Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween in Chicago

Near the Navy Pier, this little girl in her wings -- like a Vivian Girl from a Henry Darger painting! -- was climbing a lamppost while her mother sat on a bench talking to another woman and watching the fiery waters come shooting up out of a fountain. They'd lit the water all molten lava colors for Halloween, and there was fog-machine mist pouring out too. But the winged girl was the enchanted thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sarah Palin, who understands it?

I watched an awful bit of video in which Sarah Palin called Joe the Plumber on stage, eyed his tight pants and shirt with a look that bordered on the lascivious, and said to the crowd at her rally, "Oh, I knew I'd like him -- Carrharts and steel-toed boots, he's one of us."

Here's my question: is this the gesture of a cynical politician who's manipulating the public by appealing to a lowbrow class-resentment, or is she an authentic populist fascist who believes what she says?

What do you think?

P.S. I know that neither answer makes one feel any better, but I'm still curious.

Dental Products and the Homosexual Agenda

My dentist in Houston is wonderful. When we talked about Halloween, he said he was thinking of going as Sarah Palin, but he wasn't sure. Turns out the local bars are expecting a huge turnout of Palin impersonators, so they're referring to the street party going on between the bars in Montrose as "the Night of a Thousand Sarahs."

On the way out I stopped to pay my bill, and there under glass on the counter is a correspondence between my dentist and Jerry Falwell. It took place during the heady days of TinkyWinky, and Bruce had written to Falwell to point out that dental dams were often lavender and that this might be a sign that those pushing the homosexual agenda had infiltrated the dental product industry. Falwell wrote back and thanked him for pointing this out, and said he'd pray for him.

Holy smoke.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Back in the USA

Ten hour flight today. I can report that there's a great article in the New Yorker this week (the issue with goblins being scared away by a couple of kids trick or treating as McCain and Palin on the cover!) about evangelical youth and sex, and how at risk those kids are because of not having access to birth control and because sex is so pressurized for them. It makes perfect sense, psychologically, but I was still startled to learn about the pregnancy rate of girls who take those virginity pledges. Kids who grow up under these anti-sex principles have a rate of unplanned pregnancy and of STDs much higher than for children of godless liberals; it's pretty fascinating. And I can report that Dr. Strangelove holds up very, very well, and Taxi Driver maybe doesn't; the former's dire wit seems just right for this moment, while the latter's portentous mood feels a little crazed.

And now I have had quite enough time zone crossing for a bit, and I'm glad to be on earth in newly cooled-down, autumnal Houston. Tomorrow: tux shopping, a student conference, a root canal, and a class on Whitman Whew.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

cultural literacy

Today I did two radio interviews, one for National Radio in Ireland, and one for Night Waves on the BBC's Radio 3. The Irish interview took place in a studio in Oxford, so I couldn't see my interviewer, just hear his voice as he delivered a set of questions and responses to my book THEORIES & APPARITIONS so insightful that I was happily taken aback. I don't think the book has found such an insightful, active reader, one who drew subtle connections, mapping out the architectural structure of the book with an acumen so sharp that I felt instructed about the poems myself. This just wouldn't happen, couldn't happen, in the U.S., not only because we simply don't have radio like this but also because we barely have such poetry critics.

Later, I went over to Broadcasting House in London -- see their moody, beautiful sculptural facade, above -- and appeared on Nightwaves, a wide-ranging cultural program. Present were a theatre critic talking about a production of Love's Labor Lost, a film historian discussing Hunger, a new documentary on an IRA hunger strike in an Irish prison, and yours truly. The interviewer handled all of us with equal ease, and he was consistently penetrating, charming and alert. We talked about John Berryman, Wordsworth, Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau. I couldn't help but think about the relative poverty of American cultural life by contrast; here was an urbane center, where arts and ideas of all sorts were held in esteem, and taken seriously through an attentive, critical, engaged examination.

And then I walked out, an hour later, into a snowstorm. Honest. It seemed the weirdest thing, the windshields of the parked cars all gone completely white.

Monday, October 27, 2008


It was the kind of London day when the weather seems to leak over from Amsterdam: big dramatic white clouds, with gray undersides, scuttling along quickly in cool dryish air, and the light somehow both very clear (picking out every detail on the buildings, especially when they're in the sun) and soft at once. It's exactly the kind of sky on those big Dutch pastoral scenes by Ruysdael, the ones with flat fields and bits of woods and clusters of cows under the big sky. And the same as in Vermeer's street scene in Delft, this light that's so paradoxically precise and kindly at once.

