Category Archives: Barack Obama

Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.


I still remember the first time I heard him say that, eight years ago this month, September 20, 2001. I heard the audio clip again today, sampled at the end of a hiphop track, and it gave me chills.

There was the America I lived in before he said that, and there was the America I lived in after. I am still trying to figure out what changed.

journal, 10 September, 2001. day off today, decent weather. decided to have a try at making the hike-climb to Camp Muir. Left Guidehouse around 10:45 or so and began trudging up the cement trails to Pebble Creek. Around Panorama point, I reflect on an orderpad (brought along cuz its lighter than the journal) “the breezes coming off the mountain are cold from the glaciers, and sweep away everything that lingers.” felt an incredible sense of peace and singleness of purpose as I passed through subapline meadows and hiked up into the fellfields. Notice for the first time that the waterfall coming off the Wilson Glacier disappears entirely into the loose rock above the Nisqually Glacier, as if it is funneling into a chute. No snow on St. Helens, but a fair amount on Adams. The Cascades stretch out in front of me to the ocean, ridgeline after bluegreenpurple ridgeline, like the shapes left in the sand after a giant wave has receded back into the sea. On that note, notice that the waterfalls coming off the mountain sound exactly like the ocean roar, and the occasional icefall or rockslide sounds much like the breaking of larger waves.

September 11 came at the end of my twentieth summer, which I spent living and waitressing in Paradise, the small employee village/tourist destination on the southwestern flank of Mt. Rainier.

Paradise is the small cluster of buildings in the sunlight beneath the clouds

Paradise is the small cluster of buildings in the sunlight beneath the clouds

The mountainsides were turning fall colors, and I was reading a lot of Beat poetry, and picking a lot of huckleberries, having figured out where the tastiest ones grew from a Gary Snyder poem: “Delicate blue-black, sweeter from the meadows, small and tart in the valleys with light blue dust.”
huckleberries 01

I was cynical about the new Bush administration, angry that the country had just laid down and let him take office when it was clear that something was rotten in Florida. I was unnerved by the prospect of a political dynasty, and the administration’s potential for doing harm. But I wasn’t afraid of them yet. Resenting corrupt national leaders seemed in keeping with being twenty and enamored of the Beat poets and living in the mountains. I figured they’d do some damage, and get voted out in four years, and we’d go to some rallies and make some good art about it. I didn’t understand yet all the ways people could get hurt. Would get hurt.

On September 10th, I set out to hike to Camp Muir, the primary base camp for mountaineers attempting the summit of Rainier. I’d been eying the hike all summer. None of my friends had the day off to go with me, so I went alone. Its no easy day hike— you ascend nearly five thousand feet in less than five miles, and the last portion of the hike crosses the Muir snowfield, which is prone to frequent whiteouts. That summer, enough snow had melted to expose crevasses on the snowfield, something none of the mountaineering guides could remember in recent decades. I was prepared, but also young, and bent on proving to myself and everyone else that I could. My male friends were constantly going off on solo hikes, but women were cautioned not to hike alone, and it rankled me. So I set off, with my ten essentials and my extra water bottles, on a sunny, clear-skied September day.
crevasse2

“in early afternoon, i finally hop over the last narrow crevasse and hike into the camp, tucked in the bowl between Cowlitz Cleaver and Anvil Rock. Sit leaning against the shelter looking out over the Tatoosh range, which seems so small now. The sun is warm, and the hiss of campstoves comes from all corners, as climbers melt snow for their water bottles. Most will leave sometime tonight to attempt the summit. We’ve watched their lights from Paradise before, nudging up those last four thousand feet in the dark, and its strange to be here now, looking out across the world from ten thousand feet. It was work getting up here, but I’m not really tired or sore. Steep slopes of snow angling down before the rest of the lowlands, crevasses cutting through the snowfield and the glaciers all around. Take a small nap on the little plateau, and talk with a few climbers, then slip slide back down the snowfield and trudge back down to Paradise.”

