Monday, August 31, 2009

Road trip to Boise

Lush Columbia Gorge

Took a drive. Just got in the car and went. The days of Happy Motoring are numbered, so enjoy them while they last. Off to Boise, Idaho, because I'd never been to Idaho before, except one time, when I was 15 and we drove through on our way home from visiting the Grand Canyon.

Water reeds near Boardman, Oregon

On through the ancient Columbia Gorge, scoured and shaped by the deluge of melting glaciers. Green and lush at the western end. But as you go east, the verdant gives way to colors bleaker but no less beautiful. Now, the splash of green offered by water reeds stands out in contrast to the sun-pelted gray-brown of sage and lava rock.

Near Pendleton, OR

Except, of course, for the gold of ripened grain that Oregon's rural denizens have coaxed out of the stingy soil with languid Columbia River lifeblood. High desert mountain boy I may be, at heart. But I came to the green valley city long ago. Now these vast prairies and lonesome, boundless fields fill me with anxiety, despite their undeniable beauty.

In the trials to come, hold on to this moment, my friend

I stopped to snap a few photos at a rest area somewhere between LaGrande and Baker City. A black cow was grazing near the fence. As I moved closer, my bovine friend grew wary, then moved away. "Don't worry," I said. "I'm not gonna hurt ya." But then I saw the tag in her ear and I thought about the hamburger I had eaten the night before... and I wondered if my words were true.

Blue Mountains

Up into the Blue Mountains. Dark green contrast of evergreens mark well the courses of watery arteries. The sun paints the earth in these lands. Only hardscrabble sage can leech enough moisture from the coarse soil.

Near Lime, Oregon

A man could die out here. Many have. Including the unfortunate Otter-Van Orman party of 1860, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Massacred at the hands of natives, no doubt frightened by and resentful of the incessant westward pushing of Caucasians into lands that they knew would never again be as they had been in the age of their innocence. No serpent tempted these with promises of delectable fruit. They did not leave Eden. It dissolved around them.


Boise River

And eventually arrived at Boise, Idaho. My destination. The sun fell quickly as I walked along the Boise River, leaving me pinching my lower lip, thinking.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Brussels - Waterloo (Pt. XXIII)

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

Nighttime in La Grand-Place de Bruxelles
A high speed ride on the Eurostar took me from Paris to Brussels. Zipping along in a bullet train at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, I strummed my guitar until the coachmen told me, "You can't play music."

I arrived in Brussels, where a single occupancy room was to be had in the Jacques Brel Youth Hostel, not far from the station. These months of traveling made me leery of roommates. Those who are not afflicted with nocturnal log-sawing can never know the onus.

The hostel is named for Jacques Brel, the Belgian folk-singer, a Flemish Woody Guthrie. Early in his career he was humorous, irreverent, light-hearted. But later, wizened by age and disillusionment, he became morose, darkly philosophical. Monsieur Brel, Belgium's favorite son, epitomizes Belgian duality: optimism and resignation.

That night I strolled to La Grande-Place with all the 17th century Guild Houses packed side by side around the stone plaza.

Nighttime in November and, yes, it was cold. Restaurateurs plied their cuisine aggressively, recognizing the end of tourist season. I seated myself at a bistro, there to dine on cold lobster, shrimp, mussels, and oysters. I braved the challenge of raw oysters alone with none to witness my courage. Yes, oyster shooters. Mais, c'est finis. I have tried them. And that is enough.

Waterloo battlefield
The next day, I made a trip out to see the place where l'Empereur Napoleon Bonaparte was undone. His last gasp. His swan song. His failed encore. Waterloo. Here it was, in 1815 that Nappy, with his reconstituted Old Guard, fresh from exile in Elba, faced off with Duke Wellington and the British army.

The field is surprisingly small, considering that some 140,000 men came to lethal grips on it. For six hours, two armies grappled, bloodily, but indecisively. In the late afternoon, reinforcing troops were spotted hastening down the road that ran to the east. A moment of suspense . . . was it d’Erlon and the French? Or Blücher, with his Prussians?

When word came that the latecomers were Prussians, Napoleon, they say, muttered, "The one mistake I made in my life was deciding not to burn Berlin." From there, it was a foregone conclusion. At the crucial moment, the Old Guard made a valiant, desperate charge to break the Allied lines. Into withering fire, they set forth, hesitated . . . and broke! The sight of Old Guard flying in rout before the enemy changed the world. The mystique was ended. And so too Napoleon.

Marshal Ney leads the charge
After the battle, victorious Brits raised a mound atop which stands the triumphant British lion, one massive paw resting on the world. A proud and valiant people, those Brits.

Armistice Day Commemoration, Waterloo
I took a taxi back to the train station, to await the train to Brussels. A small, sober parade of Belgians, mostly elderly, marched to mournful music. It was Armistice Day: a commemoration of the end to the Great War in 1918. And, after all, these Belgians had suffered as much as any in that colossally unnecessary horror. Gray skies reflected the sad elegy. Nobility and resignation were written on the faces of these people, marching much as the determined Old Guard must have marched. But for these, there was no hope of glory or recognition: just small voices defying history, begging us to find another way.

I played guitar in the common room of the Jacques Brel hostel that night. I played with a heavy heart, pulled down by the many hands of the unnamed dead.

To be continued...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Support your local busker!