I had lunch at Villandry (like Dean & DeLucca with tables) with Robin Robertson, a wonderful Scots poet and my editor over here, and Fiona Sampson, a poet whose work is new to me and the editor of Poetry Review, and Hannah Ross, my publicist at Jonathan Cape. I got an earful of good gossip on British poetry, and then went to the Soho Gym in Covent Garden, which is a world center of beauty -- a high concentration of breathtaking fellows. I wandered around some Covent Garden stores before bravely (I thought) coming home on the bus. What is it about taking the bus in a strange town? Always that slight anxiety that it might go God knows where, and you wouldn't know where (or even how) to get off, or that everybody in the world but you knows how to pay the fare and what kind of ticket you need. Nobody tells you; people who ride the bus are supposed to know already. I confess I have never been on a bus in NYC in my whole life, and here I am riding from Trafalgar Square to Westminster to Pimlico.

A very desirable address

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Opinion poll! (thanks to C. Dale Young)

Who do you think should win the National Book Award in Poetry?

Year after year, we hear people say that such and such should have won, or I think blank should have won. Well, here is your chance to say who YOU think should win, not necessarily who will win.

Who should win the NBA for Poetry?
Frank Bidart for Watching the Spring Festival
Mark Doty for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems
Reginald Gibbons for Creatures of a Day
Richard Howard for Without Saying
Patricia Smith for Blood Dazzler

View Results

Create your own myspace poll

Time and Space

As I was getting ready to go meet my friends Kathy and Larry at the Tate Modern today, the clock on my computer said one thing, the clock on my (nonfunctional-in-the-UK) cell phone said another, and the clock on the kitchen stove still another. I decided to believe the cell phone, which was still on Houston time, added six hours, and headed for the museum. Victoria Station was insane, hundreds of people in line for very few trains, as there was some kind of melt-down or construction. I got a cab, and the driver and I talked about our favorite leather bars along the way, and got to the huge re-purposed power plant that's now the Tate. I waited on a parapet where you can look down onto people entering the vast hall where the turbines used to be. It's a long sloping vastness through which adults trudge, but when children enter this they just start running, spinning or dancing. From above, people seem to be knotting and unknotting in beautiful patterns; from that distance, you almost forget they're individuals. They seem like elements in a design that braids and refigures itself.

I watched this for a long time, looking up for my friends, and then a man asked me to take a picture of him and his wife, so I asked him what time it was, and discovered I'd arrived an hour early. I wandered around then came back, but this time Kathy and Larry were actually late, because of the train situation. So I watched the people some more, getting hypnotized by them, and when my lovely friends appeared I tried to explain to them how I didn't know what time it was, and I immediately realized that the import of this statement was not available from my words. I meant, I was detached from clock-time by travel, and then I was detached from body-time by watching the stream of the living in their black coats and red scarfs, weaving in and out, the babies tumbling on the floor, the happy fathers getting down there with them, people pushing wheelchairs down the ramp, people hurrying up and out into the rain.

iconic night landscape via cell phone

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Messages and Signs

I read tonight in London, at Poetry International, an every-other-year festival at the Southbank Centre on the Thames. It was a fine time; I walked over from where I'm staying, near the Tate Britain and the Vauxhall Bridge, along the South Bank. When you get to the London Eye it's a carnival, with an old merry-go-round spinning and a huge line of people waiting to go on the enormous super ferris wheel, which is white and looks both futuristic and industrial. I read with the Palestinian poet Mourid Bhargouti, the Byelorussian Valzynha Mort -- those two had subtitles projected -- and Jorie Graham. Jorie and I were jealous of the subtitles; there's something great about having your words appear in print as you speak.

All the poems I read were from THEORIES AND APPARITIONS, and they all concerned acts of speaking of one kind or another -- the little bat squeaking in the West Country, the boy in a Houston bookstore reciting Shelley, me yelling at a jerk on 8th Avenue who almost ran me over, the wily masseurs at the chi gong parlor getting Paul and me to fork over some serious cash. I was thinking about the way the poems concern utterances that either get heard by someone they aren't meant for, or are broadcast into the public sphere, or miss their targets, or don't say what they mean in the first place. It's the world of language as wilderness, the signs inscrutable or misleading, the speeches blowing around us like city trash.