That night, I was sitting in the employee dining room, eating some food-service-of-america-brand dinner, writing about the hike in my journal. Two of my coworkers came in to make pb and j’s for a hike, and told me they were setting out to camp on Pinnacle Peak. Within twenty minutes, I’d traded my September 11th breakfast shift for someone’s lunch shift and re-packed my backpack. We drove down to the Pinnacle Peak trailhead at the foot of the Tatoosh Range, just below Paradise, parked the car, and turned on our headlamps.

ten percent of the time, we are hiking on the trail, and 90 percent of the time we are winging it, navigating scree slopes by Petzlglow beneath dark peaks silhouetted against a sky absolutely overflowing with stars, clambering down rockslides and cutting mountaingoat style across rockfaces. we find a spectacular little plateau on the backside of Castle Peak and unroll our sleeping pads. the plateau is on a saddle between two of the Tatoosh mountains, which means we can see the small cluster of lights on Rainier that is Paradise behind us, and the small cluster of lights downvalley which is the town of Packwood before us. We pass around a bottle of Sammy Smith oatmeal stout, and watch the moon rise. For a time, it is an eerie shade of red, as it passes through the more chemical-laden slice of our atmosphere, then it fades to yellow and then bright white as it ascends. The night grows cold, and I don’t sleep much. Crazy sunrise in the morning, like laying under a heatlamp by eight. We eat pb and j and pick huckleberries for breakfast, then clamber straight down the side of Castle and bushwhack our way to the car, talking about vagabondage and Merle Haggard.

I think: I could live like this all the time, and be really happy. love having fingers that smell like pine and are covered in dirt and huckleberry stains.

back at Paradise, I run up the stairs to my dorm room. Throw on a black skirt and the cleanest white shirt I can find, splash water on my face and hair. I am digging for a clean apron in the mess on the floor when another waitress pokes her head through the door. She says “someone flew a plane into the world trade center!” I picture the small airplane that had crashed on the lawn of the White House sometime in recent memory, and i say, “oh, how bizzare.” Realize I’m truly late for work, and finish getting dressed as I run to the dining room, picking the dirt out from under my fingernails and adjusting the knot on my tie.

8 years later, I remember how quiet it was in the dining room when I came running through the double doors. All the servers, bussers, and hosts were standing on the little platform by the bar window, peering through at the only television set in the lodge. The footage was a few hours old by then, and we weren’t entirely convinced it was real. Smoke billowing out of downtown New York. The planes, flying into the side of the towers. The tiny specks that were people’s bodies, leaping from the inferno. The dumbstruck newscasters. It was all too much like a movie. As it turned out, so was what followed.

Because no one wanted to fly anymore, out-state-guests canceled their reservations at the lodge. The shell-shocked, somber national mood dovetailed with the end of the summer season, and every morning we waited on a smaller group of tourists, refilling coffee cups and moving quietly among tables where everyone was reading the same newspaper. The air grew cooler, and the rain and fog settled in around us. We kept living the way we had been, taking hikes in between shifts and sitting next to bonfires and playing out summer romances.

On September 23rd, I copied Ed Abbey’s definition of somnolence out of Desert Solitaire: “a heaviness in the air, a chill in the sunlight, an oppressive stillness in the atmosphere that hints of much, but says nothing.”

As Bush ramped up the nation to invade Afghanistan, my best friend and roommate Erin and I ripped up a sheet and painted banners to hang out our third floor dormitory window: “War IS terrorism,” we proclaimed to the emptying parking lots.

erin sitting beneath our banner, journalling.

erin sitting beneath our banner outside of Guidehouse, our dormitory building, writing in her journal.

We realized the president was asking us to take sides. His speeches, which we clipped out of the Tacoma News Tribune, reduced reality to two dimensions. There was good, and there was evil, and you were one, or you were the other. Young as we were, we were unnerved, and not fooled.

journalsept 01
8 years later, I am married, and 28. I live with my husband and my dog in a sweet little house with a garden near the water in West Seattle. I’ve gotten a master’s degree and written a book manuscript. I am still a waitress. My life is good. Erin is 29, married with a stepdaughter in a sweet little house in Portland. She’s been the editor of a newspaper, has gotten a master’s degree, and has learned to surf. We still read beat poetry, write in our journals. The war George Bush began has lasted nearly the entire decade of our twenties.

