Boiling

Reading Time: 8 minutes

I’ve spent my entire life bemused (when not enraged) by the extravagances of language, including hyperbole, unfounded generalizations, and a host of other pernicious and misleading rhetorical devices by my more agitated brethren and sisters of the Left. There seems to be another epidemic of the same disease at work, now, as the Occupy movement actively seeks to find a center (in more ways than one) and a way to be politically effective in a directed way, and the attempts of the “chattering masses” on the Left, apparently to agitate and provoke the agitate-able and provoke-able of we less publicly vocal yeomen and women. Now a 24-yr. old, recent journalism graduate of Morehead State, named Carl Gibson has announced that “America Has Become a Fascist Police State” [http://bit.ly/uQNdpR]. The slightly older and decidedly more well-known Naomi Wolf (as she ramps up her contorted public position) regarding the allegedly general police reaction to Occupy, unqualifiedly asserts “US citizens of all political persuasions are still reeling from images of unparallelled police brutality…”. Fox News and its predecessors and fellow travelers have long since opened the current door to saying what you please, whether it’s true or not, and now the (finally) angered left that likes to babble to hear itself (and entertain those all too poised to believe what they hear) is marching through the same portal.

I don’t blame Mr. Gibson. He’s way too young to remember anything except possibly stories, told to him on, or at, someone’s knee, about the skewering of President Clinton, the “electronic lynching” of Justice Thomas, and the much more recent “evidence of WMD” that justified a trillion dollar war in Iraq that hasn’t ended yet. Ms. Wolf, a presumptive student of history (she is billed as a political consultant) should know better, even though she was born just a year before President Kennedy was assassinated, and was only six when Reverend King was killed. Had they longer memories, or were more prudent in making their assertions after checking what historical facts there are about police brutality and overreaction—and there is a sufficient body of knowledge that is essentially academic in nature that they might trust at least the fundamental accuracy of those accounts—they might not be so quick as to suggest, or state baldly that there’s anything new to the realization that “there’s a riot going on” (no less an august observer of cultural phenomena and current events than Sly of the Family Stone made this percipient declaration, to music no less—the song “Family Affair” from the album by that riotous name hit number one on the Billboard 200 charts for popular songs, and number three on their R&B charts, for two weeks back in 1971-72, almost exactly 40 years ago: Mr. Gibson was somewhere in the general gene pool at that time, and Ms. Wolf was just about to celebrate her tenth birthday).

Had they better memories, Gibson and Wolf would recall such things as the fire hoses and attack dogs turned routinely by the local constabulary, largely in the South, on non-violent demonstrators for civil rights for African-Americans, demonstrators, it might be added, of all colors by the mid-60s. They might recall the fire bomb dropped by helicopter by the Philadelphia police on the headquarters of the fundamentally African-American movement called “Move” back in 1985 (Wolf, precocious no doubt, and almost the age of Gibson now, and Gibson, still waiting to be born). They might recall through reading and being taught, as I was, as these events occurred even before my appearance on Planet Earth, of the use of Federal troops and state militias, as well as local police and constabulary, to forcefully quell and subdue demonstrators (sometimes, but not always, a polite term for “rioters”) agitating for causes ranging from better working conditions, to the outright need for work, to peace rather than war, or simply anti-war, throughout the history of the 20th century, towards which some people, in their fog and ignorance, sometimes look wistfully, if not in the full bloom of nostalgia. People forget the number of times, commissions (after the fact) and boards of inquiry, reviewing the actions of police in carrying out whatever orders they were given to restore the peace, insofar as it seemed to someone or other to have been threatened or actually disturbed, had in fact rioted themselves, and thus the concept (today we’d call it a “meme” of some sort, something like an animated GIF of memes being flipped through, like a cartoon) of a “police riot,” a combination of words that should otherwise be seen even by a moron as an oxymoron. I mean, I grew up at least to understand that police keep the peace (at least in the abstract; at least that’s the fundamental strategy; remember the phrase “law and order” and I’m not talking the long-running, prize-winning TV series?).

I have the fortune or misfortune to remember the accounts, because I was not there, though I was well into voting age, old enough to drink, and, for sure, to be drafted, of the iconic “police riot” of my day, in late August of 1968, in Chicago, during the maniac suppression and subduing of demonstrations, largely peaceable and civil, that happened to be proceeding, and upstaging, a singular quadrennial event called the National Convention of the Democratic Party, at that time still known, without irony, as the “people’s party.” Some party. Gibson at that time, understandably, still cosmologically absent, and Ms. Wolf, well she was only six, and was probably, at best, still reeling from the assassination, even as much as she could have understood the idea of this, of two leaders of our country’s most outspoken proponents of civil rights and antagonists of oppression or suppression of U.S. citizens. It was hard for me to take in, at 22. Though even then, at that age, without the advantage Mr. Gibson has of an additional two years of prescience, insight, and wisdom, I would not have declared, on harder evidence, that there was an argument to conclude that universally and absolutely the U.S. was a Fascist state. Strong words.

The Fascist states I recall, and they were these without question from any quarter among the ranks of historians, or any other discipline that pretends to seek objectivity, and they had been defeated decisively by the time I was born, were Germany under National Socialism and Italy under, well, the National Fascist Party (when in Rome, use Latin). It can be argued, and go ahead, I have no objection, that the totalitarian regime of Stalin in the guise of some form of communism was, in fact, largely fascist. I don’t have the political philosophical chops to disagree. No matter. These are our more current templates and models. Other lesser models abound, and they persisted until well into the latter part of the 20th century, or persist (but leave us not compare the U.S. to anywhere else; it might give us, heaven forbid, some perspective). North Korea bears some study. There’s Spain under Franco, and that leader, now long, and famously, “still-dead,” happened to meet his demise in 1975, around the time Ms.Wolf was well into puberty (I’m guessing) and Mr. Gibson, still waiting in the wings.

