Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Madame Blavatsky’s Dog and the Current Crisis

Monday my sister and I had lunch in Philadelphia with a colleague of mine named Bert. We met at the White Dog Cafe on Sansom Street, amid the University of Pennsylvania in a block that was originally a row of brownstone residences. During the early months of 1875, Madame Blavatsky lived in the house that is now the White Dog Cafe.
During her time on Sansom Street, Madame Blavatsky got an infected leg, and the doctors talked of amputation. “Fancy my leg going to the spirit land before me!” she said, and waved the doctors away.
In place of amputation, Madame Blavatsky treated herself by sleeping with a white dog lying over her leg. Given the state of medicine in 1875, the dog was as good an option as anything else, and Madame Blavatsky recovered. She hailed the experience as a transformation, and in September she founded the Theosophical Society.
The dog cure was not so unusual for Madame Blavatsky. She also performed levitation, clairvoyance, telepathy, and materialization (i.e., materializing objects out of empty space).
Where are the great masters of the past when we really need them? The very day we were lunching in Philadelphia, only a few hours’ drive away in Washington the economic masters of the present day were administering their own attempts at levitation and materialization.
My friend Bert is a business academician and lecturer and author. Of course we asked her what she thought.
“No one really knows how deep this is,” she said. “It will take a long time to fix this,” she said. “It really is an option to do nothing and see how things shake down, and then figure out what to do,” she said. “We have become a debtor nation,” she said, “all the way down to the family level.”
How can you argue with any of this?
No one knows if the 700-billion-dollar figure is the right amount for a federal rescue plan: it is a guess. It seems true to me that it will take longer than one hurried weekend to fix something as broken and complicated as the global economy. Doing nothing is always an option—although it galls people who think that doing anything, anything at all, in an emergency is better than doing nothing.
As for being a debtor nation from top to bottom—well gee, the levitators in Washington don’t exactly want to say this, but they are saying it endlessly: If Congress doesn’t pass this bill, the bankers won’t grant credit, and—to give a concrete example—the home-theatre installation companies won’t be able to borrow money to buy huge flat-screen televisions to sell to people on credit, and they won’t be able to borrow money to meet their payroll and pay you, the average home-theatre installer, and so you won’t be able to make your payments on the planer and band saw you bought when you went to the hardware store for nails and they told you you could get 10 per cent off if you put it on the new credit card they handed you as you walked in the door.
It sounds like levitation is what we need, and if the white dog worked for Madame Blavatsky, maybe the policy geniuses in Washington can get one more dance out of the old girl yet.
If  levitation doesn’t work, we might have to consider our last desperate option: the way of wisdom and virtue.
Surely things will not come to such a sorry pass as that. But if they do, here are words from Madame Blavatsky to get us started:
“Behold the truth before you: A clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for one’s co-disciple, a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction, a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defense of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection—these are the golden stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the temple of divine wisdom.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Foreign Policy Experience in Luxembourg

Reading the newspapers I sometimes get a breath of fresh air.
I got one the other day when I read about Sarah Palin’s foreign policy experience. The paper said that the Alaska governor had made a trip to Iraq and Kuwait to visit Alaskan Reserves and had visited a couple of other countries, too, including Ireland.
Well, the colonel of the reserves was pretty sure Governor Palin hadn’t actually gone into Iraq: she didn’t have permission to cross the border from Kuwait. But she had apparently got close enough to where she could get a good look at it, which is like seeing Russia from Alaska, or New Hampshire from Brattleboro, or seven states from Rock City.
But it was the governor’s experience in Ireland that was real fresh air for me. Her plane had put down for a refueling stop, and she had remained aboard until it took off again.
As I thought about this, I realized that getting foreign policy experience is not as hard as I once believed. I realized, in fact, that I myself have enough experience to be a U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Indeed, I am awash with experience, because I have been to Luxembourg six times.
I made each of these six visits during the course of three round-trips between Basel and Brussels. Basel is the Swiss university town and pharmaceutical hub on the Rhine—a river which I have picked up so many rocks from the banks of that they fill a small saucer on my window sill. Brussels lies at the end of my three round trips to it, a city with three train stations in a broad, flat, partly French-speaking country which is not however France.
But to return to Luxembourg—My foreign policy experience there has prepared me for my ambassadorship by giving me two key concepts.
The first is that whereas the train goes into Luxembourg head first, it comes out hind part before. This fact so astonished me on my first visit, that I thought I had merely forgotten which way the seats in the car were facing. But the fact was confirmed on my second visit, and by the time I made my sixth trip to Luxembourg, it had become a commonplace.
The second key concept follows logically from the first: the country of Luxembourg is not big enough to turn a train around in.
You may by now be thinking, Broyles, you will not be the only person in line for the Luxembourg ambassadorship. True. But not to worry. I have Plan B: an ambassadorship to Canada. My parents visited Niagara Falls one time on the Canadian side and called me from a pay phone, and I could hear the falls over the telephone.
Keep your eye on this blog. I’ll post my foreign mailing address.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Truth and the Red Bar

