Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: Assessing a year gone by...

The Year of Our Lord (as the Christian's name it) 2008 is in its final hours. A year of dispelled illusions, of rising anger, of desperate hope, of growing dread. From the perspective of this lucky bastard (and, believe me, I'm one lucky bastard), it appears that mankind is at a crossroads. On the one hand, there is catastrophe and horror; on the other, there is hope and peace.

And, as is always the case, I suppose, the former path is the easiest. All we need to do, collectively, is to continue on as we have done and soon enough we will be overwhelmed with war and privation and hatred.

The harder path is the latter, the path to hope and peace. Because it requires perseverance and courage and faith. Not the "faith" that the religious zealots hold out: that false hope that the Big Daddy up in the sky is going to wave his magic wand and lift us all up out of the world we have ruined into a new beginning. No, the faith I'm talking about is the faith that is required to continue on, through thick and thin, doing what is right and good and compassionate, even when the end result is uncertain, and perhaps, forlorn.

Anyway, a look at what has passed away this year...

Reagan Revolution

After nearly 30 years, the reactionary conservative movement has finally been thwarted, soundly defeated, and forced to retreat to its rank, shadowy den to lick its wounds. The movement that Reagan brought to power in 1980, and that was carried on by Daddy Bush and, yes, by the triangulator Bill Clinton, came to fruition with Junior Bush. There could have been no better figure to stand atop the conservative movement at this point in time than Junior. His incompetence and malice were so perfectly matched to the true nature of the Republican party, as it now exists, that it is fitting that his should be the face associated with the movement as it rots away to nothing.

The wreckage they leave in their absence is awesome. We don't know even yet the full extent of the financial swindling and looting of the treasury that has occurred under their malfeasance. The encroachment on individual liberties, the regressive public policies, the lack of human decency have all been exposed. Now, their efforts are aimed at obscuring the truth to protect themselves.

The bad news? They'll be back. They always come back. Let's just hope we can get things going in the right direction before they manage it.

Happy Motoring

The current low gas prices notwithstanding, the days of the happy American motorist hopping in his car and driving to the end of the street to pick up a disposable camera or a package of peppered beef jerky are passing before our very eyes. Unless we get serious about public mass transit, Suburbia itself is doomed. The petroleum resources simply aren't there. And, if Big Oil succeeds in convincing the public to expend dwindling resources to make that last ugly grab at what is left (thereby extending Big Oil's immense power), we can only look forward to an accelerated decline of civilization.

The good news here is that public awareness and sentiment seems to be well ahead of the political "leadership." Despite conservative protestations and roadblocks, individual states have implemented their own carbon emissions caps. And the demand for hybrid and alternate fuel cars is at an all-time high. (It's doubtful that these efforts will be enough, but it's a start, eh?)

Turn, turn, turn

In my own life, there have been joys and sorrows, triumphs and disappointments. Just like every year. But I have no complaints worth mentioning. Like I said, I'm a lucky bastard. Living here in the Pacific Northwest, with more friends than I can count, with a rock-solid family, with a beautiful and decent and kind wife, I would be the most heinous of ingrates to not see it.

Best wishes for the New Year

Well, dear friends, I wish the best for you and for all of us in the year to come. A wish for the collective good, rather than the individual good. I believe we're all going to have to come together to make it work.

And bye-bye, 2008. Thanks for the lessons.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movie review: Slumdog Millionaire

Last night, I went to see the film Slumdog Millionaire, co-directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan. Apart from Boyle's highly-disturbing but brilliant 1996 effort, Trainspotting, I was unfamiliar with either director, but after viewing Slumdog, I have two new favorites to add to my list of great directors. Quite simply, this film is fantastic! It is the most entertaining and moving film I have seen since the Coen's Brothers' No Country for Old Men.

It is the story of a boy, Jamal Malik (played by three different actors, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the child Jamal, Tanay Chheda, as the middle Jamal, and Dev Patel, as the young man) born into the slums of Mumbai (Bombay), India, who through the bizarre experiences of his tragic life, accumulates enough seemingly unrelated knowledge to contend for the top prize in an Indian game show.

As the film begins, Jamal is being tortured by the police in order that he reveal the method by which he cheated to win on the game show. A "slumdog" like Jamal could not possibly have gotten so far in the game without cheating. Jamal endures a brutal session of interrogation, maintaining that he knew the answers to the questions, that he was not cheating. Eventually, the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) agrees to hear Jamal's story, and the main narrative begins.

We follow Jamal, his older brother, Salim (played by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Madhur Mittal), and Latika, an orphaned girl whom Jamal befriends (Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Freida Pinto) as they make their way through Mumbai's mean streets, trying to survive, to forge decent lives for themselves. As they make their way through a myriad of dangers and horrors (angry mobs of Hindus, child-exploiting mobsters, and a brutal police force) they cling to one another and form a family of sorts.

But, rather than recount any more of the plot here, I urge you to see the film yourself. It is an enchanting blend of Western and Bollywood filmmaking; the story is compelling; the acting is superb. The score, by A. R. Rahman, conveys the bewildering and chaotic forces of the new center of the world, Mumbai, with its 19 million people. And there is a delightful Bollywood dance number as the closing credits start to roll.

Besides providing a fascinating view into "real" India, the film raises temporal moral questions about child exploitation, materialism, and the persistence and endurance of love. For example, the two brothers, Salim and Jamal, both eventually come into large sums of money via two completely different routes. Salim, who has earned his scratch by being the meanest dog on the block, eventually comes to realize that his fortune is meaningless. Jamal, on the other hand, has little interest in the fortune that falls into his lap; for him, the only real thing of value in his life is the love he has for Latika. Jamal's belief in love, his indifference towards money, serves almost as an admonishment to Western culture. Well, at least, this Westerner felt admonished.

