November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Category — Commentary

Gun Nation, Under God

 

GUN NATION

© 2014 by Larry Vienneau

 Gun National Art

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Gun Nation, Under God

America’s Changing Gun Culture

By John Smelcer
Contributing Editor

I’ll preface this memoir with a few declarations. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been shot. I’m also a coward. In the current political climate, it’s too dangerous to be on either side of the fence when it comes to gun control issues. I’m no martyr. I don’t intend to be buried alive in an avalanche of hate mail. I plan to sit on the fence where it’s safe. What I want to do is to tell you about what I’ve witnessed in my own life in an attempt to discover how and when America’s gun fanaticism began.

This is no call to arms (pun intended).

You can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing about a mass shooting at a school, college, or workplace. It is a sad truth that there have been 75 school shootings since Sandy Hook (yet, amazingly, most gun shows are still held in public school gymnasiums). In response to increasingly frequent news, we have added new words like “active shooter” to our lexicon. Most classrooms now have an emergency plan posted for how to respond to an active shooter on campus.

Television, cinema, rap music, and video games have been scapegoats for America’s increased gun violence.

But I’m not convinced that’s where the blame should fall.

I was born half a century ago during the hot summer of 1963. The Cold War was at its height. President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t be assassinated for half a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. for another month and a half. And John Wayne still swaggered across the silver screen shooting bad guys by the dozen. It seemed as if every other television show or motion picture was a western or a war movie. Looking back, I’m surprised at how much gun violence I was exposed to in my childhood.

I remember playing Cowboys and Indians or War with neighborhood boys, each of us armed with realistic-looking plastic machine guns and pistols, not like the green, yellow, and orange play guns today. Each came with a limitless supply of ammunition. No need for extra clips or reloading. Up and down our street until supper time could be heard our juvenile skirmishes.

“Bang! Bang! I got you! You’re dead! Here comes the Germans!” (or Japs or Russians; it was, after all, the Cold War) Blast ‘em to hell, Boys!”

Those of us lucky enough even had plastic bazookas and hand grenades.

“Ka-blam! Your legs just got blown off, Jimmy! You can’t run away! Come back here!”

In the absence of plastic grenades, dirt clods served perfectly well. In some ways they were better, especially the way they exploded shrapnel everywhere when they hit the ground.

I fondly recall that I once held back an entire battalion of Nazis all by myself.

Clearly, America in the ’60s and early ’70s was already a gun nation, indivisible from its firearms. And yet there were no mass school shootings or workplace massacres like there are today.

It should be stated from the start that I grew up in Alaska and that I was educated from elementary school through college in that Last Frontier. I’m also a master teacher with twenty-five years of experience in the classroom. In junior high, my brother and I were on the rifle team. Twice a week after school we lugged our .22 caliber target rifles through the school halls to the indoor shooting range for practice (do public schools still have rifle teams?). As far as I recall, no one ever shot anyone else, not even Billy Ackerman who stole my girlfriend, Clancy Monaghan.

In my senior year of high school, during the Reagan years, our school principal knew that I was a marksman and an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing. In Alaska, many fishermen carry handguns in the event of unexpected, yet not infrequent, close encounters with bears. One day, the principal called me into his office over the school intercom. I wasn’t in any trouble that I knew of — it was my younger brother who usually got called into the principal’s office for fighting or some other infraction — so I entered his office curious to know why I was there.

Mr. Anderson — we’ll call him that because I don’t remember his real name, and I don’t want to get him into trouble (though he’d have to be in his mid-80s by now and long since put out to pasture) — shut the door and closed the blinds that allowed the secretary to see into his office. Our ensuing conversation went something like this:

Principal:        You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you into my office?

Teen Me:        Well . . . I was wondering. Does it have anything to do with the Playboy Magazine stuffed in the library bookshelves between Plato and Plutarch?

Principal:        The wha . . .  where?

Teen Me:        Nothing. Forget I mentioned it. So, what can I do you for?

Principal:        I understand that you are a hunter, that you have guns. Do you have any handguns?

Teen me:         Um . . . um (shifting uncomfortably on the chair). You know it’s against the law to buy or own a handgun until you’re twenty-one, right? I mean . . . I’m still in high school.

Principal:        Of course I know you’re in high school. I’m the principal. But you see, Mr. Smelcer, I plan to go fishing this weekend, and, well, I need a handgun for bear protection. I was wondering if you had a pistol powerful enough to stop a bear.

Teen Me:        I’ll be honest, Mr. Anderson, no pistol is really powerful enough to stop a bear in its tracks.

Principal:        Yes, yes. I’ve heard that before. But a handgun is certainly better than throwing rocks or sticks at the bear.

Teen Me:        I guess. But before you go out into bear country armed with only a handgun, you should first file down the front site.

Principal:        (Perplexed look). Why on earth would I do that?

Teen Me:        So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves the barrel up your a . . .

Principal:        Mr. Smelcer! May I remind you that we are in a school? So, do you or don’t you have a gun I could purchase for such a purpose?

Teen Me:        It just so happens that I have a .44 special I picked up somewhere. Now, it’s not a .44 magnum like the one Dirty Harry carried, but it sure beats the hell out of throwing rocks.

Principal:        How much would you be asking for such an item?

Teen Me:        Hmm. How about $225? I got half a box of shells, which I’ll throw in for free.

Principal:        Have.

Teen Me:        Huh?

Principal:        You have half a box of shells, not got. Got is not a word, Mr. Smelcer. Here’s what we’ll do. Bring the gun and ammunition to school tomorrow. Keep it hidden in your locker until I call for you during second period. Stop at your locker on the way to retrieve the, hurumph . . . item. If it’s in good condition, I think we can make a transaction.

Teen Me:        I only take cash. No checks. Nothing personal. 

Principal:        Cash will suffice.

The next day went precisely as planned. Mr. Anderson called me on the school intercom to come to his office. Classmates taunted me thinking I was in trouble again (twice in two days). I enjoyed my new bad boy reputation. I stopped at my locker to collect the item to transact as arranged. After entering his office, Mr. Anderson hastily shut the door and closed the blinds. After some chit-chat and examination of the item, he forked over the cash. There was no bill of sale. This story and the accompanying vivid memories are all I have as proof of the veracity of the event.

But that’s not my only guns-in-schools story.

As often as public schools are involved in shootings nowadays, so too are college campuses. Fast forward to my college years only a few years later. Knowing that I worked part-time in a gun store — the very same gun store that sold a rifle to Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame — a friend who was a mechanical engineering major asked me to speak to the engineering club on campus about the history and technological evolution of firearms. Several days later, I lugged a pile of revolvers, automatic pistols, and rifles, including several assault rifles, across campus to the classroom where the club met. What a sight I must have seemed! Yet, amazingly, no one called 9-1-1 (In contrast, just the other day a student in my public speaking class at a Midwest university asked me if he could bring a rifle to class for his informative speech. I told him that given the current climate on college campuses, I didn’t think it was a good idea. How times have changed). Nowadays, I’d likely be shot on sight by campus police.

Better to shoot first and ask questions later.

In researching for this article, I asked over a hundred people about their position on gun rights. Aside from the expected reply of “It’s our constitutional right,” a resounding and surprising number said it was our God-given right. Their argument went something like this: God made America, and America made the Constitution; therefore, it’s our God-given right to have guns.

To such remarks, I responded that the Founding Fathers, George Washington included, stated explicitly in handwritten papers that our nation was not born from religious principles whatsoever, to which I’d get perplexed looks as if I had just said that the sky is down. Among those polled, there was a great deal of resistance to the notion of regulating the number of firearms an individual can own at one time. The standard reply was that would be an infringement of our God-given right to pursue our happiness. I pointed out that even Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett probably only had one or two rifles, and single-shots at that.

Where in Bible does it say, “Thou shalt possess guns in plenitude”?

Case in point, a state resoundingly rejected legislation to simply limit gun purchasing to one gun a month —twelve guns a year. I don’t know anyone who buys a pair of shoes every month, and yet voters of that state couldn’t live with the notion that they couldn’t buy more than one gun a month. As Americans, we have the right to own a car and to drive it pretty much anywhere we want. No one really complains when states change speed limits or establish seatbelt laws or laws regarding cell phone use while driving. But try to make the slightest change to gun laws… When did America become so resistant to limitations when it comes to guns?

Every man of conscience declares he would give his life to save a child, whether by jumping in front of a moving vehicle or rescuing a child from a burning building. And yet, unbelievably, these same individuals won’t give an inch to limit guns. I’m a father. I’d give up owning a gun for the rest of my life if it saved a single child, mine or yours. To give a child the chance to live a full life, to experience the world, to marvel, to dream, to love, to have a family…

According to recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, over 31,000 Americans died in 2010 by firearms, 11,078 of them by gun homicide. That translates to 3.6 people per every 100,000 citizens. In contrast, Canada, which has a gun ownership rate approximately the same as other developed nations, reported a firearm-related-death rate of only 0.5 people per 100,000.

Clearly there’s something happening in America.

I didn’t do a very good job staying centered on the fence. I leaned too far in one direction, tipping my hat, so to speak. But I care about this country. I’m a little worried about us and our future. As Americans, can’t we examine our collective psyche and ask ourselves when and how we became so fanatical about guns. Can’t we even entertain the conversation without people going ballistic? What happened to us? How did we end up where we are? And, most importantly, where do we go from here?

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About the author:

John Smelcer is the author of over 45 books, including The Trap, The Great Death, Lone Wolves, and Edge of Nowhere. His writing appears in over 400 magazines, including The Atlantic. You can read more about him in About Us, and at www.johnsmelcer.com

About the illustrator:

Artist Larry Vienneau is Professor of Art and Seminole State University. He has collaborated with John Smelcer on numerous projects over the past twenty-five years.

October 31, 2014   Comments Off on Gun Nation, Under God

Politics/Jim Palombo

Google Maps

Considerations,

Re: The Common Core

by Jim Palombo

I just recently made a drive from central Mexico to upstate New York – most likely the last time a trip of this nature will happen for me. In any event, there were plenty of stops and starts along the way and certainly no shortage of thoughts that occurred as the miles passed. In short, one can’t help but fall into a reflective state as places and faces go by.

The day following my arrival in New York, I was reading the Sunday New York Times and was struck by a piece titled, “Common Core, Through the Eyes of a 9 Year Old,” by Javier Hernandez. It was an excellent review of the new curriculum effort for secondary students, one primarily aimed at increasing their critical thinking skills through a modified series of math, English and social studies courses. As an educator myself, I could readily attest to the need for such an effort. Unfortunately, what seemed to be happening more than anything else was a significant amount of frustration and anxiety among the students, teachers and parents involved, particularly in regards to the amount of testing occurring that was meant to measure both the students’ progress and the Core design itself. In brief, and despite the fact that the problem of improving our future citizens’ thinking skills demands a great deal of “work in progress” patience, it seems the initiative is already receiving a failing grade.

Now you might be wondering what my cross-countries’ drive has to do with the reading of this article? Well, the connection is that in reading the article, and still in somewhat of a haze from my mini-odyssey, I started to visualize the Common Core effort in terms of a vehicle, one being driven by “thinking tools” through the chaotic countryside that is American education. Of course along the way, and much like my trip, there would be a myriad of experiences in the offing. In this instance, one would encounter teachers and administrators at both secondary and post-secondary levels, some of whom are well-versed in critical thinking but many who are not. And there would also be the parents, some who are well-versed in critical thinking, but many who are not. And then there would be the overall “general public,” who show no hesitancy in offering opinions at a moment’s notice, yet who also fall into the same “many who are not” category in terms of critical thinking. And finally, there would be the numerous educational and governmental agencies, most of which seem to be suffering from their own gap in clear thinking while continually trying to justify the significance of their existence. In essence, then, this imaginary trip by the Common Core vehicle would be uncovering a slew of “thinking related” shortcomings that reached well beyond the substance of what was actually at focus – shortcomings that coincidentally could well be tied to the frustration, anxiety and impatience being exhibited.

With this image in mind, I began to consider other like journeys, i.e., if similar “vehicles of thought” were driven along other institutional highways, like down the roads of our justice system, or social service processes, or the government, or the military, or the media. They would surely encounter much the same result: people/agencies being upset based on their own shortcomings; people/agencies feeling attacked by something new they really aren’t sure about/comfortable with – in essence people/agencies struggling with doing something (or not doing it) that would make them “think.” In other words, and as the Common Core initiative is doing with the educational process, the systems would be being exposed in more ways than anticipated.

Although I found these parallel thoughts intriguing, I may not have chosen to write about them in an article. However, the next day there happened to be a related piece in the Albany Times-Union, titled “Returning to the beginning for Common Core” by Fred Lebrun. Mr. Lebrun’s focus was on re-examining the pitfalls of the Core effort, especially the rush to put the program into effect in New York. It seemed, especially for the public, that what was occurring in the State provided validation for the assumption that the entire initiative was ill-fated and poorly planned.

