Thursday, December 13, 2001

Yo Military Tribunal Is A Finger

Being a member of the editorial board of this august rag, I periodically meet with other editorial board members to do editorial board stuff. For example the other day we all sat around a table eating pizza. But right now I'm thinking of a time when we were not only eating pizza, we were thinking. We were thinking about stuff that we could put in the paper.

Usually I'm not any good at that kind of thing, because I don't know anything. So I keep quiet while other people talk. But this time I had a cool idea. I said we should write about this military tribunal business.

Then one of our editors, Michele "Process! Process! Process!" Marchand, said something positive and encouraging about my idea. I think she said, "Why don't you write about that in your column, Wes?"

Unfortunately, now that I sit down to write I am high on Nyquil and my brain is telling me that what Michele said was "Why don't you stick your finger in a lamp socket, Wes?" This has triggered the following flashback.

It was just about forty years ago, 1961. I was 12 years old. My parents had hauled my ass to Guadalajara to live in an apartment building in the suburbs next door on one side to an escaped Nazi, and on the other side to some self-exiled former American commie. We were just there to take advantage of the inexpensive low standard of living. Eggs rancheros! Two cent bus rides! A free nacho with every martini!

But I digress. On this particular day, I was home alone, reading, when the light in the lamp burned out. So I unscrewed the bulb and got a new one. Then I thought, "Hey, I wonder what it would feel like if I stuck my finger in the socket?"

I probably wouldn't have even considered it for more than a second if I was in the US. I mean, we've got REAL electricity here in the US of A. But I was in Mexico where the electricity was probably made by rubbing a thousand balloons on poor people's heads or something like that. So I did it.

Don't try this in your own homes, kids. I stuck my finger all the way into that lamp socket. It immediately felt like a big whomping firecracker went off in my arm, concentrated in my elbow. My whole arm jerked violently, which was probably really good because it pulled my finger out so my finger wasn't fried. It just burned a little.

But the cool thing was that now all the lights were out in the whole apartment. So I went out to find the building manager, to get the fuse replaced. Then I found out that all the lights were out everywhere in our building. By the time I found the manager, he had replaced the burned out fuse, but it didn't get the lights on, BECAUSE ALL THE ELECTRICITY WAS OUT IN OUR WHOLE END OF GUADALAJARA.

The grid was down, and it stayed down for two hours! It was so awesome! And I did it all by myself with my own little index finger!

Of course I had to tell everybody how it had happened. And then after I told everybody about my adventure with the light socket, I realized I could be in big trouble. What if the Mexican police found out an American 12 year old was sabotaging the city electrical system? I could have experienced puberty in a Mexican prison, learning a Spanish vocabulary of a sort that would be of absolutely no use to me in a career as a botanist.

It occurs to me now, with the hindsight of forty years, that sticking my finger in that lamp socket was a mistake. Sure, it looked good at the time, and there were some thrills associated with it, but all in all it wasn't worth the risk, now that I look back on it.

And that's what I think we'll all feel about military tribunals, in a few decades down the road.

Thursday, November 29, 2001

Dry Turkey

"Insert humor column here:" Oh, how those words mock me each and every fortnight. Every two weeks, rain or shine, in war or peace, in sickness or in health, with croutons or without, I must bring myself around to face that command, and comply.

But even clowns despair. Even Jerry Lewis must weep, even in France. Even Charlie Chaplin had to make Limelight. Even Pee Wee Herman had to have time-outs to... well, no, that's not a good example. But you get the idea.

It's my turn. I'm in a foul mood. I am probably coming down with a virus or two, most likely viruses previously used by Anitra "Oh no you don't, YOU gave it to ME" Freeman, who is just now recovering from bronchitis and who is no help at all. On top of that there's this war thing. On top of that, I've never been to Bora Bora. It was just Thanksgiving the other day, and the turkey we had was much too dry. Furthermore, I've never learned how to dance the Rhumba, a modern ballroom adaptation of a complex rhythmical dance that originated in Cuba. As if all that wasn't enough, there's this whole bleakness-of-the-universe business that comes up from time to time.

Here's another thing. Don't ever try to use your flesh-and-blood partner for a Muse. It never works. They'll talk too much or they'll talk too little. They'll try to take over from you or they'll bore you with their own whiny gripes about their own deadlines. Worse yet, they'll try to tell you how sick and tired they are, as if you have time for that.

Fortunately, I have never retired my one True Muse, Cindy Holly, Muse of Other, AKA Muse of Few Words. So I asked her what I should do here today.

"Well, let's see. You're depressed, right? And you're feeling desperate, right?"


"Well, then, if I were you, I'd write about that."

"But what would that have to do with homelessness, or poverty issues, or the concerns of other marginalized peoples?"

"What wouldn't it have to do with them?"

I had to admit, she had me there. How many times, I wondered, had I been homeless, starving, desperate, and just a little bit sore at the cosmos? At least once or twice.

For me, what was so horribly depressing about homelessness wasn't so much the periodic hunger or the absence of a warm dry bed, or the fact that I didn't have money to replace the shoes I was wearing -- the shoes that leaked and kept my socks cold and wet all winter. No, what was so horribly depressing about homelessness was that Life Sucks and Then You Die, but unlike homeful people I had none of the usual means to distract me from that fact.

If only I could have been watching SeƱor Wences, instead of sitting in that alley forced to be aware that we as humans lack the means to become truly connected, or that the one most human thing we all do, which is to die, we must all do alone.

If only I could have been bowling and sharing pizza with some buddies, instead of scrounging the gutters for pennies unable to forget as I did so that the alternative to this un-asked-for life was and remains, as far as any of us really knows, only the eternity of oblivion that we can imagine as having proceeded all of our recollections, and in all likelihood will succeed them.

Surely I am better off even now, even in my depression, given that I may spend an evening watching the TV premier of The Phantom Menace, rather than spend my dark nights counting the number of stars above me that couldn't relieve the anguish of existence and dividing the total into the amount of my anguish.

Surely I am better off too, as I can now watch election returns, and can witness the political fortunes of Mark Sidran. Yes, now I feel much better.

Thursday, November 15, 2001

Scare Me Hebdomadally

As you may recall, these are the things that I have said you need to write a poem: 1. Words. 2. A form to put your words in. 3. Something to say with the words you put in the form (this will affect how you arrange the words.)

Regarding the words themselves, there is some controversy over how many different kinds you need. Here are three viewpoints on this matter: 1. "You just need to know everyday common words. People don't have strong feelings for the others, so they tend to get in the way of whatever mood you are trying to create, so don't use them." 2. "What a crock. Poems are made of words -- uncommon words make uncommon poems, but they're still poems you dolt." 3. "So, you don't think I have strong feelings for 'martingales'? I feel so hurt and misunderstood. I'm going home to Mother, right now."

Another viewpoint says that you can sometimes discover poetry inside uncommon words -- in just the same way that, sometimes, you can discover ugly mollusks inside beautiful sea shells. With a pen or a sharpened pencil.

Lets look for mollusks inside the beautiful but uncommon word-shell "hebdomadal."

What are hebdomadals? Well, lots of things are... there's original episodes of X-Files and I Love Lucy, lunar quarters, approximately, blue collar pay days, days set aside for gods, the TV Guide, the Stranger, Monday Night Football, days of rest, TGIF, Saturday Night Live, my parents' trips to restaurants, days set aside for gods, soup kitchens at some churches, bowling days, poker nights, days set aside for gods.

OK, all it really means is "weekly". But it means it with so much more beans than "weekly" means it. If you say that you go to church weekly, it sounds like you don't care the other six days of the week. But if you say you go to church hebdomadalistically, it sounds like you're putting serious effort into it. .

Here's a poem with hebdomadals in it. I was inspired to write the following "prose poem" by the fact that hebdomadal nearly rhymes with "bomb it all", but not with much else, so don't look for any rhyme.

Charlie's Hebdomadals

by Copyright Dr. Wes Browning

Wednesday at noon used to be air raid drill time,

get off the street behind your screen door.

Charlie had to prepare for World War III

so we could all outlast the Russkies.

Then Charles went to college.

Noon Wednesdays brought the experimental film series.

An Andalusian dog met with severe abuse.

