Friday, July 31, 2009

San Sebastian (Pt. XX)

Note to readers: This is the twentieth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XIX here.

Un buen día en San Sebastian
I first heard rumor about San Sebastian while attending the classical music concert in Vienna with the two bickering sisters. An elderly Spanish gentleman told me of it. "Es muy linda, mi ciudad. Debes ir alla," said he.

From Barcelona, I took the night train north. It was absolutely packed. Spaniards of all shapes and sizes were going home after El Día de los Muertes: including the shepherd with the tall walking stick, the dapper older gentleman with wife and daughter; modest Catholics all. I had entertained hopes of stretching out and sleeping on the ride up. False! Each seat was occupied. In the seat across from me was Australian Jay (down-to-earth surfer dude).

Jay and I, both veteran travelers, conversed on the ride since sleep was unattainable. We struck up an immediate friendship in that way that travelers have. When the train stopped at San Sebastian we debarked, assuming, without ever having discussed it, that we would room together while we were there. We were approached by a matronly Basque doña before we even left the platform. Un dormitorio, nos dijo. We followed her to the pensione.

Hace mucha lluvia
The North Atlantic raged that day: a heavenly inundation on the Bay of Biscay. It was just as well that, due to the sleepless night of rail riding, we both were exhausted and spent much of the day in repose. But we did do some dashing about, from portico to eave, later in the day to capture a sense of the town.

San Sebastian is in Basque country. The town had fallen in 1808 to Napoleon's Grande Armée forces.

But Nappy, the diminutive Corsican, would learn all too well how fiercely those denizens of Iberia guard their liberty. Guerrilla actions, partisan activities bled l’Armée, as it lumbered around rugged Spanish terrain. The Spaniards sapped French strength, leaving them spent and demoralized when Russians, Austrians, English, and Germans brought the tyrant to bay in Paris.

Later, in 1935, Franco's Nationalists imposed the fascist jackboot on San Sebastian in the Spanish Civil War. Resentments still simmer.

Jay (down-to-earth surfer dude) and a beautiful Basque girl
Basques hide a separatist movement, intermittently violent, within their fold. But no anger did I discern in these proud people. They were friendly, distinctly good-looking, like my Basque friends Tony (funny, happy raconteur) and Tina (dark haired, dark-eyed beauty) back home.

We found an Irish pub in town where we met Australians Jody and Troy, in Spain on their honeymoon. We swilled Guinness stout, with its silky, animated head. The evening was spent gulping Irish ale in Spain with Australians, listening to stories about sharks in Australia, recounting past loves, proclaiming hopes for the future. Van Morrison played on the stereo.

Honeymooners Jody and Troy
"Van's the Man," said I.

"Van is the Man," Jay agreed. "He's never let me down."

We ended the evening very drunk.

Next day, the weather was beautiful: sunny and cool, blue skies, blue water. Jay and I climbed to the top of the hill that overlooks the bay, where sits the old Cathedral. In the courtyard was a wishing well. A crone crouched at the top, raising coin-filled buckets from below, where her son gathered the castaway hopes of passing tourists.

Jay and I clowning around at the water's edge
A tale she told, in a ghost of a voice, all in Spanish. I did my best, but can make no guarantees: earlier in the century, a fire swept through the town, consuming everything. The people did their best, but in the end could not contain it. They retreated to the Cathedral, there to pray and hope for the best. After a long night, they emerged to find that the town was devastated but miraculously the flames had not touched the church. San Sebastian, the patron saint, had sheltered his people from the consuming fire. Or so the old crone believed.

Las aguas de la Bahía de Vizcay
San Sebastian was easy, peaceful. Jay (easy-going surfer dude) and I sat out by the sea wall, watching the tide go out. He, pondering what awaited him in Australia: a woman he loved, another that loved him. I, pondering what awaited me back in the United States: who was I? What was I? Two men at similar places in their lives: a transitional pause, the brief idle of life's gears before the clutch engages.

The next morning I left for France. Jay stayed in San Sebastian another day. Onward. Jay, I hope you found it, whatever it was.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: Rubicon

For many citizens of the United States, the tale of the Roman republic, its path from tyrannical city-state nascence through its long metamorphosis to empire over some 500 years, is fascinating. And for obvious reasons. After all, the so-called Founding Fathers drew much inspiration from the concepts and ideals of the Roman republic. And, while it may seem trite and cliché, nonetheless the question persists: Might that ancient historical path foreshadow the ultimate fate of our own republic? It was this question in particular, along with a curiosity for Rome spawned by my many encounters with the detritus of their civilization (from England to Portugal to Hungary), that drew me to Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.

Rubicon is largely the tale of the last century of the Roman republic, centered around the two cataclysms that ultimately killed it.

The first of these is the civil war between factions loyal to Lucius Cornelius Sulla and those allied with Gaius Marius, two estranged friends vying, in that uniquely Roman way, for power and authority. The war shook the Republic to its roots and introduced the precedent of dictatorship, ostensibly as a temporary measure to prevent the Republic's destruction. Holland explains the various causes, the intense political rivalries, the unyielding ambition of Roman ideals that led to the event.

He then goes on to show how the aftermath of the war, the seething enmities that it bred, the challenges it posed to Rome's constitution was the seed of destruction that eventually led to the subsequent civil conflict some 40 years later. This was the war started when Julius Caesar, confronted with either capitulation and disgrace or open rebellion, made his throw for immortality and led his legions across the Rubicon against the Roman Senate.