The article was well written but, a bit like the New York Times’ piece, it didn’t seem to go far enough in terms of referencing how deep the problems at hand might run, or that a particular “work in progress” patience would be required, or as important, how we might have gotten into the situation in the first place, i.e., what were the motivating factors that fueled our distraction from things like critical thinking and reinforcing our citizenship skills? And this brought me back to again considering not only the Common Core “drive” but also the essence of what the other “vehicles of thinking” trips might uncover.

So the two articles gave rise to this article whose point is that in considering the Common Core initiative, one must be aware that there is simply more to consider. In this light the Common Core experience can be seen as bringing to the surface how change, particularly when addressing deep-rooted issues, should always be considered a long term effort, one that will be riddled with hurdles and one that will be painstakingly intensive and time-consuming. After all, it took us a long time to get where we are today.

And we must keep in mind that the educational arena is not our only area of concern. Despite many well-intentioned efforts most of our social infrastructure (including the public, non-profit and private sectors) is decaying, sagging under the weight of bloated bureaucracies, bloated egos and bloated paychecks, the inconsistencies of policies and procedures, the effects of under or misdirected worker education, and under served clients. And, as with Common Core, we must be willing to absorb the re-tooling tasks, taking special care in not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, especially as it may not be clear as to the substance of either.

As a “last but not least” thought, there remains another important consideration. It appears that with all the problems on our collective table, problems that most of us elders have been part of creating (and continue to perpetuate) we tend at many turns to try to hold the least responsible party responsible for the difficulties we are now facing – the children. In other words it appears that we like to point to them while saying that it’s their turn to take on the concerns of the world. And this is usually done without the requisite acknowledgement of the mess that we have put them in. This of course makes little sense to them, and it also opens the door for them to ask us directly, if by nothing more than intuition, what exactly we have been doing in terms of addressing our own lack of critical thinking skills – the lack of which is much more a part of what’s on our country’s problem-table than are the tests now sitting in front of them.

**The article following Mr. Hernandez’s piece in the New York Times deserves attention. It is titled “Graduates Cautioned: Don’t Shut Out Opposing Views” by Richard Perez-Pena and it highlights several commencement speeches made at the graduations from several of our country’s post-secondary institutions. In short, the speeches all seem to underscore the notion that “thinking,” both on emotional and intelligence levels, is a point of particular importance, something that seems to have gotten lost along our collective way. Comments suggest the need for tolerance of ideas, openness, not being afraid to fail in thinking or in action, in taking a stand and even getting in trouble – all within the context of reaching toward purposes larger than individual gain. So, as with the Common Core initiative, and consistent with what the young college graduates are now facing, the suggestion seems to be that “more” will be required to contend, given what the world has now become. And, hopefully for the better, and hopefully with our legitimate help, they will be up to the task of thinking through what this “more” will actually be. And this certainly spells a special kind of fuel for the “vehicles of thinking” that will need to hit the road on the daunting effort’s behalf.

 

About the author:

Jim Palombo is politics editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

 

 

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August 29, 2014   Comments Off on Politics/Jim Palombo

Fred Russell/The Decency Factor

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John Stewart/Daily Show, July 15, 2014

John Stewart/Daily Show, July 15, 2014

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 AMERICAN NOTES

by Fred Russell

“What America is left with is essentially what it calls its freedom, which comes down to saying whatever comes into one’s head, in thousands of academic and popular journals, in the daily newspapers, in television studios, in blogs, and in the privacy of one’s own home. None of this has the slightest effect on how the country is governed.”

 

1. THE WAY WE WERE

Sometimes the amateur anthropologist finds things where he isn’t looking for them. METV – Middle East Television – [U.S. 48 star flag 1912]is a Christian TV network transmitting from Cyprus to the entire Middle East. In addition to its Christian messages it broadcasts “wholesome family entertainment.” This mostly consists of TV series from the 1950s – Lassie, The Lone Ranger, Andy Griffith, The Lucy Show – and films from the 1930s and 1940s, with a predilection for Westerns featuring John Wayne or Roy Rogers. One can’t help thinking that METV must have gotten one helluva deal on these old films, buying up the entire lot probably, but that isn’t the point. Clearly the clincher was their wholesomeness, for it goes without saying that anything produced for mass audiences back then must have reflected a “moral” America where sex was hidden and Christian virtues always triumphed. The value of these films and TV shows is that they serve as a barometer of the American psyche, for nothing reflects the basic, unspoken assumptions of American life more clearly than Hollywood films and the old family TV shows. What Americans responded to in those years tells us what America was. It documents, indirectly, how Americans saw the world, life, themselves, as no other source does.

You know how these Westerns operate. A morally and sexually pure hero overcomes the forces of evil and gets the chaste girl. This is the central myth of American life. The male audience lives vicariously through the hero. His triumphs, always involving violence, address the viewer’s feelings of inadequacy and resentment, of smallness, especially when the villain is rich and powerful. The purity masks guilt. The Western is therefore emblematic, if not therapeutic, operating on an unconscious level. The viewer finds it satisfying but doesn’t really know why, that is, doesn’t make the connection between the hero and himself in any explicit way, though he identifies with him and often becomes a hero himself in his daydreams. The feelings of inadequacy and resentment derive from the sense of failure that most Americans live with, for the great prizes go to the few, not the many, and for most Americans the great dream is the dream of wealth and fame. These feelings have persisted into the present century and continue to be addressed by Hollywood. On the other hand, the idea of sexual purity and the anguish of sexual guilt went out the window in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The sexually pure hero is no longer a model, serves no purpose; the culture itself took care of the problem, setting up new norms, except among the Christian fundamentalists. Heroes, however, remain moral in the larger sense, as moral purity continues to remain an American ideal. Americans want to be decent but often are not. The hero – an honest cop, a crusading reporter, a self-sacrificing everyman – allows us to inhabit our better selves. The difference now is that the greater sophistication of Americans allows for a more realistic representation of moral ambiguity.

By reviving these films, METV does a great service, providing a snapshot of America’s inner life at its crudest level. By studying them we can discover who we are. It is these films too that will be studied in a hundred and a thousand years to tell future generations what America was. Let us hope that METV preserves them.

2. WHO DO THEY THINK THEY’RE KIDDING?

The complaint of American conservatives that the mainstream media is “liberal” or even “leftist,” heard roughly every
[U.S. 48 star flag 1912]hour on the hour on Fox News and other right-wing outlets, highlights the inability of journalists to understand their own profession. The problem with journalists has never been their political leanings or biases. The problem has always been their competence. They are not, after all, historians or scholars or political scientists, or novelists or dramatists or film makers for that matter. Their ability to understand social or historical processes is limited, as is their knowledge of the world, given their inability to speak the languages of the countries they report from and comment on and consequently their ignorance of the culture, religion, history and politics of these countries. Their minds too, it must be said, are fairly commonplace, as evidenced by their use of language, which constantly falls back on platitudes in the absence of real perception. And yet, incredibly, it is they of all people who determine the way we see the world.

The biases of journalists, or the slant they give to their reporting and “analysis,” are really limited in the harm they do, as their audience is as biased as they are and at the most picks up arguments from them to reinforce these biases. Certainly they can sway public opinion from one day to the next, among “undecided” voters, for example, and in this way influence elections, though the end result of the voting process is to elect representatives with whom the voters are invariably dissatisfied and who are held in very low esteem. It is therefore not by swaying public opinion, and certainly not by creating an informed public, that journalists exert their real influence but by contributing to the public’s ignorance, that is, by presenting an extremely distorted picture of the world that the public uncritically accepts in the absence of any deeper knowledge. One might even say that the journalistic profession and the uninformed public deserve each other. If people really want to understand the world, they should try reading books instead of newspapers.

The belief that freedom of speech and public debate is the cornerstone of democracy is one of the great myths of American life, a self-serving myth that journalists are forever promoting to justify their existence and their methods. The cornerstone of a democracy is its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. Criticism of politicians in the media has next to no lasting effect on American life. The media may “expose” politicians but insofar as it is their criminal activities that are exposed, what is being exposed is almost always an official investigation, making the exposure superfluous. Insofar as the media exposes what it deems to be moral turpitude or simply goes with a headline grabber – adultery, perhaps a homosexual affair, something about marijuana thirty years ago – it is questionable whether it is anyone’s business. As for simple and common government mismanagement – waste and all the rest – the manner in which governments operate has not been influenced one jot by investigative reporting.

This is not to say that journalists do not occasionally hit a home run or take on  needy cases and change lives by exerting pressure in the right places. That is fine, and if the media wish to invest their enormous resources in doing work that the police do infinitely better or pointing fingers and stirring up tempests in a teacup for no practical purpose or taking one out of a million Americans under their wing and solving his problems, that is their business. Admittedly they also manage to intimidate politicians, right up to the President, but the little dance that journalists and politicians do in no way improves the quality of government. In fact, the time and effort invested by elected officials in “spinning” stories represents an enormous waste of the taxpayer’s money – hundreds if not thousands of aides playing the press every morning, rooms full of people dreaming up excuses for the President’s latest mishap – not to mention often injudicious changes in policy or courses of action simply because of the way they might look in the press.

What is left at the end of the day is some drama and entertainment bought by the American public at an enormous price – the invasion of people’s privacy by an army of reporters who will expose anything that gets them a screaming headline. Into the hands of these reporters has been placed one of the most important functions in a modern society – the control of information. Neither in terms of morality or capability are they the right people for the job.

3. STATE OF THE UNION

Most politicians have the same social vision: to improve everything. That means less crime, less poverty, more health,
[U.S. 48 star flag 1912]more education. Some even offer specific programs. None, however, has succeeded in improving the look of society in any significant way. This is not surprising. Politicians are not social scientists, nor are the bureaucrats who administer government offices. Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago that in America it is the least talented men who go into politics. Nothing has really changed, though it is true that as government expanded and offered greater opportunities to exercise power and enjoy prestige, it began to attract more talented individuals with successful careers behind them – businessmen and military men, for example. However, these governed no better than their predecessors, bringing to government skills that were not especially suited to governing a nation, as well as appetites and ambitions that overrode the will to serve. Of course, governments also enlist the services of experts – those same social scientists – but even these are tied to concepts that have never really worked.

Education, for example, is still tied to the old Church idea – propagated by countless generations of churchmen serving as teachers – that as a consequence of Original Sin all men are born evil and must therefore be coerced into doing what is good, an idea that produced rigidly structured educational frameworks where teachers hammered away at the captive child until his head was ready to explode, making study a burden and creating in the child an aversion to the learning process that persists to this day in these same rigid frameworks. The result is a nation of ignoramuses (40% of Americans don’t know that Germany and Japan were the enemies in World War II). Health care, in America, has been so difficult to reform because America is tied to an ideology that makes the idea of socialized medicine anathema, an idea that one might say it took all 20,000 pages of the Affordable Care Act to get around under a system that, according to doctors’ estimates, has been costing America approximately 20,000 lives a year as a direct result of inadequate health care. The inability of Americans to utter the word socialism has cost more American lives than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to this the unwillingness of the government to clamp down on a food industry that is destroying the country’s health and a drug industry that prefers to control rather than eradicate diseases for reasons of profit, and to close down the tobacco industry entirely, and you can only conclude that the government has consciously chosen economic stability over human life.

Crime and poverty in America are higher than anywhere in the West – violent crime five times higher than in Western Europe and poverty twice as high. The two are of course linked. In America, African Americans are poorer than everyone else and consequently commit more crimes than anyone else. Their condition is the direct result of the way they have been treated by the white population, but no government will ever have the courage to assume the moral debt of the American people to African Americans and make real financial amends to them. In all, about 100 million Americans are hovering around the poverty line – an absolute disgrace in what is the richest country in the world.

It can therefore be stated unequivocally that America is not going to solve its social problems. Things can get much worse but not much better because even when things are at their best the main beneficiaries are a relatively small economic elite. The most that middle-class Americans can hope for is a slightly larger margin of comfort, a little less financial pressure. This is the underside of the American Dream, a region inhabited by the overwhelming majority of Americans.

America’s great comfort in these trying years has been the collapse of the Soviet Union, perceived as representing the defeat of Communism and the triumph of Capitalism. But what has been gained? Russia is still the same Russia, a formidable enemy that nothing short of a nuclear holocaust will cause to go away, and in the meanwhile China has produced an economic model – relative entrepreneurial freedom, a mobilized population and centralized, totalitarian, undemocratic government – that is very likely to gain ascendancy over the American model within a very few years, while Western Europe has produced a social model that is considerably more equitable than America’s. What America is left with is essentially what it calls its freedom, which comes down to saying whatever comes into one’s head, in thousands of academic and popular journals, in the daily newspapers, in television studios, in blogs, and in the privacy of one’s own home. None of this has the slightest effect on how the country is governed.

