Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wrapping Christmas Presents

Wrapping Christmas Presents

I absolutely love wrapping Christmas presents.  Doesn’t matter what the present is:  could be a deck of cards or a cashmere sweater.  Doesn’t matter who the giftee is:  could be my beloved daughter or the anonymous mail carrier.  All I need is to have beautiful and/or whimsical and/or recycled papers, gorgeous ribbons (or at least lots and lots of cheap ribbon in every conceivable holiday color, and/or yarn and twine), tons of Scotch tape, decent scissors, and stick-on gift tags (I used to make them individually out of the paper in which I’d wrapped a present, but that quickly became not-fun . . . also hard to tell which present was destined for whom, as these sorts of tags are inherently self-camouflaging).  Plus gifts to wrap.  Plus time to do so. 

Not surprisingly, I come from a family of gift-wrapping enthusiasts.  Until arthritis made the activity difficult, my mother wrapped elegant presents.  She favored monochromatic papers and elaborate bows; she’d experiment with color-on-color presentations (as in red bow on red paper) or unusual color combinations (as in green paper with a purple and silver bow).  She’d turn the rough edges of paper so all folds were plumb and didn’t show an ugly white underside.  She’d arrange presents under the tree carefully, with attention to size, hue, and sheen.

My father, on the other hand, was a devotee of quirky, exuberant (aka slapdash) wrapping.  He’d use whatever paper was near at hand, for example, and embellish it with a gold-ribbon initial indicating its recipient (easy enough in our family, as we all had different initials) or a pasted-on Christmas tree cut from a last-year’s holiday card.  Plus glue and sequins.  Plus tie-ons:  for a few years, he always ordered one (least expensive possible) thing for Mom from Neiman Marcus, specifying store gift wrap, because those wrapped gifts would come festooned with a gaudy ornament, which after Christmas would go into the wrappings box to be used again and again and again.  I remember one such tie-on – a large Styrofoam and glitter ‘NOEL’ – that we attached to packages for decades until it literally fell apart and was reluctantly decommissioned. 

Growing up, my sister and I were at a distinct disadvantage in the family gift-wrapping frenzy.  The reason:  we didn’t have much money to buy presents, so we’d only have a handful to wrap.  Our parents, though, believed that having a bunch of gifts under the tree was a non-negotiable for the season – my mother for aesthetic reasons (the tree would look ugly without them) and my father for the-more-the-merrier-and-more-fun-on-Christmas-day reasons.  Therefore, they were both quite creative in multiplying presents-to-wrap-and-display in ways that our very modest family budget could accommodate.

--Wrapping paperback books they’d already read and thought someone else might like.
--Wrapping things in a set (like three graduated mixing bowls) separately.
--Wrapping things deceptively (like wrapping one new golf ball [from Mom to Dad] in a large be-bowed box).
--Wrapping promises (‘I promise to take out the garbage every week’;  ‘I promise not to nag you about taking out the garbage’) . . . this maneuver entails writing out the promise, putting it in some sort of box, then:  wrapaganza!
--Wrapping last-minute cheap junk (like a dollar jig-saw puzzle or a Pez candy dispenser or a guilty-pleasure National Enquirer, all of which my dad would score from a night-before-Christmas run to Walgreen’s) in manners suitable for inclusion in the under-tree pile.
--Wrapping presents in newspaper or semi-de-creased used aluminum foil when we were out of ‘real’ Christmas paper.

Perhaps my strongest wrapping memory was generated when I was a young married adult and my sister was a young affianced adult.  On Christmas Eve we all gathered at my parents’ house, some of us just having arrived . . . with (oh, the horror!) unwrapped presents.  After dinner, my dad decided we should have a wrapping contest.  While my sister and I (Mom had finished her wrapping – beautifully, as always) labored over making pretty presents, our husbands/fiancés/fathers got into a guy thing of constructing Dr. Seuss/Dr. Freud towers of ribbon-festooned wrapping-paper tubes to affix to the presents proper.  The winner, as I recall, was my sister’s fiancée, as his creation was about five feet tall.  He was studying to be a psychologist, so go figure.

A wrapping temptation happened when I lived in Okinawa as a military wife.  We visited another couple (a few years older) during the holidays:  their tree and the gifts underneath were all done up in red and white.  Mrs. Captain was an excellent artist and a cool person – she explained that she re-wrapped gifts sent from state-side in glossy white paper and red bows in order to (1) reflect her family’s Swedish heritage and (2) to look nice.  As I’d just turned twenty-one, I was impressed . . . and thought I might emulate (perhaps in different colors) Mrs. Captain’s holiday artistry.  Then we received a Christmas box from home – gifts wrapped in my mom’s lovely manner and in my dad’s distinctive sang-froid aesthetic.  Re-wrap those presents?  No way.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed wrapping gifts with my daughter, wrapping gifts with my parents, wrapping gifts for my parents (when for different reasons, they were unable to wrap gifts themselves, but it was always a collaboration – I’d drag out paper rolls and ribbons and ask them which they’d think would be good for that particular gift and that particular recipient), and . . . just wrapping gifts by myself. 

