"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read"

- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Green Hills of Africa

I would come back to Africa but not to make a living from it…But I would come back to where it pleased me to live; to really live. Not just let my life pass. Our people went to America because that was the place to go then. It had been a good country and we had made a bloody mess of it and I would go, now, somewhere else and as we had always had the right to go somewhere else and as we had always gone.” (Ernest Hemingway)
The task reminds me of a quote from Green Hills of Africa, this blog’s namesake: “I had no wish to share this life with anyone who was not there, only to live it, being completely happy and quite tired.” It seems a little selfish, almost, but I think I really do understand the sentiment.
Today I will also finally finish Green Hills of Africa, a book which at first surprised me at how boring it was but has since, in the second half, become almost astounding. There is one part, covered by perhaps three chapters, in which EH is in pursuit of Kudu. He has one day left in country and no Kudu. His luck is running out and he fears not getting one. But after much effort he manages a huge, beautiful bull, the taking of which may be the best passage of descriptive dialog I have read in a long time. It is on pages 230-231 in the Simon & Schuster Touchstone paperback. Pay particular attention to the description of the fallen bull. It sends shivers up my spine and draw tears from me. He is so damn good that it kills me. It’s going to take me years and years to better him. How in God’s name does he show such restraint? I am all flourish and pomp. I’m a green-horned kid, all pistols and flash. If writers were gun fighters, I would be decked out in silver and black with tassels hanging from my gloves and Hemingway would be Wyatt Earp, all calm and cool and dark and subdued. You would be Doc Holiday sans TB

