Monthly Archives: May 2012

Chrysopylae plus 75 years

Republishing this in honor of the bridge’s 75th birthday, today.

golden gate bridge

It is an immense machine, weighing nearly nine hundred thousand tons. Almost a hundred thousand tons of that is steel, smelted in the hideously polluting Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York. It was built in an era of giant artificial atrocities: The Grand Coulee Dam, the Manhattan Project, southern Florida. It killed eleven workers during its construction. In a typical year, nearly twice that number of people use it to end their lives. It is an engine of environmental destruction. It sits in crucial endangered species habitat. Without it, the population of once-rural Marin County could not have quintupled since it was built. That growth prompted the drowning of miles of prime coho salmon stream for drinking water reservoirs. Only the emergence of environmental opposition prevented the giant machine from filling the county edge to edge with people. The world would almost certainly be a better place had it never been built.

And yet I love it, simply and without internal contradiction.

There are few things that prompt in my heart such uncomplicated adoration as this bridge. Certainly no other artifact of this size.  Its massive outline, the fluted, geometric Art Deco bas-relief of its towers, the interplay of fractal fog and simple steel provoke in me a feeling that I fear is the closest to patriotism I will ever get. I can force myself to admire its close architectural and spiritual cousin, Hoover Dam, but only at the cost of a sour stomach. What is it about the Golden Gate Bridge that exempts it from my sanctimony? Perhaps it’s the difference in function between bridges and dams: one blocks passage that was once allowed, the other allows it where once it was difficult.

Or perhaps it’s the simple iconography. It stands in the public imagination (and mine) for the place I have adopted as my home. I first saw it when starting a new life free of old constraints. It represents passage past the end of my world, and yet is still a prosaic part of a typical commute.

I confess that on some days when I really should take the train to work, I will drive in just so that I can cross the Golden Gate Bridge on my way home. A stupid waste of fossil fuel for no good reason, but there you have it.

Happy memory

It must have been in 1997 or so. I was in Bodega, California, sitting on a bench in front of the temporary local cafe and ice cream store. I was eating ice cream. Zeke was watching me eat ice cream. He was being very, very attentive. It was a sunny summer weekend afternoon.

An almost fatally blonde woman walked past with a similarly towheaded child in tow. The boy’s eyes grew wide as he passed, watching Zeke carefully. He was only a bit taller than my dog. He paused. HIs mother said something in German, her tone of voice implying “let’s go.” He turned back to her and said Schöne hund!

It was true. He was.

An open letter to the right wing in the wake of the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina

We have been incredibly patient with you.

Who’s “we,” you ask? Good question! And it’s a question that has the kind of answer we’ve noticed you seem not to like very much, because its complicated. We’re socialists, sure, some of us. And feminists. And Muslims. But we’re also patriots, and conservatives of the old school, and rich people and poor, black and white and Native and Latino and Asian, and Christian and atheist and Jewish and people who don’t really think about religion much. We are environmentalists and developers and engineers and forklift operators, moms and dads and grandparents, orphans and widows, city and country and suburb, gay and straight and neither of those exactly. We are a lot of mutually contradictory things, sometimes all at once.

Like I said: It’s Complicated. And a lot of us would disagree with certain things I say here. It’s not like I put it to a vote or anything. This open letter is just my description of things I’ve been seeing over the last decade or two, me letting you in on the way the world seems to be, because you have really been pushing your luck. That luck is going to run out, and it will end badly for you, and for a lot of other people as well.

Here’s the thing that’s really important: We are people who would really rather be left alone to live our lives. And we would rather leave other people alone to live theirs.

That’s why you’ve been able to push things this far. We’ve kind of been hoping that you’d wake up one morning, look at the things you’d written or said, the sermons you’ve preached, the blog posts you’ve published, the hateful things you’ve screamed at children and grieving parents, and suddenly see them with new eyes. We’ve been hoping that you’d wake up. No, not hoping — assuming. It happens often enough. People drop their fear all the time, shake their heads, make amends for the harm they’ve caused and start living their lives without the poisoned anger and hatred.