America is unfixable. It cultivates the illusion that it is the greatest country on the face of the earth, and maybe it is in terms of wealth and power, but it certainly isn’t in terms of its social fabric and the way ordinary people live. To fix itself America would have to do something that is almost unthinkable: liberate itself from the American Dream, for what ordinary people in America have seldom realized is that they can live fulfilling and even exalted lives by simply being decent.

 About the author:

Fred Russell is the pen name of an American-born writer living in Israel. His novel Rafi’s World (Fomite Press), dealing with Israel’s emerging criminal class, was published in Feb. 2014 and his stories and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Polluto, Fiction on the Web, Wilderness House Literary Review, Ontologica, Unlikely Stories: Episode 4, Gadfly, En Pointe, In Parenthesis, etc.

 

 

 

July 15, 2014   Comments Off on Fred Russell/The Decency Factor

ULTRA VIOLET/In Memoriam


ultrabyhelene

Isabelle Collin Dufresne, photo by Helene Gaillet

Isabelle Collin Dufresne
aka, Ultra Violet

By Helene Gaillet deNeergaard

June 20, 2014 – New York City

Isabelle Collin Dufresne, also known as Ultra Violet, died a week ago, on the morning of June 14th, 2014, after a battle with cancer. This devastating illness did not stop her from working on her ART even from her hospital bed during the last weeks of her life. She was the ultimate creative artist to the end.

Isabelle was just about my oldest friend, the person I have known the longest in my life, aside from my family. We were 19 years old when we first met in New York City at a cocktail party on Park Avenue and discovered we were practically twins. Born only three months apart in France in 1935, she arrived in September in Grenoble and I appeared that December in Blendecques near Calais and the Belgian border.

Our circumstances growing up were vastly different as she was well protected from the Occupation in Grenoble while my family and I were thrown into the fires of the German invasion and lived a terrifying exodus during the four years of WW II. By the time we met in New York we had both grown up through a wide variety of experiences so that it was easy for us to find common ground to share in the world of creativity we had already embraced.

Over the past 60 years, our lives have been intertwined many times, in painting, writing, theater and movies, while we sometimes would not see each other for several years.

Reconnecting was always a joy as we had much to compare. She became an Andy Warhol Superstar, wrote a best seller Famous for 15 minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol , appeared in some 20 movies and threw herself into creating ART, while I became a well established Professional Photographer, published in many books, magazines and newspapers, culminating in the acquisition of my archives by The Hillwood Art Museum, LI, New York. My memoir of WWII, I Was a War Child, will be published in September 2014.

Her loss creates a sorrowful void for she cannot be replaced by anyone or anything anytime soon.

The attached picture was taken in her studio October 4, 2013, the last time I saw her. So sad.

By: Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard, New York.
 www.helenegailletartist.com

Photo Credit: © Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard
Author “I WAS A WAR CHILD” in progress
Amazon.com: “BOAT BOOK” & “Nautical Terms & Abbrev”

 

June 21, 2014   Comments Off on ULTRA VIOLET/In Memoriam

Steve Poleskie/Now & Then

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Poleskie trails smoke over New York City, ca 1987. Photo by Ginnie Gardiner

SO WHAT?

by Stephen Poleskie

So, I have been invited to write a column for Ragazine, a task I have tentatively accepted, as I, having reached the age of 76, rarely get invitations for anything anymore. Well this is not exactly true—what I should say is that I don’t get many invitations that I am willing to accept. I do get plenty of invitations from people in Nigeria and other exotic places to participate in dubious money transfer schemes.  Not that I couldn’t use an extra 26 million dollars. So let me begin.

“Wait!” you say, “You’re 76 years old? What is the demographic of this here Ragazine?  If I wanted to read the AARP magazine I would be reading the AARP magazine.”

“So what if I am 76?” I respond.

“So what! Did you ever take a course in writing? You’ve used the word ‘so’ four times in your first three paragraphs. That’s bad form old man.”

“But the last ‘so’ was uttered by you.”

“Words you put in my mouth. Who the hell are you anyway?”

“I’m not really sure myself. You can go to Google, type in my name, and there will be pages of references to things that I have done — along with a lot of pop-up advertisements.  Or you can try Wikipedia. . . .”

“Look, if I wanted to go searching the web, I would be searching the web, not reading this article.”

“Then you have the advantage over me. You can stop reading this article any time you want— and I am honored by your attention. I, however, cannot stop writing until I have finished at least 1000 words.”

“So, who invited you to write this column anyway?”

“There, you’ve got it!”

“Got what? . . .”

“Unless you were born yesterday, which I am sure you were not, you are well aware that talent and ability gets you nowhere in this world unless you know the right people.  And, knowing the right people can get you much further than talent and ability — look at Jeff Koons, for example.”

“Jeff who?”

“That’s what people used to call him, until he married a famous Italian porn star named Chica something or other, who had been elected to the Italian parliament.  He went farther to go further.”

“What do you mean? . . .”

“Jeff went all the way to Italy. Anyway, you must know the difference between farther and further; although most people today don’t — including some who write texts for TV commercials. A certain model of Ford automobile is praised in an ad on television for its good gas mileage, which gives it the ability to go ‘further’ than some cars manufactured by Ford’s competitors.”

“It should have been farther. Farther refers to physical distance, as in: When the car runs out of gas, it can go no farther. Further is used to express degree or intent, as in: Let us pursue this discussion no further.”

“You are correct . . . and very clever. Thank you!”

“Thank me for what?”

“. . . for helping me develop what I think should be the main focus of this column, that being education and discussion. People are getting stupider day by day, and no one seems to care. Not that I say I am perfect, but at least I try. Listen to the speeches of our politicians, read the newspapers. A caption under a photograph in an Ithaca newspaper a few days ago was of a man who had one, o-n-e, the baking competition.  And that was just one example.  Are there no proofreaders anymore?”

“It should have been w-o-n.”

“U R rt, as the text message would say, I think, never having sent a text message. Text message speech seems to have invaded the language.”

“You have never sent a text message? . . .”

“You forget that I am 76 years old. I broke both my hands many years ago in a motorcycle racing accident, now I have arthritis — my fingers don’t work so well. I can’t tap those tiny keys like kids do nowadays  . . . especially while I’m driving a car.”

“Have you ever written a column before? . . .”

“Many years ago, probably before you were born, perhaps before even your parents and maybe your grandparents were born . . . sixty years to be exact.”

“Sixty years ago! What was it about? . . .”

“I was in high school, the class artist; I designed the covers for the school newspaper and drew the cartoons. My chief rival was a boy named Eugene. He was considered the class writer.

“The school newspaper had a feature called ‘The Phantom,’ kind of a gossip column that was written anonymously.  It was a well-kept secret who the author of this column was. Now imagine my surprise when, at the start of my junior year, Mrs. D, the faculty advisor for the newspaper, took me aside and asked me confidentially if I would like to be The Phantom.  I probably should have refused, as then, as now, I was rather reclusive and not party to all the gossip and intrigue The Phantom normally penned in his/her column. However, Mrs. D reasoned that, as the previous Phantom had graduated and any new person showing up around the newspaper room would be noticed, I, who was not only the artist but also did most of the dirty work, like cranking on the handle of the mimeograph machine, and so was quite often around, would not be suspect.

“It went well for the first two issues. I kept my ears more open and picked up on some of the school gossip and did my ‘phantom’ thing adding, I must admit, a bit more fiction that was expected of me.

“There was one student who suspected my role — it was my rival Eugene. He was the class ‘writer’ and resented the fact that it might be the class ‘cartoonist,’ who was writing this popular column rather than him. He took every opportunity to get me aside and question me.  But I would not reveal my secret.

“It was in the third column that I made my fatal mistake. I reported on an incident that had happened on the Pringle bus, the one I rode home. At the time it was a big deal. I mentioned that Tony B had tried to kiss Margie K in the back seat. Now-a-days we would have Margie performing fellatio on Tony and nobody noticing, or the stoned bus driver running over the crossing guard and dragging him/her for three blocks while the riders cheered. But, as I said, back then a stolen kiss was big news.

“Eugene jumped on this piece of information like a KGB agent in heat. No one, other than me, who rode the Pringle bus, had anything remotely to do with the school newspaper. He deduced that since I knew this tidbit, and had revealed it, I had to be The Phantom. He confronted me with this fact, but not before having first whispered it all over the school. Mrs. D called me in. My cover was blown. Starting with the next issue Eugene would be writing The Phantom column.”

“So what are you going to write about for Ragazine? . . .”

“Well . . . I have a number of ideas, if I get beyond this first venture, mostly things from my past: NYC gangsters I have known, what I taught Andy Warhol about screen printing, drug dealers who made it big in real estate, hanging out with The Mercury Riders motorcycle gang in the Bronx, the night I saved Peter O’Toole from being kicked out of Max’s Kansas City, drinking sherry in the cockpit with the captain while over the Atlantic on a flight to Africa — all little anecdotes that I hope will be educational and entertaining. You can leave a comment below if you have any suggestions.  Best wishes, and thank you for the read.”

 

About the author:

Stephen (Steve) Poleskie is an artist, and writer. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA, and the Metropolitan Museum, in New York. His writing, fiction, and art criticism has appeared in many journals both here and abroad, in the anthology The Book of Love (W.W. Norton), and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He has published seven novels.  He has taught, or been a visiting artist, at 27 schools, including: The School of Visual Arts, NYC, the University of California, Berkeley, MIT, Rhode Island School of Design, and Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, N.Y. More information can be found on his website: www.StephenPoleskie.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Steve Poleskie/Now & Then

Mark Levy/Casual Observer

 

 

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What’s A Decade?

by Mark Levy

As geologic time goes, a decade is almost insignificant. Dinosaurs, for example, thrived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods for eight million decades. Those two periods, by the way, make up only two-thirds of the Mesozoic Era, which lasted an additional fifty million years or five million decades, if you’re a stickler for consistent units of measure, and who isn’t?

And geologic time doesn’t hold a candle to astronomical time, measured from the Big Bang, almost fourteen billion years ago. I guess I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but I wanted to put in perspective how insignificant a decade can be if you’re measuring dinosaurs or galaxies.

On the other hand, in human lifetimes, a decade is quite significant. For example, it’s unheard of for a person to make it to even twelve decades, although some giant sequoias and sea turtles do better.

Much has been accomplished by humans in a decade or less. The American Revolution, for example, took less than a decade. So did WWI and WWII. Speaking of which, the Nazis were able to wipe out millions of people between 1939 and 1945. The total number of casualties in WWII is estimated to be 60 million. And that all happened in barely more than half a decade.

Most studies of infant mortality measure casualties of babies up to one year old as opposed to child mortality rates that measure casualties of children from one to five years old. Few studies discuss mortality rates of children up to a decade old.

Here is one more depressing statistic before I move on to more pleasant thoughts. When it comes to newborn babies, the United States has the highest first-day infant death rate out of all the industrialized countries in the world. About 11,300 newborns die within 24 hours of their birth in the U.S. each year, 50 percent more first-day deaths than all other industrialized countries combined.

Frankly, though, I’m more impressed with positive things people can do in a relatively short time, like a decade. Take Barack Obama. He lost an election for the House of Representatives in 2000 when he lived in Illinois, but he became President less than a decade later. In ten years, Picasso moved through his Blue Period, his Rose Period, and into Cubism. In Mozart’s first decade and a half, he wrote thirteen symphonies and a few other musical pieces. In 1961, President Kennedy announced his goal to Congress to send an American to the moon and less than a decade later, Neil Armstrong was taking a giant leap for mankind in the Sea of Tranquility.

In 1879, Edison invented the first incandescent electric lamp and during the next decade, made improvements to dynamos, voltmeters, sockets, switches, insulating tape, gummed paper tape, now commonly used in place of string for securing packages, the first electric motor for a 110 volt line, a magnetic ore separator, and a life-sized electric railway for handling freight and passengers, and he obtained 300 patents along the way. He also invented a system of wireless telegraphy to and from trains in motion, wax cylinder records, and — almost forgot — the motion picture camera.

So you see, many significant, depressing, or exciting thing can happen in a decade.

Only 29% of all businesses survive for 10 years. Ragazine is one of them. As Mr. Spock is known for saying during Star Trek’s original one-third of a decade TV run, “Live long and prosper.”

About the author:

Mark Levy is Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer.”   He is a lawyer, lives in Florida, and is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio where his columns can be heard some Saturdays around noon. You can read more about him in “About Us.” 

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buzzkillby Lynda Barretto

March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Mark Levy/Casual Observer

Patrick T. German/Vets Face New Fight

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Returning Vets Joining

Ranks of the Unemployed

by Patrick T. German

Not so long ago I was standing in the dark, 3:00 a.m., waiting for pick-up at Camp Pendleton, California, for my unit that was deploying to Iraq. While I waited for the bus, I spent those final moments comforting my bride who was six-and-a-half months into her first pregnancy. Her eyes welled with tears as she tried to be strong for me, not wanting to make my departure harder than it already was. I still remember watching her from the bus as she walked back to her car in the dark, shoulders low, head bowed with slightest jerks of her body from the sobs she could no longer hold back. Definitely the hardest moment of my life; she was worried for me and I for her. At that moment, I couldn’t wait for my new career as a civilian – someday – where I would never have to leave her again.

