The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Inaugaration And What I Saw There
And some thoughts on the first week

Your semi-occasional bloggist buddy, captured here by Amie Oliver, on Jan. 20, 2009, Washington D.C., D and 7th streets Northwest. The Mall is in the background, where the tent roof is visible.

We 'd run through the bazaar of instant entrepreneurs hawking Obama buttons, T-shirts, socks, finger and toe warmers, commemorative pamphlets, and other assorted Barack-phernalia when Amie needed to avail herself of a Porta Pottie.

We'd been informed that D.C. had helpfully transported some 50,000 of them to the crowd centers. In the end, it never seemed to have mattered, as published reports stated that most of them were less than at half of their carrying capacity when they were retrieved. So people made other arrangements.

Amie's experience was less than pristine. The observation as she staggered out, "It's appropriate that after eight years of George Bush, I'm wading through shit."

As the saying goes, "Après moi, le déluge” (“After me, the deluge"), attributed to various august personages, who were either forced, or making their way out. Certainly, following Bush, we are all having to bail, and needing bail outs.


"The pursuit of politics is a habit, like all habits strengthened by habit and atrophied by disuse.
... Surely, the political mentality cannot train itself in an atmosphere of persistent frustration, or with the sense that it is all a sham... There was some reason to think that the political life of the Republic a spectacle, remote and slightly ludicrous. Parliamentary debates, with their legalism and their occasional vehemence, had a curious air of unreality about them: party hacks quibbled, orated and insulted another while millions were hungry. Politics seemed a game to which all must contribute but which only politicians could win. "

- Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider by Peter Gay


The streams of winter-bundled people pouring across The Mall that CNN was showing at 5:30 a.m. that day reminded both the commentator and me of the crowds surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall. Theirs was a swift exuberance, an elation, such as I'd witnessed on the streets of Richmond on election night. The police just stood off, puzzled, unable to see anybody really drunk on anything except jubilation.

Our Chinatown bus left from Boulevard and Broad at 7 a.m. and we carried little, as backpacks weren't going to be permitted on the Mall. My anticipation of actually getting there wasn't high. Then again, I'd asked off work just a few weeks ago and hadn't even tried to finagle anything via my assorted "gunnexions" as Ned Carroway overhears somebody say at one of Jay Gatsby's parties.

No, we were going up to throw ourselves on the currents of history, and we'd end up where we ended up. But we convinced ourselves, almost at the last minute, to make a go of it. We could've stayed here and watched a CSPAN broadcast at the Byrd and had celebratory brunch at the Deli, but. No. We were in geographical terms this close. And so, onto the bus we went.

And I want not to sound like curmudgeon, but I suspect I'm turning into one. Because, I am happy to be rid of the prior administration. But on this blog I've expressed my own dissatisfaction about the two party system, that somehow the process isn't quite right, with a population now of 300 million having just a duo of candidates to choose from, who, in my view, should wear their sponsorships on their suits like NASCAR drivers. The massive amounts of money it takes to get serious traction in a national election makes a sham of true democracy, the Electoral College, the lobbyists, the "militarist-conservative combine" (the phrase Gay quotes Friedrich Meinecke describing the cabal that managed to wreck Wilhelmine Germany). All these elements disturb me.

The exit names on the route up I-95 are redolent with the nation’s history. We passed by Fredericksburg, where President James Monroe practiced law, and there at Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Confederates massacred Union troops marching right into their guns; Chancellorsville, where Lee split his army in the face of greater numbers and Stonewall Jackson, exhibiting his own audacity, got himself shot by his own men when he was too far forward, and Occoquan, where in 1917, women protesting for their right to vote were forcibly arrested and some tortured. Their treatment shamed our Virginian President Woodrow Wilson, who said he'd keep us out of war then, in the words of E.L. Doctorow, waged it like an affronted school teacher, which Wilson essentially was, and a Dixiecrat before they had a name. It's Wilson's views -- not out of step with his time, by the way -- that brings to mind what I heard a comedian say not long ago, "Look, we've had 43 crackers as president. About time a brother got in there."

