And what shall we talk about today, my friends? Because unless you are new to these pages and perhaps even now considering whether to pass over this too large block of pictureless text, you are to at least a degree some sort of friend of mine. And two weeks, several adventures, minor advances and predictable setbacks having intervened since last we met, this is surely another and a new day, a fresh tide we ride.
There are not choices, only positions. Where shall we land in the spectrum? Sometimes I come before you to tell how miserably I have been misunderstood, mischaracterized or misled by my cruel wife and selfish children, my corrupt business partner or the amalgamation of customers whose desires for home repair and augmentation finance the parts of my life not wholly accommodated by the generous salary and benefit package provided by this journal. And other columns I must give over to weighing the bitter question and unsatisfying possibilities of whether the Democratic party has lost its backbone or vacated its very soul. We are beyond wondering if our country, our people, will turn away from self-indulgence and aggression. That George Bush is confirmed the worst president in our history is settled beyond debate.
But these are not different subjects. Personal, local, political, natural or man-made, all questions that trouble, enrich or excite the mind and the heart are connected, intertwined, grafted to one root. All experience bleeds together. What I may think or feel and what I might choose to do cannot be broken away clean and sharp from either the pus and sulfur of Dick Cheney's rotten heart or the radiant unconflicted delight of my grandson, his maculate origin, his manifold possible futures or these brilliant days we lurch through now together. I am, I guess, you and you are me and we are all together. We don't have to like it.
Wednesday a week ago I took an oath (what a ridiculous, pointless, medieval artifact) to uphold the Constitution and fulfill to the best of my ability the duties incumbent on me as Treasurer of the Town of Alna. I did not ask the help of God.
Why do such a thing? The week previous I, together with two other members of the Alna College Of Greatest Living First Selectmen, wasted an evening threatening and cajoling and begging another man to take the task. He declined; he did not want the nuisance nor probably did he need the money. But we had fired one treasurer, a replacement had resigned after a few months, and vendors and employees would be paid and tax liens needed tending. For three reasons I sold myself the job: I can well apply the thirty-five hundred dollars for which I agreed to serve until next March; I have held one town job or another since 1977 and do not any longer know how to separate my personal life from the affairs of my neighbors; and we need a treasurer, however uncertain unwilling or unlikely this new one may be, to quiet the concerns of residents who, though few rise up to assume these burdens themselves, nevertheless become unsettled when they detect holes or lapses in our corporate function.
Yes, all that, and to quiet Selectman Willard's continuing calls demanding new candidates as I tried to fill the last few fly-free days of spring alone in my woodlot. And, as I think about it after the fact, because every so often and again one should just jump into a job without prior experience, the better to test what abilities may lie dormant or what faculties may yet function though a degree of decrepitude is already evident. And I can add and subtract as well as anybody I know.
That's it, mostly. You take the money on hand on February first, add to it everything collected by the clerk and tax collector or sent down from Augusta or Washington D.C. (less of the latter two now than when I was selectman), subtract the amount of the checks you write because the selectmen tell you to write them, and draw a line at the end of January. There you have one fiscal year of the Town of Alna, Maine. The term of office itself runs from March to March, meeting to meeting. You take your salary when you like.
A man or woman of average intelligence and ordinary education can do any municipal job. Some ambition is required. An appreciation of the privilege of participation in this sole remaining mostly uncorrupted effort at self-government will make the salary secondary, and will minimize the annoyances attending. Forget your purple-fingered Iraq fiasco, or the illusion that by joining a caucus or voting in a primary election your choice will matter or improve our lot or straighten our course. Pray to your God or tremble and cry when a flag waves by, your best and only hope for helping yourself and your neighbors and your heirs and assigns will be found by putting on the robe and raising the scepter of local municipal service.
I like the reverend Jeremiah Wright. Barack Obama used to like him, but the more forcefully and clearly his pastor told several obvious and painful truths about our land of the free, the more sad and sullen the candidate became. Reverend Wright, it develops, is divisive. Pretty much every politician and pundit says so.