This final wrapping scenario is the most difficult.  How to keep the fun and creativity alive when you have neither wrapping allies nor an immediate wrapping audience?  For me, it’s a three-fold process. 

First, have materials that inspire/satisfy you.  I like to have on hand solid papers in red, green, gold, silver, and blue.  Plus complementary ribbons – I need old-fashioned curling ribbon in all colors, plus sateen ribbons and bows, plus my new favorite – wired ribbon (more expensive, but reusable for years and years).  It’s nice to have gift-able tie-ons, like small ornaments or candy canes or jingle bells or wine charms or a wire whisk.  Then there should be some patterned papers (I’m partial to snowflakes, polka dots, and Christmas trees) for variety.

Second, keep the recipient in mind.  For instance, one of my nephews really likes the color blue; my daughter enjoys snow scenes; a good friend is more of a gold/brass accent person than a silver accent person; a young relative adores penguins.  Thinking of the gift-getter’s tastes as you select papers and embellishments makes wrapping less a job than an interaction (a virtual one, to be sure, but one that can be emotionally satisfying). 

Third, try something new (on at least one present).  Origami animals or flowers instead of bows.  Out-of-date road maps repurposed into colorfully snazzy retro gift wrap.  Tie-ons of real balsam, holly, and mistletoe (or cinnamon sticks, clove and tangerine pomanders, and sage sprigs) rather than the plastic variety.  Clue tags (using the clues you provide on a [very big] gift tag, recipients must guess what’s in the packages before they can open them). Wrapping presents in fabric rather than paper. 

Gift-wrapping can be like performance art:  something you do with an aesthetic purpose, with a recognition that such gestures are ultimately transient and all the more magical because of their ephemeral nature – that wrapping Christmas presents thoughtfully for people you care about is a creative expression of love.  It can also be a way of continuing family traditions, or at least of commemorating and perpetuating family holiday memories.

Wrap on, friends.  Happy Holidays!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Petraeus Follies: Jill Kelley's InBox

The Petraeus Follies:  Jill Kelley’s InBox

To:  Jill Kelley
From: Abdelicious
Subject: Pix

Glad U liked the pix.  Waiting 4 U 2 lick the sweat from the 6-pak, LOL. BST, if U evR need anything, just let me no.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  SupahDave
Subject:  JW

KUPTGW.  Slammin vet charity event.  U R a genuine QT.   RUUP4IT?

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  KelleypaTROLL
Subject:  Handz OFF

U skanky hor, keep ur handz OFFA my man.  Heez got mre medals thn yrs, so deal witit beeaytch.  Im watchin U.

To: Jill Kelley
From: Abdelicious
Subject:  Email Threat?

U bet, thissis disturbing.  Lemme go 2 cyber-crimes.  And so U wont worry 2 much, more pix?  Call me sauna-iguana.  STM?  HHJK.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  KelleypaTROLL
Subject:  UR in 4 it

MayB U didn’t gettit.  HANDZ OFF!!!!!  & FEET.  I saw wat U did under the table.  SAMAGAL.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  John_in_Kabullshittistan
Subject:  Thinking of U


To:  Jill Kelley
From:  John_in_Kabullshittistan
Subject:  SSDD

IRL, my job RSTBI.  IYSWIM.  Fun to think of U NIFOC.  MWBRL.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  SupahDave
Subject:  OL

Lotza pressure (SHID).  Wife and BOM.  Don’t need another CLM, but RU interested?

To:  Jill Kelley
From: KelleypaTROLL
Subject:  AYOR

AWGTHTGTTA?  I mean, really?  BIH.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  Abdelicious
Subject:  BM

What more do U want from me?  I’ve been UR DGA at J. Edgar’s.  DITYID?

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  South Korean Embassy, Faux-Consul Division
Subject:  Myun hu po gi ha da

Pale piece of pig’s ear:  Myun hu po gi ha da.  As in you are no longer an ‘honorary consul’ for the Republic of Korea.  Remove your license plate at once and give it back.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  NBC News, Florida Stringer Division
Subject:  Fat Chance

You’re not ‘inviolate,’  We can walk on your lawn and take all the pictures we want.  GNBLFY, but GMBO.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  Supah Dave
Subject:  GL

Sorry things are FUBAR.  HIH.