21 September 2001, Friday. weather comes and goes today. Rained a bit. Bush says you’re either with America or for terrorism. I refuse to believe its that black and white. especially when I seem to remember laerning that America trained a lot of these “terrorists” in Afghanistan back in the 80s to fight communist Russia? So much for good versus evil. how do you mobilize against “terrorism,” anyway? Bombing the Middle East will accomplish the following, in my uneducated opinion:
1. the deaths of untold numbers of Muslims from violence, starvation, and “smart bombing” (which will be continually three steps behind the “real terrorists”)
2. More terrorism.
3. racism, rampant prejudice, alienation and violence against Muslims and brown people in the United States.
4. on the “plus” side, war is often good for the economy, and solidarity among many Americans will increase, at least temporarily, which tends to happen when you think evil people are trying to kill you. Consequence: the country will rally behind our “leader” and let him get away with pretty much whatever he wants.

8 years later, change in presidential administrations notwithstanding, Operation Enduring Freedom is still churning merrily along. America has gone bankrupt, but plenty of golden parachutes have opened, sparing corporate execs a bumpy landing in the ravaged economy. Some corporations—primarily prescription drug companies and defense contractors— have actually managed to get richer. (Bad times are good for buzzards). We’ve had other Hallmark moments; in August of 2006, American citizens drowned in New Orleans because the National Guard was stationed in Iraq and the national leadership was too busy plotting war and buying shoes. We’ve merrily ignored genocide in Darfur, installed new puppet governments in the Middle East, and made torture part of our “national security” program.

Last month—August 2009—was the deadliest month to date in the war in Afghanistan. 77 coalition soldiers died… that’s 2 people a day, and 3 on Sundays. 199 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year alone—the highest casualty rate sustained since we invaded in 2001 to root out Osama bin Laden. Who, eight years later, is reputedly alive, well, and releasing more videotapes. The Taliban now controls an estimated eighty percent of Afghanistan. 2009 set another record as well, while we’re on the subject: in the first six months of 2009, over 1000 Afghani civilians died, a 24 % increase from 2008. .

Eight years later, I realize there’s very little connection left between the people of Afghanistan and those New Yorkers who held hands and jumped into the sky. I realize there was never really much of a connection to begin with, and what connection there was got lost in the mud of a war waged in Iraq under entirely false premises.

America claims to have turned over a new leaf. I’m not sure what’s actually changed.

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Filed under 11 September 2001, Americana, Barack Obama, Change, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, History, Mt. Rainier National Park, Nostalgia Trip, Ordinary, outside, Peace, violence, waitressing

Obama can’t save America. But maybe America can.

First: let me say this. I am not a complete cynic.
Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” was a beautiful song to begin with. When I hear it now, it brings to my mind, instantly, the sight of thousands on their feet, tears running down their cheeks and proud, exhilarated smiles on their faces, Americans surrounding a young mixed-race man from a “broken home” who made this country deliver on the Dream. He rose to what may have seemed an insurmountable challenge, he spoke words that inspired Ordinary People to believe they could take on the powers that be. And They Can.
Si Se Puede.
He ran a strong campaign. He showed my generation what it feels like to be inspired by a speechmaker. We haven’t had much of that. He respects knowledge, he thinks critically, he has courage and a sense of history. He understands that being a patriot runs deeper than flag pins.
But he can’t save us; neither can hope.
“Hope keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth… When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”
-Derrick Jensen

It has been a week since America voted Barack Obama in as the next President of our United States. We watched the results come in with friends last tuesday night, eating vegan “Americana” potluck [Black Bean Burgers, Fried “Chicken” (cauliflower), cornbread and tater tots and chipoltle aioli… recipes to follow later]. For months, Ryan has predicted Obama would win in a landslide, even when the pundits and the nervous progressives got caught up in the electioneering. I often thought he was right, but put little faith in my country’s electoral system, which the past eight years (not to mention past three hundred) have revealed as something of a sham, blatantly rigged for the preservation of elite rule. A few weeks before the election, I watched an interview with Noam Chomsky. He agreed with George Will (something that I doubt happens too often) that American electoral politics is more about choosing which elite we want to rule us, than whether or not the elites shall rule.
If you live in a swing state, Chomsky said, vote Obama, but without illusions.

Even though pollsters claimed Washington wasn’t considered a swing state, pollsters were also suggesting conservative sleazebag Dino Rossi might actually triumph in the gubernatorial race. Staring at my absentee ballot, I thought about fear, idealism, and the American way. Who do I really want running my country right now? Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente. Some might say my vote for Obama was a vote cast in fear. I believe it was a vote cast without illusions.