Note that the film has several very disturbing sequences that will be difficult for those with delicate sensibilities. But the film rewards its viewers handsomely. This is an excellent film. I give it my highest recommendation.

Monday, December 29, 2008

SoML: Silent snow (Pt. I)

Note: This is the first episode of a fictional story I've been percolating for a while. Future episodes will appear on this blog under the label "The Sons of Magda Lane." No set schedule, just as it occurs to me. Feedback is welcome.

Pompeii, Whistler Lane thought. He stood with his hands on his hips, sucking in cold, thin mountain air, getting his wind back. His eyes, gray and alert, stung from the cold. His high cheekbones and the bridge of his narrow, sharp nose peeked out over the snow mask that covered the lower half of his face.

The way the snow blanketed everything to either side of the track, every fallen tree, every stone, every bramble, evoked images of a burned-out world, buried in falling white ash. Much as Pompeii must have looked when Vesuvius snuffed it out of existence all those years ago. In the fading light, as the weak winter sun withdrew, the shapes buried under the snow recalled the human forms Whistler had seen in the unearthed ruins in Italy. It was as if, all at once, those people in that doomed city had recognized their predicament and simply laid down, letting the ash cover them, erase them.

"Hard to imagine worse conditions," Stone Gray growled. As he spoke, his breath issued forth like steam from a venting volcano. His broad forehead and square face were red from exertion. Frost formed in his beard and moustaches. He pushed his hood off his head, testing. Steam rose from his tangled, black mop. "It's bitter cold."

They had paused at a level place along the path. Every instant, the forest shadows grew stronger underneath the towering Douglas firs. The falling snow was dry and fine and came down so fast that, unless they kept moving, the track they were following might be lost before they made it to the cabin. Old Man Grissom's cabin.

There were two paths to the cabin. Each had a trailhead at a different point on the mountain highway. Whistler had chosen the shorter, steeper trail. It was a tough climb from the highway up to the mountain lake and the site of the old man's cabin. But time was of the essence. Whatever secret the old man was keeping, it was important that Whistler learn it first... before Stormy.

Now, standing on a frozen trail in the falling snow, the thought of brother Stormcloud spurred him on. "It's not going to get any warmer," he murmured. "Let's move."

They pushed on. The trail rose steeply in a series of switchbacks. It had been years since Whistler had made the climb, and never before in conditions like this, but he sensed that they were close. When they had parked at the trailhead in the mid-afternoon, there were no other cars. Stormy would have had to leave Portland at least two hours ahead of them if he were to have reached the alternate trailhead and made the longer trek to the cabin. Whistler was hopeful.

Whistler had long legs and a lean body, and he kept up a purposeful stride, rounding each pivot of the switchback, eyes fixed on the ground three feet in front of him without even a glance up the slope. He heard Stone behind him, breath heaving like an angry bull. Stone was short and wide and thick as a tree stump. He was strong, but not swift. Keep up, Stone. Keep up, Stone.

The climb was exhausting, but Whistler kept his mind on what he might find at the cabin. Old Man Grissom would have a fire going in the pot-bellied stove. It would be unbearably hot inside. The old coffee pot would be sitting on the stove, half full of that viscous tar that the old man passed off as coffee. If they were lucky, and the old man felt hospitable, he'd toss some bacon into the cast-iron skillet that was always on the stove. Whistler was hungry and the thought of the plain food, the bacon and the eggs poached in the grease, was heavenly.

But there was still the matter of worming information out of the old man. To get anything of value from him, Whistler would have to endure an interminable stream of wry and demeaning insults, decidedly unfunny jokes, and stories that went nowhere. Whistler had learned over the years that there was no prodding the old man. He'd say what he was going to say and he would say it in his own way.

Old Man Grissom never changed. He had lived in that cabin in the Cascade Mountains for more years than anyone could remember. If he had ever had another home, no one knew it. He had always lived alone, up there in the woods, laughing at the world below him. In the summer months he would sit out in front of his cabin, cackling wickedly, enormous paunch filling his bib overalls, his clear blue eyes twinkling cruelly. He wore his wispy, white beard and stringy hair, long and unkempt. Whistler's earliest memories were of himself, hiding behind Magda as she stood before Old Man Grissom, seeking some answer or piece of advice. Whistler would peek out from behind her hand and invariably find the old man watching him, shaking with silent laughter.

Magda had never let on the exact nature of her connection with the old man. When she spoke to him directly, she called him "Uncle," but Whistler sensed that their relationship was something else, something sordid and unseemly.

"Why do we come up here?" Whistler had asked her once, on their return hike back to the highway. It was when Whistler was close to finishing high school, when he was beginning to question everything.

Magda had kept walking. She was thin and reedy in those days and could walk for hours without pausing. "Can you really not see him?" she asked. "Can you really not see what he is?"

It was quite dark now. Whistler had been so lost in thought he had not noticed that they had made the top of the ridge. The tree trunks seemed pillars of black stone.

"There it is," Stone said, suddenly. Then Whistler saw a yellow light, a beacon glimmering between the trunks of the huge fir trees... lantern light. Whistler's stomach knotted at the sight. "Do you think we got here first?" he whispered. But Stone was not listening. He pushed past Whistler with renewed vigor.

They went forward now with their eyes on the light, ignoring the path, which had mostly vanished anyway. As they approached they entered an open area where the trees had been cleared away. They espied the low, squat structure, and the dark shape of the outhouse off to the side. Light glowed through the smoky glass of the single paned window that looked out on them. A canvass sheet hung inside the glass, obscuring the view within. They made their way to the left side of the cabin where there was a sturdy wooden door that led in to the porch area.