After that Charlie's Wednesday noon hebdomadals

rapidly became personal.

Once, a kangaroo escaped from the zoo

and jumped in Charlie's mocha.

Last Wednesday noon Charlie's shorts everted

while he was wearing them.

Next Wednesday Charlie will attempt to eat lobster.

He expects his food will assault him.

Let's surprise him with a tie.

I wonder how many people here in Seattle remember how frightened everyone was back in the Fifties by the threat of being bombed to death. There really were air raid drills every Wednesday noon. Though everybody knew about them and could brace themselves for them, they still sent chills up people's spines. Of course it was nothing so personal as having a zoo animal in your drink. Or like having an actual ten ton bomb dropped on your own house.

The US gets bombed once in half a century and all of the sudden we're the world's victims.

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Insert Title Here

Let's talk about titles!

Titles are the most important part of an artistic or literary "work". In fact, a good title may completely eliminate the need for the work part of a work. For example, you can take a blank white canvas and title it "A Diaper Dreams of Better Times." That's art, and it's a whole lot easier than mucking around with brushes and paints that would probably have just gotten on your shirt or up your nose, anyway.

Here's another illustration from my extensive poetry files.

The World's Shortest Poem Ever

by © Dr. Wes Browning

-- Finis.

See how easy that was? I didn't even break a sweat! Other great titles of mine are the ever popular "Nine Lines of Really Really Blank Verse," and the haunting "Sounds of Silence, a Spoken Word Piece of Indeterminate Duration." That last was inspired by a composition of John Cage and is meant to be accompanied by a plucked stringless guitar, forever, or until everyone leaves. People who have heard my other poems as well usually pick these out as their favorites. It can only be because of the titles.

Literature is full of books that have become famous almost entirely because of their titles. Moby Dick, for instance. A book named after a whale, of all things. Nobody wants to read the book, but everybody wants to repeat the title. Moby Dick, Moby Dick. Moby Dick.

A particularly clever title is James Joyce's Ulysses. What a case of bait and switch that one is! It puts me in the mind to write the second by second story about the tragic day back in '78 that my toilet backed up and flooded the house. I would call it the Iliad.

The mistake most people make is to think that titles merely inform about content. They suppose that the title ought to just tell you what the piece is about, and then get out of the way. OK, maybe that's the way it should be, but that isn't the way it is.

The crowning example of what I'm talking about is the topical, ongoing, TV news program title. You turn on the nightly news, and instead of the usual title, "The Nightly News", or whatever, you get "America Strikes Back" with fancy graphics and its own specially composed theme music faintly suggesting Holst's "Mars" or the Empire theme from Star Wars. You turn the channel, and instead of "The Other Nightly News," it's "War on Terrorism" brand news. Also competing on more channels are "War in Afghanistan" and "America Fights Back" news, and who knows what other kinds.

These titles aren't simple descriptions of content. They express a clear bias. They tell you more than what's in the news. They tell you how the makers of these programs want you to think they are reacting to the news. The titles say to the majority of viewers, "We're feeling exactly the way you are, and we promise not to challenge you with viewpoints that might risk disagreeing with yours."

To see how unobjective these titles are, imagine how it would be if they used different titles. What would it be like if Dan Rather worked under a title that read "America Finds Scapegoats"? How about "1984 Finally Starts," or "America Lashes Out Exactly the Way Osama Wanted Her To," or "America Murders Back"?

Imagine a news program title of "America Steps In It" with a graphic of a foot landing on a burning bag, to the sound of a muted trombone. It could be fun for a change.

Say, if the nightly news can have an uninformative ongoing title what's stopping the rest of us?

For the next couple of weeks title me "America Gets By."

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Duck Trouble

The latest news on the homeless front, besides the fundamental legalization of Tent City, is Anitra Freeman's turn to crime.

Anitra has been sort of sucked into sort of a life of crime by such repeat offenders as Michele "Give'm Hell with One L" Marchand of SHARE/WHEEL and Scott "the Facilitator" Morrow of SHARE. Actually more like a minute of crime. But she still should be able to look forward to a rewarding career playing parts in John Waters films, if she can bring herself to relocate to Baltimore three months of every year.

For those of you who just boarded this train at the last station, that's Anitra Freeman, alias Anitra of Many Associations Freeman, aka The Duck on the Italian Menu, aka Net Mama, aka Wes's Main Squeeze, on Whose Kitchen Floor I Have Sometimes Slept.

It went down like this. King County Executive Ron Sims got a bug up his butt this year about SHARE, nobody can say why, where, how, or when the bug came from or what it was doing there, but an unidentified source has reportedly said that "maybe he doesn't get the way grassroots organizations like SHARE operate."

The upshot of Sims' dissatisfaction with SHARE was that he wouldn't let them run the Winter Response Shelter at the King County Administration Building this year, even though they ran it for something like eight years without anyone complaining about it at the time. Getting new management for the shelter took time, he said, so the shelter wouldn't open until October 15, he said, instead of the 1st of October, when it usually has been.

So SHARE said, OK, but there is (was, this is all history now) still a need for a shelter Oct. 1 through Oct. 14, because the cold weather won't wait for the County to get its act together, and it's not safe out there even in good weather. Therefore SHARE offered to run the shelter those days. But the bug in Ron Sim's butt made him say no to that. "Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin," he might have said, but he evidently didn't, forcing me to make it up.

I'm not making this part up: Each night of Oct. 2 through Oct. 14 the County put up "no trespassing" tape to keep people out from under the overhang at the entrance way to the Administration Building. SHARE then went ahead and ran a sidewalk shelter in front of the Admin. Building every one of those nights, vowing each night to cross the tape if it should happen to be raining at the beginning of the night.

The office of Ron Sims referred to SHARE's sleep-out as a political stunt, without explaining why politics is bad for SHARE but OK for Ron Sims and his office. The unofficial SHARE position is that it was NOT a political stunt, they needed the shelter for survival, etc., but nobody at SHARE has explained to me why SHARE continues to let Ron Sims and others characterize politics as a bad thing when homeless people engage in it, but all part of a civic duty when anyone else does it. Politics are the means by which Americans set about choosing what's right, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Finally it rained on the beginning of the night of Oct. 12.

Six people were arrested -- Anitra, Michele, Scott, Claude "Cowboy" Nalls, Ted "Tex" Shirey, and Richard "No Fancy Nickname That I Know Of" West. The two women of the gang were cuffed and locked together alone for more than an hour in the SPD holding tank. There, Michele was forced to listen as Anitra, now hyper, theorized extemporaneously on the sociological origins of warfare. Eventually bail was set at $190 for everybody, and all but Scott got out by the next day on their personal recognizance.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, risking domestic turmoil and tumult, to say that I think both sides overreacted in this incident. But in the words of my unidentified source, "The county overreacted FIRST, so there."

Also, on a stupidity scale from 1 to 10, what the County did was a big fat 9, and what SHARE did in response was at most a 5, only slightly more than half as stupid.

To put those numbers in perspective, using scales from 1 to 10 (and how many of us haven't, be honest) is itself an 8 already.

Thursday, October 4, 2001

No Rest from 9-11

When I think of terror I think of Hitchcock's Birds landing on the jungle gym behind what's-her-name, Tippi Hedren. Terrorism is supposed to invoke terror, right? As I remember it, it was Mao Tse Tung himself who once said, "Effective terror is targeted terror which uses fear to immobilize the enemy. Boy, that Hitchcock Bird movie was scary, wasn't it? Know what else? The bourgeoisie suck." Not that Mao Tse Tung was into that sort of thing. He was mostly into American jazz.

So, anyway, here I am, three weeks after September 11, looking back on it, assessing how scared I have been.

Immediately after the attack I began to avoid skyscrapers. My newest insight: "Skyscrapers bad." No more Sunday picnics at the top of the Washington Mutual Building enjoying the bright, idyllic, scenes of falcon chicks as they happily feast upon predigested squab. By contrast, the Space Needle suddenly looked safe to me for the first time since 1962. Now I welcome massive 7.0 earthquakes in old "human-scaled" four-story buildings.