If we wanted models of true, unquestionable, police brutality—”unparalleled” or not is irrelevant; I don’t care to delve even further back in history: Tamburlaine, Genghis Khan, the Borgias, the Caesars… if you don’t know about Bull Connor or an individual named Frank Rizzo, who warrants another reference to Philadelphia and its police, rivals in their day to the notorious and corrupt, and brutal, LAPD of the 1990s, but we (i.e., Gibson & Wolf, et al.) don’t seem to remember even back that recently, then I don’t expect you to remember back so far as the tyrants, the true paradigms of tyranny, from so far back in the history of civilization—we’d have to take a somewhat wider in scope and more mindful look at recent, and then not so recent U.S. history. And as I said, god forbid that we do that. We might have to speak more reasonably, even amongst ourselves, loathe as we are to confront people who expressly disagree with us directly and to their faces. And it’s clear to me we simply don’t want to be reasonable, and our excuse is, “Well ‘they’re’ not reasonable!” Whoever “they” are for you: go ahead, pick your enemy: the 1%, or to fine-tune it (like Krugman suggests), the 0.1%, the right-wing, the Tea Party, the Republicans, or, god help us, now, the police. All police, everywhere, as long as they’re American.

References to the history of our country recently seem to have moved away from the positioning that, in the larger global scheme of things, we are still a young nation. Though the less than astute former Secretary of Defense Mr. Donald Rumsfeld found occasion to use the term “old Europe” in a wholly derisive way. That was in 2003, a year by which Ms. Wolf had long since acquired some credentials as a respectable and valid spokesperson for the Left, and Mr. Gibson must, at least, have been thinking about where he would be studying at an institution of higher learning to begin to acquire his own—he’s precocious it would seem: making pronouncements as off-the-wall as any established member of the old guard, and expecting an audience of some magnitude, having attained the imprimatur of yet another self-styled organization for truth-telling, the Reader Supported News, founded by the founder of the slightly better known “Truthout,” which is no better or worse at rabble-rousing and un-truth-telling, or, to be fair, shall I call it unsubstantiated truth-telling? But, as a young nation, we’re entitled to find our way still, especially with as fungible and elastic a political template to shape our wanderings as the U.S. Constitution is—and my apologies to strict constructionists, but that happens to be my point of view; in a half-assed way, I am a student of history, and that includes reading the Constitution, which I have; have you? We’re entitled to make the mistakes we’ve made in 220 years. The mistakes we continue to make, and will, if we are at all lucky and are not subsumed by the fires of progress: it’s an idea at least as old as the writers of the Old Testament; I’ll only quote “Mene mene tekel upharsin,” and move on (to coin a phrase). Included in those mistakes, of course, are the errors of judgment that are now an everyday occurrence, by those voted into power, those appointed to power, and those of the rest of us, left to comment. I don’t want to shut Gibson or Wolf up. I just want them to use the brains God gave them before they open their mouths or their laptops. And I’d like you, dear reader, to do the same: I have faith you do it once in awhile regularly. Maybe it’s time to make being mindful a 24/7 occupation, to use the common parlance.

Read these contributions, or any, at your peril. They will at best fuel your indignation and sense of righteousness (and then you’ll go off quietly somewhere and think about it; you can even do that while eating a sandwich of Thanksgiving leftovers). At worst they will fuel the ire and illogic of others possibly less prudent and introspective than you (surely you count yourself prudent and introspective, and, if you are older than Mr. Gibson, at least as old as Ms. Wolf, if not a bit younger, but still well into double-digit college reunions, consider yourself wise as well), and the small fires that are burning (some of them merely for warmth and light, as darkness falls, and heat, for the cooking of what sustains us) will become conflagrations. If I were to predict anything, and I am no prophet, nor a betting man, but if I were, that seems more likely. I mean the conflagrations, and they will not be a new thing, nor unparalleled. We have laid waste, we Americans, and our liberal Allies, truth-seekers and defenders of democracy, whole cities. And we have seen our citizens, and our police, lay waste to whole neighborhoods in our pure and unsullied country. Leave us not mention the natives of this continent.

But the first wasting, the one that enrages the lonely likes of me, because no one particularly wants to listen to some crank who spouts off at such obvious “truths” and says, “take a look at what you’re swallowing, before letting it go down whole,” is the wasting of the language. It’s the only vehicle we have for truth, even the truth we tell ourselves in the pure silence of our wakeful consciences, and we should not pollute or corrupt it. Whether our name is Limbaugh or Bachmann or Coulter—and anathema—or Gibson and Wolf, and not to be questioned, because the words they use satisfy our sense of what the truth must be. Otherwise it’s too complicated and troublesome, isn’t it? To grant some iota of truth to “the other side,” to admit not to knowing everything? To see grey, where it’s so much easier to differentiate black from white, and stop.

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Lovable Women

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Pretty women…
Fascinating…
Sipping coffee,

Dancing… pretty women.

Pretty women

Are a wonder.

Pretty women!

Sitting in the window or

Standing on the stair

Something in them cheers the air.

