Sunday, December 11, 2011

Senator Skedaddle

Last Tuesday I was down in Washington, D.C., visiting Senator Toomey's office. Sitting in actually. Take Back the Capitol was a big, multi-day event with a lot of help from SEIU, but I just got on the bus with my pals from the Philadelphia Unemployment Project and went down for the one day.

And we were a bit late, so I missed the story. Pittsburgh got there before Philly, and here's what they told us when we got there. The nice person in the front office said that Senator Toomey couldn't meet with them because he was over in the Senate chamber casting a vote.

But while that was happening in the front office, the people out in the hallway - did I mention that we had a lot of people on Capitol Hill that day? - saw an unmarked door open. And out walked Senator Toomey and two Capitol policemen.

Our guys called out to him. I imagine them saying, "Senator Toomey, we are your constituents, and we are assembled here to seek redress of our grievances." I suspect their actual words may have varied from this.

But it doesn't matter. Toomey pretended he didn't see his constituents or hear them. He pretended he wasn't there. He pretended he didn't exist. And he scuttled away.

Senator Skedaddle. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Later on, I had a nice chat with an SEIU organizer from Pittsburgh or thereabouts named Julia. She was a good listener, and punched the appropriate buttons, and I found myself telling her what I'm actually thinking.

Much too late in life, I'm finally reading Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Towards the end there's a chapter on "The Coming Revolt of the Guards." The guards are essentially the middle class, and, in Zinn's view, they have served to protect the wealthy from the poor.

As I was reading this, I flashed back to a very interesting moment in my life at Cigna. Let me set the stage. Cigna's headquarters in Philadelphia was in two large buildings near City Hall - One and Two Liberty Place. One Liberty was the mansion, and Two Liberty was the village. At the top of One Liberty were the seniors executives, their secretaries, and a highly efficient security detail. On the two floors just below them were the lawyers and a few other people - including me, briefly.

I wish I could remember the year, but I believe it was in the late nineties. I'd long been shunted off to the village, but I wasn't prepared for what happened, and neither were the lawyers. The executives decided they could make some money by subletting the two lawyer floors in the mansion, so they sent the lawyers to the village.

"But we're special! We're your palace guard!" You could almost hear the lawyers say this as they carried their cardboard boxes of desk items through the mall that connected the two buildings, followed by carts full of files. (Fictional visual provided for didactic purposes.)

Well, maybe the lawyers weren't so special. By the way, I think Howard Zinn may be the person who coined the phrase "the 99 percent." It's in the book, which has been around for a while.

If lawyers decide they're part of the 99 percent, it's only because their masters pushed them over into the village, where they have to hang out with the clerks.

I do think something happened, sometime between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. I think the 1 percent decided they didn't have to put up with Roosevelt's New Deal any more, and they could actually dial things back to the 1890's.

Will they succeed? I don't know. Will the lawyers actually line up with the 99 percent? I don't know. But I do know this. The 1 percent can't do anything without lawyers.

As for Senator Toomey, he probably imagines that he's part of the 1 percent, but he's not. He's just a tool. Maybe one day even he will figure it out.

And really, it's okay that he skedaddled. (I do believe the story. I heard it quite a few times, from different people. Sit-ins can be boring, except when they're not.)

I believe the Senator ran away because he is afraid of us. I hope he doesn't think we're going to hurt him - if he'd just look at us he'd know that was ridiculous. But maybe, just maybe, he's afraid because, on some very deep level, he knows we're right.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Big Red One

There's a scene in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, a movie about World War II, that takes place in an insane asylum. The Germans have set up an artillery observation post on the top floor of the asylum, and the ensuing artillery fire has been creating issues for the American army. For those of you who are not familiar with these issues, what happens is the observation post says, “The Americans are over there! I can see them!” And the cannons blast away, and the Americans are unhappy. All this, of course, requires much speaking in acronyms, and the relaying of map coordinates, and that sort of thing.

Anyway, Lee Marvin’s infantry squad gets the job of going into the asylum and killing the Germans. They’re not happy about this, because it means at least some of them may get killed in the process. They’re much fonder of the idea of American artillery simply blowing up the asylum, or perhaps our air force flattening it with bombs. But it appears there are public relations issues about murdering insane civilians, so in they go.

They have help from a beautiful female insider, who slits a German throat or two. The whole movie has a thing for knives. Marvin himself, playing a sergeant, carries three knives that I counted – a bayonet, a hunting knife, and a World War I trench knife, which includes brass knuckles on the handle.

