Letters at 3AM: Where We Actually Live: Part II

BY MICHAEL VENTURA

“One 12-nation study found Americans the least likely to discuss politics with people of different views, and this was particularly true of the well educated” (The New York Times, March 19, 2009, p.A31). That’s what makes possible headlines like this: “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated” (The New York Times online, April 14). Conservatives and liberals are, in my experience, equally self-segregated and equally able to ignore facts that fail to support their opinions. Like-minded people who continually reinforce one another’s beliefs can end up believing anything.

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Inclusion

October 23, 2010

Some thoughts on us versus them, and on inclusion versus exclusion, particularly appropriate in any election year.

Inclusion

By Stuart Dean

A few years ago, I encountered a deeply moving account of the Father and the Children of God. It takes place before there was an earth or even a heaven. The Children would joyfully come together with each other and the Father, and this was the natural thing for them to do. A bit later, some of the Children decided to go off and play with creating greater density, which would eventually become matter. These Children became interested in being off by themselves, and they were no longer open to joining with the Father or the other Children. This caused considerable stress for the Children who were not involved with creating greater density. When they went to the Father with their concern, He reminded them in a gentle way that no intentions could be apart from His oneness. He then asked them if they could describe the distress they were feeling. They realized that love had stopped flowing through them when they were resisting what the other Children were doing. Now that they were accepting even the separative intention as part of oneness, their love began to flow again and all was well.

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I’ve read about this for years, but hadn’t seen this concise summary until I just received it via a friend. This issue – real, hard money versus mere paper backed by cobwebs – is as old as the constitution. It is older, in fact, for the constitution established a hard money government, specifically as an antidote to the paper currency the constitution-makers had seen in action during the years of the confederation ending in 1789. This hard money versus paper was a major issue in the time of Andrew Jackson, 130 years before John F. Kennedy’s time. Jackson won, despite an assassination attempt. Kennedy — and we – lost.

John F. Kennedy vs. the Federal Reserve

http://www.restoretherepublic.org/documents/JKF%20And%20The%20Fed.pdf

2010-10-08 Ventura column

Letters at 3AM: Where We Actually Live

BY MICHAEL VENTURA

Factions fling rhetoric at one another but don’t talk much about facts. One result is that, as a citizenry, we’ve lost sight of where we actually live and our politics are no longer about what’s going on in that strange place.

Here are fragments of an accurate description from The New York Times:

“More than a quarter of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Leaky pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. And aging sewage systems send billions of gallons of untreated wastewater … into the nation’s waterways each year” (Jan. 28, 2009, p.A16). “[A] significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country” (March 15, p.A1). “75 percent of [America’s] public schools have structural deficiencies and 25 percent have problems with their ventilation systems” (Feb. 20, p.A17). “Even upscale suburban districts are preparing for huge levels of layoffs” (May 20, p.A1). “Kansas City [Mo.] Will Shutter Nearly Half of Its Schools” (March 11, p.A20). “Costs Keep Rail Systems Outdated Across U.S.” (June 25, 2009, p.A13). “Millions of Miles of Pipe, and Years of Questions – Weak Oversight Cited in Nation’s System of Gas Lines” (Sept. 25, p.A1). California’s “[i]nfrastructure spending … has dropped from 20 percent of the state budget to 3 percent” (Sept. 28, p.A29). “Most summer school programs … from elementary through high school” have been canceled in Los Angeles (May 30, 2009, p.A9), as well as in Florida, North Carolina, Delaware, Washington, Maryland, and Ohio (July 2, 2009, p.A1). “Arizona Drops Children’s Health Program” (March 19, p.A17). “Money Shortage Forces Cut in Cases To Be Prosecuted” (May 9, 2009, p.A13). “Community Colleges Cutting Back on Open Access” (June 24, p.A15).

In Tracy, Calif., “residents will now have to pay every time they call 911 for a medical emergency. … Residents can pay a $48 voluntary fee for the year … [or] be charged $300 if they make a call for help” (Feb. 21, p.WK8).