The incomparable Diane Patterson
Busk: To play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money. - The Free Dictionary
Anyone who lives in or frequents any major population center is no doubt familiar with the sight: someone, usually but not always a young person, standing on a street corner or under a portico winding a sax, or beating a drum, or hammering a guitar and belting out a tune.

Buskers, roving minstrels, street performers, have existed throughout history. Tales abound of traveling musicians earning their daily bread by entertaining. And, if you ask me, that's honest pay for honest work.

Buskers at the Oregon Country Fair...
Living in a somewhat "hip" part of Portland, I often encounter buskers just down the block from my house, on Hawthorne Boulevard. Some are better than others, for sure. But I've tried my own hand at busking, and it takes lot of courage and determination to get out there and do it. Anyone that has the guts to lay it on the line to a bunch of mostly disinterested passers-by has my admiration.

...on Hawthorne Boulevard,
But there are a lot of very talented buskers. I've seen street performances that are every bit as passionate and intricate as anything that one might witness in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Try to tell me that some manufactured phenomenon like Britney Spears has anything at all on artists like Diane Patterson or Jim Page and I'm afraid we're just going to have to agree to disagree.

in Barcelona...
When I'm out walking around the neighborhood and I see a busker putting his or her soul out there, I'll stop and give a listen. If I like what I hear, I'll drop some change into the hat. Or, if I really like what I hear, I'll buy a CD, if the busker has one to sell. And if I don't especially like what I hear, I'll at least give a smile and a thumbs-up. As a musician, I know that every musician lives for validation.

Buskers are not panhandlers, people. They provide a service. If you enjoy what you're hearing, don't be shy... let them know you appreciate it.

and in Bergen, Norway.
Support your local busker!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Adieu, Senator Kennedy

Adieu, Monsieur
Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, the Liberal Lion, died last night of complications surrounding a tumor in his brain. He was 77 years old.

I remember first becoming aware of the Kennedy name in the late 60's. I remember when Senator Kennedy's older brother, Bobby, was assassinated during the presidential campaign of 1968. I remember how my parents, even my mostly apolitical father, and my grandparents, even the life-long Republican Metzgers, admired the Kennedy family, how they always spoke the Kennedy name with reverence. I have always associated that name, Kennedy, with high-minded idealism and altruism. It is the very epitome of noblesse oblige.

Senator Kennedy was the first candidate to receive my vote for President of the United States. I voted for him in the 1980 primary when he ran against President Carter. Even then, living in blood-red Klamath Falls, Oregon, I had that liberal bent, and I largely credit the Kennedy family for helping me to get there.

Some might say that such sentiments are naive, but childhood truths die hard. And, in the end, we all need something to cling to.

Senator Kennedy, you will be missed. Thank you, sir, and bon voyage.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Movie review: Inglourious Basterds


Hey, everybody! Have you heard? Quentin Tarantino has a new film out!

Written facetiously, of course. The "Hipster" film set has been slavering over this opening for many anticipatory weeks.

And why not? Tarantino has some really good flicks under his belt: the ground-breaking Pulp Fiction, of course, and the Kill Bill diad, but also Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown.

But, for me, Tarantino has lost some of his luster over the years. His films are usually entertaining, granted; the dialog is always fantastic, and he manages to create humor in the most unlikely of situations. Then, of course, there is the agonizing, adrenaline-filled psychological tension that pervades his work. That's the stuff that keeps you coming back. But, on the down side, I am vaguely offended by his over-the-top, psyche-jolting depictions of violence. It seems gimicky and pornographic and I dislike the appeal it seems to have with some of Tarantino's most ardent fans.

Inglourious Basterds is a comic-book fantasy story, done in the classic five-act format, of backwoods Tennessee Jew, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who leads a band of Jewish-American soldiers in WWII behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France to sow terror. Meanwhile, a young Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) narrowly escapes death when her family is slaughtered by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), "the Jew Hunter," an extraordinarily competent SS officer. As the story develops, their various paths begin to converge, culminating in an apocalyptic crescendo at a cinema in Paris.

This film is really very good. The performances are all top-notch, but most especially Waltz's protrayal of Landa as the ultimate mercenary pragmatist. (Also, a shout out to Michael Fassbender as the unflappable British officer, Archie Hicox.) The sets, the costumes, and the lighting altogether comprise a visual feast. And, of course, the quirky Tarantino dialog sets the film apart. Part of Tarantino's appeal is his ability to insert philosophical discussions into action-packed high-tension scenes, and Basterds is no exception.

But, again, there are the vulgar depictions of violence and torture. It is revealing to me that the talkie set was all a-whisper about the scene that involves a baseball bat and the head of an unfortunate German prisoner. I find it offensive that people might go to a movie in the hopes of seeing a depiction of a defenseless man getting his skull bashed in. People that enjoy that kind of thing have serious psychological deficiencies, in my opinion. (For what it's worth, I covered my eyes during that scene...) Tarantino seems to raise the bar for graphic violence with every new flick. I suppose I'm still a fan, but this particular habit makes me leary.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't make note of how the film homages the spaghetti-western genre. In fact, one could very well argue that Inglourious Basterds is a remake of Sergio Leone's masterpiece, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, complete with Ennio Morricone soundtrack. In this case, Laurent is cast as the Good, Waltz as the Bad. Pitt has the unenviable task of stepping into Eli Wallach's gigantic shoes as the Ugly. The opening scene of Basterds is straight out of Leone's earlier piece.