Holland's recounting is populated with vividly drawn personalities: Cicero, the master orator with the quaking heart; ruthless Crassus, the unloved but much feared third pillar of the First Triumvirate; Pompey the Great, conqueror of Asia, slave to his own personal insecurities; noble, unyielding Cato; brilliant and dangerous Caesar; and many more besides. Holland gives life to all those Romans who, up to now, had been little more than a roster of names.

This book is not a dry recitation of facts and dates. Rather, the narrative is driving, colorful. Holland depicts Roman civic life, with all its values, its social mores, its discipline and its decadence. Through his accounting, readers come to understand what it meant to be a citizen of Rome: the quasi-egalitarian notion of entitlement, the inalienable rights that citizenship rendered (in theory, if not actually in practice). Nor does Holland neglect to describe the decadence and moral squalor of Rome at its most debased: the misogyny, the utter insignificance of slaves, the depraved cruelty.

Holland writes with wit and sharp insight. Throughout the work, his affection for Rome and its various significant personalities is apparent. At times, I admit, this affection borders on condescension. But it is difficult, I imagine, to avoid such sentiment given the buffer of some 2000 years of hindsight. And, all in all, Holland's well-researched and thoroughly-sourced book treats Rome and its denizens with respect, even reverence.

In fact, I found the story to be quite poignant. Especially toward the end of the book, when Holland recounts the panic and bewilderment of all those ancient Republicans who come to realize that their beloved republic is dying and that it cannot be saved.

Too late, Cicero found his voice, after a long period of cringing and hoping it would all blow over. His elegy to the love of his life, the Republic, thunders and howls, like the groaning of a ship succumbing to the sea: "Life is not merely a matter of breathing. The slave has no true life. All other nations are capable of enduring servitude --but our city is not. So glorious is it to recover liberty, that it is better to die than shrink from regaining it."

He spoke these words shortly before his name appeared on a proscription list composed by Caesar's heir, the ruthless gangster, Octavian. Holland says that when the bounty-hunters found him, Cicero tore open his toga to bare his throat to his executioner. He was a Republican --a Roman Republican --after all.

Monday, July 27, 2009

ASL: It's ours, guys... it lives and dies with us

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.

Not just a game... an identity!
Boy, I'll tell ya, that ol' river just keeps on rollin'.

Just the other night, Friday night, Dave Hauth and I quit --that's right, up and quit --a game of Sowchos 79 just as the scenario was at its crux.  Dave had his Germans halfway into the board 3 village and his armor on the hills drawing a bead on my machine-gun nest, but my big KV tanks were lumbering onto the board to try to salvage the situation. And then, midway into Dave's player turn 5, right after his Prep Fire Phase, we just quit.

To repeat:  we stood down from a contest with the issue still in doubt.  Can you believe it?

Granted it was 2am, and we were both dog tired after each having had a full work day. Still, there was a time, say 15 years ago, when we would have powered on through 'til dawn or beyond 'til one or the other abandoned all hope.

Getting old, I suppose.

Got me to thinkin'.

Jeff DeBraal and Dave Hauth at Wild West Fest '99
Advanced Squad Leader came out, when? Back in '87 or '88? Twenty-odd years, now.

Remember the old Avalon Hill Game Company? There is a certain demographic of men, age range roughly 35 to 65, for which the Avalon Hill Game Company was the fount of boundless hours of entertainment.

That's us. That is we. We're those men. All of us amateur historians who probably lacked the discipline to be really good at chess, but who loved to play games. History geeks who could spend hours speculating about how the entire flow of human events, all its grandeur and squalor, might have been altered into something entirely different if only, say, Napoleon had opted to commit the Old Guard at Borodino, or if Von Paulus had disregarded Hitler's order and pulled the Sixth Army back from the banks of the icy Volga.

Over the years, we've formed a community, an identity.

Tom Repetti awards Andre Danielson the Horse's Ass Trophy for going 0-6 at Wild West Fest '99
When ASL came out I was all over it. I took the rulebook to class with me in college, held it in my lap, beneath the desk, and read while my professor lectured about something not nearly so important. (You know? Sociology or electronic theory or some such.) As I read, I knew that I had found a system that fulfilled all my desires as a complete and comprehensive game. A game that could recreate the mythic historic period that had occurred roughly 20 years before I was born. The great global conflict that we, in the United States, call World War II.

Bob Oppen takes on Tim Hundsdorfer at Wild West Fest '95
In college, my friend Mark Hoyt and I spent --not just hours --days playing the game. Neglecting our studies, ignoring our friends. Mark Hoyt, who, had it not been for this game, I would probably never have befriended, he being a conservative and a Christian, and me being a godless liberal. Engineering students that we were, toward the end of our senior year, Mark and I calculated that, in aggregate, we had spent a full month of 24-hour days over the previous two years of college playing ASL.

After I graduated, I moved from my hometown in southern Oregon up to the (relatively) big city of Portland and met many more guys who, just like me, loved to play the game. In fact, ASL has introduced me to some of my very best friends. Andre Danielson, Dave Hauth, Stewart King, Sonny Hayes-Eberts... the list goes on and on. In Portland, we eventually formed our own club, the Berserk Commissars that, in its heyday had a dozen dedicated ASL players. But we were more than a club of game-playing geeks. We were a community of friends. We saw each other through marriages and divorces, growing families, aging parents.

