March 28, 2009

A voice from the beyond

For first time visitors to this blog, it is our policy to write about fairly serious human issues during the week. On the weekends, however, anything goes.

This weekend, we are pleased to feature a review by one of our many animal contributors, the late Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor SHEGG-ay). Mr. Sege was, until his untimely demise this winter, the official canine film critic of Goat Rope Farm.

While going through various papers connected with his estate, we discovered one of his very last works, a review of the film Mama Mia. It is our pleasure to offer this item to our readers.

Note: while we don't mean to speak disrespectfully of the departed, we must remind the reader that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury when he crashed into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy and was known to occasionally transpose the plots of the films he reviewed. Nevertheless, we believe that his unique insights into the world of cinema more than compensated for this regrettable shortcoming.


OK, so this movie is kind of based on the music of some band. I think it was like Bach or Bachman Turner Overdrive or something like that. Or maybe it was Pink Floyd...

Anyway, there's this girl who is about to get married and is sending out invitations. She doesn't know who her dad is but she read her mom's old diary and narrowed it down to three guys.

One of them goes back to Vietnam to bust out the POWs. Another is this monster robot from the future. The third one is fighting off some mummy called Imhotep. But the thing is, all three of them want something from the Wizard. The POW guy wants a brain, the robot wants a heart and the other guy wants some kind of spray to keep mummies away.

When they all get to the wedding, they find out they really had what they wanted all the time. All except the girl, who gets to marry Mr. Darcy instead.

I could see that coming a mile away.


March 27, 2009

An accidental librarian

Before stumbling into my current career, I spent 10 happy if ill-paid years working in public libraries. Believe it or not, it turned out to be a pretty good preparation for working on social justice issues.

It was pretty much an accident. The local library in my small town needed a part time custodial engineer when I started taking college classes. The job mostly involved coming in after hours. I cannot say that I pursued this task with heroic diligence, but they kept me around. It was on evenings like those when I should have been running the vacuum that I made the acquaintance of Langston Hughes' poetry and the more radical political writings of Mark Twain.

Then a huge flood trashed the library and most of the town and I got plenty of extra work. At some point, they figured out I could read and write and had me start working with the public. It was kind of like being a bartender with books.

I discovered I enjoyed bantering with people of all ages, hearing all kinds of juicy gossip and hunting for hard to find information. The elementary school was just a block or so away, and it wasn't unusual to have six or seven classes a day roll in like little sailors on shore leave.

The main librarian there lacked a degree but had this remarkable gift for making it a place that was welcoming to everyone. She was also a coal miner's daughter and a yellow dog Democrat with deep union sympathies. Her basic philosophy was to find out what people want or need and figure out a way to get it to them.

The job market being what it was in the 1980s, I stuck around. Later on, I wound up working in the reference department at a city library, which was a whole different game. Talk about dealing with all kinds of people, some of whom had major issues... The thing I liked about reference was the challenge of having to hunt up all kinds of bizarre and random information. Recall, Gentle Reader, that this was WAY before Google. On really tough questions, I liked to Zen it, which involved emptying the mind of preconceptions and chasing it down.

One thing I really enjoyed doing was programming, which is to say thinking of weird and entertaining things to get people to come in. Kids had to go to school, but generally nobody has to go to a library. You gotta make em want it. A few such efforts that come to mind involve visiting elementary schools in a monkey suit and staging worm races.

I still view public libraries as vital resources in many ways for anyone interested in working on public issues or finding out what is going on in a community. Each well run library is a little liberated area, a public space open to all where "from each according to his [or her] abilities, to each according to his needs" pretty much applies.

TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY. Which is more important, well-being or growth? (This article raises interesting points, but Aristotle got there first.)

WONKY BUT GOOD. Here's Jacob Hacker discussing health care reform and how to get where we need to go.

ANOTHER EVOLUTION BATTLE is heating up in Texas. Next stop...Copernicus? After all, the Bible clearly says that Joshua made the sun stand still, not the earth. So there.