During our journey north, being of a historic bent, I thought of John Mitchell Jr., the Richmond editor of the early 20th-century African-American weekly newspaper The Richmond Planet. A courageous person, an eloquent writer and speaker, and a capable businessman, Mitchell’s experiences mirrored those of other blacks of accomplishment. During the 1890s, he sat on the city’s board of aldermen, but by 1911, he was restricted from voting (though he ran for governor in 1921), and the city sought to divest him and others of real estate they held that was considered to be in “white” neighborhoods.

Mitchell exhorted his readers toward self-sufficiency and community involvement (and community organizing), similar to his colleague Maggie Walker.


Yet, for all my dislike of the past administration, and perhaps its very real war crimes, we did not get rid of Hitler or even "Baby" Doc Duvalier. We kicked to the curb incompetent, arrogant, ideologues. Though, a friend of mine argues that Bush may have been an ideologue, or turned into one because he didn't possess any real ideology, but he was surrounded by nihilists who were interested in one thing: power.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Obama in an interview, smile, and say, yes, you have to wonder about anybody wanting to be leader of the free world. He was repeating basically what he told the New Yorker way back in October 2006, referencing then getting into the U.S. Senate and from his own Audacity of Hope:

"I think that what [Senator Robert Byrd is] absolutely right about is that we tend to think about politics in terms of individual ambition, and most of us who get there—I write in the book that, no matter what people say, there’s some level of megalomania involved in getting to the United States Senate."

And he followed that up in the television interview with understanding the need for people to keep him check and offer countering views. Well. Let's hope so.

I personally like how he started explaining aloud the meaning of the executive orders he's been signing. (You'd think though from YouTube comments he was doing something illegal)

All that said, I guess being a U.S. person, and never having experienced such outpouring of national joy and enthusiasm for a politician, it's a little unnerving. Upwards of 3 million people in D.C., all waving flags, and tens of thousands chanting his name, and his voice echoing off the marble walls, and the booing of Joe Liebermann and Justice Clarence Thomas (by both blacks and whites). Just makes me .... a bit uneasy.

Just like watching the huge "Obamastock" concert the Sunday prior. The overarching theme was elation, but, also elegy..and...the symbolism and the names invoked: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy -- all of them martyred. Even Stephen King in the latest Esquire admits to having that fear, despite his jubilation over not having to move his family to New Zealand. But, he adds, he's in the fright business.

I got kind of weirded out when they brought out the bald eagles, and they spread their wings and were so amazing, and I thought: this is a ritual, and it matters, but the signals are all confused. Are we praising him or burying him -- if not in reality, but in effigy?

I'm nervy. Not my business per se, just my inclination.

The other day, on some news show, I saw a clip played of Clinton from his first term. He looked do vital and big haired. And I don't have quite the same warmth whenever he'd pop up during the past eight years. The recent events have finally made Bill Clinton look antiquated; like some spotted and streaked surviving bit of film from the early days of movies.


"Much of this restless expenditure of energy might be self-important busy work....or the public acting out of private passions, but it was at least what is normally called political activity: political talk, canvassing, voting. Foolish politics is still politics.

...When the democratic Weimar Constitution opened the door to real politics, the Germans stood at the door, gaping, like peasants bidden to the palace, hardly knowing how to conduct themselves." -- Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider by Peter Gay

At one point, when we were lost, trying to find our way to the house of friends as bitter cold air hit us in the face, and having received erroneous directions from both overwhelmed police and apparently intoxicated volunteers, we ambled by a jerry-rigged Obama bodega. They had his Grant Park acceptance speech playing but remixed upon a jazz funk beat. And it sounded more resonant, even more noble, said Amie.

"And, above all," his voice soared, "I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years — block by block, brick by brick, callused hand by callused hand...."


We didn't make it to the Mall. The Chinatown Bus, rerouted from its usual stop, took us to the Fort Totten Metro. Staked into the yard of a brick rancher, a hand-made sign: "We Voted For
THAT one."