Ernest Hemingway immediately states his intentions: “to see whether the shape of a country and the pattern of a month’s action can, if truly presented, compete with a work of the imagination.”
According to Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s first African safari took place between November 1933 and March 1934 with wife ‘P.O.M.’ (i.e. Poor Old Mama, real name Pauline Pfeiffer), white hunter ‘Pop’ (Philip Percival), a fellow hunter ‘Karl’ (actually Charles Thompson) and a retinue of native “boys”. Hemingway wrote his account of the experience from mid-April 1934 to February 1935 at his home in Key West. It was serialised in Scribners magazine between May and October of 1935 and published in book form by Scribners on October 25th of that year.
Hemingway’s literary reputation was supreme in the early 1930s. He’d published two major novels – The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell To Arms (1929) – and three story collections. A short time before writing Green Hills of Africa he had written his bullfighting book, Death in the Afternoon (1932). This was a particularly experimental period of non-fiction as Hemingway tried to determine a personal code of aesthetics for writing ‘truthfully’. But most contemporary critics judged Green Hills of Africa as inferior to the fiction. An exception was C. G. Poore of the New York Times who wrote: “his writing is better than ever, fuller, richer, deeper and only looking for something that can use its full power.” One way or another, the consensus was that Hemingway’s focus on blood sports was not sufficiently interesting or worthy of his talent.
There is a supplementary body of work surrounding the African book, firstly three letters from Tanganyika published in Esquire. As Robert O. Stephens observes in Hemingway’s Non-Fiction: The Public Voice, “in these letters he worked out several of the ideas that would inform the narrative and meditational passages of the book.” The first of those letters is ‘A.D. in Africa’ (dated 18 January 1933 but not published till April) written as Hemingway, “full of emetine,” recuperates from a bout of amoebic dysentery in Nairobi. The second, ‘Shootism versus Sport’, an outline of hunter’s ethics, was published in June; a tribute to Philip Percival, ‘Notes on Dangerous Game,’ followed in July. There are also two short stories that explicitly derive from events first documented in Green Hills: ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (Esquire, August 1936) and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ (Cosmopolitan, September 1936). It is interesting that when Hemingway did reimagine his African experiences in a fictional context he created two of the most anthologised short stories of the twentieth century. Green Hills of Africa is, however, more of a low-key curiosity within Hemingway’s corpus.
It is undeniable that many of Hemingway’s interactions with and observations of the African people are marked by condescension, contempt, affection, and sometimes desire. But most of the time Hemingway is disinterested and happily oblivious. Even at the time, Hemingway’s account of the safari was startling in some quarters for what it left out. Edmund Wilson, in his review for the New Republic, wrote that the reader does not “learn much about the natives: there is one fine description of a tribe of marvellous runners but the principal impression we carry is that the natives were simple people who enormously admired Hemingway.” It is important to note that Hemingway’s perspective is that of the American frontiersman rather than a European colonialist. The key to the book is the conception of Africa as a frontier. Rampaging through the jungle and shooting up the wildlife stirs Hemingway’s spirit because it allows him to emulate his frontiersman ideal. Meanwhile he realises the environmental precariousness of this part of Africa, so is motivated to put it down on paper as “an absolutely true book.”
In Nairobi, Hemingway wrote from his hospital bed for the benefit of his Esquire-reading fans that “the general run of this highland country is the finest I have ever seen…Nothing that I have ever read has given any idea of the beauty of this country or the still remaining quality of game.” It was the lack of Hemingway’s kind of good writing on Africa that was to motivate him to write Green Hills.
At the beginning of the book – but chronologically close to the final kudu hunt sequence – Hemingway encounters Kadinsky, an Austrian colonial ethnologist who abhors hunting. Life in Africa to Kadinsky is:
…always interesting. The natives and the language. I have many books of notes on them. Then too, in reality, I am a king here. It is very pleasant. Waking in the morning I extend one foot and the boy places the sock on it. When I am ready I extend the other foot and he adjusts the other sock. I step from under the mosquito bar into my drawers which are held for me. Don’t you think that is very marvellous?
Kadinsky interrogates Hemingway on his opinion of certain writers (here we find the famous passage on how all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn). Hemingway criticises Emerson, Hawthorn, and Whittier for writing that privileges the intellectual over the physical:
[They] wrote like exiled English colonials from an England of which they were never a part to a newer England that they were making. Very good men with the small, dried and excellent wisdom of Unitarians…They were all very respectable. They did not use the words that people have always used in speech, the words that survive in language. Nor would you gather that they had bodies. They had minds, yes. Nice, dry clean minds.
Hemingway’s aesthetic stance values writing that accurately captures the physical attributes and the writer’s physical and emotional responses to the landscape. Hemingway’s objection to Kadinsky is not because of Kadinsky’s colonial opportunism with the African natives, but because of his intellectualism.
The safari group carried a book bag for afternoon rest periods, and Hemingway was particularly impressed by Tolstoy’s Cossacks (presumably translated by his beloved Constance Garnett):
In it were the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the feel of the forest in the different seasons, and that river that the Tartars crossed, raiding, and I was living in that Russia again.
Hemingway also praises Turgenev, Stendhal, and Thomas Mann for their skill at capturing a time and a place in prose, saving it from oblivion:
For we have been there in the books and out of the books – and where we go, if we are any good, there you can go as we have been. A country, finally, erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance permanently, except those who practiced the arts…
One of the striking things about Green Hills of Africa is that it is written in a form that very closely resembles Hemingway’s fiction. Carlos Baker defined the book as an experimental piece that meets “the challenge of working out a reasonably tight architectural structure.” It is not bound to the restriction of chronological presentation, but by using flashbacks and re-ordering of time “the form of the book is so devised as always to point to the climatic account of the kudu-hunt in the 12th chapter”. The kudu is emphasised over the lions and the bulls as the most sought after prize, a structured “truth” that makes for a book-long struggle for the utopian unspoiled country where Kudu can be successfully hunted.