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Now, the whole damned yammering crew of reactionary know-nothing loud-mouth dim-wit fools on talk radio is divisive, and that whining toad of a preacher James "Praying For Armageddon" Hagee John McCain sucked up to is divisive, and the God-soaked, death-loving nuts running the Supreme Court are divisive, and if you call Dick Cheney divisive he'll probably shoot your face off. But it's Jeremiah Wright who has Newsweek and NBC and even old dour, sluggish, liberal-to-a-degree Dan Shore on Public Radio agreeing that his ideas are so "extreme" that would-be president Obama "had no choice" but to "distance himself" from the man.
He said, "God damn America!" Now, you can disagree with that. You can (and probably do) think God has singled out the U.S. of A. for specific and special blessing. But is it not possible that God (if there is a God), having seen every sparrow fall, every head of state we've overthrown or assassinated, all the unnecessary wars and all the devious foreign policy we've practiced for two centuries, the near-extinction of the people who owned this land when the English and French and Spanish landed, the institutionalization (and for years Supreme Court approval) of the abhorrent practice of slavery and its aftermath of segregation and lynching, our tolerance of poverty and starvation among our own citizens while our wealthiest dine with politicians, our uncontrolled consumption of planetary resources and pollution of the biosphere -- is it not even conceivable in the face of the facts of all this and more that a sane and sensible God might just decide to damn America?
Well, but Wright said the government sent AIDS into the black communities to reduce their populations. Impossible? Or merely unlikely? Or only not yet proven? Did the United States Army trade smallpox-infected blankets to American Indians in a deliberate attempt to kill them more comprehensively and easily than shooting them and burning their villages? Did we give, sell, bargain and convey biological and chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein so he could poison his citizens? Do you think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? Who killed Martin Luther King -- one or many? Do we know all that our government has done? Do we want to know?
I watched Jeremiah Wright on the Bill Moyers Show and I listened to his conversation at the National Press Club. He's smarter than President Bush, more decent than Vice President Cheney, has more integrity than Senator Lieberman, more courage than Senator Reed or Representative Pelosi. If I believed in God and went to church and he was my minister, I might argue with him about this or that, but I'd listen to him and I'd think about what he said and I'd for damned sure not disown him.
Because for all the thrill that the idea of an Obama candidacy and possible presidency raises in the hearts of most of my liberal friends, it is just this sort of calculation and compromise that makes him insufficiently distinguished from all that his party has become. You want to be president? There are things you cannot say, must not do, opinions that are forbidden. I'll say that I think much, if not most of what reverend Wright says is obvious and true and that his ministry is an asset to our nation and to the families he has served. But I'm only keeping the books and running the town meetings for the town of Alna. If I wanted to be president I'd strap on the flag pin and stop thinking about things that don't make us proud and satisfied. And I'd sell out the memory of my own mom, if Katie Couric and Brian Williams thought I ought to to pick up a few score votes or turn a superdelegate.
He didn't do so formerly, but I hear him do it now, since Reverend Wright stood up and said the unsayable: Barack Obama has taken to ending his speeches with the satisfying, soothing, "God Bless America," required form for every candidate since Ronald Reagan.
God may watch over me as I dribble the town's cursor through the various many fields of QuickBooks late at night. I'll need the help, if he wants to intervene; this system is a mess compared to the simple beauty of the old black cloth-bound ledgers I remember from that ancient era of the nineteen-seventies. Some things get better. Some don't. But we're all in this together, one way or another. As the second line of the Springsteen couplet we've adopted for our title tells us, "Ain't nobody likes to be alone."
You wouldn't think a quiet little town would have much use for a coarse lout like Cooper, but such is the nature of our twisted times that he has been allowed to hold the high office of first selectman for a dozen years, he has been moderator for as many, and now has accrued a fortnight's experience as treasurer. And he was even emergency management director for a few years and distinguished himself there by grievously annoying a fulsome suit from FEMA at a photo opportunity arranged for that gentleman bureaucrat's glorification.