Thursday, February 28, 2008


Day-O and Other Expletives

I've just finished reading Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, a well written history of that notorious company by Peter Chapman (Canongate, 2007).

The history of United Fruit reads like "Sixteen Tons," complete with the company store.* United Fruit pulled the strings of the various Central American governments, even re-named Central America "Middle America" in its advertising campaigns, and eliminated competition with its death grip of the region. Between developing a monopoly on the fruit market and buttressing it with red scare tactics, United Fruit pulled all us banana eaters --and we are many-- into unwitting complicity.

Thanks to United Fruit, even the future of the banana is unclear. According to Chapman, United Fruit staked its destiny on one type of banana, effectively limiting the evolution of bananas to developing disease resistance, pumping chemicals into its irrigation systems instead. The bananas we eat have no real seeds to speak of, and this means that they haven't had "sex" for decades.
No cross-pollination with other species, no chance to improve the strain. The year-round growing seasons in tropical climes give them no down time, and the same goes for the diseases that prey on them, borne by wind and rain. Of the world's major food crops, the banana is the most chemically treated, pumped full of pesticides and fungicides, and growers are running out of ideas. Says Chapman, "The banana has for a century been an example of first-rate 'packaging': it exudes health in its natural wrapping while being diseased to its roots."

If the banana's prospects are dim, so have been the futures of plantation workers propping up United's descendants. The rise of the death squads, the mischief of Iran-Contra, and the wholesale massacre of workers trying to build better lives for themselves are all part of the story. Even our so-called immigration problem has roots deep in the soil of United Fruit's story. Unable to make a living in their own countries, Central Americans have made their way to the source of their misery. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

United Fruit doesn't exist anymore, per se; it has morphed into Chiquita Brand and United Brands and positioned itself as a "free trade" product, setting itself against the fair trade movement, the change occurring after the suicide of the last president of United Fruit in the 70s, when he erroneously believed that his co-opting of the government of Honduras would land him in hot water with the feds. (They eventually slapped the company's wrist with a $15,000 fine--peanuts in an industry working with hundreds of millions of dollars.)

I'm not doing justice to Chapman's work. It's pretty snarky-funny, too, detailing United Fruit's foray into the public relations sphere, waging massive "information" campaigns, pulling newspaper big shots out of their chairs for "tours" of "Middle America," complete with staged communist conspiracies and even movies, my favorite title of which is "Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas." He details the co-option of Carmen Miranda's popularity into the Chiquita
Banana campaign as well as the way that Harry Belafonte turned from his hit "Banana Boat Song" to his activism on behalf of disenfranchised people at home and abroad. Additionally, he goes into the massacre in Colombia that provided the pathological writing that interrupts Gabriel Garcia Marquez' otherwise detached irony in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Chapman's final chapter is about the world that United Fruit was instrumental in creating. The current worship of "free" markets extends the rule of robber barons into the 21st century, and we can now read about the exploits of big oil and Blackwater, unleashed upon our time's communist equivalents, terrorism and socialism.

Not only does Chapman tell his story of the past well; he triggers important thinking about
what lies in our future. It's a hell of a book. Take your next 40 per cent off certificate from some major book chain and get yourself a copy; read it, then donate it to your public library. That's what I'm doing, along with buying fair trade, organic bananas.

*(When I think about what a big hit that song was for Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 50s, I marvel at the fact that Joe McCarthy's boys didn't round up old Ern and slap him in Leavenworth.)

Monday, February 25, 2008


Ralphie Returns

It had been a slow night at Cinnabar, with the usual customer crap cut in about half. Cubby still pinched my ass when I strode by with the liquid relief that the customers demanded, but Eddie Outlaw and Wimpy Whatshisface were somewhere else, so I didn't have to listen to their comments on my body parts, remarks which felt as grimy and sweaty as Cubby's hands. Still, I was glad when my shift ended and I stepped clear of the haze of booze and the clack of the pool cues. I was ready for a hot bath and a good night's sleep.

The employee entrance is on an alley, a location that I've never liked. Sid insists that we use it, and I'm no boat rocker, so out into the cool night I went, hoping for the best.

I recognized him right away, even though the light on him was dim. It was that attitude. I could see the defiant slouch and know without a doubt who he was. He could even make a leather jacket look rumpled.

"What are you doing here?" I asked Ralphie, brushing aside the kiss he tried to plant on me. "It's been years."

Ralphie just grinned and shrugged. "Here and there," he said.

"Not a phone call, not a webcast. Not even a postcard." I tried to jab my finger into his chest without touching him. "Well?"

"C'mere, Baby," he said, reaching for me again. "I'm running for President."

"President of what?" I jeered. "How about just running for King Shit? That's who you really think you are."