ANOTHER PUBLIC SERVICE. Poetry reading in the US hit a 16 year low, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. In order to help reverse this trend, El Cabrero has composed the following poem:


Read some, read some. Yes, you should.
Some of it is pretty good.


March 26, 2009


I recently listened to a recorded version of Temple Grandin's book Animals Make Us Human. Hers is an interesting story. Diagnosed with autism as a child, she was able to use her experiences to great advantage as an animal scientist.

In the book, she discussed core emotions for animals (including us). One of these was rage, which some scientists believe to be a response to extreme restraint, such as a situation of being captured and held immobile by a predator. It occurs to me that poverty, which Earl Shorris once described as a "surround of force" is a similar kind of extreme restraint.

As I mentioned in earlier posts this week, this month marks 20 years for me of working on economic justice issues for the American Friends Service Committee. But before all that, I spent several years in involuntary poverty, a situation that can make you feel like a hunted animal.

El Cabrero is a big fan of Simone Weil's essay The Iliad or Poem of Force, where she describes force as that which turns a human being into an object, either literally as a corpse or metaphorically as one who loses freedom. Poverty can do that too. At times it makes you feel more like the object of others or of impersonal forces than an active subject.

And it can produce rage. I felt it then and I still do when I see poor people degraded and abused. The experience seems to have made me a bit edgier. After living that reality, I'm grateful to have had the chance to do something about it when the opportunity arises.

(And, speaking purely as an animal, it is way more fun to hunt than to be hunted.)

All human motivations are complicated and ambiguous, but part of mine, frankly, is payback.

THE ECONOMY AND THE DEFICIT. Here's economist Dean Baker's advice to deficit hawks who are missing the point.

THE BUDGET. The main priorities of President Obama's budget may survive congressional changes. It wouldn't hurt to give your senators and representatives a nudge.

WHITHER CAPITALISM? Will it morph into a kinder, gentler variety in the wake of the global economic crisis?

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN on receiving "expert" financial advice.


March 25, 2009

I didn't know there was an essay contest

El Cabrero is looking back lately on 20 years this month of working on economic justice issues in WV for the American Friends Service Committee.

(Did you notice that there were five prepositional phrases in that sentence? That can't be right...My bad.)

As I mentioned yesterday, it all started by seeing a want ad for the kind of job I'd dreamed of being able to do. I was a definite long shot but, being kind of desperate, I decided to take a chance by sending in a letter of inquiry and asking for an application.

As they say in Vermont, Jeezum Crow! After a few days I got this package in the mail that contained more hard essay questions than the comprehensive sociology exam I would later take in graduate school. I didn't keep a copy of the original list, but it kind of reminded me of the questions they ask on beauty pageants, only harder and with more social content.

Lucky for me, there was no swimsuit or talent component.

I'm not sure they do that any more, but it probably served the purpose of weeding out people who weren't serious--or, in my case, desperate. I stuck in a few copies of op-eds I'd written on social justice issues, crossed myself, and dropped it in the mail.

If memory serves, I also had to get people who knew me to send in supporting documents. Needless to say, the payback was hell...

The essay contest was just a warm up for the interview I was excited to get. There was a whole roomful of people, many from outside of West Virginia. I had talked myself out of jobs during interviews on at least one major occasion but decided to be honest anyway.

It got really dicey when someone asked what the biggest influence on my life was. I told the truth that it was probably the years I'd spent studying the martial arts. It was kind of like the part in the Alice's Restaurant song where they all scooted away from me on the Group W bench. But, with a little help from a friendly interviewer, I was able to establish that these arts were practiced for reasons of cultivation and discipline rather than violence.

I also went out on a limb in talking about how things that may work in other places might not fly in Appalachia. The same interviewer, an African-American woman who grew up in Logan County, kept laughing and shaking her head, saying "I've been telling these people the same thing for years." We'd later become close friends.

I left the interview thinking I'd probably blown it, but, lo and behold, they made the offer.

Then the real fun began...

CALL ME A PSYCHIC, but I predict a genuine WV ruling class hissy fit over this.

GREEN JOBS--what are they?