Good luck, Brad.
All in all, I'd have to say that if you've got the stomach for it, Inglourious Basterds is well-worth the price of admission.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Health care debate: there are good reasons to be angry

Tea-baggers: always good for a laugh!
I smell a rat.

All the media coverage around the public debate over health care reform seems to focus on the tea-bagging Right and its nebulous fear that the nation is sliding into socio-fascism (whatever the hell that is).

My friend, Dave Hauth, recently made note of a report in the media about one of the congressional town hall meetings being held all over the country during Congress' August recess, in which the cameras were trained on one of these "tea-baggers," an elderly woman holding a sign with the usual key words: "Fascism"... "Socialism"... blah... blah... blah. The cameras showed that one woman --that one particular woman waving a placard scrawled with frothing hyperbole --in a protesting crowd. But the rest of the crowd, which got no mention in the report, was holding up signs saying "Medicare for all" and "We want health care" and other quips in a similar vein.

Why is this woman's opinion important...
The debate is being stifled.

One side, the health care insurance industry and its media shills, are getting heard loud and clear, while the other side, (the vast majority according to many polls) is not being heard at all. Rather than debate the merits of this or that reform alternative, all the public oxygen is being burned up blathering about "death panels," government health care for "illegal immigrants," and funding for abortions at the expense of senior citizens. These are all lies, of course, ginned up by media shills for the purpose of avoiding a serious discussion.

...but these people's are not?
But there are good reasons to be angry. Very good reasons.

Reason #1: The obvious solution is being ignored

Public option? Well, yes, that could work. But the simplest, easiest solution to the whole brouhaha is this: expand the Medicare system to include all Americans.

Medicare is a huge success. It's immensely popular with the nation's elderly, even the tea-baggers. At a town hall meeting held by Representative Robert Inglis (R-SC), a tea-bagger stood up and told the congressman: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" Uh... yes, well...

The Medicare system is in place, working as designed. There are funding issues, of course. But that's not the fault of the system itself so much as of Congress' irresponsible behavior vis-a-vis allotting funds dedicated to the system.

Right now, I pay $200 per month for health insurance coverage for myself and my wife. My employer kicks in the rest of the premium, which I think is around $400 per month. Every year, the premium rates go up. In fact, one study found that in Pennsylvania, health care premiums in the period from 2000 through 2009 rose 95.2%, or 5.4 times faster than worker earnings. I would gladly pay the same amount in federal taxes if it would mean that I could be guaranteed health care coverage for myself, and for all Americans. As it stands right now, if I lose my job, Maty and I must shell out the entire $600 to $700 every month for COBRA benefits, or go uninsured.

Reason #2: If they're not on the take, what do you call it?

According to OpenSecrets.org, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who is overseeing negotiations on health care reform, has accepted donations from the following "concerned citizen advocacy groups:"
  • The Insurance Industry: $1,170,313
  • Health Professionals: $1,016,276
  • Pharmaceuticals/Health Products Industry: $734,605
  • Hospitals/Nursing Homes: $541,891
  • Health Services/HMOs: $439,700
And Oregon's own Senator Ron Wyden who sits on the Senate Budget Committee, enjoys the --er --"support" of BlueCross/Blue Shield to the tune of $22,400, Pinnacle Healthcare for $14,400, and Prestige Senior Living, who kicked in another $14,400. Chickenfeed compared to Senator Baucus' rake, but then again, Ron ain't holdin' a chairman's gavel.

But it's nice to know these entities are so interested in good government, eh?

Health insurance providers and their bought-and-paid-for congressional pets (I'm looking at you, Max) really don't want the debate to turn to a discussion of alternatives. If that happens, if Americans start really talking about the best way to resolve the health care crisis in this country, it will be the beginning of the end for private health care insurance companies.

Reason #3: F**ked up priorities

As peace advocate and beloved deejay Casey Kasem once asked: "Why is there never enough money for peace, but always enough money for war?"

The illegal invasion of Iraq has cost $3 trillion dollars over the last 8 years. Authorization for the war was rushed through Congress a month before the mid-term elections in 2002. There was minimal debate. Concerns about the cost of the war were put off with shrill (and bogus) protestations that we could not afford to wait... Saddam Hussein might at any moment send his unmanned chemical-spraying drones over the Atlantic Ocean to poison our cities and kill us all!

But universal health care, which is projected to cost $1 trillion dollars over 10 years, is somehow too expensive to be "rushed through" Congress (even though we have been looking for a health care solution for at least 60 years, when the Truman administration first made the attempt). Concerns about federal fiscal health have suddenly become important to the debate.

Could Senator Baucus or Senator Wyden please answer Casey's question?

What to do...

The idea of expanding Medicare is not even being considered by Congress. And, if they can get away with it, that idea will never be part of the debate. But I think the steam is running out of the tea-bagger protests. That vocal, uninformed minority will eventually lose its impetus and be overwhelmed by a swell of support for a real health care solution. In fact, it is already happening.

And when the media runs out of fake patriots waving around pictures of Hitler and Stalin, they'll have to turn the cameras on the rest of the people out in the streets --the union workers and the struggling middle-class families and the small business owners --all of whom are being slowly throttled to death by health care costs.