"Come on, Baby," he said as he gripped my wrist. "You know there's nobody else who can do what I can do."

"You're hurting me," I said to him. He let go. "Anyway, I'm not sure what you can do. The Pinto is history."

"That's right," Ralphie said proudly. "You won't find that death-trap on the highway, and it's because of Me."

"That was 40 years ago. How would you get Iraq off the highway?" I said, pushing that invisible finger into the general direction of his chestlessness again. "How would you get health care on the highway? And where the hell have you been?"

"Now Doll," he began, but I shushed him. He leaned into me and tried to kiss me again. He kissed air.

"You really think you can waltz in here and claim me after four... no, make that eight years, of zilch," I said, annoyed, not only with him, but with myself, too. What the hell sort of pheromones was I giving off, anyway?

"Dennis is gone, Sugar," Ralphie crooned. "So is John. That leaves just You and Me." He tried to lift my chin.

"I... I've been seeing someone else. Actually, I have been seeing two other people. One is a woman," I added defiantly. "The other is black. They're both a lot younger than you. I'm choosing between a good scrap and a shitload of hope."

"There's no difference between them and Grandpa McCain," Ralphie jeered. "Not a bit. Besides, I can make you laugh."

"Don't make me laugh," I returned. "You aren't funny anymore. And you sure as hell aren't relevant. And as for them all being the same--obviously you weren't around for the last two Supreme Court nominations."

"Come on, Doll," he tried to coax me. "Voting for me will make you feel good about yourself. It'll be a vote against big corporations. It'll be you and me again, standing tall against the corporate world. Nader's Raiders in the White House!"

"The only thing you've raided recently is the refrigerator," I said crossly, pushing him aside. "Now let me get on with my sad little life. Why don't you and Huckabee go play Chicken somewhere? And by the way... rumpled is so over."

"You'll never find anybody like me, Baby," Ralphie called after me, but I didn't turn back.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Considering Hillary

My residency in Vermont has given me a nice, long gestation period for a decision-in-the-making regarding the presidential primaries. We don't vote till the first Tuesday in March, also Town Meeting Day. That's when our good citizens repair to their various little temples of democracy to debate and vote on town and school budgets. Very sweet, and one of the most direct forms of participation in the nation.

On the national front, I usually feel irrelevant. Vermont has all of three electoral votes to add to a candidate's count. Big deal, I often say, though I never fail to vote. Showing up is half- to two thirds of living, depending on whose inspirational palaver you are reading or hearing.

When Hillary entered the race last year I balked at the idea of her having the nomination all sewn up. All those early endorsements made me nervous. I didn't like her telling donors that they should give to no candidate other than her. I especially liked Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards, and I didn't like the fat cats who were/are giving to Hillary's campaign.

However, even my intolerance has its limits. Perhaps it's just that my intolerance has been trumped by my disgust with the reportage of this campaign. I sure didn't like it when the press ignored the candidacy of John Edwards. Now I find myself bristling at the double-standard nastiness lobbed at Hillary by all the sniggering schoolboys and seventh grade girls of the mainstream media, and even the so-called alternative press.

I also find myself admiring Hillary's passion for study of the issues, her necessarily combative nature, and her familiarity with getting around in that toxic town we call the nation's capital. Take umbrage if you will at Hillary's claiming her first lady gig as job experience, but you know that she was privy to more arguments and discussions than our nation's little boys were comfortable with. Bill quickly learned that his two-for-the-price-of-one offer wasn't going to help his campaign, so he clammed up quickly, but he sure as hell didn't keep her out of the loop.

I don't think that Hillary is simply entitled to the presidency by virtue of that experience, or by any act of atonement implicit in her wandering spouse's advocacy of her campaign. I know that Barack gives better sound bites. He inspires people. He's written two best sellers, and they fly out of our library both in print and on audio on a regular basis. I liked The Audacity of Hope, though he sounded like a very bright student running for ASB president rather than the leader of a nation. I found myself thinking, what's not to like? But I'm wary of being too pleased by anyone in Obama's line of work.

With John and Dennis gone, I'm finding myself tired of yet another golden boy. I think that Hillary would probably hit the ground running. She would bring an astonishing level of preparation to the office, I think.

The nice thing about the March primary is that I still have time to do more reading and thinking. But if a McCain supporter wants to refer to Hillary as The Bitch, I am more than happy to stand with her in bitchitude. Don't mess with us, I say.

So there.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I Have Enough

It's Sunday, which means we start the day with Sunday Bach, a public radio show to which my spouse listens religiously. I frankly think that she should have her own radio show, with that low, full voice of hers, her extensive scholarship, that amazing CD collection. She'd be a natural.