"Look there," Stone said. He pointed to a patch of snow lit by the window. A pair of boot prints were there, leading toward the cabin door.

Whistler stopped short. The snow was falling fast and hard. "They're new," he said.

"Grissom could've made 'em coming back from the outer," Stone said.

"One set, coming in. Nothing going out," Whistler said. They glanced at each other.

"We're here now," Stone said, finally. They slogged through the snow to the door, pushed it in and entered the cabin.

It was hot inside, sure enough. The porch was separated from the main room of the cabin by a divider of thin plywood. "It is I, Uncle," Whistler called. "Magda sent me." He pulled off his gloves, mask and parka, then sat on a low bench to get his boots off. Stone did the same.

There was no reply from beyond.

Whistler got his boots off, then ducked under the low opening into the main area of the cabin. Old Man Grissom was sitting in his rocking chair next to the pot-bellied stove, a dark wool blanket pulled halfway up his chest. He was leering in that way he had when he laughed, mouth half open, eyes glimmering.

Stone came in behind Whistler, spotted the old man. "What're you cackling about, you old devil?" he scowled.

Whistler put his hand out and stopped Stone from going in any further. The wool blanket draped across the old man's body was dark and wet. A pool of blood had gathered on the floor planking beneath the rocking chair.

Out of the corner of his eye, Whistler caught a flutter of movement, turned his head slowly toward the area where the old man slept. The bunk was screened off from the main room by a hanging blanket. A hand lifted one corner of the blanket. A dark figure, lithe and lean, with a roll to the shoulders and a slight crouch at the knees. Long dark hair pulled back. Eyes of obsidian. A narrow face with thin lips pulled back into the slightest of smiles.

"Stormcloud," Whistler gasped. His mind reeled, as if he had suddenly been hit in the face by a sharp, brief gust of wind. "What did you do, Stormy?" Whistler stammered. "What could he have said?" Whistler stood absolutely still, resisting the urge to run out into the frozen night, bootless, coatless, to flee back to the highway. Beside Whistler, Stone stood still as his namesake, eyes fixed on the old man's corpse.

They stood that way for a time, a small eternity. Then, slowly, slowly, slowly, Stormy pressed a finger to his thin lips.

To be continued...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Deadly beauty

White-out conditions somewhere between Oakridge and Gilcrest
For nearly half my life, twenty years, I lived in the Klamath Basin, on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. Klamath country is some beautiful high desert country, let me tell you, with hot, dry summers, and icy cold winters, and very short transitions between the two.

The main route that connects Klamath Falls with the Willamette Valley and Oregon's main population centers is a run up US Highway 97 to its junction with Oregon Highway 58. Fifty-eight runs from Chemult, up through the Willamette Pass by way of Oakridge, to Eugene. I have traveled that route perhaps a hundred times, in just about every weather condition you can imagine. I have stories of close calls and witnessed accidents at nearly every point on the route.

Treacherous roads

My family had planned a Christmas get-together at Sunriver this year and so Maty and I and my brother Eric braved the blizzard-like conditions on the Willamette Pass on Christmas Eve. The road conditions were as bad as I can remember seeing them. Snow fell steadily on the already snow-packed roadway and there were a few vehicles in the ditch at various points. On the drive from Gilcrest north to Sunriver, there were near white-out conditions and the sun sank fast as any boat anchor. It all made for a stressful drive, but we made it without any hiccups.

The next day, I awoke to a sight of stunning beauty: winter in the Cascade Mountains. It was as if I had found myself in a Russian fairy tale. Maty commented that the scene reminded her of the winter sets of the movie "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." The air was crisp and cold (the temperature stayed in the low 20's (Fahrenheit)), and my breath came out in thin, white wisps. An occasional gust would blow through the trees and send a fine white shower of snow cascading down.

Snow-clad ponderosas
It was an enchanting sight. But as I hiked around in the snow, my thoughts kept returning to the harsh, unforgiving environment and how easy it would be to die out there in that country.

If one were to get lost out in the woods, or fall into the river, or turn one's ankle out away from other people, the situation could become critical very quickly.

Deschutes River
On a similarly frozen winter day, in Redmond, Oregon, back in 1976, I stood helplessly on the shore of a frozen pond and watched two young boys, brothers, break through the icy surface. They had been playing football on the ice. One brother broke through and the other ran to help him, only to break through himself. Myself, and my friend Jeff Lucas, and a passing motorist all could only watch as the two disappeared under the ice, never to return to the warmth of the living world.

Odell Lake
And there was the sad story of the Chemult boy a few years back, who took his horse out riding on a cold winter day. The horse came back that night, alone. The State of Oregon and hundreds of volunteers mounted an extensive search for the lad. But they never found him.

A memorial for the Lost Wagon Train
And as far back as 1852, the snows of the Cascades have proven deadly. In that year, a group of settlers branched off of the main Oregon Trail to take a short cut through the Willamette Pass, hoping to get ahead of the late fall snow. The wagon train ran into many problems and in mid-October, the people were starving and stranded in the mountains near Oakridge. But, thankfully, one of the young men of the party forged ahead and found other settlers who mounted a rescue effort and saved the group, which later became known as the Lost Wagon Train.

It is impossible to travel through the Cascade mountains and be unmoved by the beauty all around. Nature is beautiful, but also terrible; it is an unforgiving beauty, a beauty that demands respect. Especially in the Cascade mountains in winter.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rose City denizens come together in the snow

Okay. So maybe the hard-bitten winter warriors of Chicago or Denver or Minneapolis-St. Paul are like to jeer at little Portland. We get dusted with a few inches of snow over the course of a week or so and the city is more or less paralyzed. Well, go ahead and laugh, mid-westerners. Hell, we'll even join you in a joke at our own expense.