I started freaking out at the sight of turbans, excuse my sixty-ism, because Osama bin Laden wears a turban according to the only photo anyone seems to have of him. (What's up with that? It's been three weeks and nobody can find his high school album?) Of course, as you know, this meant I couldn't ride cabs. If someone could please find a picture of bin Laden wearing a homburg, that would improve matters a bit. I still wouldn't take cabs though (no money.)

I began running from Stans. I knew Osama bin Laden himself wasn't a Stan, but he was friends with some Stan. I couldn't be too safe -- I had to stay away from all Stans. Fortunately Stanley isn't a very common name in the circles I travel, which consist primarily of communists, former elected officials, historians, streetwalkers, and circus performers, so that only meant being afraid of one guy.

I can no longer stand to have airplanes in the house, nor can I pet them. I used to love airplanes, but now I am afraid that the big ones will turn on me and bite me, and that the little ones will dump messes on my head.

I am now terrified of box-cutters and razor blades, especially in the hands of swarthy men. Strangely, I have at the same time lost all my fear of carving knives, hatchets, bayonets, pistols, grenades, assault rifles, tanks, cruise missiles, tactical nuclear weapons capable of fitting in a suitcase, and postal carriers.

Arabic writing, or anything that looks like arabic writing, like two smiley faces next to each other, one upside-down, or a small flock of worms escaping a hot sidewalk, makes me scream like a little girl.

When I watch the Flintstones, or even just think about the Flintstones, I shudder at the very name of Barney Rubble. CNN has the same effect. Dan Rather makes the blood drain from my face and my spine tingle. No change there.

Worse than being afraid of CNN, I can't watch disaster movies on the VCR anymore. No more Towering Inferno, Titanic, Earthquake, Twister, Volcano, Dry Spell, Bees, Andromeda Strain, Asteroid-Hits-Earth (any), Backdraft, Updraft, Downdraft, Independence Day, Independence Day (worth mentioning twice), or Waterworld (not really a disaster flick, but disaster enough in itself.)

OK, I'm ready to admit now that I have been lying throughout this column. "Irony is dead," indeed. It'll take a lot more than what bin Laden's got to kill the irony around here. I am not at all as scared as all that.

Still, I suspect that some of the above may describe a lot of Americans. If so, then my one and only big fear may be realized: that Osama and his obedient terrorism-fodder have successfully bombed us back to the Fifties.

Thursday, September 20, 2001

Rest from 9-11

Our government cheese connection:

As we enter our seventh year of writing this column, we try to stay focused. We try to remember to call ourselves "we" all the time. We try to remember to use the word "homeless" at least once in every column. And we try to find something amusing to write about.

Here's something that I, whoops, we, find hilariously amusing. The literary world has been awed by the news that author Fay Weldon has been paid an undisclosed sum of money to mention the jewelry company name "Bulgari" twelve times in a novel. Ha, ha, big deal! We just found an undisclosed sum of money up our left nostril!

I mean maybe it's undisclosed because it's a nickel a word, 60 cents. Why get worked up about it until you know how much it is?

But after being amused, it occurred to us to wonder whether we were ready for this new kind of trade in words. Could we mention the name of a company or a product twelve times in a novel? How hard could that be? What company would we choose?

We would go where the big money is. Forget companies, we would kiss up to the government! And we would cram twelve mentions into a quarter page, to really give them their money's worth! Now what does the government produce that we could possibly write that much about?

When we think of the times we have been homeless we think of government cheese. There was nothing like the satisfaction of sitting down in a park with a 50 cent bag of day old bread and a block of government cheese. Government cheese was not our first choice, but it came from our government, whereas our first choice came from Limburg, some foreign place.

When government cheese is heated enough and then subjected to sufficient compression, it becomes a fair to passing condiment which squirts. We believe a hot dog without melted government cheese is like an unbuttered hippopotamus.

If all the government cheese in the world were laid end to end, some of it would probably get wet. But, as we always say, wet government cheese is better than no government cheese at all.

In our experience, nothing catches mice better than government cheese. Not only do the mice prefer it, but a government cheese fed mouse is a tasty mouse, in our experience.

It has been said with authority that even though Bill Gates can afford any kind of cheese he wants, he would eat government cheese if he thought it would make him twice as rich as he already is. Like that would happen.

Not many people know that government cheese is highly prized as material for headgear among the indigenous Inuit of the upper Sepik River Basin. Interestingly, not any more know it even now that we've said it.

In a completely different vein -- the following quote was brought to my attention last week and I thought it was worth sharing.

"I feel this way about it. World trade means world peace and consequently the World Trade Center buildings in New York ... had a bigger purpose than just to provide room for tenants. The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace ... beyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness."

-- Seattle native Minoru Yamasaki, 1912-1986, was the chief architect of the World Trade Center.

Thursday, September 6, 2001

Dr. Wes Endorses Anchovies

It's election time in the Emerald City again!

We look forward to these elections the way we look forward to bleeding gums. Especially the mayoral election.

As I am writing this it appears that the race for mayor will come down to a November run-off between my fifth and sixth choices respectively. Or are they my seventh and eighth choices? I forget how many are running and whether or not Charlie Chong is in or out this time.

One thing I will not be doing this year. I will not be openly endorsing any candidates. In particular, I will not be endorsing my customary write-in candidate, me. So don't anybody vote for me. Forget I even mentioned ever having been a write-in candidate. It didn't happen. We are not doing that this time. Vote for one of the suits or find some other write-in candidate.

I know this comes as a huge disappointment to a great many of you, but I have concluded that I am not mayoral material. I knew this as soon as I saw the results of the questionaires we sent out to the real candidates. How could I ever compete with so many Glinda-the-Good-Witches? Or Dorothy herself? I am not in that league. I am but one lowly flying monkey. Hang me on a wire and heave me out a parapet, but whatever you do don't vote for me.

Other reasons I won't endorse myself, in no particular order, are:

The beard didn't work for Lowry, it won't work for me.

The book I am currently reading has more alien characters in it than are on the City Council.

I think the city should have smart toilets that are so smart they let themselves be cleaned by paid workers.

I believe buses should be free for everybody, paid for by the businesses who would benefit from the ease in transportation, ie. all of them.

If something like WTO happened while I was mayor, the police would be SO busted.

My policy of wedgies for bad bills is not likely to be approved.

Narrow political base, primarily confined to eaters of pizzas with pepperoni and mushrooms and black olives with anchovies. Thus my hopes would be dashed by the powerful anti-anchovy faction.

Real Change won't let me.

But ultimately it just comes down to this: flying monkeys shouldn't be mayors. I think we can all agree on that, at least.

What can't we agree on? Well, let's see, how about this: Should it be possible for Seattle Times staff to be able to tell if a man sitting in their park is dead or not? Have people gone totally stupid and insensitive?

So Lukas David Stidd died across the street from the Seattle Times building. Nobody working there noticed that he was dead for a long time, and Nicole Brodeur sees tragedy in this. That it wasn't noticed that he was dead. Not that he was dead, but that no one noticed. As if everyone who passed should have stopped to take his pulse.

As if the problem was that there aren't enough people out there trained to tell a corpse from the sleeping.

No, that's not the problem. The problem is that people die on the streets all the time, and it is time to get them off the streets so that doesn't happen anymore.

Thursday, August 23, 2001

Crackpot Writer Says Blowers Blow

From time to time this column inevitably takes a flaming, careening, nose-dive into column hell. The reasons for this are easy to enumerate. You've got your basic procrastination. You've got the fact that yours truly learned to write copying the words off of advertisements (my first word was "colgate".) You've got the fact that I don't get paid for this, unlike some geniuses I know. (I won't say who, I'll leave the director out of this.)

At times like this I naturally turn to Cindy, my personal Muse, Muse of few words, AKA Muse of "Other". I will beg her to give me a clue.

"What should I write about, Oh great immortal Muse," I will say. So I do.

"Well, you act like you're in a bad mood," she says. "Why don't you tell the readers why?"

Hmm. Yeah, that could work.

OK, what the hell was the city thinking when they decided to let skateboarders race outside my window today when I sat down to write this crap? Complete with announcers, paid for by Red Bull, and a PA system aimed directly at my window?

Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against skateboard racing, and I suppose if it's going to happen it has to happen SOMEwhere, and what the hell, what is there at 3rd S and Washington anyway but poor people and more poor people, they listen to fire truck sirens and aid truck sirens all day anyway, so they're used to it, right?

