Monday, August 31, 2009

Half-mud, half-dead

It has taken me about a week to recover from our Costa Rica vacation. We arrived at one in the morning on Monday night/Tuesday morning. I woke up with a severe head cold, and my back was killing me. The zip-lining near the Arenal Volcano was fantastic, but now I was paying the price.

I have always acted differently when I am sick. When I was younger, I ignored any ache or cold, but if my sickness truly debilitated me I either lashed out at whoever was near me or I sunk into a temporary depression. This week, barely able to walk, my head, eyes, and nose gushy with fluids, I slept. I slept until I couldn’t sleep anymore, and I kept quiet and observed everyone around me, Laura, Aaron, and Isaac going about their business without me.

It was a strange experience not having almost any reaction to my week-long illness; I was probably feverish. I wanted to recover. I thought about my father and his chronic back problems, which eventually reduced him to a walker in his mid-70’s. I really did not want to become my father. I lay in bed, wincing with pain, not quiet able to breathe right, and I felt like part of the bed, as if I were sinking into the mattress itself. I imagined I had been abandoned in a mud pile. I was now half-mud.

It’s not bad being half-mud. You have no responsibilities. You lie in bed, or mud, and look at everything. Conversations occur around you, about you, but you are not a part of them. A crash in the other room? Somebody else rushes to see what it is, to clean it up. For me, for that week, there was no drive within. That was the fascinating part. No anger. No self-loathing. No urge to do. The kids needed to get ready to go back to school? This pain-in-the-ass was the ultimate observer. ‘Action Bear’ (Laura’s oft times moniker for me) was in hibernation. Half-asleep. Probably delirious.

There was a point, later in the week, when the bed felt too soft, when I stopped thinking about the strange colors in front of my eyes, when I thought about what bills needed to get paid by the end of month. That’s when I knew I was better. I missed being half-mud, half-dead, and I even wanted to go back. I imagined for a few hours before I rose like Lazarus from the dead why Lazarus would even want to get up from being dead. I mean, if you could be half-dead, looking at the world but nothing else, that would be the ticket.

As I hobbled to the mailbox and to Broadway Farm for pounds and pounds of California yellow peaches, nectarines, and a watermelon the size and weight of a bowling ball (Do all young teenage boys eat this much fruit?), I missed my half-mud existence. Zabar’s. Dry cleaning. The mailbox again. Returning emails. Filling out back-to-school health forms. My back was killing me. But I could more or less walk now. I said to Isaac, as he watched me grimace on the sidewalk, “It feels as if a crazy carpenter has driven nails into my spine.” But yeah, I was getting better.

By this weekend, I was back. My back had but a hint of my previous torture, and what was left of my cold was a weak cough. Gone was the Pumpkin Head of the half-mud man. Did you have the swine flu? somebody asked me. No, I don’t think so, I replied. But perhaps for one week I did live the strange and sweet existence of a Pig Man in the Half-Mud.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Costa Rica

We have been trekking through Costa Rica, a lush and spectacular country. We arrived in San Jose, stayed one night, and the next morning traveled for five hours by buses and boats to remote Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast. It did not rain a single day during our three-day stay, a miracle in the rainy season.

