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September 30, 2008

I Have Tried To Ignore Palin. Really. I Have!

Like nearly everyone else in the country, I watched Governor Sarah Palin's disastrous interview with Katie Couric last week. We were presented with the Republican Vice Presidential nominee haltingly throwing up GOP talking points as if her answers were constructed of refrigerator political poetry magnets, regardless of the questions asked. I recognized the halting, yet cocksure, demeanor immediately. It was the very same look I had my sophomore year in high school when I showed up for my Civ oral exam completely unprepared, unorganized, and (quite frankly) fucked. Here was the woman who would be, if the GOP has its way, a single heartbeat away from running the United Stated of America, trying with great effort to bullshit her way through an interview for which she was woefully unprepared.

This doesn't even begin to describe the ridiculous things she actually said.

Immediately, she came under reasonable fire from the media as being unqualified for the job for which she is stumping. Even Kathleen Parker, in the unquestionably conservative National Review, called her a candidate "Clearly Out of Her League" and suggested she remove herself from the ticket (this before writing my favorite line from the entire election cycle to date: "If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself").

I had no need to comment on the McCain campaign's desperate ploy to get the Evangelical vote or its truly sexist attempt to woo Clinton supporters (as if one vagina can be interchanged with another). I had no need to comment on Palin, as I had a feeling, if given enough interview rope, she would hang herself. Today, however, I am beginning to feel as if some commentary from the peanut gallery is warranted.

To this point, Palin has been shielded from the media to an unprecedented degree. I can not think of a single example of politician in the midst of a critical campaign who has made him/herself so unavailable to the press. Either the McCain campaign thinks she is too delicate or too unqualified to face responsible scrutiny. Neither of those reasons bode well for her role in the Executive office.

Now she has been trotted out, again, before Katie Couric in a short interview granted CBS News last night. There was McCain sitting beside her, ready to jump in to her rescue if need be. And he did. It was embarrassing to watch, but more telling, it gave Palin the opportunity to show a very mean spirited attitude toward the very same people she hopes will put her in office. Namely, the voter.

Did you catch that? Apart from the entire, "Ignore what she said! Ignore what she said! She doesn't agree with Obama! You MEAN journalists with your GOTCHA! Journalism! How dare you!" argument, which is patently absurd and purposefully obfuscating, there was a quieter and more depressing message. A voter flat out asked her a policy question, a question that the media would ask her themselves were they able to gain access. What are you going to do about the cross border attacks originating from the Waziristan region of Pakistan? Palin took a mocking tone as if the voter had absolutely no right whatsoever to put her on the spot (1:46-1:53). The NERVE of that voter to *gasp* challenge her while she glad hands the people.

Guess what, Ms. Palin? You are running for Vice President of the United States. You actually HAD better have an answer to Pakistan. Our complicated relationship with Pakistan is one of the most pressing issues we face as a nation today and, believe it or not, having an opinion, a philosophy, and an idea of where it is on the map is not only part of your new job description (I know, I know, you don't even know what that is), but is a concern of the voters. Not just to the coastal, liberal, elitists you and your party regularly mock and deride, but also to the "reg'lar Americans", men and women, who have children in the military and who historically vote republican.

There were many moments in that interview that I found distasteful and disingenuous, but those few seconds, where Palin shows her true colors as to what she really thinks of the people on who she depends for her office, reconfirms my suspicions that the McCain/Palin campaign slogan "Country First!" is just a sad joke.

Posted by bethamsel at 12:52 PM

September 27, 2008

Robert Ito's Beautiful Piece on David Foster Wallace

Robert Ito has written a beautiful piece in Salon about David Foster Wallace's last few weeks and I want to share it with you. It sheds quite a bit of light on the terminal nature of clinical depression and shows how one family loved and cared for their suffering son in the end stage of his illness.

If you know someone who is under depression's heel, do not be afraid to step in and help in any small way you can. Often it's impossible for the person afflicted to do even the most simplest of day to day tasks that most people take for granted, let alone the monumental step of reaching out and asking for assistance. The following are excellent resources for learning more about clinical depression:

The Last Days of David Foster Wallace by Robert Ito.

