Thursday, April 29, 2010

I have a shaggy lawn full of violets.

Today I bought a reel lawnmower at McQuade's hardware store.  (A tall man in a suit smiled at me and reckoned that I must have a teenage son if I was buying that thing.)   Our grass is too high already to mow, so it's taking some work with a grass whip first.  Well it's exercise and there's no roar of an engine.

By the time I get to the end, the violets at the beginning will be blooming again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I remember when Sinead O’Connor scandalized us by tearing up a picture of the Pope on SNL.  But I didn’t remember that she did it to protest sexual abuse of children by priests.

Historically, there was a time, I imagine, when priestly recruitment in the Catholic Church drew more equally from diverse sources – men overtaken by a genuine passion for the church; men (like youngest sons) who had few opportunities elsewhere; or more generally, men who saw the Church as an institution from which to lead a meaningful, purposeful life – socially, spiritually, materially and even politically; and always of course, men who were suppressing their own sexualities and so felt attuned to the Church’s rhetoric of sexual shame.

As an anthropologist I can appreciate the deftness with which authoritarian religious sects like the Catholic Church have been able to use guilt and shame in order to psychologically bind people to their hierarchies.  But for most people Humanism and the Enlightenment (however vaguely perceived) have granted a soft landing from Genesis’s Fall from Grace and religions lost their moral monopoly.  Religions in the Occident haven’t been able to use violence to enforce participation for generations, and the churches have lost much of their social and temporal power.  They are not at the center of civic and philosophical life like they once were.  And we now live with a consumer capitalism that puts people’s anxieties about sex to work in other ways.

I think priestly recruiting draws from a much smaller pool now, especially when it entails the sacrifice of celibacy.  As shame about hetero-sexuality becomes less and less useful as a tool for attracting and incorporating followers to authoritarian religions, this seems to have left a higher proportion of those still widely condemned as sexual deviants (notably closeted homosexuals, pedophiles and misogynists) to be susceptible to the psychological alchemy of the Church’s sexual shaming.  We’re left with a church that attracts to its understaffed priesthood more than its fair share of men who are afflicted with sexualities about which they are conflicted, in denial, closeted, clandestine, repressive and so on.  Which brings us to the scandals of today.  And I think it is probably no coincidence that not just shame about heterosexual sex, but rampant homophobia among the churches’ rank and file (tied so often to the shame of repressing personal sexual desires) is so crucial for maintaining passionate adherence to the authoritarian churches – whether Catholic, Baptist or Anglican.

There is no scriptural need to hate the homosexuals (as demonstrated by scores of Christian sects), but  many churches do, despite the obvious drawbacks of trying to keep the power of sexual shame in play.  They have struck a devil’s bargain: hate the gay, purge the self, love the church that has delivered me.  These churches should be ashamed of themselves, and I think one day they will be.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The moon lodged pearl-like in an abalone cloud.  A dull, heavy west wind was bringing rain, and I unhitched the Colombian hammock from the climbing tree.  The gray cat aquiver was padding along each branch above me as I moved to unhook the cords and carabiners.  I remembered that someone said -- cats are creatures not so much nocturnal, as crepuscular.  So I whispered that word, crepuscular, and touched the cat's out-clawed feet above me.  Startled, sniffing, she lowered her head,  rasped my knuckle twice with her tongue and moved to a branch above scanning the night around.  And the tree-branch lichen whispered something under my restless fingers.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A headline in this morning's NYT illustrates the power of words to frame an issue.  The article, stimulated by the recent mining deaths in West Virginia, was entitled "2 Mines show how safety practices vary widely in US."  "Safety practices" -- isn't it good that mines have these things to protect the miners?  Hmmmm.  But they "vary"?  Well it sure sounds like a technical issue that these companies have to keep track of as they keep their workers safe.

Now imagine instead a headline like, "Some mining companies are more willing than others to gamble with workers' lives for higher profits."

It's exactly the same topic -- the reality that worker lives are put at risk for company profits; some companies are more careful than others with the lives and health of their workers; and the profit-motive often gives them an incentive to take chances with their workers' lives.

But that sure sounds like more of a problem than variance in safety practices.  It almost sounds life and death.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Harrah’s hotel and casino sits on the river between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa – so that gambling doesn’t technically take place on Midwestern soil.  I wasn’t there to gamble but to give the keynote address to a gathering of a couple hundred meatpackers.  In particular these were union organizers for poultry, pork and beef plants from around the country. 

Normally, this kind of task would fall to Axel or Joe, but neither of them were available, so I had taken the morning flight out of Providence.  Axel had warned me that I’d need to be the opposite of professorial for this crowd, so I’d left my suit jacket and black shoes at home, and cleansed the powerpoint presentation of its pretentious phrases. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I said to Nico, "All these books on the steps.  Don't they have a home somewhere?"