Berserk Commissars at Wild West Fest '97
Front seat: Bruce Billett, Stewart King (driving)
Back seat: Carey Cardon, Andre Danielson, yours truly
And nationwide, of course, there is an ASL community. I have been to Maryland exactly once in my life: when I went to Bowie to participate in the Winter Offensive tournament back in 1996. I have good friends from all over the country. Hell, from all over the world! When I went to Sweden in 1999, I took a train ride from Stockholm to Gävle with the express purpose of getting in a game or two with Patrik Manlig.

Well, I guess I'm straying pretty far into my reverie, but the point is this: Boys, we're a dying breed.

The kids these days, they're all into their PS-2's and their Wii's and their first-person shooters. Try getting a teenager to sit down at a hexagonal-grid geomorphic board map and explaining "This little cardboard square represents a PAK38. If you place it with the depiction thusly, it's covered arc is defined to be thus-and-so." Said teenager's mind is far, far away, fighting World of Warcraft Forest Trolls before you can finish the sentence.

Mark (Snave) Evans, myself, and Timbo Wilson at WildWest Fest '98
There's no future in games that have you sitting hunched over a table for 3 to 10 hours, mumbling cryptic phrases to each other, then dropping dice into a tower and discerning an outcome from the result. Take a look around, the next time you go to an ASL tournament. How many young faces, say people under 30, do you see? There aren't any new recruits, boys. It's just us.

And we're getting old.

We've had a few casualties already. Remember Carey Cardon? Or Kent Smoak?

Well, it's inevitable. But I like to look at it this way: ASL is ours. It belongs uniquely to us. It's our thing. When the last ASL player rolls his last MC, ASL will have passed into the foggy ruins of time with him. But, if we're lucky, there'll be a well-lighted game room up there in the celestial other-world, with dice towers and well-organized counter storage systems.

When we get there, I wanna play Pleva.


"Six up two."

"Roll it."

The dice drop. Clack, clack.

"That's a one check."

"And my sniper... (clack) Pin. (clack) Break. (clack) Break. (clack) Heat of battle!"

"Roll it."

Again, the clacking.

"Minus 1, elite. Plus 2, Russian. Berserk!"

"Sucks. Don't forget your sniper roll."

"Gotta love this game, man."

"Yeah. Gotta love it."

Friday, July 24, 2009

¡Verano caluroso!

¡Verano caluroso!

Se predece que, este fin de semana, las temperaturas alcanzarían... ¡cien grados o más! Ahora bien, es bueno para los tomates y los pepinos, pero para los humanos... no tan bueno.

Sin embargo, disfruto del verano. ¿Quién puede quejarse, especialmente aquí en Oregon, donde el verano es la recompensa para aguantando el invierno largo, con los cielos grises que nunca terminan?

No, no, amigos. Es mejor que nosotros ralentizaríamos, nos relajamos. Permite el sol su reinado. El sueño no es fácil, cuando hace mucho calor, quizás. Pero, yo afirmo que es mejor que el inverso. Es que el invierno, mientras es necesario y inevitable, parece más como el muerte. ¡El verano es la vida!

¡Se relajen!
Nosotros hemos dormido, amigos. Ahora, nos vamos a vivir.

(Perdóneme por favor para mi español malo.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Barcelona (Pt. XIX)

Note to readers: This is the nineteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XVIII here.

En la cima de la Rambla
Rail transport from Arles to Barcelona required two different train changes at various points in the journey across southern France. The end of a long day of riding trains and waiting in stations found me in a pensione right off la Rambla in Barcelona. Whatever powers impel the Universe had placed me there on the weekend of El Día de los Muertes. The place was hoppin', as they say.

Legend has it that Hamilcar, the father of Hannibal, the bane of Roman imperial aspirations, and a passable general in his own right, founded Barcelona some 300 years before the commencement of Gregorian history. Barcelona is a beautiful city, on the Mediterranean coast. She was a bastion of Spanish Republicans in that country's tragic civil war, the last city in all of Spain to submit to Franco and the Fascists. Today, she is a city of immense culture, gentle climate, beautiful beaches, and great food!

La Rambla, the pedestrian mall, stretches down from la Plaza Catalunya all the way to the beach, with everything from high-end shops and posh restaurants at the inland terminus, to live sex shows and street drug peddlers at the seaward. A constant flow of people moved up and down.

Street performer along la Rambla
The first night, I dined on paella (pah-AY-ya), that delightful concoction of saffron rice, mussels-in-the-shell, Spanish sausage, and various vegetables. Delicious! Among the many charms of Barcelona, the food—Paella of course! And never have I encountered coffee as robust and rich, nor orange juice so naturally sweet and fresh.

The city was teeming with young people out to have a good time. I met a California girl, Maria, and a young woman, Kate (troubled, troubling) from Australia. Together we walked la Rambla. Kate and I ducked into the live sex show out of sheer curiosity, where an attractive couple had dispassionate, mechanical sex in a bed on a stage. Boring really.

Barri Gótic
Next day, wandered around the Gothic Quarter, Barri Gótic, just taking it all in. This area is the oldest part of the city. The site of the first constructions erected by Roman frontiersmen. Lots of musicians and a solemn Gothic church.