But you don't know about our East Wind that comes whipping out of the frozen high desert prairies of eastern Oregon and Washington, blasting through the natural funnel of the Columbia Gorge to sweep over the northern Willamette Valley, freezing the rain mid-flight so that it coats everything on the valley floor in a frozen glaze.

And you mid-westerners have fleets of snow plows and sanders to keep your roads clear and passable. Here in western Oregon, we have been known to pass entire winters without so much as a single snowflake landing on a single windshield. So it makes no sense for us to invest in expensive equipment for snow removal. In short, we're not equipped to deal with it.

All backed up in the Columbia Gorge
Today, I had to venture out into the snow to get a Christmas present for Maty. I trudged down to the bus stop at 39th and Hawthorne and waited for a bus. And waited. And waited. Eventually, I just started walking. At each bus stop along the way, there were groups of half-frozen would-be riders, peering back down the road, waiting. But the bus never came and I ended up walking all the way to Lloyd Center shopping mall.

Soon thereafter, Maty's Christmas gift was acquired and I headed back. But, this time I managed to grab a bus. It was crowded near full and many of the people on it had been waiting for an hour or more to get picked up. But, contrary to what one might expect, everyone was friendly, jocular, and cooperative. The bus driver cracked jokes with people as they got on or off and there were calls of "Merry Christmas," rememberances of winter storms past, and general good vibes.

I was struck by the good cheer. It seemed to me that everyone knew that we were and are all in this together. Portland is buried in snow and we've all got to give each other a hand, make a little more allowance for each other's foibles and eccentricites. That's the way we get through it.

The experience left me in a good mood ...a hopeful mood. If that cooperative spirit can be extended beyond just the Rose City in the times ahead, we as a nation might just get through the economic storm that is coming, too.

My back deck as of 5pm this afternoon
So, stuck here in this frozen city, with all the arteries of human bustle clogged, and with icy treachery in every step on the sidewalk, I stumbled upon hope. Right here in Portland, in the waning days of 2008.

Happy holidays, everyone! Peace!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Movie Review: Milk

On Saturday, I braved the icy, largely abandoned streets of Portland and huffed my way (on foot!) through the blowing snow to Lloyd Center Cinema, there to view Gus Van Sant's latest effort, Milk. This film depicts the last 8 years of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay candidate to be elected to public office in California.

Van Sant has an extensive resumé. His films include absolute jewels like Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, or the superb My Own Private Idaho. But there have also been some less-than-stellar efforts (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues comes to mind) where Van Sant goes a little too far, takes a few too many liberties, tests the patience of his audience just a little too much. On the whole, though, I tend to give Van Sant the benefit of the doubt.

Well, as with all of Van Sant's work, Milk introduces viewers to an alien, slightly unseemly world that requires an expansion of consciousness, an acceptance of exotic perspectives.

We follow Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) as he travels across the country with his partner, Scott Smith (James Franco) to settle in San Fransisco in the heady days following the Summer of Love. Van Sant does an admirable job of recreating the ambiance of San Fransisco in the '70s. The city is a jewel, the Amsterdam of North America, and it seems obvious that Van Sant has a special love for it. As I viewed the film, I was taken back to that magical (and frightening) city that I had experienced on family vacations.

The film chronicles Harvey Milk's personal transformation, as the new liberation of post-60's America brings him out of the closet, as he recognizes a need for public acknowledgement of homosexuality, and as he becomes an ardent advocate for change. Milk goes from a long-haired hippie with a megaphone on a street corner to a suited City Councilman over the course of 8 years, suffering many defeats, but gaining just enough triumphs to drive him onward. Viewers follow not only Milk's life, but the lives of those around him that supported and motivated him in his efforts.

Apart from Sean Penn and James Franco (who give the two standout performances) the film also includes Emile Hirsch as activist Cleve Jones and Josh Brolin as City Councilman Dan White, Milk's assassin.

Although largely a successful effort, the film suffers from a tinge of self-indulgence. Van Sant pays tribute not only to Harvey Milk, but to all of the peripheral figures around Milk: Cleve Jones, Dick Pabich, Rick Stokes, and others. These persons may have significance in the gay community, but to the public-at-large they are unknown. The inordinate attention paid them in the movie seems sycophantic and indulgent.

Further, Van Sant's depiction of the assassin, Dan White, seems scornful and demeaning. White is portrayed as a moron, a drunk, a social neanderthal. Understandable, I suppose, but it robs the film of a certain objectivity.

I guess, to sum it all up, I'd say this film is worth a look. If Van Sant's intended audience is the gay community, I'd say it is a smashing success. But if the audience is to be the general viewing public, Van Sant could probably do more to make his work more accessible.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Are we men or beasts?

Twenty-some years ago, I was struck by a quote from one of the combatants in the civil war that was then occurring in Lebanon. I can't recall the man's name, or even how he was affiliated in that conflict. I can only recall that he was in custody, after being captured by the Israelis and that he had admitted to torturing captured enemies. He was being interviewed by Geraldo Rivera, and I remember that, as this man was recounting the unspeakable acts that he perpetrated on his victims, an outraged Geraldo interrupted him with this question: "Are you a man or an animal?"

The man seemed unperturbed by the question. He shrugged and replied, "I was a man when they allowed me to be a man. When that was no longer possible, I became a beast."

That reply, and the expression on the man's face as he said it, the casual way he tilted his head and lifted his shoulders, has stayed with me for more than a score of years. I was horrified and fascinated by it.

Flash forward to December 16th, 2008, a mere 3 days ago. ABC New's Jonathan Karl had the following exchange with Vice-President Richard B. Cheney:
Karl: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Cheney: I was a ware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.

Karl: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?

