28 September 2008

Sarah Palin Creeps Me Out

I was sitting in Amy's living room with Amy and a former neighbor of hers, an old friend who was visiting for a few days. On TV was Nightline, and we were watching bits out of the Charles Gibson Sarah Palin interview.

The words just dropped out of my mouth: "This woman terrifies me."

Amy and her friend both looked at me. They didn't disagree. They were just surprised that I said what I said.

Thing was, I was surprised, too.

I've been thinking about Sarah Palin and the whole Palin effect kicked off by her speech at the RNC, and trying to figure it all out.

My thoughts here are based on three appearances: her acceptance speech at the convention, the Charles Gibson interview, and the recent Katie Couric interview.

I watched all three on YouTube.

First, I was thinking about the deep, mesmeric effect she seemed to have on a huge swath of the American public with her first, big speech at the Republican National Convention. The adulation seemed hugely at odds with the image she was presenting, somehow. I wondered how to explain it.

I thought then of Ronald Reagan, and the huge disjunction between his TV image--might as well say his screen image--and the words that were coming out of his mouth, especially at press conferences. This was one time where my predilection for radio listening served me well. Listening to a Reagan press conference on the radio, one could hear how disjoint and avoidant and rambling and generalized his answers were. . .and one was not caught up, riveted by his hypnotic ex-movie-star persona on the TV. To me, Reagan's backgroiund as an actor and his brilliantly practiced presentation of his visual image went a long way to him being dubbed "the great communicator."

So I thought: do we have here in Palin a kind of female Ronald Reagan?

But no. There is something else there. Something that was bothering me intensely. And it continues to bother me.

The rumors and backstories and chat spread like bad weeds. The library censorship story especially intrigued me. But I quickly learned that much of this was being embellished, made up, or conclusion-jumped in the blogosphere. (Even without the made-up parts, the raw dirty verifiable core of the library story sickens me.)

But what I was feeling about Palin was something different. I wanted to figure out why I had just blurted that out in my stepmother's living room, "this woman terrifies me." That was a visceral reaction to something. It felt instinctive.
It felt animal.

So this has nothing to do with ideology or background or rumors or experience or any of that. It is strictly something I feel looking at her when she speaks.

She seems artificial, somehow.

She seems like someone who has carefully learned the words and the minutest of facial expressions, and she is putting on a show. There's nothing behind it. Or what's behind it is completely locked down, inaccessible.

She has a zombie-like quality.

More than all that, or maybe a clue to all that, she seems frighteningly humorless. She knows how to deliver a joke, sure, like her famous hockey mom/pit bull/lipstick comment. . . but watch that moment again, as I just did. Even this joke seems very controlled, very rehearsed, and like there is not really any good humor or jokiness behind it.

This is all massively subjective, but it is something I really perceive in watching this woman.

Earlier tonight I heard a woman from India, part of a roundtable discussion of American politics, and of Palin specifically, on the bbc. Twice or more she just casually referred to Palin as a "barbie doll." Just as part of her point, she used this expression. The moderator suggested that some people might be offended by such a label. But the Indian woman had said what she said not as some great revelation, but as something that was just the obvious image projected by Palin.

So, yeah, there is something oddly artificial about her.

One could say, I suppose, that she is just a very practiced speaker.

But doesn't a really practiced speaker use his or her own humanity as a selling point?

Maybe it is not that she is humorless. Maybe it is that she doesn't betray any weakness or humility. She is all polished and strident and smug.

That's why I veered away from the Ronald Reagan comparision (though I think there is still something in that.) Part of the Reagan persona was a kind of folksy self-deprecating humor. Whether part of his schtick or something more genuine, there was a definite humility there.

I don't see humility in Sarah Palin.

I don't get a feeling of self-criticism or self-examination from her.

She seems to be. . .and this goes for both her big public speech and her more intimate interviews. . .a woman without a shadow.

And I find that terrifying.

07 September 2008

The Night Before the Convention: Back Window Story I

Stuff happens outside my back bedroom window.

My window looks out on the alley, on a nexus of nothing and darkness and nothing. Right at the head of my bed, right above my head as I sleep, the window shows a view of a kind of no-man's land, unclaimed property where one end of an apartment building parking lot meets the alley and forms a dark corner behind the hundred-year-old house in which I live.