La iglesia del Barri Gótic
 During the day, I met yet another Australian woman named Kate (self-deprecating, funny). Together we went to the Picasso museum. I have to say, Picasso is often beyond me. Whatever it may say about underdeveloped art appreciation skills, I find that his work too often impresses as childish stick-figure drawings. I have great appreciation for his more accessible works, though: Massacre in Korea, for example, or his Cubist experimentation, or even his "Blue Period." Pablo Picasso, a Communist, a genius, and some say, a coward. I withhold judgment.

Kate (self-deprecating, funny) and I made our way from the museum to the beach and there parted ways. It was early afternoon and the city was shutting down for daily siesta. I made my way back to the pensione and, adapting quickly to the Spanish rhythm of life, napped.

Tara and I on la Rambla
That evening I went to dine at world-famous Les Quatre Gats restaurant: alone and feeling lonely. I noticed a beautiful young woman by herself at the table behind me:  sharply dressed, a streak of blue through her hair, Chinese ancestry. I introduced myself. She was Tara (fashionable, sophisticated) from Toronto. We shared a table, went for a walk along the shore and up la Rambla then agreed to meet the next day for sightseeing.

La Casa Milá by Gaudi
That day we saw the works of Gaudi, the genius architect, whose footprint has come to identify Barcelona itself: curves and angles, shapes molded by the natural world and reminiscent of houses and buildings from a Dr. Seuss book. Fascinating.

La Casa Milá
Gaudi remained unpretentious and humble to his death. Run over by a streetcar in 1926 at the age of 73, he was taken by mistake to a hospital for the indigent. Gaudi insisted that he remain among the poor, where he died three days later.

Sagrada familia church
Gaudi lived a Catholic, and died a Catholic, even as his famous masterwork, la Iglesia de la Sagrada familia, near the center of the city was still under construction.

Sagrada familia church, closeup
Together, Tara and I wandered through, climbed to the top, agape. Never had I seen anything like it. Never before, never since.

Sculpture in la Sagrada Familia church
 We looked out on the expanse of Barcelona below us: there the blue of the Mediterranean; there, the arid hills of the hinterland. The sun was kind;  the city relaxed amid its bustle.

Arches in la Casa Milá
 After la Sagrada familia, we went to Park Güell, also designed by Gaudi for the city he loved. A beautiful park with another breathtaking view. We bought ice cream from a vendor and ate a picnic lunch.

That night, I took Tara to the train station. She was off to Madrid. "I'm very glad to have met you," she said. She said it with kindness and gratitude and a touch of sadness: all of which I understood. One never really travels alone, whether riding the rails through Europe or journeying through life. Never. If there is no living, breathing companion to share the road, then there is loneliness. Loneliness becomes one's companion. Tara set off to her platform; I soon lost sight of her in the meandering crowd. Goodbye, Tara. Fare thee well.

For me, there was one more night in Barcelona, one more meal of paella and orange juice. It was the last day of October. El Día de los Muertes. I savored the gifts that Barcelona had given me.

In the morning, I arose late, sipped fresh, incomparably rich Spanish brewed coffee, then waved goodbye to this city with which I had fallen madly in love. In the afternoon, I caught the train north.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Senator Ron wants to play with the big boys

Senator Ron Wyden: Never one to waste an opportunity
It's crunch time in the US Senate. President Obama has imposed a deadline for passage of some kind of national health care reform. He has publicly expressed his wish that something happen before Congress adjourns for its August recess. That's not even two weeks away. Well, after all, he came into office with a big, big vision and he's definitely not backing down.

Whenever things get tight like this, Senators smell opportunity. The parliamentary procedures of that body are such that each Senator has the ability to gum up the works in various ways unless other Senators make some concessions to him or her. It is one of the facets of the Senate that I find so fascinating: an ever-shifting landscape of alliances and enmities. Decorum must be maintained in spite of betrayals, threats, and hardball politics.

Max and Chuck: Like little lovebirds
One big player in the game is Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He is resistant to the idea of a public health care option, ostensibly because he wants bipartisan support for the bill. That excuse can almost fly. After all, Baucus has been around long enough to know that, although the Democrats have the majority in the Senate at the moment, a couple bad elections could demote him to ranking minority Senator, playing second-fiddle to his GOP counterpart, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). (Never mind that Senator Baucus received $1.5 million in campaign contributions from health-related companies and their employees in 2007-2008. What are you? A cynic?)

The various caucus leaders are wheeling and dealing, too: Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) for the Democrats and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) for the Republicans.

But now, Oregon's own Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has decided that it is time for him to make his move. In spite of his having been in the Senate since 1996, he is still something of a back bencher in the Democratic caucus. He's tired of it, apparently.

Senator Wyden has been pitching his own idea for health care reform for years now. His idea, as I understand it, is to tax employer health care benefits while providing incentives for employers to raise their employees' salaries to compensate. (I hope I'm being accurate with this characterization). No real public option. To me, this idea seems like yet another sop to the health care insurance industry. And a quick internet search reveals that one of Senator Wyden's top campaign contributors is none other than Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

But, as I said at the beginning of the post, it is crunch time in the US Senate, and now is when senators have maximum leverage. President Obama is going to need every vote he can possibly get. And so now, Senator Wyden has formed a group of so-called "centrist" senators demanding delay on the passage of a bill. Besides Senator Wyden, the group consists of Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Icky Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME). These senators wrote a letter to the leaders of both caucuses urging delay. (You can read the letter here).

