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My open letter to Rielle Hunter

Dear Rielle,

I’m glad you went on “Oprah” this week. Ever since you burst onto the national consciousness in 2008, I’ve been wondering about you — the former Lisa Druck, now a Southern Californian named Rielle, and since last year the mother of a lovely toddler who looks just like former senator and presidential contender John Edwards.

Back then, I had a pretty good idea of who you were, and, paradoxically, none at all. Here on the WVFC website, I wrote about what your story brought to mind: “We Could All Be Elizabeth Edwards.” Like many women, I first heard the unfolding tale with that brilliant attorney and cancer survivor in mind, and felt sick. “We all could be Elizabeth: we all could see something we’ve fought for splintered in a second, because of others’ stupidity or our own. As midlife women, we curse what our bodies can no longer do or be or look like…” Or the fear that crosses the heart that someone newer and shinier can walk into your relationship and upend it.

It’s been nearly two years. For a while you were easier to ignore, what with the tawdry details spilling out of all the political press or the memoir of former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who once claimed to be your child’s father. As soon as Elizabeth finally filed for divorce, protecting her children, it was easy to decide you were none of my business.

So why turn to that hour with Oprah and your Hollywood-lovely face? Maybe because as much as I think I could have been Elizabeth, I also know I could have turned out more like you.

After all, you and I moved to California for love in 1991, though I went to San Francisco and you took up life in Beverly Hills with a new husband and a new name. I’ve also had the very experience you described to Oprah, about the day in 2006 when you met Edwards: for me it was an evening on a dance floor when “love at first sight” didn’t feel like a cliche and it seemed fine to ignore common sense. (Thank heavens, in my case the dude involved melted away after a few weeks.) “Our hearts were louder than the minds,” you said. Right. Anyway there’s a chemical name for that “wave of energy” you felt: oxytocin, the hormone that helps babies nurse and makes people newly in love forget to wash their hair.

Not that there was anything wrong with your hair today. You looked like a starlet, with the same flat smile. But the way you talked reminds me of some people I knew out West, who regarded appointments as fiction, jobs as encumbrances, and promises as suggestions. Like the guy who enticed a dear friend of mine to sell everything and move to San Jose so they could start a business together — then announced that he had a bad breakup and a twisted ankle and “wasn’t in a space to work right now.” Your jargon reminds me of the self-help pseudo-spiritual cults everywhere out there, whose members kept inviting me into “informational sessions” so I could learn about things like “the reality-tone scale.”

Some of these people were friends of mine, dance partners, lovers. Like you, they saw “seeking the truth” not as a task but a treat: “I was supporting him in his process, and his intentions never wavered. I knew that he wanted — he just had a really unique way of getting there — to live a life of truth,” you said of Edwards, with that blissed-out smile.

And this is the point where I realize: Nah, I don’t have to worry about turning into you. I’ve broken up with you. Several times.

So has Jenny Sanford, former first lady of South Carolina, who was on “The View” the day you appeared on “Oprah.” Her comment about your declaration that “I’m not a home wrecker,” was a sad laugh with a flash of anger: Commenting on you and her ex-husband’s Argentinian mistress, she said, “They weren’t 18 years old. They knew exactly what they were doing.” The other women at “The View” agreed, uniting for once before the incomprehensible.

But I don’t think what any of us say is going to make a difference. You believe that your profound spiritual connection to John Edwards is something no one else can understand. This can’t really be a letter to you, not even one of those open letters we write to politicians. Because you’ve evolved to a place where your ears cannot hear what we’re saying.

You and John Edwards — who I’m embarrassed to admit I once voted for — have been reminding me of that line from The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In your case, those ‘other people’ include Elizabeth; your baby daughter, Frances Quinn; and Cate, Jack and Emma Claire Edwards, now set to grow up a bike-ride away from you and the baby.

For a while, the clean-up crew included the rest of America. Knowing that, you went on “Oprah” to overcome the “false picture” that all those years of press reports had brought. But I think you did the opposite. “It was compelling TV, but in the end, Hunter didn’t seem any more understandable than when The National Enquirer first discovered her,” said TIME Magazine. Salon writer Rebecca Traister wrote: “While I understand love and desire to be viciously complicated things, and certainly do not believe all mistresses to be craven, self-absorbed or ill-intentioned, I believe Rielle Hunter to be all of those things.” And you know you’re in trouble when the New York Times‘ TV reporter compares your unblinking certainty to that of Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Your destructive capacity is narrower now than in 2006, but it’s still hard to watch.