Thanks to bitchphd over at Bitch Ph.D. for the heads up.

Posted by bethamsel at 1:29 PM

September 25, 2008

Christianity, Racism, Stupidity (not in that order)

I don't have a great deal of experience with Christianity apart from reading the bible in sophomore Civ class and taking a Reformation seminar to fill a requirement for my history degree. I may have been born a jew, but I never received much of a religious education beyond learning the difference between a bagel and a bialy (yum). I do, however, love to read and from what I can gather, the teachings of Christ revolve around being goodly, tolerant, reserved of judgement, loving, kind, and faithful. It would seem to me that a Christian education would involve teaching children the importance of being good, not because it gets you into heaven ("Small is the gate, and narrow is the road that leads to life"), but because it is love of the lord and selfless service to fellow man.

That being said, I am not sure how to digest the events that took place yesterday on the campus of George Fox University, an institution Forbes.com rated the highest among western Christian Universities (so says the GFU website). According to Suzanne Pardington of The Oregonian, early Tuesday morning a campus custodial crew discovered a life sized, cardboard cutout of Barack Obama hanging from a tree with a sign attached to the effigy stating "Act Six Reject." This was a mock lynching on one of the country's premier Christian Universities. This is not Oxford, Mississippi in 1962. This is Newberg, Oregon in 2008. I barely have the stomach to talk about it, I am so disgusted and dispirited. I know, I know that the actions of one do not represent the body as a whole, but if this is the kind of hatred that simmers on the campuses of Christian colleges, then something has gone terribly, tragically wrong.

Act Six is an incredible, full ride scholarship program for, in the words of its mission statement, "emerging urban leaders who want to use their college education to make a difference on campus and in their communities at home." (Oh, no! Not those slacker, "community organizers"!) GF University is home to a small number of Act Six scholarship recipients, but apparently even a dozen students of color are too many for certain members of that (Christian) community.

Kids do stupid shit. That's a given. At twelve, I took my parents ancient Honda out for a 2 am joy ride while they were out of town (first gear, baby!). This, however, is so profoundly racist and classist, so fucking stupid, I can't find a single cell in my body that feels anything but contempt for the system that raised the shit who did this deed. Children's actions do not develop out of a vacuum. I can guarantee you that the Aurora, CO fifth grader who went to school last week wearing a homemade t-shirt stating Obama a terrorist’s best friend (sic) didn't come up with that one on his own. He absorbed the hatred and abject ignorance from his parents (just the way I thought, in fourth grade, that Ronald Reagan was a GREAT president because my mother said so twelve times a day). Because the coward, the so-called, self identifying Christian who mock lynched Obama did so in the dead of night, who knows if he/she is just following in his/her family's footsteps, but it doesn't bode well for either his/her future or ours as a nation.

I would like to give Americans the benefit of the doubt. Christ, I would like to give Christianity the benefit of the doubt. One of the loveliest men I know, a truly funny, smart, kind and gracious person, is an ex-priest who worked his butt off for twenty years keeping the homeless fed and warm down at the Denver Catholic Mission. His life inspires me. The events yesterday at George Fox University do nothing other than depress the shit out of me. So much for racism being a horrifying thing of a distant past.

Thanks to M. LeBlanc over at Bitch Ph.D. for the heads up

Posted by bethamsel at 7:11 PM

September 24, 2008

Farewell Yankee Stadium

My father was an unabashed, lifelong Yankees fan. He was born at the very dawn of the depression and lived in a one room tenement with his father and mother (and, later, with a beauty of a little sister) on Coney Island in Brooklyn. By all rights, he should have been a Dodgers fan, but he had a slew of beloved aunties in the Bronx who knew a thing or two about where a very poor young boy could go to get a bit of relief from the larger world about. He would take the train up to see his mother's sisters and they would give him a quarter to go sit in the bleachers and watch Lou Gehrig, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, and Charlie Keller swing in one frame and Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez hurl in the other. It was there on July 4th, 1939, that my 9 year old father watched a graceful Lou Gehrig tell a weeping audience that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Even as a man leaning into twilight, my father could not recount that day without shaking hands and a breaking voice.