And then I'm walking home and there's this girl standing on a median strip by herself, yelling into her cell phone. I thought only Americans did that. She's yelling over and over again, You sent me the same text message fifty times, stop it! You sent me the same text message fifty times, stop it! As she moves away her voice gets fainter. I'm pretty sure there's no one on the other end of the phone.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jesus, Walgreens

This morning I'm on foot in Houston, which means a whole different social world opens to me; there are so many cars here, and walking anyplace is basically discouraged by the physical design of the city. So, when you're on foot, you're with the homeless, the poor and the damaged. It's almost always instructive. I walked down to the copy shop on Westheimer, and on my way back passed a bus stop where a middle-aged black man was sitting in a small shelter. He looked at me and said loudly, "I don't care what anybody says, I'm going to keep on praying to Jesus and his big ass."

Then I stopped at Walgreen's to pick up some supplies for my trip, and the soothing commercial voice coming over the PA while you shop said, "Want to make your home more eerie? Walgreen's can help."

I bet.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dickinson and Rothko

Alice Fulton and Susan Howe gave superb readings tonight, at the Rothko Chapel here in Houston, as part of a cluster of events around Emily Dickinson's work this week at the U of H. The Rothko Chapel is different at night -- the artificial light doesn't show the pictures in as spooky and radiant a depth as they have in daylight -- but to make up for that there was a wild lashing rainstorm, so it felt like being in an ark while the thunder boomed outside. Five terrific grad students read a favorite Dickinson poem, and then Fulton and Howe read both ED and themselves. What I loved was the way that their talk about Dickinson somehow illuminated their own poems; it was as if we were allowed to see more deeply into each poet's work. Alice alternated between Dickinson and her own poems, so that her reading became a conversation. It's a splendid match, Dickinson and Fulton's verbal intelligence and inventiveness, and the ways that each poet reinvents punctuation, creating their own intricate formal structures. I loved the way Alice talked about her "brides" -- those intriguing double equal signs -- and knotted them to Dickinson's dashes. Susan read Dickinson first, and then launched into a reading from her brilliant SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT that was haunting and riveting. Somehow the light behind her work -- a particularly American radiance, like Dickinson's and Rothko's too -- seemed to come shining forth. It was a perfect night, though I got drenched on the way home despite a borrowed umbrella, and my car died, but somehow the poetry made the rest inconsequential.

Central Police Supply

In the middle of doing a lot of stuff to get ready to go to London -- haircut, dentist, cleaners -- I decided I wanted to look for some new boots. Someone recommended Central Police Supply, which is just what it sounds like. It's in the Heights, on the north side of downtown, so to get there you drive past the huge apartment complex that hides the cemetery where Howard Hughes is buried, and where a pack of coyotes is said to howl at night. Then through a battered but on-the-rise neighborhood, and just when the skyline looms big, there's the police supply store. It's full of guys. I'm trying on boots, they're trying on holsters, concealed weapons carriers, and bulletproof vests. They are being flirted with by a Latina salesperson who's wearing denim short-shorts and has a butterfly tattooed on her outer thigh. I am not being flirted with. They have short hair; I have short hair. They are very buff; I'm in decent shape myself. They are wearing tight jeans and navy blue t-shirts. I am, it turns out, wearing tight jeans and a navy t-shirt. Their shirts say, STATE TROOPER or HPD. Mine says POLAR BEARS FOR OBAMA.
It's a strange moment.

Another roadside attraction

Yesterday Charlie Alcorn drove me from Houston down to Victoria, Texas, where I spoke on Walt Whitman and did a reading in the early evening for an assembled group of citizens (they actually ARE called "Victorians"). I liked the open and eager faces of the high school kids I talked with in the afternoon, one of whom asked with with real sincerity how she could find her way into Whitman, how could she learn to read those poems? That seemed to me an honest and compelling question: how can I find a way to participate in what I don't know about yet, where is the door to this world you're pointing to?

