Friday, February 26, 2010

Book review: The Windup Girl

The initial meeting of my book club occurred last night.  It's a group of four old friends.  We've known each other for close to 20 years, avid readers all.  And since life does have a tendency to pull people apart when the tide is strong, we've formed a book club as a sort of breakwater against those currents.

Our initial read was The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, a science-fiction book portraying the world some three-hundred years in the future.  In Bacigalupi's world, humanity at every level, individual, clan, corporation, bureaucracy, even an entire culture, must scramble to find its niche in the constantly and rapidly changing world.

The excesses of the previous age, the "Pre-Contraction" era, have caused ocean levels to rise to the point where many lands have drowned. Civilization is starved for energy and food.  Rare and priceless fossil fuels have given way to spring technology and raw animal muscle.  Mankind's experimenting with gene technology has produced wonders and horrors:  "cheshires," scavenging mutations of common house cats that have so firmly established their niche as scavengers as to be ubiquitous; giant, four-tusked elephants, called "megadons," that drive the gears of industry; terrible and deadly crop diseases like cibiscosis and blister rust that threaten the global food supply; sinister, amoral calorie companies that maintain seed banks which they use as political weapons, and "New People," or "windups:"  humans, of a sort, created through genetic manipulation for specific servile purposes (sex toys, manufacturing line workers, soldiers).

The story takes place in "the Kingdom," with its below-sea-level capital of Bangkok which keeps the sea at bay with a system of expensive and vital levees.  The Kingdom has, until recently, maintained its sovereignty and independence from the all-powerful calorie companies through militant isolationism and fanatic, ruthless efficiency.  But things are changing in the Kingdom.  Recently fereng (an actual Thai word, meaning "foreigner") have begun to gain influence in the upper echelons of power. 

Into this highly-charged and desperate setting, Bacigalupi introduces a lengthy and fascinating cast of characters:  Jaidee, the loyal and courageous government minister who resists the encroachment of foreign powers into his beloved Kingdom; Hock Seng, the scheming Chinese refugee determined to rebuild the life he lost to a Muslim pogrom in Malaya; Anderson Lake, the cool, pragmatic calorie company agent, searching for a rogue "gene-ripper" who threatens the profit margins of Lake's employers; and, of course, Emiko, the windup sex toy woman who is nightly debased and humiliated in a sleazy nightclub, but desperately clings to survival.

And survival is what it's all about.  As my friend Will pointed out, the overall theme of the book is survival.  It is the sole motive for all the characters.  At least, up until the cataclysmic ending, where certain of the survivors undergo some subtle, redeeming transitions.

The characters are sympathetic, if somewhat thinly-drawn.  But Bacigalupi's focus is not so much character development as the creation of a plausible (all too plausible) future based on current trends and conditions.  The plot moves quickly; the story is chock full of intrigue and betrayal.  Bacigalupi does an admirable job of maintaining suspense; the book is a page-turner.

I was impressed with how Bacigalupi was able to present the new world reality through his character's thoughts and dialog.  He draws a broad-stroke outline for the world, then invites the reader to fill in the blanks.  There are many allusions to recent past events that are never fully explained (the Contraction, the "Finland" incident, the emergence of a religious entity known as the "Grahamites").  This ambiguity invites readers to join in the creation process; to draw from their own knowledge and experience to complete the world that Bacigalupi has begun.  That is the sign of a skilled writer.

I did notice some editing issues:  misplaced articles, pronoun conflicts, and the like, which I found a bit astonishing.  No fault of Mr. Bacigalupi, I imagine, but the editor really ought to have been more careful.  Things like that really detract from the book.  They interrupt the "narrative dream."  The story was good enough that I was able to overlook the errors, however.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  A great read.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Obama's health care summit


President Obama is a different kind of cat.  Amid all the vitriol and vituperation, all the ignorance and ignominy, all the petty pride and partisan politics of the health care debate, he has maintained his cool.  While each side, right and left, has raged against this or for that, he has held himself apart (some might say aloof) from the donnybrook.  Even in the face of undignified and racist remarks about his citizenship and faith on the one hand, and outraged accusations about betrayal and lack of conviction on the other.  (I'm part of that latter group.)

And just when it seemed the health care debate had petered out, a victim of the rancorous partisan atmosphere that asserts itself whenever Congress is left to its own devices, he pulls a symbolic rabbit out of his hat:  the Blair House health care summit.

It is hard to imagine that the summit, which occurs today, will be viewed by the American public as anything other than a magnanimous gesture by the President.  We all saw the nasty and ignorant signs that the tea-baggers were waving around during their summer histrionics:  Obama with a Hitler moustache; Obama as a tribal shaman; Obama as a radical Muslim cleric.  It takes a cool cucumber to ignore all that and continue to make conciliatory gestures toward the very people (Senator Chuck Grassley, Minority House Leader John Boehner, et alia) who did their best to foment it.

But, of course, let's not be ignorant of the President's motives regarding the summit.  First and foremost, it is a trap for the Republicans.  They may have flirted with the idea of boycotting the event, but that was never really an option for them.  They have to appear to be cooperating; they have to seem to be interested in the concerns of the American public, which, while perhaps not supporting the President's plan, still overwhelmingly recognizes the need for some kind of reform.  (And thank you very much, Wellpoint, for underscoring that reality with your obscene rate hikes.) 

And yet, Republicans also cannot really come out of the summit appearing to cooperate with the President.  Their base, those enlightened beings with the Lipton tea bags hanging from their hats, would blow its collective stack at such a development, leaving Republicans with none beyond their fat cat constituency (bankers, corporatists) who, although generous enough with their campaign contributions, don't have many votes.

The President cant' really lose, no matter what happens.  He's no real friend to the progressive movement, as he will gladly point out.  ("I'm not an ideologue," he recently told the House Republican caucus.)  So it's no skin off his shoulder if a health care reform bill turns out to be a glorified sop to the health insurance industry.  The Republicans have done him the service of providing themselves as a scape-goat on that score. 