On an expedition through the canals of Tortuguero we saw white-faced monkeys, spider monkeys, two sloths, crocodiles slicing through the muddy water, baby blue herons, howler monkeys, toucans, caimans, small, shy turtles on logs, and half-a-dozen iguanas. Laura, Aaron, and Isaac have been enthralled by the stunning variety of nature on this isthmus, and so have I.
Our second night in Tortuguero, we joined another eco-expedition to witness the giant sea turtles laying and burying their eggs and dragging their massive bodies, the size of Smart cars, back to the sea. In the pitch black, our guide, Carla, told us last year jaguars had eaten about 200 of these sea turtles, the flippers and the heads, and abandoned the bodies in their shells on the beach. As we walked through the jungle in the darkness, with only the guide’s small light ahead of us, I wondered what it would be like to be eaten by a jaguar.
The next leg of our trip was to Arenal, and we flew from Tortuguero in an Australian single-propeller plane. That was an experience. The plane barely seated seven people and their luggage, and I was in the co-pilot’s seat. We flew over mountains to get back to San Jose, the ride was smooth, and I was as fascinated by the busy panel of instruments as by the breathtaking 360-degree view of eastern Costa Rica.
After traveling on more rough, winding roads for hours, we arrived in La Fortuna, to the Hotel Nayara. Our room overlooks the Arenal Volcano, has hot water and a Jacuzzi, Internet service, which is how I can write this blog, and air conditioning. The kids: “Can we build a house just like this hotel?” I have also marveled at the construction details of this hotel: richly dark hardwood floors, an open air restaurant with friendly macaws and parrots, deliciously comfortable beds, rough-hewn exposed ceiling beams interlaced with bamboo. The Hotel Nayara is an oasis.
Yesterday we zip-lined over and through the rain forest canopy at the foot of the volcano, dangling hundreds of feet in the air on a cable, zooming through the forest from platform to platform, in the same moment terrified and thrilled.
The best was a zip-line of 760 meters (2490 feet, or eight football fields). At that moment, a cloud enveloped the forest as we stood on a platform next to the treetops. You couldn’t see the other side of the cable. The guides strapped us one at a time onto our pulley and harness, and when the line was clear and we were ready, pushed us into the white oblivion. Laura and the kids screamed with delight as they raced into the clouds. I felt like a giant cannon ball shooting through the whiteness. As openings appeared in the clouds, I marveled at the forest below and how lucky I was to have said yes to this experience.
Last night we visited the closest observation point for the Arenal Volcano. In the evening, strips of lava dribbled down the mountainside, the volcano continuously smoking. In 1968, the volcano had a massive eruption, devastated six square miles of land in minutes, and 78 people died. The last major eruption was in 2000, with minor eruptions occurring as recently as last year. Why are we fascinated by this awesome power? I have been to the volcanoes in Hawaii, and Arenal, perhaps because it is younger, pointier, and closer to human habitation, is as beguilingly ominous.
Next we travel to the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Ocean. I can’t wait for that adventure.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reaching Back In History To Stop Thinking

I read an Op-Ed article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Our Unconstitutional Census,” by John S. Baker and Elliott Stonecipher, which reaches back to a selective version of the U.S. Constitution to argue illegal aliens should not be counted in the 2010 Census because counting them undermines the equal representation of certain states and their citizens. That is, states with large populations of undocumented workers get apportioned more House members and electoral votes than states without. The current census, as authorized by Congress, counts everybody, legal or illegal.

The authors wrap themselves in the Constitution and even the first 1790 census, which counted all inhabitants, to give legitimacy and authority to their argument: “The census has drifted from its constitutional roots, and the 2010 enumeration will result in a malapportionment of Congress.”

But the article fails to mention one fact that undermines their argument: the first 1790 census counted slaves. African slaves, who did not get the right to vote until 1870, eighty years after the first census, not only were counted as three-fifths of a person (enshrined ingloriously in the Constitution), but Southern states benefited by having more electoral votes and more representation in Congress per voting citizen, to the loud complaints of Northern states, for the selfsame eighty years.

The authors of the Wall Street Journal article also perform a sleight of hand, probably unnoticed by the casual reader, but certainly noticed by this one. They take the word ‘inhabitants’ as the correct mandate of the 1790 census, but instead of mentioning that inhabitants for George Washington and his census included non-voting slaves (he was a Founding Father, wasn’t he?), the Wall Street Journal authors use the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of ‘inhabitant,’ as a bona fide member of the State, entitled to its privileges. Did African slaves have all the privileges of the State in 1790? Could they vote? Of course not.

What is important to note is not only how this article reaches back selectively to its version of the Constitution, but how much harsher the current authors are on non-voting inhabitants than George Washington and other Founding Fathers. Baker and Stonecipher want undocumented workers to count for zero in the 2010 census. At least, and it’s not saying much, George Washington wanted each slave to count for three-fifths of a person in the 1790 census. Perhaps the Founding Fathers had some empathy for the downtrodden, or for the businesses dependent on the downtrodden.