To:  Jill Kelley
From:  John_in_Kabullshittistan
Subject:  HIWTH


To:  Jill Kelley
From:  Abdelicious
Subject:  SITWB

STFU!  I’m in enough trouble already, and you’re JASE.  HYLMS  (and I don’t even have a twin).

(Unlike the players in the Patraeus follies, I’m not under the delusion that I’m thirteen years old.  Thus I had to resort to internet acronym help.  Otherwise, HSIK?  Anyway, here’s a cheat sheet:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Branding Irony

Branding Irony

It didn’t seem likely that I’d want to write about politics for a month or so.  But in the week between the U.S. Presidential Election and now, I’ve derived heaps of guilty pleasure watching Republicans wallow in a smelly brew of blame-placing, quick fixery, and superficial self-scrutiny. Add to this aromatic spectacle the fact that I’m still tied for the lead in my fantasy football league . . . whatta week!

The portion of the GOP commentariat that isn’t absolutely insane has settled into what at first appears to be useful clear-eyedness based on actual fact:  we lost, and there must be a reason why we lost, and it’s really not Superstorm Sandy or left-wing media and polling bias. (So far, so good.)  Sooooo . . . it must be the newly discovered demographic of “the Latino,” and/or our unfriendly “tone’” toward “the Latino” (and maybe toward women, who apparently didn’t care for crazy, stupid, and misogynistic men making repulsive comments about rape . . . and maybe toward young voters, who tend to have a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude toward marriage equality and even, gasp, toward recreational marijuana).

But forget gays and gals. Demographically based Republican ‘real arithmetic’ (that writes off African Americans, even though this voting sector doesn’t necessarily have to be one billion-to-one pro-Democratic) rules the airwaves.  Therefore:

Let’s Party!  Fiesta!  Marco Rubio!  He’s Latino, right? 2016, amigos y compañeros!  And while we’re at it, let’s stop reflexively prefacing the word ‘immigrant’ with the word ‘illegal.’  Even Sean Hannity converted (in the space of two days) from a rabid ‘anti-immigrant’ blatherer to someone who instantly ‘evolved’ into a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. 

Plus, if we absolutely have to look at the gender gap that we’d erroneously claimed we’d closed:  let’s stop talking about rape.  Period.  Even if it takes generously applied full-mouth duct tape.

And if we do that (say the ostensibly non-crazy Republicans), we’ll re-brand ourselves into success.  We embrace Latinos and we love women (gracias, Ann Romney). 

The problem with all of this, it seems to me, is that today’s Republican Party does not understand ‘branding.’  Nor does it understand situational irony.

‘Rebranding’ (the word has been bandied about frequently by Republican politicians and pundits this past week) does not mean botoxing a logo or slogan.  It means reconsidering the value of the product or service or industry in question, a reconsideration usually undertaken when the said product/service/industry has lost market share (or sometimes when it’s taken an out-of-left-field hit, like the Tylenol sabotage situation).  A company analyzes why its product is underperforming and often tries to figure out a way to improve the product, thus making it more attractive to its target consumer group.

A company also considers marketing strategy.  Perhaps marketing has been directed at the wrong or at an ill-defined audience and – with the help of an improved product – could be sold successfully to a newly defined audience.  Then and only then does a rebranding initiative deal with tweaking the graphics, the immediate face of the product/service/industry, in order to suggest, explain, or reinforce enhanced value, and to best convey this re-crafted image to a more precisely designated audience.  What successful rebranding does not do is put lipstick on a pig.

Much of last week’s Republican ‘why-did-we-lose-when-we-were-sure-we’d win’ breast-beating has involved ‘messaging.’  Latinos took offense at phrases like ‘illegal aliens’ and ‘self-deportation.’  Women were upset by insensitive comments about their reproductive rights and their capacity to make decisions about them.  Not-rich people didn’t like being referred to as folks who had no ‘personal responsibility’ and simply wanted to mooch off the ‘makers.’  True enough.

But the remedy is not just to change the wording – to refer to ‘illegal immigrants’ rather than to ‘illegal aliens,’ for instance (a minor rhetorical swerve that Mitt Romney was able to make).  Nor is it to renounce, belatedly, the Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks of the party (doesn’t matter anyway, as they’ve been defeated, and the electorate seems to have figured out that they weren’t really anomalies).  Nor to windily proclaim that Republicans are inclusive, with no evidence to back up the claim (unless you count Allen West [African-American Republican wingnut loser] or Michele Bachmann [Female Republican wingnut winner]). The point is the product, not the messaging. 

