Thursday, September 29, 2011

Global Economic Outlook Worsens

That is the cover of this week's Private Eye. There is a picture of the apocalypse on the cover, floods of lava and earthquakes, and one of the fat renaissance ladies falling into the abyss has a dialogue bubble:  "Time to think about decisive action, possibly."

Unlike The Economist, Private Eye is not wrong about these things. 

The chickens really came home to roost for me today when my son picked up Private Eye from the bedroom floor and questioned me about it.  I consider it my obligation as a parent to reflect reality back at my children, so I tried to explain how the lava and the earthquakes were symbols for the problems with the economy.  I could not in good conscience after this summer, with Texas burning and the Cathedral falling, guarantee to him that no chaos of this degree would absolutely not befall us.

"Does "chaos" have a kicking k or a curly c?" , he asked.  Spelling is important.

It does feel like chaos.  Decisive action needs to be taken.  But who is brave enough to do it?  What stakeholder in the current power structure is going to relinquish his stake?  I don't know.  With Wall Street occupied, I do wonder if a Warren Buffet rule would work:  rich people better step up to the plate and get things in line because they are good people (otherwise when we hold the revolution via google mail you're the first against the wall). 

I have some ideas for the decisive action, whether they be at the intensely theoretical level (money is an expression of identity and should be valued as such) or international level (there should be one uniform banking code, and banks should be run as non-profits) or national level (people should leverage their sovereignty and add value to their budget by negotiating trade treaties and entering into long-term partnerships with like-minded sovereigjns). 

I am not an economist, but as the Global Economic Outlook Worsens, I can't help but applying the skills I have acquired in my ridiculous life to this problem.  The solution is not business as usual. The solution is not respect and deference to the existing economic structure, the solution is a short sharp shock to the institutions - banks, religions, sovereigns and corporations - that currently obstruct economic growth by trying to hang on to the way capital flowed in a great long period of growth.  I am not sure our answer is, as The Economist continually mewls, getting to more growth.  I think the answer may be to accept the lack of growth as a correction - as part of the game of capitalism (which I still think is the most successful distribution system of the ones we have come up with so far); there are booms and busts, and we are bust. 

But I think that we are busted in more ways than a free market depression/recession.  I think we are just busted:  the way that banks have so much power over sovereigns, the way that global corporations do not pay taxes, the way that the best and the brightest are drawn to lucrative careers in capital markets instead of thinking of ways to cure the ills of humanity- our bloated weight on the planet, our, excuse me, shitting where we eat.

Someone said to me today in defense of an almost-no-screen parenting style: children can identify a hundred brands, but not the names of the plants in their backyard.  That made me think.  Life is only one part economics, and we have let it become 80%.  That's why the riots happened:  rampant consumerism.   Look, I hate injected molded plastic as much as the next middle class mum, but look, if you really think that capitalism is the best distribution model (and I defy anyone to come up with one that has outlasted this one), then you have to live with marketing and you have to live with consumerism.  The good news is that the personal is political, and you don't have to make the money part of your identity the primary part of your lives.  Beat it back.  Do it now by choice or soon by necessity. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Language Issue

An Irish poem by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill translated from the Irish (I know) by Paul Muldoon.

The Language Issue

I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant

in a basket of intertwined iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,

then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river

only to have it borne hither and thither
not knowing where it might end up;
the lap, perhaps
of some Pharaoh's daughter

Sunday, September 25, 2011

So That's Who I Remind Me Of

A poem by Ogden Nash:

When I consider men of golden talents,
I'm delighted, in my introverted way,
To discover, as I'm drawing up the balance,
How much we have in common, I and they.

Like Burns, I have a weakness for the bottle.
Like Shakespeare, little Latin and less Greek;
I bite my fingernails like Aristotle;
Like Thackery, I have a snobbish streak.

I'm afflicted with the vanity of Byron,
I've inherited the spitefulness of Pope;
Like Petrarch, I'm a sucker for a siren,
Like Milton, I've a tendency to mope.

My spelling is suggestive of a Chaucer;
Like Johnson, well, I do not wish to die
(I also drink my coffee from a saucer);
And if Goldsmith was a parrot, so am I.

Like Villon I have debits by the carload,
Like Swinburne, I'm afraid I need a nurse;
By my dicing is Christopher out-Marlowed,
And I dream as much as Coleridge, only worse.

In comparison with men of golden talents,
I am all a man of talent ought to be;
I resemble every genius in his vice, however heinous -
Yet I only write like me. 

 - Ogden Nash

Friday, September 23, 2011

Alex Scheffler and Julia Donaldson: A Story Brought Me Home Again

 I write today in praise of the collaboration of Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler, writer and illustrator respectively of Gruffalo, Gruffalo's Child, Room on the Broom, Tiddler, Stickman, The Smartest Giant in Town, Zog, Charlie Cook's Favourite Book, A Squash and a Squeeze, their new one, Highway Rat, and others.

Last week I went shopping with Liberty because we bought six Donaldson/Scheffler books for her long-distance boyfriend who just turned two.  I hadn't read Highway Rat, so Liberty and I snuck it into a playhouse on display at John Lewis and read it before we bought.  This is how good I think Scheffler and Donaldson are:  each story they write together is so wise and insightful that I crouched in that playhouse half expecting Highway Rat to be so beautiful and true that I exploded in a ball of perfect enlightenment.  This did not happen.  I always set myself up for disappointment.