But even if, at the end of the summit, Republicans leap in front of the microphones to complain about being frozen out, even if they vow not to cooperate, the President has the trump card of reconciliation to pass the legislation.  And congressional Democrats will use it.  Because they have to pass something.  They cannot go into the fall elections without having a health care reform bill to hold up as an accomplishment.  If they do it right, they might even reverse the political tide that, as of the moment, threatens to swamp them in November.

So, if I'm right about all this (and I could very well be wrong), the health care summit is destined to be a win for the President.  It's only a matter of degree. 

Shrewd, Mr. President.  Very shrewd.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Crocus patch in wartime


Survey we now our garden,
So recently sown,
Reduced to torn-earth shell holes;

Secret crocus patch I laid
For your astonished delight
Ripped by wrath from womb;

Those potentials I believed
Had promised springtime color:
Sad, silent bulbs crushed dead

Yet lift my ragged banner,
Stained by these indignities,
Hope stark hues suffice;

Monday, February 22, 2010

What's a "terrorist" again?

Echelon Building 1, Austin, Texas
The incident last week which occurred in Austin, Texas, reveals once again, the hypocrisy and discomfort of the right-wing in this country around the term "terrorist."

At issue is the act of a frustrated software engineer, Joseph Stack, who intentionally flew his private Piper Cherokee PA-28 Dakota airplane into a building in Austin, Texas, where the Internal Revenue Service kept offices.  Besides Stack (who was killed in the crash), several people were injured, and Vernon Hunter, a Vietnam Veteran and an IRS employee died in the crash.  You can read about the incident here.

Immediately, upon discovery that the perpetrator was a disgruntled, white, conservative male who had posted an anti-government screed on a website, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets fell all over themselves trying to explain how this was a "lone criminal act" and not an act of "domestic terrorism."  Of course, their arguments along this vein are absurdly nuanced and meaningless.  More of the same from the people who could go on for hours about how Bill Clinton deserved to be impeached, or how the Iraq invasion was justified.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But rather than deconstruct the various arguments that right-wingers put forth to justify not using the term "terrorism" to describe the incident, I think it is more illuminating to speculate on why they would do so.  

Right-wing politicians always find it useful to have enemies to which they can point and say, "Vote for me so I can protect you from them."  And so, it is in their interest to keep the "terrorist" designation as narrowly defined as possible.  Specifically, they want to apply the term strictly to Muslims from the Middle East or Africa.

Because, if the right-wing base of the Republican party hears the term "terrorist" applied to people like Joseph Stack or James Von Brunn, or Jim D. Adkisson, or Scott Roeder --well, they might get confused about who is the "enemy."   You see, although these men were all killers motivated by politics, they were not Muslims.  They were white, conservative men angry with the United States government.  And, as far as right-wingers are concerned, white, conservatives angry with the government are Good People TM.  Even patriotic.  Check what Joseph Stack's daughter, Samantha Bell, had to say about her father:  "I think too many people lay around and wait for things to happen. But if nobody comes out and speaks up on behalf of injustice, then nothing will ever be accomplished."

Joe Stack:  one man's patriot is another man's terrorist
Apparently "speak[ing] up on behalf of injustice" means flying an airplane into a building and killing people who are not in anyway responsible for one's misfortune.  That's not terrorism.  That's being patriotic.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Aryan Nation poised to invade Oregon

Beautiful John Day, Oregon
Yesterday, a coworker who has family in Grant County informed me of the news that leaders of the Aryan Nations, based in Idaho, are interested in purchasing property in John Day, Oregon, so that they might establish a new headquarters.  A headquarters from which, they informed Scotta Callister of the Blue Mountain Eagle, Grant County's local newspaper, they hope to create a nation-state in the Pacific Northwest for the "Aryan race."

Apparently, the "national director" of the Aryan Nations movement, Paul R. Mullet, and several cohorts, came to John Day on Wednesday, appareled in full Nazi regalia, and checked into a local motel.  They proudly displayed their Nazi flags from their room, causing people in two other rooms to check-out early.

Is this our new neighbor?
Mayor Bob Quinton had this to say about a potential Nazi headquarters in downtown John Day, "That's the last kind of thing our reputation needs.  We need to be inclusive and emphasize positive things here."

I lived in Eastern Oregon for nearly half my life, and I can tell you, there are definitely racist sentiments over there.  When you live amongst rednecks, you will inevitably hear ugly racist remarks and bear witness to racist incidents.  Ask anyone who has lived east of the Cascades for any length of time.

But it is hard for me to believe that the people of Eastern Oregon will give much of a welcome to overt and organized racism.  The same people who might make tasteless and offensive racist jokes in the privacy of their own homes will recoil in fear and horror when faced with the truth of the Aryan Nations creed.  The people in Eastern Oregon are not bad people. They're not Nazis.

Folks, I'm a lifelong Oregonian, and I'm damned proud of it.  And I'll be god-damned if I'm going to let my home become a hotbed of the most virulent and poisonous of human attitudes.  It remains to be seen what can be done, but acquiescence is certainly not an option.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Symbolism of the Olympic Flame

This is what we've come to?
I love my neighbors to the north in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Their city is a jewel; and British Columbians epitomize all that is good with Canadians, generally.  They're open-minded and upbeat; they're well-educated, tolerant.  I just love them.

But it sure does seem that, putting aside all the unfortunate events that are outside their control, in their zeal to be good hosts to the world at this year's Winter Olympic games, they have made some poor decisions.

It is not their fault that luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili (from Georgia (the nation)) was killed during a trial run at the Whistler Sliding Center before the games had even begun.  Without intending to diminish the tragedy, luge is a dangerous sport and things like that do happen.

Nor can the Canadians be blamed for the warm weather that has hindered the Games thus far.  Winters in the Pacific Northwest are generally warmer (and wetter) than one sees at points further east on the North American continent.  That's a function of the mighty Pacific and that eastward flowing jet stream.  Nothing to be done about that.