The product is seriously flawed. 

Just read the 2012 Republican platform, which clearly stakes out reactionary positions on all sorts of issues (abortion, immigration, marriage equality, government assistance, etc. etc.), that – if anyone bothered to look at it – would annoy or outrage large segments of the U.S. electorate.  Further, the driving raison d’être of the last Republican Congress – to defeat President Obama on each and every issue – was repudiated and exposed as cravenly self-serving by last week’s election.  No amount of cosmetic ‘rebranding’ can fix the current Republican cluelessness about and tone-deafness toward what the majority of American voters actually considers to be fair, normal, and desirable.

Which is where irony comes in.  In Western literary criticism and theory, irony is a notoriously slippery concept, rooted in the Socratic irony of the Platonic dialogues and understood mainly as a rhetorical device, in which what is said is contrary to what is meant.  Such a definition presupposes that either the speaker is aware of this disjunction or the author manipulates a speaking character into this disjunctive position. 

In the case of the Republican Party’s ongoing self-recriminatory flagellations, there are some instances of this sort of verbal irony (as when Party operatives talk about needing to modulate language referring to ‘illegal aliens’ so as not to upset ‘Latinos,’ not really getting that the phrase ‘illegal immigrants,’ while less infuriating than ‘illegal aliens,’ still couples ‘illegal’ with ‘immigrants’ and suggests an existential state [immigrants as human beings are or can be illegal] rather than an activity-related status [one can do something illegal;  one is not ‘illegal’ per se]).  Such instances reinforce the basic definition of irony:  stating something contrary to what is meant or, by stating what one thinks one’s new message is, actually reinforcing the old message.

But for irony to be recognized – to operate in the literary or political universe – there must be a double audience:  those who are the primary targets of a given utterance and those who are removed enough/informed enough to ‘get’ the irony.  This is the realm of situational or dramatic irony, where the secondary audience sees the irony that the characters/speakers – or the author/dramatist/spinmeister/pundit, or the primary intended audience – do not see.

Those of us who aren’t Rush-Bo ditto-heads or Fox News mouth-breathers get to be the theater of irony’s secondary, situational audience.  That would be:  the majority of United States citizens.  We can see and assess the chasm between rhetoric and policy.  We can judge which spokespeople are seriously reconsidering the relevance and rightness of the Republican Party, version 2012, and which are hoping that cheap rebranding can save the coming day.  We can ponder the ironic disconnect between an often thoughtful Republican like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s statements yesterday – that his party has to stop being the ‘stupid party’ – and the Ivy League-educated Jindal’s continuing support for teaching Creationism.  We can weigh the sincerity of people like Bill Krystol who, after years of supporting the Republican party line that bans tax hikes on everyone everywhere, now blithely asserts that tax raises on the wealthiest Americans would be no big deal.  We can savor the irony of Grover Norquist calling someone else a ‘poopy-head.’

I truly hope that the Republican Party rebrands itself in a significant rather than a superficial way, that it cuts through its un-self-aware verbal irony and deals with the situational irony it has generated.  I believe that our country benefits from having a strong two-party system (who knows, a strong three-party system may work, but it hasn’t so far . . .  and a one-party system doesn’t seem to me a very good idea).  I think that the GOP can offer creative and helpful ideas about fiscal policy (and I wish that in its paroxysms of rebranding, it puts these ideas at the forefront).  Even though I’ve been a Democrat all my adult life, I do remember times when there were a lot of Republicans I admired and might have voted for.  I’d like those times to return . . . and return in a way that deals with our current challenges, concerns, and demographics – with our United States – honestly and usefully.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Weed, Weddings, Wombs, Wonks, and Whackjobs

Weed, Weddings, Wombs, Wonks, and Whackjobs

Barack Obama has been reelected President of the United States, and beleaguered citizens sigh in relief (or, for some Mitt Romney supporters, in sputtering denial).  So do Canadians, who again are spared a massive fantasy influx of disgruntled Democrats, although a handful of remarkably ignorant Republicans are making the same migratory threat to our neighbors to the North.  Way to escape socialized medicine and reproductive rights, guys! 

After a couple days of reflection, I’ve isolated five rather unexpected outcomes of Election Day and speculated a bit on how they might play out. 