I shed a few tears as Obama gave his acceptance speech. I was relieved, and moved.
I honor the significance of the United State of America choosing a former community organizer, a young man, a dark-skinned man, to lead us. I believe he’s a man of integrity and vision. And, while I respect Derrick Jensen’s take on hope, I haven’t given up on that sticky emotion yet. I am hopeful.

But I woke up the morning after the election feeling hollow, and weirdly, not proud. It made me uncomfortable, and I have been trying to sort out this feeling ever since. The election of Barack Obama is a milestone, yes. But it is only one kind of Change. And it is late in coming. And just because it has come does not absolve us for our collective sin. My America has shed the blood of hundreds of thousands since I turned 21. My America has spit on habeus corpus, tortured, lied, profited, desecrated holy books, cast our own people into the streets, starving and bereft of basic health care. My America has made its daughters in South Dakota criminals for demanding the right to control their own bodies. My America has deported legal citizens without so much as a by your leave. There is so much we must make right—and so many things we can never atone for.
The change we think we’ve created by electing Barack Obama is the kind of change this country should have demanded in November of 2000, when it was clear that George W. Bush had not actually won the presidency legitimately. It is the kind of change we should have demanded in November of 2001, when it was clear that George W. Bush’s administration was bent on exploiting the September 11 carnage to precipitate war-for-profit. It is the kind of change we should have demanded in November of 2002. And 2003.

And then we “re-elected” him.

???????

it took us SEVEN years to rescind the Bush doctrine?
I woke up the day after the election feeling embarrassed.

I love my country. I love its stories, I love its landscapes, I love some of its ideals, I love so many of its people. We have potential! But we also have genocide, slavery, internment, the dubious legacy of being the only nation to use the atomic bomb against another country. We shut out Jews trying to flee the repression that would become the Holocaust. We have Vietnam, Iran-Contra, inaction during the Rwandan genocide. But that’s the past, people say. Get over it. We freed the slaves, didn’t we?

The past isn’t just some mythic territory, some two-dimensional timeline people’d by the Who’s who. Its the sum total of who we have become. America’s promise is just that: a promise. We have to hold ourselves accountable. We were never “the Greatest Country on Earth,” and electing Obama won’t restore us to that mythical condition. The only way forward, the only sustainable way, now, is True Change. Which means something different to everyone. Won’t be easy, but it won’t happen if all we do is complain and talk about H-O-P-E.
A few nights ago, Ryan and I walked with Assata through our quiet neighborhood. The air was warm with the promise of rain, and the lights across the Salish Sea [Puget Sound] reflected on still water. We passed a dozen Obama signs still displayed in the dark yards, plastered with wet maple leaves. I wondered what the owners of those signs thought about leaving them out. Are they victory decorations now? Seattle Lawn Hope Art? A few days ago, one of the Seattle papers noted that flag sales were skyrocketing, that people who’d never before displayed the stars and stripes were doing so now. It makes me uncomfortable. Those colors still fly over Guantanamo Bay. Just because Obama promised us change doesn’t mean we get it.
A few months ago, Naomi Klein noted: “The campaign’s most radical demand is the idea of electing Obama himself. It is Obama–and not his plans for the presidency–that is the ultimate expression of the “movement.” If the process ends there, the Obama campaign will become more like the “lifestyle” brands– the Nikes and Starbucks that captured the transcendent quality of past liberation movements, and our desire for meaning in our lives, to build their own brands.”
What happens in six months when no one has universal healthcare? When American soldiers and Iraqi children are still dying in the streets of Baghdad? When another million Americans are out of work and the polar ice cap has shrivelled that much further into itself? Will we retreat again into our cynicism and our televisions and our despair?

I voted for Obama without illusions. On his own, he will be able to change very little—except, hopefully, our standing in the eyes of other peoples around the world.

But the change? That won’t come from him.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.

If the American people stand up and Demand the kind of Change they have been claiming they want, Demand it instead of waiting for Obama to deliver it to them, Demand it,
Create it themselves,
we might just have a chance.

The time for a Great Mass Movement is Only Just Begun.

I am a student of American History.
Which means I am cynical.
And hopeful.

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Filed under Americana, Atomic Bomb, Barack Obama, Change, Chomsky, Cynthia McKinney, Derrick Jensen, Election, History, Hope, Naomi Klein