like my new doctor. She’s great. I’m more than pleased that my wife works and provides me with health insurance. I’m glad the U.S. congress, in a more enlightened mood, created Medicare. I’m fairly secure in the knowledge that I won’t go broke because of my health needs. And yet, I can’t shake the impression that I’m now living in a less civilized society. Thirty years, remember.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Monday
Mar072016

One Year Home: American Politics and the Art of Survival

After thirty years away, I’ve been back in the United States for one year. It feels like I’ve returned to Never-never land, a Never-never land that has gone over to the dark side. The U.S. is a two party political system, or at least it was. Some are now saying that with the Republican Party forming into separate tribes each with their own ideology, organization, candidates, elected officials, and big time financial backers, the Grand Old Party is just a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, Andrew Bacevich on Moyers & Company argues that if Donald Trump becomes the GOP candidate for president he will “demolish its structural underpinnings…” and that if he were to win in November, his election would “alter its very fabric in ways likely to prove irreversible.” Perhaps that’s why the party’s old guard establishment is doing everything it can to defeat its own front runner.

It’s difficult to fully comprehend the utterly bizarre carrying on of the Republican Party given I have been looking in from afar for thirty years. It’s surreal. It’s crazy. It’s a little bit frightening. All the party candidates are so far to the right that I suspect even good old racist Dixiecrats of yesteryear might be put off if we could whisk them into the present. John Kasich is always described as the moderate candidate, but he can only be considered moderate in comparison to the others. To what degree various candidates are actually qualified to be president is questionable (though I realize being politically qualified is often considered a detriment by voters). Ben Carson, while lending genuine comic relief to an otherwise painful process, certainly was not qualified to run the country (one thinks of the Egyptian pyramids with delight). Ted Cruz often sounds like he is addressing a prayer meeting rather than a political rally, while at the same time creating a mountain of blatant lies and dirty tricks that can only impress (hated by his Republican colleagues in the Senate, he is hardly the party establishment’s chosen savior). Jeb Bush, who was the party establishment’s assumed king (remember back when – it seems like another life time ago), proved to be an embarrassment drawing ever decreasing crowds, driven once to demand people applaud one of his killer soundbites. Despite his scolding tune and the embarrassed look on his face, no one applauded. It was painful to watch. Marco Rubio simply can’t learn to fly (though he is now the great Hispanic hope for the party). Chris Christie, a man who “tells it like it is”, jumped ship after demolishing Rubio and then tied his future to a billionaire loud mouth racist xenophobe (as a result of his endorsement it seems his career path has been stopped in its tracks, much like traffic on a gridlocked bridge).

And what is to be said about Donald Trump? It is Trump who is exciting the Republican voters, millions of them. He would be nothing without them. They love this self-proclaimed admirer of Vladimir Putin, who identifies Mexicans as rapists, says he would date his daughter if only she weren’t his daughter, declares he will torture prisoners and will defy international law by killing the children and spouses of terrorists, will defy constitutional law by banning the entry of people into the U.S. based on their religion – just to list a few of his more infamous declarations and attitudes. As Robert Johnson pointed out in The Guardian, Trump has abandoned the political coded language begun when the Republican Party began wooing southern Democrats – think Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan – and instead speaks his racism and hatred for foreigners out loud. Interestingly, in this Never-never land of political antics, Christian Evangelicals and fundamentalists are flocking to this biblically illiterate, multi-divorced, philandering, womanizing, foul mouth, man’s man. I guess if Jesus were an American politician he would be just like Trump. Or, it may be the case that American evangelicals never were about God and good Christian purity, but instead were about, are about, political power. As I’ve always said, we’re cultural beings first and religions beings second. Still, it is, in a perverse way, enjoyable to see this level of hypocrisy coming from the purest of the faithful (imagine the evangelical response if Trump were running as a Democrat, which could have happened if the wind had shifted ever so slightly).

Caricatures of Republican presidential candidates by DonkeyHotey with Flickr Creative Commons License. The GOP debates have descended into shouting matches. I hardly knew what to do while watching the candidates literally shouting over each other in a chaos of juvenile, delinquent, male machismo (Carly Fiorina dropped out early, though she was as butch as the next guy in her aggression and lies). Poor Carson had to plead with someone to attack him he was so lost in the chaos. I had to wonder what their mothers were thinking. And if you wanted to believe, despite the evidence, that the candidates for president of the United States of America had not actually landed in the landscape of an adolescent dystopia, your hopes were dashed when Rubio implied that Trump had a small penis (I say “implied” but even kindergarten children knew what he was saying). To the relief of all Trumpoids, Trump made it perfectly clear in the next debate that he actually has a big penis. The Republic can rest in the knowledge that our possible next president is well endowed. And we shouldn’t be surprised at Trump’s wanting to clear up the penis controversy. Trump was glad to tell the world that when Mitt Romney was running for president and seeking his endorsement, that if he, Trump, had told him, Romney, to “get on his knees”, the blow job would have been freely given.