Weed:  The referenda to legalize ‘recreational marijuana’ in Colorado and Washington State had flown below my East Coast radar.  That they passed was at first surprising, at second intriguing (I’ve never visited Seattle . . . and am quite fond of Denver . . . is it time for first and return trips?), at third sensible (tax revenues and better use of police resources), and fourth – well, the fourth is potentially very important indeed.  These referenda may be the first cracks in this country’s draconian and counter-productive drug policy.  If so, and if Federal law enforcement pretty much ignores these anti-prohibition laws (as it has softly signaled it will), then the country could be turning away from imprisoning drug users to ignoring them (when individual use has no effect on the public) or to treating them (as with chronic alcoholics, or even chronic gamblers and chronic angry people).  This will really, really save money, as fewer non-violent ‘lawbreakers’ are chucked into prison for long, expensive, and pointless terms, and in so doing reducing the truly shameful percentage of people (often Black males, but increasingly Latino males) incarcerated in this country.  Further, de-criminalizing marijuana may knee-cap the easy profit base of serious and dangerous drug cartels. 

Weddings:  Maine and Maryland voters approved marriage equity by popular vote, and Minnesotans rejected an amendment to the State constitution that would have outlawed it.  Previously, the handful of states that had legalized ‘gay marriage’ had done so via judicial or legislative action.  As a resident of North Carolina, which disgracefully ratified such an amendment a few months ago, I’m happy to see other parts of the country move toward social sanity.  Combined with the small but significant upsurge in young people’s voting percentages, these States suggest a slow but unstoppable trend toward making DOMA and its correlates go the way of anti-miscegenation laws.  Possible ramifications down the line?  Other than giving LGBT citizens the same opportunity for wedded bliss, purgatory, or hell that straight citizens have, ‘mainstreaming’ gay families could reduce the growing problem of bullying.  Simply being gay, or being a child of gay parents, may sooner rather than later not be a causus belli teenagerus.  Further, more weddings are good for the economy.  Florists, caterers, calligraphers, fashion designers, photographers – rejoice!  Oh, and there’s also the signally important (and oddly Libertarian) issue that the government, on any level, has no business whatsoever policing its citizens’ amatory preferences and bedroom activities, unless they involve unconsenting two-year olds, Gabon vipers, bazookas, and Sarin gas. 

Wombs:  Twenty people with wombs were elected to the United States Senate, the highest number ever in this country.  Congratulations to the newcomers and to the incumbents, all of whom were re-elected. The United States, however, still lags behind most other countries when it comes to female participation in government.  So why does it matter that now women Senators have reached a measly 20% of the whole?  One would hope that there are finally enough women that male Senators cannot make idiotic and/or ignorant assertions about female biology and agency without being immediately challenged and/or ridiculed.  And that such matters as funding Planned Parenthood are not patronized as ‘women’s issues’ but seen as economic and equal rights issues.  And that reasonably progressive (or at least centrist) Supreme Court appointees would be confirmed, and other Federal Judiciary appointments would not be blocked on rigidly ideological grounds.  I don’t believe that women are more ‘accommodationist’ than men in any absolute sense, but I do suspect that many women’s life experiences and cultural positionings make them more comfortable with compromise and mediation than some of their male colleagues in high-powered jobs (which would include the Senate).  Now, if there could only be a big surge of women in the House of Representatives . . .

Wonks:  The new Progressive/Liberal hero is Nate Silver, the wonkiest of all number-crunching wonks.  He even has his own ‘Drunk Nate Silver’ Twitter hash tag (well, it’s not his, but it’s pretty funny).  The point of the Nate Silver celebrity boomlet is simple:  he has predicted the outcome of elections with amazing (to people who don’t understand statistics, which is most of us) accuracy.  Nate Silver is just the milk-carton boy, however, of a whole phalanx of number-crunching wonks who range from serious pollsters (who, despite face-fanning from losing political factions, actually have figured out how to assess the political leanings of people without land-lines) to seriously mathematics-empowered campaign strategists (see:  President Obama’s Chicago operation – why do you think they were so non-spinningly confident for the past few months?).  Micro-targeting, data-mining, poll algorithms – sorry, folks who think politics and more particularly political prognostications are gut emotions – are what prevailed this week and only will become more influential in the future.  Gone are the days that simply repeating a wish (as in, ‘Governor Romney’s got momentum’) will make the wish come true.  And maybe also gone are the days that ‘political commentators’ feel comforable predicting on completely unscientific samplings of a few old cronies’ ‘feelings’ about a race – and are given airtime to do so.  Most wonderfully, maybe also gone will be self-massaging billionaires who let their ‘guts’ open their bank accounts to craven fundraisers who also survey political landscapes by dragging their guts (and greed) across the terrain like foggy retirees wielding cheap metal detectors.