I imagined that when the time came, my transition to a civilian job would be relatively easy. However, I had heard through the grapevine that many Marines departing before me were having trouble locating work. It seemed that many vets quickly abandoned civilian job searches to just seek government positions instead. Marines are closed-chested about any actions that could be perceived as failure. So, information about how Marines might be failing to find work post-service weren’t echoing in the halls, much. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the rumors I did hear. I was confident my experience and education would transcend.

In my USMC time I have served in roles ranging from Commander of 400 troops in Iraq supporting five separate support missions in a war-torn country, Executive Officer of a Battalion of 1200 Marines responsible for all aspects of a corporation, to the military version of a Chief Financial Officer for a Recruiting District covering eight states. To ensure my readiness for the job market, I completed my MBA six years prior to retiring. I was told repeatedly throughout my service by military and civilians alike that I would be highly sought after by corporate America. I can still hear them saying, “It’s your leadership skills that set you apart,” or “American corporations love vets.” Others would say, “Your experience in finance, cost analysis and strategic planning for a volatile mission will be coveted by corporations.” So you can understand my shock and confusion that after 10 months of applying, networking, and “getting connected,” I am still waiting for my first interview. That’s right, I am not talking about a job offer, I am talking about the courtship phase: “The Interview.”

How is it that after 10 months and well in excess of 200 jobs applied for that someone with my background, education and record of success hasn’t even piqued the interest of any one employer? Mathematically speaking, you would think that even a half-baked approach to finding a job would have earned at least one interview by now. So where is the disconnect? Is it me or is it a corporate America that means well but doesn’t really see its veterans as, “valued added?” Are they aware that the automated search tools used by recruiters are screening veterans like me out of an interview? What are those magical “key words” the recruiters are looking for? If I don’t have them, does that really mean I am not the best fit for the position?

Like any husband and father, I am concerned about my ability to support my family. I started my job search earlier than most, just to ensure that I would begin my next career before my salary dropped to half (based on pension income). That’s what you are told anyway. In reality, your pension is based off of 74% of your full income. So the 50% retirement is actually more like 37%. Definitely not enough for us to sustain what has been our normal standard of living.

Then there are the VA benefits. I am not sure what congressional subcommittee placed the monetary values on our injuries but I am certain these people weren’t suffering from any of them themselves. Surprisingly, the VA appears to do everything in its power to screen veterans in such a way that they never receive the benefits they were promised. In my own experience, I was originally set to be medically discharged from the Marine Corps after 22 years for combat related injuries at 20%. But we were all are promised 50% at 20 years. Why the sudden change, I have no idea. So instead of sailing smoothly towards my separation, at that point, I actually found myself in a fight just to save my retirement.

Fortunately, I prevailed despite only being given 10 days to obtain medical professional rebuttals. Note: Everyone knows it takes more than 10 days to get in to see a medical specialist, not to mention giving those doctors time to write out medical rebuttals on your behalf. The point that many service members need to know is, despite all that they have been told throughout their years of service,nothing is geared at making the transition easy for veterans to go from military to civilian life.  

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Deployment delay, 2006.

At least vets can count on those corporations that wave the American flag the most, right? I am talking about large corporations like Walmart advertising their “Veterans Welcome Home Commitment,” stating that they will hire “any” honorably discharged veteran within 12 months of their discharge.  I applied four months ago and haven’t even received an email confirming the receipt of my application.

Another self-proclaimed leader in veteran support, USAA, advertises that it is an organization created “by veterans for veterans.” As a customer of USAA for over 20 years, I saw USAA as an obvious next career choice. However, what I have learned from my 35 applications to their organization is that it seems that they really aren’t that interested in someone from their market who has 20 years’ experience in finance. Straight from USAA’s own web site, “Earlier this year, USAA announced it had increased its internal hiring goal from 25 to 30 percent of all new hires be veterans or military spouses, understanding that military experience is a preferred qualification for providing best-in-class service to USAA members and the military community.” Their goal is 25-30% of new hires to be veterans. Sounds great, doesn’t it? 

Seriously, though, I would have thought most USAA workers would already be veterans. I spoke to a USAA HR representative just the other day who, after reviewing my profile on LinkedIn and perusing my resume, still had no idea what my rank was. She must have that critical “industry experience corporations love so much.”

I am a “fixer” by nature. When faced with a problem, I want to analyze it until I have solutions. So, my first response in this process has been to analyze myself. Am I the problem? Should I be doing more? Should I be doing my job search another way? As a leader, I feel responsible for those who follow me. I want to overcome this challenge and share my lessons learned so that others who follow in my footsteps won’t have to re-learn the same lessons that I am facing now.

I began by asking myself if my resume wasn’t what recruiters were looking for. I tried different styles; I asked recruiters for feedback and made the recommended changes in hopes of landing that first interview. Still no interest. I even hired a career agency to aid me in making this transition. Certainly with the help of their experience, I can produce a resume that corporate America will notice enough to want to “kick the tires” to see if I am the right “model” for them.  Still, I keep hearing the same things over and over. Things like, “You have no experience in the industry,” “You don’t have the right certifications,” or (my favorite for its complete lack of clarity), “We are going in a different direction.”

Next I asked, is just sending resumes and cover letters too impersonal? Do I need to get face-to-face with the employer’s reps? The next logical step was to hit the road and make the face-to-face connections at the highly recommended job fairs. Let me just cut to the chase. If you have ever been to a job fair, then you will know that this is what you will hear nine out of 10 times from a recruiter: “Thanks for your interest, please feel free to apply online to any position.” The people you meet are like Walmart greeters, pleasant to speak with but seemingly of little help in finding their organization or the job seeker the “ideal fit.”

So many military faces in the job fair crowds appearing hopeful of finding a positive lead. As the day wears on, though, more and more veterans slip out, disappointed in the lip service of American corporations. One can’t help but wonder if the corporations get a tax break for just attending these military-focused job fairs. So many corporations show up, but almost none makes any real effort to screen people for actual or potential positions. The job fair has the feel of a speed dating event, a quick greeting, here’s my card, followed by a sweeping arm gesture to the laptop where their online application awaits.

The final step in my journey has led me to the networking portion of the job hunt. We have all heard the saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Like many, I subscribe to this way of thinking.  Having moved to a new city post-retirement, I have very few personal connections. Most of my old bosses are actually still in the USMC serving as Colonels and Generals. Since my arrival in my new town, I have used every avenue I can think of to build a network by sending letters, emails and in-person introductions, all to build my network. This has fostered some contacts from people that genuinely want to help. Some have offered advice and others, a referral to someone else. But most, sadly, have repeated the corporate line, “Please contact our HR professionals and apply online.” 

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A blog-article in The Washington Post in November states, “… the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 stood at 10 percent, with 246,000 out of work. That’s the same rate as it was a year ago, and it’s a higher jobless rate than it is for non-veterans…” The article goes on to list the main reasons that unemployment rates for vets aren’t improving: higher disability rates, lack of civilian work experience and the failure of government assistance programs to help remove licensing/certification hurdles.

Another article in Time Magazine online, states, “In January of 2013, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America surveyed our membership. In that snapshot of over 4,000 new vets, 16% said that they were unemployed. Of our members that are unemployed, 33.8% have been unemployed for longer than a year. More than 17% have been unemployed for more than two years.” These facts and figures are not reassuring to any current vet looking for work. How many vets can afford to be out of work this long?

The article goes on to point out what may be one of the most critical points of failure in the system, “Today’s business leaders don’t understand the value that veterans bring to the table. This is one of the first generations of business leaders that largely didn’t serve in the military, which poses real cultural barriers to understanding military skills and experience.”

So what is the answer? How does a veteran get noticed by a corporate recruiter? How does he/she beat the automated resume-filtering database while maintaining integrity? Like so many other veterans, all I need is an opportunity to shine. I challenge corporate America to give more veterans less lip service and more face-to-face interviews. I challenge all corporate Hiring Managers, CFOs, CEOs, Directors and Managers to educate themselves to recognize the real value in the men and women who have served their country; give them the chance to tell you how their skills actually translate. See that our vets have so much to contribute that is needed in the American workforce today.

I think, as a result, corporations will naturally find their percentages of veteran employees climbing (a result they claim they desire). It’s the “Adapt and Overcome” attitude of the veteran that will win them over in the end. 

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About the author:

Patrick T. German is a recently retired Marine with 23 years of service, a B.S. in Education, and MBA. He has been stationed all over the Continental US, Japan, and Iraq. His first book, Progenitor: Palak and the Sky Gods, was selected as a USA Best Books Finalist for Fantasy in 2012.  www.patrickgerman.com

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The Washington Post, WonkBlog, “The Unemployment rate for recent veterans is incredibly high,” by Brad Plumer, November 11, 2013. 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/11/11/recent-veterans-are-still-experiencing-double-digit-unemployment/

Time Magazine, online, The Ground Truth on Veterans’ Unemployment, Tom Tarantino, March 22, 2013.
http://nation.time.com/2013/03/22/the-ground-truth-about-veterans-unemployment/

 

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December 31, 2013   Comments Off on Patrick T. German/Vets Face New Fight

Zaira Rahman/Tour de Pakistan

Indus River, Sindh

Sindh, Indus River. Photo: Zaira Rahman

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Tour of Pakistan

by Zaira Rahman

Now that 2013 has come to an end, I sit down to write the memories of an exhilarating trip across Pakistan. The ten-day journey that started in October was essentially a road trip. During these vacations we covered the provinces of Sindh, Punjab, Kyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) as well as parts of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

Before we stepped out, we had our doubts if our car would survive such a hectic schedule, with a daily average of 9 hours on the road, but surprisingly it did not fail us. Pre-travel arrangements were quite stressful; we had to safely transfer our pets to the boarding home and spell out the instructions regarding each pet specifically to the staff.

Once these settlements were made, we left before sunrise on the morning of October 17th. We chose a good day when the country was celebrating the second day of Eid-ul-Azha (Festival of Sacrifice also known as Bakra Eid). As we left Karachi to drive through Sindh, we came across very little traffic on the main motorway.

Sindh

The key areas that we covered in Sindh were Indus River, Hyderabad, Hala, Nawabshah, Moro, Sukkur and Khairpur. It was perhaps the most difficult day of the journey. Sindh is terribly hot for the most part of the year; sunlight was a killer; even the shades did not help much. This was the first time that I traveled by road beyond Hyderabad so extensively. Road kill was quite the norm; we must have seen over a dozen dead dogs on the way, which only tells one of how inconsiderate passersby are. Beyond the tirelessly fast life of Karachi, I was not so excited by all that we witnessed in Sindh.

There was so much of barrenness and sadness all along. Once we moved further into the interiors of Sindh, we saw plenty of poverty and hopelessness. People in general were poor and uneducated with desolate lands and fading hopes. Roads were broken in totality and there were hardly any gas stations or tuc shops as we moved ahead. It was evident that our governments over the years have done nothing for this province. The people of Sindh fail to realize that the regional leaders they choose for so many decades are their real enemies. Simply put, Sindh was not at all inspiring. We reached Punjab before 5 p.m. that evening and our first stop was Rahim Yar Khan.

 

Lahore Fort, PunjabLahore Fort, Punjab. Photo: Zaira Rahman

Punjab

Rahim Yar Khan was just the city we needed to stay in after our exhausting journey. I was visiting this city for the first time and I was more than happy to see how developed and clean it was. We stayed at a local club with big lush green lawns, a tennis court and many swings that took us back to our childhood days.

We were so tired that we didn’t really check the city out as such, but we did pass by offices of some of the biggest MNCs, a number of schools and a university or two, as well, as we moved out of the city. People in Rahim Yar Khan were just sweet and hospitable. They spoke different dialects such as Punjabi, Saraiki, Riyasti, but had no issues conversing in Urdu with us. The food at the club was just perfect – large quantities and reasonably priced. A special mention should be given to the chicken corn soup, kebabs and chicken karhai that we had for dinner at the club.

A visit to Punjab is incomplete without visiting the heart of the province – the city of Lahore. Lahore is the second largest metropolitan city of the country. It is referred to as the “Mughal City of Gardens” due to the historic presence of gardens in and around the city dating back to the Mughal period. Although Lahore has always been considered a green and beautiful city, this time round I felt a positive vibe about it too, which I didn’t feel in my previous visits. Lahoris are full of life; Punjabi is the most commonly spoken language, although there is a great variety of dialects spoken by people who have moved here from different districts. I felt so secure shopping around quite late in the evening in the midst of Liberty market. This is something we don’t experience in Karachi – where we are always afraid of getting mugged. My sister and I bought a pair of colorful khussas (shoes) each – a must buy when one is in Lahore.