Thank you, Rielle Jaya James Druck, for reminding us of who’s behind those wide eyes.

Now, I think, America can finally quit you.

Rielle Hunter, who told Oprah Winfrey in a program broadcast on Thursday that John Edwards had a secret affair with her because “he wanted to live a life of truth

operation pink slip, first draft

Another blast from the past: from an invasion whose memory is mostly now buried under those now bleeding our soldiers.

Thinking about it now, I’m struck how how Bush I’s 1989 “Operation Just Cause” set the template for his son’s Iraq actions —  a former CIA “asset” run past his pull date turned Public Enemy #1, just like Osama bin Laden. Rachel called it “Operation Pink Slip.”

We need to watch for that now, with Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan.

Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)

six years on, we are all conscientious objectors

A month or so since I posted and I’m still speechless. More soon, I promise.
Meanwhile, there are all sorts of important things to say on the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but for now I think I’ll just let a poet say it, again. In 2003 I quoted Yeats, but now let’s let Edna say it. (Above is one of the guys whose story is still trapping mine. Like LBJ, I seem to be unable to get out of that war.)

Conscientious Objector

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

Edna St. Vincent Millayedna_st_vincent_millay

my only valentine’s day poem

cummingsI loved this poem long before the author became one of my book’s guys (“i sing of olaf,” The Enormous Room et al.). I once asked my students, as their midterm, to explain to me how someone can write a love poem without ever using the word. Can you tell me?

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

today, we are all one

So of course, last night, on  Martin Luther King Day, I caught the Logo telecast of Brother Outsider,  Bennett Singer’s brilliant biopic about Bayard Rustin. The crowds I see right now reminded me of the shots of the 1963 March on Washington, a sight of which Marian Wright Edelman said, “If I live 500 years, I will never forget what I saw.” I feel the same way now. I almost wish I were in D.C. shivering along with them.

That film ended with one of my favorite Rustin lines: “We are all one. And if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.” It feels as if America has been ignoring that core truth, taking the hard way for most of the 30 years I’ve been concerned with politics. Tomorrow, the reality of all the pain still in the world will come back; but maybe that sense we have now, that we have each other’s backs, that will remain.

At 46, I didn’t expect to feel something like this.

(What a day. We’re live-blogging  at WVFC: come join me there?

“Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge”

From one of the veterans’ lists I’m on, a cri de couer from Placido Salazar, retired USAF who served in Vietnam:

This Wednesday morning, I heard that DOD/VA were holding Suicide Prevention “hearings” at the most luxurious hotel (Grand Hyatt) in downtown San Antonio. I was able to get there for the afternoon session. I read through the agenda – and heard some briefings, with all the talk focused on seeking help or helping your buddy if he feels suicidal.

Dr. Ira Katz, the VA top-doc for mental health was the last speaker. When he finished, he was trying to rush out the door without taking questions. I yelled out, “Just a minute, I have a question, specifically for Dr Katz.” There were several hundred GIs from Ft Sam present in the auditorium, from PFC to Generals. You could hear a pin drop. I then took the mic and started real soft and mellow… “You know, Dr. Katz, three days ago, I woke up with a high fever, hard cough and severe pain below my rib cage. I went to see my doctor who did the routine and then ordered Xrays, informing me that I have pneumonia and placed me on antibiotics.”

Katz asked, “What is your point?” I replied, “The point is that, in order to treat my cough, the doctor first checked to determine what the root of the illness was. Once he determined the presence of pneumonia, he put me on antibiotics, to treat the cause and the symptoms. I have checked the agenda for these ‘hearings’ and I find FOUR very important words missing entirely.

Dr. Katz, why don’t you tell these young soldiers who just returned from Iraq THE TRUTH . Why don’t you tell them that THE REASON behind their suicidal tendencies, after risking their lives in combat, is a VA-recognized illness called ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ – known as PTSD, and not “a READJUSTMENT PROBLEM”…. Tell them that PTSD is treatable, but not curable…. And that if they returned with serious PTSD problems from Iraq or Afghanistan, that they should fight for DISABILITY RETIREMENT, instead of allowing the military to kick them out the Base Gate, perhaps to possibly commit suicide or to live on the streets. Tell them that if their PTSD (or mental problem) was ‘pre-existing’, they would not have made it past the recruiter.” I added, “Approximately two years ago, I was allowed to speak at the Congressional PTSD Committee in DC and Representative Bob Filner (House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair) chastised you on this same subject, but apparently NOTHING has changed…. VA is still trying to evade the truth.”