I had loved country all my life; the country was always better than the people. I could only care about people a few at a time.
The above characterises Hemingway’s focus as well as the limits of his perspective. Robert O. Stephens observes that as a child Hemingway witnessed the final destruction of the American frontier. This shaped his identity and values and motivated a life-long search for frontier lands around the world. The African landscape is an perfect setting for Hemingway to play out his ideal persona – certainly his role in the public imagination – of the frontiersman. Stephens writes that “Hemingway recorded his admiration for the frontier hunter type wherever he met him. In Green Hills of Africa he himself acted according to his concept of the type.” The frontier is where a man can test himself against nature, “for unspoiled nature was the key to unspoiled man.” This is where the particularly American quality of the book is explicit.
But here is also the essential contradiction in Hemingway’s philosophy, for while Hemingway recognises and mourns the transience of the frontier in a modern mechanised world – recalling his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost “fresh green breast of the new world” – his response is to chase the frontier wildlife with Mannlicher and Springfield rifles and think little of his interaction with and abuse of an imperilled native culture; in other words he acts like the archetypal white conqueror.
Hemingway sometimes speaks optimistically of nature’s immutable survival in the face of human abuse, for instance in a long description of the Gulf Stream in the Caribbean:
…this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man…that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of government, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone…the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of [garbage] a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow.
But, puzzlingly, he also acknowledges that the wilderness does not survive under imperialism:
A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered, and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out and, next, it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited…A country was made to be as we found it. We are the intruders and after we are dead we may have ruined it but it will still be there and we don’t know what the next changes are.
In the 1930s, Hemingway failed to reconcile this faith in nature’s ability to withstand human abuse with the fact of the disappearing frontier that led him to Africa. In 1953, when he returned for another safari, the sense of urgency in the declining frontier was more pronounced. Stephens writes that “the issue was not British versus Mau Mau or colonialist versus nationalist or white versus black but the problem of keeping the way open to the primal source of emotional energy – the wilderness.”
Hemingway’s frontier landscapes blur into each other. For instance, he writes that “there’s no bloody difference” between the wilderness of Africa and Spain. Therefore as a frontiersman in Africa he feels at home, “and where a man feels at home, outside of where’s he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.” That it is wilderness is enough to make it his home. Hemingway also writes, “I was thinking all the country in the world is the same country and all hunters are the same people.” Hunting creates its own lingua franca, as demonstrated when the hunt “was as freely discussed [between Hemingway and the native hunters] and clearly understood as though we were a cavalry patrol all speaking the same language.”
The desire Hemingway has for these green hills is expressed in sexual terms:
All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already…I loved the country so that I was happy as you after you have been with a woman that you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always…if you have loved some woman and some country you are very fortunate, and if you die afterwards it makes no difference.
When the utopian country is found for the kudu hunt, Hemingway the sexual imagery increases. The country is a “virgin country, an un-hunted pocket in the million miles of bloody Africa” ready to be possessed if only he had the luxury of time:
I would lie in the fallen leaves and watch the kudu feed out and never fire a shot unless I saw a better head than this one in back, and instead of trailing that sable bull, gut-shot to hell, all day, I’d lie behind a rock and watch them on the hillside and see them long enough so they belonged to me forever.
But Hemingway knows that the land is never possessable and will never satisfy his ever-welling desire. The best he can do is capture “the shape of a country” in his writing.
One of the striking things about Green Hills of Africa is Hemingway’s lack of interest in the African natives, even those who make up the majority of his safari group. According to Carlos Baker, Hemingway rejected his publisher‘s request that an African expert be allowed to verify the use of the Swahili language. None of the individuals are particularly brought to life by Hemingway’s pen, apart from M’Cola the gun-bearer, who is deemed by Hemingway “immeasurably the better man and the better tracker.”
What must have been a devastating famine barely attracts his attention. Hemingway writes that “we passed many people on the road who were leaving the country ahead where there was now a famine.” He encounters “dried-breasted old women and…shrunken-flanked, hollow-ribbed old men.”
“Why are you not more interested in the natives?” asks Kadinsky. Hemingway lets the wife handle that question while he talks shooting with Pop. Then the unlikable Kadinsky demonstrates a native dance that barely interests our hero:
Crouched, elbows lifting and falling, knees humping, [Kadinsky] shuffled around the table, singing. Undoubtedly it was very fine.
Hemingway’s depiction of the natives is marked by bigotry – they are simply “niggers”, “boys”, or “savages”, who are often physically revolting to Hemingway and the object of ridicule, or else admired for their simple “ignorant” dignity, such as the Masai people who live in the unspoiled country (“the tallest, best-built, handsomest people I had ever seen and the first truly light-hearted people I had seen in Africa.”)
Hemingway has only a dim sense of his ignorantly superior attitude. There is a disturbing moment when Hemingway seems to realise that his driver, Kamau, is a human being with “modesty, pleasantness, skill”:
[I] thought how, when first we were out, he had very nearly died of fever, and that if he had died it would have meant nothing to me except that we would be short a driver; while now whenever or wherever he should die I would feel badly. Then abandoning the sweet sentiment of the distant and improbable death of Kamau, I thought what a pleasure it would be to shoot David Garrick in the behind, just to see the look on his face…
