Les Miserables, American Style

I begin with the premise that suffering is a commodity like everything else.

Now Wal-Mart wants their money back.

"Don’t kid yourselves, they wont make a ruckus in America," say the apparatchiks at Wal-Mart’s hindquarters.

She’s just a disabled woman who can’t go back to work and now that she’s won a minor lawsuit against the trucking company that left her brain damaged, let’s sue her to get that money since our corporate health care plan had to pay for her over the past three years. And what the heck, let’s sue the woman for more than she received in damages—who cares if she has to live in destitution. It’s only fair you see, because suffering is a commodity and we at Wal-Mart are always, always rolling back the prices."

I kid you not.

Wal-Mart trots out its public relations hacks. They have the hubris to argue that the solvency of their employee’s health care plan depends on putting this woman into bankruptcy.


Heck, this argument worked with the court.

What’s the difference between a Reaganite court and the Sermon on the Mount?

We no longer have to strive to alleviate suffering. We commodify it like everything else.

What’s my second premise?

It’s raining like mad in America.

Our ancestors stare mutely at us from inside every rain drop.



Keith Olbermann Continues Feud Against Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Responds

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Meet Debbie Shank…


Hold the Wings!

I always wanted to be one of those writers who could turn religious stories into poetry. Jacob’s Ladder; The Prodigal Son; Milton’s Satan coursing among stars…

When I write about anything having to do with religious themes three things happen almost instantly.

1. I forget something crucial about the original story. If I were to write about Jacob’s Ladder it would look like this:

Jacob looked up the ladder and saw angels proceeding ahead of him and Lo! He saw that the angels weren’t wearing any shoes. This caused Jacob to wonder if the ladder, which he found to be rather a splintery affair was just a miserable contraption designed for human kind, or whether in point of fact the angels could even feel pain—or did they no longer feel pain, in which case, should he take off his shoes?

2. As you can see, my version of the story leaves out the other half of the ladder which had the angels coming back down.

3. If you forget about the earthward angels you are likely also forgetting to look at the returning angels’ feet. This is hugely important for if the angels coming back from heaven are wearing shoes then we know that the afterlife is full of cobblers and leather tanners. That would be very comforting information for my Finnish ancestors.

Alas I am too practical and salty for religious poetry. I wish the facts were otherwise.

What for instance do the angels do about those wings while they’re going up and down the ladder? How do the upward angels keep from tangling their feathers with the downward angels? I’ve been on a ladder or two in my lifetime. In general I think its safe to say that wings are a liability when you’re climbing or descending.

Genuine religious poets know that the ladder is symbolic. They know that the wings are real. I don’t know how they know this, but they do.

This is of course the origin of all mysticism: wings, yes; ladders, no; giving Jacob the impression that both are real: easy. Show him the ladder; don’t mention the wings.


Poetry From a Neighboring Duck

Our house in Iowa City stands adjacent to a man made pond where predictably the ducks have been busy doing duck-like things now that the ice is gone and yesterday morning, early, as I was walking our golden retriever (a family pet) "Maggie" (who likes to stare sagely into the middle distance and can do this for up to four hours at a stretch) a cartoonish and frenzied feather storm of a duck flew low over Maggie’s head declaiming in duck lingo the following poem:

"Dog-person, dog-person stay on your side of the rowanberry bush

Else we ducks will take up leider music with the savagery of Beethoven

And the vocal manner of Igor Stravinsky, who was forced to leave his homeland

Because he sang in the shower and innocent children and old persons were terrified by the sound, and you wouldn’t want that kind of thing to be visited upon you, would you?"

Duck poetry doesn’t have to rhyme.


Today is a Special Day for Two Reasons


Today my parents, Bill and Norma, are celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary!  Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad. 

"Happy marrriages begin when we marry the one we love, and they blossom when we love the one we married." — Sam Levinson

Thank you for showing us, all of us – myself, Dave, Karen, our spouses Steve and Karen J., and especially grandkids Tara, Ross, Michael, Kyle, Christian and Amy – and extended family and friends, that love can truly blossom in this day and age.

The second reason today is a special day is that it’s my husband’s birthday.  Happy Birthday, hon. Happy_birthday_3

You and I may never see our 50th wedding anniversary as we still have 40 years to go.  But I’ll die tryin’!

Love to all the special people in my life,


Writing with an Egg Timer

Alright I don’t have much time. Hermes was the lame God. They found him in a tree.

He was the first God to be bruised by human imagination.

People have gotten better and better at this over time.

We really know how to kick the gods around.

We are eating pears and talking about Andromeda.

We try to imagine a vacation without too much pop music.

I speculate that no one can escape The Rolling Stones.

I slept in a Greek cemetery once and woke in the night

Because there was a disco nearby

And they were playing "Sympathy for the Devil".

I lay stretched across a tombstone on the island of Aegina

Listening to the impossibly adenoidal foice box of Mick Jagger

Who the Greeks in their hey day would have slaughtered for impersonating a goat.

"Oh Lordy, Lordy," I thought. "Can’t a lame god get any rest?"


Random Preconditions

My uncle who was unhappy used to say that he was working too hard. He wouldn’t say it that way. His method involved a figurative use of certain unmentionable body parts and the assertion that owing to the strain of his working life these indescribable anatomical pieces were falling off what one would imagine was his larger body. He would say all of this when bursting in the door after a long day out in the world. IN short: he understood that the true wages of work are the earned leisure that follows the working day and the right to drink beer and forget capitalism.

This is the American equation: Work equals Leisure equals Forgetting the Work…

But what do you do if your work follows you home? And what happens if you have a capacious memory?

Yesterday a woman interviewed me for Radio Free Europe. She asked me (with a thick Eastern European accent) "What do you do for these disabled people?"