Surging into the Totten station, a swirl of newspaper and weekly pushers, and nowhere a Washington Post, only the Washington Times. I never did get one, not on this day, nor for the day after.

Then two separate incidents of people falling onto the tracks occurred, one at Judiciary Square and the other at Gallery Place. This caused a snag in travel.

Officials closed the Mall gates at just after 9:15 a.m. We didn’t make it into Union Station until about 9:45. There, we realized the chill air was seeping into our shoes, so Amie bought us extra socks — argyles — at $10 a pop.

While getting coffee and an Annandale scramble, we found ourselves seated at the same table with somewhat tarnished pundit Armstrong Williams.

Around his neck were badges and indications of his place and rank. He had a front-row seat to history. He described through his cell phone his passel of permissions for assorted functions: “I have a good package. No, my package is excellent,” then adding, with a wry chuckle, “as befits a king.”

Meanwhile, I was pulling my new argyle socks over top the ones I was wearing.

We took the peon pedestrian route from Union Station, everywhere confronted by massive and enthusiastic (but cold) crowds. As the moment of swearing-in approached, I realized we weren’t going to make it to the Mall or even anywhere close to a Jumbotron.

Thus, at D and 7th streets N.W., in front of a FedEx Kinko’s, we witnessed the event. This was close to the Wooly Mammoth Theatre, with banners for the current production — Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind — in evidence.

A woman named Debbie gave her miniature Casio television to another woman, who held the device so that almost a dozen of us could see the newly minted president as we heard his voice ringing against Washington’s marble walls, albeit with a slight delay on the wee TV’s visuals. It was a United Colors of Benetton group.

The strands of John Williams’ "Air and Simple Gifts," played by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, wafted over the crowd and called our attention more than any other voices; serious, even somber music, with a tribute to “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker hymn immortalized by Aaron Copland in Appalachian Spring.

I found myself getting interviewed by Julio Cuestas of La Mira TV, “el informativo hispano,” covering — I think — issues for an audience in Peru.

“What is your opinion of all that’s going on here today?” I was asked. And I replied that it was a momentous occasion, unlike any other day in the history of the United States.

Almost immediately after the inaugural address, the temperature plummeted, and an icy air began hitting us in the face as though somebody had left a door open in Alaska.

And the city’s streets, within a few hours, looked as though downtown D.C. was coming off a weeklong bender, which, in a way, it was. Papers blew everywhere, soldiers in camouflage appeared, and thousands of people, many of them grinning or hugging, wandered around hoping to glimpse something.

We collapsed into a pile of unmet expectations and heavy winter wraps at the Corner Bakery at 14th and F streets. We joined a collection of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the new POTUS in the inaugural parade. Amie couldn’t pick up the WiFi on her iPod Touch; there were just too many people vying for a signal.

Outside, a woman perhaps my mother’s age clung to a tree while balancing on a short, narrow iron fence. She stood there for the better part of two hours, smiling, her face getting redder as she got colder. She never saw anything, near as I know, because we certainly did not.

We decided to try and reach a better viewing spot and managed to get across 14th, against one of the locked gates where, I’d later see on television, the president and first lady emerged from their limousine to walk and wave. Before we left, all we saw was a soldier dressed in 18th-century-style garb carrying a halberd.

Later that afternoon, later than we wanted due to conflicting directions from police and badge-wearing (and seemingly intoxicated) volunteers, we arrived at the house of friends living in the city’s northeast quadrant. On our way there, we walked past the looming offices of Douglas Development Corporation, the company of Douglas Jemal, who has bought and is restoring a number of Richmond buildings.

Our friends fed us hot soup, let us prop up our feet and allowed us to watch what we didn’t see on their television. Our hike back to Chinatown was frosty — and Starbucks denied us potty privileges.

The bus arrived at its customary location at around 10 p.m. — 15 minutes later than scheduled due to traffic — and went in circles trying to get out of town.