We can move the process along, too. I urge you to contact your congressional representatives and demand a single-payer health care option along the lines of those that exist in every other industrialized nation. Here's a couple phone numbers:
It's important to note that this mess is almost completely the making of Democrats. Republicans are displaying what, for them, passes as integrity: they refuse to cooperate with anything.

Therefore, a health care solution is necessarily going to be a Democrats-only accomplishment. So put their feet to the fire! Let them know that having a "D" after their names doesn't mean a damn thing if they're in the same corporate pockets as the Republicans.

If a creature like Max Baucus will sell his vote to insurance companies, he'll sell it back to us for the right price. And the currency we have to offer is his continued employment as a US Senator. And that goes for Ron Wyden and all the rest, too.

Call them up and demand a single-payer solution!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tom Ridge blabs

Tom, tell me something I don't already know...
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, the guy who invented the laughable color-coded scale that supposedly gauges the threat of a terrorist attack on the United States on any given day, has just put out a book that would seem to confirm the assumptive truth that those who hate Junior Bush have lived by: Junior and the gang were using Secretary Ridge's ridiculous threat-level for specific political goals.

In Ridge's book, the Test of Our Times, he alleges that, the weekend before the national election in November 2004, Defense Secretary/war criminal Don Rumsfeld and Attorney General/puritan freak John Ashcroft pushed Ridge to raise the threat level in the hopes that it would give Junior that extra little push he needed to win the general election. Ridge says he was dismayed and troubled by this manipulation; offers it as the final straw that caused him to leave the administration shortly into its second term.

From Think Progress' website:
Osama bin Laden had released a videotape with one more ominous sounding but unspecific threat against the United States. Neither Mr. Ridge nor any of the department’s security experts thought the message warranted any change in the nation’s alert status.

“…at this point there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm,” he writes.

But that view met resistance in a tense conference call with members of the intelligence community and several other Cabinet officers including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensured. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Rumsfeld.”

Noting the correlation found between increases in the threat level and the president’s approval rating, Mr. Ridge writes, “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’”
--Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 9, 2009
Media pundits are calling this revelation a "block-buster," but to me, this is no surprise at all. It is just another data point that confirms everything I believe about the complete and total insincerity and lack of integrity inherent in the Bush administration.

Ridge now joins the list of former Bush administration officials that have publicly protested the cynical and criminal behavior of that entity during its horrendous tenure. (One wishes he had had the stones to say something back when it mattered.)

He can now take a seat at the table with Colin Powell, John Snow, Richard Clarke, and Scott McClellan.

And watch how quickly and vehemently the Bush defenders will savage him. I do have some sympathy. Bush bleaters, like vicious scavenger birds, will pick away at whatever is left of his reputation. But, hey... he signed up with that crew. And it should have been obvious that Junior and Cheney and Rove were no ordinary band of snarky, dishonest politicians, but rather an entirely new breed.

The funny thing is that those who still, at this late date, contend that Junior was a real leader, a visionary, a prophet, will not be swayed in the least by what Ridge has to say. It is easier and safer for them to defy logic and believe that Powell, Snow, Clarke, McClellan and Ridge are all liars pursuing their various selfish agendas than to face the realization that those they call "Bush bashers" were right all along.

To do otherwise would be to admit that they are, in fact, gullible idiots.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thank you, Barney Frank!

Barney Frank: my hero!

Wimpy Democrats, take note!

Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) encountered one of those freaked-out tea-baggers that have been providing such great entertainment (in an appalled, disbelieving kind of way) for all of us following the health care debate.

This tea-bagger threw out one of those confused conflations that are so hopelessly ignorant that they defy rational response. Specifically, the tea-bagger referred to health care reform as a "Nazi program," and wanted to know why Congressman Frank supported it.

Barney Frank, of course, is a Jewish homosexual man and so the tea-bagger's assertion was particularly offensive. But, rather than equivocate and placate as so many other Democrats, including the administration, have been doing, Congressman Frank let her have it.

Here's the vid:



You go, Barney!

There is no debating these people. Their arguments are not rational; they are not based on facts. It's all emotion (mostly fear) and identity politics. As I've stated before, I believe the tea-baggers don't have any real objection to health care reform. I mean, really! Are we to believe that the tea-baggers actually imagine health insurance providers are honest heroes working for the common good?

The tea-baggers are afraid and, through some deft public relations and demagoguery, they have been fooled into directing their fearful anger toward President Obama and Democrats.

Well, Barney Frank is not going to put up with it, apparently.

When I saw the exchange, my heart soared.

President Obama hasn't been near tough enough on the scurrilous behavior, the distortions, and the outright lies that have been perpetrated by monied interests trying to kill real health care reform. I suppose it is good (and certainly, refreshing) to have a president that looks to accommodate. At least to an extent.

But I'm sick of progressives being on the receiving end of ridiculous, self-evidently absurd accusations, delivered by dim-witted nobodies that we have to pretend to respect.

Maybe President Obama feels obliged to maintain a certain decorum, even if it is unreciprocated.

I'm just glad that Barney Frank does not feel so constrained.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Paris (Pt. XXII)

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

L'Arc de Triomphe at night
The end of my tour approached and still I had no answers to haunting, half-formulated questions about identity, about future, about truth; just a sadness, an anxiety. But, also I felt a buoyancy, a faith in the goodness of people brought about by the many kindnesses, open smiles, recognitions of shared humanity.

