27 August 2009

Japan elections - Update - 30-Aug-09 21:14 PST

UPDATE (30-Aug-09, 21:14 PST) - results are in, and it's a WOLLOP: The DPJ has won 308 seats, the Communists 9 seats, and the Social Democratic Party is on 7. Anything over 300 would be considered a landslide. Let's see what the DPJ can do - their challenges are huge.

Japan goes to the polls on Sunday, have you heard?

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party ("LDP") has been in power pretty much since the end of WWII (except for 10 months in the 90's), and they've had a good run. A small, crowded island nation absolutely devastated by war, with no natural resources, managed to make itself into the 2nd largest economy in the world behind only the United States - a position it still holds, depending on how you count the EU. It's an achievement unparalleled in human history, and one of which the Japanese people are justifiably proud. The Japanese in their 70's in Japan - those born in the 40's - were born into an impoverished, humiliated nation hated by its neighbors; experienced food rationing for decades; and were saddled with a government structure they didn't choose. Despite this, they toiled and sacrificed and rebuilt, giving their children more prosperity than nearly anyone on the planet had ever achieved. They had participatory electoral politics, broadly recognized freedoms of expression and association, and an independent judiciary. They worked long days for the new emerging industries and saw as a common goal the achievements of the nation. Their children continued the social contract - working very hard their whole lives for country and employer, still often conflated, knowing that they had social peace, liftetime employment, security and prosperity. Their grandkids, however - well, not so much. Which collapsed first - the social contract or the broad consensus among Japanese to support it? The end of lifetime employment or the broad Japanese commitment to working uninteresting jobs for a lifetime? Good question, and one for a PhD in socio-economics thesis.

In 2009, the Japanese economy is in a mess. Headline from today's Japan Times reads: "Unemployment hits all time high of 5.7%" - not exactly what you want to hear if you're the ruling party heading into an election on Sunday.

The graphic to the left shows what economic growth has looked like in Japan since their own bubble burst in 1991 - a cautionary tale for Mr. Obama and economic policy makers in DC, perhaps - and it's been grim. Stagflation, deflation, a collapse of exports as local competitors have underbid them and oversold them, and a sclerotic political system with a complete inability to reform itself have all left Japan with decreasing confidence, stagnant prosperity, increasing unrest, unemployment, and poverty, and the social problems concomitant with each.

As if that weren't enough, Japan has absolutely no plan to deal with its own depopulation. Its domestic market is shrinking, its population is greying, and its culture has so far been hyper resistant to solutions to declining populations that other nations have pursued - i.e., immigration. Until some political party or leader is willing to talk about this elephant in the room - Japan's population is predicted to contract under 110 million, down from over 140 million, in twenty years - there is likely little that a new ruling coaltion (or government, if the predictions of voter anger at the LDP are accurate and the DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] wins a majority outright) can do to alter the landscape of Japan's economic malaise.

Election results should start coming in around 5 pm PST (Sunday, 30-Aug). Stay tuned...

16 August 2009

Perfect Day - Idaho Springs, Spring, 1993

(First of an occasional series)

On a Thursday in the Spring of 1993, my boyfriend Stevie was waiting for me at the baggage claim of the old Stapleton Airport as I returned from a long recruiting trip to SoCal. By the way he was dressed – leather jacket and not his usual faux-Mexican, faux-hemp, red and maroon woven pullover hoodie (which was as attractive as it sounds) – I knew he was on his bike. I had a bag of dirty clothes and a bulky case of materials , and we clearly couldn’t get them anywhere on his motorcycle. He told me that the death van wasn’t running (in addition to his less-than-reliable 1981 Honda motorcycle he had a white 1973 Ford Econoline van, inside of which he often stored his 1981 Honda motorcycle, leaky oil and gas lines and all: hence the sobriquet of “death van,”) so we’d be on the bike.

He kissed me hello, like he always did, and we looked at each other, thinking, waiting for the other to suggest a solution. It was a cloudless, stunning day like they get in Denver, and it was warm in the big, well-worn room that held the United baggage carousels. I was tired but it was good to be home, and it was really good to see him. I didn't want to go into work, telling myself that I'd be useless anyway, as tired as I was. I was easy pickin's.