It's not surprising that my father spent his career at a hospital in the South Bronx, a mile and a half from the House That Ruth Built. In the hot summers, during a particularly good homestand, my father would often take me to work with him, bundling me into the backseat of his car at six in the morning, so that we could go straight to a Yankee game in the evening. I slept unaware as he listened to Johnny Mathis on the tape deck, starting and stopping and starting and stopping on the Long Island Expressway and the Cross Island. He would wake me up to look at the sky when we crossed the Whitestone Bridge, flying above the western tip of the Long Island Sound, before launching onto the insanity that is the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Once parked, he would hold my hand tightly and guide me through the Emergency Room, past stab wounds and gsw's, screaming loved ones and jittering addicts handcuffed to green metal chairs, past hulking police officers and afro coiffed case workers, all while various members of law enforcement and hospital staff would wave their salutations and call out, "Good Morning, Dr. Amsel," in accents like song.

Up the ancient service elevator we slowly ascended, in the potent cocktail of lysol, bleach, and the metal tint of blood. My father's suite of offices was located at the end of an institutional green tiled hall. Behind a thick wood and leather padded door sat a huge oak desk with a soft felt ink blotter covering the center of its surface and plush arm chair that seemed to take up the entire room to this seven year old. There I was left to draw, write, doctor to imaginary patients, and browse through his incomprehensible medical books and journals (no wonder I was obsessed with his PDR years down the line) while he went about his day. I would memorize six syllable medical terms to regurgitate later in the evening, pretending I knew their precise meaning, in hope of impressing him with my impossibly advanced vocabulary (all it did was give his false hope that I would one day be a lawyer, of all things).

I was doted on by the nursing staff, who came into my father's office through out the day to rub my cheeks and sing my name, pull their fingers through my course and curl matted hair, slip me stuffed creatures from the hospital gift store, and check to see if I wanted a ginger and sugar cane candy brought from home. Of everyone, Saundra, my father's office manager and the woman who made his day run as smoothly as a clock, was my favorite. She had an animated speaking voice shot through with laughter and exasperation and soft hands that held mine when I needed to go to the bathroom. She put up with this little girl who often sat beside her desk and put her head next to her typewriter, begging for just one more sheet of paper.

By the time my father was through with his patients, his med students, and his residents, I imagine the Yankee game must have been a sweet reward. He wore his wallet in his back pocket attached to his bell bottom jean belt loops by a chain (he was so ahead of the hipster cool curve), and I would latch my hand to the chain as he held me tightly to his side for the return journey through the hall, down the elevator, and across the ER. In the Bronx, in the 70's, in the summer, in the early evening, the ER moved from simmer to boil and my father hustled me through the chaos, often lifting me off my feet and squeezing me like a mouse in his haste. It was something akin to the mommy arm in the car (which he did as well), just a little bit more protection from the world.

That car smelled like an old coffee filter, the one you're shocked to discover is still in the drip machine when you get home from vacation. Spilled on the carpet, spilled on the seat upholstery, affixed like shellack to the door handles, splattered up onto the inside of the windshield, thinly coating the radio display, coffee was the olfactory soundtrack to my father's life. This was an era before cup holders had been invented ("Genius!") and my father was worthless without a pot in him, so the car was, thanks to Dunkin Donuts, ground zero. To this day, I am never as happy or heartbroken than that first second after breaking the seal on a vacuum pack of coffee beans. That is my father entering the room to devastate me in his absence.