This is the Party of Lincoln.

When John McCain ran for president against Barack Obama, his town hall gatherings and political rallies grew more aggressive as the campaign went on. At one point a man implied an Obama assassination might be a good idea. At a town hall gathering a woman said that the president of the United States couldn’t be a Muslim born in Kenya. To McCain’s credit, just as it seemed he might lose control of his followers, he said unequivocally that Obama was a good man, a good family man, a good Christian, with whom he had differing opinions. Fast forward to now. Trumps rallies are not only aggressive, they have become physically violent toward protesters. What does Trump do? He screams:

“Get them out, send them out of here!”

Thrown them out into the cold. Don’t give them their coats. Confiscate their coats. It’s about 10 degrees below zero out there. You can keep his coat..."

I’d like to punch him in the face I’ll tell you that…We’re not allowed to punch back anymore…You know what they used to do to a guy like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” 

This is the Grand Old Party.

We’ve stepped through the looking glass. The GOP’s last nominee for president just gave a speech vilifying the front runner for the next nominee. One of the leading contender for the nomination believes “the moon might be as intimidating as Obamacare” and claims he was “bitten by an octopus”. Our leading politicians are challenging each other’s penis size on national television during what are supposedly political debates, while the man with the biggest penis, apparently (I’m going to have to take his word for it), wants to date his daughter and still believes Obama was born in Kenya.

Screenshot from Pierre Enouyed video on winningdemocrats.comTrump has been called a demagogue and a fascist. Hyperbole is never far from political discourse, but I do begin to wonder if we’re stumbling through the fascist looking glass as well. An attack on the First Amendment which he promises if he is elected president  – to prevent people from writing negative things about him – should give all of us pause. He is also being compared to Hitler, so add Nazi to the list. Recently at a rally Trump had his followers raise their right hands and pledge to vote for him come the important day. He too raised his right hand. Surely they saw what they were doing.

What a time to come home. What will I do if Trump actually does become president? I ask because I don’t have the confidence of the people who claim Clinton will easily beat the crazy man. She is so utterly hated by so many, and she comes with more baggage then an Airbus A380’s filled under belly. It seems there are only two choices and they are contradictory: radical disengagement or radical engagement.

Radical Disengage: If maintaining some semblance of peace and sanity in my life is my primary goal, this option is not unattractive nor is it unreasonable. It will mean letting go of any lingering mythical underpinnings I might have concerning the often stated exceptionalism of the United States. We will be just another nation state that, through anger and selfishness, elected and celebrated a dictatorial authoritarian fascist concerned about the size of his penis and his precious ego. It will mean turning off my radio and television at the news hour, forgoing newspapers, filtering my social media accounts, and refusing to talk to family, friends, and colleagues on all matters political. It will probably also mean ceasing to watch NCIS. It will mean letting go of the wider world while holding on to my smaller one. And I will have to do that until they come for my neighbors, friends, or family, or maybe even me. It will mean compromising and redefining my feelings about and understanding of what is moral and ethical. It will mean all that, and if it is President Trump, I may do it all.

But, of course, I won’t. How could I? However, in those infinite number of parallel universes, some of the Dale’s would, and I wouldn’t blame them.

Radical Engagement: Even contemplating it makes me weary, but what’s a person to do? What such engagement might mean is not clearly defined because Trump is not clearly defined. Will he as president actual do, or attempt to do, the things he shouts about? Will he build the great Trump Wall along the Mexican U.S. border, for example? Assuming he will be true to his word, then we can guess what is in our progressive future. Online petitions galore. Rallies and marches. Writing and speaking. Seeking solidarity with like-minded people. Visiting friends in prison. Going to prison. Grappling with the tension between Gandhian nonviolence and violent protest (let’s not forget that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wanted to assassinate Hitler).

For those my age, or there abouts, we will also have to fight being enveloped by a kind of political depression and weariness. We will have to avoid thinking about Vietnam, Contra wars in Nicaragua, death squads in El Salvador, and South African apartheid. We will have to, through some mysterious and yet unidentified means, be politically born anew to once again fight the good fight, if indeed any fight can ultimately be good. We will have to defend our language, our values, and our political positions. We will have to vote, and not just when it seemed convenient or when we're most frightened. And will have to cease being cautious.

Of course, I could be wrong about a President Trump. It could be a President Cruz, in which case we will have to also become Defenders of the Separation of Church and State. Trust me, we really will not want to lose that fight.