My favorite one is Tiddler, a fish always late for school because he is making up stories.  He gets really lost, and through the stories he has told, sea animals repeating his tale, he finds his way home, or, as Donaldson says, a story brings him home again.   The power of narrative.

Room on the Broom is about a witch who gathers a posse of animals who eventually save her when she is captured by a dragon.  It is about community and the pay-offs of cooperation, it is about the joy of togetherness. 

Squash and a Squeeze is about an old woman who frets her house is too small. A wise man tells her to take first her chicken, then her pig and finally her cow to live in the house with her. When she lets them out the house seems very spacious.  An education in perspective and thankfulness. 

Charlie Cook's Favourite Book is hard to describe.  It's phenomenal  - like Tiddler it really explores the tapestry of fact and fiction, stories and distractions, that keep us connected.  Charlie Cook's Favourite Book definitely channels reality better than any reality show. 

Zog is about the benefits of compassion, in the form of a dragon who becomes an ambulance.

The Smartest Giant in Town is about the karmic benefit of kindness.   

Stickman is about identity, how other people don't recognize what you are,  - or people see what they are looking for rather than what is there - about how the job of defining yourself is up to you, is in your actions.  It is also the story of a father who longs for his family and has a great appearance by Santa.    

And I think Gruffalo and Gruffalo's Child are well known, right?  With their stories of small, calm heroes who think carefully before they act?  Anyway, Scheffler's drawings are so knowing and distinctive.  Check these books out next time you are in a bookstore. 

I love these books so much because my kids love them and because, unlike the Nick Jr. Dora the Explorer book series, the stories are no insult to intelligence and language.    Donaldson's rhymes scan sometimes imperfectly but frequently with astounding charm.  Much better than the standard offering.  Man, I was in the library with Liberty a couple weeks ago and we read a story she randomly picked and you know what it was about?  A tiger who bought things for no reason.  The prose was wooden and uncreative and the message was mindless consumerism.  I say get that book the fuck out of the library.  No one can do outrage at inferior prose in the middle of the library like an ex litigator mom philosophy major!  Feel my rage! 

But every kid should have magic stories of good things, and Donaldson and Scheffler have given us many.  I am grateful. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

This Anniversary- 9/11

   Last May the parent group for my son's school set the date for the fall family get-together:  September 11, 2011.  And immediately when we said the date my heart leaped out of my chest.  I don't have any great insights ten years after that day, but it is an anniversary too compelling for me to ignore.  It is a physiological reaction to a trauma, a welling up of fear. 

How could it be otherwise?  So many of my best beloveds in harm's way, there were agonizing hours of not knowing, and nothing particular happened to me.  Sitting in Rhys's bachelor apartment in Limehouse, East London, wondering why I wasn't where my heart was, as I heard news reports of the State Department bombing.  Holding the landline receiver with sweaty palms.  I was on the phone to a fellow expat when the towers fell.  We didn't hang up, but we didn't have words, we silently witnessed each other's violently (and silently) breaking hearts.  I am sure everyone has a similar story.     

Yet I am concerned given how the world is that this anniversary be glamorized, be a very American opportunity to relive our outrage and sense of violation.   It was outrageous.  We were violated.  But ten years later, we know a bad guy was minted that day in American popular consciousness.   And we have poured the force of our sovereign onto getting that bad guy, and it didn't, in the end, turn out to be right, or just. It didn't end well. 

There are many in the Tea Party and the GOP who desire that we have a Christian nation.  Who can blame them?  They burn brightly with the reality of their God, and their love of the United States.  To them I say, well to all (my eight blog readers) I say this:  on this anniversary I say we need to love our enemy and forgive them their wrongdoing.  Their trespasses against us.  Sure, this is a big ask.  But it isn't me making this up on a random Thursday night in Cambridge.  It's Jesus:  love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Understand them and forgive them.  Because if you love someone, that is what you do.  That is how you get closer to the truth that will set you free. 

And that's not just Al Qaeda.  That's the Democrats too.  And the Republicans.  Love them.  Love them all.  This is the greatest commandment of nearly every religion.  Jesus did not ask you to gain power, he only stood at the door and knocked.  He left everything to our discretion.  Our discretion has perhaps not been so great over the last decade.  We have made mistakes, we have handed our discretion over to consumerism, we have been blind to the injustices we ourselves have perpetrated upon people outside the United States and even on people within the United States.  We have used our laws to keep us rich and to control people who have not heard the knock.  We have stood behind the United States blindly even when it has acted unjustly.   This blindness is a problem. 

The cure for our blindness is a willingness to see.  That willingness has its heart in compassion, even for our enemies.  My highest and best hope for this anniversary of 9/11 is my highest and best hope for the world I would like my children to inhabit:  a world where people are brave and enlightened enough to set aside their differences and work for a better place, an inhabitable planet, just capitalism, fair democratic sovereignty.  I imagine this, and I think I am a dreamer and then I remember thanks to a certain guy from Liverpool that I am not the only one.