Monday, March 19, 2007

Square Meals At A Crooked Table

Two weeks into the Iraq war, my son was helping me set the table for dinner. He clattered plates onto placements, as I cleared away the pile of morning newspapers. “Are they the bad guys?” he asked me, pointing to the front-page picture of American soldiers, rifles held at ready, on an Iraqi street. Between September 11th and watching out for the DC sniper, his need to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys was keen. Like any six-year old, he wanted me to put all the people in the right boxes, sorting the good ones from the bad ones. Even then, I knew that dinner would never be simple again.

I had some experience in that department.

When I was a kid, dinner was a square meal at a square table. As a family, we arranged ourselves at the cardinal points. My father sat in the east, his face lit up by the sunset that shone through the window behind me from where I sat in the west. My older brother ruled the north side of the table. My mother perched in the south, close to the swinging door to the kitchen. Dinner was at six o’clock, after homework and before my father headed out to his second job. There were potatoes and sausages on Wednesdays and fish on Fridays.

Then one night in 1968 my brother walked right in and sat in the east, my father’s seat. He declared war on the war and announced his plans to move to Canada, which worried me, because I knew I’d miss him. I also wondered if he would take his collection of 45’s. He talked angrily about pigs, though I couldn’t imagine why, as the ones at the farm where we picked apples seemed benign enough. He complained about other things -- the lottery, the draft, racism. My mother shook her head about that nice boy two blocks over who had just pulled helicopter duty in Vietnam. Everyone knew what that meant. Everyone, that is, except me. I thought it sounded exciting.

This was all a problem for my father, who clearly wanted his seat back, and still believed in Nixon and the war and sausages on Wednesdays. He wanted peace -- peace to eat the food that he worked hard to provide. My father had flown fighter planes in World War II, blown German cities to bits, watched his buddies reduced to fleshy residue. He had answered with his duty when his country called. “First they’ll take over Vietnam, and then communism will spread across the world,” he yelled, smashing his fist on our square table. I imagined communism pressing itself, like the hungry tendrils of vines, into my room at night.

There was more yelling every night. Words like “atrocities” and “napalm” sounded like curses. My father nearly decked my brother over “casualties” and “McNamara”. As the months of arguing went by, my father gradually took his seat back. His firm support for the war turned into vituperative horror. When kids at school teased me for wearing a peace sign, he comforted me. My brother didn’t go to Canada; he went to college. At our square table, every part of my family banged against the other, changed shape, and then fit back together differently. It was the first time I understood that sometimes the good guys and the bad guys change their seats so many times, you begin to forget who was what. They blend together into a confusing gray of duty, hypocrisy, patriotism, and protest.

Almost 40 years later, I am the grown up at the table trying to answer a child’s complicated questions about war with simple answers. And 40 years later, it still doesn’t work.

“Who are the bad guys, Mom?” my son asks me again.

“Well, we are kind of the bad guys.” I try to describe, in first grade terms, the sovereignty of nations, multilateral forces, Saddam Hussein, and Islamic pride. My son listens patiently. “You’re wrong, Mommy.” he insists. “We’re the good guys.” He sits down at the table, and I know he is taking his own ringside seat.

Simple explanations won’t help him for long. It’s the clash of opinions, the battle between ideals, the doubts of what we do and do not yet know that will mean everything to him later, as he steadies his own grip on good and bad – and all its combinations. That's what understanding what America at war is all about.

I just hope he doesn’t have to do this again as a grown up.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction - DC Style

Yesterday I watched TV at the gym while I did sit ups. Fortunately, the DC council hearings were on. Most normal people would immediately change channels to something more stimulating, like the latest coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith follies or one of those “how to sand your floors in 15 minutes” shows, but I am an unapologetic DC politics wonk. I actually stop what I am doing (even sit ups!), get a cool drink (H2O now that I am in my menopausal days), and put my feet up to relish a good council hearing. You never know what will happen or who will show up or – as my friend Crystal likes to say – who will show their ass.

Yesterday, the Department of Health was at bat, more specifically, the section on addiction services -- APRA. (Don’t ask me what it stands for.) In most places, addiction services would represent a small corner of society, but here in the District – what with a robust drug trade, a wistful police force, and a captive population of frustrated mid-level federal bureaucrats – addiction services can cover a broad swath of the population.

The Honorable David Catania, a veteran councilmember, was closely questioning a gentleman sitting at the presenter’s table. The man wore an impervious smile and a light blue suit.

“So what, exactly, do we get for the $4.3 million the city pays you?” Catania asked, cameras rolling. (Actually, this was worded quite differently. I have translated from the original “policy speak” Catania used, a language that can render simple sentences nearly opaque with phrases like “fiscal repercussion” and “output estimate” and, my favorite, “sustainable potentiality.”) The gentleman smiled -- because he is fluent in “policy speak” -- and rattled off detox capabilities, staff counts, and bed capacities. It all sounded so clean white tile and neat bed sheet corners. Under the bright lights of the council chamber, it was hard to remember that they were talking about how many addicts they could dry out for that price tag – or the intense effort and suffering that would go into it.

Then, a gruff voice, barely audible, asked a question off camera. The cameraman woke up and refocused on, (who other than) our own dishonorable “Hizzoner” Marion Barry. The camera swung back to Catania.

“The Ward 8 Councilmember has a question,” he said frowning at the interruption, but determined to keep order and decorum ruling the room.

“Yes, I do,” said Barry affably. He leaned over the microphone, still as media savvy as ever. His face was thin and sunken, and his eyes rheumy and unfocussed. His hands waved awkwardly in the air, as if he were not sure they were connected to him. He rambled on a bit about “need for the community” and “good works” and “the importance of people getting themselves together.”

Everything he said would have made anyone nod and agree, if only it had not been him who said it. This was our mayor who got caught using drugs on camera in a hotel room with a woman of questionable employment, who lost his job and his freedom, who regularly gets pulled over in the predawn hours in neighborhoods where he doesn’t live. We all know what he’s doing there. This is our mayor whose speeches could make you cry even though you hated how he embarrassed us, the everyman who once had everything it took to save us -- but didn't. His biggest achievement lately has been not landing in jail for breaking his parole. The crime: failure to pay his taxes.

In anyone else, he behavior would scream “get this man to detox.” But, here in DC he is approving spending amounts for detox programs as an official in our city government. Talk about supreme irony, plot twist, and complicated story structure. Who needs reality TV, when you have free access council hearings? I sigh and go back to my sit-ups.

“Could I change this?” a woman in a perfectly mismatched yoga outfit asks me. Well, she doesn’t quite ask, because she already has her hand on the channel button and her tone of voice has that pro forma lilt to it that says, “I’m just asking, because of course nobody watches this DC city council crap.”

“Sure. Go ahead,” I say. And before I utter the last word, CNN is emblazoned across the screen. A cerulean blue sea stretches behind a newscaster with perfectly coiffed hair.

“The funeral had a pink theme,” the newscaster says earnestly, “and it was a star-studded affair.” It’s a recast of Anna Nicole’s funeral down in the Bahamas.

“I’m just waiting for the stock market report,” Miss Yoga Analyst assures me. She bends her arms and legs into an impossible swami pretzel.

I just smile.

I’m not one to look down on anyone’s media ya-ya’s, after all. I mean really. I watch city council TV.