Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The stars grind slow

The stars grind slow.
Father. Daughter.
Father, the mountain laurel blooms
call me, home.
Daughter, walking, the sippy cup
is yours now.
The year past, annus mirabilis
for me. Father, you died
at ninety-two. In twenty-eleven
a quick spell brought you down
too soon, but I, at forty-two
arrived. The photograph, you
holding my six-month baby girl
by the shed, morning glories,
your sweater under her hand.
Firstborn, you smiled through it all
pierced my spine with sunshine,
everything for me a flower opening
and old certainties diminished
for good. And this arrival
co-created by you both, and me, and
a pleroma unknown. At loss,
sadness, tempered by a calming
of unsettled spirits. Completion
is a new view to the horizon
and valleys shadowed deep between
folded so immersive as to contain us
in our descent for years,

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In this season of 9/11 remembrance

In this season of 9/11 remembrance
In this season of 9/11 remembrance, I’ve been reluctant to get into it, because I’ve always felt the national response was somewhat off. Out of respect – who wants to hear that? – I thought I’d steer clear. But this morning I was able to feel for myself that the emotions that conflagration provoked and continues to evoke are an epic force not to be lightly passed by.
I’ve skipped the media coverage, only because my standard for worthwhile news is that I ought to learn something I didn’t already know, and I have high confidence I’d learn nothing new from all this. But I happened to begin the day with Weekend Edition on the radio, and they began by playing ten-year-old street-level audio of the impact and horrified witness reaction as the second tower was hit. I quickly changed the station, not wanting to immerse my 15-month old daughter in that soundscape. We arrived at WFUV, a New York music station that spent the morning playing music about or evocative of 9/11. Here, from a bastion of generally folkie/leftie vibes, I heard a lot of good music that New Yorkers wanted to hear, generally holding to the themes of strange loss, heroism, a need for shared experience, often connecting to the day in a subtle way very personal to the songwriters. Nothing bombastic, nor political or critical. I felt the shared emotion and the need for individuals to mark their immersion in the events of that day.
So who am I to step on that? I would not wish to. But in just as personal a vein, I could tell you about a different response, my own, which is marked by distance. Physically, I was living in California on 9/11, and I was woken that morning by a call from my mother in Connecticut to tell me what was going on, around the time the second tower fell. I had no TV; I spent the whole day at home, listening to the radio. Oddly, I wasn’t around TVs at all during that time. For many months afterward, I never once saw a video clip of the planes crashing or the buildings falling. I remember the first time I did, in a bar perhaps six months later. Before that, I had only seen still photos. This exclusion was more by happenstance than intention, though I believe I felt happier going without.
It was obvious from the first that this was a national trauma of the order of the Kennedy assassination. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate in all of that, and of course I did take part – we all did. But I also felt that the hundredsfold repetition of the traumatic videos was a kind of strange baptism in terror, an immersion in fear, even if largely unintentionally so on the parts of both broadcasters and viewers, that would forever color the character of Americans, and would help to change our destiny. That is the power of the moving images. When I did first watch a plane ram into a tower, that night in a bar so much later, I too was very powerfully and immediately shaken by what I was seeing. This is the power of media – to take and own your mindspace. I felt better off with some distance.
I guess that gap put me in mind to go my own way. From the early hours, it was obvious to me that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al – already figures of great suspicion in my eyes – would take license to undertake what would in short order become the genuine replacement for the Cold War, a new organizing force for another couple generations of military procurement, war powers, and patriotic citizen-control. I locked into that vision of the consequences at the outset and have never doubted it since. On September 12, 2001, I wrote:
Discussing security strategy, tactics and response misses the main point that yesterday showed: ultimately, there is no way of keeping an event such as this from happening except by making the people of the world love us more. I know it sounds absurd. But in the end, there is no other prevention…. We are unable to understand the deeper motivations of the perpetrators… What comes foremost to my mind is that we need to be sweet and highly generous – to a fault. Not to these perpetrators, obviously, but generally to the world at large…. Prior to this event, I've joked that if you take a poverty-wracked enemy of the United States like, say North Korea or Cuba (now add Afghanistan), we'd be better off strategically and financially if we paid every citizen there a personal check for $5,000 from the US taxpayers, rather than spending our money on the perpetual war machine. We'd save so much effort, stress and cash if we just bought the friendship of the populace! Obviously, I was being facetious. But ask yourself – what did we spend yesterday? What will it cost us to remain so long aloof and oblivious to the wretched of the world outside? Trillions?
At the time I wrote that, I consciously chose “trillions” to illustrate the unimaginable scale of what I was anticipating. It was then an exceedingly outrageous number to put forward. Remember, a year later Bush’s team was telling America that the Iraq War would cost just a few tens of billions. But I thought right away, what did the Cold War cost us? Bush is going to take us there. Today we can see I was right: by Joseph Steiglitz’s estimation, the war in Iraq (unjustified, unnecessary, unhelpful) has cost us $4.4 trillion. And look at us now, credit downgraded. Unbelievable decade, huh?
As I write, with my turn to these matters of consequence, I hear my own voice growing cynical, dark, basically unpleasant to hear – and that’s without trying on any conspiracy theories! I have always kept up with the left-wing critique, another news junkie seeking endless confirmation of what I already believe, and in retrospect I guess just a quarter-dose of it would have done me more good. Of course I would tune out any rah-rah patriotic 9/11 music, but I heard in today’s songs on the airwaves of New York, from some of my kind of people, a reaching for solace and shared experience. The people who were there that day want to share their sympathy and affirm our togetherness, and maybe also a little bit to display their scars. Where I tend to go artlessly in my thoughts and writings, the songwriters, audience and deejays, they’re not going there. I’ve tended to turn to the political story and the story of our national interest. I don’t have much personal connection to the day –I know somebody who lost a spouse in it, I took a look at Ground Zero that December, a friend tells the story of walking back to Brooklyn on foot… but these are things that came to me much later. I have not ever had much desire to hear the personal stories as reported in the media. The local heroism, the firefighters, the rescue and cleanup workers, the stories of loss, as true as they all are, and as deserving of memorialization, they also – and even to say this is to play a role some may find either uncaring or unpatriotic – when played through a media filter, work to reinforce the patriotic narrative that keeps us distanced and baffled from the world outside, and actually unable to come to grips with it. Just to fight and hold ourselves apart. How can I shut up when I believe that we are, in so doing, only repeating our mistakes? That it keeps us pouring out our national treasure into war debt, fruitlessly?
I remember the night the Iraq War was set to start. Bush would unleash the bombs within hours. My brother and I looked out over the San Francisco Bay as the gloaming set in, and I had a feeling of immense impending loss – a sickness for the country I so deeply love. [When I speak about Iraq in this essay and elsewhere, it is always as an accordion that opens up into so much more. The Iraq War is something akin to what the partition of Berlin and the Korean War were to the Cold War – a concrete fact on the ground that made a generations-long conflict emerge as something real. The Iraq War is different because it was unjustifiable and built on lies, and it ushered in, more than 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan intervention did (assuming that Afghanistan could have gone better if not for Iraq), a Cold War equivalent that really did not have to be what it is, and which, unlike the Cold War, is tangibly wrecking American power.]
How much these ten years of stories have changed us Americans, ever reinforcing the Great Conflation, that those who criticize our warlike ways do not support our troops and are deficient in their love of our country. In my hometown paper this week, a writer tells our wayward mayor, “Our military fights for that blanket of security that you have the right to enjoy and that allows you to go out and protest against them. I prefer you to just thank them for what rights and freedoms you have.” Can those who hold this view ever understand how a person like me can cherish the military service of my father and other forebears, can love the Iraq War veteran, can love our country so deeply, and at the same time believe our sacrifice in Iraq, and our entire War on Terror construction, has mostly served to hurt us in ways immeasurable? Ten years into the 9/11 era, the answer seems to be: as little as ever.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Memorial Day, 2011