But it seems to me that my Canadian brothers have gone a tad bit overboard on the security side of the whole Olympic Games business.  Although today they are working to rectify the situation, up to now, the Canadians had placed a chain-link perimeter around the Olympic Flame where it burns on the Vancouver waterfront.

The Olympic Flame has been the target of protests in the past, certainly.  And I can understand the desire to avoid embarrassing, ugly incidents that might mar the overall good will of the Olympic Games.  But, if the Olympic Flame is a symbol of the fraternity of mankind, of the unification of humanity in peace and harmony, could there be a more contradictory image to project than the sight of tourists snapping photos of the Flame burning in the distance, beyond reach, from behind ugly barriers?

Anyway, I'm glad they're fixing it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Evan Bayh bites the Big One

What a loser!
Yesterday, out of the blue, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, from Indiana announced that he will not seek reelection this year. Quoth he:  "I love working for the people of Indiana. I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress."

Sniff.  Poor guy.

But the announcement is a big shocker, certainly.  Bayh was heavily favored to whack his Republican challengers, even in Indiana which, apart from the anomaly of the 2008 presidential election, is generally considered a red state.  Bayh had a 13 million dollar war chest, the power of incumbency, and good approval ratings.

Speculation about his motives has the punditry all atwitter.  Some, like my conservative friend, Kate, over at blatheringsblog, have suggested that Bayh's move may have come about because of some issues around the  high-priced lobbying career of the Senator's wife, Susan.  Others have keyed off Senator Bayh's use of the word "executive" in one of his recent remarks.  Specifically, he said, "I'm an executive at heart."  This has led to speculation that the Senator may be eying his old job as governor of Indiana.  Or, perhaps even, planning a run for president, planning a primary challenge against President Obama!

Time will tell.  But my own postulate is that Senator Bayh got frozen out of the political leadership in the Senate.  Recall that Bayh made a bid to elbow his way into the Senate leadership by announcing a coalition of "moderate" Democrats back in March of last year.  Well, we haven't heard much about that so-called Moderate Dems Working Group since that time, even with all the wrangling that has occurred during the health care debate.  That, to me, means that Bayh failed in his bid to become a power player in the Senate.

If current trends hold, the Democrats will probably lose that Senate seat.  Bayh made his announcement with only two days to go before the filing deadline for candidates, leaving Indiana Democrats scrambling.  Interesting timing that seems to point to petulance on a scale heretofore reserved for Stinky Joe Lieberman

Republicans should certainly be happy about this development.  And, of course, they'll over-play it.  That's what they do.  Democrats will undoubtedly add this to their long list of reasons they can't do anything.

Meanwhile, the country continues its general drift toward the sh*tter.  Thanks very much, to all of you:  Democrats and Republicans alike!

Monday, February 15, 2010

ASL: Bustin' the Barrikady yet again (Pt. IV)

Note to readers: This post won't make a lick of sense to anyone who isn't familiar with the Advanced Squad Leader game system.

My old friend and ASL nemesis, Dave Hauth, is back!  Fresh off our recent Red Barricades game, in which I finally seem to have found an effective counter for his "fortify the riverbank" strategy, Dave is ready to give it another go.  This time the game is RBCGIII:  the Barrikady, with yours truly in the role of General Von Paulus and Dave doing his best impression of grandfatherly Marshal Zhukov.  

For your vicarious ASL enjoyment, both players will once again maintain a blog correspondence as the game progresses with the agreement that neither will read his opponent's blog until given express permission to do so.  Dave and I have faced off in so many ASL campaigns and scenarios that a Gentleman's Game is both assumed and assured.

Readers are encouraged to comment!  Got a problem with where I placed my AT gun?  Speak your piece!  Just be sure not to inadvertently reveal any information about Dave's plan to me or vice-versa.  You can read Dave's blog here.  You can read my previous entry here.

Aftermath of Day 3

Well, the results of Day 3 have given me some breathing room. Here's the perimeter.

Perimeter, end of Day 3
I was able to destroy nearly two full companies of Russian infantry and, although I didn't quite reach the river, I captured the trenches and pillboxes that comprised Dave's defense in the northeast portion of the map.  My men can hear the Volga lapping against the shore.  The results in that sector were brought about by a very fortunate drift of my Nebelwerfer to hex AA8, where it fell on the core of Dave's river defense, including a concrete pillbox that I had not previously discovered.  While the rocket pounded those troops, my Sturm company, supported by the reinforcing Panzers crashed into his trench line, leaving the Red Army troopers with nowhere to go.  All in all, I destroyed an entire company of infantry over there.  

The Russians suffered 65 CVP, the Germans, 42 CVP.  That's a pretty good ratio, especially when you consider that 24 of my CVP were from armor.  I lost only seven and a half squads of infantry.  Also, even though I swore I would not, I did advance southward in the west and in the factories and was able to gain substantial ground, including Building B17.  I lost all three of my purchased PzIIIH tanks, and my one remaining StuG G.  But I was able to destroy one of the T34 M43 tanks that Dave had purchased, and I immobilized another, leaving it in a very precarious position (hex T14).

I choose the Attack chit once again for Day 4.  My retained forces for the day:
  • 548 x 10.5
  • 468 x 11
  • 467 x 10
  • 447 x 1.5
  • 127
  • 9-2 x 2, 9-1 x 3, 7-0 x 2
  • HMG x 3, MMG x 4, MMG (r) x 2, LMG x 3, ATR x 2, Lt. Mtr.
  • PzKpfwIII H (immobilized in hex Q11)
I am allotted 17 CPP for the day. My purchases:
  • Rifle Coy 7CPP
    467 x 12
    9-1, 8-0
  • Nebelwerfer w/pre-reg hex (scarce ammo) 3 CPP
    Pre--registered hex:  I23
  • Stukas (early entry) 2 CPP
  • PzIVF1 Pltn (depleted) 5 CPP
    PzIVF1 x 2
    9-2 armor leader
Lousy rolls for my reinforcements!  Another depleted armor platoon, poor leadership for the rifle company, and scarce ammo for the rocket.  The one bright spot is that I got a 9-2 armor leader.