Because this is such an odd forgotten spot, strange things happen there. It is tucked away and dark, even during the day, and people think they can hide there and do things.

Little do they suspect that I might be lying on my bed, listening, and that if I raise myself up on an elbow, I can get a good view of parts of their hiding place.

Several cars have been ditched there over the years. Bums call the corner home for short spans. And of course there have been amorous episodes, the most memorable clinch in broad daylight and mercifully brief.

Some of these Back Window Stories will appear here from time to time.

For now, I'd like to tell you what happened out my back window on the Sunday night before the Democratic National Convention.

The town was tense in the run up to the convention. People were telling tales of hundreds of police in riot gear on average stretches of Broadway south of downtown. At a party that weekend, there was much discussion of what was going to happen, with the slightly older folks hoping that nothing seriously violent would occur and the younger folks just so sure that it would, and kind of hoping so.

I tend to go to bed early on a Sunday night, in order to go to work early on Monday morning. So there I was in the cozy dark of my bedroom, there below the window, at a bit past ten.

I woke with a start to some noise in the alley at 12:46 am. Some crash out by the dumpsters woke me.

I keep my glasses close to me in bed, and I took them out of their old battered hardshell black case and put them on and looked out.

In the summer, the window is shielded behind the fronds of some rank luxuriant weed. This serves two purposes: it shields the south-facing window from the hot summer sun, and it serves as a blind when I choose to spy on the world outside. I can see out, but mostly from the outside people see the green growth in front of the window's screen.

At least I hope that's what they see.

As I looked out that night, I saw the scene at the dumpsters immediately. Two young men had pulled up their small black pickup truck in the apartment building lot and were loading something into the dumpsters. They had black plastic bags, I saw, and were dumping something from the bags into the dumpsters.

This would not have even caught my attention, except for the fact that it was just before one in the morning. The world was very still and quiet. Most people were in bed, or at least inside. And here were these two guys dumping stuff in the dumpsters.

That also struck me as odd. It was not just one dumpster, the one nearest the window, that they were using. They were distributing their dumping among not one, not two, but three dumpsters down the alley. This would suggest that the dumpsters were full, and they had to use more than one.

The scene just struck me as weird. Middle of the night. Two guys dumping something from black trash bags into three separate dumpsters.

It's not like I thought about it very logically at the time. My brain was muddled by my interrupted sleep, so I didn't think very far into the situation. I just saw what I saw and knew that the pieces weren't adding up somehow. The time of night was the oddest thing, certainly. And the three dumpsters, that seemed weird. Mostly, it was just an interruption of my sleep that should not have happened, so I kept watching and my brain kept chewing at it like a dog's chew toy.

When the two guys were done at the dumpsters, they disappeared somewhere. They didn't seem to be at their truck, and I figured they had gone into the apartment building.

My brain was simmering with it by now. Normally I am a person who has no trouble going to sleep. Only very occasionally is my mind so occupied with something that it keeps me up. This night was one of those occasions.

I kept thinking about what I had seen. That, and the fact that I could vaguely smell some kind of planty, agricultural sort of smell from the dumpsters across the way. That and the fact that the Democratic National Convention was beginning the next day.

Call it paranoia. Go ahead. I won't be hurt. Call it.

OK, now that we have labeled it, we can describe it a little further, or show where it was carrying me.

I thought in the dark of that night of the Oklahoma City bombing. I thought of how such a bombing was carried out with a truck full of fertilizer. And I smelled something from the dumpsters.

Now, dear Readers, I have to say that I didn't really BELIEVE that the dumpsters were turned into potential bombs to wreak random anarchic havoc on the eve of the DNC. I didn't. Not really. But you know how it is: the thought did go through one part of my brain.

I find such states of mind fascinating, actually. How your brain can encompass these two things at the same time, and 13 other odd flavors layered in there to boot. Know what I mean? At the same time you can be filled with enough fear and credulity over a simple event in the alley, another part of your brain knows that it is just brainstuff going on and knows it's just stories you are telling yourself.

So, while one part of me knew that the most outlandish ideas I was making up were just that, outlandish ideas, another part of my brain still thought that it was at least a bit suspicious that these two guys had loaded stuff into three separate dumpsters at near one in the morning.

I was fully awake by this point and decided to get up and go into my front room. I considered calling the police, but was not at that point yet.