Memorial Day, twenty-eleven
the army airman, fighter pilot
and later race-car driver,
later still creator of the Fitch sports car,
to this day owner of the single prototype
curve-graced Italian open two-seater,
arrived at the parade
to pick up his compatriot,
fifteenth air force b-seventeen
bomber pilot out of Foggia
who until last year had always insisted on walking,
only to learn
from the man’s wife he had died
six months before.
The airman hadn’t known – he’d been away.
He grew quiet,
stared off into space.
He didn’t drive the car,
the widow and bomber’s daughter-in-law
told their son
over breakfast some days later.
She told me about it a couple days ago,
she said. Probably didn’t want
you guys weighed down by it.
Unusual to miss the parade,
but they’d been in Toronto…
Niagara in fact, that day, swept up
as one should be
by the great, life-giving waters.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Eulogy for my father, Bill Binzen, delivered in November, 2010:

Yesterday around Dad’s grave I heard many wonderful stories from my cousins of Dad’s indelibly unique way of connecting with them. And you’ll hear many such stories today, I’m sure. I think everyone will remember Dad for that twinkle in his eye, his sense of fun, his love of family and his genuine warmth.

I shared all those sorts of experiences, of course. But somehow it’s hard for me to talk about them right now in the same way. So I’d just like to say a few things about the trajectory of his life.

Dad was a person who remembered when the blacksmith shop was a going concern. How could he have imagined ending his days with a certain adeptness at Photoshop and email?

He saw Babe Ruth hit a home run, and attended the celebrated Joe Louis-Max Schmelling fight. (Well, so did my uncle Peter, who’s here today.) And he also watched a NASCAR race from pit row just two years ago.

He took in the performances of Benny Goodman and Glen Miller. But he also attended a Guns ‘n Roses /Metallica double bill. I was there with him. He was 4 times the age of the rest of the audience, and we did depart while Axl Rose was still singing, which I somewhat regret, but that was around one in the morning.

He flew 26 missions in a flying fortress over Europe, heading right into the floating box of flack in the target zone. He repeatedly witnessed planes just off his nose falling from the sky. And, he also stood many times in the anti-nuke, anti-war vigil just down the street from here.

Dad spent time with Cartier-Bresson, knew Diane Arbus before her photography career had even begun, and worked closely with David Ogilvy in the formative years of Madison Avenue. A part of him embraced these big-time, expansive experiences. But he didn’t dwell on them.

There were things that mattered far more to him. Family and friendships mattered more. His own creative motivation mattered more. I’d say it was beauty that mattered more to him – beauty in landscapes, in relationships, in images and compositions, and in the details of daily life.

Long summer afternoons by the lake on Mount Riga; trips up the Housatonic by motorboat; dinners around a big table with extended family; the hand-drawn letters and cards; his joy at being surrounded by his granddaughters; and the many, many phone calls just to talk about what happened today; these are the moments I’ll remember.

We’ll also remember his unceasing creative drive. He always had a project going. How many stacks of pictures I flipped through with him, learning his vision of composition and juxtoposition and focal interest. He never stopped striving or learning. At about 89 he took up the art of African drumming. What can you say? It’s not a sound I ever expected to hear in church in Salisbury, but he was right there in the vanguard.

Finally, though Dad was quite reticent about inner thoughts and such, and not given to advising, when the chips were down, he was brilliant at seeing what really mattered to me, and responding to it with the right words. Helping me along in life. One of the readings today is from Shakespeare, and it contains the words which I always felt he treated as his golden rule: “To thine own self be true.” Halleluiah to that, Dad. You lived it, and I’m working on doing the same.

To close, I think the use Dad made of his memory of his war experience grew more vivid in his later years. It certainly wasn’t about war as something glorious; more about the intensity of concentration and purpose that a mission demanded. If you ask my mother, you can learn how his re-envisioning piloting missions carried him through his recent suffering with great courage. “The wild blue yonder” really was a touchstone for him.