Plan for Day 4

My goal for this day is to stretch the front.  Now that the Russian numerical advantage is not so pronounced, it is time to start forcing Ivan to have to guard a wider approach.  So, with that in mind, there are two options:  attack southward along the river, or down the western edge of the map.

I'm going to opt for the latter:  push right down the board edge.  I think this is the safer approach.  I expect that Dave will anticipate a strong effort to grab the Chemist's Shop.  But, in this, I choose to disappoint.

The ol' right hook
I23 is the pre-registered hex for the Nebelwerfer.  I have to imagine that, no matter where it drifts, it is going to rain down some misery on Red Army troopers.  I'll allocate my forces after I see Dave's set up.

Russians everywhere

Upon seeing Dave's setup, the need to "stretch" the front becomes all the more apparent.

Ready to rumble
There are Russians at every point in the front.  Except for one.  It seems that Dave has left the ground to the west of the railroad completely unguarded.  But, you'll pardon me if I remain just a tad suspicious, eh?  It seems highly unlikely that B23 is completely empty.  And, in fact, looking over his setup, I cannot account for the one mobile T34 M43 that I know he has retained.  So it is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

Nonetheless, he can't have much over on the extreme west, and that's the way I aim to go.  Buildings B23 and C28 are both on the agenda for the day.  In fact, I'll run as far down the west side of the map as I can get.  But I don't expect it will be as easy as it looks.

Beyond the west edge creep, I hope to do some clean-up work in the K15 and O10 factories.  I'll use my Sturm troops there.  And I will definitely be going after the immobilized T34 in T14.  I'll also make a grab for hex DD0 and try to clear the AT ditch in DD5.  But these are all secondary goals.  

I want to have a very long perimeter at the end of the day.  And that means I want to grab as much ground as I can on the west edge of the map.  I'm going to need to take an Idle day soon, and in order to do that with any degree of security, I need to make the Russians feel stretched.

Let's see how it goes...

To be continued...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Movie review: Crazy Heart

Despite all the critical praise heaped upon director Scott Cooper's new flick, Crazy Heart, I took a healthy dose of skepticism in with me when I trekked down to the Fox Tower Cinema yesterday.  After all, the plot line seemed rather trite:  a washed-up, middle-aged country singer struggles to muster enough enthusiasm to keep on truckin'.  The basic theme of existential crisis brought about by personal failure is ubiquitous in modern cinema.  (One need only reach back as far as Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler for an example.)  I was at least half-expecting to leave the flick feeling like I had been suckered by the self-congratulatory dross that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences spits out on a regular basis. 

But if Shakespeare taught us anything, it is this:  narrative art does not require originality of plot or freshness of ideas to succeed.  Rather, success or failure rests completely on the shoulders of the story-teller. 

The film, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, tells the tale of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a middle-aged country music singer-songwriter on the downhill side of his career, crisscrossing the American Southwest in his beat up old Bronco (or is it a Blazer?), playing gigs at piano bars and bowling alleys.  Blake's woeful state of existence, broke and unloved, is made all the worse by a drinking problem which threatens to kill him.

Blake hasn't had any commercial success in quite a while, even though a protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) is at the top of the country music scene performing songs that Blake wrote.  (Unrelated side note:  the Tommy Sweet character reminded me of my brother, Calee.  Unnervingly so.)

At a gig in Santa Fe, a newspaper reporter, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young woman with a troubled past of her own, seeks out Bad for an interview.  Jean has a four-year-old son from a previous "mistake," and is struggling to make a new career for herself as a writer.  The two, perhaps sensing their mutual loneliness and isolation, strike up an unlikely romance.  (Blake is some thirty years her senior.) 

As they forge ahead, Blake must face a decision:  is the possibility of another chance at life, no matter how remote and despite all his past failures, worth the effort?

This flick grabbed me, right from the roll of the opening credits on through the last bars of the closing song.  Jeff Bridges performance is a tour de force delivered with the subtlety and compassion of a master actor.  He is amply supported by a powerful cast, top-to-bottom, including another Robert Duvall cameo (he's been doing a lot of cameos lately, eh?) as Blake's patron Wayne, and Paul Herman as his sharp-tongued, exasperated agent.

Jeff Bridges can actually sing, as the movie soundtrack will attest.  It's good, catchy music with meaningful lyrics.  "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin' for a little while..."  There's a sentiment that every middle-aged man knows quite well.  And that, perhaps, is what I find so poignant about the film.  Were it not for a very few lucky breaks, my own life could very well have mirrored that of Bad Blake. 

I left this flick positively elated and entertained.  Again, the storyline is nothing new.  But Scott Cooper's deft direction, and the masterful acting dissipated any hesitation I may have had.

I highly recommend this film.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tough as nails


Riding in the Athletic department van with the OIT wrestling team, down icy Highway 97 as it wound along the eastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake.  Heading south.  On our way home.  The lake was a flat frozen plane on the right, empty and lifeless but for wispy ghosts of powdered snow pushed across the surface by a brief, frigid pant of wind.  Moonlight reflected off the ice... lifeless pallor.  On the left, the dark black mass of steep lava rock ridges, rising up like the exposed backs of indifferent behemoths burrowed in the earth to escape the bitter, dry mid-winter air of the high desert.

Coach Garrett at the wheel, Dad in the front passenger seat, bullshitting back and forth.  Eric and I were crowded in the back seats with the wrestlers.  It was late... that lonely, ghostly time in the night, known only to late-night travelers, when all the world is asleep but for those lost souls still on the highway, driving through the darkness toward the promise of a warm, well-lit destination.

