Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Zookeeper's Wife

I just finished listening to Diane Ackerman's poignant book on CD. The writing is lushly Ackerman - what a master of the sensory detail. The book chronicles the directors of the Warsaw zoo during WWII, and describes the scrappy resistance, and Poles who risked their own lives by saving others. Ackerman also zooms in close to the loneliness and deprivation of this terrorizing occupation - the loss of ritual, childhood, and normalcy, as well as more primitive concerns like heat, nourishment and safety.
I am struck by the way some people, like Jan and Antonina Zabinski, are so highly evolved - incredibly moral, empathic, and driven. This family stands out in relief against the brutish behavior of the Nazis, but Ackerman shows that they were plenty remarkable before their country fell under assault. We have our own version of the Zabinskis here in Youngstown, and of course in every community where I've lived. I wonder of what stuff these qualities are made. We are lucky to have them among us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy Freeloaders

Somehow the critics of the Occupy protests have gotten the idea that what protestors want is a handout. A recent editorial in the Youngstown State student newspaper excoriated Occupy Youngstown for criticizing corporate greed, and went on to accuse unions for causing our economic woes, since their demands force corporations to send our jobs overseas. A few of my colleagues are critical of those who went to private school and now want help with their debt. They are proud of the fact that they chose a state school, and now work hard and live within their means.
And so they should be. They do work hard, and their being at Youngstown State makes it a better place. But I haven't seen any signs from Occupyers that say THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD SEND ME A CHECK SO I CAN GO HOME AND WATCH TV. They do tell a myriad of stories of also working very hard, and still being crushed by student debt, or losing homes, jobs, pensions, or not getting medical care.
Let's take the editorial first. Say this young journalist has his way, and the small bit of union power we have left is hamstrung. Let's say we are successful at competing with overseas workers, and we keep our jobs at the wages currently being paid to Mexican and Chinese workers. It seems to me we'll still have the problems many of the Occupyers are pointing out.
It costs a billion dollars to run for president, hundreds of millions to run for Congress. If the last competition to corporate money, unions, no longer exists, then corporations will have the only voice in the process. GE and Halliburton profit immensely from our military actions. Should they help decide what military actions we pursue? Should BP, Massey and other energy corporations shape our environmental and energy policy? Should private prison corporations shape our immigration policy? Big pharma and insurance companies medical policy? Walmart labor policy? JP Morgan Chase et al finance policy? Cargill and Monsanto agricultural policy? That's all happening now - and by shape, I mean spending untold money lobbying and financing campaigns, and being in on the legislation.
This is what throws me about the young journalist. I feel rotten for the country we are handing off to the young. The climate crisis, dead zone in the Gulf, mountaintops blown off, 30,000 domestic gun deaths a year, seemingly endless war and militarization, crumbling infrastructure, gutted education, lack of access to good medical care and a host of other problems are causing real suffering for millions of Americans. I've read that for every five Chinese families who rise up into the middle class, two American families drop from the middle class into poverty.
I would add that a decreasingly informed and analytical public has been an important driver. I'm not implying I have the answers - the questions are complicated, and I'm learning as fast as I can.
But it seems to me that Americans sometimes talk like we've been hit by an asteroid - we all have to pull together, tighten our belts, be responsible, live within our means, get through these hard times. But the crisis we're in is man made. It's not an act of nature that we are not investing in what would make us a better country - education, infrastructure, low-carbon energy, higher wages. And it's not like we have a smaller government - our increasing surveillance and massive military costs us plenty. And making the rich as rich as they are has taken a few decades of sacrifice for the rest of us, but we got there.
I don't think that only rich kids should be able to go to good private colleges. Smart and hard working middle class and poor kids should be there too. As wealth has accumulated at the top, it's taken access to opportunity along. And even for those of us living unheroic lives, I think if we work hard we should have our basic needs met, including consistent, affordable medical care, good schools for our kids, clean air and water, parks, adequate public transportation, libraries, a chance at homeownership. I think that's the definition of the American dream. We still have the largest economy on earth. But now we are the fifth most unequal nation on earth. Do we really want to be number one?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Poetry Book Discussion Group

On the first of November we'll again meet in the Lemon Grove on Federal Street in Youngstown. We'll be talking about Philip Metres's chapbook Ode to Oil, published by Kattywompus Press. If you order it here, you'll be supporting a wonderful new press in Cleveland, as well as adding a commendable book to your bookcase.

Phil Metres has been a longtime voice in our country, advocating for peace and connection. Kattywompus describes this collection as "a poetic weaving-together of the history, geology, and culture of fossil fuels in the age of big oil."

I met a friend recently at the Lemon Grove, and we talked over creamy tomato soup and grilled sandwiches. I had a dark roast coffee and my friend a black tea. We came out warmed on the inside, and delivered lunch to the artist and installation crew putting in a set of three sculpted bikeracks on the city square. The next morning the playful and curving pieces were alive with light, all presence and absence in their graceful lines.

If you're around, I'll see you on the first, and we'll take up our own conversation. If you ride your bike, you can park it on the new sculpted rack. If you don't get the book in time, come anyway. Bring an idea for next month.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Poetry Reading and Writing with Nin Andrews

As part of Afternoon of the Arts, Nin Andrews and I will give poetry readings and writing workshops this Saturday, 22 Oct., beginning at 2:00 at the YMCA in Boardman, Ohio. All ages welcome! Free and open to the public.

Occupy Rhetoric

I saw this image going viral, as they say, on facebook.

I don't trust that it's true - lots of stuff is going around without being checked. It's more symbolic, so the truth is, at least in this case, beside the point. (When we're circulating data, however, it falls on us to check out its truthiness.)
Then I saw this on facebook.

I call myself lucky that I have friends with different points of view. I think a vigorous discussion is good for our democracy, and it helps us clarify and challenge our own positions.

However, this isn't a discussion. Both of these images fall far afield. Likely some of the Occupyers are having the communal time of their lives and hope it never ends. And I'm sure some anarchists are hoping government crashes so we can live in some sort of Lord of the Flies dystopia.

But most of us fall in between somewhere, wanting both clean water and those funky red shoes. Let's keep looking for that common ground.