So whenever the city wants to put some noisy celebration down somewhere on the map let's put it at what is already the 3rd noisiest damned intersection in the city, where the poor people there have proved by the sheer fact of putting up with it year after year that they won't raise hell about it, right?

And let's do it in style. Let's not just ruin everybody's afternoon. We can do much more that that. After having the event, which we'll run until 4PM, we'll do some half-assed but loud cleaning of the area for two hours. Then we'll go away leaving approximately ten stables worth of straw in the streets, so that at roughly 1AM, when that crackpot writer will think we all are gone for the night, we will send in the streetcleaner and the guys with blowers to clear out all of the straw.

No, I don't have anything against skateboarding of any kind, my gripe is with a hypocritical city that would try to shut down a barely audible dance club a few blocks away near prime real estate on the grounds that the noise it generates disturbs the peace, but lets anything go where I live.

A note to the City Council: put it one of YOUR neighborhoods next time. The well-off aren't the only ones who can play NIMBY.

Speaking of finally cracking after all these years of taking it without complaint, let me tell you what else would have my shorts in a bunch, if I were wearing any.

I STILL can't walk into the First Avenue Service Center by the front door. It has been years since I first saw that sign telling me to use the alley entrance.

Excuse me? I wouldn't mind if it were like the Alibi Room, and the alley entrance WAS the front door. But in this case there is a clear front door on the third avenue side, and it isn't even locked! It's open for ventilation all day! So the only reason to tell me to use the back door is to be sure that people like me aren't seen coming and going.

Now Cindy tells me I should wrap up by saying what's wrong with that.

Damn it, where's Rosa Parks when you need her?

Thursday, August 9, 2001

Breaking News: Public Toilets

Lets deal with the elasticity of light.

Once again we at Adventures in Poetry have had the good fortune to bless a North American Street Newspaper Association conference with our presence. This one was at San Francisco. Fog City, USA.

Actually it didn't really fog while we were there, unless you count the conference. Something was dreadfully wrong. There was no infighting! What was up with that?! How could there have been seventy homeless and formerly homeless progressives in the same auditorium without any infighting?

Were they ill? Was it the flu making its rounds? Or was the food supplied by Food Not Bombs more satiating, owing to the added chicken? Was it something in the smoke, a Cheech and Chong effect? Or had the participants all learned their lesson from previous NASNA conferences that had been derailed by the disputations of the More-Progressive-Than-Thou?

No, they had not, I am here to tell you. Instead, they were distracted by a bigger enemy than each other. They were busy attacking the mainstream press, especially the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here's the deal. The Chronicle has been making an issue of the homeless, especially those who hang out on San Francisco's main drag, Market Street. It's mostly typical Sidranesque stuff, blaming the victim for bleeding on the nice clean sidewalk kind of stuff.

It's a bit more convoluted though. SF has expensive self-cleaning toilets, for instance, similar to the kind Seattle is planning to buy. So before complaining about homeless people urinating and defecating behind dumpsters, it's necessary for them to explain that the self-cleaning toilets around Market Street are mostly broken. But that's blamed on the homeless too. It's all those "homeless AND prostitutes AND drug addicts". That's the phrase used over and over again, as if those three categories were equivalent.

San Francisco's television isn't too enlightened either. One television report of a demonstration on behalf of the homeless briefly showed demonstrators talking followed by a long sequence of archived shots of people breaking laws on the sidewalks, as if only homeless people use sidewalks, as if the demonstrators were supporting criminals, and as if weeks of archived shots were all showing crimes that happened yesterday. It's a crime wave! Run for your lives!

It's too bad we don't have anything as bad as the SF Chronicle here in Seattle. Think of the fun we could have verbally abusing them. Also it would make it that much harder for us to mistake ourselves for mainstream, a fate worse than oblivion.

Sometimes, reading the Weekly, I'm not so sure. Maybe we're mainstream and we don't know it? What if the rest of NASNA found out, in time for next year's conference? What if Perfesser Harris were really Mike Mailway? What if Anitra "too much" Freeman were really Nicole Brodeur? What if I was Jean Godden? No wait, that wouldn't be a bad thing. I meant, what if I were Erik Lacitus? The horror, the horror.

If this were a mainstream column, would there be any difference? Well, for one thing, there'd be a lot fewer questions, and a lot more answers, surely. The mainstream press in this country always has all the answers for everything. How to improve your marriage and still play more golf, Life and the Arts, D2!

This couldn't be Adventures in Poetry. There is no mainstream poetry, contrary to popular misconception. We would be Excursions in Prose. Or Strolls in Speech.

But I think the biggest difference would be the lack of reflection. You have to be able to stop before you can stop and reflect. They don't call it a stream for nothing.

Thursday, July 26, 2001

Shelter Canaries Needed

It Also Rhymes With Hoots

Or Opus 222, Pity Our Poor Proofreader

there's a kind of thing i need to say

i'd like to say it if I may

there's a little talk i'd like with you

if it's something that you'll let me do

there's a subject i need to talk about

i hope you'll hear me and you won't run out

it's a subject that requires the utmost arts

i need to talk about our --

-- how can I be delicate here? People make certain smells. The smells are accompanied by certain explosions, sometimes. At other times, they are silent, stealthy. Once, I could swear I felt one crawl up my back before it circled my neck and tried to strangle me.

I love cheese. I love beans. If I weren't a social creature I would eat rice and beans twice a day, covered with cheese. I would have eggs and cheese for breakfast, beans and cheese for dessert, eggs and cheese when I get depressed, beans and cheese whenever I wanted to celebrate. I would be so full of methane I'd have to wear one of those triangular "inflammable" signs you see on gasoline trucks.

It's not just because I'm eight days older than Anitra "too bipolar for you" Freeman that she refers to me as "her old fart". She is also using synecdoche. That's a poetic term that means allowing a part to stand for the whole. Anitra should know, she's suffered all my parts. Still, with all that, I must say in all modesty that I am not the fartiest old fart there ever was. Not by a long shot. I could introduce you to some guys that'd blow your nose-ring clean off. And they're not all that old. Some of them are just in their twenties, living lives of unpromising futures.

Flashback to four years old: Mommy and Daddy are going "out" and everybody gets in the car except the dog. It starts out being a big adventure ("we're going out! yay!") until the car rolls up to a one story puke green building connected to a playground surrounded by chain-link fencing. You find out that while Mom and Dad will be "out", you will be "in", in a prison they used to call a nursery. Since your parents have done what you thought at the time were far worst things, you imagine that they are abandoning you to this place, to spend the rest of your life there. In other words, eternity.

You scream, you kick, you threaten to stop breathing, but nothing works. They drive off without you. It's only after they are gone that you start to notice the smell. It's the smell of rancid milk mixed with essences of diaper pail, Pine Sol, and Clorox. But that's just the beginning.

Three hours later you're still there, and the wardens inform you and all the other inmates that it's beddy-bye-time, and they set up the beddy-byes, and there be the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. For the beddy-byes be only six inches apart from each other, and it be Poot City in that hell-hole. You try to sleep not because you want the rest but because you know that sleep, the little death, brings a deadening of the senses, and Oh do they want to be deadened.

But alack, sleep never comes! Oh, it comes for the OTHER, with their stinking extroversion, their relaxed approaches to social mores, their loose sphincters. Sure, THEY sleep. Not you, not the sensitive one, not the one in agony, the one who really needs it.

Back in the future: you've been homeless for weeks. Someone finally tells you about a homeless shelter you can go to. Something in the back of your mind tells you to be wary, but you go anyway. They make you sit through a sermon to get dinner. While you wait for the sermon to start they hand you a sheet detailing the rules. You find out you will be sleeping on mats.

You get a peek into the room where all the mats are laid out, six inches apart from each other. Then you hear the others, whispering the bad news.

"Bean stew for dinner tonight. Again."

-- Why shelter is not enough.

Thursday, July 12, 2001

No One Likes A Pus-Filled Wonk

Writing for Real Change puts me in the hub of the whirlwind of the big swirly thing that is homeless people's services on this planet. OK, not really in the hub, but at one of places where the spokes stick in the rim.