Coach Garrett had the heater going and it was warm and snug in the van.  Too crowded to stretch out.  I peered out ahead, past the shine of the van's headlights, past the powdered-snow snakes that skittered across the icy slick surface of the road, seeing the ember-red taillights of another vehicle in the distance --they seemed to peer back at me, like the eyes of a forest creature prowling beyond the reach of a campfire.  Someone behind me snored softly.  My eyelids grew heavy, my chin dropped toward my chest...

"You think they're alright?"   Dad's voice.  The van was stopped by the side of the highway.  Coach Garrett hunched over the wheel, musing.  He didn't say anything.  Dad opened the passenger door and climbed out into the frigid air.  He left the door open and stood at the top of the steep embankment, calling out into the darkness.  "You okay down there?"

I wiped the sleep from my eyes and squinted out in the direction that Dad was calling.  A car was overturned at the bottom of the embankment, its underbelly exposed to the cold stars above.  I recognized the red taillights, still glowing in the darkness.  Silence.  Dad looked back in at Coach Garrett.  "What do you think, Neil?" he asked.  He took a half-step down the embankment toward the car, hesitated.  We were all awake now.  Everyone seemed to be holding his breath.

Then, a voice.  "Yeah, we're here."  The driver's side door of the upended car swung open.  A dark figure rolled out onto the snow.  A large man staggered to his feet.  Behind him, a smaller figure appeared from within the blackness of the car.

"Jesus!" Dad breathed.  He took a few more steps down the embankment, hand extended.  The large man lurched forward, took Dad's hand and pulled himself up to stand beside the van.  He tottered where he stood, for a moment.  He seemed to be fighting to maintain balance.  The light afforded by the van's interior showed him to have jet black hair that hung loosely halfway down his back.  His skin was a red-brown.  His face was round and heavy.  A Klamath Indian.  He looked to be in his thirties.

Behind him, Dad reached down and pulled up the smaller figure:  a young woman in her late teens, also Klamath Indian, with her long black hair, her full cheeks, her wide, dark eyes.  She was silent.  Her cheeks glistened with tears.

"Are you alright?" Dad asked.

"I think so.  Yeah," the man said.  "But we're gonna need a ride, though."  He chuckled.

"There's a truck stop back north about a mile," Coach Garrett said.  "Climb in."

We made room, squeezing even tighter into the back seats of the van.  Everyone was by that time fully awake.  A palpable tension charged the air.  Aside from the nervous relief of narrowly averted disaster, there was something else:  the man and the young woman, whom we assumed to be his daughter, were Klamath Indians.

The Klamath tribe lived mostly on their reservation near Chiloquin and Fort Klamath.  Having lived in the Klamath Basin for as long as I had, I knew well the suspicion and latent hostility that existed between the Klamaths and the non-Indian population.  Everyone in Klamath Falls knew that it was best not to intermingle with the Klamath Indians.  People said they were still savages, prone to drink and violence.  It seemed that every month, a story appeared in the Herald and News reporting a drunken highway fatality.

Once we had the two new-comers seated, Dad got back in the van and slammed the door.  Almost immediately, we were assailed by the sickly sweet stench of liquor.  The man had been drinking.  The fact was made all the more obvious as Dad engaged him in conversation.

"You from Chiloquin?"  Dad asked.

"Bly," the fellow replied.  "We was headin' back home."

"You're lucky," Dad said.

"Don't know about that," the man said, shaking his head.   

Coach Garrett turned the van around and we headed back north. It was a short drive back to the truck stop, but it seemed to take forever.  The Klamath man chattered the whole way, gesticulating with his hands, leaning forward, then rocking back, laughing loudly.  The stink of booze was overwhelming.  His daughter sat at his side.  She was silent.  Her tears ran freely.

We pulled into the parking lot of the truck stop.  There were one or two eighteen-wheelers idling outside.

"They'll have a phone here," Dad said.  Although he did his best to conceal it, I could hear relief in his voice.  He jumped out and opened the sliding door of the van.  The Klamath man and his daughter got out.  The young woman set off toward the light of the truck stop, saying nothing.  The man paused beside the van for a moment.

"Good luck," Dad said.

"Thanks," said the man.  Then, he leaned back in toward the rest of us, pointed a finger and said in a tone of sincere gratitude, "You guys're tough as nails."  We chuckled nervously.

In a moment we were back on Highway 97, heading south. 

"He coulda killed his little daughter," Dad said, after a while.

Coach Garrett glanced at him from over the top of his wire-frame glasses.  He made a face.  "What the hell had he been drinking?"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Oportunidades de crecer


En esta vida, las tribulaciones que nos confrontan son muchas.  Esta verdad no está una revelación grande ni repentina.  Como se dice en la Biblia,
Lo que ya ha acontecido volverá a acontecer;
Lo que ya se ha hecho se volverá a hacer
¡y no hay nada nuevo bajo el sol! --Eclesiastés 1:9
Escribo hoy para dos razones:  primeramente, para practicar el español (claro); y, en segundo lugar, para protestar, otra vez, la transformación de nuestra sociedad en un círculo de gatos peleados.

No hay un ejemplo más revelar que mi trabajo, donde la mayoría de mis compañeros estan entrados en lucha política y juvenil.  ¡Ave María Purísima!  ¡En una reunión antes esta semana, había un discusión fuerte sobre el uso correcto de comas en una lista!  ¡Comas!  ¡Yo no bromeo!

Bien, es una indicación de las inseguridades que todos se sienten.  Inseguridades del trabajo, de la economía, del mundo.  Y yo no estoy inmune.  Al fin de cuentas, ¿que dice el hecho que escribo en español, lo cuál ninguno de mis colaboradores no pueden leer?