Pretty women

Silhouetted…

Stay within you,

Glancing… stay forever,

Breathing lightly…

Pretty women,

Pretty women!

Blowing out their candles or

Combing out their hair,

Even when they leave

They still are there.

They’re there.
—Stephen Sondheim, from “Sweeney Todd”

It’s always been my fortune in the latter part of my life to find myself caught up with women who others cannot help but love. They drew affection naturally, draw it, rather, as the luck continues. There is something in each of them, or was, that brought out a sense of affinity, a sweetness, a joy, a natural allure. I cannot speak of physical appeal, not objectively, because to me—and not only to me, but that’s not the point—they were and are beautiful. But I don’t think attraction of a carnal sort is a necessary component of this common response, this spontaneous response. For one, it has always been both women and men who were drawn to these women who were, and are, oh so important to me in my life.

I had some premonition of this as a younger man, but my own interests were more strictly passionate, more singularly objective. And the goal was always bound up in a natural tendency in myself to devotion, specifically to uxoriousness. I sought a mate, always. And my tender efforts, mixed up, confused no doubt and entangled, with more hormonal derivations of my attractions, always ended up in bad judgment, for reason had little part in it. As much as I am by nature analytical, observing, perceiving, processing, ruminating and digesting through the great maw of my intellect (likely itself a very small thing), reason always came last in making my choices, if it came at all. I do not mean to suggest that I am some brilliant philosopher or that I was precocious in any kind of wisdom, though, in retrospect I always showed glimpses at least of a kind of prescience. In the case of women, however, in my youth there was no sign of the reliability of my intuitions. These instinctual habits of mind, upon which I have come so much to depend for my judgment for several decades at least, and reliably so, had they not developed fully, if they had developed at all.

I made mistakes in my choices, as did my partners. And we came to grief. The rupture of any bond, especially those meant, from the first moment one is conscious of being bound in intention, to be long-lasting, dare I say life-long, is overwhelming in its initial shock. Recovery is sometimes hard won in time, if not in emotional stress and in the diminishment of one’s capacity for engagement with life in general. The rupture of the bond of marriage raises the outcome of such breaks, and their collateral effects, to a higher power. I have been married three times so far. Twice, youthful couples that we were, these marriages ended in divorce. The immediate cause each time was a discovered infidelity, neither of them (or any, to be mathematically accurate) mine, but I came to discover this was irrelevant. There are those who would also say that, indeed, the infidelity or its discovery was not an immediate cause at all, given that in each case, my wife decided to take the long walk out the door to our home together. Alone. And I must add: if only momentarily so.

But this is not a narrative about what life they found for themselves with others, after our separation and divorce. Indeed, it’s not even a narrative necessarily about me, and my misadventures. The point is, at least twice in my life I entered into an agreement, a formal joining based on trust, bound by a mutual avowal of that trust, and it was sundered. I take nothing away from these women, as they were themselves lovable in the way I describe in my opening. Were they not, at the very least, there would not have been the one additional set of arms willing to enfold them in loving, trusting embrace that was in each case waiting to do so.

No. I’d say, much as I cannot deny there was a sundering of that trust, a betrayal, the blame, which is the better thing to ruminate upon, lay with both of us. Anyone reading this may infer what they like, but I learned the hard way what to set my thinking upon. And it was necessary to do so, if I had any hope for what remained of my life after the second divorce, never to experience such a sundering again. After the passing of what has been as many years, and more, as an adult since that second split, I can say, I’ve managed not to. There has been another marriage, and another end to it, but that resulted from a far more irrevocable, and undeniably the proximate, cause. In that sovereign state called marriage, I am sorry to differ with the Reverend Dr. John Donne, but death does have dominion, without question as a matter of terminating the earthly condition of it, no matter how loving and strong the bond.

And it has been more in reflection on my years together with my third wife, than through any active contemplation as we lived them, that I came to understand the depth of her innate, her absolute, lovability. I mean that quality as I mean to have you contemplate that quality in others, at least in women, when and if you should come upon it. Since her death, I have had the fortune of meeting other women, some of them more quickly and consciously identifiable to me as possessing that quality. Not with any allure or attraction beyond admiration and a wish for friendship, as differentiated from other kinds of desire, but with the difference that I could, for a change, substantiate any spontaneous draw I might feel, or not, with a conscious awareness of each of them as a person, wholly separate, with an inviolable integrity, which included this quality I am calling lovability. I mean of course a personality and a character intertwined possessed of what could be a long string of associated qualities that constitute them. Qualities like those already alluded to, of sweetness and joy, but also gentleness, and modesty, of guilelessness at bottom. However, such a listing might end up being endless, without enhancing or clarifying the point if I have been at all successful in making it.

I began by speaking of my good fortune, and, I do so despite death and the disaster it wreaked upon my life, that is, the destruction of the very everydayness of my life being the worst part. I say this, because grief does subside. There is nothing equivocal about death, sudden or expected. In its wake, you learn the meaning of absolute, of being definitive, of an end to all that. And you learn to submit to that grief, and you learn to let it overcome you, and then to let it leave by leaching away, bit by bit. As much as there is such a thing as a slow death, there is such a thing, too, as a slow resurrection, an exquisite incremental return to life.