That I had the opportunity to be among the throngs on this Jan. 20, 2009, was gratifying. At home, I watched the president and first lady taking their turn on the dance floor at various balls.

But now, the party is over, and there’s work to be done.


Finally, I'm not so happy about all of BHO's Cabinet appointments. True, he has access to more information than I do, and he made the deals and compromises to get to his position, but, from the very outside peering in, some of this just stinks.

I don't care how brilliant Timothy Geithner is, he was at Lehman Brothers, and he didn't pay his taxes. He paid his debt, with interest, but his imminent appointment hastened his actions. This just doesn't look right.

People as diverse as Jim Cramer and Becky at Just A Girl Wearing Short Shorts don't see the sense of this choice.

Cramer, on a tear, in Scott Raab's recent Esquire profile:

"I'm not clairvoyant. Nobody's clairvoyant. But the odds favored what I said" — I think he's talking about his rant in August 2007 or maybe Lehman Brothers having the DNR tag hung on its toe — "and all of the people in the thick of things knew it. All of 'em. So it's amazing that Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke really didn't know at all. They really didn't know at all. Just this incredible combustible combination of ideology and idiocy layered over no homework has made it so that the country's on the brink.

"I knew the guy who led the conference call at Bear. He had given me a tremendous briefing on the CDO market, and it was either 100 percent lies, or he was an idiot. And I went in to see Fuld" — that'd be Dick Fuld, Lehman's CEO — "and his briefing was either 100 percent lies, or he was an idiot. There's no middle ground, no maybe he was just mistaken. No. He's either just brain-dead, or he was just lying to me."

Hard to believe these guys are idiots, I say.

"They're not idiots. They lied."


"Remember — I have no subpoena power. I can't indict. There's no Cramer grand jury. But there is Mad Money."

Lesbian libertarian or libertarian lesbian or, well, Becky, who is Just A Girl In Short Shorts, who, well, favored Sarah Palin as McCain's V-P pick months before McCain or the RNC made him choose her. And then Becky had some 'splainin' to do once she got her wish. Near as I can figure, because she's an empowered woman who is anti-abortion that she should' I'll let you suss it out. P.S. Humorless killjoys got many of her images censored. Even those of Palin.

Howsomever; Becky way back in October made her own nomination for Bailout Czar, and seems to me she would've made for a fine pick at Treasury: Diane Garnick. (This image is via Becky's blog)

Not only is she a committed altruist, but she's also just a financial wiz and commands respect among her peers -- and if you want some real change, well. This would be one.

Becky wrote then:

"The real nice thing about Diane Garnick is not only does she know virtually everything there is to know about all the bizarre mortgage derivatives, she has always been one of the good guys—protecting pension funds—and was an early advocate of requiring companies to include all of their derivatives on the face of their financial statements—something which is still not happening as these financial companies attempt to hide and obscure the extent and value of the derivatives they hold.

Garnick warns that the government's accommodation of the banks' request to change the mark to market rule will just let these financial institutions further obscure the true value (or non-value) of their assets."

Becky also other suggestions and thoughts on the matter.

But the bottom line is: Geithner just was a lousy pick. I don't care how supposedly brilliant he is. That he's a known quantity around D.C. gets him no extra points from me.

And don't just take it from me or Becky, or even Cramer.  Margaret Carlson, Bloomberg News columnist and former Time magazine White House correspondent, critiques the choices of both Geithner and Eric Holder at Justice, here.

Then I'm underwhelmed by the choice of Arne Duncan, a total Chicago crony -- he's played in Obama's pick up basketball games. According to Alfie Kohn in The Nation recently, and looking at him elsewhere, he's just a counterintuitive choice, because he's from the test-crazy Standards of Learning school that's done more to wreck public education in this country than anything else. 