¡Qué lástima!  Por lo menos, puedo esperar que creceré de la experencia.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mahatma Candy daze

Mahatma Candy
In some ways, the years since Mahatma Candy dissolved have passed like the brief ride home from a noontime picnic.  The memories are so fresh and sweet, the reverie so absorbing, that one is startled to find oneself pulling into the driveway, home once again.  Has it really been nearly a decade since those heady days when Dave, Lori, Dan, and I were spending every waking hour engaged in all the joyous activity of playing music, of singing?  Eight years since we shared all the laughter and friendship inherent in mutual creation?  Eight years since we were drinking ourselves silly, sharing late night mussel shooters at Montage?  Is that really possible?

I can't remember for certain how Dave Thompson and I first conceived of the idea of forming a band.  It must have had something to do with our similar hippie worldviews, and our time together on the basketball court during lunch hours at work.  Something that came about from smoking cigarettes in the parking lot, from our mutual love of un-amplified guitars and our shared admiration for Lindsey Buckingham.

We started working out a few arrangements, just the two of us.  We did a nice version of Neil Young's Comes a Time, and we pieced together a rendition of Jethro Tull's With You There to Help Me.  There were other tunes, too, but I can't remember them anymore.  And we got to feeling a bit proud of what we were doing, so we went down to the Snake and Weasel on open mic night, to play in front of people.

And we were encouraged by the response we got from the audience.  I was feeling so elated that I announced from the stage, that we were looking for a female vocalist to join us.  And Lori just happened to be in the audience that night to listen to her coworkers, who had their own band.  And so she snagged me, as we left the stage, and asked, "Are you really looking for a singer?"

And I said, "Yeah, absolutely," and we made arrangements to meet later and see how things clicked.

Dan and I were already friends at that point.  Had been for several years.  And he was also there that night at the Sneasel.  And I think he saw how much fun Dave and I were having while we played, and so he mentioned to me that, if I was willing to give him a chance, he'd try to play percussion with us.

Gig at the Sneasel
So that's how we all came together.  We didn't realize it at the time, I think, but although we were four very different people, we were all at similar stages in our lives.  Each of us single, or soon-to-be single, looking to have some fun, loving music, and (speaking honestly) eager to indulge in a bit of narcissistic preening.

All told, we were a band for nearly two years.  In that time, we wrote about two dozen songs, some more worthy of remembrance than others.  We played maybe two dozen paying gigs and innumerable parties, barbecues, and other social functions.  The highlight of our time as a band came in the spring of 2001, when we climbed aboard an Aer Lingus jet, flew to Dublin, and spent two weeks driving through Ireland and Wales, playing music all the way. 

Playing in Ireland
Our lives were completely dedicated to our mutual endeavor, and we were fast friends.  We shared everything. We lived in each other's houses; we laughed and bickered and, yes, we loved each other.

Eventually, of course, our lives began to pull apart.  When we came back from Ireland, we set about trying to record a CD of our music. But the effort proved to be too much.  Personal friction, rivalries, insecurities, and, I believe, a mutual recognition that it couldn't go on forever brought about an end to Mahatma Candy.

I can't say there wasn't any bitterness.  Even today, there are still some aspects of our dissolution and our history that are too painful or too dark to talk about.  Let's leave them there in the past.

But the Mahatma Candy daze was such a blissful, carefree era in life, that I can only remember it with fondness.  And in this, I feel safe speaking for my bandmates as well.

You can hear some of our old tunes at this website:

by Mahatma Candy

Baby, I can hear you knocking on my back door;
Every time your old man's gone, you know you come a-runnin' back for more;
I know you don't like me much, and I could say the same thing about you;
But if you're all alone, pick up the phone; I ain't got nothin' better to do;

The lines on your face don't look so hard,
When you're lying in my bed, moanin' in the dark;

Mister, I like your style and I like the pretty things you buy;
When we're ridin' downtown in your Mercedes Benz I see my girlfriends roll their eyes;
I know you like the looks I get when I'm hanging there on your arm;
But you ain't seen the best of it yet; there's a price to see all my charms;

You never hurt me; you treat me right;
But I just can't see coming home with you every night;

People say I'm a real fast mover and they don't like the way I play;
But I kinda like the way that I am; I don't give a f*ck what they say;

Some girls thing that I'm cold and I make a bad name for them;
At least I'm not lyin' at home alone cryin', wishing I could find the right man;

I've lived life hard, but I ain't dead yet;

And what you see is what you get;

Monday, February 08, 2010

Sister Sarah and the Tea-baggers

"Me no need fancy teleprompter."
Sarah Palin was at it again last weekend, blathering away in her dizzy, half-baked manner; spouting lots of cotton candy rhetoric, finely-tuned to appeal to tea-bagger ears; driving "serious" Republicans to distraction. And while it is perhaps best to just ignore her (the way one might ignore the public histrionics of a mentally-debilitated homeless person or a down-on-his-luck drunkard), so hilarious and revealing are her antics, that I simply cannot.  The vacuous drivel that comes from her mouth is stunningly sophomoric.  And it reveals so very much about her, about the people who purport to "believe in her." 

The venue was the much-ballyhooed "Tea Party Convention," held in Nashville, Tennessee, over the weekend:  supposedly the opening shot of a grass-roots movement that will right all of our country's wrongs by bringing about a "return to conservative principles."  And although the price for admission to the event ($549 per person.) seemed to belie its supposed grass-roots nature, there were enough attendees to put up a hearty "Run, Sarah!  Run!" when the former Alaska governor stood at the podium.

In support of my previous speculation that Ms. Palin is remaining on the national political scene merely to harvest dollars from her gullible and pathetic fans, the former governor of Alaska was paid over $100,000 to speak at the event.

But, don't worry, tea-baggers.  She promises to reinvest all her proceeds into "the movement" (har, har, har).  And, in the meantime, you can continue to pay handsomely for all her mavericky wit and wisdom.

Take, for example, these jewels:
  • “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for you?”
  • “To win that war, we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law."
  • “This is about the people, and it’s bigger than any one king or queen of a tea party, and it’s a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter.” 
Wise.  Visionary.