One lesson in this should be enough for any lifetime, but as the healing occurred for me, I had the continuing fortune to meet another, it seemed, of these lovable women I speak of, I hope it is clear, with adoration. I was only beginning to get to know her, however intensely we permitted ourselves to be with one another. In terms of temporal commitments to be together, in terms of openness of consciousness, in terms of being confessional. I speak for myself of course, because, in a way I had not expected, one result of my experience of my first, impossibly (or so it seemed) glorious re-flowering of a life that had begun to emerge from a long winter of losses and killing frosts, was that I felt free. That freedom was a new experience, for all my experiences, generally, and specifically in my eternal commerce with women over a life growing ever longer. It was a freeing sensation, rather, existential, more than a notional abstraction of the sort we speak of when we speak of politics or public discourse. What was freed within me was my self, my sense of who I was, and of what I could permit myself to be or to say. Without, in fact, granting a conscious reflexive act of permission, however unspoken.

There was a lesson in this too, which I could not learn in full until later in this very late period of the history of my own life. And it was death that once again was the agency of delaying my full mindfulness of what I was experiencing even as I lived it. For death made another visitation upon someone I had come to love, whether for her lovability, which seemed amply proved by the reverence and affection displayed by all who knew her—my newest set of friends—or because I simply had met another woman in the course of my sojourn on the earth with whom, and for whom, I felt such things. I will never learn whether there was a chance for the sort of permanence I have sought since I was reasonably old enough to think about such a conjunction. You’d think I could tell, given my knowing at least that it is in my nature, de rerum natura, truly, or at least insofar as the “thing” whose nature was to be known was myself. But I could not. We learn about the permanence of things, I now believe, by living them, all the way through. And, as I’ve already noted, the only definitive end, the probative finish to a matter of permanence and whether something has truly endured to that end, is death. And so death provided some definition, but not of the sort I, or anyone sane and loving, would wish.

My second lesson (among many, I am sure, but these will require more reflection, and hence, more opportunities to speak and write of them separately, with the focus each deserves), occasioned by a death, by my bearing witness to it, and the suffering of another soul within its grip, was this. I learned, with greater force, what I thought I had already learned long since in my struggle to understand how to live with another human being, my counterpart, my equal, but given my preferences and disposition, differentiated nonetheless by secondary and apposite manifestations of gender. I learned, once again, there are boundaries, and they define not only where one ends and another begins, but where, and under what circumstances, and within what terms I may exercise that freedom to be myself I thought I had finally discovered. I am sure whatever other lock there is in my being, that binds me by turns, or keeps me out of places I have a right to go, but have never before ventured—whether from fear or ignorance I still cannot say—has its key in this quality of being lovable. It’s a theory that posits in such a quality being inherent in the other, in women, because, much as I have a love for friends who are men, it is a different kind of love and satisfies a different instinct. I cannot even say that such men as I know who are true friends, and reciprocate my friendship and love unquestioned (and I am, I am sure, if only by dint of some of my behavior, disposed not to make it easy—not at first efforts) possess the lovability of which I write here.

I am sure of that quality, so sure that I can write of it, as I never have before. There are no instant revelations here. No epiphanies at all, least of all good news, as if these insights had occurred just yesterday. In fact, even as I write this, I must note that I began this essay more than two months ago, and have learned that much more in the interim. This is undoubtedly why I could finish it. What has happened is another stroke of luck, not a mere single stroke, but a painting full of them, I have a sense of possibly a gallery of luck. I have met another who is, in fact, the purest embodiment of that lovability I have ever met. I am sure that one reason for my life is that I might live it, willy nilly as I might and did live it, so I could in fact be ready at this time—more or less—to meet such a one, so pure a one and appreciate her and have the chance, once again, to live it right, to be free, but only so free, to let her be free, in all her gentleness, and sweetness, and modesty, and, yes, vulnerability, and to know how to honor these qualities and cherish them, and avert any risk of sundering what I would prefer never again to have sundered. And also, yes, of course, to love her, as a sign, if of nothing else, that I recognize that capacity in her.

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Dipsy Doodle of Death

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The U.S. stock markets have been in a state of wobbly uncertainty for so long, it seems masochistic even to think, never mind worry about it. Today, they look like they collectively are looking for the momentum to sink another 3%. The problem is, what strategies the remaining investors seem to have are all simply predicated on wanting a sure thing. They’re pessimistic today because the “super committee” of Congress has forecast dismal failure at coming up with a “plan” for cuts and whatever else. An idiot could have predicted that when President O did what he had to in the summer and caved on the brilliant tactic of automatic cuts demanded by what is now comically called the Teanderthals in order to keep the U.S. and the world from a worse fate. The consequences of default were obvious to the same idiots cited above.

What investors don’t want to do is look at things the way the management of the companies in whose shares they speculate do—look a bit further down the road, that is, look at a picture a bit larger than the one on the tiny LCD of the next eight hours. With no “plan” the automatic cuts will occur. Nothing drastic (Medicare and SSI for now are spared), but the effects of cuts in government funding will occur in enough areas of the daily lives of ordinary Americans—OK, I can go along with calling them the 99%—that, if they’re hurting and some of them are pissed now, things should get really ugly in the months ahead.