Before heading out of the city, we did a quick city tour and visited some historic places such as the Lahore Fort, Hazuri Bagh (Hazuri Garden), Badshahi mosque and Sheesh Mahal.  The structures were humongous and quite exquisite. However, I do feel the authorities can certainly do more to revamp and preserve these culturally rich monuments. Most of these places have been renovated only from the front, but not in their entirety. As lovely as the front side of the mosque is, the backside has been appallingly neglected. 

As per our family tradition, we had to visit the city’s zoo as well, and I am so glad that we did. Lahore Zoo is massive, clean and has some lovely animals that are well cared for. Some of the key attractions were the giraffes (Sunny and Twinkle), Suzi the elephant, a few pair of lions and their cubs. One can clearly see how Lahoris are so passionately proud of their culturally rich city. Lahore is certainly a treasure for Pakistan and a prominent tourist attraction.

We also spent a few days in the capital city of Pakistan – Islamabad. It is one of the most urbanized cities of the country. It is common for both locals as well as visitors to dine at Pir Sohawa, a tourist resort located some 17 km from Islamabad on top of Margalla Hills and I remember mentioning it in my travel post some years ago (Yet Another Visit to Islamabad…). It was fairly chilly when we reached Monal Restaurant. Sadly, this time we felt the food quality was not as amazing as it used to be, so we were left with the city view to admire.

During the city tour of Islamabad we visited Pakistan Museum of Natural History, Rawal Lake, Bani Gala, Centaurus Mall, Jinnah Super Market and Pakistan Monument. One of my favorites was the Bird Aviary Lake View Park, Pakistan’s biggest bird aviary. It was massive and well maintained. However, the Wild Life Safari was quite a disappointment. It was poorly constructed amidst the jungle; all we ended up seeing were wild bushes, tall trees and the “Be Ware of Lions’” signboard on every corner. I am sure there must be a lion or two somewhere in that jungle, but it was quite a failed project from the looks of it.

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ZAIRA RAHMAN - PAKISTAN V10N1

Zaira Rahman shares her love of homeland, Pakistan, with photos and impressions gathered from a recent trip through the provinces.

[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_badshahi-mosque-1-lahore.jpg]80Badshahi Mosque, Lahore
Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_badshahi-mosque-lahore.jpg]60Badshahi Mosque, Lahore
Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_lahori-khussas.jpg]150Lahore, Khussas
Lahore Khussas (Typical Shoes). October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_bani-gala-islamabad.jpg]120Bani Gala, Islamabad
Bani Gala, Islamabad. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_pakistan-museum-of-natural-history-islamabad.jpg]120Pakistan Museum of Natural History
Pakistan Museum of Natural History, Islamabad. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_neelum-river-muzaffarabad.jpg]100Neelum River
Neelum River. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_shrine-of-sayeen-sakhi-muzaffarabad.jpg]60Shrine of sayeen Sakhi Muzaffarabad
Shrine of sayeen Sakhi Muzaffarabad. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_sharda.jpg]60Sharda
Sharda. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_girls-coming-back-from-school-in-sharda-village.jpg]160Girls coming back from school in Sharda village
Girls coming back from school in Sharda village. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.
[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/zaira-rahman-pakistan-v10n1/thumbs/thumbs_sharda-fort.jpg]30Sharda Fort
Sharda Fort. October 2013. Zaira Rahman.

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Occupied Kashmir

Our next stop was Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is located on the banks of Jhelum and Neelum rivers with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) on the west. Though we have visited other parts of KPK in previous years, Muzaffarabad still was a treat for the soul. Our stay at PC Muzaffarabad was an absolute haven. We got the chance to visit the shrine of Hazrat Sayeen Sakhi in Muzaffarabad, which is by far one of the cleanest shrines that I have visited all of my life.

We went up to a tourist spot known as Pir Chinasi, 30 km east of Muzaffarabad on top of the hills at an altitude of 9500 feet. It was freezing cold up at the mountain but we got the rare opportunity to visit yet another shrine in one day – the shrine of the famous saint Hazrat Pir Shah Hussain Bukhari. Pir Chinasi got its name owing to Hazrat Pir who used to live at the mountain peak. It is said that he chose this unique spot because of its tranquil surroundings to form a deep, uninterrupted contact with God. This shrine has a remarkable significance to the people of the region as well as the visitors who believe their prayers are answered if they pray at this shrine. 

Pir Chinasi is famous for its scenic beauty and velvet, lush green plateaus. Standing at the edge of the mountain, one can sense a certain kind of spirituality. It is certainly a place any photographer and nature lover should see with their own eyes. Pir Chinasi is ideal for hiking, trekking and camping activities. The sight and its surrounding areas are covered with pine and oak trees. The best time to visit would be an off season, somewhere around September and October, but once the snow hits the ground, it becomes impossible to visit this lovely spot on any mode of transport. I could barely stop shivering till we got some hot tea and spicy pakoras from the small restaurant at the mountain peak. The locals were welcoming and easy going.

Neelum Valley was the best part of the whole trip. Saying that it is beautiful and breathtaking would be an understatement. Deep down I feel proud that such a place exists in Pakistan, but it is sad that due to our government’s negligence the world does not know of such attractions. Throughout our journey in Azad Kashmir, we saw several groups of children and teenagers going to schools. It was overwhelming to see how these kids walk so long on these curvy, rocky mountainous routes to reach their schools daily in the cold. I don’t see that kind of enthusiasm and struggle on the faces of children in the urban cities where life is so easy. It is a wrong perception about Pakistan that there is lack of education and a dearth of institutions, though I do feel what we require is a structured, unified system of education free for all across the country.

Our final stop in Azad Kashmir was Sharda village, the de facto border of India and Pakistan. It took us a long time to reach with countless check points, however we did make it. Due to its location, the security was super tight; we were surrounded by the Pakistan army everywhere. The natives of Sharda village were extremely uncomplicated and poor but they were also the most genuinely happy group I have come across in a long, long time. One can only dream of such carefree lives although these people live in a strategically dangerous place (situated right next to the Indian border) where things can get quite unpredictable any moment. Here too, we got to see more than a few children, even little girls on the way back from their schools. We also walked on foot to see the ruins of Sharda Fort inside the village, which was quite a unique site, unknown even to most Pakistanis.

Shrine of Pir Shah Hussain Bukhari, Pir Chinasi.

Shrine of Pir Shah Hussain Bukhari, Pir Chinasi. 

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa  (KPK)

Just before heading back, we spent one night at Changla Gali, a tourist mountain resort town of Galyat, in the province of KPK. By the time we arrived, I was just too tired to do anything but crash for a few hours. I distinctly recall the blissful sleep which is so rare in Karachi. I remember that I experienced a similar kind of quiet and peace when I visited Nathia Gali seven years ago. There is something in the air about these unusual places that takes us away from all the worries of our regular, money-driven, mundane selfish lives.

Changla Gali was our final holiday spot after which we returned home following the same route back. By the time we got home, I had become quite the expert at navigating the paths. The motorways were brilliantly made till we stepped back into Sindh. It was a torturous and dangerous ride. Clearly, there is no monitoring here, unlike Punjab and other areas where people have no option but to follow the rules while driving on the motorway. We witnessed a gigantic blockade of trawlers but thanks to some Sindhi locals who guided us out via a shortcut, we reached to Karachi safely during day light.

These ten days were tiring, to say the least, but they definitely enlightened me. I surely learned a little something about the people, culture, places and good things of our country, of which I was so blindly unaware. However, I was also relieved to be home and to see our pets after a long break. I know I am no travel guide or travel writer, for that matter, but I felt all these lovely places that the world is unaware of should be talked about. Pakistan and its perception globally is so negative (for real and perceived reasons) that everyone misses out on the essence of this country: the richness of its culture, the hospitality of its people, a deep aura of spirituality and of course the abundance of scenic beauty, which I believe any citizen of the world, irrespective of their religion, color or nationality should visit or at least read about with an open mind and heart. I may not reach many, but even if a single person is moved by what they read here, that would leave me slightly less burdened. But for now, no more road trips.

 

About the author:

Zaira R. Sheikh has an MBA in Marketing from SZABIST, Karachi.  She was a Media Planner at Mindshare (GroupM Pakistan) and Account Manager at Interflow Communications Pvt. Ltd.  You can read more about her in About Us.

 

 

December 31, 2013   Comments Off on Zaira Rahman/Tour de Pakistan

Fred Roberts – World Out of Control

DecoderPosterOld

Decoder (1984)

 

Der Protest

by Fred Roberts

Did you ever watch a pot of water come to a boil? First the water is still, then there are a few bubbles, then more and in more places, and all of a sudden many, until finally the boiling point is reached and the water is in a constant state of turmoil. This is what a recent viral video reminded me of, a project by Penn State doctoral candidate John Beieler mapping global protests from 1979 to the present day. It makes sense. Anywhere you look there is something to be concerned about. Corporations out of control, banks out of control, militarization of the police, mass NSA spying, prison as a business model, war as a business model, fracking, mass oil spills, nuclear meltdowns and melt-throughs, genetically corrupted food, global warming, dysfunctional government and a complacent media trying its best to make us feel good along the way to the catastrophe.

In this article I want to share some encounters I’ve made with political statements in music and film in the German language, representing different approaches but sharing a common goal: change.

A German film released in 1984 – “Decoder”, was just about 30 years ahead of its time. It is a must see today: a counterculture film of post-punk protest – surely not one to catch on in the mainstream of the mid 1980s. Too radical, although indeed the film did make its mark in Italy. During Italy’s period of social unrest an early version of the chaos club showed the film at all of its events and garnered it a faithful cult following. The film was inspired by the writings of William S. Burroughs and includes tracks by Einstürzende Neubauten, Soft Cell and The The, with additional music composed especially for the film by members of Soft Cell (Genesis P-Orridge and Dave Ball) and of Einstürzende Neubauten (FM Einheit, Alexander Hacke, and Jon Caffery). Burroughs had a small role in the film, as well, which is an unimpeachable confirmation of the film’s integrity. The lack of distribution apart from the Italian exception counts the film as a forgotten classic today.

The film is set in a dystopian present in which muzak is used to hold the population under control. The imagery is of fascism, a howling wind, a nameless agent walking along an urban landscape into a faceless bureaucracy, then through endless, anonymous corridors. It looks creepy and hypermodern. Many shadows. The lighting creates a dark mood, similar as in films like “Blade Runner” or the TV series “Max Headroom.”

The main character, FM Einheit, discovers that by playing back certain music/sounds, he can counteract the muzak and cause people to revolt. He carries out his experiments in, of all places, a fast food restaurant. All the while he is pursued by the shadowy agent (Bill Rice) out to eliminate him, but also following an obsession with FM Einheit’s girlfriend, played by Christine F, of the famed book “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo.” In a key scene, Genesis P-Orridge states: “Information is like a bank. Some of us are rich. Some of us are poor with information. All of us can be rich. Our job, your job, is to rob the bank, to kill the guards, to go out there to destroy everybody who keeps and hides the whole information… Information. Power!” Later, during the riotous endgame, one of the leaders reflects the converse of this idea: There will be no news blackout. It is an information blackout.

The film metaphorically portrays today’s powers as they stand before us with the curtain drawn back and their masks torn away. This has been brought about as much by the lack of real change over the decades as by the new awareness given by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. “Decoder” captures the moment of the boiling point when the powers that be are no longer able to control the masses. This is what makes the film so remarkable and essential viewing today. There has been a US DVD release of the film, albeit out of print, but according to the film’s author Klaus Maeck, a European DVD release is planned for 2014.

Georg Kreisler

Anyone who is a fan of Tom Lehrer will probably be astonished to learn about Georg Kreisler (1922-2011). Kreisler was a Jewish-Austrian who emigrated to America with his parents in 1938 just after Hitler had taken Georg_Kreisler_detailover in Austria. Kreisler began performing macabre, sarcastic songs in a similar vein to Lehrer but by the mid 1950s returned to Austria, continuing the same in German, developing over the years a repertoire of several hundred songs of social and political criticism, ironic, satirical and often quite dark texts. Kreisler coined the term “everblacks” for this type of song. His performances were cabaret style, accompanying himself on piano. In learning about his work, I came across many gems with head-on attacks on the reality of society’s institutions. It is punk protest in a charming, old-school manner, often praising his targets to death. Many of the songs were banned from radio and according to an intro to one of his songs, Austrian state radio was reluctant to play even his apparently harmless songs, as they were afraid he might be saying something they did not understand.

Some examples: “Der Euro” (1996) starts by listing all the historical landmarks of Europe which will soon fade into oblivion, overshadowed by the all-powerful Euro. “Who needs culture when you have the Euro? It can bribe politicians, build banks rising to the stars. It can build McDonalds and military barracks, poets will die for it and the masses will learn to worship it.”