But when you think of him in the wild blue yonder, know that the memory of flying that he held most dear was the training hours he logged over Texas and Florida in his Stearman biplane, heading up into the crisp banks of sunlit clouds, free of the bonds of this earth. He carried that airy lightness with him always. On his last day with his eyes open to the world, he gazed a long time faraway into those clouds and that light. He seemed very assured; and this was very reassuring.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Face: Book: Yell

About 1998-2000, I webbed pages with Myself.
They float out there still. Dormant.
Thickly crusted. Embarrassing only insofar as:
Who the hell cares? And: I’ve moved on.
But… I let them persist.

In plain language, my job: manage communications.
Encompass web. Once, one could proceed in anonymous glory.
Now? Add social media. Next: engage. As yourself.
Am so doing. Might start to convince
my Friends and associates they made the wrong choice.
Hold on tight.

Permit that I propel ponderous musings
on the significance of the medium.
Does anyone keep journals any more?
Write longhand? You there – got any attention span left?
Is it pompous I should persist in this way?
I shan’t apologize.
The actual is in the playground, on recess.

Reluctant, but now pliant
for my station – profession-alley – so demands:
that I turn my Face to the Book.
One cannot do one’s job without it.
Yet I have spent enough day in my Face,
would rather turn my Profile to Home,
soft sofas, familiars,
distant sound of water pouring over rocks.

And who has much to say?
Oh, my Friends. Our sharings, our likes are a bit mundane.
Piqued by snark and spunk.
Carried by the frisson of memes.
Not bad… not Michelangelo either.
Why should I worry? It’s just…
Once, the days peeled away without threatening to persist.

My parents’ generation had no need for this Book.
Nor did they have to Face it.
But transplant them to another era, they would be different people.
Which would have more merit or valor?
The times now tell us the Book is essential.
if we consent to be all Face.

To say I’m ambivalent here.
I’m like the Grand Canyon.
I don’t want to be here at all.
I only want to be here if I succeed extravagantly.
I don’t want to just be myself.
I don’t exactly want to disappear.
I want to annoy you so much you come to need it.
I don’t want to change, not on these terms.
I want to change you.

Everybody is so absorbed.
I’m completely uninterested.
Not in you.
Just in you here, in the Book.
I’m not striking a pose.
It’s totally visceral.
This isn’t where I want to be.
Just call me: just call me.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What are the values that matter?

What are the values that matter these days, that you can stake your politics on? Any answer quickly runs up against the terrible slipperiness of our favorite big-idea words – freedom, peace, truth and the like. Everybody defines them as they like. The question is, which bundle of definitions is claiming the most adherents? So as I offer my list, I too am working to claim these grand-narrative terms:

Freedom: democratic values and open possibilities

Peace: nonaggression despite risks

Compassion: active care for those less well-off than you

Innovation and tradition: the evolution of new things, married to the continuing influence of collected wisdom

Common truth: current science, and collected peaceful wisdom, combined as the best guide to reality as we know it

Equality: our rights equal, and our different stations in life earned by merit

Renewability: earth’s dynamic and living systems allowed to sustain us without their permanent degradation

Justice: applying collected wisdom compassionately to guide matters responsibly

If we want to end by dipping our toe in the waters that, all things considered, I see as in the realm of spiritual belief, we could sum it up with:

Love: care for all.

Relative to the Arab freedom movement of 2012 – the Arab 1776:

I’m not sure what the current thinking is in Tel Aviv and Washington, but it occurs to me that if Israel’s foreign policy senses the strangely emerging freedom of Arab peoples primarily as a threat, it’s time for Israel to get a new foreign policy. If Washington is inclined to share that view when thinking on Israel’s behalf, it’s time for Washington to get a new foreign policy. After all, nothing matters more than democratic values. Right?