On the way down, we stopped at a Czech bakery-coffee shop by the side of Highway 59 that was absolutely filled with dead animal presences -- rows of heads above the cooler case of beer and soda and Gatorade. Groups of older women, and men in cowboy hats, were sitting around drinking coffee from styrofoam cups surrounded by the stuffed corpses of deer. The strangest thing was that over the ATM, by the front door, was a mountain lion. Years ago, at the Desert Museum outside of Tucson, Paul and I walked up behind the mountain lion exhibit, to a small window in the back of a constructed cliff, where you could actually put your face to the one-way glass and look into the den of a couple of pumas. They were sleeping, in the heat of the day, sometimes a muscle flicking or a tail stirring; maybe they were dreaming. It was the most remarkable moment of intimacy, to be almost in the den, in their privacy and safety, in their cool cave. I wanted to write a poem about this but I've never been able to touch it. And here by the freeway, glass eyes, mouth in a fixed half-smile, screwed to the wall way up under the acoustic tiles. I thought I was in a Joy Williams story, in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD; I thought about Joy's sheer righteous anger and radical unsentimental compassion.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Prize Season

Tomorrow morning -- Tuesday the 20th of October -- there will be an ad in the arts section of The New York Times in celebration of FIRE TO FIRE having been named a finalist for the National Book Award. I am feeling pretty well spun around about this, especially since the "new poems" section of the book, published separately in the UK under the title THEORIES AND APPARITIONS, is a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize over there -- an annual award for the best book of the year.

Often literary prizes are about launching careers (people starting to notice that you're there, producing) and about crowning them (recognizing the cumulative accomplishments of the senior artist). I'm in that long, odd, sometimes happy, sometimes lunar landscape called "mid-career," nowhere near the beginnings of my art and (I hope) quite a ways from the end.

It's from this perspective that these nominations feel like such a huge boost -- a sign that someone's paying attention, that the life of making is seen and appreciated. I'm nominated along with four terrific poets -- among them Frank Bidart and Richard Howard, two of the finest writers of our times, each of whose work has provide lenses through which I see the world. And two more: Patricia Smith, whose fantastic book about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina is an unforgettable cycle of poems. And Reginald Gibbons, whose work I've been following for years. I couldn't be happier to be in this company. I'm going shopping for a new tux. November is going to be a huge adventure, and may it commence with an election to elevate our spirits and our hopes.

Patron Saint of Lost Things

In a convenience store on Westheimer, a row of candles dedicated to St Anthony of Padua; he was the only saint available in the store. Does this mean people lose a lot of things in Houston, so there's a steady neighborhood demand?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reading at AQLF, Sister SoAmI, and Absence Management

Below there's a shot of Paul reading last night at Outwrite Books in Atlanta; he's reading one of these moving, idiosyncratic prose pieces he's been writing, lyric meditations that think and sound like poems but (mostly) don't have linebreaks. It was a warm, good-natured evening, with readings by Sister SoAmI, Dan Vera, and Alex Sanchez. Dan read a delightful poem imagining Emily Dickinson giving a reading in Boston and having a little too powerful an effect on her audience. The bookstore was hopping and lively, and you could see people out on the sidewalk streaming past behind the readers, and it all felt nicely energetic.

Sister SoAmI (see below) is one of the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and she read a wonderful prose chronicle of the history of the order that somehow felt like manifesto and elegy at once.

And now I'm in a hotel room in Tulsa, just for tonight and most of the day on Saturday, for some more literary doings. Speaking of poetic, check out the mysterious portal in the photo above; it's an actual doorway in the Atlanta airport, though it seems like a surrealist office, or the visual equivalent of a Charles Simic poem. What could be behind it?

And I quote Sen McCain: "There's millions of words said in a campaign"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A grackle, a woman weeping, projection and big news

In the airport in Houston, I was waiting in the security line when I saw this bird, a boat-tailed grackle who'd somehow gotten into the terminal. He was flying from the windows on one side of the line to the windows on the other, and he would stop before he struck the glass -- he knew what he was doing -- and chut a few times as if calling to someone or stating his alarm. Then he'd fly to the other side again. Someone behind me said, He wants to go home, and that surprised me, because I was thinking, he wants to be free. Of course the person behind me wanted to go home, and I guess I must have wanted, at just that moment, some more freedom.