Cheney: I don't.
The "tactics" to which Karl refers, and which Cheney here admits to authorizing, included water-boarding, which has been defined as torture by the United States since 1903. The United States prosecuted Japanese military officers after World War II for employing this tactic against American prisoners-of-war.

The New York Times editorial board has called for the appointment of a prosecutor to investigate the matter. They name former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as well as Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington, as possible targets for criminal charges in the matter.

The Democrats in Congress, even with their recent successes at the polls, seem reluctant to go down this path. One imagines that they perhaps might fear the degree to which they could be held as having been complicit in the whole matter. Especially craven and worthless Nancy Pelosi. And Barack Obama has already shown that he has little interest in holding the Bush administration accountable, despite his earlier rhetoric.

And, to be sure, the mindless (and diminished) hoardes of fake patriots will whine enough to provide cover for cowardly Democrats so that the latter can shirk their duty. One can already hear indignant protestations of "coddling the terrorists."

Never mind that professional interrogators insist that torture is not an effective method for extracting information, I still remember the face of that creature that sat across the table from Geraldo all those years ago. It was the face of something no longer human.

Dick Cheney is a beast. Donald Rumsfeld is a beast. Alberto Gonzales and David Addington and all those others are beasts. But, god damn it, I'm not a beast!

We must either have a special prosecutor to investigate the matter and bring criminal charges or we must consign ourselves to being a nation of beasts.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mysterious white substance casts City of Roses into chaos

Unknown substance.

Portland, the City of Roses, is today, a city on the edge.

The unease began on Sunday when a mysterious white substance fell from the sky to blanket the city's streets and houses. At first, residents of Oregon's largest city assumed that the white flakes that descended upon them were merely volcanic ash, the result of another eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. But disquiet grew when the more adventurous denizens discovered that the flakes were cold to the touch and immediately dissipated to water upon coming into contact with human flesh.

The first sign of trouble came as a dazed group of citizens gathered in Pioneer Square, apparently trying to comprehend the meaning of this icy, white plague. Reportedly, as it became apparent that city officials were as puzzled as everyone else, someone in the crowd screamed, "Ice terrorism!" Any semblance of order vanished soon thereafter.

Within minutes, reports were crossing the wires about unruly mobs storming grocery and hardware stores, looting supplies. The mob seemed to place special value on Christmas-themed DVDs and any items trimmed in green or red.

No escape.

Highways out of town were choked with all manner of conveyance as terrified refugees packed essentials and sought escape from the white deathtrap that the city had become.

Mayor Sam Adams, allegedly holed up in a bunker in City Hall with his top lieutenants, was heard over the radio airwaves urging calm, but his broadcast was cut short after listeners heard what were described as gunshots.

Mobs allegedly used leftover political signs to kindle fires throughout the city.

Fires broke out on 82nd Avenue and in the Warehouse District, reportedly the results of arson. Raucous crowds gathered around the roaring blazes, warming their hands, and roasting looted hot dogs and marshmallows over the open flames.

"If only this had been another St. Helen's eruption. If only the city had been buried in volcanic ash. We could have done something!" a visibly shaken Governor Ted Kulongowski told ABC News. When asked if he would deploy the state National Guard to restore order in the stricken city, he replied. "I can't send men into that hellhole. There's nothing human left in it."

Mobs of mad bicyclists...

Reports coming out of the city now are murky and unreliable. There are rumors of bicycle-mounted mobs riding through the streets, and of mob orators inciting all manner of lawless behavior. Observers watching the city from the surrounding hills report hearing loud voices belting out what might be Christmas carols. Columns of smoke are rising now from all quarters of the once-peaceful city.

Unfortunately, the forecast calls for more snow on Wednesday night...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Well, Junior, if the shoe fits...

Bush effigy: They just can't get enough of him in Baghdad!
In the final few weeks before he slinks out the White House door, Junior seems to be engaging in some touch-up activities to burnish his image and perhaps salvage something for his legacy. He's doing soft-ball interviews wherein he strikes a reflective pose, pinches his lower lip, and casts his eyes downward, lost in thought. He does his best to affect genuineness and sincerity, murmuring soothing words about his hopes for a better future.

Considering his current standing in the world and the long list of catastrophic failures with his name on them, the effort seems pathetic: like buying a Walmart couch cover for that garage sofa that the dogs have been sleeping on for the last 8 years.

Part of this effort, apparently, was one last visit to the scene of his most atrocious crime --namely, Iraq. Whether he wishes it or no, Iraq is the hallmark of Junior's "presidency." (Unless, of course, it is ultimately overshadowed by utter economic ruin here at home... keep your fingers crossed!)

When "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was launched, neo-conservatives were full of bluster and confidence. (The original name was "Operation Iraqi Liberation," but somebody wised up to that unfortunate acronym!) Cheney-crony Rick Adelman assured us that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be a "cakewalk." And, in 2003, neo-con wise man Richard "The Dick" Perle sagely forecasted: “And a year from now, I'll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush.” And before the war even started, Cheney himself prognosticated that "we will be greeted as liberators."

Well, as events have unfolded, all but the most delusional of conservative meatheads have come to scoff at such foolishness. In late November, Iraqis congregated at the very site where the famous statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down early in the war, to burn Junior in effigy.

But there is still a tiny minority of reality-deniers that believe the invasion was a Good ThingTM, that the Iraqis are largely "better off" than they were before the war. And that minority still apparently includes Junior. His unannounced trip to Iraq was, I imagine, designed to highlight the "progress" that has been made since the invasion... a sort of "victory lap," if you will.