In one Brooklyn neighborhood, “within a 10-minute walk, three day care centers, one senior center, one swimming pool, one after-school program and a health clinic are to close. Venture 20 minutes more, and six additional facilities – two day care centers, two after-school programs, a senior center and a health clinic – are also to shut down” (June 5, p.A1).

“[B]udget shortfalls have led 11 states to close enrollment in programs that provide drugs to people with H.I.V. and AIDS. … Arizona has ended many behavioral health services for 4,000 children. Oregon has made significant cuts to community health programs for nearly 1,500 mentally ill residents and is eliminating a program that helps 2,000 residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia receive care at home” (July 2, p.A24).

“Safety Is Issue as Budget Cuts Free Prisoners” (March 5, p.A1). Oregon, Illinois, Colorado, California, and Michigan were cited. The director of Michigan’s Department of Corrections, Patricia L. Caruso, said, “We can live in fear and make bad policy based on fear, or we can have some backbone and make policy based on what really helps our communities.” Then she admitted: “I worry about it. I say a rosary every day.”

“Firefighters have protested [cuts] in Florida,” as have nurses in Minnesota, which cut aid to health services, as has Alabama (Time, June 28, p.22). That article adds that Arizona cut kindergarten programs to half-days (a hard situation for working parents) and that funds for schools “plunged” in New Jersey, while Florida “slashed” university spending.

“More than one-third of the trains, equipment, and facilities of the nation’s seven largest rail transit agencies are near the end of their useful life or past that point” (USA Today, May 1, 2009, p.3).

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 4, 2009, p.1: California, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Colorado have “shuttered” most state offices one day per week; Detroit cut family services for foster kids; 7,000 state jobs were eliminated in Washington; 27,000 teachers were laid off in California; Maine families “cannot apply for food stamps or Medicaid”; Maryland has halved “the usual number of traffic patrols”; Georgia has 25,000 employees “facing furloughs”; lawyers there have trouble finding government personnel with whom to file papers at the State Court of Appeals. Five million Americans work for state governments; many of their jobs are no longer secure.

Public safety is directly threatened. “Budget cuts are forcing police around the country to stop responding to fraud, burglary and theft calls as officers focus limited resources on violent crime. … ‘If you come home to find your house burglarized and you call, we’re not coming,’ said [an] Oakland police spokeswoman” (USA Today, Aug. 25, p.1).

“There are more people in poverty now – 43.6 million – than at any time since the government began keeping accurate records (The New York Times, Sept. 25, p.A21). “Public employee layoffs and service cutbacks that states are enacting amount to an ‘anti-stimulus program’ that dwarfs the size of the federal government’s stimulus program” (The Week, July 16, p.4).

Pity the poor public official who tries to actually do something. “Daniel Varela Sr., … mayor of Livingston, Calif., … was booted from office last month in a landslide recall election. His crime? He had the temerity to push through the small city’s first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes” (The New York Times, Sept. 23, p.A1).

The unemployed, the part-timers who’d rather be full-time, and the many 18- to 24-year-olds living with parents total roughly 20 million able-bodied Americans. (The Week, Aug. 20, p.4).

I could fill five times this space with similar quotes. Piles of printouts surround me as I write. My files bulge with this stuff.

Republicans and the tea party cry for fewer taxes and smaller government without explaining how those policies address what’s actually going on where we actually live. The White House and most Democrats are unable or unwilling to recognize that what’s actually going on where we actually live is nothing less than a national emergency ultimately far more threatening to the viability of this country than acts of terrorism.

The United States is in critical need of repairs of every imaginable kind. There are 20 million able-bodied unemployed who could be trained to make those repairs. The solution is obvious. Pay the unemployed to be trained for the work needed. Employ these trained cadres to get the physical structure of America back to a fully functioning level and keep it at that level. Turn an unemployed, frightened, angry population into a population doing work that is useful and desperately needed, making them wage-earners whose spending and taxpaying would revive this economy from the ground up.

