Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Clothing of Life

Drive from mountain forest to city park.

From North Cascades vine maple

to Seattle conservatory cacti.

Life's change of clothes.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Frontline documentary blind to cultural repression

Watching “Obama’s War,” the PBS Frontline documentary on American military involvement in Afghanistan, a few million of us in the audience were forced to suspend our disbelief.

That’s what television asks us to do most of the time — to our peril. I’d hoped for better from PBS.

In one hour of programing last night, we saw but one Afghan woman. She was barely visible. She said nothing. She was little more than a bundle on the back of a fleeting motorbike. We saw her head-to-foot in a burka and wearing goggles as a man, presumably her husband, transported her down a dusty street.

So much for women in Afghanistan.

Much of the rest of the program was about Marines (all males) trying lamely to jolly stolid, slightly bemused, suspicious Afghan men into rapport and ultimate resistance to the off-stage, but clearly feared Taliban. How religion and notions of “infidels” might play into the relationship was never explored.

What the audience saw were men doing men’s futile, often violent, work in a culture that bars women from sight and opportunity. The program’s directors and its correspondent/narrator Martin Smith never so much as acknowledged the obvious.

The rights of woman, half the Afghan population, weren’t on the table or the screen.

Some criticize American military and diplomatic policy in Afghanistan as futile nation-building. The critics rightly doubt that Americans and Afghans share the same definition of “nation.” Or, I would add, the same definitions of “loyalty,” “honesty,” “integrity,” and “democracy.”

Clearly the Afghan culture in the country-side, where the war for "hearts and minds" is being waged, doesn’t share our definition of human rights.

Forget nation building.

Is a culture so starkly at odds with our own culture worth the dollars and lives we are spending to preserve it?

It’s a sad commentary that this program failed to explore, let alone acknowledge, the cultural disconnect.

P.S. Paul King, a regular Red Electric reader, has written this response:

We, too, watched the PBS piece on Afghanistan. I agree with
you about the futility of our trying to bring their culture into the 21st
century. That can only be done by Afghans.

When watching films on third world countries, I often muse over
our own history. How short the years since our forebears painted the
big red "A" on women who committed adultery and burned them as
witches while stoning others to death in the name of God.

How long have our women been considered anything other than
property under the law and how long have they had the right to vote?

I think we, betimes, are a tad quick to judge those who, under nearly
inconceivable conditions to westerners, are centuries behind us and
burdened with religions and cultures which demean women as we
once did.

And while we're about it, consider the King James version of the Holy
Bible which certainly does not accord to most of its women the
independence and self-determination given to its men.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Long Arm of the Moment

On the second Saturday each month, I go out for an hour in our Hillsdale commercial center to pick up litter. I carry a trash bag and a “grabber,” one of those arm extender devices that allow me to pick up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and beer cans without ever having to stoop over.

The physical labor is easy, thanks largely to the grabber, a magnificent invention (whose inventor is worthy, perhaps, of a Nobel Peace Prize).

The problem with litter collecting is the mental part — the thoughts that crowd my brain as I confront the debris of bus stops, gullies and road shoulders. It’s pretty easy to get bummed out by the slobs who throw trash in the right-of-way. Equally depressing is thinking about just how much trash there is.

Picking it up is a task similar to that of Sisyphus trying to roll his proverbial boulder to the summit, only to lose it at the top and to have to start over.

In short, my trash pick-up experience isn’t helped by my fixating on the causes of littering and the unending consequences of human neglect. In the extreme, such thoughts become downright misanthropic.

So I’ve taken to turning trash grabbing into a kind of Zen meditation.

Detachment is the order of the hour. I absorb myself in the moment’s object of collection.


This cigarette butt has no past for me. I give no thought to who smoked it and dropped it. I give no thought to others who have smoked the innumerable butts I will encounter on my rounds.

I am utterly focused on aiming my grabber’s tongs so that when I squeeze the handle they will grasp this butt. Still in the now, I lift it and deposit it in my bag.

Now. Now. Now. Fritos bag, Starbuck’s cup, McDonald’s wrapper.

One at a time; moment by moment.

Soon the moments add up to an hour. My bag is full. I dump it in a dumpster that the local food co-op has given me permission to use. The manager rewards me with a free toasted, buttered, poppy-seed bagel and a steaming cup of coffee.

That’s it.

As I sip the coffee and sink my teeth into the soft, buttery bagel, I stay with the moment. I am simply eating to sustain two arms and hands of humanity’s billions. Some drop trash; others pick it up. Some build houses and roads, some drive buses and trains, some tie sutures, some flip burgers, some fire rifles, some cradle infants.

All of this is what the human organism does. I think of the arms and hands I call “mine” as helping define this small moment of existence in this small place.

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