But, alas, the Iraqis didn't play ball. At a joint press conference, with al-Maliki, Junior was forced to duck two shoes thrown at him by a local Bagdad journalist. Here's the video:

In most Middle-Eastern cultures, throwing a shoe at someone is a vicious insult. Here's how the BBC characterizes it:

Around the Arab world, if you want to escalate a situation, by saying for example "I'm going to thump you", add the words "with a shoe" and you're adding serious insult to the threat of possible of injury.
It's that cultural significance that has added real sting to the assault by an Iraqi journalist against US President George W Bush at a Baghdad news conference.
In Arab culture it's considered rude even to display the sole of one's shoe to a fellow human being.
Certainly, crossing one's legs ankle-on-knee style should never be done in a public place for fear of offending the person next to you.
The sensitivity is related to the fact shoes are considered ritually unclean in the Muslim faith.
In addition to ritual ablutions before prayer, Muslims must take off their shoes to pray, and wearing shoes inside a mosque is forbidden.
Shoes should either be left at the door of the mosque, or carried (preferably in the left hand with the soles pressed together).
But beyond the Islamic significance, the dirty and degrading implication of the sole of a shoe crosses all religious boundaries in the Middle East. --BBC News, December 15, 2008
In short, we have no insult of equivalent severity in our Euro-American culture. The disrespect and hatred conveyed in the hurling of the shoes is beyond even the most vile of oaths we can articulate.

When I saw this video and caught the befuddlement on Junior's face, I once again experienced pity for the man. I'm forming a new perception of him; I begin to see him as a hapless victim, pushed along by forces he cannot understand. When things were going well, when he had those huge post-911 approval ratings, he could almost enjoy the ride he was on; he could almost believe the sycophantic mewlings that Condi Rice and Karen Hughes and David Frum whispered in his ear. But now that things have gone south, now that he is, perhaps, the most hated man in the world, he can only turn to those hardened, soulless monsters that used him, that made him what he is, for comfort.

"We're not out to win any popularity contests," growls Cheney. And for Junior, that's probably going to have to be good enough.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A contrast in stature

Inspiring confidence...
I recall a lecture I attended, back in my undergraduate days, at the Oregon Institute of Technology, in which my statistics instructor, Professor Hess engaged a student in the meaning of statistics and raw data. The subject was basketball, and the propensity of African-Americans to be more successful than Caucasians. Professor Hess argued that, as the numbers clearly showed, African-Americans were better than Caucasians at basketball. African-Americans comprised only 11% of the population of the United States at that time, and yet, were disproportionally represented (to the tune of 79%) in the National Basketball Association, which we assumed to be the highest level of basketball achievement.

"But those numbers don't account for cultural differences," an indignant (white) student protested. "Most blacks grow up in inner cities where they have few other forms of recreation beyond basketball. They play basketball every day. They live it. Your numbers don't reflect that."

"I'm afraid you're missing the point," Professor Hess replied. "The numbers imply nothing about the 'why' or the 'how.' The numbers simply point up the fact."

I relate this anecdote to head off any indignant conservative whining about the results of a recent NBC/WSJ poll. The poll shows that the public has made a judgment about the contrast in stature between Barack Obama and Junior Bush. And, guess what? Junior comes out a loser. Big time.

According to the poll, President-elect Obama enjoys the approval of 67% of respondents, with only 16% disapproving. Compare that to the 48/35 approval/disapproval rating of Junior during his transition period back in December 2000. A number like that indicates that even a significant percentile of Republicans are happy with the job that Obama is doing.

Pollster Bill McInturff said this: “Compared to Bill Clinton in ’93 or Bush in ’01, we’re seeing a president who has been given a longer leash by the American public. This is not a traditional start of a presidency where people give you just a couple of months.”

The poll also showed that people have confidence in Obama.
  • 80% say he will improve the global perceptions of the United States;
  • 73% say he will "fix" the economy;
  • 70% say he will accomplish a military withdrawal from Iraq within 16 months;
  • 61% say he will ease the tax burden on the middle class.

...not so much.
Junior, on the other hand, doesn't seem to fare as well in the public perception.
  • 79% say they will not miss him;
  • 48% say history will view him as one of the worst presidents ever.
That second number is astronomically high compared to the numbers that Clinton (18%) and Daddy Bush (6%) racked up in similar polls when each of them left office.

"But," a Bush dead-ender might say, "the media loves Obama. They've put him on a pedestal. He hasn't been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that Bush has endured. Bush has been treated unfairly by history. How could he have foreseen the financial calamity that is now upon us? How is it his fault that Katrina drowned New Orleans? How is he responsible for Russian aggression in Georgia? Or for any of those other things? The media has always hated Bush. That's not his fault."

And I might reply: "Obama has shown more poise and intelligence in the 6 or 7 press conferences he has given since the election than Bush has in 8 years. And, don't forget, Bush avoided communicating with the public throughout his tenure. We can only speculate as to why. And regarding the financial calamity, it was Bush laissez faire policies that created this mess. Bush didn't brew up the storm that drowned New Orleans, but he ate birthday cake with John McCain while the rest of us watched the city go under. Bush squandered our international prestige by flaunting international law for his stinky 'Bush Doctrine' which set the precedent for Putin's actions in Georgia. And neither the press nor Congress has ever held Bush responsible for any of the myriad of constitutional transgressions he has perpetrated on this nation."

But, if my conservative friend and I were to say these things, it would be a waste of breath, anyway. As Professor Hess pointed out in my statistics class all those years ago, the numbers simply point up the facts.

People believe in Obama. People despise Junior.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Can you feel the wind?

Ice-cold hand against your skin,
Coat buttons can't keep out;
Lean forward, push against the force,
A down-street walkabout;

Old yellow newspaper dancing by,
A faded clarion call;
With stinging eye, you set your jaw,
Against the sudden squall;

Turn for a moment if you must,
To kiss what's swept away;
But do not tarry, turn again,
Continue on your way;

Oh, can you feel the wind today?
Oh, can you feel the wind?
Oh, can you feel the wind today?