It was a well meaning question.

I try not to forget that I’m one of the marginal 30 per cent of the blind who has a job.

I try to never take for granted the extraordinary opportunity I’ve been given both to write and teach.

I worry about the sub-rosa voice that tells me I should slow down and devote more of my time strictly to my own pursuits. This you see is the voice of my uncle—though the narrative is less salty.

"Please,"  I think. "Save me from imagining the random preconditioned vanity that work is merely a ticket to forgetfulness."

Why "Random" and "Preconditioned"? Because the poisonous American voice that will argue your work is just the ticket to well deserved leisure is beamed at each citizen a million times a day—all advertising is based on this idea—even ads for night repair cream and hair growth tonics are built from the world of my uncle’s imaginings. If you just had a good head of hair or firmer breast, well by God you’d have better leisure time.

So the idea that one is working too hard comes at random in America. And this idea is the precondition for the further permission to forget what you’re doing for a living.

I have forgotten my job. I live the American Dream. It’s time to go home and forget what I did today.

Of course millions of Americans don’t think this way. I know this. But there are more people like my uncle than people of discernment.

The TV flickers. It’s Friday. This is a good day for selling forgetfulness.

Tomorrow I will be 53 years old. I’ve been discouraged by employment or human resources types; teachers; even people who work in the vocational rehabilitation business. I’ve been counseled to give up on the dream of ever having a full time job. I remember each day the despair of being unemployed and hearing from the experts that staying home was the most likely outcome for me.

I’ve been discouraged by professionals.

I try to remind myself that leisure is important for a healthy life, but you better not forget where you came from. If forgetfulness is what you think leisure is all about, well, chances are good you’re a shmuck.


Protecting the Soul

Last night my wife read to me from the local paper. It seems that an ultra right wing group of Baptists from Topeka, Kansas will be descending upon Iowa City to stage a protest at the funeral of a local family—a mass murder and suicide tragedy that has rocked our community and which has made the national news. Briefly, the husband murdered his wife and four children before killing himself. The Baptists from Topeka are using the funeral for this family to protest the fact that Iowa City is known as a “gay friendly” town. They plan to picket the funeral this Saturday outside St. Mary’s Catholic Church and share their view that this family’s tragedy has something to do with God’s judgment on Iowa City which, as I’ve already said, is a supportive environment for gay citizens as well as trans-gendered people.

Now I’m no theologian, but the last time I looked it doesn’t say anything in the Sermon on the Mount about a reduction of love for certain kinds of neighbors. Well of course we live in ugly times. But religious intolerance offers a particularly virulent brand of ugliness because it’s always driven by a profound misunderstanding of God’s love.

Remember Love? Love is all you need.
Forgiveness is the hardest thing about Christianity. I will endeavor to forgive these people from Topeka because they know not what they do.
May God forgive us all. My prayers are with the Sueppel family and their friends and neighbors.
I have yet to achieve universal forgiveness. My heart is made from wormwood and cloves. Milk and iodine flood my arteries.  But hate is the victory of skinheads and holy fanatics as well as terrorists and militarists.
I’ll take forgiveness as the path. Walt Whitman and Prozac are helpful.

The Sermon on the Mount?



Standing in the Yard

I think occasionally of poets who live on far shores while standing with the dogs. I center my quiet impressions about these men and women with the compulsive itch of that man who can’t hang a picture on his wall—too crooked at every glance. I want my kinship with the far flung poets of my tribe to be “just so” and perhaps this is because I am lonely at the end of winter. I’m lonesome and my country is at war and I want to drink tea from a glass with Kai Nieminen who lives on the south coast of Finland. I need to walk with Sam Hamill in Argentina.

With either poet I could talk about the history of war and the glass blowers of Murano who made a killing just when the crusades were ending with their artfully painted custom made glass eyes.


Poem From Washington Upon Hearing the President Praise the War

Maybe men and women need to be quiet for part of the day

Like Orphic birds asleep on the tombs in Italy—

Tuck your head, sleep in the sidelong avian mysteries,

Sleep like the fritillaries in the cemetery grass.

Yes we need less talk. Our country is sick with talk.

We ought to be quiet—put down the telephones—

To inquire of the numberless dead

With the offertory of our minds alone,

No tongues, no tongues at all.


[with]tv Launches New Radio Program for People with Disabilities…and everyone else!

A Different Perspective – Press Release

Coming Soon: a one-hour, weekly Internet Talk Radio Program entitled A Different Perspective set to premier on Webtalkradio.

A Different Perspective will be hosted by Howard Renensland, CEO of [with]tv: "a television channel of, by, and for people with disabilities…and everyone else" and PWdBC, a 501 c 3 dedicated to training people with a disability for careers in film and television.

To quote Mr. Renensland, “My experience of the past 23 years raising
and advocating for my daughter with disabilities has convinced me that
the single most debilitating factor limiting people with disabilities
is not their disability, but rather their image as portrayed in
mainstream media and the factors that contribute to that stereotypical
image. [with]tv will alter this situation by fully employing people
with disabilities in a mainstream media company where they, people with
disabilities, will control the medium and the message.”

A Different Perspective will present an
entertaining discussion of current issues from the perspective of
people with disabilities. Howard will, with the assistance of guests
and [with]tv volunteer reporters from the disability community, provide
this perspective intended for all listeners – not just those with a
disability. The ongoing progress of [with]tv, PWdBC, and the work of
the volunteers turning this vision into a reality will be discussed as

Inquiries regarding advertising and corporate sponsorship are
welcome. A volunteer staff is seeking audio commercial placement along
with advertising and corporate sponsors for A Different Perspective, [with]tv, and PWdBC.  More information can be found on on Blog [with]tv and on the web site.

Cross-posted on Blog [with]tv.