If I thought I would be crushed when my father was escorting me out of the hospital, that was incomparable to the seething mass at Yankee Stadium. 57,546 New Yorkers at the end of a hot day, all pressed in close proximity. Under any other circumstances, tempers would be like dry kindling next to track, but all discomfort was forgotten in the rush of anticipation keen on the coming game. This was a Yankee game! Every hard ass transformed into a giddy kid (well, a giddy kid with a 16 ounce beer in tow). My father would grip my tiny hand so tightly, the fingernails turned blue, my arm extended practically out of the socket. Up, up, up the raucous crowd wound toward their place in the stands, every so often the hooting and shouting and laughing punctuated by a loud, "MOOOOOOOO!" followed by more laughter. On one such migration up to our seats, I actually lost a mary jane and in the crush my father made the executive decision to save our lives and abandon it to the thousands of feet behind us. "Leave it," he ordered in his most stern, scary dad voice. He carried me for the rest of the night, something I thought was royal at the time, but now, with the eyes of an adult (who carries alcohol gel in her pocket), I can see that he was simply terrified I would contract typhus, antibiotic resistant staph, or some other fierce, mutated germ swimming in the perfect growth medium of beer, soda and cotton candy coating the cement floors.

I remember very little of the games themselves. What I am left with are vivid, childhood snapshots that are just now beginning to curl at the edges. My father jumping to his feet with every dramatic swing or play or strike out (something I have inherited, which scares the living shit out of Stella). The first time I ever saw a grown up projectile vomit (across three boxes, I might add). The pink tiles in the women's bathrooms. The bright, bright sodium lights that collected moths by the millions. The first time I ever saw a grown man cry (to the National Anthem). The Red Sox and The Yankees clearing the benches to duke it out on the infield (which then led to the first time I ever saw a grown man, in the adjacent seats, throw a punch). Thurman Munson's tragic death and Reggie Jackson's impossible swing. My grandfather cursing Billy Martin and occasionally attending a game with us in his own world, listening to the radio broadcast commentary through the single ear piece attached to his transistor radio (the one with the flesh colored, curly cord). Goose Gossage's and, later, Dave Mattingly's mustache (or for that matter, any and all of the '70's porn staches). The sweetly grotesque pastiche of beer, hot dogs, mustard, soft pretzels, spun sugar cotton candy, popcorn, cracker jacks, peanuts, soda, and ketchup. My father, happy.

I haven't yet been able to watch the last game played at Yankee Stadium or the ceremonial tributes broadcast on ESPN prior to the game. The six or so hours are still sitting on our TiVO, waiting for a day when I have the energy to mourn and cheer and weep, when I am ready to say goodbye. I know, I know, it's not the original Yankee Stadium, but it's my Yankee Stadium and within it rest the ghosts of my father through all the stages of his life, from an immigrant's son in short pants and no coat, to a poor city college student, to the beloved father, grandfather, and doctor that he became. Within it rest the ghosts of a youngest daughter, precocious and precious, as unblemished as an unlit taper, and as full of potential as a seed. And as I round the bend into my late thirties, I am beginning to glimpse exactly how often we each leave those ghosts like silk tendrils trailing out behind us to occupy not just our own memories but those whose lives we transverse.

Posted by bethamsel at 4:45 PM

September 15, 2008

Rest In Peace David Foster Wallace

In 1996, I was living out of the original white Egg while trying to find my footing in New England, playing open mics, and crashing with various friends, acquaintances, and family. One of my oldest friends, Josh, was living in Binghamton, NY at the time and not only did he have a particularly comfortable grey sectional couch (very square, very post modern), but one of the very best bookshelves to be found east of Cody's. Out of all the places I anchored in that era, Josh's house was where I always tried to linger longest, coming up with excuse after excuse to delay my departures (I didn't have enough money to get up to my sister's, I was feeling a cold coming on, it looked like rain). I played Myst on his computer for a dozen hours at a time (talk about binary crack), devoured his books, and wrote a big chunk of what would end up on my first record. Josh also had a subscription to Harper's Magazine and in the course of passing through that spring, I came across the January issue that featured in its Folio section an essay titled Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise. This was my introduction to David Foster Wallace and I was floored.