“Good day for a ride," he drawled. "Wanna just throw your stuff in a locker and let’s go to Beau Jo's?” I went to a payphone to call the office and ask for the rest of the day off; I dragged the warmest clothes I had out of my luggage and went into the bathroom to change; and I stuffed the still balky bags into a couple of the coin lockers at the airport. I was ready. We took off west up I-70.

I'd met Stevie on Thanksgiving night, 1992, shooting pool at the Metro, a divey (mostly) gay bar a few blocks from my studio apartment in downtown Denver. I couldn’t afford to go back to Indiana that year for the holiday, but honestly I hadn't wanted to; it was just a year after my mom had died and at the nadir of my relationship with my dad. So I was by myself in a bar on Thanksgiving night, and I was in a good mood - better than might be surmised given the circumstances. It was a beautiful night - quiet, snowy, mellow.

Stevie had come in after I’d already shot a few games of pool, in time to watch me lose three consecutively despite being up big. I'd learn that he always watched his opponents for a few games before putting his name or quarters up; it stretched his pool money. As he wrote his name on the board for next, he said to me, “Do you always lose by scratching on the 8?” I laughed, told him that I had a lot of ways to lose, and asked if he wanted to play doubles.

I thought he was straight and that we were just two dudes shooting pool – at that time I was completely incapable of talking to guys I was attracted to, so it was like I was at the Wazee Supper Club or a sports bar. I was more comfortable with straight guys, and there was nothing more natural for me than to shoot a few games of pool with someone I'd just met in a bar, so that's what we did. In the way of conversations with strangers over pool and Millers we didn't talk too much. I asked him if he had a good Thanksgiving, and after a thoughtful pause he replied: “The most gluttonous, overfed nation on earth celebrates the one national day a year of giving thanks by overeating.” His disbelief was almost tangible.

We were the last two at bar time, having annoyed the bartender with requests for change enough that he had unlocked the quarter slot on the table so that it was free, and Stevie and I closed the place and went to the Village Inn (think a shabby Denny’s), on his suggestion, and shot the shit some more. We got onto sustainability, the environment, the efficacy of small actions in the face of global challenges, and the qualities that make a life good. It was one of those conversations that reminded me of the joy that can be found just in the art of it. When we finished it was after 3:00 a.m., and he asked if he could crash at my place since he had taken the bus into town from Aurora and they didn't start running again until 5:00. I lived just a few blocks away at 9th and Sherman, so I said “Sure, but I don’t have a bed – I just sleep on the floor. Is that cool?”

“Do you have heat?” (I later learned why he asked about the heat – the trailer he was sharing with his crazy boss from the Video Store was barely heated, and then only in the common areas.)

“Sure it’ll be fine, then.”

We walked through the deserted snowy streets to my place, thinking more than talking at this point, took the elevator up to 8, and went in. We kicked off our shoes and he went over to the window to look at the view through the wall of windows that faced northwest - from the illuminated capitol dome on the right edge to Boulder and Longs Peak and the lights from I-70 heading past Red Rocks on the left edge. He offered to help, but stopped midway as he was putting a pillow case on a naked pillow, watching me make up two places to flop. He let his arms and the pillow they were holding fall limp, faced me, and said, slowly, “I was hoping to sleep with you.”

Me, wordlessly, “Oh…”

He was looking right into my eyes and it was at that point I noticed how blue his were, and how perfect his smile was, and how his nose suited him perfectly, and how he held himself with such presence. Like shuffling together two halves of a deck of cards I made one place to sleep from two, and we crawled in. Neither of us was cold.

Stevie was from Huntsville, Alabama, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He introduced me to Carlos Castaneda, and the Cocteau Twins, and Laurie Anderson, and the concepts of Gaia and chakras and vegetarianism as environmentalism. He was absolutely fearless, not giving a fuck what anyone thought of him and always saying what he thought. He got closer to being in more fights than anyone I’d ever met, let alone dated. He had shaggy blond hair, he stood half an inch shorter than me, he was well built, and he knew that most people wouldn't peg him as gay. He didn't "look gay," whatever that meant, and he truly reveled in the moments that arose from the tension that many people felt between how he looked and how he self-identified. (And before you say that I didn't think he was gay so I must have some assumptions about how a gay man might look or act, let me say that I think everyone is straight unless they tell me or they sleep with me. Ask my friends: I have the worst gaydar in the world.)