One can only hope they will get ugly enough that there will be revulsion and rejection even from the bone-head constituents of the demented right-wing Congressmen and Senators who have survived so far by feeding those folks back home a steady diet of idiotic conceits and outright lies in an unremitting stream, and all with a singular goal. To keep Obama from gaining a second term. The underlying reasons why are too ugly to contemplate; the stated reasons are the basis for a new definition of the usual louche and despicable motives of the epithet “politician.” If the solution, short and medium term to our economic woes, is the elimination of tax cuts that were instituted by the Moron in Chief, George W. Bush, so be it. Our immediate problems stem from his having rammed two unfunded wars down our throats, with the aid of those assassins of rationality called the Republican Party: cuts insufficient in amounts to send the whole nation immediately and irretrievably down the river, but sufficient nonetheless to prevent those desperate to keep the creaky raft of state from heading to the white waters ahead, because just beyond those rapids are the precipitous cascades of utter ruin. All this was done while also persuading the American public that tax cuts for all, but which mainly benefited the rich—OK, I’ll go along with calling them the 1%—was a wise thing to do, while we continued to spend like the indulgences of our rich Chinese uncles, always ready to lend us another trillion or so, would last forever.

We’ll have to wait and see, of course, how the public reacts this time around, as things they’re used to (at government expense) begin to dry up: roads will deteriorate further, and won’t get fixed. People will get restive and there will be more protests, and more crime, and police departments will be forced to cut back on hours and personnel. Teacher contracts will not be renewed, and no new teachers will be hired. Slowly, inexorably, all of the “investment” categories of our national budget: mainly education, research, housing assistance, transportation… which are our hedge against a worse future for ourselves and ensuing generations, will wither and disappear. Even the densest minds, possessed by the most fear-paralyzed xenophobes of our populace will see it, and feel it. But what they might do, and who they will blame remains to be seen.

We do have a history of the public rising up, miraculously, with a re-birth of reason and clear thinking, however brief the resurrection. It’s usually sufficiently long in duration that the electorate manages to do “the right thing” (in scare quotes because the right thing gets harder and harder to define), and we are set back on the road to recovery. This time, of course, the road will have a lot of detours because of literal and figurative washed-out bridges, crumbling pavement, pot-holes, and the occasional fearsome sinkhole, and recovery will take longer. And once we arrive at that place called Recovery we may be dismayed to discover that the rosy glow we remember was actually pink filters on the klieg lights of political rhetoric and easy money, “spend now, and pay it later…maybe.” This time, if they do rise up, it will be, in some ways a far easier task than the painful one of voting in reforms the consequences of which fully half of the public has spent enormous energy slamming, without expending one joule of mental energy thinking about what they are saying, for over a decade now. They learned the lines from their directors and coaches, the politicians who facilitated the means of their own ends, through faulty loans and easy personal debt accumulation at extortionate rates of interest, and those same mentors are still acting as prompters, though to steadily decreasing effect. The approval rating of Congress now rivals the alleged level of unemployment…the former continuing to go down even as the other apparently rises in real world terms. And the politicians act baffled by this clear inverse function.

I do have a hope, today, anyway, though I try to look further than that, so ingrained still is the way of thinking I wish I could impose on those stock investors, so ready to sell at the first cries from Chicken Little (and yet, sickeningly, bizarrely, in some vertiginous habit derived from the cheap thrills of a carnival roller-coaster—what comes to mind most are the old-fashioned rides, the steepest of all, which always contrived to weave the word “death” into its name—just as willing to buy at the least projection, on any given day, of a hopeful sign from the world’s leaders that they have miraculously recovered their sanity sufficient to overcome their vanity). I have the hope that derives from understanding there is strategic value in having the super committee fail at its appointed task. If they fail, and the automatic cuts are triggered, that trend of politicians managing to accomplish nothing even while burning billions of Kilocalaries of hostile energies keeping one another in check will spill over into next month. For next month, the infamous Bush tax cuts will expire on their own, and like it or not (I mean the 1%) the rich will once again have to start forking over money to the government, badly needed to pay for all the things we elected to buy ourselves without virtue of having any of the necessary ready in our pockets to keep those purchases from putting us further into debt.

Of course, the headlines are already appearing, two days before the inevitable admission of Congressional failure (with no chance of an 11th hour compromise—especially that new kind of 21st century compromise that is uniquely American, but apparently compelling to our European cousins, because they have copied us stroke for stroke, and measure for measure: the compromise that truly satisfies no one, and accomplishes nothing but a worsening of the conditions that define the stalemate to begin with). The headlines are suggesting that Congress will pull some more legislative tricks out of their bottomless bag, and forestall, if not eliminate these cuts altogether. And if they do, it will be another Jack & Jill Expedition back to square one, another pull of the roller coaster car to the very peak of the lift hill of the ride, just another in the fun park called 21st Century America, called the stock market.

I have to wonder once again if I can withstand the involuntary trip, seeing the operator so far below me on the ground, he looks like he’s unreachable, never mind controllable, without this time packing a nausea bag.

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Freedom’s just another word for people not knowing where you are

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Freedom, of course, is restricted to no sovereignty or boundary. I might say, if I were in a particularly lofty mood, that freedom itself has dominion. In itself and of itself. We can look for it, somewhat paradoxically, in any location.

No doubt, one of the greatest instances I personally witnessed of a sense of freedom occurred in France. It was on the deuxiême étage, the third floor under the eaves, of my house in a village in Provence. It was my late wife Linda who marveled at, and reveled in, actually, that freedom. It was late at night for us, and we were up, and up there in that aerie, because that meant it was only the late afternoon or evening in the United States.