The African nicknamed Garrick offends Hemingway the most for his flamboyant native head-dress and behaviour. Hemingway calls him “that theatrical bastard”, a “lousy, ostrich-plumed punk,” and mocks him without mercy. He jokes about putting Garrick in the cinema as the Moor of Venice (“They’ve been after me to write it for years but I drew the color line”). Then Hemingway’s compulsion to shoot Garrick becomes quite serious when he impedes the hunt:
If there had been no law I would have shot Garrick and [the other members of the team] would have hunted or cleared out. I think they would have hunted. Garrick was not popular. He was simply poison.
On the other hand, the native character nicknamed Droopy, “a real savage with lids to his eyes that nearly covered them,” who Hemingway insists is “beautiful” – P.O.M.’s opinion is merely “handsome” – is described with loving attention to a physical appearance that Hemingway wishes he himself could emulate:
The tribal marks and the tattooed places seemed natural and handsome adornments and I regretted not having any of my own. My own scars were all informal, some irregular and sprawling, others simply puffy welts. I had one on my forehead that people still commented on, asking if I had bumped my head; but Droop had handsome ones beside his cheekbones and others, symmetrical and decorative, on his chest and belly.
Hemingway’s appraisal of the natives is mostly physical and often sexual. When Hemingway encounters a Masai man, a “boy [that] was as pretty as a girl and looked rather shy and stupid,” he rather half-heartedly inquires as to whether the man has a sister. Later, he admires a woman, “the most freshly brideful wife who stood a little in profile so that I saw her pretty, pear-shaped breasts and the long, clear niggery legs…we had all taken [her] with our eyes.”
Hemingway claims Africa away from the European colonialists for himself, the American frontiersman, but denies the Africans any particular significance despite having observed that “the natives live in harmony with [the continent].”
Margot Macomber leapt into bed with the white hunter after her husband’s courage failed during a lion hunt. In Hemingway’s work, the hunt is often presented as a testing ground of masculinity. In Green Hills, Hemingway is bitterly jealous of fellow hunter Karl’s repeated success. ‘Pop’ Philip Percival, once the chief assistant on Teddy Roosevelt’s famous expedition that popularised the concept of the safari in America, is a model of masculinity for Hemingway. English, but not “bloody English,” Pop is a contrast to the despised intellectual figure of Kadinsky, who neither drinks nor hunts. P.O.M. thinks Pop “her ideal of how a man should be, brave, gentle, comic, never losing his temper, never bragging, never complaining except in a joke, tolerant, understanding, intelligent, drinking a little too much as a good man should, and, to her eyes, very handsome.” Hemingway is compelled to write that he thinks Pop is “lovely looking.”
Justifying the hunt:
I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly, they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.
He refers to his experience in the First World War, wounded with a broken arm, and the suffering which has in essence earned him the right to inflict his own suffering:
Alone with the pain in the fifth week of not sleeping I thought suddenly of how a bull elk must feel if you break a shoulder and he gets away and in that night I lay and felt it all, the whole thing as though it would happen from the shock of the bullet to the end of the business and, being a little out of my head, thought perhaps what I was going through was a punishment for all hunters. Then, getting well, I decided if it was a punishment I had paid it and at least I knew what I was doing. I did nothing that had not been done to me.
It is true that throughout the safari, Hemingway follows a strict hunter’s code of ethics – to avoid shooting female game, to not ‘gut-shoot’ an animal, to put himself in danger. In his second Tanganyika letter, he writes:
For a man to shoot at a lion from the protection of a motorcar, where the lion cannot even see what it is that is attacking him, is not only illegal but is a cowardly way to assassinate one of the finest of all game animals.
What is a conservationist measure is simultaneously an ethical code that demands bravery and ensures danger. Yet Hemingway and M’Cola get tremendous pleasure from the killing and the gore:
It was funny to M’Cola to see a hyena shot at close range. There was that comic slap of the bullet and the hyena’s agitated surprise to see death inside him…the pinnacle of hyenic humour, was the hyena, the classic hyena, that hit too far back while running, would circle madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulled his own intestines out, and then stood there, jerking them out and eating them with relish.
Sadism aside, Green Hills of Africa is an entertaining work rendering “the shape of a country and the pattern of month’s action” in a form very close to fiction, but it is inevitably limited by Hemingway’s assumption of the frontiersman persona to the exclusion of any wider social perspective. It is a selectively “absolutely true book”.
Hemingway had the purest voice of the first half of the twentieth century that exists. If we dismiss earlier writing because of what has become politically correct thinking, then we’re lost. A culture that rejects its own history has lost the strength of its conviction and cannot survive. Hitler was a vegan, but so what. I don’t hunt animals because I don’t have to, the slaughterhouses do it for me, but what moral high ground does that give me? And there was not the sense of endangered species back then that exists now. And there’s a saying if people had to slaughter their own game, there would be a lot more vegetarians. So Hemingway knew what he was doing and was willing to live with that guilt. Which is a lot more honorable than urban intelligentsia sitting smugly on some moral high ground judging him from a very different world. As for the local tribesmen, from his perspective he was very clear in how he respected some and didn’t others? What’s racist about that? When you travel as I did through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, sometimes you don’t have the chance or yes, the interest, to interact with local people as much as you might like, but that’s just a fact of traveling. The fact that his focus was on the landscape and the animals is logical if Africa is as overwhelming as he suggests. I almost got there but didn’t have the extra two grand for baksheesh it needed for bribing if you got into a jam – that was common knowledge among travelers in the seventies, so I headed east from Turkey. Maybe someday. Needless to say, who would hunt game there today, but we live in a different world. To rob ourselves, as I said, of the purest voice of the twentieth century is to demonstrate a wilful ignorance beyond reckoning.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The White Elephant in the Room

Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants is essentially a short story about an American man and a pregnant girl from Spain named Jig. The two are sitting in a rail station waiting for the train to Madrid. Whilst they wait, an intense, ongoing discussion about whether or not Jig should get an abortion ensues. At the end, the train is about to arrive and the man carries the baggage to the tracks as they prepare to depart. The ending leaves us unclear about the outcome of her decision. She says, “I feel fine”—her happiness is a central theme of the story, but we are left to wonder about the decision she has made. Of the many symbols, I believe the three most important are the hills, white elephants, and the railroad station. Hemingway uses these elements to develop the theme of the story.  The theme is about how Jig sees the possibility of keeping her child and having a happy life, while the man fails to see the possibilities and works to persuade her to go through with the operation.
Jig looked at the hills and said, “They look like white elephants.”  The man replied, “I've never seen one,” then she concludes, “No, you wouldn’t have.” The hills symbolize big obstacles that we must climb, but they are not enormous mountains; a newborn is a major obstacle in her life, but also one that she can overcome. Hills are also vantage points, but consequently block the view for those who dwell in the valley. This can be representative of how Jig can look at the hills and see opportunity, while the man looks at the hills and sees only a landscape—perhaps he dwells in the valley and his vision for her of a successful and happy future is obscured. Hills are also beautiful, natural, and completely stationary. This shows how settling down is a necessity with a baby. It also shows that being pregnant is no small task.  Regardless of the girl’s decision, it is not something that she will soon forget. Hemingway may have chosen to use hills because a pregnant mother’s belly is comparable to a hill; also, being pregnant restricts a mother in many ways—it limits her mobility and makes her more complacent. At one point, Jig looks at the scenery and says, “And we could have all this” (640).  Jig says this because hills represent the challenge, new life, and possibility. While Jig sits down and looks at the hills, she sees opportunity and is considering the possibility of her first newborn. 
The element of white elephants is symbolic of the baby.  A “white elephant” is an item that has a cost of maintaining that usually surpasses its usefulness. For example, a person may give a “white elephant” gift to someone as a joke; a gravy boat for a bachelor, a fur coat for someone who lives in Florida, a leash and collar for someone who hates dogs, or a ketchup popsicle for someone wearing white gloves. The gift is not of much use to the recipient. This is the reality of what Jig is going through. She has received a gift which is, in her youth, unexpected and frightening. It is also a gift, though, that could be priceless to another.  Hemingway uses this play of words to develop the idea of Jig’s choice to have the child. The man said that he had never seen a white elephant before. This is because he is not open to considering the possibility of keeping the child and he wants the girl to have the abortion. 
The element of the railroad station is symbolic of being at the crossroads of life during a time of crisis. The American man and the girl cannot stay at the station forever. They are traveling and there will be change. There must be a decision of where to go next. All of this is symbolic of the decision of whether or not to keep the child. Traveling has a cost and so does the outcome of this decision. Either keeping or aborting the child is detrimental to her psyche and her pocket-book. Toward the end, when the man picks up their baggage and carries it out to the railroad tracks, the tension of the story begins to become relieved. The girl claims to be fine and we meet our open-ending.
To conclude, Hills Like White Elephants is a story about crisis and growing up, and how the two are synonymous with each other. The American man offers a solution and Jig has to weigh each decision with a heavy heart. The idea that there is no easy way out is a big part of becoming an adult.  Even deciding not to decide is a decision, and most of us can easily relate to being in that type of situation.  