Whackjobs:  Unfortunately, they’re not all gone.  But some of the most flagrant are.  The eminent 18th-century sexologists, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, will not ascend to the Senate (and will not return to the House, due to their singular take on the Peter Principle).  Absolutely hatefully crazy Joe Walsh has lost his Illinois House of Representative seat to the triple-amputee war veteran Tammy Duckworth, whom he calumnied for flaunting her military service (uh, and she was supposed to disguise her crutches as what?), and absolutely deluded (and probably certifiably insane) Floridian Allen West – the Joe McCarthy-channeling communist hunter who wears his scattering of military medals on his civilian suits – lost his Republican congressional seat as well, although he’s protesting the defeat on grounds that seem as unfounded as they are sore-loserish.  There may be enough whackjobs remaining to keep the House of Representatives dysfunctional, which would be a real shame, considering how we need politicians on both sides of the aisle to be serious about our country’s problems.  Does it help that the Democrats have re-elected their very own whackjob, Florida Representative Alan Grayson?  Probably not.  What might help is that, in the Republican stampede to blame people for this week’s epic fail, the magic finger has pointed (not exclusively, of course) at ‘bad candidates,’ including some of the previously mentioned whackjobs who cost seats for the GOP.  Behind whom are Tea-Party fueled primaries that reward the craziest conservative available.  Maybe this isn’t such a hot idea, fellows. 

So these are some of my thoughts and hopes and trepidations about this recent election.  I have more, of course, but I’m kind of tired of politics for now.  Got to think of new things to write about . . . Duke University Basketball (and maybe North Carolina State’s – who knew?), art projects in Mozambique, fiery Tibetan protests, the problem with American Public Schools, General Petraeus thinking that John Edwards is a good role model.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Barack Obama Has My Vote

Why Barack Obama Has My Vote

In February, I started writing this blog.  The first entry concerned Mitt Romney’s odd comment about the ‘trees being the right height.’  Since then (almost fifty entries later), I’ve written an eight-hand bunch about the 2012 U.S. Presidential race.  Now it’s almost over.

Which is a relief, I’m sure, to most of us.  Particularly to people like me who live in swing states and have been pummeled with 24/7 political ads over the airwaves and internet, not to mention those inconveniently timed advocacy phone calls.  A sliver of my psyche must admit, though, that I will miss all this hoopla, if for no other reasons than there’ve been endless political fodder to write about . . . lots of interesting stuff to watch on TV (interesting if one gets a kick out of politics) . . . and good excuses for having debate-watching parties.

Seriously, I wouldn’t have written all these blogs if I didn’t care about the election, no matter how absurdly amusing (and sometimes dispiriting) the contest often has been.  Therefore, it seems right to explain (or reiterate) why Barack Obama has my vote.  No snark (or at least not much).  And no attempt to persuade.  As one of my friends so sensibly stated a while ago, she knows how she’s going to vote and doesn’t want to be bombarded with reasons why she should vote differently (or, for that matter, reasons why she’s absolutely right and should steal the yard signs of those who don’t agree with her). 

So for people who have followed these blogs, here are the five issues and stances that have most influenced my vote.  Just so you know.  Transparency, baby!

**Supreme Court and other Federal Judiciary appointments.  There’s no doubt whatsoever that Governor Romney would appoint the most conservative, ‘strict constructionist’ jurists that he could come up with.  (No matter what he thinks personally [although, as my October 24th blog suggests, I imagine he would agree), he would find this the most efficient way to assuage the ultra-conservative part of his base, and thus he would do so.)  I believe that such reconfigurated courts could easily strip women, ‘minorities,’ gays, union members (make your own list) of hard-won rights.  President Obama has not, and will not, appoint reactionary judges (I dare anyone to show how Supreme Court Justices Kagan or Sotomayor have been reactionary). Judicial appointments have consequences that last long after the term of any particular President ends.

**Foreign Policy.  President Obama has conducted foreign policy with prudence, sensitivity to and knowledge of other cultures and histories, and a reluctance to involve the United States in another ground war – especially in the Islamic world.  All we know about Governor Romney’s foreign policy is that he’s quick to make pugnacious declarations, he’s surrounded himself with Bush (W. variety) neo-cons, he’s BFF with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he finds it smart to vilify the Chinese in offensively racist ways, and his world-historical and geopolitical knowledge base seems, uh, well, severely limited.

**Infrastructure.  It shouldn’t take Hurricane Sandy for the United States to realize that our national infrastructure – from power grids to traffic tunnels – is at best creaky and at worst, on the edge of collapse.  President Obama sees a significant federal government role in repairing, rebuilding, even re-conceiving our infrastructure.  This is not just a make-jobs project (although that’s probably a good byproduct).  It’s a major initiative that involves energy sourcing, actual attention to demographic patterns, climate conditions, and recognition that individual States and private enterprise could only approach such huge and needed projects in a piecemeal fashion.  Maybe I’ve missed it, but Governor Romney has offered nada/zip/zilch about national infrastructure.