I was thinking about this on the plane, when a young woman across the aisle and row behind me began to weep uncontrollably. You could feel everyone not looking at her. I offered her the box of tissues I was carrying but she said No, thanks, and kept on crying. She was seated beside a man who was maybe traveling with her, maybe not. In a while I heard them talking. She said something about "tearing my heart out," he said something about "your episodes." I began to make up narratives about them: it was a break-up, or he was taking her to rehab or a hospital against her will, or he was a stranger hired by her family to take her someplace she's be deprogrammed. It wasn't until I stood up to leave the plane that I realized the man was probably her father, which suddenly placed the little quasi-narrative in a whole new light.

These two scenes had this in common: someone else's pain was flying above us or flowing around us, and we the spectators were trying to incorporate it in our lives by making a story, or we were making use of it to tell a story about ourselves.

This was on my mind when I walked onto the jetway, and stopped to claim my gate-checked bag, and my phone rang. It was Terry Karten, my editor at HarperCollins, calling to tell me FIRE TO FIRE was a finalist for the National Book Award. And after that, I can tell you, I barely had a thought in my head.

Monday, October 13, 2008

a male gorilla, courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society

This magnificent fellow lives in a region of the Congo where a large population of wild chimpanzees was recently discovered. The Wildlife Conservation Society -- the fine organization that runs the New York Aquarium and the Bronx Zoo -- is arranging a deal to protect this area from exploitation. Giving these people money immediately makes you feel you've done something for the world, which is not the easiest feeling to come by.


Without gorillas to look at, how would you ever find this stance in yourself: big, upright, casually fierce, curious, balanced, entirely alert? Every animal presence makes the human more complete.

A beautiful letter from a reader about DOG YEARS

Howdy, Mark:

I am just in the first several chapters of "Dog Years," but wanted to send you a quick note to tell you how much its contents are resonating with me. I am a librarian and one of my friends and colleagues recommended your book, thinking that it would be a tool in dealing with my own grief.

You see, my life partner of 15+ years (that's 30 years in straight life) died on June 19 of glioblastoma multiforme, the self-same brain cancer that Ted Kennedy has. He was diagnosed on March 13, so the whole journey was like taking a bullet train to a bleak and depressing destination.

As you can probably imagine, I have been reading all kinds of literature to help me cope with his loss. One of the books with which I have found particular empathy is Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." I can identify so very well with the idea that, at some level, I still expect Charles to be returning at any moment. Although I might have an intellectual grasp on his departure, I still have that need to think that he's out there on one of his research trips (yes, he was a university professor, too) and that he will be walking in the door and climbing the stairs at any time.

Although I don't have dogs (we have cats - two surly Siamese whom I love), I have an affinity for all animals - sometimes more than humans. During my last visit to my therapist, who is helping me through my bereavement, I read the passage in your book where you’ve taken Beau to and from the vet. Yes, I cried as I read it - it's all about life and loss and being human (and being a dog).

Thanks for your book. I seem to be reading through it very slowly - I have to stop occasionally because it summons emotions and I find myself needing to allow time to feel them. Thanks for helping me to wade through the myriad emotions that comprise the territory of grief.

Kind regards,


Sunday, October 12, 2008

traveling writer gropes his way through American airports

I had such a great time on Thursday, driving from New Hampshire to Logan Airport in Boston with my old friend Mekeel, that I got completely involved in our conversation(a lot of very funny gossip about our mutual poetry comrades), so much so that when I said goodbye at the terminal curb, I left my glasses in their case in Mekeel's car. I still had prescription sunglasses with me, so I got home in those. Then, when we went out to Fire Island on Saturday, I found my old pair of glasses (big black hornrims)and wore those. Today we had to dash to make the 11:50 ferry so I could catch a plane here at JFK, and when I got to the airport and went to check in at the little boarding pass machine, what did I notice? No glasses. I'd left them in the Pines.

I try to resist waxing too readily metaphoric about this kind of thing, but hey, twice in four days? Have I seen enough, this semester, am I ready to stop looking?

Well, I've got those sunglasses, so I look either glamorous or suspicious here in the Jet Blue waiting area, and if I hold the screen close to my face, I can write this post.


Overheard at Dunkin' Donuts, JFK: "Will they let you take a donut on a plane?"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Friday, October 10, 2008

Evolution as a source of hope: Newly discovered worm species consume toxic metals. Really!


