Archive for June, 2010


The Real Cost of War

June 30, 2010

Every time the list of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is published in the paper, I read the names aloud. The age of the dead continues to startle. The great majority are so young. I’m also struck by where the great majority come from, small towns in the south and Midwest, Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc.—places that are home to the country’s working class and poor. No rich kids need apply. I’m sure there are a few from privileged circumstances, but does anyone doubt that these are the exception? This war—America’s great war on global terror, aka “the defining struggle of the 21st century”—is one in which the upper classes need not fight. This, interestingly enough, was one of the causes of the ferocious Draft Riots that broke in NYC in July, 1863. (Yes, I wrote a novel about them.) Faced with the Civil War draft, a man had several choices. He could enlist and seek one of the bonuses being offered. He could wait to see if his name was picked. He could pay $300 (a year’s wage for an average working man) to be excused from a single round of the draft, or he could hire a substitute to go in his place, which cost about $1500 and which permanently excused him from the draft. (I bet you can guess which one J.P. Morgan, Jay Gould and other Wall Street financers did.) With the all-volunteer army we have created, in effect, an army that excuses the children of the rich from serving but which brings no financial benefit to the country. So, I say, let’s return to the system used in the Civil War. Let’s subject everybody (and sexism be damned, I mean everybody) between 18 and 40 to the draft and give him/her the chance to but his/her way out. For the equivalent of four years of tuition at an Ivy League institution—say $250,000—a person will be excused from a single round of the draft. In the case of sending a substitute, which involves covering the cost of training, outfitting and maintaining a soldier in Whereverstan for a year or so, let’s put it at a ballpark figure of $2.5 million, a fairly piddling sum in comparison to the $25 billion in bonuses paid in 2009 to the country’s top hedge fund managers. This alteration won’t change the situation we now have with the all-volunteer army, which is largely made up of poor and working-class kids from outside urban and suburban cocoons of privilege (like the one in which I live). It will, however, help the moneyed classes to become true stakeholders in the global struggle, not just spectators. (Congress might even consider authorizing purchasers to amortize their investments in deferments over time and authorize lending institutions to bundle loans as collateralized debt obligations, which could then be traded…you know the drill.)


Ulysses on Stone Street

June 20, 2010

Do me (and yourself) a favor: Mark your calendars for next year’s Bloomsday (June 16th, 2011) so you won’t miss the readings from “Ulysses” hosted at the eponymous pub on Stone Street, in lower Manhattan, by all-around mensch and nonpareil writer, Colum McCann. I know, I know, “Ulysses“ is dense, impenetrable, the literary totem of literary scholars/snobs/wannabees. Except it isn’t. Difficult in some parts, yes. But in others eminently accessible, it is a book that requires work to grasp in its totality. (Said James/Jimmy/Seamus Joyce something to the effect, “It took me 14 years to write, so why shouldn’t take you a while to get through?”) But it’s work that never stops paying off. It’s the only book I’ve read three times. (Does that sound pretentious? Yes. Sorry. Sue me.) When I was working at Time Warner in the infernal salt mines of speech writing and trying to produce my first novel, I kept “Ulysses” in the top drawer of my desk. I arrived two hours before the mine boss’s whistle blew to write what I could of a book that I wasn’t sure I could write and often doubted I’d finish. (It was eventually published as “Banished Children of Eve.”) Those mornings when I was stymied (and, Christ, there were a lot of them), I’d take out “Ulysses,” read a page/paragraph/sentence and be reminded of the magic of storytelling, the plasticity and suggestiveness of language and how a writer/ novelist/fabulist has the right /duty to try anything, to experiment, to seek every chance available to explore what it means to be a human being in the context of a certain place and time. There were times (a lot of them) I was totally intimated by Joyce. I knew that at my best, I’d fall far, far, far short of Seamus at his worst. But more often I was reminded of just how central storytelling is to our species, how every story matters, how the truth is in the telling, and I was motivated to keep going. The enduring triumph of Joyce’s masterpiece hit me again, full force, on Stone Street, the most Dublinesque of New York streets, as I listened to terrific performers like Larry Kirwan and Colum McCann turn words into flesh, a rapturous afternoon, weather and Guinness pregnant with Liffy quiddity, the afternoon capped by Aedin Moloney’s breathtaking, time-bending transubstantiation of Miss Molly, bringing her blazingly, fun-lovingly, fiercely, bloomfully, unforgettably to life. It’s a date, then, no? Next June 16th, Bloomsday, yes, at Danny McDonald’s Ulysses Pub, on Stone Street, yes. Say yes. Yes.


Silver Lining in the Gulf

June 10, 2010

I’m sick to death of all this whingeing, whining and handwringing about the British Petroleum (BP) disaster in the Gulf. So some shrimp and crabs get slimed. Big deal. We can import plenty more from China at a cheaper price than the domestic brands. (The Chinese versions are probably polluted too, but no one in China will own up to it because, if they did, they might wind up in jail.) If Americans really cared about rotten-tasting sea food, Red Lobster would have been out of business years ago. Once, years ago, after a night of too-much beer and Jameson, I was shanghaied by some friends to a fast-food outlet called Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips. (Treacher, a once reputable British stage actor had at this point descended from tragedy to farce, serving as TV sidekick to the talentless, ever-oleaginous Merv Griffin.) My repast at Arthur Treacher’s, which tasted like deep-fried blubber—or what I imagine deep-fried blubber tastes like—left me ill for several weeks and inflicted damage to my digestive system that still lingers. (Thank God, the antibodies from the beer and Jameson’s helped fight off some of the worst side effects.) It took weeks before the oily aftertaste finally left my mouth, and it is only now I realize that Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips was, in fact, a subsidiary of BP, a pioneering experiment by clever British oilmen in plumbing the American appetite for deep-fried soaked-in-petroleum sea food. Though Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips has largely disappeared (thanks to competitors who offer even worse food at a lower price), be prepared to see BP undertake a dramatic revival of its sea food-serving subsidiary. In fact, if I might venture a suggestion, BP should blow up all its rigs in the Gulf and fill the whole damn place with oil. That way, they can turn the Gulf into one gigantic refinery, providing Americans with what we value most—above clean water, clean air and some stupid hurricane-ravaged wetlands: cheap, plentiful gasoline. We can all drive down to New Orleans, which will be great for the still-struggling economy of that post-Katrina town, fill up on two-cents-per-gallon gas and pig out at the all-you-can-eat sea food buffet at Arthur Treacher’s. See ya in the Big Easy!