What I Learned on My Summer Vacation (Or In This Case, My Honeymoon)

October 15th, 2007

Democracy is a great thing. Never having had a monarchy or a period of dictatorship in this country, we don’t realize how marvelous it is. Sure, we try to export it, but we don’t understand why people ought to want it besides the oft-repeated platitudes of liberty and freedom.

While I was strolling through the palaces of the Hapsburgs in Vienna, Buddhist monks were marching through the streets of Yangon. While I was looking at Bruegels and Rubens in the museum of fine art, admiring the color and composition, they were mobilizing in maroon columns thousands strong captured in grainy cellphone videos and smuggled stills. While I was listening to the audio guide describe the form and function of scepters and coronation vestments in the royal treasury, they were demanding democracy. It was there, amidst the gilt and the glamour of the Hapsburgs’ saintly relics, their unicorn horns and gold embroidered tunics that I realized why.

I have always been a believer in freedom and personal liberty, in voting with your ballot and with your feet. I was raised, or should I say educated, to believe that American-style democracy was the acme of political evolution. But for all that rah-rah patriotism I swallowed in grade school or the more nuanced, honest view of our history that I received in high school and college, I never stopped to ask myself why democracy?

It’s easy to be cynical about our political process. Like the ptolemaic motion of planets, it seems to go backward to go forward at times. And yet, if we look at what that process has built, despite the agony of its growing pains, we see something unquestionably optimistic.

Could we imagine financing a new White House for every president? A summer palace? How much gold and how many carats of precious stones would we be willing to pay for use in a crown? Because we live in a democracy, all this is alien to us. The wealth of the nation is in the hands of the people, not in the treasury of the emperor. And while there may be presidents who have more imperial views of their power, at the end of their term they take their place among the rest of us as private citizens. That is the why of democracy: that orderly change, that equality. People want democracy not because of the buzzwords like liberty and freedom, but because of the tangible sense of ownership that it gives, ownership of the political process, ownership of the nation’s wealth.

As I stared into the display cases in Vienna, I couldn’t help but marvel how wrong the Hapsburgs, how wrong all such tyrants and emperors, had gotten it. All that wealth, the labor of millions over generations, the blood of countless soldiers and suffering of countless peasants, squandered.

Vira, What Has Becomed of You?

August 27th, 2007

When a friend of ours texted us last week that Elvira Arellano, the immigrant rights activist who had been holed up in a Chicago church for over year, had been arrested in L.A. we expected the news to reverberate across the country, and yet her arrest and subsequent deportation seem to have caused hardly a ripple.

Ordered to leave the country, Arellano sought refuge in a Humboldt Park church, claiming that she and her American-born son needed to remain here and daring Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to come and get her. Both sides of the immigration debate saw her as an embodiment of all that was wrong with current U.S. immigration policy. What civilized country could allow such a self-entitled, law-breaker to stay? What civilized country would deport one of its own innocent citizens to punish his mother?

Even some Arellano’s supporters grudgingly admitted she was not the best spokesperson to represent the untold number of immigrants in this country in a similar situation. She had been deported once before. She had been convicted of identity fraud. She wasn’t married. At times, she seemed self-serving. She had an agenda. And above all, she was not apologetic – why should she be? There are millions of undocumented workers in the U.S. who every day are forced to use a fake social security number. There are millions of undocumented workers in the U.S. who, if given the chance, would make as much noise as possible in order to keep the lives they have built here. I doubt most of them would make picture perfect spokespeople, either.

The question then becomes, who would make a perfect spokesperson? Someone who hasn’t broken the law? How can that person be found when the very act of being in this country makes them illegal? Would it help if they were more pathetic and less outspoken?

The question of immigrant rights isn’t one of perfection; it’s one of equity and history. No Europeans had papers when they settled in this country. No passports where issued as American settlers pushed west. And I doubt there are many Mexicans or other people with any indigenous ancestry who would view U.S. territorial claims as sacrosanct and inviolable.

However, I suppose until we find a person who doesn’t remind us of our uncomfortable history, deportations such as Arellano’s will continue to be personal tragedies that make it into the news for a while, then disappear. And the question of immigration will continue to be one of legality instead of humanity.


August 14th, 2007

Ollie Rubin, Beth Wood, Stephanie Riviera, these are the “people” who send me spam. The names change daily, but oftentimes the subject headings are the same: Hi, Interesting Stuff, Join the Millions. Sometimes, the headings are more suggestive, like Anja who tells me it’s up to me, or that seriously, last night was okay. Then there are the names that come from farther afield, like Jan Sook or Young Baca, and, if I’m really lucky, I get sent a gem of name – a name that isn’t only plausible, but fun to say, whose sounds fit together; a name with soul.

There are two things I hate doing as a writer, coming up with titles and coming up with names for characters. A bad name can wreck a good character just as a good name can make a mediocre character memorable – a fact that holds true for people, as well. How many times have you heard someone say so and so’s name doesn’t fit them – or the converse, that there is some particularly roguish trait attached to said name that suits that person well?

A name with soul doesn’t just belong to someone; it belongs to a real character! It makes you take notice. It tells you something about their life, like the vantage you gain from surveying the country around you from the top of a hill. A name with soul is everything. We have our whole lives to grow into our names, to make ourselves interesting; a character in a story only has a few words, a piece of spam has an even shorter life.

A good spam name has a touch of Dada and porn-star chic: Amber Waves meets Desk Pigeon Toaster. There is a certain cynical art in crafting them. They are, after all, designed to be names that could be someone you know, that can get through your spam filters. However, it is that invasion of privacy, that dirty unwantedness that instantly imbues them with a story: A sweaty Internet cafe in a forlorn slum outside Freetown, a dark, smoky room in Sevastopol. They are a story in two words. And if the day ever comes when the spammers stop selling knock-off watches and prescription drugs and start selling names… I’d resist, but in the end I’d surely buy.

Make It Special

August 9th, 2007

A friend of mine asked me what I wanted to do with my new blog, what I was hoping to accomplish. I replied, I didn’t know. “Well, what will make it special?” she asked. “Nothing,” I said, “other than the fact that I’m writing it.”

She didn’t seem very convinced, and frankly neither was I. And so I shelved it for a couple months while I figured out what would make it special, only to come back to what had made me want to start blogging in the first place: People are genuinely interested in the lives of those around them. Little stories can fascinate.

Much has been written and said about the internet – and about the power of blogs in the last year – but what has always struck me about the internet is the ways in which it creates community and provides a forum for anyone to talk about their particular slice of the world. This is my slice. These are my little stories. They’re here to accomplish nothing other than being out there with everyone else’s stories, to be part in their own small way of our shared experience.