Archive for December, 2008

  • Rob Spectre
  • 31
  • Dec
  • 08

The history of our age will defy our calendars and mark 2008 as the beginning of the 21st century. This year we now pass is the final departure of the 1900s; the cold reboot after a buggy, bloated system finally kernel panicked. 2008 was the year everything old finally stopped working. The money, the politics, the lifestyles, the philosophies and faiths, the mores and folkways that made the last hundred years what they were learned just how unwelcome they are in the next hundred. This is the year the twentieth at last surrendered. This is the year we learned what this millennium will mean.

smaller than ever before

Like before, only smaller.

Though the discovery had been long coming, we found out this year that this Earth is one. Shrinking with the startling swiftness of its icecaps, this planet for the first time shared whole all its inequities and its failures. Exposed finally through the prisms of trials, tragedies and trainwrecks, we suffered through this hangover of a hundred year bender together in a manner unlike any in human history.

This year we learned how interconnected we are, with our pitfalls illustrating in greater brilliance than our prosperity. Material losses written down in American banks were felt by African farmers. Wild swings in oil prices were suffered by Spaniards as much as Saudis. Gunshots fired by young men Mumbai startled old women in Manhattan. Sludge spills served warning to Taipei as well as Tennessee. Ponzi schemes pilfered accounts holding any currency while pirates hijacked ships flying any flag.

From Cancer to Capricorn, all that mattered bore consequences globally. Olympians awestruck by Bejing’s pageantry shared the implications of that spectacle with the world. War in Georgia closed opportunity of war in Palestine. Fortunes in Germany and Japan were made and lost with the value of the American dollar and the Euro. For every drop of oil produced, for every red cent transacted, for every asset mortgaged, the point of sale ceased to be hindered by geography. The borders of our balance sheets are now as blurry as the borders of our nations.

The 20th century acquainted us well with the fall of dominos. An Austrian prince was assassinated and the whole of Europe is swallowed by war. A ship is torpedoed in the Gulf of Tonkin and two superpowers cement their rivalry. A U2 shot down over Cuba brings the industrialized world to the brink of nuclear holocaust.

The difference between then and now is that burden no longer respects the dominion of the industrialized. Security is no longer only decided by the UN Security Council. Credit is no longer only the concern of the G8. Nations large and small, rich and poor now share their losses with one another. Instability in Zimbabwe will cost the rich and powerful as much as instability in Somalia. The lessons of coup in Burma warn us of coup in Thailand. Opium from Afghanistan kills the youth of South Africa as easily as America. Damage is no longer localized. Threats no longer can be contained by no-fly zones, sanctions and embargoes. Should we ever see another World War, we can be assured it will be truly worldwide.

From here until forever, our portfolios and our ports will only be secure if we ensure they are all secure. Our treaties and our contracts will only bind if we all assent to their binding. Our loves and our livelihoods will survive only if love and livelihood can survive everywhere.

Were there any question before, 2008 rid us of the illusion of isolation. We are now in this thing together. This was the last year for going it alone.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 29
  • Dec
  • 08

In the first two days, one hundred tons of bombs were dropped. By the third day, over 300 Palestinians are dead. With a hospital destroyed and the remaining medical services already near their breaking point, little hope is available for the 1,500 injured. Tanks and armored personnel carriers line up on the border. Even the diplomats are calling it all out war.

There are demonstrations in Riyadh, Tehran, Islamabad, Cairo, Amman, even Dubai. Hezbollah is taking to the streets of Lebanon. Sunnis and Shiites are overflowing the streets of Mosul, Fallujah and Baghdad. Outside the Muslim world, protests in front of embassies and consulates are hastily arranged. Heads of state are asking Israel to stop. The United Nations is asking Israel to stop. Everyone on Earth is asking Israel to stop – everyone except the President of the United States.

He’s been busy squeezing in one last vacation before closing out his administration.  A vacation he refuses to give up, even with war breaking out in the Middle East his family broke.