Monday, August 30, 2010

Roger, Roger, Roger

Politicians struggle to grasp the first rule of managing a scandal—the cover-up usually causes more harm than the misdeed. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the guy whose intellectual strength begins and ends with the ability to hide his change-up can not seem to understand that the lie looms as his ultimate downfall.

There is no gray area in Roger Clemens’ sad saga—he either dabbled in steroids and/or other performance enhancing drugs, or he did not. He either lied to Congress and continues repeating the lie that he did not use PEDs, or he is telling the truth. The evidence strongly suggests the former. Clemens was scheduled to be arraigned Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington on six counts of perjury, false statements, and obstruction of Congress. Those charges stem from the now infamous 2005 congressional inquiry into the use of PED’s in Major League Baseball, at which Mark McGwire ducked the great question and Rafael Palmeiro gave his finger-wagging, unequivocal denial.

McGwire later fudged an answer—he may have, somehow, at some point, used something. And for all intents and purposes it was good enough to allow McGwire a return to big-league baseball this season as a coach with the St. Louis Cardinals. Palmeiro, later suspended by MLB after testing positive for steroids, amended his denial—he never “intentionally” used steroids. He remains a baseball pariah, but he has faced no perjury charges.

The example Clemens should have followed was set by his old pal, and potential state’s witness, Andy Pettite. The New York Yankees left-hander, one of Clemens’ closest friends during his time in the Bronx, came clean, to a point, over his steroid use and was welcomed back to the MLB community with open arms. Pettite also offered a convincing account of Clemens’ admitting to using PED’s; Clemens says Pettite “misremembers” the conversations.

Clemens also dismisses testimony from his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, who has confessed to injecting Clemens’ with various drugs and says he has the used syringes to prove it. Perhaps Clemens’ pride will not allow him to admit any such weakness. It could also be that Clemens has convinced himself that the lie is truth. He would hardly be the first professional athlete to crawl into a self-created reality and bark at the rest of world for refusing to join him. As Red Sox fans will no doubt recall, Clemens has always had a penchant for seeing things his way even if it means ignoring the facts.

Clemens’ problem is that now he is not simply trying to convince the sporting press or a public that is inclined to adore anyone capable of winning 300 games. He is venturing into the legal system, which is notoriously unsentimental. It is highly unlikely he will stand before a judge who is awed by Clemens’ World Series ring.

And if he loses this one, Clemens will not simply be allowed to skulk into history, perhaps denied nothing more than a spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame. This loss could mean jail time. Clemens still has time to avoid such a fate. He could broker a plea bargain and start putting it all behind him. Sadly, that might require more courage than Clemens can muster.

I guess my major issue is that he’s just another ballplayer. He, and many like him, used PED’s in the 80’s, 90’s, and early part of this century. I wish that Congress, and more importantly, MLB would answer his question for us. Yes, you did steroids Roger. And it is not OK to do steroids Roger. However, you are a hall-of-famer and an American icon. Learn from this. Teach those that play the game after you that it’s not good to do steroids. On the other hand, steroids saved baseball. Baseball has been able to exist without a salary cap because of the long ball. Nevermind that it’s completely ridiculous that 5 or 6 teams hold 80% of the league’s net worth. We don’t care as long as guys are still hitting home runs and throwing lights out. So we kind of owe it to steroids for saving baseball. Why can’t we just admit that and let everyone get on with their lives.

My opinion—make them legal. Let every kid with a bat and ball shoot himself up with drugs and try to smack the ball out of the park…at least it will keep the game interesting.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Financial Fiasco

Do you get the image of Bernie Madoff in an orange jump suit pulled down to his ankles (while some 6’5” junk bond white collar criminal makes sexy time with his backside without even the courtesy to give ole Bern a reach around) when you read the title to this post? The US government, in all it’s glory, made a just assessment and prosecution of Madoff to tell us that firms, but perhaps more importantly, consumers need liquid assets—something that can be used to ease transactions in general and make bartering unnecessary. It proves to us that big business needs something that allows it to pay its customers this month while having the assets to also pay them next year.

Money or short-term credit???

Unfortunately, it is short-term credit which appears to have almost dried up in the financial markets of many countries; and the injections of money into the system are an attempt to oil the gears sufficiently so that somehow the markets for short-term credit get going again. Whether it works is a big question mark that everyone seems to know the answer to, but no one will admit.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Peace winning economist, among others, has argued for a while that the crisis we are living is not a liquidity crisis, but one about lack of capital, and if that is right (and it is) the liquidity injections will not work. He has written essay after essay about the reasons the crisis has globalized so very rapidly. He concludes that the financial markets are a whole lot more global than we have thought, or at least more global in ways we did not prepare for. They allowed the exporting of the American crisis more rapidly and efficiently (I hope you are sensing my undeniable gift for sarcasm) than many economists expected.

And then there is the sad story of the Lehman Brothers' demise—the bust investment bank that triggered one of the biggest corporate debt defaults nearly two years ago in October of 2008. Prior to the hearing, Republican members of the Oversight Committee released a report in which they concluded that deregulation is not to blame for the current trouble in the financial system.