"Je suis perdu," Louis XVI despaired as he knelt at the guillotine in the Concorde. "There is never any end to Paris," countered Papa Hemingway, some 130 years later, during his self-imposed exile. Both statements resonated as I stepped off the train and into the City of Light.

And thence to a pensione near l’École Militaire, right in the heart of it all; in the heart of this thing they call "Paris." This was not my first visit, but may as well have been: much more than a city, this. An astounding organism: risqué, holy; mocking, gentle; impervious, haughty, humble and vulnerable . . . Paris.

That first night, I wandered through the Place de la Concorde, but heard no lamentations. The ghostly victims of the Terror have passed beyond. Paris rains washed away the blueblood stains of the haughty aristocracy. Now, sidewalks teem with the ultra-chic and their pampered dogs, whom they disdain from cleaning up after.

I walked up the Champs-Élysée, stopping along the way at a bistro for aperitif. It was cold and rainy. But it was Paris. Solitude fit my mood. I was alone at the center of the Western world.

M'lady is amused?
And so on, into the next day, where I started with a visit to the Louvre: this time with resolve to get beyond thousands of paintings into other previously unseen wings of this mammoth collection of the jewels of human creation. To no avail . . ..

I made an obligatory homage to Leonardo's mysterious Mona, behind the thick glass and the laser beam security, forever beyond our grasp, but taunting us with her enigmatic smile. Then Vincent, Manet, Monet, and Rafael drew me in. No, there would be nothing beyond these masterpieces. They defy you to pass them by. It can't be done.

Four hours later the senses finally succumbed. One eventually becomes insensate, dazzled into submission. And so, it was back out into the Paris streets to visit Our Lady, enthroned on her ait in the Seine.

Stained glass in Notre Dame Catedral
Nearly 200 years in the birthing, she sits now, venerable and majestic. I crept in, trying with every fiber of my agnostic being to pay sufficient reverence. I sat in a pew in the "silent" section with the Catholics and sent out my hopeful prayers to a possible God. His Holy Silence was my reward.

Memorial to Holocaust victims
 Tucked away in the shade of the glory of Our Lady, at the very tip of the islet, there is a solemn memorial to French victims of Nazi atrocities. The panzers rolled through the streets in June 1940 after vanquishing the celebrated French army with astonishing ease. Lay no blame with the brave French soldiers or the thousands of Legionnaires in their trenches along the Maginot Line. Rather, fault the stultified thinking of Marshal Pétain and the arrogant and slothful French general staff. Be that as it may, 200,000 French citizens fell victim to the cruelties of National Socialism.

For me, American wanderer, standing in a tunnel on an ait in the Seine, it was another humbling and solemn moment: surrounded by the spirits of slaughtered thousands.

Michael whipping up on Lucifer on the Left Bank
Enough! Time to lighten up!

And so, I rode le Metro to the Left Bank where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein hung out and drank their wine and dined on escargot et fromage et pain while they wrote their masterpieces. It was here that I found the young people and the smiles and the lighter spirits that defied the gray November skies.

Nappy and me
Returning to my pensione, I circumnavigated l’École Militaire, Louis XV’s proud endeavor to make warriors out of the gentry. And there was the diminutive Corsican general staring down at me with his stern expression. But the passage of two centuries has robbed his visage of its power to daunt. Now, he seems an historic curio.  L'adieu, l'Empereur.

Chance romance in Versailles, France
The next day, I caught the train to Versailles, the seat of French power at various times and the site of the decadent palatial estates of the decadent French royalty. There I met mother-daughter team Katie-Teresa (elegant, high maintenance) from Arizona. Also Andreas (amiable, over-bearing) and Elena (modest, beautiful), the newly-weds on their honeymoon from Greece. Andreas and Elena had been to Disney World Paris the day before. Elena (modest, beautiful) had twisted her ankle at Sleeping Beauty's castle and could not walk.

Packed to the gills in the Hall of Mirrors
And so, Andreas and I took turns carrying her piggyback from the train station to the entrance of the Versailles estate. There, we obtained a wheelchair and took turns pushing Elena (modest, beautiful) through the over-crowded display of opulence and decadence.

Small wonder that the proletariat rose up back in the day, and exacted such a bloody toll on their overlords. The lavish gardens, the many-mirrored hallways spoke of obscene and unnecessary luxury. But, truth be told, it was far too crowded to enjoy the spectacle. At every twist and turn in the palace was an endless sea of people, stutter-stepping through.

More enjoyable was the interaction when we five went to lunch afterward. Andreas (amiable, over-bearing) brought his huge Greek personality to bear. "No, no, I order for you," he insisted. "I order for all of you! I know what you will like." He pushed the menus out of our hands. And order he did. And it was good. Andreas didn't so much speak as shout. He chain-smoked, dragging off his cigarette between mouthfuls of food. But so good-natured was he that neither I nor even elegant, high maintenance Katie-Teresa could object.

In the Musée d'Orsay
We said goodbye to Andreas (amiable, over-bearing) and Elena (modest, beautiful) at the train station. Then it was back to Paris with Katie-Teresa (elegant, high maintenance). Together, we went to le Musée d'Orsay. A somewhat rushed visit. We had only an hour or so until it closed for the night. Nonetheless, there was much to see and enjoy, and d'Orsay was not so overwhelming as the Louvre.