For now Sunday Bach is a nice way to start the day. After the show I asked her to assume the music duties, and she put on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of arias from two Bach cantatas, my favorite of which is titled Ich habe genug, I Have Enough.

One of life's greatest pleasures is listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I probably wouldn't know her music at all if I hadn't met my spouse, but such are the blessings of love and growth over the long haul.

The last couple of weeks have been a bit difficult. I've set the novel aside for reasons that I'm still pondering. Something about the timing, the spirit of the project has been bothering me. Working on it has led me into unformed feelings that I can only loosely describe as dread. I attack myself for being unimaginative, empty. Friday night we had dinner with a friend who lives on a hilltop out in the country. I gazed up into the bright stars which lit up the contours of her snowy valley and wondered if living in the country would be a better setting for writing. Why did we have to live in town, anyway?

Do we ever have enough?

I'd promised myself a snowshoe this morning with Maddie-dog, so after breakfast and Lorraine we headed up to Hurricane Forest. There we found the freshness of new fallen snow and the
friend that the familiar trail has become. The melody and feeling of the aria stayed with me as we trudged along. I have enough.

Sleeping under the blanket of snow are memories of other seasons. We passed the little bridge which leads to the lady slipper orchids that bloom in June. Up the hill we looked down upon a pond that drew Maddie in any season when she was a younger dog, but which now cools her only in summer. Now it was just an inky scar in the whiteness of snow.

Up the hill we went. Wearing a white cap was the bench where we always rest in the
summertime, the better to take in the view below. A woman and her dog passed us on a jog and called out good morning.

We passed the spot where frittilaria, Mama Nature's own checkered flower, used to grow before an avalanche of mud
and fallen trees smothered their blooms for future seasons. The pines hung heavy with their sweet burden of fresh snow, and the brook flowed silently below us. Up we went, crossing over into the gold of the hardwoods that accompanied our descent. I remembered the three-toed salamanders that creep from under the logs when we come down in the summer time. In no time at all we would be greeting them again. In the beauty and silence of this landscape I could dream the other seasons.

In spring the stands of
jack-in-the-pulpits nod over the brook, and on the hillside opposite the pond-chapel are spread deep red trilliums that have reseeded themselves into a cascade of color in early spring.

I passed the little chapel or gathering place that's made of rows of logs, now just shadows in the snow. Someday I will figure just who I want to bring together in celebration of what. If my darlin' and I were the marrying kind, or in our state, the civilly uniting kind, I would want our ceremony here.

Finally, our loose, loopy circle was complete, and we returned to the trailhead. We stood for a minute, looking across the pond at the trees bathed in blue light.

I'm back home now. Maddie dozes beside me, dreaming of our adventures while new snow resumes falling, filling, transforming the landscape.

I have enough.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Brylcreem, Walnuts and the Hundred Years War

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney having withdrawn from the race to consider a lucrative offer as Brylcreem's worldwide poster boy, Blue Diamond, a major retailer of walnuts, positioned itself to endorse and promote the presidency of John McCain.

"It's a natural," said a Blue Diamond spokesman, referring to the walnut-McCain connection. "Clearly there is something in Senator McCain's cheeks, and we want the American people to know that our products are contributing to his smile and his stamina."

Nuts are a beneficial food, and as McCain knows, they are a constant presence in the Republican Party. Additionally, they are an excellent source of fiber, Vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, potassium, phosphorous, biotin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron, nutrients that the 70-year-old senator would need to call upon for sustenance with the demands of the highest office in the land, and more particularly, of the rigors of the 100 years of war McCain foresees to maintain America's interests in the Middle East.

"With President McCain's support, I can see the presence of our nuts in every combat MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). While the enemy may attempt to blow away the nuts of our troops, Blue Diamond stands ready to render assistance, support, and in a modest and limited way, replacement."

Blue Diamond was particularly hopeful that McCain would select Mike Huckabee as a running mate.

"What John McCain can do for walnuts, Mike Huckabee can do tenfold for mixed nuts," the spokesman said.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


How to Maintain the Status Quo

1. Watch lotsa TV. You've worked hard all day--you deserve a break! Be sure to include The Apprentice; you can muse emptily on whom The Donald will next ax. Such a clever fellow! Anyway, since there's a writer's strike on, you'll be unusually dependent on the so-called reality shows, full of people whose tasks are even more odious than the ones you have to perform every day. You can count yourself as mighty lucky! Yes, sir!

2.Immerse yourself in celebrity misery. Britney's meltdown is a perfect distraction, and her troubles can serve to remind you that no matter how much money a person has, common sense is worth its weight in gold. We can tchh tchh and tell ourselves that the simple life is best. After you've read everything online and devoured People and Us, you can return to #1.