I try to ignore it. If I were to reflect upon every little policy paper, service squabble, action plan, or the little controversies surrounding them, I would turn into one giant pus-filled wonk. No one likes a pus-filled wonk. Still, one cannot help but notice that there is a big push on to separate "chronic" homeless people from "temporary" homeless people, in order to tailor interventions in their chronic-hood-ness.

The theory is that "chronic" equates with "wants to be homeless". So if someone is homeless too long, they must be asking for it. That proves that they are sickos who need help to see the error of their ways.

You see why I try to stay out of stuff like this? Right from the start I am tempted to have a big wonky fit about the abuse of the word "chronic". But if I do, I just get sucked into their level. I become the same kind of loser as the clowns who come up with these warped theories in the first place.

OK, suppose your Safe Oven or Brave New Haven or whatever you call it works like a charm, and you find out who all the chronic homeless people are, the nasty ones that cause all the trouble. You have a list.

And, suppose that these nasty chronic homeless buggers are to homelessness what anorexia is to starvation, in that they do it on purpose to themselves because there is something wrong with them.

Now you want to make them stop, so that they cease behaviors that negatively impact on society (eewww, I can't believe I just wrote that.) Since these are people who like being homeless, you can't help them until they recognize that they have a problem. In other words, you have to intervene.

What is that going to look like? Remember that while this intervention is going on, the 90% of non-chronic homeless are still going to be around and proof against any absurdity.

A man tries to sleep in a park after closing time of 11:30 PM. The police, recognizing a known chronic homeless man, send for a crack team of Chronic Homelessness Busters. The team leader, Jennifer, breaks the ice:

"Hey there, homeless man, what's your name?"

"They call me Bulldog, ma'am. Because once I bite you, I never let go."

"Well, that's a nice name, Bulldog. Now let me tell you why we're here. We're here because you should be in a shelter right now. Since you aren't in a shelter, it looks like you like sleeping in parks."

"I'm tired. When I'm tired, I like sleeping. Park seemed a good place."

"Well, that's wrong of you to think that way. Society doesn't want you to sleep in the park."

"So? Society's not here. The park is closed. So it's just me."

"Right, but the REASON the park is closed is because society doesn't want you sleeping here. Even though society isn't here to see it."

"OK. Where does society want me to sleep?"

"In a shelter."

"Take me to it."

See what I'm getting at? Point for Bulldog.

Thursday, June 28, 2001

Noise Rage

Happy July Fourth, Noise Day.

I was reminded of this the other day when I watched a vendor of ours wear earplugs while vending.

I didn't talk to him about it. Vendor training isn't one of my official duties, and besides, as one of Real Change's worst all-time vendors, I personally support every vendor's right to sell badly.

Meanwhile, speaking of earplugs and rights, I had to think about all the times I have been homeless and worn earplugs out on the streets.

One day a year we may want to celebrate the right to make as much noise as we like, but the rest of the year most of us try to get away from noise when we can. Guess who can't?

Anybody who doesn't have a house to retreat to, that's who can't! And after a while it drives them crazy! You see, I do too have an excuse! The noise! The noise! Get it out of my head!

We all want to escape the noise pollution around us. For example, I'd like the right to be able to walk down 3rd Avenue around Pine Street without having to listen to Merle Haggart, if I don't want to. Hello, MacDonald's: I can wear a Walkman if I want to hear that sort of stuff. I shouldn't be subjected to it on the street. Play it inside, that's your business. Play it outside, that's my business.

But I digress. The MacDonald's situation is bad because it is deliberate noise pollution and the city ignores it. But for the homeless, unintentional noise pollution is much worse, just because there is so much of it and it all adds up.

If you are homeless with a couple of dollars to spend and you are moving from cafe to cafe looking for a place to rest and maybe hear one of your own thoughts, good luck at getting any pleasure. Muzak rules Seattle.

When most people complain about Muzak, the focus is on the quality. But to the homeless, it doesn't matter if it's Muzak or if it's KBCS, it's still sound, and if it is ubiquitous it is as inescapable and therefore as maddening either way.

It comes down to biology. I can close my eyes. I can't close my ears.

Well, maybe I can, a little. Federally approved over-the-counter ear plugs give just under 30 decibels of relief. And I can try to drown out their music with my own with the aid of earphones. What I can't stop I may be able to control, partly. But "partly" isn't enough when the problem goes on 24-7.

Don't even get me started on sirens. If you do, you'll be sorry.


Oh, but you can't turn them down, you would say, because they have to alert both motorists and pedestrians.


Oh, yes, we have to alert motorists too. Why is that so difficult? That's so difficult because cars are deliberately built to be soundproof, by and for irresponsible idiots.

And instead of passing laws against irresponsible idiots buying and riding around in cars designed to be soundproof by irresponsible idiots, our government PREFERS TO JUST LET EMERGENCY VEHICLES RAISE THE VOLUME OF THEIR SIRENS INDEFINITELY, TO HELL WITH PEDESTRIANS.

THAT'S WHAT I WOULD SAY. So you don't want to get me started on sirens.

Thursday, June 14, 2001

Reason, Soap, And Air Vents

As we are all getting used to multiculturalism it is becoming more and more common wisdom that what we used to call common sense were just senses common within our separate cultures, and, now that we are all stuck together here, we don't have any common sense anymore. Not common enough, that is.

A few people have surrendered to despair, concluding that the lack of common sense implies the impossibility of sense altogether. These, however, are people who were not paying very close attention from the very beginning, even when we were monocultural.

There has always been something besides common sense, that was a kind of sense anyway. It was sometimes called uncommon sense, other times called Reason, and it was hard to live by. Because so long as you live by common sense, you've got company. That's what common means. It means it may not be right, but we're all in it together.

But your Reason, your uncommon sense, defies culture and consequently turns its back on shared ideas. Reason sets you adrift on a raft of one. I'm not saying that's a good thing.

Take Johnson's Baby Shampoo, for instance. I don't know how they did it, but Johnson & Johnson figured out how to make a soap you can wash your eyeballs with without screaming in agony. Not only that, you can wash your hair with it. Plus, you can wash your body with it. I've tried it and it works great. Plus, you can use it for laundry detergent. It works amazingly well on woolens, but it cleans cottons and synthetics fine, too. Plus, it can be diluted with water and used to wash your car, inside and out. And did I mention you can wash your eyeballs with it?

"So where are you going with this, Dr. Wes?" You might well ask. But listen to the soft but persistent voice of Reason inside your heads, instead. It's saying, "Why do I waste so much time shopping for half a dozen different kinds of soap, when I could just drive to Costco and snag a truckload of Johnson's Baby Shampoo and have all the soap I ever needed again for the rest of my life, without ever having to check the container to see which kind I grabbed?"

Why? Because your friends would laugh at you, that's why. Or maybe you don't own a truck. How should I know? But I know of someone who had the courage to live by Reason, who really did use only one kind of soap.

That would be Albert Einstein, living (well, formerly living) example that living by Reason won't kill you. Or anyway, you can do it and last into your sixties. OK, it wasn't shampoo, but it's the principle of the thing I'm getting at. Einstein preferred living according to Reason to keeping company, when faced with the choice. You could call him a loner for it, but you can't say he was absolutely wrong.

Speaking of being adrift on a raft, what I really wanted to talk about was warm air vent squatters.

A warm air vent squatter is a person who spends his nights sleeping or resting on a warm air vent. If you don't know what a warm air vent is, go to the sidewalk on the 3rd Ave. side of the Bon Marche, close to the middle of the block. That's a little one. There are bigger more interesting warm air vents associated to bigger institutions, and the best ones aren't downtown, and they aren't sheltered by an awning.

The beauty of the warm air vent is, you've got all your heating and cooling needs there (the cooling is provided by wind and rain), without the hazards often associated with heat sources.

What I'm trying to get at here is that your typical warm air vent squatter is a person to be admired. This is a person with the courage of an Einstein, the courage to live a life of Reason even if people laugh at them. Don't get me wrong. I have never been a warm air vent squatter, and I have laughed at them, but I admire them.

So if you see a man lying on a metal grate being rained on one side and toasted on the other, go ahead and laugh. But think about it again when you pay your heating bill for that month, and try to bring yourself to give a little nod to Reason.