I didn't have a car so he drove a lot, and I didn't (and still don’t) know how to drive a motorcycle so he always drove when we were on the bike. I’d sit on back, and after the time he told me, with that sly grin of his, that a straight dude would hold onto the bars of the seat instead of the driver, I’d grab him firmly around the waist and lean onto him. If I were cold I'd put my hands under his sweatshirt, and if I didn't have gloves I'd put them under his t-shirt next to his hairless, pale skin. He never complained.

He only had one helmet so we’d alternate who got to wear it, agreeing that if we were in a fiery crash and the helmet-less one died there’d be no survivor guilt - hey, it could have been the other one. On that Perfect Day he didn’t have it with him. Neither of us died.

The whole time we were together we were hopelessly and perpetually broke. I was making just over $15k/year as an entry level admissions counselor, and he was working two part-time jobs: as a clerk at a video rental place (where they also rented VCRs), and as a cook at an Italian restaurant (from where he would bring home meals that had been “messed up” just before closing). We had good, free Italian food three nights a week and free movies anytime we wanted them; effectively, he kept me well fed and entertained, which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. He brought home "River's Edge" and "Birdy" and "Baghdad Cafe" from the video store, and other stuff I'd never have seen without his influence. He would humor me with every French film in the collection, and he brought home a Wham! concert VHS tape once, too. He was a good sport about it.

Because we were so broke we'd always have a couple drinks at home before going out and we’d never pay a cover, going mostly to one or two little divey bars for cheap pool and beer. If we went out to eat it was to the cheap Mexican place on the corner where they got to know us and would hook us up with extra rice and beans. Many nights we'd never make it out, curling up instead in the blankets on the floor of my studio, looking out at the lights of Denver and the snow on the mountains. Driving up the hill into the mountains for pizza and beer was extravagant in the way that a 40-mile road trip is when you’re broke; it was scintillating in the way that days are when you're supposed to be at work, and 24, and really digging the dude you're with.

Thinking back I can imagine how we looked when we’d be out: impossibly young, possibly together, and him a badass who could run a pool table more times than not, particularly if someone made him angry or was being, in his words, “dick-y” or “redneck-y” (which was a special subset of “dick-y”). We shot a lot of pool, and he was even more competitive than me. He liked to look up at me as he was lining up a shot and blow me a kiss, or wink, showily, if he thought it would unnerve anyone. He would thicken his Southern accent and move even more languidly than his usual slow pace, and if he didn't like the people we were playing, or if he got a whiff of homophobia from them, he would make quick work of them and kiss me, open-mouthed, after the game, so whoever it was knew they'd just lost to homos. Don't think I didn't freakin' love it, cuz I did.

That’s who met me on that Perfect Day, and who suggested we go for a ride up the hill. As I said, I was easy pickins.

I guess, after all of that, the day itself doesn't matter, it was Stevie and the time with him that just coalesced that day. We made the drive, me wrapped around him as he drove his bike, engine complaining, up the mountains past Golden and Red Rocks and into the cold. We first went to a bar for a pitcher and pool, and he had a great day. We played for over two hours and only paid twice, and I didn't need to make too many shots. When we were buzzed and starving we walked next door for Beau Jo's pizza and ate our fill, holding hands across the table the whole time. We drove just out of town, parked the bike under a tree, shared a bowl, and dozed off, entwined for warmth, and love. We roused ourselves as the sun was setting, got back on his bike, and rode back down the hill - to Denver, to my luggage, to his late shift, to our pedestrian lives which we'd forgotten. 

It was unplanned, and it was perfect.

I don't want to imply that Stevie is one who got away. I loved Stevie and found him beautiful, and compelling, and he felt the same, I guess. He could be so sweet and thoughtful it could melt your heart - when Kurt Cobain died he called in sick to work and was waiting at my apartment for me, knowing I'd be upset and would want him there - but he was also taciturn, hot-tempered, and impulsive. He was pretty much the archetypal bad boy. For my part, I was a very young 24, and had no idea what a long term, serious relationship would look like with him, despite my feelings.