Keeping Gates at Defense, despite the rationalization that it's bad to change horses in the middle of a war -- well, hell, we've switched Commander-in-Chief, and there's still Rumsfedlian appointees to be rooted out. In addition, as George McGovern quite eloquently points out in this Sunday's Washington Post, "staying the course" in Aghanistan should not be an option. The British couldn't control the country, the Soviets got destroyed by their effort (with help from us and that Bin-Laden guy) and, besides, you can't win against guerrilla war. They play you out and play you out until you're just played out.

Besides, it's just too damn expensive.

And my guess is, OBL is dead anyway. Otherwise, we're just there for the oil pipeline (and the poppies). And I don't even want to think in those terms. It's just so damn ugly.

McGovern posits:

"So let me suggest a truly audacious hope for your administration: How about a five-year time-out on war -- unless, of course, there is a genuine threat to the nation?

During that interval, we could work with the U.N. World Food Program, plus the overseas arms of the churches, synagogues, mosques and other volunteer agencies to provide a nutritious lunch every day for every school-age child in Afghanistan and other poor countries. Such a program is now underway in several countries approved by Congress and the United Nations, under the auspices of the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Act. (Forgive the self-serving title.) Although the measure remains painfully underfunded, with the help of other countries, we are reaching millions of children. We could supplement these efforts with nutritional packages for low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants from birth through the age of 5, as is done here at home by WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Is this proposal pie-in-the-sky? I don't think so. It's food in the stomachs of hungry kids. It would draw them to school and enable them to learn and grow into better citizens. It would cost a small fraction of warfare's cost, but it might well be a stronger antidote to terrorism. There will always be time for another war. But hunger can't wait."

Finally, I'm still not satisfied with Hilary Clinton at State. That was a compromise maneuver, and we'll see how Machiavellian it turns out to have been. I just think of General Wesley Clark pottering around down in Arkansas somewhere, having gotten a big, "Diss-missed!"from BHO.

In the end, after this hoop and hype have subsided, we've got a melluva hess here in the US of A. I just wish we could freaking deal with it straight-in-the-face. BHO is, I think, giving it a go.

But, like I said, I'm a nervy guy.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Goin' Up For The Risin'

Image: Marc Hall/Getty Images via Los Angeles Times.

So we are going up on the Chinatown Bus to the mass celebration of Obama's inauguration. My Amie has some rather nostalgic memories of Clinton's inaugural, and there was a kind of fair environment on the Mall, and great music, for free.

Well, this is not that.

After seeing the extravaganza on Sunday, this is not a trip to the fair.

She got the tickets for us two weeks ago before we knew what this was shaping up to be; now, with the weather perhaps to call for snow, we learn that umbrellas are prohibited. Bring a plastic trash bag and a piece of cardboard to stand on, the Washington Post counseled.

I'm ecstatic as a citizen of the republic to see this event come to pass in my lifetime. The pomp and pageantry attending his elevation to the post, I certainly appreciate it from the show business angle. And I must confess, as I've said elsewhere in this blog, this entire process has been like The. Best. West Wing. Ever.

I see him and his family, rocking back and forth to Stevie Wonder, and I still cannot believe it's happening. Doesn't seem possible or real. And that's me, a newly minted 48-year-old white guy from Richmond, Va. What the sensation must be to African Americans, I can only imagine, and really, only imagine.

But once all the music's echoes have faded, and the roar of the crowds subsided into the usual noise of traffic in the nation's capital, what Barack Hussein Obama is confronted with is a multiple collection of crises and controversies the likes of which none of his immediate, living predecessors have confronted.

A continuing war in Afghanistan for an ambiguous conclusion is folly; the British couldn't control that country, the Soviets got wrecked there (in part thanks to eventual covert U.S. assistance), and there's no reason for us to think our luck will be any different. That's a sign of arrogance that is more of the past than the apparent present we've voted for. What's there is an oil pipeline and opium.

The bailout mishigas is going nowhere.

And that's just for starters.

Our Comcast was out this past weekend, and my wife put in a DVD of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. At one point, the parvenu Lyndon is beating up his step son during a chamber concert. The audience watches both appalled and entertained. But all the sudden his wealthy friends stop calling, and like Hogarth's Rake, all his bills come "with a hasty unanimity." This sequence reminds me of our country's current situation.