{Next week: One Year Home: Calculating my Health}

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Monday
Feb292016

One Year Home: Could be Better, Could be Worse

As of February 26, 2016 I had been in the United States for one year after living in the United Kingdom thirty years. Oddly, I still feel newly arrived in the land of the free and home of the brave. On occasion people ask me “how it is” or “how I’m doing” being back. It’s always my sense that my answer is never quite satisfactory.

The truth is, the answers are complicated and complex, and are, perhaps more than I want to admit, dependent on the particular day I’m asked. But a year has now passed and I thought I would take some time to answer for myself how it is and how I’m doing living again in the United States. So, for the next four weeks I will be writing about being home:

One Year Home: Could be Better, Could be Worse
One Year Home: American Politics and the Art of Survival
One Year Home: Calculating my Health
One Year Home: Apply Pie and Jesus

Today I’ve posted a response I made to two American friends living in the UK. They asked how I was adjusting. As you read this, and the other reflections to follow, remember, I was 30 years outside the U.S. 30 years is a long time so I am bound to see things differently…

Three things that frame my thoughts before I begin. First, my glass is always half empty and often nearly empty (you may find this link interesting: Hermeneutics and the Half Empty Glass). Second, the move back to the US was not my idea. Third, I lived in the UK for nearly 30 years (perhaps the most important of the three).

Depending on what I’m thinking about and doing at any given moment, adjusting to living back in the US is easy or difficult. When I home reading, cooking, writing, having dinner with a friend, watching The Big Bang Theory (and sports – I hate soccer, bored by cricket, frustrated by rugby so I’m enjoying football and baseball again), talking to our neighbors, etc., it’s very easy being back. When conscious of what is happening in the country, it is very difficult being back. But basically, it is very difficult for me not to think of the US as a civilized society.

Over half the people in this society are offended by the notion of providing healthcare for citizens, never mind visitors. This offense is, of course, driven by an intellectual failure grounded in an ideology most people don’t even understand. In a sense the prevailing ideology is a kind of anti-ideology, meaning it is an ideology against something not for something. It is negative at its heart. Instead of believing in something, American democracy for example, it’s about not believing in something, socialism and communism (though I doubt most people even know what the words mean). It’s about protecting America from a threat that does not exist. Belief, whether in something or not in something, often trumps facts and molds reality to its own image until reality seems warped into absurd fantasies (for example, the percentage of Republicans who still believe Obama is a Muslim from Africa is disturbing).

So here in America medical care can be very good to excellent if you have the insurance and can pay for it, or it can be nonexistent if you do not have insurance and cannot pay, though Obamacare is making strides in fixing this problem. I have insurance through my wife’s job. I’m also in Medicare. I have a good local doctor and the clinic that has taken over my prostate cancer care is very good. Obviously, though we have insurance, we also receive bills each time we have medical care. Just as obviously, we pay for medication. These bills are not a problem for.

A personal theme begins to emerge here. While I have good healthcare, I’m disturbed that my country wants to cuts loose those who cannot afford healthcare and opposes universal healthcare in principle. Would I have felt the same if I had not lived for 30 years with the NHS and received excellent care? Perhaps not. We’ll never know.

I lived for 30 years in a country that does not have a gun culture, is not a weaponized society, and would be shocked to see a man and a woman walk into the grocery store with 45’s on their hips and assault weapons over their shoulders. In America that is considered an expression of our freedom, not a social pathology. At our Christmas Eve church service a large man with a long bulky coat came in and sat by himself. He didn’t want a hymn book or an order of service. He sat the whole time with his hands in his pockets and a mean look on his face. Two members of the church came up to me afterwards and asked what my strategy had been if the man pulled out a gun and started shooting – I was standing close to him throughout the service. I said I hadn’t had one and hadn’t thought of having one. They told me to think again. Welcome to America. 

What I said above about healthcare and ideology is even more profound here. Americans love weapons, engage in a rather dubious interpretation of one bit (the Second Amendment) of a 226 year old document, and celebrate violence perhaps more than other cultures (our love of football is not simply because we admire skill, for example). It seems no amount of death, no amount of dead children, can turn Americans away from their weapons. Living in Britain I was insulated by culture and distance from all the talk, news, attitudes, and utter crazy nonsense of living in a weaponized society. But here, no insulation. Most states have legalized open carry and concealed carry. Armed men with weapons suitable for warfare take over government property. Children shoot their siblings by mistake. Imagine going back in a time machine and getting some parents from the 1950’s and bringing them back to a school having a massacre training day where some of the kids are doused in red die and are asked to play dead. All the stats demonstrate that people with weapons kill more than people without weapons, but Americans live in a strange ideological trance that denies reality.