No one in power speaks of such a solution.

Instead, we spend hundreds of billions on wars that profit us nothing.

So far, state spending cuts mainly hurt the poor, the ill, the helplessly aged, the young, and the many thousands furloughed and laid off. But states will cut again next year and the year after – there’s no relief in sight. Sooner or later, every tier of this society will hurt. Even the rich need a functioning traffic system. Even they need water to run clean, bridges that stay up, dams that don’t falter, and firefighters and police with the capacity to respond.

Infrastructure has no politics. It either works or it doesn’t. A nation that lets its infrastructure crumble will wake one fine day to find itself crippled.

The fixing necessary is not about ideology; it’s about nuts and bolts. If we fail we are all headed down the same chute into whatever we’ll call a First World nation that crawls backward into a Third World swamp.


Austin Chronicle – September 24, 2010

BEGINNINGS

by MICHAEL VENTURA

“I think the piece is shit. Get down here.”

That was Jeffrey Nightbyrd on the phone. My Greyhound bus journey to and from New York City was to be an Austin Sun cover story. Dan Hubig created terrific illustrations. I’d worked a week on the piece. Hearing Jeff’s “Hey” on the phone, I expected praise.

“I think the piece is shit. Get down here.”

It was about 10 at night. My story had to be laid out and the paper delivered to the printer in the morning.

Nightbyrd could say something like “I think the piece is shit” clinically, with no whiff of personal conflict. There was a job to be done; it had not been done; it had to get done. It was a problem, a task – not a situation. Jeff added, “Bring your typewriter.”

The Sun’s office was on the second floor of a house on 15th Street west of Guadalupe. There were too many people with too much to do in too small a space, and the mess was constant and ever worsening. If memory serves, there was no air conditioner — in the thick humidity of an Austin summer. (This was our Fourth of July issue, 1975.)

Jeff and I sat down with my typescript on a desk or on the floor or wherever there was space, and, indeed, the piece was shit: abstract rambling about the spirit of America.

The carrying case of my beloved Olympia portable was full of specific notes about all I’d seen and heard. I’d left my notes behind for what I thought were wonderful insights and rhapsodies, except that they were grounded in precisely nothing. What was needed was a couple of thousand words of clear prose about real stuff.

By now it was past 11. My story had to be written, edited, typeset, proofed, corrected, and laid out by dawn.

We got it done. Learned a lot that night about my trade. Learned that writing for publication wasn’t just about me. If the piece didn’t come in “clean” (not requiring a re-write), a crew of people whom readers are not aware of had to cancel dates, imbibe much coffee (or whatever), stay up all night, and, in general, have a hellish time, because I didn’t do my job.

At least I didn’t have to learn that twice. It has not happened since.

Learned also that in this gig you don’t write for yourself. That’s for novels and poems. You write to communicate something worth communicating to someone worth talking to. A piece about seeing America on a Greyhound requires detail. The reader must see and hear and feel the journey. An able writer works his ideas into that seeing, hearing, and feeling.

My problem was approach. A piece of writing can go drastically astray anywhere along the way, but especially dangerous are the beginning and the end. I’d begun that piece deep inside my head and never got out of it.

With the South Austin Popular Culture Center (www.samopc.org) hanging an Austin Sun exhibit until October 23, many memories ricochet within me, but what I remember most aren’t incidents or personalities. My most vivid memories are of writing.

Theatre reviews, movie reviews, “think” pieces (as they were called) – the problem always was how to begin. Every time was a first time. I didn’t want to sound like anyone else and didn’t want to begin like anyone else, but I had do that so anyone else might be interested. My first three paragraphs usually took me days. No kidding. Two or three or four eight- or 10- or 12-hour days, writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting those first three paragraphs while cursing, ranting, crumpling many sheets of paper, giving up, refusing to give up, thinking I had it, seeing I didn’t, trying again.

Once I had those three paragraphs, the rest came in a few hours.