Anyway, the operation soon proceeds to the noisy phase. In the refectory, the Germans and Americans battle it out over the heads of inmates who are trying to eat lunch. Finally an insane person picks up a discarded Schmeisser and starts spraying the room with 9 mm bullets, saying, in the throes of his epiphany, “I am one of you! I am sane! I am sane!”

After a while Marvin shoots him. Un-aimed fire tends to annoy sergeants.

Sam Fuller, the director, is making a point here, as only he can. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I think it has something to do with war being crazy.

However, as I was watching the movie recently, I found myself thinking about suggestible individuals and the shootings in Tucson earlier this year. At the time, there was a lot of talk about how nobody told the shooter in Tucson to shoot anyone. And I’m fine with that. But our entire culture has been suffused with violence for a long time, and in recent years our political rhetoric has been accelerating rapidly to keep pace. I’m thinking this may have something to do with the rapid decline in the number of politicians who have actually fought in a war. John McCain, God bless him, is becoming something of a relic in this regard.

There’s an old line that goes back to a senior church official in the Albigensian Crusade, which took place in southern France during the Middle Ages. He was reportedly asked what the troops should do with prisoners from a town that was about to be conquered, and according to a contemporary writer the churchman said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

As the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way, I have some advice for our current leaders: Be careful what you say. People may take you literally. They have done so in the past.

(With apologies to those who hate footnotes, I need to add one. Whether the church leader, Arnau Amalric, actually said what Caesarius of Heisterbach says he said is much in dispute. However, the massacre at the town of B├ęziers, in July 1209, is not in doubt. You can look it up. Arnau Amalric happily wrote to the pope that 20,000 people were killed. But it seems unlikely that there were that many people living in the town at that time. Welcome to the study of medieval history, where indisputable facts can be hard to come by.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

No Fear

“I think some runners just like the pain,” said Katy. We were on our bikes, heading up Martin Luther King Drive in Philadelphia, almost at the Falls Bridge. It’s a pretty piece of parkland, a sylvan bubble just feet from an expressway and a railroad line. You can’t see either one at this point, because of the trees. And then there are the fields of grass and, on the right, the river with its rowers.

Not a bad place to be skewered by a very honest young woman who knows how to speak her mind with diplomatic indirection. I hadn’t been able to go running for a while because of an injury I had basically inflicted on myself. Running injuries are almost always overuse injuries, and I’m an artist at joking about obsessive-compulsive disorder and simple fanaticism. But I’d never looked myself in the mirror while shaving and said, “I like pain.”

I’d helped Katy train for her first two marathons. In the beginning, I had felt faster, and I had been wiser – at least about preparing for a marathon. The faster thing changed early, when she decided I’d be okay with it. And now the tide had shifted in the wisdom river.

As children we’re taught to fear pain. It’s an easy lesson. After all, pain hurts. But I prefer to think of pain as a language. The body has things to tell us. If we listen, we will learn. It’s hard to listen to something you fear. You’re too busy running away.

I remember, I think it was my second marathon, in 2002. I was in mile 26, coming down Kelly Drive past Lloyd Hall. The finish line was just up a slight rise and around a curve, in front of the Art Museum. And I remember feeling that my lungs were very tired from all the breathing they had been doing. It wasn’t really pain, more just a sensation that the surface fabric, down inside my lungs, had been worn down by all that air. I’ve never had that sensation since, possibly because of better training. And I think it’s also true that, in mile 26 of a marathon, the definition of pain has shifted a bit.

What did this sensation tell me? It told me I was okay. It told me I was very tired. And it told me to do more long runs next time.

The idea of liking pain takes you to some very strange places – self-flagellation in the Christian church, and masochism for the psychologically inclined. None of this works for me. It would help if people talked about this more, with a little more depth than, “Boy, that really hurt.”

I do have certain pains that are old friends. There’s one in my right knee. It’s from an old injury. Every once in a while it just shows up for a visit. Doesn’t mean any harm. Goes away after a while.

So I have some old friends, and I do seem to make new acquaintances on a fairly regular basis. But do I like pain? I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t fear it. When it shows up, I don’t run away. I listen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

There: Now You’ve Got Something You Can Eat!

My cousin Butch was a few years older than me, so he was probably in high school when this story took place. Butch grew up on his parent’s dairy farm; his paternal grandparents lived on a farm less than a mile away. I don’t want to romanticize the farmer’s life, which is full of hard work in all weather and, in the case of dairy farming, involves shoveling huge amounts of cow manure. But farmers do have a lot of contact with nature, and I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing.