If not today, it blows your way,
And someday soon, you will;

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Hindus speak of Unity

The days grow shorter as we denizens of the northern hemisphere approach the winter solstice and, as often happens this time of year, my thoughts stray toward the nature of existence, toward the concept of God. And following up on my post, yesterday, commemorating Eid al-Addtha, I want to explore a little further the idea of henotheism, as practiced by Hindus.

Merriam-Webster defines henotheism thusly:
henotheism: the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods
Years ago, in the heady days of the Mahatma Candy phenomenon, musician/philosopher-king/hopeful-muser Dan Binmore and I had a conversation about Hinduism which I still carry with me as a succinct layman's explanation of the faith.

As Dan explained it to me, Hindus generally believe in a single God, just as do the major western faiths. But the Hindus believe that there are many manifestations of God, and from these manifestations they derive their pantheon: Annapurna, Ganesha, Kali, Krishna, Vishnu and countless other deities.

Indeed, the Hindus further believe that everything, every rock, tree, human being, blade of grass, electron orbiting an atomic nucleus --literally everything is a part of God. God is the Universe.

Alone in an infinte sea
And, continuing on this idea, it follows that there is nothing beyond God. Think of a single creature, perhaps a jellyfish, floating in an endless sea of emptiness. Naturally, such a creature would desire to understand itself, to see itself. And so, this creature would find methods by which to do so.

And this, the Hindus contend, is the function of life, of living forms. Plants and animals (including humans) are organs, if you will, of the living God, by which God examines itself. So, each of us lives out his or her life in the Universe, providing input and stimuli to the Whole. Eventually, our corporeal forms break down and return to the Whole, only to take a new form and begin the cycle again. (Hence, the Hindu belief in reincarnation.)

This explanation, which Dan related to me in one of our many rewarding conversations, is beautiful in its simplicity, and also explains why Hindus are, indeed, henotheists. Each god, each deity, whether it is a pagan dryad or Christ the Savior, is but another manifestation of the One. As are we all.

So, there it a nutshell, my understanding of the Hindu faith. Perhaps it is overly simplistic. But, I don't know... must truth be complex?

In any case, this is what happens when the days get short and I fall to brooding. Aw, hell... maybe I should just stick to politics.

(Happy Birthday, Mia!)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Today is Eid al-Adhha

For those of you, like me, who are largely ignorant of Islam, but interested to know more, today is Eid al-Adhha (eed all-ODD-tha), commemorating the first day of the Hajj. The Hajj is the holy pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must undertake at least once in his/her life if he/she is financially and physically capable. It is an act of submission to Allah.

Today, Maty is preparing a feast for her friends and family in honor of Eid al-Adhha, complete with Halal-slaughtered lamb and various Muslim dishes. (There will also be spaghetti for those of us with less adventurous palates.)

This morning, we attended the Muslim call to prayer at the Oregon Convention Center. You might be surprised at the number of Muslims there are in the Portland area. I'd estimate the number of attendees at several thousand. Here's a very short video clip of the prayer.

It's a very patriarchal affair. The sexes are separated, with the men congregating at the front, directly before the podium, and the women with the young children in the back. (Well, after all, Islam is certainly not alone in its patriarchal structure. There are no female priests in the Catholic church).

As I watched the prayer ceremony and listened to the Imam, I was struck by a solemnity and a sense of --well --holiness. It was exactly the same feeling that I have experienced when attending a Catholic Mass, hearing the Rosary recited.

At an earlier (less wise) time in my life, I scorned organized religion as a crutch for weak people. But, as I've commented before, life has a way of demonstrating the error of one's ways, of convincing one of one's mortality. Get your ass knocked down a few times, and you come to realize that the world really isn't at your feet.

Maty and friends
So, I've moved from being an avowed atheist to an agnostic, from nihilism to befuddled acknowledgment of my inability to comprehend. I haven't settled on a faith because, in my investigations, I've learned that each has its appeal and its glimpses at the truth.

Maybe the Hindus have it right, anyway. While the concept is incomprehensible to those of us who have been brought up in societies dominated by Western faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), Hindus see no contradiction in being a Christian and a Hindu, or a Jew and a Hindu, or a Muslim and a Hindu.

So, in that spirit, let me wish you all a Happy Eid al-Adhha.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Tragedy at Neskowin

A heart-breaking incident occurred this week, near Neskowin, Oregon.

A young woman of 22 years, Leafil Alforque, had recently arrived in Oregon from her home in the Phillipines to visit her online boyfriend of 3 years, Scott Napper. Scott is a 45-year-old man from Silverton, Oregon. Scott and Leafil had been dating since they met over the Internet in 2005.

This visit was going to be special. Scott had purchased a ring and was planning to propose to his diminuitive girlfriend (4-foot-11, 93 pounds) at Proposal Rock. On Monday, the couple was walking out to the rock when a 3-foot wave surged at them.

Napper braced himself and kept his footing, but then looked around to see that Leafil had been caught by the outgoing water. Before Napper could react, she was carried out to sea.

Rescuers arrived quickly, but due to poor weather conditions, the search was suspended later that day. "That's the last I saw of her," Napper told reporters in an interview Wednesday. He wept as he said it.

You can read a detailed account of the incident here.

I'm grieved for poor, young Leafil and her distraught family back in the Phillipines. But, most especially my heart goes out to Scott Napper.

When I read the story, I noted the disparate ages (Scott was 45, Leafil 22). There were also the obvious differences in culture. And I noted the fact that the two had met over the Internet. Taken altogether, these facts pointed to a highly-unlikely love affair between two lonely people. Two people that perhaps believed they had overcome enormous odds to find happiness and the possibility of a future together.

