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Layering History

On my way down from Penn State to Frederick, Maryland a couple of days ago I had extra time and took the opportunity to pass through the Antietem battlefield (Civil War) and then to pay my respects to the birthplace of the U.S. military-industrial complex at Harper’s Ferry. It sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenendoah Rivers, close to the place where West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland all come together, and not far from Pennsylvania either. It is beautiful springtime here in the east, a bit chilly some days, but mostly warming up rapidly, dogwood and azaleas in full bloom everywhere. Here’s a photo of a small row of trees on the campus of Pleasant Valley elementary school not far from Harper’s Ferry. I’ve seen incredible numbers of these trees in bloom everywhere, open road and in suburbs…

Before I got to Harper’s Ferry, the first site of a U.S. arsenal (founded at the suggestion of George Washington), the place where they made the rifles and hardware that accompanied Lewis & Clark on their epic journey through across the continent in 1803, I passed quickly through the Antietem battlefield. It’s set on grassy rolling hills and is littered with signage put up by the then-aptly named War Department in 1896 as part of an effort to establish an outdoor classroom of war knowledge. I was a big Civil War freak when I was a child, so it still resonates a bit for me, though nowhere near as strongly as it did in my youth. I climbed a stone tower, also built in the 1890s, and took this photo down what was known as “Bloody Lane”… in the three-day battle in September 1862, this stretch was fought over with great intensity, leading to the trench between the two fences being filled with bodies.

A later exhibit established by the National Park service is called “I Hate Cannons” and quotes a battlefield surgeon who had to handle the thousands of casualties caused by frontal charges into the maws of full firing artillery.

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Dancing in the Streets!

Before taking off on this lengthy tour, I had a couple of experiences back in San Francisco that underscore why I live there, and that deserve to be more widely known. Firstly, Deep has been staging “Flash Dances” for the past two years, about 10 or more times now. I absolutely LOVE these. The sound system starts pumping at a pre-arranged time and 50-100 people start boogeying in a public spot, sometimes a corner or a plaza or a park. The one on April 19 was at 24th Street BART plaza and it produced its usual euphoria and magic, luring in dozens of passersby, connecting alienated drug dealers and middle-aged Latino men to a mixed-race crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, all shaking their booties to a bunch of funk and pop standards going back 30 years. The chance to dance in a crowd of strangers with such a high degree of trust and good will is just an unmatchable experience. I can’t stop smiling and laughing as I cut it loose, swirling around with friends and strangers alike”¦

Then, a week later, on Sunday April 27, a collective birthday party was thrown by Rupa (of the April Fishes) along with Mona, LisaRuth, and a bunch of others”¦ the magical treat followed a brunch on her doorstep near 25th and Castro when Brass Menazeri started playing their fantastic blend of Balkan standards and speedy dance tunes, with a full brass complement to go with a couple of really great drummers, keeping the beat throughout. We boogied down 24th street past Mona’s new mural, up Church past a previous one and down into Dolores Park where it was wall-to-wall sunbathers and convivialists”¦ what a day!

Here’s Rupa discovering herself and the April Fishes in Mona’s new mural on 24th Street:

Fake Numbers and Real Limits

My blogging is lagging, and not because I’m gagging, or even lollygagging, just too much going on at once. My book rollout for Nowtopia was last Wednesday and I’m now in the flow of the my “tour” which leaves SF on April 28, but continues later tonight at SmackDab and next Thursday at Modern Times. You can check out the podcast of my rollout reading if you can’t join me at one of my tour stops.

Golden Gate Bridge from Twin Peaks, April 2008.

I wanted to complement my book’s appearance by noting some useful items in the media, both online and off, that help the larger anti-economy argument that Nowtopia is part of. In the current Harper’s magazine, Kevin Phillips writes about the fake numbers that underpin our sense of “economic reality”: “Numbers Racket: Why the Economy is Worse Than We Know”. He gives an overview of how government economics statistics have been jerryrigged and altered quite a few times just since the 1970s, leading to the imaginary economic health much touted by Clinton and Bush during the past 16 years. Turns out unemployment, if measured as it once was, would be closer to 9%, inflation would be running at 12% and GNP and “growth” would have been much worse than reported. Of course the important caveat here is that I don’t believe in any of these numbers either! The whole system of measuring wealth and economic activity is so skewed away from any sense of what’s meaningful or true as to be quite meaningless anyway. But Phillips, a former Nixon speechwriter and Republican strategist (and more recently, debunker of the Bush Dynasty as a criminal enterprise spanning generations) wants to reclaim economic stats from the funhouse they’ve been relegated to. One compelling stat he cites is that in order to artifically hold up the illusion of economic growth during two decades of financial chicanery, 15% of “Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” value in 2007 is accounted for by “imputed” income (the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the imputed income of living in one’s own home, or the value of employer-paid life or health insurance premiums).

Phillips’ article follows the interesting piece “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits” by Wendell Berry, in the same issue, which is trying (again) to focus Americans on the reality of limits. Berry has been writing from a radical ecologist position for years now, and often he brings in a quasi-religious tone that really puts me off. He admits as much in this article.

“We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world… I am well aware of what I risk in bringing this language of religion into what is normally a scientific discussion. I do so because I doubt that we can define our present problems adequately, let alone solve them, without some recourse to our cultural heritage.”

Much as I loathe the admonitional tone that wants to chastise for living beyond our limits, I can easily understand the basic ecological truth of that point. Berry’s article escapes his own rhetorical trap as it proceeds and by the end I was quite happy with it.

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