"No," he sighed, "they're hobos."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I took two loads of mildewing cabinetry, old drywall scraps, and decaying particle-board toward Westerly.   All of it was stuff that shouldn't have been in the basement in the first place -- nothing really of value. The town has put out dumpsters at various places for storm-detritus.  The section of route 91 to Lakeshore drive had been well underwater in at least four places a week ago and the area still looks like it has a bad case of bed head.  Fences buckled under the push of water and debris, new potholes and eroded gullies, sand and gravel in the woods.  And the water in the swamps and rivers is still seriously high -- ready to gush over the banks with any new dousing of rain.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Above the highway are two birds -- sparrows or finches -- locked in deathfight.  The morning sun lights through the spinning featherball, that is fluttering, sputtering downward.  Too fast falling toward the destruction of traffic.  But the sparrows, or the finches, are intent only on their own murders.  Now my car is there.  Somehow the featherball misses the center of my windshield and rolls upon the air cushion that encases us.  In the mirror I see a car close behind me, but the birds drop and are swept under the front bumper.  Do they rise again from their little double miracle, or are their battle and their bodies just obliterated by the thousand cars behind me?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

San Francisco's Market Street was sunny and full of people.  Everyone was in good spirits, the pale tourists, the suits chattering into their bluetooths, the hipsters in ill-fitting clothes.  I sat and drank my coffee on a stone bench that circled back around a pillar of vegetation.  In a paper bag beside me I had a peanut butter cookie that I was breaking pieces off.   A crazy woman, blonde and raggedy and mute sat down beside me and I picked up the cookie.  She gave me a look of theatrical affront -- as though I had accused her of trying to steal my cookie.  She stood up, shook her matted hair out from her bandana and slowly circled the bench looking around but always returning to me with her look of affront.  I ignored her mostly.  Finally, she stopped few feet away and poured a splash of coffee onto the sidewalk.  She giggled and skipped away as a dozen ratty pigeons arrived.  They gathered in front of me, walking even under my legs, tilted heads staring upward with their little reptile eyes and leaving dime-sized dollops of pigeon shit beside my feet.  I put the remainder of my cookie back on the bench.  The woman left, but the pigeons didn't.

Friday, April 9, 2010

I flew out to San Francisco Saturday -- on a bit of working vacation, but also to give Madi and her partner Diana a hand with things.  After years of feeling little but dislike for cities, I'm beginning to find them interesting again.  Or at least ones like San Francisco that actually realize some of the potential of what cities should be.

After the downpours of Easter Sunday, the city and its air was freshly washed and scrubbed.  The retro, brightly colored streetcars glowed.  People walked, seagulls cruised, morale was clearly high.  From high spots - Bernal Hill or Holly Park - I could see the whole city sprawled below and its bridges out into the bay.  From low spots the colorful, whimsical diversity of San Francisco's hill hugging architecture entertained the eye.  From cafe or bench I could watch the panoply pass.  And the farmer's market at the Embarcadero would break Monica's heart.

I'd go out to find a restaurant for lunch, but both Madi and Diana are excellent cooks, so we mostly ate dinner at home together with their little girl, Lily.  On Tuesday I worked for a few hours in the morning, but then took the tram to the SF MOMA.

Although most modern art leaves me feeling slightly foolish (either because I suspect I'm being duped or just clueless) there are always a few pieces that  make me pause and engage.  But it was the photography -- documenting the scapes of the city and the state -- that was stunning and made me question how I could be traveling without a camera.

Thursday I flew back to sodden Rhode Island and it was good to be home.

I arrived home to lilacs pushing out leaves, yellow blossoms on the currants, and two fruit trees blooming in pots and needing to be planted.  But a rainy Friday re-filled the pools in the yard and doused any chance of gardening.  Just as well, since I needed to get back to work for Cultural Logic.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Flood of 2010.  When March broke the record for wettest month ever in Rhode Island history.

The ground was already soggy when it started raining on Tuesday, and by evening the smaller streams were out of their banks.  By Wednesday the rivers had overflowed as well.  The Blackstone River flooded and the Patuxet River cut off I-95 between here and Providence.  But it was the Pawcatuck River and its tributaries down here that wreaked havoc for us.  The Wood River sunk the Woodville-Alton Road and overran the route 91 bridge to Alton threatening to burst the dam there, cutting us off to the north.  Downstream, below the merge with the Pawcatuck the Burdickville Crossing was under water a hundred yards wide, cutting us off from the east.  And to the south, although the Bradford bridge was above water, the road was not and the river ran across and through the Bradford Dye Works.  To the west and south, Chase Hill road was cut off and route 3 down toward Westerly was flooded at French Village (though people were getting around that for awhile by getting on the bridge via Old Cemetery Road).  Westerly, Stonington, Pawcatuck, Hope Valley, Old Mystic and so on were all flooded -- many without electricity as substations were inundated.  For a time route 216 was impassable beneath the Ashaway river and our only way out was route 3 up to 95.

Our sump pump ran non-stop for 2 days -- never draining the water down enough to switch off.   I had to swap in our spare several times to keep the motors from burning out.  On Wednesday, when the battle was being lost, our house was pretty much surrounded on three sides by a new pond of sluggish-flowing water.  The water rose to 5 or 6 inches in the basement despite two pumps running simultaneously.  If the electricity had gone out we would have quickly had several feet.

Monica was trying to get an interview for a job at Brown and actually tried to get up to Providence on Wednesday, but was stymied by the Patuxet and all the flooding in Warwick.  On Thursday morning, I-95 was still blocked, but she found a route more inland and managed to get to her meeting.  By Friday, the rivers were falling and some of the bridges cleared for traffic.  And now, with the ground utterly soggy, people scan the weather reports hoping for a few dry weeks -- knowing that the next rainstorm is going to lay itself right down on top of all this wet.