Thursday, May 31, 2001

Yo Mama Is A SUV

When I was six I knew that I would never lack a home. I could stay at my parents until I finished college. After that, I could always sleep in my spaceship, if necessary.

As I grew older, I came to realize that I was being silly. It didn't have to be a spaceship. It only had to be an all-terrain ground vehicle with a self-contained ecology. The ecology would include me of course. It would have a fully automated hydroponics system that would not only grow my food for me, but prepare it and serve it to me. If it weren't also a spaceship, that would be OK. It could be a time machine, for instance.

I pictured the thing being only half as long as the average camper.

My design didn't even call for a convenient door, because there would generally be no reason to leave the contraption. I imagined that I would have a television screen with which to communicate to the outside world. I could manipulate external objects with robot arms. Somehow all the books I might want to read would fit in the on-board computer.

My seat would recline to a bed. When I needed exercise I could pull a lever (all the best inventions were controlled by levers and large impressive dials in those days) and suitable exercising devices would appear at my hands and feet.

Eventually, I began to sense a crucial flaw in the design: there was no passenger seat. I came to realize that there must not only be a passenger seat, but there must be no levers between it and me. So I was finally led to appreciate the idea of a camper with a separate space for a bed.

Campers, and their latest incarnations, the SUVs, are not just alternative homes that can ease the suffering of the houseless, they are also archetypes. The security they represent is the security of the womb. I am sure that this is why so many American guys feel they have to have an SUV. They miss their mothers, in a physical way.

Clearly though, the homeless have especially good reasons to appreciate the camper. Lets say you live in Lynnwood, in a house, and the backwards government of Lynnwood criminalizes people who live in houses. Well, then, you're stuck. But now, suppose you live in Lynnwood in a camper, and the backwards government of Lynnwood criminalizes people who live in campers. Then you can drive to Bothell and wait for them to be backwards. Bothell is prettier anyway.

Lynnwood's stated problem with the camper-endowed and other such homeless, is that they often relieve themselves in bushes. This doesn't prevent everybody in Lynnwood from owning campers and/or SUVs and polluting the air I breathe by driving them unnecessarily to and from work. Taking a daily crap in the air is still OK for Lynnwood, Everett, and Mark Sidran. Just keep it off the rhododendron roots.

Then there are people like Dave, whose real name is also fake. Dave is an old friend of mine who once made the mistake of morally opposing a war while people with guns were transporting him to it. They put him in the brig. After that his life sort of went downhill.

What makes Dave interesting, besides being a man of convictions, is that he is a whiz at creating shelter in deep forest, but his livelihood (recycling the cast-off toys of the middle and upper classes) depends on living in the city. So he would be a perfect candidate for a camper, except he can't drive.

But Dave shares the dream we all have for that mobile womb. He just has had scale his dream back to more of a rickshaw-like vehicle. He would build a home on wheels which he could physically pull from parking space to parking space as needed.

Such dreams are so powerful that they consume men like Dave, so that they spend years fretting over blue prints of the perfect home away from mother, and never demand more from society than that their dreams should be possible.

Thursday, May 17, 2001

Those Colorful Natives

Lets talk about the alternatively homed!

What I have in mind here is a romp through the world of the alternatively homed, sort of like the way that guy with the deep voice on Nature romps through 20 species on hour showing you all the exciting ways they all have adapted to their little niches. Or big niches, as the case may be. Or think of this as a sketch for a National Geographic special, "Lost Tribes of the Suburban-ghetti", or something like that.

Adaptation is the key concept here. Why is it, I'm wondering, that we admire so much the way that indigenous people like the Inuit, the Australian Aborigines, the Hopi, the Dayaks, the Bush People of Africa, the Maori, the Swedes, all used to build their huts, igloos, lean-tos or whatever, praising it as proof of Man's adaptability in the face of harsh Nature, but when someone does it down the street they're seen as outlaws?

Am I the only guy in this city who's seen the "Gods Must Be Crazy?"

What does the attraction of Survivor mean if the same people who make it number one in the ratings also spit on the real thing when they see it? Maybe it's the same thrill that white Americans got watching Red Dawn. They spent years preaching freedom while snuffing it out everywhere in the world it appeared. Then they used the magic of cinema to identify themselves as the "real" freedom fighters. Look at me, I can be a guerrilla warrior too, for seven dollars, four at matinee.

Or, hey, I can be Kevin Costner and live in a teepee. For the price of the video I can learn to spell it tipi and impress my PC friends.

Meanwhile there are a hundred men, women and children right here in this city who are surviving in tents because they have to. They aren't doing it to identify with the oppressed, they are the oppressed. How about celebrating their successes at survival now, instead of waiting for the National Geographic special, or the Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts version? How about it?

But I digress. I was going to talk about other alternative homenesses. Not just communal tenting.

The road nomad. This is usually someone with at least four wheels, horses being out of fashion and motorcycles providing little shelter. As I learned personally years ago, even a car that doesn't run can provide decent shelter if it is fortuitously parked.

My Home Was a '69 Rambler

Opus 7, Verse 2

My home was a '69 Rambler

In a warm garage it was parked

My home was a '69 Rambler

As I already have remarked.

[Oh Rambler, Oh Rambler, Bring back my Rambler to me, etc.]

If the garage is right, who needs the car? I am thinking now of an actual person, a legally blind old man whose name wasn't Angus but should have been, who would have been home in the Highlands with Lassie, a serviceable knife, and someone else's flock.

Angus found himself an aging benefactor, some old woman, who rented him an unused one-car garage for ten dollars a month "for storage". Angus then stored himself. He paid his rent by clearing the neighborhood of aluminum cans every day. The earnings provided him enough extra money that he could spend his spare time in dignity drinking coffee at a 24-hour establishment as an honored customer, where he buried himself in books hour after hour, until his benefactor died.

Thanks to my ranting I've run out of space. But I'll get back to this. More "Lives of the Alternatively Homed," later.

Thursday, May 3, 2001

Electric Juju Miracle Man

"He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher," Walt Whitman said. Walter, like Emily Dickinson, had a knack for saying things in a way designed to raise eyebrows on a dead man.

What teacher? I was lucky in school in that I was never assigned poetry by either Emily or Walt. So when I see that word "teacher", I don't think of some high school English teacher. Instead, I think of Walter himself in his own natural teachy-ness, being as Zen as he ever could be. (As in If you meet the Buddha on the Road, kill him.)

If it weren't for a sprinkling of quotes like that, you could definitely get the idea that Walt Whitman was deeper into himself than Donald Trump. In fact Walt was a whiz at selling himself.

"Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, /When I give I give myself." After reading that, don't you feel guilty for not giving Walter more of your time?

He sang the body electric. Now you have to put that into its historical context. Back in Walt's day electricity wasn't the thing more common in households than bleach. In Walt's day, electricity was almost synonymous with juju.

Walt said, "Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle." Translation -- "I got juju."

Walt said, "The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual." Translation -- "The juju stops here."

Walt wrote, "This is no book; who touches this touches a man." Translation -- "I got juju to spare, some of it's spilled into these poems."

My own favorite Whitman sample: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes)." Translation -- "I am mass juju, I cast juju shadow."

Speaking of selling and persuasion, experts agree that there are six basic factors that influence humans to comply with requests or give in to sales pitches. These are reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority, and scarcity. I could illustrate the use of these six factors with any successful advertising campaign, but this column isn't about Madison Avenue. So instead I will show you how to use these factors to sell NIMBYs on Tent City.

To the friendly, caring, people of Seattle:

You have probably heard many appeals on behalf of Tent City [social validation], but have you heard of the great benefits that Tent City has to offer to your community?

Yes, there is only one Tent City in Seattle [scarcity], and it can be yours! The homeless people who make up Seattle's Tent City are the cream of the crop [scarcity], the hardest working 2 percent.

Listen to what Dave, a good-looking well-groomed white [liking] policeman [authority] has to say about Tent City's homeless people. "I encounter homeless people everywhere. But nowhere have I found more cheerful [liking] and energetic homeless people than at Tent City. And they are so clean!" [liking]

Cynthia R., a happy, smiling, independently wealthy [social validation, liking, authority] housewife, is typical of many who have been fortunate to live next door to Tent City. She says, "Those homeless men were great! The way they scared off prowlers, my! We had almost no crime in our neighborhood the weeks they were here. And they were so sober, what a good example to our children. If only we could repay them!" [reciprocation]

Seattle has so far provided Tent City with 17 sites in one year. [consistency] That shows just how popular Tent City has been. [social validation] Now isn't it time you invited Tent City to live next door to you?