This big face belongs to Paul's parents' dog Maggie, who's gone as of this morning. This photo's just a few months old. It makes me want to keep this face someplace in the world, put it here for anyone to see. A perfect face.

Catherine Merridale: "Fyedorov believed that human beings should...concentrate... upon their prime moral duty, which was to resurrect the dead."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

afternoon, October 9, Durham, New Hampshire

McCain's Rage

Lyric & Eros

Spotted from a taxi window this morning on Third Avenue: the Lyric Diner. It's at about 22nd Street, which means you could walk directly west and arrive at the Eros Diner, on Seventh Avenue.

You could shuttle, in an hour, between Lyric and Eros...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Gulf Coast and the Evil Empire

I flew from Houston to New York this morning, on a JetBlue flight that skimmed along the Gulf Coast for a long ways before curving northward. The coast of Louisiana looked amazing, gleaming in the sun, and less like a line than like an incredibly intricate fretwork, water and land one patterned field where it's hard to tell what's the figure and what the ground. The big round expanse of Lake Ponchartrain perched above New Orleans, along with all that delicate tracery of what's barely land, makes it clear just how fragile all that Mississippi Delta is. A few places, you could see emptying rivers doing just what they're supposed to, making fan-shaped strands of marsh, depositing all they've carried with them, building islands that would protect the land from storms. If we'd let them build that liminal zone that makes a coastline work.

I was looking at all this while last night's debates were still replaying in my head, and thinking about how ridiculously unhelpful Tom Brokaw was. How many opportunities do we have to hear the two men who could be the most influential leader in the western world, and the moderator poses questions like, "Russia = evil empire. Yes or no?" I paraphrase, but unfortunately not much. Is that really the kind of political discourse we want to encourage?

In the first place, how can the word "evil" do us the least bit of good in political or social discourse? As soon as that label's applied, it's impossible to move forward: you/your behavior/ your ideas are evil, and therefore I can't reasonably interact with you, can't identify any common ground between us, can't solve any problem. It's the kind of thinking that insists we can't sit down at a negotiating table with Iranian leaders, and the kind of binary labeling that results in anti-abortion activists attacking doctors and clinics. Once the line's drawn in such incendiary language, what's the point of continuing to speak together?

And even as I write, NY's channel 2 is suddenly showing video of Sarah Palin firing an assault rifle.

How do we make room, in the social space, in public discourse, for nuance, complexity, that which is part-land part-water? No yes or no questions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Millions of Grackles

Dinner tonight in Houston with two visiting writers, Ann Patchett and Anne Enright. We were in a weirdly deracinated part of downtown; somehow even though there's a movie theater and a bunch of concert venues right around there, it feels like a kind of office park, an oddly uninhabited place. We had a quick, enjoyable time, and then it was time to head off to the reading, so we walked out of the restaurant onto the steps above the street, and the air was absolutely alive with grackles, thousands of them, and very likely tens of thousands, swooping and folding in the air in great arcs,filling all of the sky in front of us, turning up and over the office buildings. It was just extraordinary; when do you see a species as crowded and social and in motion as our own -- especially filling the sky! On our walk over, they were lined up on ledges and the rims of roof. By the time I left the reading, they had settled into the trees -- was all that swirling and folding a prelude to the evening? Certainly no one in that tree was going to get any sleep; it was a rhapsodic, enormous, ceaseless, gorgeous racket. I just stood under a tree (slightly risky position) and let myself disappear into it.

Watch John McCain say something absolutely true!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sad, Thin Ice

Here's a thorough, well-researched short piece on Gov. Palin's phony, opportunistic stance on climate change, and on the kind of junk science used to support her destructive stance.

Sarah Palin puts polar bears on thin ice

Sun Oct 05, 2008 at 04:00:13 PM PDT

On September 26, 2008, 61 Nobel laureates announced their endorsement of Barack Obama. Their letter of endorsement opens with (pdf):

This year's presidential election is among the most significant in our nation's history.

It continues:

During the administration of George W. Bush, vital parts of our country's scientific enterprise have been damaged by stagnant or declining federal support. The government's scientific advisory process has been distorted by political considerations... We have lost time critical for the development of new ways to provide energy, treat disease, reverse climate change, strengthen our security, and improve our economy

A specific example of science distorted "by political considerations" is given by a December 12, 2007 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Report. In summary:

This report presents the findings of the Committee’s investigation. The evidence before the Committee leads to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.