Linda worked for IBM, that giant of information technology. We were quick to learn after they acquired, for the then staggering amount of 3.5 billion dollars, the more cuddly modest software giant called Lotus, for whom she was a global program manager. She oversaw the efforts the company made to find ways to turn a profit on having third parties teach programmers and information specialists of all sorts how to exploit the deep functionality of a product called “Notes.” Notes did what we all take for granted these days, even the lowliest and most technologically challenged of us, at least if we have spent any time at all on that latter-day phenomenon called Facebook. It, as does Facebook, defined and facilitated the means of collaboration and sharing of information in a self-defined community. Whatever the cause of connection—including the somehow too broadly inclusive, if somehow sweet (cloying, anyone?), “like” of Facebook land—affinities, shared objectives, ideologies, loves, hates, pleasures, or agonies, sharing leads to productive ends, in the most expansive interpretation—Notes was the means of managing the substance of the connection. And,as a result, Notes was better than anything else at the time at enabling the enterprise to achieve goals that required continual improvement in productivity from all workers, based on the collaborative model. At that time, as it does now still, IBM had over 300 thousand employees all over the globe, including its most remote or sequestered corners and niches.

If it had wanted to do nothing else, IBM could have done worse than to acquire Notes and its developer for its own uses internally. However, knowing a bargain when it saw one, IBM was also buying the significant market for the product that Lotus had established, with plans of expanding that market to a size the begetter of Notes could only dream about. To do so required that companies licensing the product learn how to customize it to their particular needs and applications. Like so many proprietary technologies at the time, Notes required knowledge and mastery of what I’ll call its own language. Only specialists in “speaking” Notes had the capability, ultimately, of creating the form of the product that, put in the hands of every worker within an organization, improved their efforts. To ensure that Notes specialists, usually people trained as software engineers, or at least conversant with the skills of programming any sort of computer code beyond a rudimentary level, had the requisite capability to make a Notes license a justified corporate expense, for it was not a cheap product, and it did not come in a shrink-wrapped box from Staples, the office supplier, Lotus would “certify” that a person who studied the particular and singular methods and terminologies of the product had mastered it.

And so, in short, Linda was manager of the department that certified users to various levels of mastery. IBM learned it was more profitable to allow third party companies, specializing in teaching a variety of computer skills, from the most elementary to the most advanced, to do the teaching, and to do the testing, using certification materials that only IBM developed and owned. This meant that Linda had to ride herd not only over the highly driven technocrats who shaped, sold, and managed the certification program in the field, and dealt with the day-to-day relations with the third party training companies, but she had to manage relations with those third parties, who were a bridge to the corporations that licensed Notes directly from IBM. What may sound stressful enough was always kicked into higher quanta of anxiety, because it was a world-wide program, split into markets more or less defined by the classic list of the populated continents of the earth, and Linda’s “little” sub-division had to show a profit doing what it did. The profit was usually set at goals that were percentages in double-digits of tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees, plus the net costs of testing materials, scoring and certifying the subjects. She was a people manager: overseeing a diverse group that included software product managers and sales people, to experts in test metrics, PhD holders who wrote the actual instruments that measured one’s expertise in Notes mastery. She was also a business manager: with bottom-line responsibility for producing money that had to be generated in every-increasing amounts, and all in a competitive setting. Notes defined and established a viable market. This is America. No one is going to allow a monopoly where there’s money to be made by simply putting up a fight. And so there was competition (not to mention keeping an eye on the sales and marketing efforts of the third-party training companies, a restive bunch that paid for the privilege of being certified by IBM to certify others in the use and mastery of IBM products—this meant keeping yet a fourth constituency happy). Finally, and most naturally, if this weren’t enough, all of this herding and managing (which included much hand-holding, cajolery, flattery, compromise, and an iron will masked in a soft and, if I may say, endearing if not motherly demeanor), but it had to be done in a myriad of languages. Not literally. Linda was quite adept in English, for sure, and knew a smattering of Spanish, and understood more than she could speak in French. But that was it. Rather, I mean that Linda was responsible for the toeing the line of all streams of revenue, that is, all sub-groups based in all other places on the planet, and nominally, outside the U.S., under the aegis of the heads of IBM-Europe, IBM-Pacific Rim, IBM-Asia, etc. So there was a fifth constituency, if you include her necessary and ongoing ties to the upper management of these subsidiary organizations. Talk about the need for productive collaboration.

Because of its size and history, IBM is a company marked by a remarkable seeming contradiction in management philosophy. It is, structurally, highly traditional, adhering to essentially conservative forms for the organization: hierarchical, intensive perpetual assessment via regular and frequent measurement, reporting and meetings—in groups, sub-groups, and sub-sub-groups. To effect efficacious management company-wide, every means of communications was adapted and exploited (including not a small list of innovations created by IBM itself—a longtime first-place holder in number of corporate global patents issued annually and, as they were a company specializing in making things to make companies operate more efficiently and profitably, disposed to eating their own dog food, which, odious as it sounds, is not a bad thing: if it doesn’t work for you, why even try to sell it to someone else?).

This propensity to stay not only connected, but in touch, includes, as modalities, telephones of course, teleconferencing technologies, visualization for mass audiences (IBM had flat screen plasma monitors in the very early 80s), etc., and naturally, the full exploitation of every species of computing, from the mainframe, which ran the largest enterprises in the world, to mini-computers, which ran just about every other kind of business, to personal computers, which the world seems continually to forget IBM made viable for business. That was after small companies, like Apple, for one, made them merely enviable toys for geeks and technical thrill seekers. It’s a testament to the pervasiveness, and incredible rapidity, with which IBM could create (or invade) a market and make it its own, that the famous “1984” commercial for the Macintosh positioned what everyone knew to be IBM as an unassailable, irresistible totalitarian dominator. It was shown on television, the one time the commercial was paid for by Apple, in January 1984. The IBM PC had been introduced barely 29 months before.