But, alas, some of the sheen was taken off this shining vision for America when it was revealed that Sarah made use of her own makeshift teleprompter in the interview subsequent to her triumphal speech.  During that interview, Sarah bravely fielded questions that had been scripted and submitted to her in advance. But, careful examination of the video reveals that she had scribbled crib notes on the palm of her hand!

It's an old trick that I used myself back in my college days when I used to sweat calculus exams. But instead of trigonometric derivatives, Sarah had scrawled these powerful words: "energy, tax cuts, lift American spirits."


Well, I'll tell ya:  as she continues leading her faithful into a slow-motion political car crash, all the while relieving them of their disposable income, I'm positively flummoxed as to whether I should laugh or cry.

Oh, please...oh, please!
 And yet, I always choose the former.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Super Sunday in America

Super Sunday:  a national institution, a de facto holiday, a revered tradition, a manifestation of All That Is Wrong in America.  Take your pick.  Today is the day.

It's been nearly 20 years since I gave up on the NFL as anything other than a gaudy, over-hyped pageant designed to extract wealth from the hoi polloi.  I have no emotion invested in the game, nor indeed in the sport of football.  Quite a contrast from the days of my youth, when I held this day as a much-anticipated event; when nothing was so important as victory for my team. (And how ironic, when you consider that football was my father's passion and career!)

Back in the day, I held people who disregarded the event as misanthropic curmudgeons,  bitter killjoys.  The idea that the Super Bowl did not matter was downright blasphemous.

I remember one Superbowl Sunday, back in the 80s, driving to a party and noticing that a wedding was occurring at a church along the way.  "Who were the heartless, inconsiderate people that chose today, of all days, to get married?" thought I.  "How could they do that to their friends and loved ones?"

These days, I see it all differently.  Now, the Superbowl is exclusively an opportunity to get together with friends from whom the tides of daily life have drawn me away, to eat good food, to laugh.  Beyond that, it is nothing.

Don't get me wrong.  I watch the game; I offer my pseudo-expert analysis as an armchair quarterback; I even enjoy the much-anticipated television advertisements.  But I don't care who wins.  

For me, the event became a ridiculous curio long ago.  Sports analysts struggle to find new ways to say the same things every year.  Advertisers spend millions of dollars trying to penetrate the collective psyche of a populace who is daily inundated with mind-numbing sales pitches.  Fake passions run high.

Gwynne Dyer, the Canadian historian and journalist, observed that sporting events serve a useful sociological function in that they provide a release for natural human tendencies toward mass violence.  He called such events "mock violence."  Armies of fans meet at the event, or gather around televisions and radios all across the world, a battle ensues, and one group emerges victorious while the other is vanquished.  But no one gets killed.

Well, if humans can use sporting events to replace actual war, then I say these events are worthy.  Perhaps even essential.

The Who?
And, if it gives a bunch of washed-up old Brits from Has-beenistan like Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend a reason to get out of bed in the morning --well, that's good, too.

Congratulations, New Orleans Saints fans!

Friday, February 05, 2010

ASL: Bustin' the Barrikady yet again (Pt. III)

Note to readers: This post won't make a lick of sense to anyone who isn't familiar with the Advanced Squad Leader game system.

My old friend and ASL nemesis, Dave Hauth, is back!  Fresh off our recent Red Barricades game, in which I finally seem to have found an effective counter for his "fortify the riverbank" strategy, Dave is ready to give it another go.  This time the game is RBCGIII:  the Barrikady, with yours truly in the role of General Von Paulus and Dave doing his best impression of grandfatherly Marshal Zhukov.  

For your vicarious ASL enjoyment, both players will once again maintain a blog correspondence as the game progresses with the agreement that neither will read his opponent's blog until given express permission to do so.  Dave and I have faced off in so many ASL campaigns and scenarios that a Gentleman's Game is both assumed and assured.

Readers are encouraged to comment!  Got a problem with where I placed my AT gun?  Speak your piece!  Just be sure not to inadvertently reveal any information about Dave's plan to me or vice-versa.  You can read Dave's blog here.  You can read my previous entry here.

Aftermath of Day 2

Woeful times are these!  Day 2 may not have been a disaster, but it did one hell of a convincing impression.  First, the perimeter.

Day 3 perimeter
My push east for the river was slow and bloody.  As I pushed eastward from the O6 factory, my Sturm troopers had to contend with 80mm mortar artillery, dug-in tanks, and minefields.  Nonetheless, with the help of my Stukas and my Pz IIIs I was able to get a foothold in the Chemist's Shop.  But Dave had Russians hidden in the cellar and kicked me out, taking a toll of 2 Sturm squads in doing so.  I destroyed one of the two dug-in KVs and all of the T60s, but was unable to capture the pillboxes or Building Z1.  I failed to meet my goals for the day.

Meanwhile, in the west, I cautiously advanced to capture Building B17 and the entire F15 factory, only to have my rifle squads routed back to the north in the face of a Russian counterattack.

I ended up capturing 23 stone locations for the day, which was not enough to win the scenario.  My woes were compounded by the final casualty tally for the day:  Germans suffered 58 CVP; Russians suffered 42 CVP.  Bad news, Heinrich.

My retained forces for the day are these:
  • 548 x 15.5
  • 468 x 8.5
  • 467 x 5
  • 447 x 1.5
  • 9-2 x 2, 9-1 x 2, 7-0 x 2
  • HMG x 2, MMG x 4, LMG x 4, DC x 2, Atr, Lt. Mtr.
  • Stug G
  • Pz III H
I am allotted 17 CVP for Day 3. I toyed with the idea of taking an Idle day, but I don't think I can afford it. Dave ended Day 2 with 49 squads. I need to destroy some Russians or they will soon become too strong for me. So, I decided to choose the Attack chit, and made these purchases:
  • Rifle Coy (depleted) 7 CPP
    467 x 9
    9-1, 8-1, 7-0
    HMG, Atr

  • Pz IIIL Pltn 4 CPP
    PzKwIIIL x 3

  • Btln Mtr w/offboard observer 3 CPP
    Observer hex:  L0

  • Nebelwerfer w/pre-registered hex 3 CPP
    Pre-registered hex:  Y9
My problems are compounded by a poor roll for my rifle company. Only 9 squads. At least I retained the HMG!