I wandered around a bit, sat in the chair in my front room. I thought about my brain and the stories I was making up. Knew they were stories. But I like to tell stories. My brain likes it a lot.

Wandered back to bed again.

And just as I had settled into bed, the two guys came back out to their truck. One was carrying something long and thin. I won't say my brain didn't make it into a gun. He put the not-really-a-gun thing in the back of the black pickup truck. The two guys got into the vehicle and pulled out and drove down the alley.

Now I had more to think about. While they had been away, I could imagine that they lived in the apartment building. Now it was clear that they had just done their mystery dumping here, and now, at one-thirty or later, were on their way away from the scene.

The heat on the stove of my brain went up a notch or two.

This was ridiculous. I was getting all flamed up for nothing. This was a very simple and logical scene. There was a perfectly understandable explanation. I needed to go to bed. I needed to be up now in less than five hours. Sheesh. Why am I letting my mind lead me on this dance?

I got up and called the police.

Yes I did. I did it to set my mind at ease if nothing else. I told them just the facts of the "suspicious activity," of course. I wasn't crazy enough to start in with the stories. I didn't even believe the stories. Just the bare facts of what I had seen. I couldn't really see either of the fellows that well, I mean, not their facial features. They were young white males. One large, wearing a light T-shirt and light shorts, the other thin and tall, wearing dark clothes. That's about all I could say. I told them which way the truck had been heading and when. Answered all the dispatcher's questions. Gave my name. Said, yes, they could contact me again if they needed to.

And went back to bed.

Still I couldn't sleep, though. I had to wait to see the results of my call.

I guess actually I did fall asleep a bit, because I woke to the sound of a vehicle coming down the alley. It was a police car.

The cop car stopped right at the nearest dumpster. One of the cops got out, shined his flashlight in there. Made a muffled comment. Got back in the car. And drove slowly away.

Fine. That actually made me feel much better. The police had come and looked and declared the situation no big deal. Nothing to worry about. Said to me, in effect, Herm, go back to sleep.

Which is what I did.

Slept just fine until my alarm went off, the first one being the news from National Public Radio, at six a.m., and the next one, the annoying beeping one, fifteen minutes later.

I got up and got ready to go to work. Thinking some, but not a lot, about the events of the night before. When I was nearly ready to walk out, I was in my front room and I heard some noise.

Some noise from the alley. Through my back bedroom window.

I went into my bedroom, stepped up onto the bed and went and leaned over and peered through the slats of the mini-blinds.

And saw two guys walking this way down the alley. One large guy dressed in light T-shirt and shorts, the other, taller fellow dressed in dark clothes.

There was no doubt that it was the guys from the night before. They walked past the dumpsters and past my place and out to the street. I didn't see where they went.

But a few minutes later I went outside myself. It was quiet, early morning. No one was around. I looked up and down the streets and the alley across the way but saw no one.

Now the weirdness of the night before was with me again, the suspicions and the gnawing fear. Mostly the oddness of this newest element of the story: why were these two guys from last night's story walking down the alley in the early morning? Where was their truck? What were they doing? Why were they near these dumpsters again?

OK, OK, calm down. This is perfectly reasonable. These guys live in the neighborhood. Just as I do. They could just as well ask what I was doing out in the street at that time of morning, peering down the alleys and up the streets.

What was I doing, approaching the dumpster, the one I regularly use, the nearest one? Why was I walking up to the dumpster here in the early morning, reaching up and lifting the lid? What was I expecting to see here at a quarter to seven?

I lifted the black plastic lid and looked in. A familiar smell assaulted my nose before I saw it. Grass clippings. A pile of grass clippings, loose, dumped, and under them a black plastic bag.

The dumpster was about half full. And up near the front, on top of some black garabage bags, loose grass clippings.

And peeking out from the corner of the pile of grass clippings, something. What? Something that shouldn't be there. Just like all the other jangling pieces of last night's story that did not make sense for one reason or another. It just shouldn't be there.

Peeking out from the top of the green pile of grass clippings was some kind of electronic component, like an old VCR or a stereo receiver, something like that.

I only saw the corner of it. I didn't dig in the clippings to see more. I was too nervous about being out here in the first place, peering into the dumpster. I looked around. No one.