If he was reserved during the financial meltdown and quiet during the auto bailout, George W. Bush with less than a month left in his administration has been deathly silent this weekend of war.

As each day passes, Palestine becomes more desperate, Israel becomes more daring and the entire world wonders who can stop this from lasting longer than this weekend.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 28
  • Dec
  • 08

Rural Kansas is one clusterfuck fumble a full decade behind the rest of Planet Earth.  Ten long years behind its relevance, Nirvana is on the Top 40 stations, cell phones become ubiquitous and the Internet makes it into every home.  The comedies and tragedies come bundled with these fundamental changes, showing up in the heartland with a comical agrarian lag.  With Nevermind comes Stone Temple Pilots and with cell phones comes farmers sporting Bluetooth ear pieces, the unfortunate consequences with which the rest of the world has already been long familiar.

And with the Internet comes email forwards, the chain letters that the rest of the Internet learned to ignore in 1998.  For the farmers and ranchers of the Kansan boondocks, the chains’ association with “the computer” lends them the authority of Scripture, particularly if it is something about the politics of the left.

I had barely taken my seat at a dinner party when I heard about the “fart tax.”  Our host had read “on that email,” the “guv’ment” wants to tax the methane output of cattle, chickens and swine to fund the repair to their environmental damage.  The host rattled off statistics that sounded suspiciously chain-letterish, talking about how the average beef producer will have to pay $250,000 in additional taxes each year.  He added that the tax was sure to pass because it had “two most powerful forces in Washington behind it – the environmentalists and the animal rights people.”

Like all email forwards, there was a kernel of truth in the finely shredded bullshit.  The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year invited public comment on an interpretation of the Clean Air Act that would allow for regulating excess agricultural methane.  But faced with the universal of state farm bureaus, the White House, Congress and farmers themselves, the EPA all but shelved the idea a month ago.

But, such news travels slow through these amber waves of grain.  To hear the farmers speak of it, one would think the already aborted idea was headed to the Oval Office for signature right now.  They are conspiring against the government over their coffee and calling their congresspeople and signing petitions right now over something that is already over.  They talk about what they will do to the tax man when he comes and how uncooperative they will be with inspectors when they arrive.

In 1998, first time email users talked about the fortune they would receive from Nigeria or the effectiveness of a new male herbal supplement.  Ten years later, Kansas farmers think Uncle Sam is going to be metering their cows’ assholes.

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  • Hala V. Furst
  • 26
  • Dec
  • 08

The Wichita Eagle has never been much of a paper, at least not while I’ve been alive. Wichita has the singular distinction of being a medium-sized city insistent on behaving like a one-horse cow town and the paper has always reflected that sentiment. So the editorial pages focus on local school board in-fighting and complaints about the millennia-spanning construction on Kellogg. The Local and State section is always twice the length of the national news and the inward-looking folks of Doo-Dah like it that way. For me, the highlight of the paper, indeed the highlight of returning to Wichita at all, is the Opinion Line, wherein yokels from Topeka to Garden City, from Atchison to Manhattan and all points in between, can call in and anonymously leave such illuminating chestnuts like: “To the person who wants to change the Boathouse into a Cheesecake Factory: You should run for office. You’ve got your finger on the pulse of society here.” Your natural tendency is to think this caller is being ironic. They are not.

But as much as I revel in the unmitigated jackassery of the Opinion Line, I was troubled when I arrived home this holiday season to find the paper had shrunk. Alarmingly. There are now only three parts to the paper: Front page coupled with National, Local and State along with the Comics (which really makes sense, if you’ve ever lived in Wichita), and Sports and classifieds. All in about 16 sheets of paper. Wichita is a city of half a million, and they can’t come up with more than a leaflet’s worth of news. Or more accurately, they can’t afford it.