The report went on to discuss the net-capital rule, which is a regulation limiting the amount of debt that financial institutions are allowed to take on. In the report, House Republicans argued that there should be no such rule, because bankers will just find ways around it. “Banking regulations require financial institutions to limit their asset risk per unit of capital, but writing regulations that simply mandate an appropriate level is unlikely to work for very long because it is in the interest of bankers to find ways around these requirements in pursuit of profit,” one asshole stated.

Well, don’t you think it would have at least been worth a try?

The report, which I have perused but in my ignorance of economic morals (as they are aptly called) do not fully understand, completely fails to note that financial institutions carrying huge debt-to-capital ratios contributed to the recent meltdown. I’m not smart, but this is obvious. Bush (he’s not smart either) and his genius administration, through the auspices of the Securities and Exchange Commission, actively relaxed the debt-to-capital regulation.

In 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission loosened the rule mandating that broker dealers limit their debt-to-net capital ratio to 12:1. The five investment banks that qualified for an alternative rule—Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley. Maybe you haven't noticed but you don’t see their commercials anymore do you? They were allowed to increase their debt-to-net capital ratios, sometimes, as in the case of Merrill Lynch, to as high as 40:1.

Investment banks lobbied for the rule change because it would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments. However, when the mortgage bubble burst, the investment firms no longer had enough cash on hand to weather the storm.

Chairman of the Oversight Committee Representative Henry Waxman (or Ole Dirty Jew, as he’s known by right-wing extremist gang-bangers in the mean streets of L.A.), a democrat from California, said this lax regulation, “proved to be a temptation that the investment firms could not resist, but when asset values decline—as the market did—leverage rapidly consumes a company's capital and jeopardizes its survival.”

Waxman, in all seriousness, is a financial genius in many respects. He and many other sound-minded individuals understand that the SEC exemption was in large part responsible for the huge build up in financial  leverage over the past 6 years, as well as the massive current unwind.

It's always interesting that the “law-and-order” Republicans are so very unwilling to approve any laws applied to the marketplace, and that they are able justify this by saying that those “clever swindlers” would just get around them. Reminds me a bit of how George Bush told us there's no point in trying to really tax the rich because they'll just run rings around the government and take their money abroad. As a conservative, it sickens me everyday to see what he did to this country and to think about how we just watched as he metaphorically stared into an aimless abyss when making key decisions about our future.

The financial markets fiasco happened because of improper oversight and regulatory rules. The housing market was paralleled to household income for nearly a century. At some point, around the mid 80’s, you put some recessed lighting in your family room and the asking price jumps 200k…what the fuck?! We did this to ourselves, but we didn’t know any better because we’re stupid. However, we are supposed to be stupid—that’s why we’re not the ones we rely on to make these kinds of decisions. You mean to tell me that a ten thousand dollar loan to upgrade an 80k house now makes it worth 220k—well shit, sign me up! The thing is—someone eventually had to pay for the inequality. But why would they let the forewarning economists make this available to everyone when all they had to do was hold their hands out and take part in the ridiculousness of it all themselves?

This country was founded on the idea of unity and democracy. It has unfortunately turned into a plethora of individuals and greed. Will it ever be fixed? No, not completely. But we can learn from our mistakes…

...somewhere along the line we seemed to have forgotten that.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Quest...

I am not afraid to die.

I am afraid of being methodically tortured and killed by another human being. The thought of torture scares me a great deal, but I’m not completely opposed to its good uses.

I am afraid of the losing loved ones because I know it will just bring complete heart break, but I think that I’ve experienced enough deaths and subsequent funerals…most of which were not the “nice” kind of funeral given to veterans of our two world wars; or men and women that led long happy lives and got to see grandchildren or perhaps great grandchildren if they were lucky.

No. The funerals that I attended were usually very sad. Young people who lapsed in judgment and caused dread, hate, and guilt amongst close nit communities. I have seen soldiers who, in one way or another, have been taken away from us by a God who allows war, yet loves all. I’ve seen children—kids—who couldn’t deal with the concept of involving themselves in life anymore, and in an attempt to come to some kind of peace within themselves, they “take the easy way out” as I’m told by less than devout Catholics. That bothered me. I didn’t understand why people with minimal knowledge, who rarely spent a Sunday morning in church, had the right to judge anyone else.

Catholicism is a great tradition in many aspects. It’s almost mysterious sometimes, but most other religions are the same. Devout Muslims—the sectors that understand worship, and want peace on Earth, and work hard, and raise their children well, and follow the passages of the Kuran that tell good stories and teach life lessons—are exactly the same as truly devout Catholics. Most of them want to live peaceful lives and have families who love and protect them, just like you and I.