There are 350 million Americans, and while 90 of them shoot and kill 90 other Americans each and every day, it probably won’t happen to me. I’m probably safe, and yet, I’m disturbed living in a country where an obvious social pathology is grounded in and protected by an interpretation of a document written 226 years ago. While I will more than likely not die by a gun, I’m disturbed that so many do. And I’m disturbed by the fact that ideology renders statistics irrelevant. I am disturbed by social insanity. (See: Guns versus Spoons ~ And the Best Killing Machine Is? and An Open Letter to American Gun Owners) Would I have hated it as much if I had never lived in the UK? Perhaps not. We’ll never know.

The US is a two party political system and one of the parties has gone off the rails, controlled by Christian fundamentalists and rightwing ideologues, and again, I am no longer insulated by distance and culture from the craziness. What does it say about a country that offers up a dozen crazy and scary people for the presidency? How can it be that Trump is so popular? What does the future hold for such a country? We no doubt over use the world “fascism”, but we are beginning to see what an Amirian version would look like. I sometimes listen to the candidates and feel as though I have stepped into an alternative reality. Am I the one who is crazy? I don’t have to vote for crazy candidates, and yet I’m disturbed because I live in a country where millions of people will and do.

I could go on, of course, with other examples (I haven’t even mentioned race!), but you get the idea. But why do I worry about guns when I probably will never be bothered by them? Why do I worry about a country’s attitude to healthcare when I have, and can afford, good healthcare? They are good questions that I find difficult to answer.

Part of it is that I had been away for so long and had found my home, and all that that implies, in a country that in some ways is very different (and not so different in other ways, of course). My neighbors here in our little community have heard gun shots not far from our homes. No big deal. Probably a drive-by. It seems no one was hurt. But it is a big deal if you lived for 30 years in a place where that was almost impossible! People shooting people shouldn’t be normal.

And I guess the issue of adjustment is linked to one’s attitude about involvement in and awareness of what is happening beyond your home and your immediate relationships. Should one be aware and informed or not? I suspect it is healthier not to be. But I have always been a news junkie so the chance of me putting blinders on is remote (See: Pursuing Knowledge and Happiness ~ The Impossible Possibility). At the bottom of all this, I have difficulty being a member of a society that is blinded by ideology, a society that was birthed in weapons, racism, and violence over 200 years ago and now seems unable to transcend the darker side of its nature.

Now, you might say that I am only talking about one half of the country, and to a certain degree that is true. But the other half control many local, state and federal legislatures. While the Occupy Movement was moving and important, the Tea Party movement elected people to local, state and federal governments and has thus shifted legislation and policy to the right. The other half, that red half, is often loud and aggressive and they vote. They can carry their assault weapons into the café and may enjoy the moment when those of us drinking our coffee wonder if they are getting a drink or are going to shoot us all. To make it worse, at least for me, that possible enjoyment they might feel is protected by constitutional ideology and legislation. What a crazy place.

Am I unhappy? Well, reading this I bet you think I’m miserable! I’m not. I love the openness and friendliness of Americans, and I don’t find it shallow as some of my Brit friends claim it is. There is a strong progressive tradition here and in many ways we lead the world. I am actually secure in a home that we can afford and I love. Our church is not only open to all, it wants to be open to all. And it is not passive and frightened, but eager to live being inclusive in practice and policy. Things are cheaper!! And there is something about the notion of “coming home” that should not be dismissed.

Of course, all this may be mute because I have no choice but to adjust or live in my disturbance.

Next week: One Year Home: American Politics and the Art of Survival

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Feb232016

The GOP, Mephistopheles and the Theater of the Absurd

My oh my, what has happened to the Grand Old Party, known also as the Republican Party? Robert Reich declared the GOP died in 2016 and is now a nightmarish mix (my words not Reich’s) of Christian evangelicals/fundamentalists, libertarians, market fundamentalists, corporate and Wall Street titans, billionaires, and working-class Trumpoids who love Donald. Reich says that “each of these tribes” has its own funding, ideology, political organization, and perhaps most importantly, its own candidate. He’s is not far wrong.

It’s a useful and accurate description of what has happened to the party of Lincoln. But I need more. I need some way to get my head around how, in the United States of America, a party can actually go beyond any sense of reasonableness, and even political morality, and become this: rationalizations for rape (usually appealing to God to say it’s okay); teaching creationism[1] and independent design in schools; denial of evolution and science itself; denial of climate change (Senator carries snowball into the Senate to make his point!); the relish for total war; birthers; the belief that separation of church and state came from Adolf Hitler; the encouragement to carry your guns to picnics, churches, and political rallies; the claim that the failure of Medicare is the same reason the Soviet Union failed; the claim that death panels will kill old people and people with Down Syndrome; abstinence programs that have led to an increase in sexual transmitted diseases and anal sex among young participants[2]; urging us to practice abstinence when we’re by ourself (don’t masturbate!); shutting down the federal government because you can’t compromise with evil; American exceptionalism gone completely into the air; carpet bombing terrorism; never ending tax breaks for the super-duper rich; the celebration of anti-intellectualism…And that’s just the tip of the GOP iceberg. You might think the party has gone as far into Looneyville as it can possibly go, but you’d be wrong! Enter Trump and his Trumpoids stage right.