Another song is a chilling psychogram of a sociopathic politician: “Der Politiker.” With each verse he captures some aspect we will recognize in some politician somewhere: “I see homeless freezing under bridges, unemployed who are ashamed before their own children, war refugees, burning villages, and freshly raped women. My one thought in all this: How can I help my party?” Another remarkable song laments the fact that there is a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and also to nearly every class of person, but not a society for the prevention of cruelty to the police: “If a student goes for a walk before parliament / He should desist and cease / Let’s protect the police.” Over and over he decries ad absurdum, “who will protect the police?”

Those songs are just the tip of the iceberg. I ventured a translation of one of Kreisler’s works which struck me as the most bitterly sarcastic song I’d ever heard. As I translated, it terrified me that this is a perfect snapshot of America today. Do I need to give examples? Warning: the language is graphic and racist:

Shoot them Dead
 
If you see a nigger ape –
Shoot him dead!
If your neighbor looks agape –
Shoot him dead!
You don’t have to be ashamed
You will never once be blamed –
Shoot them simply stone cold dead!
 
Turkish, Kurdish, Lebanese, and sometimes white –
Worthless human specimens are a blight
Communists and anarchists and bleeding hearts –
Don’t you lose your sleep at night!
Attorneys and employees and pacifists –
Anyone who still believes that good exists
In the gutter, in the trash!
With a weapon flash!
 
Does someone have prosthetic legs –
Shoot him dead!
Has he joined the reader dregs –
Shoot him dead!
Homeless bums or slacker swine
And the Gypsies first in line
Shoot them simply stone code dead!
 
Don’t come to me with democrats –
Gas them, squash them!
Let them die like traitor rats –
No one wants them!
Father, mother, sisters, brothers, and old friends
There’s something you need them for?
Pastors, teachers, city libruls –
kill and crate them!
All the stupid poet souls –
Eliminate them!
Know one thing: you are strong!
All the rest are wrong!
 
Let’s go to war in foreign places –
Shoot them dead!
Decimate entire races –
Shoot them dead!
When they’re in the cemetery
You will feel so legendary –
So shoot them stone cold dead!
 
Stone cold dead –
Eats no bread
Get them and shoot them dead!

 

Songs like this unmask a harsh reality, make us uncomfortable, and hopefully catalyze us into effective action. Another key song of Kreisler’s “Vorletztes Lied” (Next to Last Song) captures the idea that it is too late to write songs, jokes, words to change the establishment. It is time to do something. That is where we are today.

 

Gustav

 

gustav-hamburg-pudel by robin hinsch

Photo by Robin Hinsch: http://www.robinhinsch.com/

 

Austria, the land that gave us Gustav Mahler and Gustav Meyrink also gives us the lady Gustav. Gustav is the pseudonym under which electronic musician Eva Jantschitsch writes and performs songs that follow on the idea of Kreisler’s “Vorletztes Lied.” Her texts (in both English and German) are determined attempts to slap us out of our stupor before it is too late, and in some cases with the undertone that it already is. Her debut “Rettet die Wale” (Save the Whales) was released late 2004 and became an immediate favorite of mine. The American war against Iraq was in full drive and headlines sometimes took on surrealistic proportions. In 2008 she followed up with “Verlass die Stadt” (Leave the City), but most of her time in the past years has been devoted to theater projects.

The first song on her debut “We Shall Overcome” is a cousin to the civil rights song of the same name. It is about seeing through the superficialities of modern society and breaking the chains of manipulation, to ultimately overcome the repression. It also immediately establishes her style of songwriting. Most of her songs are a challenge to interpret. The texts bombard the listener with the same idea presented in different ways in semi-enigmatic references, for example: “when all the beauty just seems to be wrong”, “we dance to their music”, “we all are invited to their big bingo show.” The advantage: the songs stay up to date and allow listeners to relate the ideas to their own perceptions. Some songs have a strong feminist message: “One Hand Mona” describes the situation of a woman becoming a man’s wife, calling it the same as losing an arm (ceasing to be his equal) – the modern violin accompaniment lends an extreme sense of urgency to the situation. “Mein Bruder” is like a song out of the end times of permanent war, repeating the mantra “my brother was an American patriot, brave, strong, a believer, family man and pilot” alternating it with the details and repercussions of his death in battle.

The loveliest and most fascinating song on the album is “Rettet die Wale” (Save the whales), with sugar sweet vocals and orchestral accompaniment, it sounds like a sister to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” but is instead an aggressive attack on complacency and the idea that by correctly sorting your garbage and using all the politically correct terms you will save the world. Gustav performed in Hamburg several weeks ago and sang it like a long, slow kiss with the audience. The final suggestion, take each other by the hand and make love every day, has the implication that maybe all we have left to make this world a better place is to reach out to one another on an individual level.

Her concert at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel Club was also the occasion for me to learn about her newer songs including a lullaby about the riders of the apocalypse and the amazing “Soldatin oder Veteran.” It is classic Gustav, asking the question: are you a good soldier, or a veteran of that belief? Are you a conformist or a fighter? The idea is presented again and again in diverse variations: when you dream are you someone who resists? It’s the kind of song that makes you want to open a club, just to play it – because it rocks that much.

Gustav has received positive reviews for rescuing the genre of protest songs, but her songs are not exactly protests. They are not songs to sing at the demonstrations but rather to get us there. In a sense we are living in Metropolis and Gustav is Maria, calling us into action.

Gustav’s Website: http://gustav.me/

———–

Maybe contemporary events are so far along now that we can only despair. I hope not, but to paraphrase Georg Kreisler, the time for writing songs has long passed. It is time for action. Gustav’s music is a wakeup call to all those who have missed that message. The film Decoder shows us the prerequisite for change. We need to fully understand what is going on in the world in order to correct it. So what do we do now? Something, I hope.

 ———–

About the reviewer:

Fred Roberts, contributing Music Editor.  A native of Cincinnati living in Germany since 1987, Fred enjoys subverting the arbitrary commercial process in which great works often go unrecognized.  He is creator and designer of Elbot.com, an award-winning AI system. His interests include literature, film, photography and discovering all the well-kept secrets Europe has to offer. You can read more about him in About Us.

Email: indeterminacy@gmail.com

November 2, 2013   Comments Off on Fred Roberts – World Out of Control

View From the North/JH Mae

48-Acre Wood #3J.H. Mae photos

Acre Wood #3

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View from the North

by J.H. Mae

I once knew a man who came to the North Country to raise pigs and plant tomatoes. He thought he’d find meaning as a farmer.

This man was one of those city folk, who came from serious family wealth and wore a designer suit every day. He boasted of his connections, his father’s Porsche and of his degree in microeconomics.

No one was impressed because no one recognized his last name; who he was and where he came from was a mystery. It didn’t matter that he’d met Bill Clinton and had a doctorate. Whether he came from a good family is what mattered to people. His character mattered.

Anyway, apparently he found peace with his pigs. He paid far above local market price for a half-collapsed farmhouse. He gushed over the wooden plank floors and 19th century square nails as if he’d found a long-lost Monet.

And he hung around with the other out-of-towners – transplants like himself – wealthy doctors and cultured academics who retired in the area. He never befriended the locals and the locals didn’t mind.

Frankly, it was his loss. He would never understand the North Country, with his head in weeds searching for a mythical ideal made of organic vegetables, homemade crafts and free-range chickens.

He sought country living but true country living can’t be found, like a lost treasure – it is born in you. And those born with it have little patience for city transplants.

The few interactions I’ve had with city folk, including with my friend the pig farmer, have led me to this conclusion: they seem to view the country as some Rockwell-esque utopia, where they can run free like happy dogs. But they also see a vast, inhospitable wilderness. They are frightened by the deep, rural darkness and open spaces.

 

48-Acre Wood #1

Acre Wood #1

 

The perfection city folk seek when they come here is a myth. Deep rural small towns are not postcard perfect like the movies; life in the country isn’t peppered with daily dinners at reclaimed wood picnic tables, from-scratch apple pies and dogs with red handkerchiefs around their necks.

The reality is, well, more realistic: Abandoned farmhouses suffocated by trees and weeds, poverty, generational loyalty, isolationism, meth and scratch-off ticket addiction, multiplying Wal-Marts. The country is not a wasteland, but it’s certainly not the cover of Better Homes and Gardens.

Maybe the following will help paint the picture. In my “neighborhood,” the nearest movie theater is 35 miles away. The first time a 10-year old child kills a buck, it’s usually in the newspaper. We all have guns because sometimes, you catch a rabbit eating your garden or a coyote in your front yard. Or a heroin addict tries to break into your house. We have to keep survival kits in our trunks from October to April. The local town justice probably knows your mother, so if you get a ticket, you’ll get a pass. The average income is $40,000, unless you’re a teacher, corrections officer, or work in the aluminum plant.

As I said, the myth doesn’t exist.

But city folk tend to flock to the country seeking something – maybe quiet or inner peace. Or do humans need plenty of green space to run free, like animals? I picture hundreds of men, their suit jackets flung aside, ties loosened, shirts unbuttoned at the neck, running freely through a green pasture, faces wide with smiles. Until they hit the cow pies.

Last spring, I visited Washington D.C. with my husband and parents. The trip required a three-hour drive to the nearest airport and a one-and-a-half hour flight.

I visited the city before. I live less than two hours from Montreal, where I saw my first homeless person during a French trip (“Don’t give him any money, they have programs,” my French teacher always said). In Paris during college I received my first cat call on the Pont Neuf. On my honeymoon, I toured industrial ports as well as piazzas.

In all these places, the people made me claustrophobic. In one of the Smithsonian Museums in D.C., I nearly started screaming when people kept invading the two-foot bubble of personal space I enjoy in the country. And I felt invisible, despite the crushing humanity all around me.

I found that while more people are in the city, there is less intimacy. Strangers don’t wave or smile at you or even look you in the face. There are too many faces to look at. City people, out of survival it seems, disengage. They only see the world that’s two inches in front of their faces – and it’s usually an iPhone.

In the country, the world is big. We have at least a half-acre of backyard and our neighbors are far away. Our vistas stretch to the horizon in a sheet of green, or in winter, white. We share probably 70 total last names – which doesn’t mean we’re all related to each other. We live our own lives but we are concerned for each other, gossip about each other, stick our nose in each others’ business. We smile and say, “How are you,” to perfect strangers.

Our world stretches for miles, in every direction.

 

48-Acre Wood #2

Acre Wood #2

 

City folk need to form a new picture in their minds of the country. Some things are true: People are generally very nice, the landscape is beautiful and there’s plenty of peace and quiet. People here want simple things – healthy children, a good-paying job and for the price of heating fuel to go down. They don’t expect much and are grateful for what’s given to them.

And we’re more diverse than I think city folk would believe. Sure, we have our NASCAR-loving, gut-toting, camouflage-wearing high school dropouts (they’re nice people, too). But we also have artists, writers, philosophers, philanthropists.

What’s also true is the open space, the deep darkness that stretches for miles, the sense of being more in nature than in civilization. You can drive for miles in the Adirondacks, which begin in my county, and not see a single house. Deer walk freely through downtown. You won’t have to look far to find 40 acres of open land that you can call your own. Collectively, my family probably owns 100 acres.

But if that’s all you’re looking for, country living will elude you. In fact, if you grew up in the city, it’s eluded you already. The country isn’t somewhere you go and find a place to fit in– like the city. The country is a place you’re born and stay, or leave for a while and come back to because no other place feels like home.

And if you move here, we’ll know that you’re not a local just by the way you walk. But we’ll still smile and ask, “How are you?”

On a recent day, my mother, father and I visited the 40 acres my father inherited in the Adirondack hamlet where he grew up. He is building a retirement home and two bunkhouses on a small clearing on the property.  We took our Beagles – sisters Maggie (mine) and Ivy (theirs) for a walk down a path in our woods.

I was surrounded by a vast quiet that surprised even me. I couldn’t even hear cars – just the sound of the wind in the trees and the dogs panting.  And it struck me – these woods belong to my family. To my father, and my grandfather before him, and his father before him. And when my parents die, it will belong to me and my sister.

And that’s the thing about the country that unfortunately city transplants, like the rookie pig farmer, won’t find: a generational connection to the land and knowledge that ownership goes both ways. The land is in you, owns you, is a part of you.

That is rural.

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About the author:

J.H. Mae is a feature journalist, columnist and short fiction writer based in rural New York.

November 2, 2013   Comments Off on View From the North/JH Mae

Jeff Katz/Music

Red-faced Musical Confessions

By Jeff Katz

Musical passions are as strong as political ones. We have much wrapped up in our musical tastes and, in my life, many of the fiercest arguments I’ve gotten into have been about music. I can still recall a front porch heated discussion with my friend David on the relative merits of The Style Council v. Big Country. (I was pro-Style Council and was, and still am, correct). The fact that neither bands aged well, though David and I did, should clearly show the pointlessness of the passion. But still….