Turns out things are bad all over. There is a national decline in newspaper readership and sales, and big surprise, guess who is part of the problem. Me, Rob and everyone reading this blog. While it isn’t shocking that people are turning to the Internet for their news (or news-substitute), what is shocking is the complete incapacity of the newspapers to keep up. They were woefully under-prepared for this paradigm shift and for the first time many are going to 3 days a week, solely online additions, or in extreme cases, closing up shop. Like the horse and buggy salesman watching the inexplicable rise of Ford’s infernal contraption, newspaper owners have been flummoxed by their belief in the essentiality of their product. Their actions may prove to be entirely too little, too late.

Such is the triumph of the free market. People want their news on their terms, tailored to their personal needs. But one problem with relying on the internet and cable news outlets is they are anything but local. Yet another tether to community is fraying and torn, and individuals already isolated from one another find another reason to rely on the electronic glow of the various boxes in their homes instead of their neighbors.

The death of American newspapers is yet another in a long line of traditions forced to go the way of the dodo because of inept financial advice and the zealous adherence to the so-called intelligence of the consuming masses. But what is significant about this particular extinction event is that in a society that gobbles up Reality TeeVee at an alarming rate, we are throwing away our one remaining link to actual reality. Newspapers may be biased, and newpapers may be naval-gazing, but they are a tangible connection to our towns and our country. To borrow a phrase from the cheesecake-loving Kansan above, they take the pulse of society.

I fear when that mechanism keels over, the rest of us are well and truly fucked.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 25
  • Dec
  • 08

He wasn’t any particular friend of mine or anything. We had worked at a long distance from together for the same company. I never had drinks with him or knew his family. I suppose the click to accept his friend request was more out of obligation than anything else. Until the Facebook notice popped up in my sidebar today, I didn’t know he was born on Christmas.

But, I do know how his family must be feeling right now. He died this year from a freak infection at an age young enough to make senseless. Today is their first birthday, their first Christmas without him.

The rituals begin the night before. On Christmas Eve, the directly bereaved assemble for a dinner alone. They’ll talk about little that matters – the weather, the price of beef, maybe the latest political lightning rod. The conversation will be forced and deliberate, evading masterfully the cloud of misery parted just above the supper table. They call it “making the best of it.”

No one eats very much.

Little memories of those who went before us are in every corner and every decoration. A lonesome star and poorly written poem hangs on a tinseled dining room bureau. An empty stocking hangs over the mantle. A gift that’ll never get given is placed in front – always in front – underneath a Christmas tree that only barely made it up through the tears.

The prayers sometimes get started, only to descend quickly into sobbing. The faithful around the table struggle to find some gratitude to finish the blessing. The faithless struggle to find some restraint for their contempt.

A few minutes pass before someone croaks that the meatloaf is good. The mother who made it can manage only a nod in thanks.

Wash, rinse and repeat for the rest of your natural lives.

For we who remain Christmas always means missing him or her a little more. The proximity of the tragedy or religion or geography matter a lot less than you would think. I think if my sister left in August over December, the holidays would seem exactly as less whole.

Lifetime and Hallmark manufactured it this way for us. In their made-for-tv movies and made-for-supermarket-stand novels, some crazy two-dimensional conflict diluted carefully from the caustic raw agony that is living gets made all better by Christmas. In the end the guy gets the girl, the daughter makes it home for the holidays, and at least for one day hearth and home is enough to make even the fake plastic pain of being alive go away. “It’s Christmas,” they squeal. “We should all be together.”

Every time they remind us of the season, those left to mourn remember why it’ll never be complete again.  That the Lifetime movie will never be our lives.

We make it through largely with these traditions, as well as the bottomless gratitude for those who remain.  We count every star in the stark winter sky lucky another Christmas with them.  Those with the I.V.s in their arms and rods in their backs.  Those who pulled barely through the infections and live with hips chewed in two.  Those with the scars on their wrists and AZT cocktails to take twice daily.

After those dinners we can raise our glasses in authentic toast.  To the faithful departed and those among us still, another Christmas to celebrate both.

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