Whether or not they succeed is anybody's guess at the moment.

But I'll tell you this much: I really resent Senator Wyden's opportunism. President Obama has stated that he believes any delay may very well destroy hopes for reform. And the GOP is licking its chops at the possibility that the administration might fail. In fact, Senator Jim Demint (R-SC) stated:
This health care issue is D-Day for freedom in America. If we lose this, we’ll probably have half of our economy in some way controlled by the federal government. We can’t allow that to happen. And on the other side of it, if we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him. And we will show that we can – along with the American people – begin to push those freedom solutions that work in every area of our society. -Sen. Jim Demint
I've supported Senator Wyden in the past and I wouldn't mind seeing him gain a rank or two in the leadership of the Democratic caucus. But if he plays a part in killing real health care reform, and thereby seriously undermines the Obama agenda, I'm going to remember it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The lost opportunity of Justice Sotomayor

In spite of whatever parliamentary maneuvers that Senator Jeff Sessions, the weaselly Alabama redneck, puts up to stall the inevitable, Judge Sonia Sotomayor will soon be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. "Justice Sotomayor." Although it will grate, neo-confederates are going to have to get used to it.

For my part, I suppose I'm in favor of Judge Sotomayor's confirmation. One suspects that her positions will be at least as progressive as those of Justice Souter, whom she is replacing. So even though she's a "backfill" nomination (no disrespect intended) her seat on the Court will halt the rightward tilt that is one of the many toxic burdens imposed on the nation by the Junior Bush administration.

But I think progressives, generally, missed a golden opportunity during the Senate confirmation hearings.

The hearings were a joke. There was no discussion of substantive legal issues; there was no debate for or against the "unitary executive" theory of the division of powers in the Federal government. Just as with every other Supreme Court Justice nomination since 1987, when Democrats torpedoed Judge Robert Bork, this one avoided controversial issues (abortion being the most prominent) in order to smooth the road to confirmation.

Ever since the Senate rejected Bork's nomination, all Supreme Court nominees, up to and including Judge Sotomayor, have been coached by their respective "murder boards" to avoid controversy, to come across as bland and maleable. In short, they are instructed in the time-honored political art of creating long, elaborate non-answers.

In fairness, Republicans provided little opportunity to delve into weighty legal matters, focusing as they did, on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment, made some 12 years ago, and taken completely out of contex. But I'm not blaming them. They already knew that real questions would not get real answers.

The rub for me is that Judge Sotomayor had an opportunity and she squandered it.

Consider: with Al Franken now giving Democrats that magic sixtieth seat in the Senate, the Republicans could not employ the filibuster to block Judge Sotomayor's nomination no matter what she said.

During the hearings, she could have held forth on any number of legal philosophical issues, from the right to privacy to the limits of executive authority. A real debate, a real national discussion might have ensued. For progressives, this held the attraction of allowing us to have our beliefs defined by a brilliant legal mind, rather than leaving it to right-wing blowhards like Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly. Judge Sotomayor could have become a champion for progressive legal ideals, could have presented them to the nation.

It would have raised controversy, and undoubtedly would have led to more opposition from Republicans. But, in the end, they could not have stopped her nomination. And progressive legal philosophy, which I believe is sound enough to withstand examination, would have been brought into the public forum.

So, as much as I hate to say it, Judge Sotomayor is off to a poor start. Let us hope that, when she takes her seat on the high court, she will become a vocal advocate for progressive values.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The reversion of David Brooks

Although you will occasionally hear good political commentary on cable television, the honest truth of the matter (and I suspect that, secretly, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, or certainly Chris Wallace would agree), is that the "discussion and debate" on these shows is mostly back-and-forth partisan shrieking. For those elements of the television viewing audience that are interested in national politics (and I include myself within that sad demographic) it matters little. We watch because we love to despise those we imagine to be on the other side of the aisle.

But, much as a junk food bachelor will occasionally tire of pizza or take-out burritos and yearn for a good home-cooked meal, I like to get some substantial political discussion every now and then.

Fortunately, once per week, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer includes a political analysis segment featuring "conservative" New York Times columnist David Brooks, and "liberal" syndicated columnist Mark Shields.

I've been watching Shields for many years on CNN and on OPB and I've always respected his insights and opinions. He's one of my favorites.

David Brooks, on the other hand, I encountered only when he replaced Paul Gigot on the News Hour. Brooks is one of the few "conservative" voices I can hear without being quickly deafened by disgust and comtempt.

It wasn't always so.

In the early days of the Bush Disaster, he was fully onboard the Junior Bandwagon. In the lead up to the illegal invasion of Iraq, he dismissed as "irrelevant" all the arguments put forth by its opponents. When Junior submitted his first budget to Congress, Brooks explained away its dead-on-arrival reception as a sort of Trojan Horse ploy by a crafty Karl Rove. Brooks couldn't quite manage a straight face when he argued that the administration put the budget out to draw fire, never expecting it to be seriously considered. I suspect even he knew the truth: that the budget was in fact the shoddy workmanship of a gaggle of Texas yokels.