The flip side of our desire to promote our musical loves is the unwillingness to expose our embarrassments. We are loathe to admit that we may be square, that at times in our lives we were well outside of our own view of what was acceptable. So, I’ll go first.

I used to cry whenever I heard Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.” True and I can picture myself blubbering. In my defense, I was an emotional wreck back in 1980, all of 17 going on 18, finding my way through first relationships and graduating from high school early. It was a tumultuous time for me. My parents, with tremendous lack of understanding, told me we were going to move from Long Island to Staten Island, smack dab in the middle of my senior year. I was not going to subject myself to enrolling into a city school for six months, so I graduated in January and worked on Wall St., missing out on the last and best part of high school. “All Out of Love” came out in February and I can recall driving and weeping, especially during the part when the soaring music stops and the singing proceeds accompanied by a lone piano. I don’t know when the choking stopped, but I do know I was in college, a few years later, driving down Route 17, the ice covered cliffs glimmering around me, when the song popped up and I was a sobbing mess.

Recently, I came across Greil Marcus’ Listening to Van Morrison. His explanation of what set Astral Weeks apart from the norm when it emerged in 1968 finally explained for me why I hated it on first listen. I was already running the school record store when I grabbed Astral Weeks from the stacks. I was a fan of Van the Man, but only knew Moondance and Tupelo Honey. Morrison’s distinct Hibernian groove, alternating from the slow soulful to the frenetic, grabbed me. I expected the same from Weeks, which I knew to be seminal. From the opening casual strumming of the rhythm guitar and the pronounced jazzy bass immediately joined by strings, I was put off. This was not “Caravan!” This was not “Wild Night!” I was so displeased by the sound and thrown by the stories of Irish transvestites that I brought the album back to the store and stuck in the bin for returns to be sent back to the distributor as defective. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized I was the defective one. By then I was older, into jazz, and able to take in Astral Weeks for what it was, not what it wasn’t.

My friends have told me that they too don’t understand some of the greatest artists, that John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman leave them cold, or that they prefer Dave Matthews to The Beatles. Oh well, there’s always a taste issue afoot (which leads to Style Council v. Big Country debates), but when an artist is revered it is difficult to admit that you don’t like them or, worse, have no interest. My two biggies in that category are The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.  I  still think Moby Grape is the best band to emerge from the late ‘60s’ San Fran  psychedelic scene. When the Dead morphed from trippy freaks to country rockers,  it only made it worse for me; there are too many better at that (Byrds,  Manassas, Gram Parsons, Dylan). And though I love jazz and can listen to Sonny Rollins play solo for 30 minutes, I have no patience for the ramblings of the Dead.

Floyd is something different. I do like the early Syd Barrett lunacy – “Arnold Layne,” “See Emily Play” – but once they became the Floyd of Dark Side of the Moon I was eminently bored. The Wall – blecch! It’s dull and gives me a headache. I always took immense pride in not owning Dark Side, yet it’s not easy to respond to lovers of Floyd with a simple shrug.

There’s a whole subset of embarrassment-concerts. My list is short, containing Billy Joel (my first, in 1980) and Billy Squier opening for Pat Benatar. “Hell is for children” indeed! I admit I liked Pat for the reasons most boys did back then, but seeing her live was enough for me to sell off the albums of hers that I had and put the money towards more timeless albums by acts like The Slickee Boys and The Neats (yeah, I know). Some of the best bad shows  I’ve heard of over the years are David Cassidy (which now has much retro cool) and Rick Springfield, but hands down, the worst combination was related by a former co-worker who saw Michael Bolton on New Year’s Eve with her parents. That is the shame trifecta!

Then, of course there are the guilty pleasures, the crappy acts that still have a hold. Some of my friends have haltingly admitted that they still have a soft spot for Seals & Crofts, Howard Jones, Thompson Twins, America and Berlin. I make sure no one is watching when I put on my Haircut 100 album.

It wasn’t easy asking friends to fess up to their musical embarrassment and, to be honest, I got few responses. See, no one wants to admit their weaknesses! The best story I heard was this one, in a category all of its own.

At 13, I was in a store called Turn Style. I saw Grand Funk Railroad’s E Pluribus Funk. I didn’t even like Grand Funk but the cover was a different shape than the regular LP and it fit nicely under my coat. So nicely I was caught!

Nabbed for bad taste! Who said it isn’t a crime to like crappy music?

 

About the author:
Jeff Katz is music editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

March 2, 2013   1 Comment

Galanty’s Re-Tweets

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reTORAHcal Questions

& other nonsense

From Scott “Galanty” Miller

JC Penny is having its annual back-to-summer-school sale for delinquents./I’m able to communicate with the dead. “Oh, hey, Arsenio’s career.”/ I’ve been having non-committal sex with an unusable violin- no strings attached!/ I told the cab driver, “Take me someplace where nobody has ever been before.” He responded, “I don’t go
trumpto Staten Island.”/ If Donald Trump had a nickel for every asinine thing he said, he’d be a very rich man./ It’s said that “the best things in life are free.” But, no, I have to pay for my pelvic massages./ I uploaded my infectious disease on Youtube. I hope it goes viral!/ I’ve been waiting in line for the past 8 hours because Apple has come out with a new long line./ I have the world’s greatest friends! (It’s a shame they’re such terrible human beings, though.)/ Growing up, I was forced to wear my mannequin’s old hand-me-downs./ “Does the carpet match the drapes?” is what I asked that woman, my neighbor, with the blue drapes getting new carpet delivered this afternoon./ Breakfast is the most important meal of the morning./ What are the first five books of the Jewish Bible? (That was a reTORAHcal question.)/ You know what you never hear? “Let’s stay for the entire poetry reading.”/ If I had a time machine, I’d go back 12 months into the past. Aren’t you curious to see what life was like back then?/ I keep a gun under my pillow just in case someone attacks me while I’m fast asleep./ You know what you never hear? “That was very honorable of you, Newt.”/ thornEvery rose has its thorn. For example, there are many great songs on the radio. But sometimes they play Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”/ My salad has that “new car” smell./ Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough. Just BE not good enough./ There’s such a fine line between “we’re friends even though we disagree with each other politically” and “we hate each other.”/ I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve committed any kind of serious crime. (803 times)/ I’m up to one-million people I’m following on Twitter!/ Life is so full of possibilities. Can you possibly shut the hell up?/ The new Creed song sounds totally different from their other songs… is something that nobody said today./ Birthdays are like regular days on ACID! (Because I take acid on my birthday.)/ My friend died from alcohol poisoning. So now, before I get hammered, I check to make sure my alcohol hasn’t been poisoned./ My pen name is Bic./ I before E, except after C. That’s such a weird grammar rule in our society./ My fiancée and I have the same last name. But when we get married, she wants to keep her last name… just out of spite./ The Bible says it’s a sin to covet thy neighbor’s wife. That’s why I skip the coveting and go straight to the oral sex./ A good friend is someone who is always there for you — no matter how many coorstimes you throw each other under the bus./ I’d like to see Michael Vick use the QB option more during 3rd & Long because his effectiveness in the pocket is… wait — he did WHAT to dogs?!/ You know what you never hear? “I really want to impress my guests. Bring out the Coors Light!”/ “Life is but a dream.” Actually, that statement would be a lot more accurate if you shorten it to “Life is BUTT.”/ I stole a yo-yo & a pack of bubble gum. The judge ruled I should not be tried as an adult./ I’m trying to watch my waistline. (My waistline h
as hardcore pornography on it.)/ My friends can always count on me to be there for them 50% of the time./ Don’t be a victim! (Be a perpetrator.)

About the author:

Scott Galanty Miller is a contributing humorist to Ragazine.CC. Read more about him in “About Us.”

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March 2, 2013   Comments Off on Galanty’s Re-Tweets

Mircea Filimon/Gay Life

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DNA Google Images

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What makes ‘a gay’?

 By Mircea Filimon

It’s been a while now since I started asking myself the same question over and over again. ‘What makes a gay?’ I’ve researched and read, watched and listened, asked and then asked some more, and I still couldn’t come up with an all-comprising answer that would satisfy me. My first and most convenient resource was simply looking within myself. However, I soon realized I was embarking on a rather subjective and misleading path, that would barely provide a partial answer to the question ‘What makes me?’, let alone enlighten me on the topic of gay identity. So I abandoned it.

I am very well aware that we are all different individuals and we all construct our identity in our own personal manner. Yet, I still have a feeling that there is a common ground that ties us all together, just like in the case of other minorities, that have been more or less ghettoized and stereotyped. If we just take a look at the decades that followed the Stonewall events, it’s pretty easy to create a short retrospective of the gay image. We first started by standing up to the authorities and refusing to be ostracized any longer, we then created a movement, we strove to clean and sterilize such words as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ and infuse them with positive connotations. We managed to start shaping an identity but over night we were mainly blamed for the irresponsible sexual behavior of both men and women and the wide spread of the ‘gay cancer.’

We then worked even harder to clear our name and orientation and when it was finally safe to do so, we started coming out of the closet in larger numbers. We felt patriotic and wanted to fight the more or less necessary wars initiated by our mother country, only to be told that we can do so under the strict condition that we don’t mention or act according to our sexual orientation. We then wanted to get married, but we were informed that as ordained by the all-mighty law, marriage was only the union between a man and woman. We again fought and lobbied even more ardently than before, and after years and years, we can finally wear fatigues without fearing that someone might sneak a peek at our rainbow colored socks. And probably the most notable achievement of all, we can now marry our beloved life partner, in select states, and enjoy a few of the benefits that others have been tarnishing and taking for granted for centuries.

But is that all that is to being gay? I very much doubt it. These are only mere pieces of the highly diverse puzzle that is homosexuality. We know what we used to be in the past, but the Garland days have long gone, so have the era of Studio 54 and the gay ’90s. Now we live in a different time, a more accepting and liberal one, or so I’d like to think. And what I would really like to know is what makes the contemporary gay man and woman. We have a collective identity for sure, but what is it?

Since we live in the era of technology and communication, it’s only logical that the media should be the first stop on the road to inquiring about gay identity. Nevertheless, the general image conveyed by the ruling forces in television and cinematography is not quite so comprising; actually, it’s bordering on insulting stereotypes. If we are to form a part of our identity according to the characters presented on both the big and flat screen, gay men are destined to be the single and frustrated best-friend of an even more disturbed leading female character, whereas lesbians are condemned to being the butchy lady in your building who sports a crew cut and fosters countless dangerous-looking dogs. And if the screenwriter really gets creative and steps outside the box, we might even end up being portrayed as fashion-obsessed effeminate scrawny little boys, who are only interested in shoes, gossip and new methods of hitting on married men, or even better, sex-crazed gym rats who spend their lives dancing topless in sleazy clubs. I am by no means denying that all of this is part of reality, however I am quite intrigued why this is chosen to be the main representation of probably the most diverse human community on the planet.

This comes of no surprise to me, since we are just a minority and usually the representation of such categories is done through the eyes of the majority, which coincides with normality, or better yet in this case, hetero-normality. Generally, one constructs his/her identity by using the way others see him/her. So does this mean that the identity of contemporary gays and lesbians should be forged according to the inaccurate representations in the media and television? I would say certainly not, but I am positively sure that there are many who fervently disagree.

Here is just a part of the things I have been observing vis-à-vis the widespread representation of gay life. I am certainly planning on keeping an eye out for any upcoming change and analyzing its impact on our constantly revolving identity. All in all, what I will be trying to achieve with this column is identifying the constituent pillars of modern day ‘gayness.’ As I am doing that, I will try my best to paint a clear picture of what I see to be the gay identity in the current social and political American environment. And most importantly of all, I urge you, my future eager readers, to get as involved as you desire, if this topic is of interest to you. Let me know what you think and how you regard these matters. The more input I receive, the more comprehensive and objective the assessment will be. And so, step by step, we can come up with what it means to be gay, outside all the restrictive stereotypes that are flouting out there. But for now, I bid you good reading.

 

About the author:

Mircea Filimon was born and raised in Romania. Upon completing his academic studies, he moved to Manhattan, where he currently resides with his partner. He holds two Master’s Degrees from the University of Bucharest in British Cultural Studies and Literary Translations. Mircea is working as a translator in New York City at the moment and is aiming at furthering his education in the field of cultural and identity studies. He lists reading, gardening and cooking amongst his hobbies.

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Fear Itself

 

 

March 2, 2013   Comments Off on Mircea Filimon/Gay Life

DR Goff/In Memoriam

DR Goff, war photographer

 

D.R. Goff

In Memoriam 

By Bill Dixon

I first met D.R. Goff almost 40 years ago, at Larry Flynt’s place of business, in Columbus, Ohio. I was a young banker, looking to set up a business account with Hustler Magazine. He was a Viet Nam vet, a combat photographer still recovering from the horrors of the war. I had on a suit, a cheap one, and he was wearing red and white Ronald McDonald socks and a sort of crazed grin. We shot the breeze while I was waiting for Larry to meet with me. D.R. was bouncing around, full-tilt counter culture, I was trying to look like an establishment guy. The next time we got together was about 15 years later, in a hospital physical rehab gym. I’d had some minor heart surgery, and he’d had a bad motorcycle accident that broke his back. We were both serious about getting healthy again, and we both had just opened new businesses. We worked out at the gym together, side-by-side.