The Gates of Hell
Afterward, I bade farewell to Katie-Teresa (elegant, high maintenance) and returned to the now-familiar state of solitary reflection. I wandered alone through the streets of Paris. As the days grew short, the skies heavy, my thoughts turned from carefree rail riding to contemplation on the next stage of life. I spent another night in my pensione, considering, imagining, reflecting . . ..

Paris . . . there is never any end to Paris. Je suis perdue.

To be continued...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tea-bagger ignorance: Socialism = Fascism

Sigh...
I wonder, is it reasonable to ask tea-baggers, those apoplectic neo-Confederates who lost their political power in the last two elections, to limit their rantings to terminology that they actually understand? (Of course, such a stipulation might further reduce their diatribes to monosyllabic grunting, chest-thumping, and urinary territory-marking, but still...)

The level of ignorance on display at some of these town-hall meetings is just embarrassing. For example, a short while ago, I caught some video footage of an angry tea-bagger storming out of a town-hall held by Senator Arlen Specter (who is showing surprising fortitude in this debate). The tea-bagger looked to be a white (of course) man in his mid-forties. As he left he shouted at Specter: "You're a socialist, fascist pig!"

See? He was doing fine until he got to the big words.

Poor Mr. Tea-bagger is obviously unaware of the inherent contradiction in his furious outburst. Conflating fascism and socialism is like describing someone as "fat-skinny," or "stupid-smart." On the ideological spectrum, the two philosophies are at opposite extremes.

First, a quick definition of each, courtesy of Oxford English dictionary:
  • Socialism: Freq. with capital initial. A theory or system of social organization based on state or collective ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange for the common benefit of all members of society; advocacy or practice of such a system, esp. as a political movement. Now also: any of various systems of liberal social democracy which retain a commitment to social justice and social reform, or feature some degree of state intervention in the running of the economy.

  • Fascism: The principles and organization of Fascists. Also, loosely, any form of right-wing authoritarianism.
Note that socialism is loosely associated with progressive or left-wing philosophy, while fascism is (again, loosely) associated with that of the so-called right, or conservative movement. Still, these definitions are fairly vague and general, especially the fascism definition. So, maybe a little historical perspective might help.

Back in the day...

Best buddies?
Conveniently, we need go back only 70 years or so to get a couple real-world, contemporaneous examples.

For an example of socialism, there is Uncle Joe Stalin's Soviet Union. Of course, this is an imperfect example when one considers that the socialism that Karl Marx wrote about was modeled for industrialized nations. Most certainly not for Russia which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was an agrarian nation. And Stalin, the paranoid sociopath the he was, mostly used socialism as a vehicle to achieve his dictatorial powers. But in broad terms, we can see that there was some loose adherence to socialism through the nationalization of industry, state-control of distribution and exchange, and the (largely fraudulent) establishment of a "classless" society.

On the other side, we have Adolf Hitler's German version of fascism, which protected the existing social order by suppressing working-class movements. Fascists hated and feared labor unions and anything that smacked of populism. Tactically, fascists made good use of scape-goats (Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and socialists) to instill fear in the German hoi polloi.

These two states would seem to be diametrically opposed, yes? And that's why the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of Non-Aggression, signed in August 1939, was such an incredibly cynical and despicable development. The idea that two nations, both of which were gearing up for war, would sign an agreement like that was appalling. (But, of course, we know now, just as many knew back then, that Hitler and Stalin each thought he had pulled a fast one on the other. As my brother-in-law, Tim, once said, "They were signing with one hand, and cocking their pistols with the other.")

And now we have...

Tea-bagger propaganda poster
So, as I've stated before, I don't feel that I should complain about the protests that are occurring all over the country, even if they are being organized and incited by Freedom Works or demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. People have a right to protest in this country.

And, if these angry fake patriots want to call those who advocate health care reform that includes a strong public option "socialists," that's okay with me, too. (I was registered to vote as a member of the Socialist Party of Oregon for years.) I suppose, in a certain sense, the idea of a public option, taken together with the recent government acquisition of some private industry, hints at socialism.

But, if that is true, is it not also true that knee-jerk objection to a change in the system, that visceral defense of the status quo, and the scape-goating of undocumented immigrants, "terrorists," and that old right-wing favorite, homosexuals, smacks of fascism?

Italian fascist propaganda poster
If they're going to do that, if they're going to call us "socialists," is it too much to ask that they then apply the "fascist" term to the contingent for which it is most apt? That is to say, to themselves?

Given their dim recognition of anything beyond the blather that gets fed to them through right-wing media channels, I'd say probably so. Ah, well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Verse 50


I have a friend I've yet to meet;
Who ever makes her rounds
Through winter snow and summer heat,
To hamlet, farm, and town;

The rumor of her step is heard
On ev'ry stoop and porch;
Her touch a priceless gift confers,
Extinguishing a torch;

A moonlit night, a hoot owl calls;
The field mouse hesitates;
And she is there, as downed wings fall
To pay the debt to Fate;

One day, her kiss will strike me dumb;
I'll take her offer'd hand;
As all before, all those to come
Must answer her demand;

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cheney and the icy hand of death

If looks could kill...
Junior had better watch his back, eh, Dick?

Word has it that you're writing your own tell-all book about those dark days when you, Richard B. Cheney, lorded over le monde politique like Hades on his Underworld throne. There's gonna be some nuggets in this one, eh?

