Finding focus

Seeing the world through new eyes is a powerful metaphor. And in my case, there’s also some literal truth to it as I gaze out upon San Francisco with 20-15 vision unaided by glasses or contact lenses. Last Friday, lasers zapped away the bit of corneal tissue that was blurring my vision, bringing the world sharply into focus. But my outlook was already undergoing some nonsurgical adjustments.

The decision to break up with my sweetie has been more painful and drawn out than the one to get LASIK surgery, which was an unexpected Christmas gift from my mother. Compared with the intense contemplation of whether to leave a wonderfully sustaining four-year relationship to pursue uncertain adventures, letting someone shave my eyeballs was no big deal.

Alix and I have been doomed for months, maybe even years, but we loved each other too much to face it. Love doesn’t really conquer all, as we all eventually realize, often around the time when couples talk about whether to have babies. I love my daughters, who are now 18 and almost 14 years old, but as I approach my 40th birthday, I can clearly see that my child rearing days are nearing their sunset.

We’re doing a good job of loving and supporting each other as we untangle our lives, but the future is a blur. The horizon ends at the end of the month when Alix flies to Bali for a six-week trip to southeast Asia and I move out, couch-surfing with friends until I fly to South America 12 days later and worrying about where to live next after my return.

My five-week trip to Peru and Bolivia will be part vacation and part journalistic exploration, as I’ve discussed in some earlier posts. It’s by far the most time I’ve had off from 17 years worth of daily and weekly newspaper deadlines, a chance to really reflect on my life, gaze upon the world, and just be.

Yet there’s really no respite for a restless soul. I’m brimming with writing projects right now, all of which exhibit serendipitous cross currents and flashes of interconnection that seem to be painting a picture that I can’t yet see.

As the war started five years ago, I was arrested for helping block the intersection in front of Bechtel, our homegrown multinational corporation that helped spark Bolivia’s latest revolutionary cycle by privatizing the water system in Cochabamba. And for some reason, I feel compelled to fly down there and learn more.

I regularly cover San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s well-packaged yet hollow approach to politics and civic governance, often recalling his stylistic mentor Bill Clinton as I watch Newsom in action, using the right liberal rhetoric (and even some of the same hand gestures and intonation) but selling out those values to maintain his personal popularity, over and over. So now I cover the presidential race, and the upcoming Democratic National Convention, where we’ll see whether we’re really ready to turn a new political page or whether it’s back to that soulless Clintonian triangulation.

Are Americans ready to see with new eyes?

Barack Obama’s campaign has tapped into a deep well of unfocused human energy, those who have been so disconnected from corrupted and ineffectual political systems that they choose to create new worlds, from Black Rock City to Second Life to untold other deliberately created communities. But I believe they yearn to apply their energies to the real challenges our country and the world faces, if they can only see how to do so. 

“There’s a real idealism out there, but they haven’t had an outlet,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told me on Monday as we chatted in his apartment, speaking simultaneously about Obama supporters and the burners that are branching out into the world, from Pisco to Gerlach (soon I’ll do a post focused on my conversation with Larry and his American Dreams).

I’m also inspired and idealistic, and I too am looking for an outlet for my energies. For now, that’s how I intend to use this blog, to explore the connections among my many current writing projects. And just maybe, at some key moment, it will all snap into clear focus.

Time for change

Politics has been swirling furiously through my brain for the last week, shooting out from my personal and professional sides, on subjects local, national, and international, in disparate shards that nonetheless seem to add up to something cohesive and consistent. This is a big moment in time, both mine and ours.

This Tuesday’s California presidential primary is an obvious catalyst to my sense of epic transition. Despite similarities in the policy positions of the two top Democratic candidates, it seems clear that only Barack Obama could be the kind of transformational leader that this country so desperately needs. I tend to agree with the progressive political leaders who I interviewed for my story in this week’s Guardian that an Obama election could open up discussions that the Democratic Party hasn’t been willing to have: How do we rein in the military-industrial complex and get past these cycles of war? Can capitalism be tweaked into sustainability or do we need to socialize key sectors of the economy? Will we finally deal with institutionalized political corruption and create a real, public interest, multi-party democracy that reengages the citizenry and expands the political dialogue? Are we willing to atone for our national sins or will we keeping tell lies to ourselves and the world? Are we doomed or is redemption still possible?

Despite my support for Obama, I acknowledge the critics who correctly note that he’s not talking in these terms, at least not yet. Nor should he, lest we see the Republicans keep the White House. But once he’s sworn in and we know the makeup of Congress, that’s when the real struggle begins for the anti war, social justice and other people’s movements. That’s when we expect action on this change rhetoric and do what we can to push and pull our leaders to really earn the votes we cast for them.

It’s true on the national level and it’s true here in San Francisco on the local level, where I and others have been pushing Mayor Gavin Newsom to live up to his rhetoric. Three-quarters of San Franciscans say they support him, but he’s maddeningly imperious and self-serving to those of us who closely follow his initiatives and political tactics. I’ll cop to holding leftist political views, but I can abide anyone who is honest and acts in good faith, regardless of their ideology. Yet disingenuousness grates on me.

I prefer well-meaning outsiders to the powerful people who ape populist rhetoric while propping up the status quo. I’ve started doing interviews with key anti-war figures for an upcoming cover story and I admire their tenacity in the face of impossible obstacles. Because their sacrifices matter and history will note their presence in our streets as it condemns imperial America (including people like Newsom, who bash the Bush Administration and condemn the war, but never once lent their presence or support to the anti-war marches and have consistently belittled and undermined the movement).

This week, I’ve also been making preparations for my trip to South America, including sending out letters making my first overtures to Bolivian President Evo Morales, in the hopes of getting an interview when I’m down there in April. As the week began, he was meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and representatives from Fidel Castro’s Cuba in Caracas at the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas conference, which seeks to strengthen the rising socialist tide with mutual defense pacts and agreements to create a lending institution to replace the World Bank in South America. As I said, this is a very exciting time, fraught with possibilities and innumerable pitfalls.

In preparation for my five-week trip to Bolivia and Peru, I’ve been studying Spanish and reading a great book: Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. It looks at the history of people’s movements in South America, going back past Simon Bolivar to Tupac Amaru (both of whom Morales praised in his inaugural address in 2005), and right up to the current revolutionary period that began in 2000, when the people of Cochabamba rose up against SF-based Bechtel’s takeover of their water system, continuing through the protests in La Paz in 2003 that drove the American-educated president into exile in Miami and right up to recent adoption of a new constitution in Bolivia.

The world is changing. That’s why President Bush’s State of the Union speech this week sounded so anachronistic and why people are so resistant to returning the Clintons to the White House. That’s why I and other journalists in San Francisco are trying to create new models and aggressively resisting the predation of corporate America. It’s why progressives here are pushing policies that set new standards for the rest of the country.

We can either embrace the political awakening we’re seeing rise up in South America and elsewhere, or we can keep living under the illusion that we’re an indispensable and lovable superpower. We can choose a new course, and this is the year to do it.