Eventually, as the Bush house of cards flattened, Brooks had enough integrity to refuse to try to defend the indefensible. He no longer makes apologies for the Bush administration, does nothing to burnish its fetid legacy.

Well, after all, only the most closed-minded partisan diehards even bother to pretend that the Bush administration was anything other than a dismal failure. But Brooks was on one of the first lifeboats to ditch.

Further, Brooks has little at all to say about the sorry clutch of hypocrites that are now steering the GOP even further into the gutter. Granted, the Republicans are so diminished that there is not much to say about them anyway. As the GOP contracts to its reactionary base, Brooks is among the many right-leaning moderates who just can't ally themselves with fanatical snake-charmers and revival tent Tongues-speakers.

Brooks, and other former Republicans like him, are lost political souls. They're like cult followers who one day awaken to find that all the chanting and incense is a front for bigamy and extortion. While the reactionary core of the Republican party impels their stoogish political champions toward ever more inane and insane positions (hinting at secession, contending that President Obama is not a US citizen) Brooks and like-minded former Republicans must either continue to exist in a political wasteland or form their own political organization.

Such is the price for lending credibility to the yahoos.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Faith or law?

Brent and Raylene Worthington: Followers of Christ

Currently, there is a story out of Oregon that is making national news. It's a sad story, involving the death of a 15 month-old girl named Ava Worthington.

Ava died in March 2008 due to complications around a cyst on her neck. Her parents, Carl Brent and Raylene Worthington, are members of a church, the Followers of Christ, that practices "faith healing" rather than conventional medicine. They now face charges of manslaughter, brought by the State of Oregon. Oregon law requires that children be provided with medical care, which the Worthington's denied their daughter because it violated their faith.

The precise cause of death is at the crux of the Worthington's culpability. The prosecution contends that Ava, after months of stunted development, died a lingering death due to pneumonia. The defense argues that Ava died quickly due to a sepsis infection that struck before her parents had time to consider whether she should receive conventional medical attention.

Even as I write this, the closing arguments are being made and the jury will sequester to render their verdict.

But, whatever the jury determines, there is a larger question: does the state have a right to override religious rights when the well-being of a child is at stake?

This is not the first time that the State of Oregon has come into conflict with the Followers of Christ. An investigation by the Oregonian newspaper found that 28 of 71 minors buried in the church cemetery had died from easily-treatable conditions such as simple infections.

In 1999, the state of Oregon addressed this issue and decided that the state does indeed have the right to intervene.

While I'm inclined to agree, I think the issue is one of those that should regularly be reexamined.

This story, in many ways, recalls the unfortunate bit of business that occurred in Texas last year, at the Yearning for Zion ranch. There, too, the state intervened and in retrospect it seemed to have overreached. But, in the case of Ava Worthington, the facts are substantiated: a 15 month-old girl died while her parents prayed for her.

It is already well-established throughout the country that parental rights are subservient to the rights of a child. After all, parents may not chain their children to radiators or enslave them or starve them.

But in this case, as in the case in Texas, the state is acting in such a way as to potentially infringe on the First Amendment rights of the parents. Namely, the right of free exercise of religion.

I would certainly agree that the state has no business prosecuting Rastafarians for smoking ganja, or Jehovah's Witnesses for testifying door-to-door.

But Oregon law sets the age of consent, the age at which a person becomes responsible for his or her own behavior, at 18. Even had Ava been 17 years and 11 months old, her parents according to Oregon law, would be compelled to see that she receive medical treatment. If she had been 18, the parents could not be held culpable.

Granted, 18 is an arbitrary age that clearly exposes the limitations of human law. Put it down to human fallibility.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Oregon weekend

Mushroom tree on the Maple Trail

Ah, summer! Take it from a world traveler, Oregon summers are the best in the world. (Caveat: I'm not objective.)

Normally, at this time of year, I go to the Oregon Country Fair to party with the hippies in the sylvan setting of the woods along the Long Tom River. But this year, due to a lack of initiative on my part (imagine that!) I didn't act fast enough to reserve my spot on the security crew and therefore had to miss out on the event. So, instead, I took a few days vacation and enjoyed some other of Oregon's spectacular attributes.

Dragonfly, bane of mosquito larva
On Thursday, my friend and perennial candidate for Multnomah County Sheriff, Andre Danielson, hiked up in Forest Park along the Maple Trail. Mosquitoes were not too troublesome as long as we kept moving. The dragonflies were plentiful and well-fed. We got lucky and the intense summer heat subsided for our hike day.

All along the trail, thimble berries, elderberries, and wild strawberries were ripe and abundant. We hiked about 8 miles, discussing everything from the political situation in Haiti to the death of poor, tormented Michael Jackson. Good time.

Sunny day at the beach
On Friday, Maty worked a half-day, after which I picked her up and we went to Seaside for a couple days. The weather was cool, but sunny. The sea put its spell on me, like it always does. When I look out on the vast ocean, sense the sheer, enormous power of it, its ageless indifference, I'm awestruck.

Seaside Promenade
We stayed right down on the Promenade, which was fun. We walked on the beach and browsed the tourist-trap businesses. Had some Thai food that was passable, but not nearly spicy enough for two fire-eaters like us.

Lewis and Clark River
Next day, we took a drive up to Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the 1805-1806 winter huddled against the relentless rain of the Pacific Northwest. The US National Park Service has a museum there, and we went through that and on a short hike guided by a US Ranger.