Speaking through an intermediary, you let it be known that you felt Bush "went soft" in the second term, conceding to public disapproval, retreating on some of your hard line policies. Poor, hapless Junior is soon going to be on the receiving end of that vampiric bite. He's going to relearn to his chagrin that Dick Cheney doesn't let trivialities like "truth" or "integrity" get in the way. Well, somebody has to be the goat, and it ain't gonna be you, right, Dick?

At first glance, the idea of a Cheney blab book is a mind-twister. According to associates, you don't give a tinker's damn about your low public approval ratings. They say that you are driven by concerns about a hostile state obtaining nuclear weapons and giving them to terrorists.

Real, patriotic motives, eh, Dick?

Well, sorry, but I don't take anything you say at face value. You've already uttered too many demonstrable lies for me or for any rational person to do that. I have absolutely no faith that your motives have anything to do with concern for anyone other than yourself and that narrow group of people that compose your "tribe."

And you've been pimping out that hideous daughter of yours, haven't you? Sending her out on the cable talkie shows to perpetuate your lies, to try to garner some faction to carry the flag for you. Between her and John Bolton, who whined about President Clinton getting those journalists out of North Korea, and Frank Gaffney, who shrieked that President Obama "actually may still be [a Muslim] himself" (heaven forfend!) you've got the makings of your very own Scream Machine.

But, now we're getting at the truth, aren't we?

I think what we've got here is a panicky reaction to the icy hand of death. We all know that your ticker is weak. (That's right, Dick, "weak." I know it rankles that anyone would associate that adjective with you, but there it is.) And now that your life's work is largely done (after all, you will never again hold public office), you've started to notice a chill spreading over that obdurate little black nugget that serves as your heart. But a man wants to leave something behind, yes? Some little marker for future generations.

I suspect that your aim is to rehabilitate the family name, to associate the Cheney appellation with hard-boiled patriotism, with true-blue no-apologies American exceptionalism. God knows there are plenty of dumb-ass rubes out there who respond to that kind of claptrap. If you get enough of them to buy into it, daughter Liz can continue on as you have done, eh? She can keep the Cheney dynasty rolling.

For most people, to be included in the memories of those they leave behind is enough. Or, maybe a family heirloom. But you've always held such quaint nostalgia by the plebs as pathetic, eh? For Big Dick Cheney, nothing less than full scale global conflagration will do. You're every bit as much an historical figure as some faggot like Alexander or that French midget with the funny hat.

So, here you are, with your fingers crossed, hoping that there will be a cataclysmic terrorist attack that will vindicate you in the eyes of a fearful public. This book you're writing, and the public appearances by that witch of a daughter are all part of the plan, eh?

Well, Dick, you're in a race against time. And with a ticker like yours, I'm betting on the latter.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health care, capitalism, and angry tea-baggers

Bewildered tea-baggers
Good news, everybody! Congress is out for its August recess; its various members are holding town hall meetings to discuss health care reform. Now, we can all have our concerns and ideas heard, considered, and debated in the dignified and time-honored democratic tradition...

Heh. Right.

The reality, the phenomenon that is occurring all over the country, is that these town hall meetings have become passionate shouting matches, replete with crass insults and barely suppressed hatred... in short, they are real life replications of the nasty debates that occur daily on the internet.

So, what's behind all the passion? First, let's examine the health care issue.

Fear of Big Brother health care

There are genuine, legitimate concerns about health care reform. But those concerns aren’t being aired or debated. Instead, we have Sarah Palin talking about “Obama Death Panels.” We have private insurance companies hiring Freedom Works to perpetuate utterly false claims about government-mandated euthanasia.
The hard reality is that health care rationing is real. It always has been and always will be part of human society. It is an uncomfortable and difficult issue. I don’t pretend to know the correct course of action when, say, a 93-year-old is diagnosed with a kidney disease that can only be cured with very expensive treatments. I think those decisions are best left to the family.
But rationing is already being practiced by private insurance companies. Private entities deny health care claims based on the cost of treatments. Think about it: smaller payouts mean more profits! It’s capitalism. That’s the function of a corporation.
With a government-run health care system, modeled on the current successful and popular Medicare, the profit motive is removed. No one gets rich in government by denying claims.
Some of the objections to a public option are these:
  1. A government program would "squeeze out" private sector companies.

    So, what's the problem? Why should a capitalist worry about the private sector? Laissez-faire capitalism is all about competition. If private insurance companies really are more efficient and provide better service than a government plan would provide, people will be willing to pay for their services, yes?
  2. Health care recipients, who now ostensibly have legal recourse if their insurance providers deny claims, would somehow lose this option in a government run program.

    I don’t know what legal options will be presented to people who participate in a public option. But I do know that people go bankrupt all the time trying to challenge health insurance providers' claim denials. Generally, the providers are in much better position to afford legal bills than are private citizens. You can challenge private insurers in theory. But in practice you’ve got no chance. They can afford real lawyers.
  3. A government health care program would be enormously costly.

    The Obama administration argues that reforming health care will actually save the government and the country money by containing health care costs. I shell out hundreds of dollars every month to my health care provider. Personally, I’d rather pay that same amount in taxes for a single payer plan run by the fed.