BUDGET. President Obama presented his budget priorities last night. Earlier in the day, a number of WV groups including AFSC tried to make some noise in support of it.



March 24, 2009

It was only a stamp

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this month marks my 20th anniversary of working for the American Friends Service Committee. There's a lot of water under that bridge.

I still remember reading the want ad looking for a person to work on economic justice issues in West Virginia and having trouble believing my eyes. I was vaguely aware of the AFSC but didn't know much about it. West Virginia, after all, is not widely known as a hotbed of Quakerism, although I later learned they had some interesting history here.

My own religious background was Episcopal, with healthy dashes of Taoism and Buddhism thrown in. I don't think I'd ever knowingly met a Quaker, but then as now people connected with AFSC come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, provided they share some basic values.

That could have been an issue. The one thing I knew about Quakerism was their "peace testimony" or commitment of nonviolence. Although I'm fairly placid, I happen to have come from a long line of those Scotch-Irish people who enjoy a good fight, a trait that I seemed to inherit.

My ancestors fought in most of this country's wars, generally, although not always, on the side of the United States (I seem to recall a minor exception in the 1860s). I came close to enlisting myself as a young man. The two things that held me back were my political mistrust of the Reagan administration and the timing of the birth of my first child. Aside from that, I'd been a devotee of the martial arts since junior high.

On the plus side, I was totally down with working for justice for poor and working people, having been there and coming from a place that has been hard hit by many economic trends and bad actors.

I decided it was a long shot but worth a try. It was only a stamp, right?

CROCODILE TEARS have been shed in copious amounts about the supposed threat to "the secret ballot" posed by the Employee Free Choice Act. (Since when did big corporations care about workers' rights, anyway?) Now even the Wall Street Journal admits that is isn't so.

BUDGET BATTLE. As the struggle over President Obama's budget and the federal deficit heats up, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes some good points here.

ON THAT NOTE, here's what economist Michael Ettlinger of the Center for American Progress has to say on the subject.

A "SOLIDARITY ECONOMY." Some people are responding to hard times by forming common security clubs that combine study and reflection on what is happening and why with common action to make things better.

ANIMAL ARMS RACE. Nature has equipped many animals with elaborate weapons, but they seem to be mostly for display.


March 23, 2009

Lately it occurs to me

While glancing at a calendar recently, El Cabrero had a sudden realization. It was 20 years ago this month that I started working on economic justice issues for the American Friends Service Committee. Talk about a long strange trip...

There have been a lot of bizarre twists and turns along the way, but the strangest one was that it happened at all.

First of all, it doesn't often happen that one finds the job of one's dreams reading the local want ads from a WV paper--but that's exactly how I heard about it. The want ad was looking for someone with an understanding of Appalachian culture to work on poverty and other economic justice issues.

As it turned out economic justice issues and Appalachia (the two are inescapably entwined) were the main subjects of my not infrequent rants. When I showed it to some people who knew me (some of whom occasionally read this blog), they just laughed.

Still, jobs like that, as rare as they were then (and now), didn't usually go to people like me. For one thing, it has often happened that people from outside the area get hired to work in places like WV--don't even get me started on that one. For another, such rare jobs usually go to people who are well connected.

I was anything but that, having spent most of the 1980s being poor. Those who have never experienced poverty might be surprised to find that living in it is a very time consuming thing. Although I followed current events and read and wrote a lot about issues related to social justice, the only social movement I knew first hand was the constant scramble to make ends meet.

Also, I was and remain basically a small town hick, uncomfortable in cities, even in the small ones that pass for big ones in WV. I didn't know any of the proverbial movers and shakers (although I had a friend who had been watching and keeping score over the years--you know who you are!) and they didn't know me.

But, as the eminent philosopher Tom Petty once noted, "even the losers get lucky sometimes."

CHEW ON THIS. The food revolution is going mainstream. You know something is up when even the karmically challenged city of Huntington, WV is planning community gardens.

SCAVENGING is also alive and well these days.

CEO BLUES. Here's a rant on CEO pay by a friend of mine from Sunday's Gazette-Mail.