As their habitats are threatened by climate change, polar bears have become a primary symbol of the impending effects climate change will have on the entire planet. So, it was predictable that those master manipulators of climate science, the global warming deniers, set their sights on the polar bears.

Around the same time the House Oversight Committee's report was released, a story came out regarding Exxon-funded polar bear "research":

While recognizing the possible impact of climate change on the polar bear, the authors concluded "it is simply not prudent to overstate the certainty" that climate change, or any other single factor, is responsible for "observed patterns in polar bear population ecology." The article, which was labeled a "Viewpoint" essay because it contained no new research, was published in the September issue of the Journal of Ecological Complexity.

In their conclusion, the article's authors thanked ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute for their financial backing. They noted that the paper's views were "independent of sources providing support."

Many of the articles referenced by the paper were by the same authors and other global warming deniers, all of whom have been prominent mouthpieces for a variety of Exxon-funded think tanks.

Fast forward to May 2008. The polar bear was listed by the US government as a threatened species, and Alaska's government responded by filing a legal challenge. Alaskan politicians also scrambled to fund "research" proving that the bears are - you guessed it - not in any trouble at all. Of course, one of the first "scientists" they called is yet another global warming denier.

It turns out that Sarah Palin has played a starring role in the science fiction drama. The UK Guardian breaks the news:

The Republican Sarah Palin and her officials in the Alaskan state government drew on the work of at least six scientists known to be sceptical about the dangers and causes of global warming, to back efforts to stop polar bears being protected as an endangered species, the Guardian can disclose. Some of the scientists were funded by the oil industry.

In official submissions to the US government's consultation on the status of the polar bear, Palin and her team referred to at least six scientists who have questioned either the existence of warming as a largely man-made phenomenon or its severity. One paper was partly funded by the US oil company ExxonMobil.


[Palin's] own Alaskan review of the science drew on a joint paper by seven authors, four of whom were well-known climate- change contrarians. Her paper argued that it was "certainly premature, if not impossible" to link temperature rise in Alaska with human CO2 emissions.

The "joint paper" to which the article refers is the "Viewpoint" essay mentioned above. The Guardian article quotes Walt Meier, who is an international authority on sea ice, saying that the "Viewpoint" essay "doesn't measure up scientifically".

More from the Guardian:

The citation by Palin and her officials prompted complaints from Congress. One member, Brad Miller, dubbed the polar bear study phony science.

Palin told Miller: "Attempts to discredit scientists...simply because their analyses do not agree with your views, would be a disservice to this country." Miller now says that Palin's use of the paper shows she differs greatly from John McCain, the Republican presidential contender, who has pressed for scientific integrity. "Turning to the cottage industry of scientists who are funded because they spread doubt about global warming is not integrity," Miller said.

According to the article, the global warming deniers and/or skeptics cited by Palin's paper included:

  • Willie Soon: Soon is one of the most prominent climate science skeptics. The Guardian article sums him up as:

    ... a former senior scientist with the George C Marshall Institute, which acts as an incubator for climate-change scepticism. The institute has received $715,000 in funding from ExxonMobil since 1998.

    (More on Soon here.)

  • Sallie Baliunas: The Guardian notes that:

    [In] 2003 she and Soon were criticised when it was revealed that a joint paper had been partially funded by the American Petroleum Institute. Thirteen scientists whom they cited issued a rebuttal and several editors of the journal Climate Research resigned because of the "flawed peer review". A third co-author of the polar bear study, David Legates, a professor at Delaware University, is also associated with the Marshall Institute.

    (More on Baliunas here; read about Legates here. The Marshall Institute is described here.)

  • Timothy Ball: From the Guardian article:

    Timothy Ball, a retired professor from Winnipeg, is cited for his climate and polar bear research. He has called human-made global warming "the greatest deception in the history of science". He has worked with both Friends of Science, and the Natural Resources Stewardship Project, which each had funding from energy firms.

    (More on Ball here.)

  • J. Scott Armstrong: Armstrong, as quoted by the Guardian has called global warming "public hysteria". He's a forecasting expert and marketing professor, and was one of the global warming deniers contacted by the state of Alaska as an "expert" to help prove that the polar bears aren't endangered.