**Science.  Oh, where to start.   One:  this country’s economic strength has been in large part propelled by scientific and technological initiatives supported by the federal government . . . and by a general stance that respects actual science.  Two:  whether it’s climate change or good old evolution or female biology, there’s a scientific consensus about the facts (as opposed to what we should do, given the facts).  The Republican Party, as it now presents itself, seems to take pride in ignoring or belittling many such facts. Governor Romney has not distanced himself from the ideologically reinforced ignorance that seems to dominate his party.  If he is elected President and has a yawping minority of Tea-Partyish know-nothings at his back . . . God forbid.

**The Nature of Government.  Back a zillion years ago, when Civics was still a secondary school course, we were taught about the Social Contract, American-style.  E pluribus unum.  And for that pleasant motto to work, we expected to contribute to the collectivity that was the United States – taxes of course, but also military and public and community service.  Some things could be handled on the local level, and other things could not.  As citizens, we had a responsibility to our fellow citizens, particularly when they were in distress.  Again, it would be easy to evoke Hurricane Sandy here . . . and actually, why not?  No individual State can deal efficiently with such devastation, and relatively poor States (see Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) may not be able to deal even minimally.  Governor Romney has stated quite clearly that FEMA is not needed, that everything can be best handled by States and, even better, by private companies (another new branding for Blackwater?).  President Obama, obviously, thinks differently.

You’ll notice that in my top-five list I do not include the deficit or, specifically, job-creation.  Issues surrounding the deficit are definitely above my pay grade (which, for blog entries, would be zero); I do not presume to understand much about macro- or micro-economics.  Instead, I have a rather naïve belief that if the five ‘issue areas’ outlined above were addressed sensibly, the United States of America would be in much better shape economically and socially.  It seems to me that President Obama has tried to address them, with varying degrees of political suppleness and varying degrees of success.  It also seems to me that Candidate Romney has not addressed them thoughtfully, and that he is likely to go along with the troglodytic views of the current House of Representatives, if he is elected President and the House remains controlled by intransigent Republicans.

[Neither do I specifically mention health care.  No matter how he tries to run away from what, arguably, is his best contribution to public welfare, Governor Romney did sign into Massachusetts law a health care policy that provided a template for ‘Obamacare.’  Neither plan is perfect, but they both move toward providing medical services for all citizens.  Mitt Romney has said he’d ‘repeal Obamacare on Day One’ of his presidency, but I don’t really believe him.  It’s his plan, or at least one he endorsed in principle and, when it was politically expedient, took credit for.  Maybe this is just wishful thinking . . . ]

Do Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and Defense Spending (the three largest chomps on our national budget) need serious reconsideration?  Does the Federal Tax Code need reformation?

Yes indeed.  Neither 2012 Presidential candidate has put forth a clear vision about how he would attack these problems resolutely.  That’s why I outlined the five issues mentioned above.  These are issues about which, I think, the candidates have given the voting public pretty clear indications concerning where they stand. 

Those indications are why President Barack Obama has my vote.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

In Praise of the Day of the Dead

In Praise of the Day of the Dead

Today is the Day of the Dead, the Día de Muertos, Todos Santos (in some parts of Mexico, the Day of the Dead extends to November 2, and in even more remote areas, it’s an eight-day-long commemoration).  Many of us who cannot claim Mexican heritage connect this day with folk art:  with ornate sugar skulls, with whimsical skeleton figurines, with cut-out paper banners showing cavorting bags-of-bones. 

Count me in.  As I write, I can look around my house at two skeletons playing basketball, an articulated skeleton matador, a grinning skull rattle, a tile showing a skeleton pecking at a computer, José Guadeloupe Posada notecards (see the image at the top of this blog entry for this artist’s most iconic engraving, “La Catrina”), a miniature diorama of skeletons enjoying themselves at a tavern. Day of the Dead items have appealed to me for a long time; I love the combination of humor, the bizarre, the satiric, and the generation-to-generation craftsmanship. 

Seven years ago, my mother died on the Day of the Dead.  Coincidences are simply coincidences, I think.  Even so, this particular coincidence has made me consider the Día de Muertos somewhat differently.