I did not understand and could not admit that I was terrified. Not of failure. Of exposure. Determined that my writing be as genuine as possible, and just as afraid of exposing my innards, my commitment and my fear crashed into each other every time and made me a one-man demolition derby.

The intelligent, beautiful, generous woman with whom I lived – she who paid most of the bills, including those of the dentist who fixed my bad teeth – took more shit from me than anyone merits from anyone. I probably never said thank you. I wasn’t the “thank you” type in those days. My moods, my games, my temper, my utter stupidity about what a “relationship” was or required – well, there’s nothing more tiresome, more clichéd, and more of a pain in the ass than a young writer acting out his or her pride and fear, needy as a 5-year-old, and resenting even the meeting of those needs. (I stayed young that way for a shamefully long time.)

Years later, when, as jazz musicians say, I’d “made my bones,” I was asked about my sense of form and there it was, on the tip of my tongue, as though it hadn’t taken years to develop and as though others hadn’t paid heavy prices for my excesses: “Begin in the middle. Have the following paragraphs work out from that hub like spokes on a wheel. Finish at what could be a beginning, so the piece ends with energy.”

At other times, I answered: “It’s like baseball. You’re not gonna hit it out of the park every time. But you gotta get on base. Some pieces are stand-up doubles, sometimes you’re sliding headlong into first, but you put the ball in play and you get on.”

Or another baseball metaphor: “Raymond Chandler said when you’re a pitcher and you can’t throw the high hard one, you throw your heart. You throw something. You don’t walk off the mound and weep. He didn’t say that there are days when a pitcher has all his stuff and days when he doesn’t, but a good pitcher knows what he’s going in with. You don’t write about a big subject when you don’t have your best stuff. How do you know? Your failures teach you. And sometimes — like when Dock Ellis pitched that no-hitter for the Pittsburg Pirates blasted on LSD — you’re way out there and you don’t even know who you are, but the words come and you follow ‘em.”

Or the jazz metaphor: “You play sax or piano. You’ve got a gig in a cellar joint somewhere. You know your way around your axe” – “axe” is jazz slang for ‘instrument’ – “and you know the tune and chords, and you feel into it and just play. A good jazz musician can play anything he hears in his head. But that takes lots of practice and many bad nights.”

Since the Sun, I’ve written maybe a thousand pieces. (When I see it that way, I think, “Does this guy ever shut up?”) Every one of those pieces depended on an editor, proofreaders, fact-checkers, business people, salespeople, layout people, graphic artists, accountants, and receptionists. (Yes, receptionists. Much of the Sun’s chaos, early on, was because it was no one’s job to answer the phone. Lord knows how many ads we lost because we didn’t realize that a receptionist is important.)

OK, here’s a Sun story never before told or even whispered:

Sometimes we’d begin a piece on, say, page 16, and “jump,” or continue, it back on page 8 because there’d been no overall plan. And often our typos in print were atrocious. I composed a letter to the editor detailing several egregious mistakes. My friend wrote it out in her precise cursive, on good stationary, and signed it with a name like “Elizabeth May Whetfield.” Nightbyrd read us the letter at an editorial meeting and was most stern about how we had to get our act together. I never let on. Just asked if we’d print the letter. A chorus of:  “No!” It was too much on the mark. Someone I’ll not name said: “Elizabeth May Whetfield – I’ve heard of her. She’s a somebody in this town.” Two or three others murmured how, yeah, they, too, had heard of Elizabeth May. She was a somebody in this town.

Ventura: Hanging the Sun

October 1, 2010

THE AUSTIN SUN GETS HUNG

Austin Chronicle – September 10, 2010

by MICHAEL VENTURA

Nostalgia rots the teeth.

Mentally, I mean.

Nostalgia cheapens, corrupts, and, finally, destroys memory, leaving in its place a bright plastic artifact that pretends to be one’s past. Not that the past is so easily defeated. What actually happened “back in the day” reaches into the present, often secretly, like a half-remembered dream that exerts its subtle power upon the only day you know you have, the day that matters most, which is today.

And then there are those times when today and yesterday converge.

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