And just as Catholics have had sex scandals in the church for centuries, Muslims have slaughtered an exponential amount of Jews throughout history. There are over 2 billion Muslims in this world, yet only 14 million (give or take) Jews—that is an un-fucking-believable stat. Hitler’s regime certainly didn’t help by eliminating 6 million, and destroying generations that have past and were lost. Should God have let that happen?

I am afraid of poverty and life without meaning, but not death. I am not old but I have lived long enough to know that death is a part of life. Death, when expected and accepted, must be the most peaceful feeling one could possibly imagine. It must be a truly un-explicable peace.

But the reason I am not afraid to die is because of my firm belief that there is no God, and no Allah, or Buddha, or the Mormon for that matter, who lives on a star in a different galaxy and gets to nail like 40 extremely attractive women of any type—basically Hugh Hefner, but on a star in a different galaxy…seriously?

Anti-Agnostics everywhere blindly accept things they can not prove—none of it is logical, and much of it is fairy-tale.

God and Satan were quite real to me in my childhood. I realized there was no Satan around the age of 14, but didn’t really tell anyone about it. However, God was in my life to a certain degree during high school, and young adult years. When I realized there was no devil at an early age I remember that if there is a God then there couldn’t be a Devil. Maybe a hell, but no giant red demons that lived in lava lairs and carried golden pitchforks. The whole concept was ridiculous when I really thought about it. I hated the church and what it stood for, but I remember taking walks through the woods or with the dog and praying for certain things. Most of my prayers weren’t answered—that was God’s plan I suppose. And, though my parents claimed to believe in a compassionate God, most things I learned about God made me afraid. I feared God because of his omnipotence. The sociopathic thoughts in my head were there for him to judge.

So, knowing now that there is no God and that death is merely an indescribable peace, I am not afraid to die. This conclusion has not come without doubt and effort. It has taken several years of living, contemplating, and trying to find meaning that has led to this conclusion.

I wanted the facts about our world and those who inhabit.

I’ve decided to return to college with the idea of not necessarily finding myself, but rather finding the world and, subsequently, where my puzzle pieces fit. Deciding to go back to school at 28 was the best decision I've made thus far. I am able to appreciate what I learn to a far greater degree. I study the earth, the sky, the universe, and the people and what they wrote about their pasts and our futures. I look at trees, flowers, rocks, stars, animals, and culture. I’ve read Tim Lahay, Carl Sagan, Ayn Rand, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Shakespeare, Keats, Churchill, Einstein, and Darwin just to name a few. I’ve read about the mind and the universe. And I’ve learned to appreciate the imagination as well as the science of life. I’ve read about evolutionary psychology. Violence, religion, hate, and love all intrigue me. I watch life, and I’ve been comparing these things for all these years with what I knew about God.

He didn’t fit. And if anything, he just did not make any sense. Everything else was logical—everything else had proof. Evolution and biology are proven by logic and science. People's behavior fit. Sex worked. Love and hate have been felt by humans since the beginning of man. But God doesn’t fit.

The world makes sense without him and has become nonsensical with him. How can a compassionate God create someone with inherent irreversible flaws? Why would he make humans have urges and desires that are so great and gut-wrenching, and then forbid us from satisfying them? Why do bad things happen to good people? Or what’s even more fucked up, why do good things happen to bad people?

The Bible is wrong; science, life, and human-nature have consistently proved it.

Good things don’t come to those who wait. The weak and impoverished will never inherit the Earth just because their enemies knock them down and take it from them. The evil claim the power. The selfish hold the wealth. Shouldn’t an all powerful, omnipotent, and loving God not have created a world like this one?

I’ve no doubt in my mind, there is no god. It took a long time before I had the courage to say that out loud to anyone. The first time I did I was expecting a deep regretful feeling. But I have said it many times now and I am not worse, nor better for it.

I am however grateful for my religious upbringing. The education was important because it brought me to this point. I do not fault my parents for causing me to fear or love God. Without a clear understanding of God, and my subsequent interest in other gods, I could not have proven his nonexistence to myself. And, because of that proof I do not fear death. I do not need to worry about whether or not my sins have been forgiven. Of most significant importance is that I’ve realized I do not need to worry about whether or not people who have passed before me place any blame on me for anything that happened to them in life.

I do not need to try to figure out why God allows bad things to happen in the world. I don’t need to wonder what will happen to me after I die. I hope to live a long and happy life but when it’s over I can only wish that I am met with some kind of inexplicable peace, and as the years progress the idea of peace, love, and meaning become more precious than anything else...

...but there's got to be something out there...