If one brushes away artistic display, the foundational acts for the Day of the Dead are to visit a deceased loved one’s burial place, to construct a home ofrenda (a memorial of food, flowers, textiles, and decorations), and to celebrate that person’s importance with a ceremonial meal, shared among family members here on earth and those who are not.  It’s a family reunion with a clear focus:  respect and love for the departed, plus recognition that they’re still important to the living.

In pre-colonial Mesoamerican belief systems, there’s not a clear-cut idea of heaven (or hell).  Afterlife is neither reward nor punishment.  To the Aztecs, for instance, the ‘ordinary dead’ go ultimately to Mictlan, where they exist more or less in a state-of -being quite similar to that they enjoyed, or endured, during their time on earth.  People who die under extraordinary circumstances, like in war or in childbirth, go somewhere different.  In all cases, it seems, the spirits of the deceased enjoy being remembered and feted, just as their descendants (or more sadly, their parents or siblings, as these belief structures were built when child mortality was rampant) feel more whole in the act of honoring their dead.

To me, raised as I was in a rather anemic Episcopalian religious tradition, this view of dead loved ones is profoundly attractive.  No one is performing harp solos on clouds (or screaming in hellfire).  But deceased family and friends do exist, in interaction with those they loved and who loved them.  They’re not particularly meddlesome; indeed, their post-earthly lives are rather happy and fulfilling.  Once a year, on the Day of the Dead, they appreciate reconnecting with those they care about.  And having a special day to do so.

After my mother died, I was talking to my cousin Sarah about our losses (her mother, my Aunt Mary, died from cancer when her children were still young).  Sarah made a comment that has stayed with me:  that she envisioned her parents, my parents, and our other deceased family members enjoying bridge and cocktails ‘up in heaven,’ or someplace equivalent.  Sadly, a couple of years later our much-loved last remaining aunt on our mothers’ side, Eleanor, died also, having been predeceased by her husband and, tragically, by her youngest son.  In long-distance conversations during which we all were trying to comfort each other, we recalled the vision of the celestial cocktail party. 

So the Day of the Dead is an excellent time to commemorate my mother – and my father, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousin.  It’s not that I don’t think about them a lot; I do.  But there’s something special about having a designated day to do that, something my own faith and culture traditions do not afford. 

The day my mother died, seven years ago, looked remarkably like today – sunny, crisp, cool, autumnal, beautiful.  My sister was here, and we were keeping vigil in our separate but connected ways.  Mom had been really sick for a long time, but she died peacefully at home.  Even though neither my sister nor I is religious in a conventional sense, we both thought that maybe Mom would be joining Dad and her sisters, and would no longer be in pain and afraid. 

Therefore, today is a special day.  The customs and beliefs surrounding the Day of the Dead are so very appropriate for commemorating my mom.  She was a smart, beautiful woman who was perhaps best remembered for her generous hospitality.  She knew how to throw cocktail parties.  She knew how to make guests feel welcome (even, remarkably, my teenaged friends way back when, who honestly loved hanging out at our house).  She had many other talents and accomplishments, but they may have been eclipsed by the times during which she lived.  Nonetheless, creating a loving and welcoming home is nothing to be sneezed at. 

She also had amazing patience, particularly with me.  During trying times in my life, she would listen to hours of my anguish poured through the telephone, occasionally offering advice, often just being supportive.  During triumphant times, she rejoiced.  What she didn’t do, with me at least, was ask for support during her own times of travail.  Until she became ill – and even then she didn’t exactly ask.  It was more that her gratitude for what she shouldn’t have had to think twice about, that her daughters cared for her profoundly, was heartbreakingly obvious.

During her last weeks, a lot of my friends – and hers – congregated around her bedside.  With cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and laughter and babies (she always loved babies, because they ‘didn’t talk back’), with which she participated as much as she was able.  After her death, my sister hosted a wonderful party in her memory, attended by friends and relatives from all over.  These events, featuring as they did people who loved her, food and drinks, even things resembling ofrendas (as in photos and memorabilia of Mom), partook of the Día de Muertos spirit.

Seven years later, I try to keep this spirit in my heart. 

Cheers, Mom.  And Dad, and all my other family members who are enjoying that cocktail party in the sky (or in Mictlan).  We who remain miss you, and love you, and appreciate the deep impact you’ve had, and still have, on our lives.  And as we grow even older, we keep learning to appreciate who you were/are, independent of your children . . . which may be the biggest token of respect we can give.

Mom, Dad, and me . . . in front of the first house they owned, in the barrens of Northern Wisconsin.  Even though it subsequently was found to be infested with rats (that tried to eat me in my crib), it was a symbol of my parents’ attempt to make a good life for their family.  They did have cocktail parties in ‘Rat House.’  Indomitable!