At that point, Dr. Katz dismissed the audience and came and sat face to face with me and asked, “What do you suggest?” Again, I insisted, why not try THE TRUTH. He suggested that, “More advocates as yourself need to come to DC to light a fire under us.” I reminded him that when he comes to San Antonio, the government pays for him to fly first-class, to stay at the most luxurious hotel, with a generous per diem to pay for his meals. When other Veterans and I travel to Washington, to fight for all our Veterans’ medical care and other needs, which should not be necessary, we have to travel AT OUR OWN EXPENSE – and stay in visitors’ quarters at a military base, five to a room, if we are lucky to find vacancy. I departed by saying, “Besides, why should we have to travel to DC to get a Government employees to do your job, when you guys get paid a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year?”

Are repercussions possible? Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about vets’ suicide rates from 1812 on — not being able to decide if it’s some sort of tipping point or if, like desertion, it’s important but kind of perpedicular to dissent. Salazar’s letter is all of the above, I think.

The tipping point is coming. I don’t know if it’ll be like the Ron Kovic era above,  but I can feel the pressure mounting.

once a decade: a vlog of musical non-discoveries

About once a decade, the zeitgeist reminds me why music matters.

In 1987, I thought one day I’d be attending one of Paul Simon’s famously mellow concerts at Carnegie Hall, and instead ended up blown away by this (though without the African skies above me):

Years after that, I was intrigued enough by this guy to buy some tickets to a concert…

…never knowing he can do anything, and was in the process of turning into this guy.

Both times, I think, the universe was telling me I needed to pay attention. Which is why I can’t stop thinking about my New Year’s Eve discovery, which would not have been one if I’d been paying attention to the NY Times (SIX years ago!) or watching David Lettermnn instead of Leno.

If Joe Strummer and Borat had teamed up to produce CABARET, they might have created something like Wednesday’s headliner at the Electric Factory.

But by the time Hutz’ band arrived that night, complete w/percussionists in hot pants, Rache and I had had our hearts stolen by this Dixieland klezmer band. Listen to this one over breakfast, then come out and listen to them live over vodka.

zero hour, nine a.m.

It’s Pearl Harbor Day – a day I’m writing about right now in my chapter, when a lot of my characters felt put on notice.  And right now so do I, with my deadline screaming at me.  My most recent blogging has been at a Facebook page I put together for Ain’t Marching, rather than constantly clogging this one with meditations on spoiled priests and mortar blasts. (If you want to know more, please do stop by there.)

A few mostly-unmilitary matters I’ve meant to note here, though:

  • As most know, the country’s security is now largely in the hands of menopausal women. So much for invisibility.
  • Speaking of which,and in time for in time for the anniversary of the U.N  Convention on Genocide on Monday, here’s Christiane Amahnpour’s demand that we scream bloody murder, .
  • I finally saw Milk, and as expected cried like a baby. But did no one tell Gus van Sant, for the opening scene, that no subway staircase is *ever* that empty in the early evening? Or that quiet? (It comes quickly in the trailer below.) I know he’s used to less naturalistic forms, but that yell was developed in New York. May as well make it feel real.  In addition, I have mixed feelings about the ending, though I know the movie was already too long, but I wish van Sant had been able to do more than mention the trial of Milk’s assassin and the twin “White Nights.”The first link is to Jim Jones’ massacre, the second to a memory of that week in the Castro). Maybe  that should be a separate movie.

Guest blog: also a definition of “straight ally”

Dan Savage’s comment on Salon: “Straight people can’t hear it.”  Ouch.

Prejudice arises from lots of things, but persecution is driven by fear.  All the real problems around both women’s rights and gay rights seem to me to come from what I’m afraid I’ve taken as a gvien:  straight men fear women and gays.  The fear has a wide range of intensity and expression, from blushing and stammering, to denigrating jokes and stereotypes, to murder, but it’s still fear.  And we have influence in society out of all proportion to our numbers.
If we’re going to act justly, we’re going to have to lose the fear.  And that requires, somehow, convincing even nice, decent people like me that the fear is neither natural, nor necessary.  Talk about a transformation!  If we do it, though, it will change the exercise of power.
Of course you both know all this, and have for a long time.  Me, I’m just noticing a bunch of people, some of them best friends, who seem to be turning to hear something I can’t quite.  Maybe I should try to find out what it is.
Courtesy of my dear friend Walter, who I’d written with the Savage quote I reproduced in the last post. Friends like him keep the world making sense.