Donald TrumpJust when you think things can’t get any worse, Trump normalized in our political discourse:  Violence (he has encouraged his fans to physically abuse an African American with a Black Lives Matter T-shirt at one of his rallies, says he wishes he could punch a protester in the face); xenophobia (Mexicans are rapists); religious discrimination (Muslims put on data base and blocked from entering the US); racism (blacks are lazy, wouldn’t want them counting my money); sexism (women are essentially aesthetical pleasing objects, and let’s not get into the issue of blood); rude language (Trump has used the world “fuck” in his speeches, called an opponent a “pussy”); dishonoring a prisoner of war (I like people who weren’t captured); insulting the appearance of an opponent (look at that face, would you vote for that); machoism (I’m the worst thing that ever happened to ISIS); questionable…what, I’m not sure (I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her)…And again I’m stopping at the iceberg’s tip.

Trump is like a cartoon character anti-hero come to life before our very eyes. The more outlandish and frightening he becomes, the more popular he becomes among Republicans. Are the majority of Republicans become Trumpoids? Can it really be happening?

What is happening is at once comic, surreal, and dangerous. Surely we have stepped into some kind of reality altering vortex, where Republicans have sold their souls to some pathetic Mephistopheles to gain…To gain what? I guess a purer and greater America (without healthcare, of course).

Years ago I read every Václav Havel play I could get my hands on. His play Temptation comes to mind now[3]. The play takes place in a science institute that is facing an outside threat. The Institute itself gives the “impression of bureaucratic anonymity” comprised of “arbitrary decisions of someone in authority rather than because they were actually needed.” For our purposes, we need only be concerned with the Director of the Institute, Foustka, a scientist working at the Institute and Fistula, an invalid in retirement who turns out to be the Mephistopheles (a demon featured in German folklore who first appeared in as the demon in the Faust legend). The crisis the Institute faces is its failure to, in the Director’s words, “counter the isolated but nevertheless alarming expressions of various irrational viewpoints…” In the play, “irrational viewpoints” are things like magic, spiritualism, superstition, etc. Foustka, however, delves into the occult which results in the visitation to his apartment by Fistula.

Now, here’s the thing. While both trying to comprehend what is happening in the Republican Party and not spiral into a black hole of depression never to surface again, I realized that:

  • The Institute is the Republican Party organization;
  • The Director is the Party establishment;
  • Foustka represents the members of the Party, quickly becoming Trumpoids; and
  • Fistula is Donald Trump.

Foustka is kneeling in the middle of his room, surrounded by burning candles on the floor. He draws a circle around himself and the candles. He opens an “old tome”. He studies the tome and eventually murmurs something. There is a knock on the door. It is Fistula.

Fistula comes offering Foustka his services in magical wonders but also seeks Foustka’s support. Foustka at first struggles, resisting the offer. Should he accept Fistula’s offer? Should he reject him? Acceptance of the offer and the person are one and the same. He wonders, is this Fistula is for real? Foustka asks himself, what does he actually know about me and my wants? To which Fistula responds, “I know for more than you about what I know and what I don’t know, and how I know what I know.” Eventually, and after much debate, Foustka forms an alliance with the Mephistopheles, Fistula.

As the play progresses Fistula makes good on his claims of super powers and Foustka is drawn further into a new reality. The Director, states that Institute is a “kind of lighthouse of true knowledge” and declares that “what we think today, others will live tomorrow!” But to his dismay, “Something serious has happened. The virus has lodged where one would least expect it, but where, at the same time, it can cause the most damage – that is in the very center…” The virus is, of course, the Foustka/Fistula relationship and all that it means.

Foustka under attack from the Direct begins to question what he is doing. But Fistula reassures him that all is well: “Did we not agree first of all to carry out a little innocent experiment? And it succeeded beyond all expectation, don’t you thing?” But Foustka continues to doubt what he, they, have done, accusing Fistula of being the devil and declaring he wants nothing more to do with him. Fistula, never lost for words and never short of confidence, says, “I am no more than a catalyst, helping my fellow men to bring out something that exists in them…We only live once, so why should we spend those few decades that are allotted to us stifling under the gag of life-denying scruples? You know why you called me a devil? To rid yourself of responsibility…We are engineers of our own fate…”

As their dialogue continues Fistula begins to laugh…

“Foustka: What’s so funny?
Fistula: May I be absolutely frank?
Foustka: Be my guest.
Fistula: You are!
Foustka: You’re laughing at me, is that it? Of all the bloody cheek!
Fistula: There’s nothing wrong with you saving your skin by dint of a little skullduggery – after all, that’s precisely the procedure that Haajah and I…
Foustka: Who?
Fistula: Haajah, the spirit of politics. We prompted you to act as you did. But you shouldn’t have forgotten the rules of the game.
Foustka: Rules? What game? What the devil are you taking about?
Fistula: Does it not occur to you that, like everything else, our collaboration also has its rules? Do away with your scruples as much as you like – you know that I’m all in favour of that. But you really shouldn’t try and cheat the one who is guiding you on this exciting, I might perhaps say revolutionary, path you know. Revolution too has its rules.”