The other dimension of that contradiction in IBM I averted to, that strange, and, if you ask me, marvelous duality, was its willingness always to be flexible, wherever you looked in the corporate structure. You don’t otherwise get to be as big as IBM has been for years and years. They were so big the government targeted them, as they had, successfully, targeted, and broken apart, AT&T, at one time the only technology company that IBM rivaled for size and domination of the business environment. The difference is, even the government could not break IBM. It’s taken IBM to do that. It has slowly and steadily divested itself of multi-billion dollar divisions of itself, while it remains one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. It is certainly the world’s largest transformer, because its divestitures were driven by the realization and placid acceptance that better opportunities lay in newer ways of doing business in newer technologies. In more mundane ways, IBM has demonstrated its flexibility, demonstrably to its employees, if however quietly (if not in utter silence) with regard to the world at large.

They were one of the first companies (and one must always include the qualification, while at the same time, always, one of the biggest) to adopt the principle of flex-time, putting in your hours as you saw fit. As well, at IBM, we learned, workers above a certain pay grade were accorded the confidence and the privilege to take what time the company owed them for themselves, even while they paid them for that time, also when the worker saw fit. I am talking about what less forward-thinking, less mindful companies refer to as vacations, holidays, ‘personal’ time, “leaves,” etc., except within the scope of what state and federal laws might have demanded of them. In the case of IBM, the company always far exceeded the statutory times allotted for such time away. There simply are not, in practical terms, such things as holidays, or vacations in IBM land. Meet or exceed your objectives, and make yourself available as needed, through those means and media and channels provided and sanctioned, and you could do your job in the middle of the night, if you preferred, or from the back porch of your camp on a lake in Maine.

Something else illustrative of what I am calling this liberal degree of flexibility lies in what IBM has done over the course of the past 15 or 20 years. It has more or less steadily employed over three hundred thousand people for decades. Indeed, it is now estimated to employ well over 400,000, in 200 countries. At the same time, IBM has whittled away its commitment to maintaining corporate infrastructure to accommodate all those employees with a place to work. In the fullness of time, at least since the 90s, IBM has slowly devolved in physical capacity such that there are offices specifically dedicated to the exclusive use of somewhere, I am guessing, between only two-thirds to three-quarters of those people. And those without a desk to call their own not only may expect, at best, to be able to say they share a “floating” workstation with anonymous others, and more often than you’d expect, to say they have no set place to work in corporate quarters at all. IBM has thus been a pioneer in “telecommuting.”

All of this advancement in employee relations was in full play when Linda became, de facto, an IBM employee. Her business card still said Lotus for a year or two, until the employees of all such acquisitions—IBM did not necessarily want to bring all of the entities it acquired into the corporate hive; some were kept at arm’s length, with the preservation of their original identities for some years—had acquired some familiarity and comfort with the differences in corporate “culture.” Eventually, however, she was a full-fledged crew member of the mothership. By the time of our own acquisition, rustic, domestic, and minuscule as it was, in rural France, flex-time and telecommuting were fully operative policies of her employer. Coincidentally—a rare happy coincidence—a digital connection to our remote, medieval (literally; the core of the house being built in the early 15th century) maison de village was not only possible, but was readily available and so, starting in early 2002, we could “jack in” to the internet, using that venerable telephonic technology called ISDN (unknown to Americans, unless they worked for a business that required connectivity in the earliest days of adopting computers for regular use). It was snail-like in speed, compared to what we are used to now, but it saved us from thinking we had made an investment in foreign real estate that we might make productive use of at best for perhaps two or three weeks a year (the time Linda felt comfortable allotting herself in one lump).

As a consequence, she could stay in touch, and in sync (one of the foremost features of Notes was the ability to “replicate” the vast database of mail messages, files, and whatever else was shared within a work group, or distributed even to the entirety of the organization; every night, your computer would sync its files and folders with the master database located god knew where on the earth) even as we otherwise vacated and temporized in our retreat in La France Profonde. Further, the French, being long since adept at unceremoniously rigging out even the most remote hamlet with modern accoutrements and conveniences, burying water and sewer mains, electrical lines, television cable and telephone wires underground, leaving an undisturbed vista more or less as it had been, though with your usual complement of internally combusted vehiclesadded, for hundreds of years since. Hence we were offered modern telephone service, of course (indeed, as a necessary requirement to getting that precious ISDN line).

So, in a quite literal way, even in quaint, bucolic, placid Fox-Amphoux, Linda was in business. And we could plan multiple visits in the course of a year, each of somewhat more open-ended duration. Further, as manager of a global program, Linda was not subject to the vagaries of what otherwise was a U.S. hegemony in terms of priority of schedules to determine when “business hours” would occur on a world-wide basis. The rest of the IBM organization, in this case, did not dance to U.S. standard time. Rather meetings were scheduled to accommodate the local host, in the case of in-person visits. Linda traveled a great deal, as a global manager, and this meant a lot of jet lag. However, increasingly, her presence in other far-flung markets were reduced in number (as a cost savings for one; as a mode of increased productivity for two) even as the number increased of plenary teleconferences, which tied in representatives of all the major markets to a single “meeting” in the ether.