3. Allow your public libraries to collapse. The public library is the people's university. It's full of dangerous ideas, anyway. Our tax dollars can only go so far, and since people are reading less and less, why buck the trend? Our spending priorities ought to reflect society as it is, not as it should be. Pressure your elected representatives to replace libraries with cheap or free cable service. While your libraries gasp their last breaths, be sure to lodge complaints against any books they carry that might offend you, even --especially-- if you haven't read them.

4. Avoid buying fair traded items.
Part of our sacred free market system protects us from such indignities as supporting enterprises that offer a living wage to people in less developed countries. We're entitled to everything our grubby little paychecks can cover. Take advantage of shoes made by children in Viet Nam, coffee offered by multinationals that scrape hillsides dry in order to maximize planting. Outfit yourself in finery fresh from sweatshops du monde. You've worked hard for your money. Remember, too, that in our free trade economy, your principal role is that of consumer/stock holder. You don't want your dividends shot to hell, do you?

5. Support our troops' right to die for our corporations' freedom to expropriate the resources of other nations. It's just like the bumper stickers say, Freedom Isn't Free! Support also our troops' right to be bodily maimed and permanently brain damaged for the same noble cause. It's an all volunteer army; these guys and gals don't have anything better to do anyway. There aren't enough paying jobs for them at home, anyway, and funerals and survivor pensions make for great benefits. Remember: they're fighting over there so that we don't have to fight them over here! And those new prostheses are mighty handsome! Very high-tech and very now!

6. Learn as little as you can about other cultures. You will be best aided in this pursuit by giving strict allegiance to 1, 2, and 4. It's absolutely vital to the preservation of Our Way of Life that you not make the fatal mistake of thinking of inhabitants of other countries as human beings. They are lawless beasts and evil savages and deserve our bullets and our scorn, particularly when they are sitting on natural resources that would be better utilized by our considerable selves.

7. Remember that we are God's chosen people.
If everyone believed as we do, the blessings of liberty and prosperity would encircle the world rather than just the middle part of this one continent. That others don't enjoy our standard of living only underscores this point. His Mysterious Ways are moving us to the inevitable Armageddon when Jesus returns to earth and takes up arms against all the non-elect, anyway.

8.Know as little as possible about our Constitution. It's a cumbersome document, nice in theory but impossible in practice. The less you burden yourself with, the better you'll feel. Think of it as parchment under a thick canvas tarp: Pardon our mess! We're remodeling! Even as I write this, there are dedicated public servants taking out all the really icky stuff.

9. Party till you puke! Remember,drugs and alcohol are your best friends, your own personal medicine cabinet, and your frequent intake shows that you are a really fun person. You can also numb yourself out from bummers like global warming, unemployment, and hunger. They go great with Activity 1 and trans-fat foods.

10.Whenever somebody like me tries
to guilt-trip you, remember that this is a Free Country.Free! Free! Free! Who knows? If we stay on our present course, you might just be the one taking home that fat CEO pay package. It doesn't seem fair until you realize that, hey, that could be my Mc Mansion! Don't cut off your options. You can at least dream about them when you fall asleep during Activity 1.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Thoughts on a Saturday

What fun(?) it's been listening to John McCain and Mitt Romney argue about who is the more conservative of the two. Talk about dubious distinctions!

Regular readers of this blog may note that I haven't indicated any recent preferences for Democratic candidates. John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich having failed to win any primaries, the choice between Hillary and Obama is more perplexing to me than I'd like it to be.

I just want someone who can beat either of the fools mentioned at the top of this post.

I fear that the Republican wrecking machine will dab gobs of wet stuff behind Obama's ears in attack ad campaigns that will leave voters with a virginal image of the man, complicated only by irrelevant and negative factoids. One of my Republican acquaintances greeted me the other day with the gloating question, "Guess what Obama's middle name is!"

Then there's the visceral dislike many people have of Hillary. It's of course composed mostly of misogynistic clich├ęs regarding her ambition, but the fact that our reactionary little nation may not yet be ready for a woman in the power position, or a black man, for that matter, still puts me on edge.

We simply cannot afford another Republican presence in the White House. We can't; the planet can't.

I received an email from a local radical this morning which painted all our representatives with the same dreary and suspicious brush. There's no difference, was his message. Once in power, all they do is join up into the vast conspiracy to keep themselves in power, the rest of us down.

Maybe. Maybe not. All I want at the moment is someone whose Supreme Court nominations will tip our last chances back into the Wacky World of reasonable discourse. That alone would be revolutionary after the past 7 years.

That may have to do for a while. We've had plenty of opportunity to view what this bunch has to "offer."

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