By the end of the play Foustka and Fistula understand each other, their relationship, and the consequence of their actions. Fistula to Foustka: “You did not fall into any trap of mine, you came a copper thanks to your own pride, which led you to believe that you could play both ends against the middle and get away with it. Foustka about Fistula: “I am a conceited idiot who thought he could use the devil without having to sign his soul away to him. As if the devil could be deceived.”

Václav Havel believed morality and politics are inseparable and addressing one without addressing the other is absurd. He believed that good people who enter politics can be corrupted by the trappings of power and thus fail to pursue the common good. And while Mephistopheles may walk among us (metaphorically speaking, for Havel had little time for supernatural devils), in the end we choose our own paths. It would be interesting to know what he would make of Donald Trump and his Trumpoid Republican followers.

Watching the GOP embrace the shouting, rude, violent, racist, xenophobe Trump is like entering the realm of the absurd. Or, perhaps I lived outside the U.S. too long to realize that the absurd is the new reality.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger


[1] The idea that two centuries of consistent scientific data by thousands of logical minds is wrong and that Earth and life were not created by a causal chain of events but by an infinitely knowing, loving and powerful--yet seemingly indecisive and possibly bipolar--deity in less than a week. Its strongest argument is its compelling assertion that if you don't believe in it, you'll go to Hell with everyone Jerry Falwell finds personally distasteful and you'll all roast for eternity while demons gangrape you with white-hot tridents – Urban Dictionary http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=creationism

[2] Obama recently stopped federal funding for such programs. It is interesting that federal funding for abstinence programs was never considered socialism by religious Republicans.

[3] All quotes are taken from: Havel, Václav. Temptation. Faber and Faber: London, 1988.

Monday
Feb152016

For the Pleasure of Doing and the Search for Sublimity

Once again someone asked me why I write and why I keep The Back Road Café going. Answering the second question is easy enough so I’ll start there. As long as people want to write for the website, as long as people visit the site, and as long as I enjoy it, I’ll keep it going. We’re still getting a healthy number of people from around thirty countries visiting the site each week. The first question, however, is a little more interesting and complicated to answer.

The subtext to the question is: Why do your continue to write when your books are not read by that many people and you’re not making much money? It’s a good question. It’s highly improbable that I’ll ever become a bestselling author and thus will never make much money writing. Indeed, I spend money writing. So, let me deal with the money thing first.

I’m lousy at marketing. I’m not bragging about that, implying that I’m much too consumed by my art to soil my hands in the dirty business of marketing. Each time someone from the publisher calls me on the phone and asks how things are going, I’m embarrassed. I should be marketing, but I don’t. And indie writers are caught in a dilemma –it may be true that traditionally published authors are also experiencing this dilemma (a friend of mine who published with a traditional publisher was told she had to market her book herself). You have to spend money on your book to make money, but the more you spend the harder it is to even break even. Here’s how I look at the money I spend on publishing, editing, and marketing my books. It’s like money spent on a vacation. You’ll (probably) never get the money back, but you have the experience for ever. It should be noted, I haven’t given up the silly hope that my writing will go viral. It’s just that I don’t justify the expenditure on the assumption that it will.

So, if I’m paying for an experience, what is it? What keeps me writing? First, I enjoy it. It gives me pleasure. Most of my writing is done between 10:30 pm and 3:00 am. I sit in my study facing the window and it seems as though the world is asleep. It’s peaceful. I crack the window open, even in the winter, for some fresh air. On those nights when it is raining, of which there are many here in Seattle, I love listening to the rain. I enjoy the “hopelessly sentimental music of the rainfall” (Kurt Vonnegut from God Bless You Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine). And I find the actual act of writing – the thought, research, challenge, excitement, satisfaction – pleasurable. Of course, there is more to it than enjoyment.

It seems to me, it’s always seemed to me, that one of the most fundamental things we can do as human beings is create. Creativity is, I believe, a core defining characteristic that makes us human. It is important to understand that when I speak about the act of creating something, I am not speaking about the quality of the fruits of the creative act. The creative act itself has prima facie value. The quality of the fruits – how people judge the outcome, the product, whether it is deemed good or bad – does not diminish the value of the act itself. The fruit of my creative act does not determine the value of the act itself. Or said another way, the fact that Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral are no doubt judged better than my The Woman in White Marble, does not also imply their acts of creativity are better than mine. In the act of creating, Morrison and I are equals. Our resultant books are not. What is happening as I sit in my study in the early hours is not better or worse than what happens when Roth sits at his desk. The acts of our creation are not to be appraised as better or worse in some kind of hierarchical ranking. The fruits of our actions can be.