When his grandma died and he couldn't afford to go home for the funeral, I got him a round trip ticket home on flight miles. I realized immediately it was the wrong thing to do. It was too extravagant of a gift for two broke-ass early 20-somethings, and it put too much pressure on the relationship. We couldn't be equals from that point from his perspective - not said but understood - despite the general disdain he held for money and the stuff that it got you. He drove back, three weeks later, with an ex-, and that pretty much wrapped it up for us. We kept in touch for a few years - we made each other think, we respected each other, we always had a good time - but I've not heard anything from him for well over a decade. And that's okay.

And as I think back to our time together and all the gifts he gave me, which were many, I'm still most grateful for that one, perfect day.

10 August 2009

Heating up after a slow start

I love hurricane season - not that I would wish lethal destruction on anyone, but c'mon, the intersection of maps and science is pretty cool.

And after no storms in the Atlantic and a few far from land in the Pacific, the 2009 season is heating up. Tropical Storm (formerly hurricane) Felicia is bearing down on Hawai'i, and there are some hot spots lining up in the Atlantic.
The NOAA Hurricane Center website is here; you can roll your mouse over the colored areas for more info on the storms, or potential storms.

It's a matter of time, of course, before the big one hits - yes, Katrina was a terrible disaster in terms of human costs, and it was great fun blaming the victims there for that one, right?
Just wait until a storm that size directly hits Houston, the 6th largest metro area in the country with 5.7 million people at 0-83 feet above sea level (shown above, with all that water in Galveston Bay), or Miami (#7, 5.4 million, 0-30 feet), or Tampa-St. Petersburg (#19, 2.7 million, satellite image below left showing elevation - think what a storm surge with a category 4 will do when it hits Tampa Bay), or Jacksonville (1.5 million, 0-40 feet).

We are simply not prepared.
We are overbuilt.

We are facing subsidence due to taking out too much fresh water from underground aquifers.
We are facing global climate change, and warmer water is more conducive to the formation and sustenance of hurricanes.

So even if you live inland, or on the Left Coast, keep your eyes on the NOAA site, and check back frequently. It's going to happen, and it might be this year.

03 August 2009

Open letter to University of Hawai'i-Mānoa's AD

Here's the original incident.

Here's a story on the reaction.

Here's my letter to the AD:

To: athdir@hawaii.edu
Date: Fri, 31 Jul 2009 22:32:36 -0700
Subject: Coach McMackin's comments

Dear Mr. Donovan -

I am writing to express my deep concern and disappointment over Coach's comments at the WAC media day. They were disgusting and have no place in public discourse, but what is more troubling is that his cavalier use of a deeply offensive epithet seems to betray an attitude that has no place at an institution of higher learning.

As gay man I was shocked when I heard it; as an alumnus (MURP '05) I was particularly offended.

I am a sports fan, and as such I have learned that I need to be thick skinned against the stream of comments that I hear while watching a game in a stadium, arena, restaurant or bar. It's commonplace enough in a bar to hear "faggot" when a player drops a ball or a ref makes a bad call, and that's bad enough. I feel it, each time, despite my best efforts. But for a state employee and educator at the state's flagship institution to refer to something that he considered less than whatever his ideal of masculinity may be as "faggot" isn't just unacceptable - it's just stunning.

Insert any other epithet and he'd be gone tomorrow. Think about it - run through them, the worst word for race and gender you can think of, and it makes your skin crawl, doesn't it? A firing in that case would be appropriate. I guess that it's still okay to vilify and denigrate gays in athletics, and that's unacceptable.

Chances are very, very good that there's at least one young man on that team for whom this is a personal affront from a respected leader, teacher, and mentor - and state employee - and there is no question that at UH-Manoa there are gay male athletes. It's not a theoretical insult; it's real, personal and hurtful.

I can't express enough my disgust for Coach McMackin's comments; I can express my real disappointment at my alma mater's reaction.

I hope that the entire Athletics Office takes this as an opportunity to educate its educators on how to comport themselves in public, first - and further how to be real leaders for all students at the University.

I will monitor this story closely and hope to hear that more substantive steps are being taken to ensure that the University of Hawai'i is a safe place for all students, a place where all people are respected, and a place where no one - not even the head football coach - is above the rules of common decency and civility.

Steve Brennan