Wallace's writing was the perfect, delicious mix of pop culture, keen critical eye, wicked humor, and philosophical rhetoric. You could cut a single sentence with a knife and fork and have an entire meal. Wallace left no tangent unturned and his use of references and footnotes was a brilliant literary style that, to this reader, exploded linear exposition. It wasn't just that he turned a jaundiced eye upon American culture, but poked it with a stick to see what would happen. Wallace's writing was riddled with irony years before it became a slick, culture costume (or straightjacket, for that matter), but underneath it all was a strong vein of humanity, the very thing that most hipster writers (Brett Easton Ellis, I am looking right at you) were desperate to drain in their own work. I wanted to be a mere shadow of the writer I read in his works and I embarrassingly aped his verbose prose. He was a Gen-X scribe through and through and I was in love.

In that pre-google era, I scoured Josh's bookshelves and discovered The Broom of the System and newly published Infinite Jest. I wouldn't say that I palmed them, but I am not certain Josh ever got either book back. From then on, I looked forward to every essay and published work Wallace put out with something akin to birthday anticipation and the man never let me down.

The news of Wallace's suicide over the weekend feels devastating. Wallace had an inordinate sharp talent and had an inestimable effect on not just the literary landscape, but the cultural map. I simply can not fathom that I will never again crack a spine that bears the name David Foster Wallace.

More intimately, I feel bereft at the depth to which he must have been suffering. Depression is a cruel bitch, as patient as death, as suffocating as a vacuum, and longer legged than eternity. In the midst of it, there is no light at the end of the tunnel and certainly no quick fix. It's a fate I wish on no one. I don't know why depression so often seems to go in lock step with creativity, but the line between the spark and the snuff seems so thin. I don't, however, buy into the "mad genius" theory. I speak only for myself, but when you're in the grip of what makes you feel as if you want to dig a hole in the back yard and cover yourself over with heavy, cold dirt just to quiet the ceaseless pain that seems to have no origin other than your very own visceral self, there's no creating. It's like hanging on for dear fucking life. It is just terribly sad that there isn't a better floatation device waiting in the wings. Simply put, David Foster Wallace's suicide is fucking heartbreaking.

Posted by bethamsel at 12:10 PM

September 13, 2008

To California And Back

Jim and I have just rolled in from our two week California trip and after twenty-four hours in the Egg, we're just about wrecked. It was a little business, a little vacation, and a wonderful visit with family all with a gorgeous coastal backdrop. Elephant seals! Dolphins! Sea otters! Mamma and baby antelope! Ok, the antelope were in Utah this morning, but it was a fitting Mutual of Omaha moment to end a beautiful trip.

There is so much news coming at us these days but I have been on a bit of a media black out while traveling. I'll write more after a shower and a meal that doesn't come out a cooler. I have some reading to do!


Posted by bethamsel at 8:08 PM

September 1, 2008

Abortion & Birth Control, Part I

Let's face it, abortion is a highly personal and intimate topic of conversation, especially considering the details, yet is it bandied about like a barbed political football and used as weaponry more often than an educational tool. There are two fiercely vocal opponents who sit across the coliseum from one another and you can bet your sweet ass never the twain shall meet. I have been considering posting on abortion for years but have instead engaged in an internal debate over such a post's appropriateness and/or my willingness to have my views on such a personal topic aired publicly. After all, if a woman chooses to have an abortion, it's her private choice to do so and it is her business alone. What does talking about it achieve? Will people be less likely to come hear me sing? Will I sell less records if I am vocal about my views? Will I become a target? What right do I, as a singer-songwriter, have to discuss such a highly private, yet politically polarizing topic.

Well, damn. I could sit on my hands and continue to debate the issue till the proverbial cows come home or I could open the conversation and get the ball rolling. I have been a political junkie for much longer than I have been a singer-songwriter and I have been female from the first pitch. On more than one occasion I have stood on stage and grabbed my boobs in the course of telling a story about something (more often than not, a story not actually involving breasts). I guess in light of the recent Bush administration's quiet attempts to limit birth control or family planning of any kind, it is time for me to stand up for ALL of my body parts.

On July 15, the New York Times reported on a leaked internal Department of Health and Human Services draft proposal that ostensibly had to do with non-discrimination hiring policies. Sounds innocuous enough, right?

Part Two coming soon....

Posted by bethamsel at 1:49 PM