Give yourself mass juju!

Thursday, April 19, 2001

Hope Is The Thing With A Roof

Imagine what it would have been like if Emily Dickinson had ever been homeless. I think we can say this much for sure: it would have been a drag on her career. Ha, ha, just kidding. No, seriously, her whole image would have been blown! She was so far from being homeless, she was the Anti-Homeless* Poet. Any ideas she might have had on the subject would have been purely theoretical.

Emily Dickinson said, "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away." Likewise, there is no frigate like a pair of old dirty gym socks to haul our breath to China to be sold into slavery. Another exceptional frigate is the homeless frigate. Where does the homeless frigate take us? Could we get there some other way? What's with the hardtack and salted limes? Shuffleboard, anyone?

Maybe since the book frigate takes us on a world cruise, the homeless frigate does the opposite, it takes us to a house in the middle of Amherst.

Come to think of it, Emily was pretty theoretical on most subjects, wasn't she? Emily Dickinson called hope the thing with feathers. If Emily had your hope, what kind of thing would it be? My hope is the thing with pizza stains down its front. Maybe your hope has chocolate all over its face.

According to Emily, a word starts to live when you say it. That means Emily D. was an early exponent of meme theory. She must have known that the only way to kill words outright is to delete them from all memory files. It's like killing blackberries. The only practical way to kill them in your own back yard is to crowd them out with something worse. Go ahead, try it. Kill the word "is". Good luck.

"A wounded deer leaps the highest." How would Emily have known? What was she, some kind of sadist, wandering through the forest poking various animals in the butt? Maybe the wolverine jumps higher, huh? Always the theorist.

Then again, maybe she was torturing more than just animals. She also said, "I like a look of agony, /Because I know it's true; /Men do not sham convulsion, /Nor simulate a throe." Could this be insight born of experiment?

"Where thou art, that is home." All afternoon my roof leaked. It had a hole in it as big as the sky. No, wait, that was the sky. Doh.

Poverty is the Gust

by Copyright Dr. Wes Browning

Sing to the tune of the Gilligan's Island Theme

Poverty is the blowing Gust

That flattens us to the dirt

And drags us down an ugly ditch,

While ripping up our shirt;

It leaves us there, but lookit how

We build ourselves a yurt,

We're a little worn and slightly torn

We add up all the hurt.

Speaking of hurt, I notice from the news reports that the Liberty Bell was seriously injured by a homeless man the other day.

Let me get this straight. A piece of crap bell that was given to us by the English in 1752 and never worked is so important to us that if anyone should dent it they get locked up?

Frank Eidmann, director of special projects for the Independence National Historic Park had this to say: "Anyone who attacks a national symbol is disturbed. What he was disturbed about, we don't know."

Gosh, I don't know, Frank, let me think could it be because he is homeless, Frank, could that be the problem??!!

The man could get five years for, among other things, "damaging an archaeological resource" (I'm not making this up.)

The Liberty Bell is not an archaeological resource. It's a piece of junk, which was used by the Abolitionists to symbolize this country's failure to live up to its promise of freedom for all. That is how it got its name, that is the only reason it has been preserved.

All this man did was remind us of that fact.

* In the sense of physics, not sentiment. So if she every encountered a homeless version of herself the two would have annihilated each other & obliterated Massachusetts.

Thursday, April 5, 2001

Bread and Putter

While we at Real Change are celebrating the first birthday of the current avatar of Tent City, we are also trying hard to understand why some people don't appreciate it as much as we do, so that we can be on the cutting edge of persuasion, as we change their minds, and so make the street papers in other cities jealous, and steal their women.

I mean, getting to the persuading part, the bottom line is, there aren't enough shelter beds, and affordable housing hasn't happened. Living together in tents is just the safest alternative to sleeping in doorways. Ya'll don't want people sleeping in doorways, right?

I know this is hard for some of you, so let me run that at you again. Raise your hands, everyone who wants the homeless who don't get into shelters to sleep in their own front doorway. Hmmm, I thought so. Next, hands from those of you who want them sleeping in your neighbor's doorway. Better. Now lets see hands for people who wants them to sleep isolated from each other in public parks. OK, not bad. Now how many hands do we have for them sleeping in tents somewhere together?

Hello? You in the back! It's the last alternative! You have to raise your hand sometime, because these people are going to sleep somewhere! You don't get to just sit on your hands like the problem will go away. People need to sleep!

Speaking of human needs, just before I sat down to write this masterpiece I noticed I was puttering. A lot of you will say I am still puttering even now as I type, especially those of you who know what the word means.

to putter, v, to busy or occupy oneself in a leisurely, casual, or ineffective manner.

Yes, I was puttering. And I noticed! And it occurred to me that I rarely notice when I have been puttering, I normally just putter about obliviously, but that in reality I must spend two-thirds of my waking life puttering, and have always done so, even when I was gainfully employed. Although of course we generally called it something else then.

We called it paper clip stuffing, or arranging our files, or fulfilling personal directives, or sorting priorities.

Suddenly I had an epiphany! I became aware, as I had never been aware before, of the extent to which puttering is a human need. I now realize that puttering is a need right up there with food and shelter and safety and moist towelettes. No, seriously, I realized that the need "to putter", in your Maslow hierarchy of needs, must precede all the noble sounding ones, like the need "to art" or the need "to science", or the need "to make lame jokes", or even the need "to mention moist towelettes repeatedly." Moist towelettes.

It explains so much. It explains for instance, why I am so fond of things that explain things. It explains why most men can't grow a beard, they trim it to death. It explains couch surfing. It explains cubicle art.

You know what I'm talking about. Cubicle art is the greatest contemporary American folk art form. Not Cubist Art. Cubicle art. You have a cubicle at work. You decorate it with stuff. That's it. All you get is the one cubicle. It's similar to hanging fuzzy dice in your car, only now it's a cubicle, not a car.

Or it could be a car, too. People still express their puttering need through their cars, even though cubicles have become the more popular medium. And what's the most popular medium of all?

The home, of course.

I have a dream. I dream of the day when every man, woman and child of this great nation of ours has at least a cubicle, or the equivalent, to putter in. I dream of the day when that puttering will be recognized, not only as leisurely casual and ineffective, but as the very stuff of life.

I dream of a day when people will be valued not for the size of their homes, or whether they have one or not, but for the puttering that they can do, when given the chance.

Moist towelettes!

Thursday, March 22, 2001

We Happy Poor

Well, here we are again. It's income tax time and, to make matters worse, the stock market is sagging under the combined weight of dozens of beached dot-coms and the seasonal tax-time supply glut. It's time for all the rich people to come out and cry and whimper about how miserable their lives are.

And, what a coincidence, Bush's tax cut proposal is on the agenda in Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, thanks to my degenerate choice of a poverty-inducing lifestyle, I am able to live a lazy life of luxury off the taxes of the hard-working rich. Not only do I not have to pay income tax, but I don't have to pay servants, I don't have to pay for gasoline for my cars and yachts (I don't have any), I don't have to pay interest on my credit card debt (no credit card), and I don't need an expensive accountant. Neener, neener.

One thing fascinates me about all this. If I have it so good, why aren't the rich falling all over each other trying to join me in my idyllic life of ease?

Could it be they see drawbacks to my happy-go-lucky lifestyle? Even though I am not in a thirty percent tax bracket? But if there are drawbacks so severe that even the rich, who can have anything they want, would not be poor like me, then, perhaps those drawbacks rate some kind of compensation, no?

FOR EXAMPLE. Lately we have all had to see, on TV, over and over again, a bunch of basketball show-offs dribble and pass a basketball around for a minute, only to finish with a Swish ™ in the corner of the picture tube.

If I was rich I bet I could afford some gadget to filter that minute of aggravation out. But I am poor. Drawback! I have to watch this stupid display thirty times per hour, all the while developing an irresistible urge to wear basketball shorts.