I’d set up a commercial real estate rehab/management company, and my 60-hour work week had caused my heart problems. D.R. was getting established as commercial photographer, trying to learn to walk again, and we were both single guys, working hard and playing hard. We both liked a few beers at the conclusion of the day’s labors. D.R. was also doing some beautiful art photography, exhibiting in local galleries. I was doing the same exhibition venues, but with my oil paintings. It was a natural alliance. We’d get together in various artsy parts of Columbus, at saloons, and exchange world views, growing-up stories, and talked about families and people important to us. We ate together, drank beer together, and propped each other up when we needed it.

After we each moved to different parts of the country, he to New Mexico, I to Maine and Florida, we kept in touch. We stayed connected. I’d talked about visiting New Mexico, on a cross-country trip to visit my old college roomie in San Diego. He was having mobility problems again, and his two canes weren’t doing the job anymore. He told me he was going back to the VA, in mid-January, to find out what was wrong with his legs: He was back in his wheelchair again. Four days later, he sent me an email: he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. Eleven days after that, he died.

He had friends and family with him until the end, and absent friends called him daily. He was more worried about getting his affairs in order, than his impending death. He said, his” bags had been packed for a long time”. The last time I called him he was incoherent, and unable to hold the telephone. The next day, he was gone…

His friend Mike Foldes said “We lost an honest man.” Mike was right. He was also a positive influence in many lives, including mine, a good friend, and a genuinely damned good guy. I already miss him. Rest in peace, D.R. You always gave it your best, buddy.

DR Goff

DR. Larry Hamill Photo

Links:

http://lejournaldelaphotographie.com/fullscreen/9890

http://old.ragazine.cc/archives/

http://drgofferoscity.wordpress.com/author/drgofferoscity/

 

February 1, 2013   3 Comments

Lilvia Soto/Latin in America

After the Banquet…

An Invitation to Aristocracy

 (ed. note: The following speech by Lilvia Soto, as she writes in her prelude, was presented to a Latino audience on a U.S. college campus in 2009, but its messages apply to all humanity.  We trust you’ll reflect on it as a forward-looking call to responsible global citizenship as it was meant to be for the young people to whom it was presented three years ago.)

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of La Casa Latina: The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Hispanic Excellence, on Friday, September 25, 2009

In August 2004, I went to live in Mexico, the country of my birth. When I moved there, I was afraid. Afraid that they would say to me: “Gringa, go home.” After all, I had left when I was 15, had gone back only for short vacations, and everybody I had known while growing up had died. But, nobody asked to see my birth certificate. No one asked me to prove that I am Mexican. They welcomed me with open arms. They opened their homes, their families, and their literary circles and invited me in. Mexico has one of the busiest, most vibrant literary scenes in the world, and I have been welcomed into it.[1]

With distance, one gains perspective. Living in another culture during the last five years  has allowed me to do a comparative analysis of this one. In spite of the poverty, the drug violence, and the corruption, I have found Mexican society more peaceful than this one. Mexico has not started a war of choice or invaded another country. The average Mexican, the man with a 5th grade education, who never reads a book, is smarter than the average American. If you ask this typical man, a hard-hat worker in a maquila making 500 pesos a week, or a ranch hand who can barely sign his name, about the United States, he will tell you that this country is ruled by corporations and that it invaded Iraq for oil. This average José is not fooled about Mexican society either. He is aware of social injustice and corruption in government. Mexicans are by nature skeptical. They don’t believe the myths about their history or the hype about their superiority. And they don’t devote their energy to hating others. They don’t hate immigrants. There are many American expatriates, some working illegally, living in Mexico, but nobody is racially profiling them, hunting them down, or building private, for-profit prisons to hold them. Whenever I come back to the United States, and turn on the TV, I have to turn it off immediately. The noise, the name-calling, the demands for revenge or punitive measures, the fear of gays, immigrants, the old, the uninsured, the ones who wear turbans, or tunics, or a beard, seem to come right through the screen. The hatred is deafening. I wish I could tell you a fairy tale, but I cannot. I believe you are inheriting a very sick society. I believe with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Morris Berman, Chris Hedges, and others, that we are living through the final phase of the American Empire. It makes me sad, especially for you, the young. But having said all of this, I also say that giving up is not an option, and that you have a vital role to play in this final phase–the role of the conscientious objector, the objector to endless war, foreign invasions, torture-dispensing American-run black-hole prisons in foreign lands, run-away greed, pollution, hunger, lack of medical insurance, watered-down education, mindless entertainment, racial profiling, hate crimes, and cruelty of any kind.

On September 1st 2009, The New York Times published The University’s Crisis of Purpose by Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard and former professor of history and Director of the Women’s Studies Program here at Penn. It was published in “Crossroads,” a series of essays that is trying to examine changes in the collective American experience.

According to Dr. Faust, modern universities are faced with almost irreconcilable demands. They must be practical and at the same time, transcendent. They must assist in the solving of immediate national needs and simultaneously pursue knowledge for its own sake. They must add value, and question values. Dr. Faust asks us to remember that universities should be about more than prosperity. Human beings need more than jobs. They need a historical sense and the freedom and imagination to search for meaning for their individual lives and for the life of their society. Unlike other institutions in the world, universities should embrace and nurture the critical perspectives that look beyond the present. They should be society’s critic and conscience. They should produce doubt that is often inconvenient, as well as knowledge. They should raise the questions that are necessary to a healthy society. If they are to fulfill their transcendent mission, universities should have breadth and depth of vision, and they should be messy and creative places, filled with a polyphony of voices.

I hope that when Dr. Faust talks about the need people have to search for meaning for the life of their society, she means more than their local or national society. I hope she means that people have the need to search for meaning for human society. There are artists and cultural critics today who, like Morris Berman (Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire) believe that America is entering a dark age and its final phase as an empire. If it was never smart to have an ethnocentric view of the world, and if we accept that that limited view is partially responsible for the twilight of this culture, then it makes sense to say that today, more than myopic, it would be suicidal to hold American society as our only horizon.

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“You carry all of civilization in your veins, and it is important that everybody learn and that you never forget that you are not new-comers to the American continent, to history, or to the realms of art, culture, and ideas. You have countless treasures hanging from the branches of the tree that grows in the garden of your multicultural house.”

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My mission is to remind you that you, as Latinos, own some of the most important voices of the polyphony of this and any university, of this country, of the world, because as the heirs of many ancient civilizations, you are in a unique position to offer perspectives that go beyond the limited frontiers of this time and this place. Your ancestors are the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors that for centuries intermarried in the Iberian Peninsula and produced the 15th Century explorers who came to this continent and married the Yoruba and the Mandingo from Africa, the Tainos and the Caribes from the Caribbean, the Incas from Peru and Bolivia, the Toltecs and the Aztecs from Mexico, the Mayans from Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras, to produce the Latin American mestizos who came North and married each other or the English-Americans, the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, the Polish-Americans, the African-Americans, and the native Americans to produce you–the Latinos of the United States. Each of these old, inseparable, indistinguishable strands has come together to produce each of you–a unique and very special genetic and cultural mix. You carry all of civilization in your veins, and it is important that everybody learn and that you never forget that you are not new-comers to the American continent, to history, or to the realms of art, culture, and ideas. You have countless treasures hanging from the branches of the tree that grows in the garden of your multicultural house.

You belong here. You are entitled to sit at the table and partake of the banquet of modern civilization. Some of its most succulent dishes were prepared by your ancestors. And don’t forget that everybody sits around the circumference, for there are no more centers. Unfortunately, you are also going to have to partake of the bitter leftovers of the banquet of the civilization that turned, while we were fighting over the crumbs, post-modern.

As Latinos, you have in front of you dazzling opportunities and daunting challenges. I want to remind you that every privilege implies an obligation. You have the opportunity to influence the world by getting a world-class education. You have the obligation to accept the challenge, to strive for excellence in everything you do, to be role models for your brothers and sisters, for all the Latinos who are not going to have the same opportunities. But beware. It can be tempting for anybody, especially for members of a minority group, to accept appointments into the halls of power, where they will be expected to serve the unbridled ambitions of others and to follow unethical orders. You have the obligation to become role models in the manner of César Chávez or Sonia Sotomayor. In the worst-case scenario, she will write many minority opinions, and if one or two more judges retire, then her vote can have a real impact on the future. If not, her only constituent is her own conscience, and her only obligation, to leave a record of those conscience-guided decisions for posterity. Do not become role models in the manner of Alberto González or General Ricardo Sánchez of Abu Ghraib infamy. Latinos have no need of  that kind of notoriety. Do not be seduced by evil that poses as official power. Your obligation as Latinos is to become thoughtful, principled, visionary, often obscure, leaders–a civilizing force for an age that is entering darkness. Strive not for economic, political, or military power, but for moral authority.

Because you carry in your genes such a rich mixture of ancient civilizations, you have the obligation to make your voices heard in the polyphony of this university, of this country, of the world. You must use your distinctive voices with their deep historical sense to question the assumptions of American society. You must use your critical perspectives to be this country’s conscience, to raise the questions that are necessary for a peaceful humanity and a healthy planet. You must speak, and you must remember that, as Martin Luther King said, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

As multicultural human beings, you, more than others, have the possibility of having your views of the world transcend your indigenous cultures, to develop habits of critical thought about received opinion and a questioning attitude about all assumptions, and to have an attitude of humility, for you know that human culture is non-hierarchical, that it is a culture of interdependent cultures and a tradition of cross-fertilizing traditions, and that the weave of your own cultural heritage is made up of many strands. As you gain in your appreciation of the depth, complexity, and richness of other ways of thinking and being, you begin to realize that the other is not your enemy, that she is your interlocutor, your complement, and your memory, for without her you would suffer from amnesia and self-mutilation. As multicultural human beings you know that you must love, filled with wonder, what you don’t know, that you must recognize yourselves in the difference, and feel reverence for all life.

As the group of young people closest to my heart, I want you to remember that reality is multiple; the universe, a constant flux; education, a life-long process; imagination, the twin of intelligence, and that to live an ethical and meaningful life means to live with ambiguity and contradictions, to strive for interdependence, to arrive at synergistic solutions, and to embrace the other. Above all, to embrace the other, always learning from her, enlarging the human possibility. As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe says: “Whatever you are is never enough. You must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism” (Anthills of the Savannah).

Finally, I want to encourage you to be aristocrats. For this, I follow the definition of E. M. Forster, the British novelist, who in his 1939 essay “What I Believe,” (Two Cheers for Democracy) says:

   I believe in aristocracy, . . .  Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.

[ . . . . ]

On they go – an invincible army, yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People – all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the Chinese Civil Service or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple, as one of them remarked, is the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.

So, my dear, dear, Latino students, be aristocrats. Be aristocrats of the spirit. Be sensitive, considerate, and plucky, and slip through the net. Your kingdom is the wide-open world.


[1] In 2010 I moved back to Arizona. I still receive invitations to participate in poetry festivals all over the country, and they still publish me in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies.

 

About the author:

Lilvia Soto.  Chihuahua, México, 1939. Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. She has taught Latin American and Latino literatura at Harvard and other American universities. She was the co-founder and first director of La Casa Latina: the University of Pennsylvania Center for Hispanic Excellence. She was the Resident Director of a Study Abroad Program for students from Cornell, Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania in Sevilla, Spain. She has participated in numerous international literary conventions and festivals in Spain, Mexico, and the United States. She has published poetry, short fiction, literary criticism, and literary translations in journals and anthologies in the United States, Canada, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela. She has an English-language manuscript of poems about the American Iraq wars and another English-language collection of poems that dialogue with Iraqi poems. She has also completed an English-Spanish collection about language and her experience living in Spain. She is currently working on a bilingual collection about her return to Mexico in 2004, where she lived for six years, and the recovery of cultural and familial roots. She has published essays and given lectures on Spanish, Spanish-American, and Chicano writers (Leopoldo Alas [Clarín], Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, José Emilio Pacheco, Alejo Carpentier, Fernando del Paso, Salvador Elizondo, Guadalupe Villaseñor, Laura Esquivel, Lucha Corpi), as well as on the history of the U.S.-Mexico border, the culture of Hispanics in the U.S., and the poetry of Chicana writers. As a consultant she offers Spanish-English translations and workshops on intercultural communications. Her translation of a poem by the Mexican poet Alberto Blanco appears in this issue of Ragazine.CC. You may contact her at lilviasoto@hotmail.com

October 28, 2012   Comments Off on Lilvia Soto/Latin in America