Butch’s father, my Uncle Ed, was a gregarious fellow who loved to tell stories, and listen to them, and who made friends easily. Among these were the hunters from Queens, in New York City, whom my brother refers to as the Woodchuck Brigade. They just showed up one day and asked Uncle Ed if they could hunt his land and possibly kill a few woodchucks. Uncle Ed was thrilled. Farmers don’t like woodchucks, by and large. Neither did Henry David Thoreau, although he puts a reasonably good face on it in Walden.

They were nice guys. They weren’t very good shots, but they became good friends and frequent visitors. Eventually Uncle Ed even encouraged them to park an old trailer in the woods behind his house, so they wouldn’t have to pay for motels.

So here’s the story. One day Butch was out walking the woods with one of the hunters, who happened to be a Sanitation Department police officer from Queens who was armed with his trusty .222 rifle with telescopic sight and also had his .38 service revolver strapped to his hip in a holster.

I’m a bit vague on how they came upon the rabbit. Butch isn’t with us anymore, and my brother says he doesn’t remember the story. Were they in a pasture or on a dirt road? Why didn’t the rabbit run away? Had it been caught in a trap, or injured by a vehicle? My brother, who has no memory of any of this, suggests that the rabbit might have been rabid, which adds self-defense to mercy killing. Then my brother did something truly useful. He suggested that I ask our cousin Mary Lyn, Butch’s sister.

So I did. She too had forgotten the story, but it came back to her. Like me she’s not certain of all the details. She thinks Butch may have been out with several hunters, and that one of them had shot at the rabbit and wounded it.

Anyway, there they were, standing around trying to figure out what to do. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to use a rifle with a telescopic sight to shoot an animal that was lying at your feet. So the Sanitation policeman drew his service revolver and prepared to put a .38 slug into the rabbit’s skull.

Clearly our hunter had seen too many movies where cowboys dispatch broken-down horses and cows with their trusty .45s. My favorite is Jack Palance, in City Slickers, who blows away an injured cow and tells an aghast Billy Crystal, “She was sufferin’.”

Rabbits are rather frail creatures compared to cows, and a .38 slug would basically cause the animal to disintegrate. So my cousin Butch intervened. He picked up the rabbit and twisted its neck until it was broken. Then he held the dead critter out to the policeman and said, “There. Now you’ve got something you can eat.”

Now that I’ve told you that story, I have to tell you that it’s only one version. Butch’s daughter Andrea, whom Mary Lyn brought into the loop (never say that email isn’t a wonderful thing) heard the story a lot more than the rest of us, and what she says makes sense. Apparently the Woodchuck Brigade managed to shoot the rabbit in the woods behind Uncle Ed’s house, but just winged him, so he fled (I envision a kind of panicked hobbling) to the dirt road in front of the house, where it seems locomotion failed him.

Meanwhile the Woodchuck Brigade was in hot pursuit. Andrea says, “Dad put extra flourishes on describing how foolish the boys looked running after the rabbit as though it had just robbed a bank.” And she reports that the hunter with the pistol (I do believe he was with the Sanitation Department) actually raised his rifle – the one with the telescopic sight – to dispatch the poor beast at a range of ten feet.

That was when Butch “stepped in front of the pointed rifle and scooped the rabbit up to twist its neck before there could have been any opportunity for debate.”

Andrea adds, “Sometimes the moral was a sort of ‘country mouse v. town mouse’ angle while other times it was more about remembering the simple solution is often the best, no sense in coveting the fancy shiny toys of others.”

Andrea adds that her father “was a man of few words, but if you knew how and when to get him started with stories it was just like putting a quarter in a jukebox.”

But back to the shiny toys – in this case the guns. I was going to say that Uncle Ed didn’t own one. Mary Lyn says he did, and would occasionally hunt woodchucks, in his own way. There was a pond near Uncle Ed’s house where the woodchucks liked to frolic, and Uncle Ed would occasionally shoot at them, as Mary Lyn says, “from the dining room window!!”

Mary Lyn reports that Uncle Ed had also tried deer hunting once, many years before: “He had a big, beautiful buck in his sights, and then the deer turned and looked straight at him. He put his gun down and went home. He always supported his neighbors’ right to hunt for food, but couldn’t do it himself.”

Thanks, Mary Lyn and Andrea. I loved these two men, and these stories are part of the reason why.