 Given what I’ve just said, it will come as no surprise that I resist the notion of a hierarchy in creativity, and yet, I must admit there is a hierarchy in the resulting fruits of creativity. Those fruits when shared with others can underwhelm, offend, bore, entertain, challenge, inspire, transform. At its best, the fruits of creativity can be sublime: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration; to elevate or exalt especially in dignity or honor; to render finer, as in purity or excellence; to convert into something of higher worth. Which all goes to say that the fruits of human creativity, at their best, can make us new. A creative fruit that bores us will be less valued than a creative fruit that transforms us.

Let’s be honest. If I were to take up composing, nothing I could create would ever match the sublimity of Mozart. Not only would Mozart’s music be judged better than mine, it would be better than mine! In a hierarchy of the quality of music, my music would be inferior and would be sitting towards the bottom of the pile.

You may be saying to yourself that it is pretty convenient that I separate the act of creativity, where the act has equal value, from the fruits of creativity, where the fruits are better or worse, given that I am no Roth or Morrison. Perhaps. But I’m fairly sure that if I ever wrote a book that was deemed excellent, indeed sublime, I would still insist on the distinction between acts and fruits. The greater challenge to what I have just said is the accusation of elitism. It is easy for me to be creative and value creativity, and to actually claim it is fundamental to what it means to be human, sitting in my comfortable, warm, dry study in Seattle with plenty of food in my belly. The charge of elitism needs to be addressed, but it is for another day. However, I can say that I have seen some pretty amazing creativity in a township in Zimbabwe and in a tiny village in northern India. But, as I said, for another day.

For now, if you ask me why I write even though I will never be rich and famous, the answer is: For the pleasure of it all and because it makes me a better human being.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

Monday
Jan252016

Congo Square

Congo SquareIn 1724, when New Orleans was ruled by France, the Code Noir became law throughout Louisiana. The Code Noir established Sunday as the day that all inhabitants could take the day off each week, thus extending to enslaved Africans the privilege. This right continued under Spanish and American rule of New Orleans. The day became known as “free day” and Africans and their descendants gathered on Sunday afternoons in numerous locations in the city. However, in 1817 a city ordinance confined free and enslaved Africans to one gathering place. That place was a public space in the “back of town” known as Congo Square.

A person by the name of Henry Knight visited New Orleans in 1819 and wrote that Africans met in Congo Square on the Sabbath and “rocked the city with their Congo dances.”[1] At times over 500 people gathered in the Square and danced, drummed, clapped, and sang in traditional African celebrations. Apparently Sundays were quite noisy in New Orleans on Sundays, though “noise” might not be the correct word. These celebrations continued until ten years before the city was occupied during the Civil War. Africans and then their descendent met at Congo Square, participated in African religious rituals, sang in their own languages (of course), and played musical instruments from their home lands. In time influences from Haiti and Cuba melded with African traditions and musical styles evolved until one could recognize a particular New Orleans style. If you are looking for the origins of New Orleans jazz, many insist you must go back to Congo Square to find it. The square was also the site of African markets where people bought and sold items they gathered, hunted and made. The square will forever be associated with African  Heritage and culture in New Orleans[2].

Congo SquareCongo Square is still there, now part of Louis Armstrong Park, 32 acre area in Treme which also includes the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium and part of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. I find Armstrong Park to be a very pleasant place to visit, and have been there during a jazz festival which included some great food. However, I have been told while sitting in the Treme Coffeehouse that the building of the park was quite controversial and included the removal of houses that had been homes to people in Treme for generations. Also, the park is surrounded by a large fence that is locked in the evening thus making it unusable for local people who work during the day.

Congo SquareWhen I have visited the park, I was never sure where Congo Square begins and ends, but was certain when I was standing in the Square itself. Today there are two huge and beautiful Sycamore trees in the Square. I did my best to find out if the those two tress were present when enslaved and later free Africans gathered, sang, danced, and  worshipped in the Square. No one seemed to know, which probably means I didn’t ask the right person or read the right source. However, I did discover that Sycamore trees can live from two to four hundred years, so I like to think they were there. More than once I have stood under the trees and tried to imagine a Sunday afternoon and evening a long time ago. I was not very good at traveling back in time and “feeling” the presence of the gatherings. It is not that I am incapable of having transcending experiences when the linear nature time dissolves and for a brief moment you find yourself existing out of time.[3] It has happened to me on a square in Newcastle upon Tyne, England and at a supermarket in California. It has happened to me on a small boat on the Ganges and sitting on a mountaintop at dusk in Montana. It almost happened to me while walking in the “slave holes” in the slave castle at Cape Coast, Ghana. But it did not happen to me standing in the dust of Congo Square. I have wondered if my inability to transcend time in Congo Square has something to do with the fact that my people were the slavers, not the slaves. Perhaps. But I must say, however, that Congo Square did not make me feel unwelcome.