Fort Clatsop replica
In Astoria, a high school was playing host to a Walk for the Cure event. People were raising money to fight cancer. The vibe there was very positive; everyone looked like they were having a good time

Walk for the Cure musicians
Came back to Portland on Sunday. Time to return to the working world for a while. But for anyone in need of some restorative unwinding time, I highly recommend a long weekend in Oregon. Beautiful terrain, good people: the gentle hand of God.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Arles (Pt. XVIII)

Note to readers: This is the eighteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XVII here.

Arles, on the Rhone
It was a short train ride down from Avignon to Arles, a sleepy little town judging by the lack of bustle in the train station. I was one of only a handful of people to detrain. I made a snap judgment to leave for Barcelona on the morrow. So, I went to the ticket counter to make my reservations.

The attendant spoke only French. I spoke none. We struggled to communicate for a moment or two, until a woman, pushing her infant son in a stroller intervened. She was fluent in French and English. From her accent I knew she was American. She acted as translator. I soon held reservations for the next-day train to Barcelona.

Madeleine (kind American ex-patriot) now lived in France where she and her French husband were starting a cooking school. Madeleine and her friend, Emmanuel, the Jewish folk singer, walked me to a nearby hotel where I booked a room, then followed them to Madeleine’s home. There I met Erick (who spoke no English) and beautiful Veronique, Madeleine’s friend.  Erick was a chef, trained in the high art of French cuisine. I was treated to a wonderful meal of pasta, tomato salad, bread, cheese, and chocolate. It was a magical travel moment: I broke bread in the home of friendly strangers in a foreign land. We humans surely do have our virtues.
Emmanuel, Erick, Madeliene, and Veronique
I thanked them profusely, and then set out to see Arles.

Greeks first established Arles some 600 years before Christ as a little settlement at the confluence of two forks of what men would later call the Rhone River. It was an important point, geographically. They called it Theline. But within 50 years, local nativist sentiments stirred Gauls into kicking out Greek foreigners and grabbing the place for themselves. The Gauls called it Arelate, the name it's had ever since (in one form or another).

Gauls ran the place for quite a while: four hundred years or so. But then the Roman Legions came up from the south. Little dark men in their iron-willed ranks proved too much for undisciplined Gauls.  With the Legions came the canal to the Mediterranean and the infrastructure. It's still there today.

Roman footprint in Arles
Soon enough Arles got into the Roman political game. Warlike Julius, fresh from Gallic conquests, political ambitions thwarted in Rome, encamped on the Rubicon, there to ponder his next move. His quandary, one for the Ages: stand down and submit to the established order at the price of his own greatness, or ford the river and assert that the glory of a man must not be constrained by the concept of a greater good?

When he made the crossing, Arles faced a decision: join Julius in rebellion or support Pompey and the established Roman power structure.

Standing on Roman shoulders
Arles picked Julius. When victory came, Julius rewarded Arles with the possessions of rival Massalia (Marseilles), which had backed Pompey. Lesson: if you pick a horse, pick the right horse.

Recall the day...
Vincent came here back in his day, painting sunflowers and landscapes as syphilis destroyed his sanity. He was in Arles when the demon that haunted him compelled him to cut his ear off.

I wandered around the streets, just drinking it all in. I spent a romantic evening in southern France, communing with historical ghosts, walking the streets. I ended up totally lost until I chanced upon a merchant closing shop very late. He eyed me with apprehension as I approached.

"Arles?" I asked, pointing in the direction I believed to be correct.

He smiled. "Arles," he said, pointing in the exact opposite direction.

"Merci," I said, then turned and walked back the way I had come, under the streetlights in the Provençal night.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

Folks, I'm as straight as they come. I absolutely adore my gay friends and neighbors. I just don't swing that way. Nonetheless, that Johnny Depp has got something going on. Aside from being an enormously talented actor, the man has got to be the single-most welcome individual at any university sorority house. (Just ask Maty, she'll tell you...) So, sure, go ahead and put me down as a Johnny Depp fan.

And I'm a sucker for a gangster flick, too. Whatever mutated virus resides at the base of American nerve cells, causing us to be fascinated with movies about organized crime and unsavory sociopathic criminal personalities, I've got it.

So, I was chomping at the bit to see Michael Mann's latest effort, Public Enemies. Maty and I went on Sunday.

The film depicts the last days of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a Depression-era bank-robber who, according to director/writer Mann, was basically a good-hearted tough guy, just trying to make a more or less honest living by sticking it to "the man." The film follows Dillinger as he goes from bank to bank, hiding amid a public that admires him, living according to his ethos, and falling in love with coat-check girl Billie Frechett (played by Marion Cotillard). Pitted against him is Special Agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale), the FBI's rising star.

I found the camera work in the flick to be quite good. Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer, did an excellent job of capturing the light in each scene in such a way that it sets the mood, presages what is to come. For example, at the race track, as Dillinger and Billie are contemplating their prospects as lovers, a golden glow permeates the scene and viewers sense that the moment they are witnessing is probably the pinnacle of the two lovers' happiness; it can only get worse from here.