  • Syun-Ichi Akasofu: Akasofu's view regarding climate change can be summed up with:

    Akasofu said there is no data showing that "most" of the present warming is due to the man-made greenhouse effect, as the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in February.

    He is one of the infamous "400 scientists" that Sen. James Inhofe (R-Exxon) called on to debunk the scientific consensus on global warming.

The Guardian's findings show without a doubt where Sarah Palin stands on global warming, regardless of what she has said in recent interviews.

It also presents a disturbing view of what a potential McCain-Palin administration would look like. It would simply be a continuation of the Bush administration's science policies.

The only difference is that Bush admits global warming is real.

Obama t-shirt, New York to Houston

I got a new t-shirt this weekend from, gray with an image of Obama's face nearly life-sized, screened so it's breaking up into dots; his face resolves more clearly when you're further away. OBAMA in big orange letters across the belly. I decided to wear it today because I'm wanting my passion about this election to be visible, so off I went wearing a message into the social space. I took the train to Penn Station, where I kept finding myself disarmed by people smiling at me. Since we don't do a lot of that in New York City, my immediate internal reaction was something like, Who are you and what do you want? But then I found myself realizing why they were smiling and then smiling back.

It IS odd to wear a big message through Manhattan though; it makes you realize how much we want, collectively, to meld into the mass, slip by unnoticed, not put too much of ourselves out there. This self-protective coloration is understandable, but somehow when you go out wearing a message on your chest you suddenly feel brash and loud, like a shout. A well-received shout, in this case, but still.

How much do we want to be known? It's a constant paradox; on the one hand, I think we want nothing more than for people to hear our stories, see our struggles and pleasures, really look at us. On the other, everybody likes to hide, no one wants to be judged, and there's some element of risk about allowing yourself to be seen -- in the train station or the street no less -- for who you are.

Things shifted a little in Newark Airport. Some European-looking fellows were nudging one another when I walked by, with a little air of excitement, as if they'd been hoping to see some stirred-up Americans. A guy who looked like a college student appeared in the same security line, wearing the same shirt; we seemed to be the only people in all the great human rush of EWR sporting a slogan instead of a logo, and we said, simultaneously, Hey, great shirt. Were the security people (all of whom were black or hispanic) extra nice to me, or did I imagine it?

When I walked onto the plane -- bound for Houston -- the social temperature shifted immediately. A blonde flight attendant eyed me doubtfully; was I going to be trouble? As I walked down the aisle, a thirty-something bear glared at the face on my chest. He didn't look at me, just went on steadily disapproving of Senator Obama, and it did cross my mind to enjoy the fact that I couldn't move forward, since people ahead of me were fiddling with their many bags,so the Senator's pointilist aspect floated in the guy's unhappy gaze for quite some time.

And that was it for interest or incident. I'd expected that walking through the airport in Houston would be strange, in part because last week I'd seen a young woman there wearing raccoon-ish eyeliner and a bright green IRISH FOR McCAIN t-shirt, which she was actually congratulated for wearing by some Texans strolling behind her. It made me feel queasy. But tonight nobody in the airport even blinked; they actually all seemed to be too weary to even look at each other.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pasting a leaf on my first page

Yesterday was one of the few days I've had in Manhattan this semester. It was a pleasure just to walk over to Union Square to Whole Foods to find something for dinner. I hadn't expected that the Greenmarket would be up and running on Friday afternoon, but the Square was full of booths. It's always a visual feast, but it seems richest in the fall: squash and tomatoes and greens. One booth had tubs full of maple branches, the leaves gone glorious. I thought, well, I'm not going to be in the apartment all that much. And, is there something odd about going out for food and buying leaves, having the luxury to buy leaves?

This is my first post on this blog, so it feels as if I've just bought a new notebook. Somehow to replace the great blank of potentiality with any one thing seems too small a gesture -- whatever I write here couldn't be as nice as the big field of silence I'm stepping into. But who wants a world full of blank notebooks? So I'm putting on the page those leaves -- which I came back for, after buying some heirloom tomatoes and then going to Whole Foods and getting some necessary stuff. There was something lavish about carrying one of those reusable grocery sacks down 17th Street with a big spray of leaves coming out the top, a blaze of ardor. For seven dollars.