Saturday, October 4, 2008

Re: American Meltdown


Brother Reece,

Your summation of the American Meltdown was the most succinct, clear, and blackly poetic explanation of the thing I’ve heard or read. I don’t really understand the default swaps you described even though I read that part three times, but I’ve saved the email for further study. Study of this con is good because to dwell on it with any part of my body other than the head is just too much. Shannon and I went to a chat with three Buddhist monks this evening (the county is almost entirely Theraveda Buddhist). On one end was a dude about my age who spoke excellent English and had a lot of carefully considered things to say, and on the other end was a teenager in glasses who was was so enthusiastic he just couldn’t stop himself from talking, even when the performance troupe of landmine victims was ready to begin in the garden downstairs. (That reads like a joke but it’s not; people here are all sorts of mangled and some of them are now musicians or other sorts of performer.) In the middle was a guy approaching forty-something who at one point pulled a cellphone from beneath his robe to check a text message. The super sharp guy told us how the Latin roots of ‘philosophy’ mean ‘love’ and ‘wisdom.’ The eager beaver told us that the Latin root of ‘religion’ means “reverence for or pondering of God.” The somewhat bored middleman talked about the relationship between intention and action.

And that put some sort of understanding and cohesion to the words I was laying down to you earlier in the day. We were in this terrible Western café for their wireless access and they were playing the Beatles’ collection of number one songs. ‘Let It Be’ came on at about the time I realized there was a muted TV on the wall above us. Along with OJ’s conviction and the sale of $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan, I learned that the New & Improved Bailout Plan has passed both chambers. It made me want to heave or break something or maybe curl up and pretend to snooze. I was having a hard time loving because I was finding it a bit too much to forgive lack of wisdom.

But what are we to do? I love ‘Let It Be’ for its remarkable ability to give me hope and a modicum of peace that, if I can keep on top of things, can last long after its three minutes have passed. Simplicity, brevity, and the brilliance to acknowledge and build upon the forms and sentiments that have worked for centuries. And though it did give me a moment of peace this morning, I can’t feel it as a lesson to live by at the moment. Part of me wants to take those bankers and traders and idiot homebuyers and all the deregulation Republicans and flog them in the street. We have to raise a ruckus until America’s backs – so broad and multitudinous, as you said – are respected and treated as more than frames from which we hang our bellies and our grabbing, snatching, buying eating directionless aimless arms. Remind me later to bitch to you about the peculiar indecencies of Boomer-specific self-centeredness and apathy. The Tyranny of the Foolish. The Reign of the Overgrown Children. I am livid and impotent. Surely the monks would wag their fingers at my lack of Peace of Mind.

And yet McCartney’s melody and repetition and Harrison’s clean and honest guitar, a choir chained down on Earth. Striking that balance between being a reed bending in the wind and throwing down a little regulation and a slap or two to those who need it, that’s a hard trick. Maybe it is Life Skills 101. For five or six years no I’ve been promising to run to Martinsburg when the system collapses, and now that it’s come I find myself having fled even further than West Virginia. I’m 10,000 miles from you and now scared to be so far from Home.

The papers and tube talk about the greed of a few in Wall Street and Washington but we know that it’s more than a few. When you and I were kids, parents bought school clothes at the thrift store because they knew we’d outgrown them in six months. People ate dinner at home and saved long and thought hard before buying a (single) TV. Sometime in the past fifteen years or so most everybody started buying whatever the hell they wanted and charging it to plastic. Shopping for its own self is a pastime? Please. Those bankers and traders and bureaucrats are still villains, but they’re villains of our particular time and moral compass. We have abandoned any respect for philosophy, for the cultivation of love and wisdom. And we have certainly replaced any real respect for any idea of God or gods with a faith in the Might Makes Right of the Market. Our intentions? Uhhh, just floatin along and blinkin at the sun, man; got myself a sweet new ride and two weeks this summer in the Caribbean. Shannon and I are in Siem Reap at the moment, Cambodia’s boom town as the ancient temples of Angkor are hacked out of the jungle and the Tourism Money Train picks up ever more speed. People have flocked in from the provinces to make better lives for themselves. They want what we have and can use what we have to get it. Or so they think. There are blocks and blocks of hotels under construction. Nobody’s told these guys that the world owed more money than it has…

Did you know that every country has a code for the phone? France is 33, Cambodia is 085, etc. Know America’s code? One. That’s it. We are not just omnipresent culturally, we are woven through the hardware of World Society. We invented the phone, the airplane, the pre-packed sub division, the pre-packaged tour to the Third World. There’s a responsibility in that.

The Cellphone Monk said something else: that Cambodia has people who are Buddhist by tradition and those who are Buddhist by understanding. Those rooted in tradition, the familiar rituals of family life, bring lotus flowers to the statues of Buddha and ask for winning lottery numbers. Those who work to understand work toward bringing themselves (and others, by default) a bit of peace and dignity. We need to understand our power and responsibility and I’m tired of feeling like I’m condescending when I think that way. America turning back to a time when it thought before it bought isn’t a bad thing. I love America, but like Leonard Cohen (also a Buddhist, now that I think about it) said, “Love is not a victory march.”

Don’t start building your house until I’m home, okay? I’ll work for you for peanuts if you’ll teach me those skills. After ‘Let It Be’ the café played ‘Help’ and ‘Yesterday,’ in that order. Life makes its own Art. On the other side of the glass, Siem Reap kept hustling, oblivious of the tidal wave, working for that American tourist dollar.

Give my best to Emily and a kiss on the head to the boys.

Much love,

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