The acting was solid but not spectacular. I was particularly disappointed with the scene that came midway through, wherein Dillinger and Purvis meet. One had the feeling that both actors were willing to have a good run at it, but that director Mann, for some reason, failed to recognize the potential and held them in check. I had not seen Marion Cotillard before and I very much enjoyed her performance. And, besides Johnny Depp, who could breath life into any role, Stephen Graham turned in a good performance as Baby Face Nelson.

All in all, the movie didn't quite deliver on my expectations. I'm willing to allow some artistic license in defining the main character who, rather than a fair-minded hero of the people, was probably more likely just a murderous thug. But I really felt that the movie strayed a little too far into the realm of nostalgia. The Depression wasn't really such a great time, you know? There was desperation. There was hardship. Mann doesn't really touch on that.

But the biggest failing of the film, I think, is that it lacks a theme. It poses no questions for viewers to consider; Mann almost seems determined to avoid anything that might be construed as a challenge to his audience. None of the characters grew or changed. It was as if Mann created a set and then set them loose in it, to stumble about predictably like so many wind-up dolls.

I didn't leave the theater thinking about the flick. By the time the credits started rolling my mind was already on the drive home.

Don't get me wrong. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than to watch Public Enemies. But as far as gangster flicks go, this ain't no Godfather, no Good Fellas, no Sopranos Season 5.

Adequate. That's how I describe it. This film is adequate.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sarah Palin gets the word: Hit the road, honey!

Headin' back to Wasilla
Sarah Palin announced on Friday, July 3, 2009 that she would resign as Governor of Alaska effective later this month. Despite her rambling, enigmatic statement, it is unclear why she's doing it. She did make mention of growing weary of the persistent ethics complaints filed against her in the state of Alaska. (Well, jeez, Sarah... maybe you could clean up your act!)

She made the announcement on the Friday before the July 4 weekend. That, of course, was calculated to minimize the splash in the media. Coming on the heels of the death of Michael Jackson and on a Friday when many Americans are heading for the beach or the mountains, her announcement will be old news by Monday morning, when everyone gets back into their routines.

But the resignation is puzzling. Sarah Palin continues to be a compelling figure to the religious zealots, the plebs of the Republican party. She has continued to maintain a presence in national political circles, making speeches, pulling publicity stunts. So why the apparent sudden change of heart?

Here's what I think.

Somebody high up in the Republican party gave her the word: Hit the road, honey.

Despite the enthusiastic support Ms. Palin enjoys from the "base" of the party, some (so far unidentified) mucky-mucks in the Republican party wanted her gone. Consider: beyond the GOP base, Sarah Palin is loathed, even by some within the Republican party. Earlier this week, Vanity Fair published an article about Ms. Palin, quoting anonymous sources in the McCain/Palin presidential campaign, who said that she was a diva, undisciplined, hard to manage, hard to get along with.

My speculation is that Republican kingmakers were uncomfortable with the adulation Sarah Palin was getting. And as other potential Republican candidates for the 2012 race imploded (Mark Sanford, with his public midlife crisis, Rick Perry, with his acid flashback to 1861, John Ensign, with his pathetic confessions of adultery) these kingmakers began to fear that Sarah Palin might be the only candidate left standing by the time the nominating process started. Nightmare visions of a landslide defeat began to haunt their dreams.

The Republican party is in enough trouble, already. To nominate an intellectual lightweight, a laughably unqualified Alaskan rube, and then to have her obliterated in the general election might well be the final nail in the coffin.

So, some group of somebodies got together and made a decision. "We've got to rid ourselves of this woman." Somewhere along the line somebody flew up to Anchorage, got Sarah (and probably Todd, Sarah's "first dude") in a room, and there was a conversation. I imagine it went something like this:

GOP operative: Nice run, kid. But it's over. It's not your time.

Sarah: Huh?

GOP operative: Don't you want to spend more time with your family? Your son, Trig, for example. He needs you.

Sarah: What are you talking about? I'm Sarah Barracuda. People love me.

GOP operative: Sarah, the best time to exit the stage is when the audience is howling for more.

Sarah: But I'm a contender for the Republican nomination.

GOP operative: Sarah, let me put it to you this way. You're not rich, are you?

Sarah: No way.

GOP operative: You can't really afford heavy legal bills defending yourself against ethics complaints, can you?

Sarah: Uh...

Todd, the first dude: You've made your point. What's in it for us?

GOP operative: If Sarah weren't constrained by her duties as Alaska's governor, she could probably make a lot of money on the lecture circuit, with television appearances, think tanks. Potentially, millions of dollars. In fact, I probably know some people I could put you in touch with...

Sarah: What do you think, Todd?

Todd, the first dude: Life was a lot simpler when all I had to worry about was training my dogs for the Iditarod.

Sarah: I'll make a statement on Friday.

Of course, this is all just speculation on my part. Some are saying that the resignation is a preparatory step for a run for the White House. That seems pretty far-fetched to me. And dig this little whine that Sarah included in her rambling statement: “You are naive if you don’t see a full-court press from the national level picking away a good point guard.”

That ices it for me. She was forced out from within the Republican party. Sarah, your down-home treachery and back-stabbing worked fine in backwoods Alaska. But when you accepted John McCain's offer and joined the ticket, you entered the Big Leagues. To continue with the basketball analogy: you went from college intramural straight to the NBA. You drove to the hoop, you put it up, and the ball got swatted right back into your face. Better for you to just hang outside the 3-point line and hope they forget about you.

Good riddance!