Congo SquareCongo SquareCopyright © 2016 Dale Rominger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Anku, Willie. “Principles of Rhythm Integration in African Drumming”, Black Music Research Journal 17, no. 2 (Autumn 1997: 211-238.

[2] If you are interested in reading a good book about Congo Square I recommend: Evans, Freddi Williams. Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans. University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press: Lafayette, 2011.

[3] Of course I realize that “a moment” is in time, but I don’t know how else to say it.

Tuesday
Jan192016

Anglican Communion Embraces Its Dark Side

On January 14, 2016 the Anglican Communion suspended the Episcopal Church U.S. from voting and decision making on both doctrine and polity for three years. The Communion stated that the Episcopal Church had lost its “vote” but not its “voice”, meaning it was demoted to observer status. The Episcopal Church will not be allowed to represent the Communion on interfaith and ecumenical bodies or dialogues. It cannot serve on the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council. It cannot vote at the Anglican Consultative Council. The punishment, called consequences by the Communion, was a result of The Episcopal Church supporting marriage equality. To read the Communion’s official statement click here

The movement to punish the Episcopal Church was led by the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) which holds regressive, if not oppressive, attitudes and practices toward the LGBT community. Members of GAFCON include bishops from six African countries as well as bishops from Australia, England, the United States, and India. While this is a diverse group I think it is fair to say that the momentum for GAFCON opposition to the LGBT community comes from the African churches. In some thirty-four African countries LGBT people can be imprisoned for years and in some countries for life. Uganda made the news when it legalized the execution of LGBT people, only to backtrack when the international community protested, and in some cases threatened to withdraw financial aid. Now in Uganda being gay or lesbian will only get you life imprisonment. In all these countries the Christian church has been strong supporter of and advocates for such legislation.

Before the gathering in London, GAFCON members had threatened to walk out if they did not get their way, thus causing the much feared break-up of the Anglican Communion. At the heart they wanted the Episcopal Church to be expelled from the Communion until it repented[1]. As such we are asked to view the suspension as a noble compromise. In the end only Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda walked out of the meeting. Ntagali moved a resolution on the second day of the gathering that said the Episcopal Church should voluntarily withdraw from the meeting and other Anglican Communion activities until it repented. The Episcopal Church refused and the Archbishop walked out.

I have a four simple statements that encapsulate the decision taken in Canterbury, but let’s be clear about what happened. This was not about who we invite to dinner. It was the church aligning with a faction that calls for the imprisonment, and in some cases, the execution of people in the LGBT community. No amount of faith language and referencing Jesus can hide the nastiness of this decision. Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, from Nigeria and the secretary general of the Anglican Communion said the Western Churches should stay out of African moral debates. The irony of his statement is interesting, to say the least, given he and his fellow Africans lead the way in suspending a Western church for moving forward in its moral debate. It seems Idowu-Fearon would be happy for the churches in the Communion to let each other get on with their lives in their respective countries as long as Western churches do what he thinks is right.

My four simple statements:

  1. As is often the case, those who threaten to break and destroy get their way, while those who are punished remain.
  2. It is almost always the case that church unity proves more important than justice.
  3. It gets real old real fast when oppressors asks for understanding and forgiveness from those they oppress even as they continue their oppression.
  4. The decision was an repudiation of the Enlightenment values upon which our Western societies are built. (Liberal churches in the West are largely what they are because of the Enlightenment, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming into a more human place. Fundamentalist churches in the West embrace a selective opposition[2] to Enlightenment values and often do so overtly. The Anglican Communion’s decisions regarding the dignity and rights of LGBT people and marriage equality oppose Enlightenment values and are out of step with Western society.)

Finally, one of the most embarrassing moments in this entire fiasco happened when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, apologized to the LGBT people for the pain inflicted upon them by the church. Bottom line: Sorry, but deal with it because church unity is more important than your suffering, even if that means your brothers and sisters being imprisoned for life.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Rominger


[1] It was hoped that the Episcopal Church would either repent, which means ends its support and inclusion of LGBT people and marriage equality, or voluntarily expel itself.

[2] I say “selective opposition” because while fundamentalist Christians in the West oppose, for example,  human rights for certain people, they are happy to embrace their freedom to speak, to assemble, to protest, as well as their medical care, flying to nice places on holiday, watching their wide flat screen HD TV, etc.

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