The newest technology to be deployed in what was, by 2002, a mature set of Notes product features, was the ability to “text” (or “IM”, i.e., instant-message, in real time over computer lines, even as participants spoke to one another through an audio-only connection by phone. College students take for granted now the ability to continuously engage in the mischief of telling one another in remote corners of a lecture hall what each is really thinking of the lecturer droning away in the pit. So, conference participants could share untraceable confidences about someone sitting in a room thousands of miles away from each of the texting mischief-makers. All this only by way of demonstrating the ease and comfort workers felt increasingly even as they did more and more business with one another for longer and longer business “days” in a wholly disembodied way.

The old wisdom, no longer true in these days of privacy invasion by way of cookies and tracking cookies and data trails, that “on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog” was already, just ten years ago, becoming, “on the Internet, nobody knows where you really are.” Freedom, of a sort. But freedom. In 2002, Linda worked as hard for her pay, but no longer tethered to a desk in a corner office on First Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She tasted that freedom for the first time, as I indicated at the start of this essay, on that evening some time ago up on the top floor of our small stone house in the south of France. During a teleconference, which had gone unusually well, one of Linda’s colleagues, in an office in the Midwest, and planning a trip to the east coast for a real time live meeting in person in the “home” office, was also wrapping up for the day (though it was 11 o’clock at night for us, and only five in the afternoon for her), and making her goodbyes by phone to the others now ringing off. She enthusiastically sent a text note to Linda, asking if they couldn’t schedule lunch for a day or two hence, and Linda informed her this was not possible as she would continue to be away. “Why, where are you going?” she was asked. And she admitted she was not going anywhere for at least another week and a half, but that she would not be there. “But, where are you then?” “In France.” The response was an exclamation of stunned surprise, as the reality in which they were all already well-immersed sunk in. More real for us perhaps, but real.

The occasion for this rumination of mine about some now quite old, and not very engaging, if thrilling at the time, benefits of the uses of technology is a revelation—yet another one, equally unsurprising—from Facebook. Facebook, that new behemoth that sprang up and grew even more quickly than the lumbering technology elders of IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, et al., has admitted, just a day or two ago [see here: http://bit.ly/uvwG1T] that not only are they tracking you as you zip here and there from your Wall to those of friends, to photo albums, to apps, to Pages, from “likes” to “shares” to endless posts, and notes, and notifications. They also have built-in to every site you visit away from Facebook the ability to track those movements of yours… even if you have logged out of Facebook. Combine this with the ready knowledge, of which you should be ashamed of yourself if you are ignorant, that this same data can be localized insofar as the machine you are browsing on is concerned. So they know where you are, assuming it is you who logged in to Facebook, to pick up the bit of software that gets implanted on the computer you are using, which allows them to keep tracking you while on that same computer, and they know what you look at on the Internet, as long as any page of any website you visit has that familiar “friendly” Facebook “like” or “share” or “recommend” widget visible on the page. France, Kalamazoo, Tuscaloosa, or Tuscarora, they’ll know where you are, and that you were taking a look at Lady Gaga’s latest video, or where to buy Mrs. Renfro’s Jalapeño Nacho Slices.

As the invisible world in which we conduct ourselves, even as we think, unconsciously and unknowingly, that we are simply carrying on the same quotidian tasks in the same haunts that we have made part of our usual neighborhood circuits and circumambulations, grows smaller, down to the size of the keyboard under your fingers, in so exquisitely and precisely engineered a manner. The consequence is that you can be located as to time and place, without any extra effort on your part. There are those of you, including many among people of my acquaintance, who, unequal to the task of letting others do the work, are dedicated to the proposition that others: loved ones, friends, acquaintances, nodding buddies, vaguely familiar faces, strangers… should know where you just headed out to stock up on pizza, or have already landed, waiting expectantly for your next round of kava, and so announce it deliberately, using special apps and widgets and gizmos to pinpoint your every move.

Well, shapers of the zeitgeist, count me out. I unrepentantly deny the proposition and the opportunity to infringe on my freedom in this way. Long a believer in that old British value of wanting simply to be let alone, I believe as well that the best way to ensure that others cannot impose on me in any way, is if they can’t find me in the first place, they can’t help but let me alone. So, I’ll decide when I want to be located. I’ll decide who I’ll tell where I am.

I made my living in part for a long time at the exertions required to market and advertise clients’ products successfully. Part of whatever art there was, and obviously still is, though it is now clearly less art than mere science and technology (which I guess is part of the point of all these words), to doing so was making astute, usually semi-informed judgments (when they weren’t outright guesses) as to where to find the people to whom we wanted to deliver the message.

For the clients of Facebook (because, face it, the clients of Facebook are not the ones, the 900 million and soon to be the big B of us, who are online everyday to the tune of 500 million Facebook engagements a day; we are the product Facebook is selling to their clients) it’s a lot easier, and a great deal more precise. Facebook can tell them where you are, and who you are, and what you look at, and can make a very well-informed inference as to what you want to buy and what you’re willing to spend to do so. And much as I love to do so, I am not singling out Facebook, because there is nothing singular about these efforts. Google is at the same game. Amazon… You name them.

And that game has gotten that much more complicated, because key to it is the technology for locating you, and the ultimate advantage is in owning the means of using that technology. And the new gorilla in this ever overcrowded living room is the beloved Apple. Why? Because guess what? As you can see here: http://cnet.co/rZDfaa Apple, the immaculate, has bought the keys and the lock to the gateway between you and the freedom of knowing no one can find you.

Apples, pork bellies, coffee beans, crude oil, cocoa, and now you—commodities. Ever wonder if a pig feels free? You may begin to become aware of what if feels like. If you’ve a mind to know. Me? If anyone asks, I’m in France. Maybe.

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