Barack has an impossible job ahead of him. I cannot think of what will come next.

We'll be standing there, with a few million people by the Jumbotron watching him take the oath and cheering, too. And hoping this can be a new day, and not just a change of scenery.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Annual Anniversary of My Nativity

Louise pours me a celebratory libation.

The billion-eyed audience may have not have believed their ears yesterday if they happened to have on NPR's Talk of The Nation in the room where they were conducting their vital and important business.

The Blue Raccoon
was not mentioned in the year's most notable blogs, nor is it mentioned here.

Yes, it is true, I've not kept up with the times here, and the Raccoon, which began on this date on 2006 as a birthday present from my partner-in-art, Amie Oliver, (who made a test in December, actually, of a somewhat bewildered Christopher Columbus -- like me, looking with trepidation into the horizon of The New).

There is some strange anxiety having your natal day fall so close to the chronological roll over and amid celebrations descended from Pagan mid-winter rituals and slathered with both Mesopotamian fire-and-water god iconography and Coca-Cola commercialism designed to spur consumers to go and do what consumers do when they feel anxious about the approaching dark.

I've found myself rummaging about in my closet looking for videos from moments of decade ago and, through Facebook, looking at copies of materials related to my theater and life of more than that ago. Then last night, we migrated out to the West Tower multiplex-- something we rarely do -- to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There was Brad Pitt for her (on a motorcycle, with sunglasses, out Deaning-Dean) and Cate Blanchett for me (as a dancer...oh, my goodness, those lithe limbs...) and Tilda Swinton as The Woman (Cate, Tilda -- what else can you ask for? -- Cate image via This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics).

And for us both, the City of New Orleans, as Herself.

We spent the holidays down there and not our first time to visit the Crescent City, and each time, its sensuality and magic pull on us both like an voodoo incantation.

I cannot speak of her, our great and injured authentic place, without stereotypes, it seems. But I came away with the notion that Richmond could've should've learned lessons from her and other members of the sorority, Charleston and Savannah being the other two great sisters.

Approaching her on the I-10 bridge I observed that some cities, like New York, are identified by their skyline. But as Amie replied, "New Orleans is about the street."

Anyway, I shan't go on with that here.

I'll make these mentions: Screenwriter Eric Roth, who created Forrest Gump, hit the tuning fork again to make Benjamin Button, and Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, the Romeo-Juliet team of Titanic are teamed as a self-destructing 1950s couple in Revolutionary Road.

We've come from "Life is just a box of chocolates," to "You never know what's comin' for ya." Which is a big shift, if you think of it, in the mind of popular culture. Button is a post-9/11 Gump. People are dying all over in Button, sometimes of natural causes, sometimes due to World War II sea war, and the whole film is bracketed by the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Instead of a leaf, we get a hummingbird, that if it stops beating its wings, dies -- which is as good a metaphor for the plucky human spirit/US national consciousness of itself as the human spirit as you're liable to find this season. One of the final images is a big dead, backward-running clock getting drowned by the rising waters, that as of a magic of Fanny and Alexander, begins to tick again even as its end approaches.

My other fave screen gem, Kate Winslet, is partnered again with her post-Titanic/Aviator "Wave of the future" love interest. Well, Titanic showed us that love could not overcome arrogance, hubris and mis-management, but that nostalgia and the mystic chords of memory are big box office. Now, the producers bet that the troops of teenagers who are now in their early to mid-20s and who watched 9/11 on television and are watching their previously assured world crack apart at the seams, as the heroic endless love couple battle psychological angst and alcoholism. The shipwreck of the latter 20th century has given way to the dire and uncertain 21st through the refracted lens of dark 1950s prosperity. I think this was once called Days of Wine and Roses and (the earlier) Lost Weekend. In those cases, post traumatic stress from Depression and war fueled craziness and boozing.

The party is over. But I'm going to have something like one. It is, after all, Harry Kollatz Jr. day.

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