So I went to work. As I drove to my first stop, Whole Foods, I thought of calling the police again, and kept thinking of how ridiculous it would all sound now, in the light of day: "Hi, I am the guy who called last night and told about the guys in the alley at the dumpsters, and the police DID come last night and looked, but this morning when I looked I saw something strange, buried in the grass clippings. . ."

By the time I pulled into our parking lot at work I felt really silly about the whole thing.

And I called the police.

This story can't really have an ending. It can't go any further than that. That is all I witnessed. No followups, no conclusions. Only questions.

Did I do the right thing, calling the police? Twice? What was so odd about what I saw? Or was it just me? But why in the middle of the night? And why three dumpsters if the one I looked in was nowhere near full? And why loose grass clippings on top of full, sealed bags? Why empty the grass clippings out of the black plastic bags in the first place? And where were the guys going, why were they near these dumpsters again early in the morning? And why, why bury an old piece of audio or video equipment in grass clippings?

My brain, of course, has come up with some stories. . .

01 September 2008

Barr Lake Story

One evening I walked along the road that circles Barr Lake, northeast of Denver.

This was unusual for me. Most times, I go out to the lake in the early morning, arriving half an hour or 45 minutes before sunrise. I can watch and listen to the world waking up that way.

Barr Lake is a prairie reservoir 30 minutes from the city. It is a magnet for many kinds of migratory birds in Spring and Fall. It is a beautiful place to walk and listen to and enjoy the many faces of such a prairie habitat.

I have been there dozens of times, in all seasons. The place is a marvel of change. Since it is a man-made water project, the level of water in both lake and the canal that skirts it is always changing. And as the water rises and falls, the landscape changes with it. The path that circles the lake sweeps in some big curves around bowl-shaped meadows that will turn, in another season, into big circular coves of the lake itself, meadow grass now all submerged, while at another time the same area will be a marsh, cattails bursting with red-winged blackbirds' squeaky trills.

A 9-mile dirt road, used by park rangers and water department officials circles the lake.

It's my habit to walk a portion of this road, clockwise from the visitors' center.

One attraction that greets me about half a mile along the road is a huge old lightning-blasted cottonwood. It is, without a doubt, my favorite tree.

It's hard to say how I have come to love this particular tree. Certainly, I have visited it more than any other tree I can think of, except those of my childhood. I have seen the huge, double-trunked creature at all times of year, at many times of day and night, in many weathers. I've seen it hard and gray and leafless, surviving through the winter. I've seen it rising out of a lake of its own fallen leaves. I watched as one of its two trunks was besieged by motile armies of ants, and watched that trunk die, and came back later to see the huge thing fallen, cracked right off, laying underneath the remaining trunk and branches.

So this one evening I was walking specifically to make it to this tree, to my tree. I didn't have much time, and just this short excursion would have to do. It was getting dark quickly. I walked just to get to the tree.

The huge cottonwood stands sentinel at one curve of the path,
a short scramble down the bank. There are no trees around it. It stands there powerful and alone.

When I reached the tree, color had mostly leached out of the day. It was as if the world was taking on the grey of the tree. I hopped and slid down the short bank in the dusk to reach the massive barky trunk. I touched it gently with my hands and talked quietly to it.

I turned around and leaned up against the trunk. I felt with my back the huge solidity of this thing, this creature. I felt tiny and insignificant in comparison. The fact that I could move and the tree lived its entire life rooted to this spot seemed a paltry consolation.

I'd like to be able to say that I felt the tree's life, that I tapped into its ancient consciousness, but that's not it. That's not what I felt.

Here I was with my spine resting against this immenseness. As I looked out, a tiny thing in the shelter of this hugeness, I saw its branches, black against the almost dark sky, hanging down all around me like a complicated network of blood vessels and capillaries. And at my feet and stretching out all around was a thick rich mulch of leaves that had fallen over the season and over the years. All this, too, was part of the tree's life. The tree presided over a huge swath of land and of sky.

The life of the tree was giant and grey and slow and powerful. I might as well have been one of the ants crawling up its trunk.

What happened next cannot have happened. It's the kind of thing you might imagine happening, or dream of, or see in a movie that you'd later call corny. But it is this very quality that assures me that it actually did occur. It was ridiculously awesome.

I rested there in the tree's embrace, looking out through its blood-vessel branches hanging down against a nearly black sky. And down and across that sky, from right to left, exactly where I looked, a single bright meteor arced.