I imagine Leafil to have been a brave young woman, accepting the world's challenge with courage and aplomb. And I imagine Scott to be a kind-hearted, lonely soul looking for someone to receive the gifts of his kindness and generosity, and his love.

To have it all taken away by callous and unforgiving nature... I've said it before and I'll say it again: Love'll take a man down.

I have no idea if my assumptions are accurate. But, in reading the story, I imposed the template of my own life and marriage on it. I looked at Scott and saw my own reflection, which made his pain all the more real for me.

I have no words of consolation to offer. Just an acknowledgment of the tragedy. That's all. That's all.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

El secretario de Comercio, Bill Richardson

Hoy, Presidente-electo Barack Obama anunció que Bill Richardson, el gobernador de New Mexico, será el Secretario de Comercio en la nueva administración. Aunque algunos hispanos quizás crean que esta una desilusión (recuerda que Richardson era mencionado como un secretario del Estado posible), yo pienso que el nombramiento es una victoria para la comunidad hispano.

Yo he admirado Richardson de largo tiempo. Sus habilidades diplomáticas son considerables. El facilitó negociaciones en lugares como Norte Corea, Sudán, Cuba e Iraq. Y, él fue embajador a las Naciones Unidas. También, él es una administración experimentada. El ha servido como el secretario de Energía en la administración de Bill Clinton.

Además, Richardson es un hombre simpático; una cosa rara en las políticas hoy día. Su madre es mexicana, y el tiene dominio del español. Sus observaciones hoy fueron en ambos inglés y español.

Bien, la verdad es que el secretario de Comercio falta la estatura del secertario de Estado. Pero, yo sospecho que las realidades políticas dictaron que Obama escogería Hillary Clinton para Estado. Recuerda, la rivalidad entre Obama y Hillary era fuerte. Y Richardson ganó la ira de Hillary cuando él anunció su apoyo para Obama. La campaña de Clinton lo vio como una traición.

Obama necesita la unidad de su partido entero (verdaderamente, de la nación). Es verdad que Obama debe parte de su victoria electoral a hispanos. Pero, Obama no podría insultar Hillary.

El secretario de Comercio será una posición importante en la era que viene. Hispanos, unanme a tomar orgullo en un hijo de la raza.

(Perdóneme por favor para mi español malo.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More racist cockroaches

They are out there, scurrying around furtively. White supremacist organizations. They exist all over this nation. Check out this video:

They are here in Oregon, too. A couple friends were cross-country skiing near Mount Hood several years ago when they encountered a group of World War II "re-enactors." It was a group of maybe a score of men, dressed in Wehrmacht military uniforms, some of them sporting swastika armbands, skiing around in the woods.

Another time, some friends, history buffs, went to a World War II re-enactment on the Oregon coast. The event was billed as a replay of the action that occurred in Normandy, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. But, unlike the actual historical event, my friends found that the Wehrmacht troops out-numbered the small group of men play acting as Allied troops. It seems that the Axis side was the "cool" side. As my friends walked around the grounds, they saw posters and pamphlets urging them to "join" the re-enactment society.

And, of course, if you've ever been to a gun show, you don't need to look far to find the guys with the shaved heads and the tattoos.

These groups consist largely of asocial, desperately lonely people (mostly men) who need someone to blame for their misery and terror. One must imagine that the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land validated and confirmed their worst fears; their fear of non-being, of loss of identity, of losing their significance in a fast-changing and terrifying world of phantoms and monsters waiting to devour them should they appear weak.

Generally, the individuals that comprise these groups are worthy of nothing more than contemptuous pity.

Pitiful, disgusting creatures
The danger, as I see it, is that as we head into a severe (by all accounts) economic downturn, as more and more people become disillusioned and angry and bitter and afraid, groups like this might provide a sense of community, a sanctuary of hate. Note that in the video clip above, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke is positively smug at the spike in traffic on his web servers since the election.

Normally, one might have confidence that our Justice Department would know how to squash any of these groups that managed enough competence to actually be dangerous. But our current Justice Department is in such a state of disrepair after 8 years of the tender mercies of John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey that one can hardly help but wonder... Obama's choice for Attorney General, Eric Holder, will have his hands full just getting the department back in to working order.

The good news is that these racists are generally so --er --rustic-- in their thinking that they rarely manage to be dangers to anyone but themselves. The bad news is that their numbers (in the short term anyway) may grow.

Be on the lookout.

Monday, December 01, 2008

An integrated Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving myth
Last Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, I partook of the usual feasting and giving of thanks. The myth surrounding this day, as it was taught to us in school, was that Native Americans in the early 16th century, took pity on the strange, frail, and colorless people that were slowly starving to death on their shores, and brought them food, helping the latter to survive through the North American winter.

It's anyone's guess as to what really happened, I suppose. But, regardless of the truth behind the myth, it is the lesson that one might derive from it that is important, no? Just as, for example, the Christian creation myth should not perhaps be interpreted literally, but as moral allegory, so too for our Thanksgiving myth.

I like the idea that compassion and sympathy motivated people to overcome their natural fear of a strange and alien people; that they were moved by their better angels to offer their hands in friendship. So that is the interpretation that I choose to put on Thanksgiving. It is a day to express gratitude for the blessings with which we have been bestowed, and to remember our common humanity.

Thanksgiving reality

My Thanksgiving celebration was at the home of our dear friends, Stewart and Kadijou King. I sat at table with Christians, Muslims, Africans, Americans, blacks, whites, and "bi-racials." And it did occur to me, as I was wolfing down copious amounts of turkey, yams, cranberry relish, potatoes, and (of course) pumpkin pie, that I was a part of an event that was very much in the spirit of Thanksgiving. At least, by my lights.