Many would persuasively argue that today’s undocumented workers are analogous to Washington’s and Jefferson’s slaves. Immigrants work menial jobs, often in agriculture, and suffer violence and discrimination, living outside of society and blamed conveniently for all manner of social ills. African slaves were of course forced to come to America and subjected to brutal, systematic violence. But is there any doubt that if slavery were still legal in the United States that we would be capturing our slaves from the poorest, most vulnerable parts of the Third World, including Latin America? What is the same now as before is the need for American industry and society to prosper, often on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable, and for these workers to be used to the maximum while keeping them as marginalized as possible. We win; they lose. It’s not more complicated than that, but perhaps it’s not the kind of reflection in the mirror Americans want to see.

Reaching back to ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution, often seems to bolster certainty and conviction, until one takes a more careful look. This reaching back is the problem. It is done to stop critical thinking and gain acceptance of a viewpoint that may have hidden biases having little to do with that ‘historic standard’ held so high. Anyone telling you there exists a pure beginning we should return to is asking you to stop thinking and march in lockstep behind them. Readers, think and analyze. That is the true measure of a good citizen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When Ideology Trumps Practical Reason

It’s a long, hot August, and the vote on Sotomayor nears. Why does it matter? She will win confirmation, so why does it matter if some, or a significant amount, of Republicans vote for Judge Sotomayor? It matters because it is a vote about fairness and objectivity. Do such concepts exist in American political discourse anymore?

The Republicans should have investigated Sonia Sotomayor aggressively, and they did. But the majority of Republicans, at least from their stated positions in the media, have not judged Sotomayor’s qualifications as a judge for the Supreme Court. That is their mandate. Instead of zeroing in on her judicial record, they focused on her off-the-cuff speeches. If you want to judge the qualifications of a judge, you look at how she decided cases, you look at her written opinions, you look at her legal experience, and you look at her education.

The problem, of course, for those ideologically-obsessed Republicans is that they had nothing ‘official’ to work with. They had prejudged her, and they couldn’t get the facts to fit their pre-conclusions. Sotomayor was a Phi Beta Kappa student from Princeton and graduated from Yale Law School. After hearing her in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have little doubt she is smarter and more practical than the senators from both sides of the aisle who questioned her.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, and there are thousands which are part of the record of the Second Circuit, Sotomayor voted with Republican judges who sat next to her on the Court of Appeals. When you look at her judicial record, there is little evidence of ideology, but plenty of evidence of practicality and following legal precedent.

But facts don’t matter to ideologues. Facts don’t matter to those without a spine to publicly rebuke Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich or Ralph Reed. Facts don’t matter to those who have decided they don’t like you because your name is ‘Sotomayor’ and you are a Latina. The facts, which are used to judge a nominee’s qualifications for the Supreme Court and not how she will decide specific cases, support a unanimous or near-unanimous vote in Sotomayor’s favor. But she won’t get it, and that’s the current state of the Republican Party. It’s trapped in its ideology.

Before Democrats get too cheery about themselves, it has happened to them too. No political party escapes the tug of ideology, and as a party succeeds and stays in power it begins to think that somehow it should always be there, it deserves power, and it is historically destined to win. Power corrupts, and it corrupts through ideology.

But when reasonable practicality erupts and interrupts, the country is better for it. Obama is now funding charter schools at unprecedented levels. This was a Republican cause. But perhaps this is a way to improve the education of our children, while giving parents a choice. Moreover, we need more Republicans like Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, who declared they intend to vote for Sotomayor based on her qualifications to be a judge, not on her likelihood of being a Republican puppet on judicial matters.

I don’t know what happened to reasonable political discourse, the middle ground of give-and-take, the focus on making things work. I in part blame our current political discourse on the flash media of ten-second opinions. This show is for entertainment, even when it is labeled ‘news,’ not for edification.

I also think another problem is the discomfort the white majority feels about this country becoming more Latino, more Asian, more African, less Christian, more Secular. We are becoming a reflection of the greater world, and the United States, economically, is also becoming a smaller portion of that world over time, as the rest of the world develops by leaps and bounds. Some will exploit these inexorable trends and the discomforts they cause, for money and power, while others will try to make our community work together as one. If this American experiment is to keep succeeding, practical reason must triumph over ideology.