Because despite what we say sometimes when we’re frustrated, we don’t actually think you’re stupid. Not most of you. We’ve actually been expecting you to figure this all out on your own the way smart people do.

But that doesn’t seem to be going well. In fact, you just seem to be getting more and more afraid of everyone who doesn’t share your very specific beliefs.

We don’t understand how that feels, to be honest. And that’s probably part of the reason you and we have been communicating so badly. If there’s one thing WE can do, it’s disagree with each other. Somehow we survive the disagreements. We mostly don’t feel personally threatened if someone else in our orbit doesn’t share our beliefs.

As a result, we mostly can’t really bring ourselves to believe that you DO feel that threatened by disagreement. We think of it as silly hyperbole when you say the presence of other religions constitutes a War On Your Religion, or that two other people loving each other in a way you don’t care for is a War On Your Family. It’s hard for a lot of us to get it through our heads that you actually mean that.

But you do, don’t you?

What it comes down to is that we are only slowly realizing just how afraid of us you really are. You really think we pose a threat to you just by being who we are.

That’s why you folks have all those guns, isn’t it? To protect yourselves… against us.

It seems really stupid from our perspective, honestly. You see a scary Black man in your neighborhood. We see a tax accountant jogging before work. You see a radical lesbian determined to undermine your religion in the classroom. We see a grandmother reading books to kids. You see a jackbooted environmentalist come to take away your rights: we see some guy who just loves to study lizards. You see a soulless atheist out to Kill God: we see a person who loves tending his lawn. You see The Homosexual Agenda: we see people who want to take care of the loves of their lives.

And so it has been for the last few decades.

We were no threat to you, ever. But in your unreasoning fear of us you have reacted irrationally, trying to make the whole world safe from us. You have worked to strip us of rights our mothers and fathers fought and died for. Those rights cost you nothing. They even enhanced your own rights. They made you safer at work. They gave you the weekend off. They even, despite your fears of religious oppression, allowed you to worship as you chose! Regardless of what religious beliefs you hold, someone somewhere in American history almost certainly tried to wipe them out.

You push to strip us of rights one by one, battling against the tide of history. You pass your vindictive little laws, spread your slanders about us on blogs and radio and television shows, and sometimes even — when one of you goes just a little bit off the deep end — you pick up those guns you’ve got stockpiled.

In short, I’ve started to wonder if you think that our patience with you has given you the wrong impression.

Here’s the thing, guys. It’s obvious you’re afraid of us. But for the most part, we are not afraid of you. You concern us, sure. Sometimes one of you does scare us, your McVeighs and your Breiviks and your J.T. Readys. Fear is a reasonable response to violent sociopathic insanity. But that’s not all of you, is it?

What we are afraid of is seeing those rights we fought for taken away, one by one. Losing our right to control when we have children, and to be able to feed and clothe them when they’re born. Losing the right to clean air, water, and intact ecosystems to walk around in. Losing the right not to be killed in a workplace accident because it’s cheaper to replace an employee than a machine. Losing the right to have actual science taught in our schools without oversight by your religious leaders. Losing the right to love who we love. Losing the right to mind our own business. Losing the right to live our own lives regardless of who we are, who our parents were, or what we believe.

You only need to be afraid of us if you keep trying to take those things away.

When it comes right down to it, all most of us want is to live our lives and be left alone. We want the same thing for you. And so we have been patient with you, and understanding, and — as it turns out — significantly more tolerant of your campaigns against us than was probably wise.

You should not mistake our patience with you for weakness.

If you keep pushing to limit our lives you will lose. If you keep targeting women, ethnic and social minorities, gays and lesbians, and people who don’t share your religious beliefs? You will lose. If you keep resenting us for the flaws and failures you fear in yourself, you will lose.

You can worship as you want, marry who you want, work where you want and have the circle of friends you want. We won’t interfere with how you want to live your life. But as the old saying has it, your right to swing a frying pan ends where our noses begin. We have come very close to running out of patience. There are far more of us than there are of you. Trust me on this. We have been patient and you have been lucky. Neither of those things will last much longer.