    (And, of course, this sudden concern expressed by conservatives for fiscal responsibility rings a little hollow when we make note that few of them complained about paying for the Iraq War, which has cost $3 trillion over 8 years. And Bush kept all of it off the books, paying with supplemental funding that was all borrowed directly from Chinese banks.)
Angry...so very angry
There's a lot of anger out there. I'm hesitant to complain about it. Fake patriots and deluded corporate shills have a right to scream and shout, just as left-wingers do (and did, throughout the Junior Bush years).

"I'm afraid, and it's your fault!"
Right-wingers, of course, have thrown all kinds of bigoted labels at people who protested the war in Iraq, people who demanded (and continue to demand) that the Bush administration be held accountable for torture and Constitutional abuses, people who despise Bush. So, no sense in complaining about the name-calling, eh?

But, I find it... amusing? interesting?... that there is so much passion around the issue. God knows, most of these people showing up at the town hall meetings have never before been to a public discussion. I believe that, at the core, there is an element of …something unseemly …in these town hall “protests.” I find it doubtful that the people at these town halls are all that angry about the health care proposal. I think what they are really angry about is that they lost the election; that they are politically exiled; that they are no longer dominant politically. They sense that the nation is fundamentally changing. Changing forever. And they will never again have the political dominance to which they have become accustomed.

They're afraid. They're bewildered and confused. And so they shriek and growl.
There is no political discourse in this country at the moment. I don’t know if we’ll ever return to anything that looks like civility.

Well, if it’s going to be mob rule, choose your mob and let’s get it on.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bordeaux - St. Lo (Pt. XXI)

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

French border guards waved me through when I pulled out my American passport. They couldn't be bothered.

These were the early days of November: the skies were cloudy, the temperatures, cool. Winter was approaching. Days grew shorter and colder. In my spirit there grew a wistful anticipation that my time on the road, my soul-searching pilgrimage, my Grand European Tour, was coming to its end. But not yet . . . not quite yet.

I went to Bordeaux in the Aquitaine: famous for its wine and moderate climate.

Bordeaux
Neanderthal came to the region, long ago, as evidenced by the cave discovered in 1881, where muscle-bound slow-witted Neanderthals buried their dead 80 thousand years before. But Cro Magnon, who came later, had little tolerance for competitive species, even older biological cousins. And so, Neanderthal went the way of the woolly mammoth and the mastodon and the saber-toothed tiger:  fallen before the onslaught of those who came in the wake of retreating ice.

The Celts settled the area around 300 BC, a mere two centuries ahead of marauding Roman legions, who subjugated and enslaved in order to control the tin and lead abundant in the area. Then the Romans too passed away. The Celts remain.

For me, Bordeaux was a brief sojourn. I hopped off the train, had a look around, made a quick pass through the museum, where French-only exhibits had little to offer. I knew already about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her role in the struggle for the throne of England. Eleanor wed Henry II in a political marriage that, nonetheless, produced children, including closeted homosexual Richard, Coeur de Lyon, and much-maligned King John. Richard and John were pawns in the high-stakes game between their parents. Eleanor spent most of her marriage locked up in a tower. Henry (schemer par excellence) knew well that softhearted kings were most often revered posthumously.

I went in search of companionship to a restaurant somewhere along the way. I entered, was greeted by a waiter. "S'il vous plaît, monsieur, parlez-vous l'anglais?" I inquired.

"Non," he said. He shook his head and turned away.

"L'espagnol?" I inquired.

"Non!" he replied, favoring me with a condescending smile. I spoke no French. He was through with me. I shrugged and left, angry.

Janelle, moi, et Rob
 But I found another place, where they were showing American basketball on the television and, where I met an Australian father and daughter (Rob and Janelle) touring France together. We shared pleasant conversation and food. They thought I was American Indian. I didn't deny it . . . they seemed to want it so much.

I spent one night in a drab hotel room. In the morning, I walked through a nearby open-air market where I haggled with an African immigrant over a hat to replace the one I had left in the church in Bergen. And then, I was back on the train. I was on my way to St. Lo where I hoped to see the Normandy beaches.

***

Normandy was where Eisenhower swallowed hard and pulled the trigger. Even that late in the war, he still feared the mighty Wehrmacht. He needn't have fretted so much. The cream of the German war machine was even then being destroyed on the Russian steppes, a thousand miles and more to the east. Never to diminish their bravery, but those GIs, Brits and Canadians, were facing mostly conscripted Ukrainians or Byelorussians.

On arrival, my hopes for a battlefield tour were dashed quickly enough. The beaches, Omaha, Juno, Sword, Gold, and Utah, are separated by miles. And I with no car, nor  desire to rent one, settled instead for a walk around the town. Just to see.

Memorial to Allied troops in WWII
St. Lo was the nerve center for Wehrmacht defense against the Allied beachhead. For six weeks, they fought in hedgerows. Pitiless fighting. St. Lo herself was reduced to rubble. Now, 50 years later, she is a nondescript little town in gentle French farmland.

St. Lo
The big rugby match was on tayvay when I went to the hotel to book a room. The clerk behind the desk would not be bothered, so intent was he on the game: France versus Australia with the World Cup at stake. Here is a key, monsieur. Go, go. You can pay tomorrow. His eyes never left the television screen.

Alas, France lost the match. When I arose the next morning to catch the train to Paris, there was nary a soul to be seen at the desk. I set the key on the counter and left. I'm sorry France lost, mes amis déçus. But merci for the complimentary night's rest. I am off to Paris. Au revoir.

To be continued...