Plan for Day 3

If I'm going to pull a victory out of this poor start, I mustn't panic.  And so, my plan for the day is to finish what I started on the day before.  I must get to the river.

Head down and keep pushing
The 80mm mortar offboard observer is in hex L0 where he can call down smoke to assist with the assault on the river and also drop shells to support the rifle companies in the west against any Russian aggression there.  The Nebelwerfer is pre-registered to fall on hex Y9, which will make for an interesting placement of the field phone.  Fortunately, the leader using it need only stay there long enough to get the module dropped.

Once I see Dave's setup, I'll allocate my forces.

Challenge accepted!

First off, I'm pleased with my pre-registered hex for the Nebelwerfer.  Odds are good that it will hit something.  And if I can get it to drift north or northeast, there is the potential for a big score.  But Dave has set up strong to defend the cliffs behind Building Z1.  It is going to get extremely hairy over there.

It'll take more than a few Red Army punks hiding out in foxholes to turn me away!
The perils are many.  One big fear, as always, is some nasty artillery set to drop on me as I advance east,  But I'm guessing that, if he did buy artillery, he might have it trained on the debris field to the west of the Chemist's Shop.  A bigger worry is that he may have purchased an AT battery which could play hell on my PzIIILs that are going to smash into his trench line in the BB hex row.

I must steadfastly resist the urge to grab ground in the west.  My reinforcing rifle company will take position in Building B12 and hold their ground.  No more disastrous probes southward.  And I will content myself with very cautious probing in the factories.  Let the militia sit and wait for my assault.  Or, better yet, push northward into my machine-gun sites.

After the poor showing on Day 2, today's attack is driven by desperation.  I simply must find a way to knock the Russians back on their heels, and a successful push for the river might do it.  But, judging from what I see, Dave has guarded well against such an endeavor.  Well, so be it.  Here we come, Ivan!  Let's see what you've got.

To be continued...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The late, great Professor Zinn

Professor Howard Zinn 1922-2010
I first read A People's History of the United States on the recommendation of brother Calee in the late 90s.  The book, first published in 1980, made quite a stir in scholarly circles due to its alternate perspective on the history of the United States.  It's purpose, according to its author, was to present American history through the eyes of working people. 

The book is a great read.  Far from being a dry recitation of facts and dates, the narrative is compelling and accessible.  And the perspective it offers is most certainly different than those offered by more conventional history books.  (You won't find many classroom text books that recount Andrew Jackson's genocidal betrayal of the Cherokee nation.  And how many people now remember that supposed American hero Douglas MacArthur used bayonets and arsenic gas on American women and children in 1932?)

The author of A People's History was professor and social activist, Howard Zinn.  According to Wikipedia:
Zinn was raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, and flew bombing missions for the United States in World War II, an experience he now points to in shaping his opposition to war. In 1956, he became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the Civil rights movement, which he participated in as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and chronicled, in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd and mentored a young student named Alice Walker. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War.
That short biography is, in my mind, an impressive resumé for any idealist.

Well, Professor Zinn passed away last Wednesday, January 27, 2010.  He will be missed.  And, as fate would have it, he died on my 48th birthday.  So, I choose to accept that fact as a challenge to myself to continue to work, in my own small way, for those things that Professor Zinn advocated.

In one of the last interviews of his life, Professor Zinn said he'd like to be remembered as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before."

I'd like to be remembered that way as well.  Thanks, Professor Zinn, for blazing the trail.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Again, the contrast in stature

Cantor:  "Are you sure this was a good idea boss?"
Boehner:  "Shut up, you schmuck!"

Even with all evidence indicating that it makes not a whit of difference which party is in control of the various levers of government (health care debate, anyone? how about the Supreme Court ruling for the plutocracy? or the escalation in Afghanistan?) it is nonetheless highly entertaining to see Republicans summarily put in their place.  Especially when the humiliation is handed to them, calmly and rationally, by a man whom they have subjected to their most degrading and shrill attacks.

Last Friday, President Obama attended a meeting of the House Republican Caucus where he made remarks and then fielded questions from House Republicans.  (You can watch a video of the event here.) As one House Republican later admitted to Luke Russert, "It was a mistake that we allowed the cameras to roll like that.  We should not have done that."  Hmm... you think?

(And can anyone imagine Junior taking questions from the Democratic caucus when he was squatting in the Oval Office?  As we saw from his performances in various presidential debates and press conferences, his puny intellect was quickly overwhelmed by aggressive questioning, causing him to lash out in petulant anger.)

In his remarks, President Obama, it seemed to me, did a good job of putting the Republicans on the defensive.  The general gist of those remarks was that Republicans, with their ugly, demonizing rhetoric, have made it nearly impossible to reach across party lines.

I can't imagine that the President is suffering under the illusion that this gesture will cause the Republican caucus to suddenly see reason and begin honest negotiations with Democrats in crafting legislation.  Republicans have no incentive to do so.  Rather, this was a brilliant political move, designed to point up the contrast in stature between an intelligent, rational executive and a shrill, bigoted extremist party.

A caller to the Norman Goldman radio show on Friday night said it best when he told Mr. Goldman, "No one knows mealy-mouthed antagonism like a Harvard-educated black man." 

That perceptive and prima facie observation was clearly demonstrated by the President when he calmly fielded provocative and accusatory questions from some of the most offensive members of that reactionary body, and responded to them with cool-headed recitation of facts.  President Obama has surely been dealing with people like this all his life.

Nice move, Mr. President!