Yesterday several of us drove to Boston to look at art. I sat in the back seat behind Chris, but don’t worry, I had room, and so when he asked us about our emotional state while talking politics, I was comfortable enough to confess that I felt a lot of angst about it. Laurel said how can you know when they are telling the truth, and what does it mean to tell the truth anyway.

When we turned into the main gate to Boston College, I was looking sideways while Chris was looking straight ahead, so I saw the surprised look on the man’s face in the guardhouse as Chris zoomed in without stopping. The man brought his chair down to rest on four legs and looked up from his newspaper and leaned forward and his eyebrows went up. His eyebrows told the truth, and I wondered if you could tell the truth—i.e., look like that—and get elected president.

Steve Schlosser at the McMullen had put together a wonderful exhibit of work by Georges Rouault. Steve walked us through the rooms in chronological order and told us things and then turned us loose to go back and look more closely.

Everything looked sad and dark. Tears were “at the heart of everything”: an old clown whose age couldn’t be hidden by paint any more, a washed-up prostitute who still had to pretend she was a joy-girl,  judges in tight collars too stupid to hand down just decisions. The face of Christ was everywhere, immeasurably sad, with eyes almost always closed, like the image pressed into Veronica’s handkerchief.

Then Steve took us into the next room and showed us that in 1930 a new element started showing up in Rouault’s pictures. It was a horizontal red line, like the balance-bar in a ballet school. Rouault put it behind clowns, acrobats, dancers—people who were liable to lose their balance and fall.

It was Rouault’s way of saying that even in a world racked by instability—and Steve showed us that Rouault’s was: born in 1871 in the cellar of a house that was being shot up by artillery, lived in France during World War I, fled south during World War II when the Nazis occupied Paris, knew all about the extermination camps and the Bomb and the cold war (he died in 1958)—even in a world racked by instability and miseries and tears, there is a red line of redemption, and this, as much as the tears, is a part of the truth of our experience.

It is hard to tell the truth.

Artists in the twentieth century sought like anything to tell the truth. That is why so many of their images are distorted and ugly. It was a distorted and ugly century. Most artists didn’t see any redemption in it, which is okay, because it can be hard to see. But what isn’t okay is the reflexive rejection of someone else’s vision of redemption just because I can’t see it. Artists do this as much as anyone else. Maybe that is partly why—as Sandra Bowden pointed out to us—Rouault was dropped from the sixth edition of Janson. It is sometimes hard for even artists to tell the truth and get elected.

On the drive back from Boston I thought about this some, and slept some, and Chris bought me ice cream. It is so hard to tell the truth and get elected to anything. We only want to hear about tears at the heart of everything, or else we only want to hear about redemption.

Thank the dear Lord that Rouault got it right. The misery and instability and danger of falling. The red balance bar at our hips.

Friday, September 12, 2008

McCain and Technology

It is amazing how things work out. The other day I wrote to my sister in an email that I couldn’t decide whether to go to the barber shop that day or the day after. I went the day after, and it is amazing how things worked out.
There were three people in front of me, so while I was waiting I tried to draw a picture of Mindy cutting a guy’s hair, only she moved a lot and the guy was the only good part of the picture. Mindy said that you could send Barack Obama two dollars by text message, and that John McCain didn’t even know how to text message. She made her point so strongly that her arm didn’t turn out right in my drawing.
Another guy in the shop commented that you didn’t have to know how to text message to be president of the United States, that text-messaging was the least of your worries.
My first response was to think that’s right, the president has other people to dial phone numbers for him and to explain what he meant after he said something and to tell him which helicopter to get into and when to get out of it.
So after my haircut I went to the grocery store to see if they had any Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice, and I got to thinking. Suppose McCain is in Stop & Shop to pick up a few things and Sarah Palin wants to remind him to get pickles. So of course she is going to send him a text message that says, “Pickles.” He had darn well better be ready to answer that call at the drop of a coin, to fulfill that mission without blinking.
So you see how amazing it is the way things work out. If I had gone to the barber shop a day earlier, I wouldn’t have seen how even little things like that are worth thinking about.