Finally I break down. I buy basketball shorts. Hundreds of them. I spend all my beer money for a month on basketball shorts. I have nothing else to wear, I can't go to a concert at Benaroya Hall, they won't let me in, I'm always wearing basketball shorts. My cultural life deteriorates.

I go to public meetings of the City Council, but no one takes me seriously, because I am wearing basketball shorts. My political life crumbles. I am reduced to merely voting reactively, i.e., I become (eewww) a reactionary voter, because I had to sell my cut-off Levis to buy basketball shorts.

Then, just when I think my life could not sink any lower, my woman leaves me for a man who wears spandex.

Somewhere, maybe across the continent, maybe not even in this country, is a vice president of Random Crap Merchandise in charge of commercials for basketball shorts, who, thanks to all my purchases got a twenty percent raise boosting him into the tax bracket where they make you give them two-thirds of all the money you make, and then they paddle you if you make more. Lets call him Doug.

Doug's life is so horrible. In return for making me addicted to basketball shorts, all he gets is oodles of money and the envy of the world. He can't ever enjoy the simpler things in life that I had before he made his fortune off my consumption.

As Doug himself would say, "Companies like mine, that fulfill no real pre-existing consumer need, and only draw speculative venture capital for a while and then vanish in a puff of smoke, don't grow on trees. It takes real sweat and imagination and a gift for bilking investors to create the kind of wealth that I have. It takes clever exploitation of cheap overseas labor, leaving US labor sucking lemons. And it requires a deep understanding of the psychology of the buying public, that only well paid con-artist consultants can provide."

"And then the people, through their representatives, want to take a percentage of it back. Damn."

"Oh well, at least I still have a life. Not like that basketball-shorts-wearing loser Wes Browning."

Thursday, March 8, 2001

My Very Successful Prognostication

I'll confess, I'm not a terribly physical kind of guy. I'm not into rough competitive sports like baseball or rugby or marbles. I don't object to sports altogether, but I prefer the solitary sports, sports in which it's just me competing against myself.

My favorite of those is Olympic Style Nervous Pacing. Incidentally, my best score ever against myself in a pacing competition was 9.6 (it would have been a 10 if it weren't for the Russian judge.) Not to brag, but I did so well I cost myself a medal. Myself was deeply chagrined and never competed again. Really. No, not really, I just wanted to say "chagrined".

So naturally, whenever I am in an earthquake, which seems lately to be whenever I am lying in bed naked in a vulnerable position, or at least once per decade, my feeling about it is not unlike the feeling of a student who, having tried out for the varsity band, was instead picked to be a center for the football team. My feeling is that there has been a horrible mistake, I don't do contact sports. I don't even watch them!

Not that earthquakes can't be entertaining to me. Hey, I can be amused as easily as the next guy. It's just that they don't amuse me for very long. It's like sticking your finger in an electric light socket, isn't it? The fun part is pretty much over when you've realized that you have done it and you haven't suffered massive cardiac arrest yet. So, well, that was an earthquake, wasn't it? Hey, I'm not dead! What fun!

Those of my friends who are sports enthusiasts tell me that part of the value of taking part in sports lies in testing their limits, learning what they can accomplish when they throw themselves into something.

I can see that now. I mean, it isn't often that I become so distracted that I forget where I put my pants. Ordinarily I am on top of those sorts of things; "life's little details." So I guess you could say that the earthquake allowed me to discover new depths of self-distraction, great new vistas of blind panic...

Speaking of senseless violence, how 'bout that Fat Tuesday? There's another contact sport I can live without.

The first few nights of the Mardi Gras violence had no impact at all on me, even though I live in the Pioneer District, because I ignored it. (Some things deserve to be ignored, I believe. Like the practice of confounding the District and the Square. I simply don't let myself hear such idiocy. It's the Pioneer District, damn it. Or the Pioneer Square District, at the worst.)

But Tuesday night, as I was riding the bus home at about 11:30 pm with Anitra "not an actual Italian Duck" Freeman, we were unable to not notice the crowds, as they were slowing the bus so much that we were better off walking. So we continued to our Pioneer District apartment building on foot, and I had to notice the way the police were deployed. Not interspersed with the crowds, but on the periphery, in fact, just next to our building.

So I told Anitra (I'm not making this up), "First, I am going to watch Letterman. Then, I am going to do my Real Change duty, and go out there and see what is going on in those crowds. Then I am going to come back, and together we we will be tear-gassed by these police at about 2 am, when they can't think of any better way to control the crowds, which will be dispersing at about that time, under our very windows."

Did I guess wrong? No, I did not. I did exactly what I said. I watched Letterman. Then I wandered out into the Fat Tuesday crowd. I saw the beginning of the brawl that was filmed so well from the police helicopter. At that point I returned to my apartment, and waited to be tear-gassed. We were tear-gassed right on schedule, at about 2 am.

OK, there is a sport I love. I love predicting what Seattle will do next. It's poetry in motion.

Thursday, February 22, 2001

Flash Weston?

Today I want to use words to talk about names. What’s in a name? Willy Shakespeare (sp?) answered with something to the effect that a rose by any other name would smell as swell. A lot of people think that’s the ultimate answer.

Balderdash! In the first place, the question was, “What’s in a name?” -- not “What’s a rose?” In another place, Willy himself knew perfectly well there was more to it than that. He went right on ahead in the same play to make a case for the opposition. He clearly indicated that he was inclined to believe that, while sweet smelliness sticks permanently to roses however named, if a Romeo Montague were to change his name to, say, Watson Whittaker, he’d get beat up by his cousins whether he married that girl or not. Names do so matter.

It has been demonstrated scientifically that even when collected into conferences and given little individual cards to pin on their shirts, and an indelible marker, scientists can’t completely explain why names, such as “Montague,” are different from words, such as “rose.” But I believe the answer may involve the reptilian brain, the difference between the sacred and the profane, and Dicks Nixon, Clark, Cheney, etc.

Whatever the difference, it is now known that there is one. If your first pet dog was Blacky and you go around calling all dogs Blacky, people will call you Dingy. And rightly so.

Once we understand that names and words are different, we begin to understand why people might like to change names on occasion. For example might want to change it’s name to or or, on the theory that people might forget that unfortunate NASDAQ turn of events.

What the hell is a Verizon? When you ask that kind of question you betray ignorance of the difference I am picking at. Verizon is just the new improved name of GTE, a name that escapes all the ugly associations that the old name has, like the association that everybody had learned to think “corporate weasels” when they heard “GTE”. But you don’t think “corporate weasels” when you hear “Verizon.” Not yet. Instead you think “What the hell is a Verizon?”

Similarly the name US West served the function of a name, not a word. It helped the rest of us to identify that specific thing that screwed up our phone billing all the time. If the internet connection went down exactly in the middle of our composing of our 500 page treatise on the relationship of the fluctuations in the perfume market to the practice of personal bathing in Europe, we could relieve our tension by uttering a curse upon the house of US West, a particular corporation, a legal body, near-person, and receptacle of a name.

US West heard those curses. That’s why they are no longer US West, but the as yet not-so-cursed Qwest.

Here we arrive at a crucial distinction between names and words. Names can be cursed. Names accumulate curses. Names attach to persons and to entities perceived as persons, and they collect the feelings we have for those entities.

How cursed can a name become? Ask Seattle Housing Authority. But don’t call them that when you ask them. Call them PorchLight. Or don’t ask them. Ask anybody else. Typical reaction to hearing the name “Seattle Housing Authority” -- “Boo.” Typical reaction to hearing the name “PorchLight” -- “Huh?”

It’s part of the American Way. The accursed change their names and they expect everyone to forget the old names. And we do, because we want to reserve the same right for ourselves. We want to be able to declare bankruptcy if necessary, change the name, get all new credit cards, move to the next great “growth center” (it’s Houston, the last I heard) and start a new career, or as we put it, “make a new life for ourselves.”

It’s only possible if everyone agrees to let it be possible. So it has to be part of the social contract.

What I’m getting at is, some day I could put Copyright Doctor Wes Browning away and start calling myself something like Flash Weston or the Writer Formerly Known as Wes, and this being America I could probably pull it off, even without incorporating. And rightly so.