Friday, December 31, 2010

EOY 2010: Brooding as the sands slip

Do you see the faces?
Here we are at the end of the Gregorian Calendar Year, 2010.
The internationally-acknowledged calendar was first brought into use by way of a papal bull, dictated from Pope Gregory XII.  It is the result of an effort by the Catholic church to adjust for an 11 minute inaccuracy in the previously-used Julian Calendar, which worked on the assumption that the time between vernal equinoxes was an even 365.25 days.

The actual time it takes for Earth to complete its annual orbit is 11 minutes short of 365.25 days.  Over time, accumulated error moved the calendar year forward in relation to the actual equinox.  When the Gregorian Calendar was established in 1582, the vernal equinox occurred on March 11th according to the Julian calendar.  Pope Gregory's calendar introduced an adjustment* to the Julian "leap" year, which adds an extra day every four years to account for the lost time. 

*And what an adjustment it is!  The calculation to determine if a year is a leap year is this:  Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 2100 is not a leap year; the year 2000 is a leap year.

The entire Calendar issue epitomizes our human inability to penetrate the infinitesimal, does it not?  At some point, the minutiae of the Universe extend beyond our capacity to understand and we have to fudge it.  All those illusions we create with our human perceptions --all the grand plans, the beach-side castles, the rocks upon which we build our churches --melt back into the cosmic soup with a flicker of thought from the Unnameable Mind.

Those moments when we are confronted with this truth can be humbling.

So, with a humble heart I bid goodbye to 2010, that abstract period of time loosely derived from the workings of our solar system.  All in all, it's been good.

Peace, love, and kindness, folks!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie review: True Grit

With the 2010 remake of True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen take on a childhood favorite. I read the eponymous 1968 Charles Portis novel when I was a teenager, and quite enjoyed it.  Portis wrote a clever tale:  well-paced, entertaining, and authentically delivered.

After seeing the new flick, it seems clear that the Coen Brothers have as much reverence for the book as do I.  True Grit, the movie (and not to be confused with the 1969 Henry Hathaway movie of the same name starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell) holds as true to the novel as any film based-on-a-novel that I have seen.  The Coens did a magnificent job of preserving the novel's wry humor and stony, dead-pan dialog.

True Grit is the story of 13-year-old Mattie Ross (debut performer Hailee Steinfeld) on a quest to seek justice for her murdered father in the frontier country near the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas locus in the years following the Civil War.  Mattie hires Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man with "true grit," to find and apprehend Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Chaney has fled into Commanche country and Mattie insists on accompanying Cogburn into the wilderness in pursuit.  The two are joined by Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who is seeking Chaney for other crimes.  A grand adventure ensues, as seen through the eyes of a determined and indefatigable heroine.

Hailee Steinfeld did such a wonderful job with her debut performance that I have to imagine she has a bright career ahead of her.  (Ms. Steinfeld is 14 years old.)  Jeff Bridges is delightful as Rooster Cogburn; he's such a natural for the part that he scarcely seems to break a sweat doing it.  I can't really put my finger on what it was that I found lacking in Matt Damon's performance, but something was missing.  In the novel, La Boeuf was a bit of a flirt and a rascal.  But Damon's La Boeuf is somber, almost mournful.  Whatever.  It's a minor nit.  The cast performed well, top to bottom.
The film has all the hallmarks of excellence that I've come to expect from the Coens.  The sets and costumes seem authentic.  The lighting and music layer the mood deftly.  But True Grit is less distinctly a Coen Brothers flick than their other recent efforts (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men).  I believe this is the result of their faithful adherence to the Portis novel.  The film is as close to a true and direct translation of art from one medium to another as one could hope to expect.

Some of the dialog is, in fact, line for line, transcripted from the book: 

"Fill yer hand, you son of a bitch!" cries Rooster Cogburn, riding straight for Lucky Ned Pepper and the gang, reins in his teeth, a pistol blazing in each hand.

I tell ya.  Coen Brothers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Writer's creed

What is truth?  Is truth unchanging law?  
We both have truths.  Are mine the same as yours? 
--Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ Superstar
Yesterday morning at Peet's Coffee, I sat down with Dan, the writer.  We each held forth on this and that, but in particular, discussed what we believe to be the writer's creed.  Dan says the writer must serve as witness for humanity; that he must never waver from his duty to Truth.  In the moment that he devises a thought that is not True and presents that thought as the product of his craft, he is no longer a writer but a sophist or a propagandist or something else entirely.

Of course, hard and fast rules like this one are no sooner set down than immediately disproved.  As I've stated before, I don't believe human beings have the capacity to comprehend Truth.  But I agree completely with the spirit of Dan's assertion.

A writer does not create.  He transcribes; he illuminates; he documents.  He does it imperfectly, using his limited tools of perception and intellect which, when set against the incomprehensible vastness of the Universe, is less than minuscule.  But he is compelled to do it, nonetheless.

To the extent that I am able to meet this criterion, I rejoice.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Peace and love from the top of Mount Tabor

Windy, but not too cold, is how I would describe it.  That's how it is during this solstice epoch in Inner Southeast.  Up on top of Tabor, the wind is high and strong.  The shaggy needled arms of Douglas-firs bend and sigh, heavy as the grief of a mother bereft.  The asphalt circlet on Tabor's crown is wet from the occasional droplets that fall from thin, ghostly clouds, but you couldn't really say it is raining.  Not by Portland standards.  I'd say "sprinkling" is closer to the mark.  And it's dry under the big Dougs.  A Douglas-fir canopy is much umbrella.

In this stage of my spiritual voyage, I've still got a few of those Christian-Pagan traditions by which I was raised hanging around.  And so, I send out sincere best wishes to each and every person who lives in my heart.  And there are a lot of you! 

Things are going just fine for me and my African honey bee in our little corner of this rain-soaked earthly paradise.  We are both gainfully employed and happy.  When that day comes for me to settle my accounts, the year 2010 will certainly be registered on the positive side of the ledger.

And, for any of you who are struggling with doubt or despair, if I might, let me reassure you.  This is a very beautiful world we live in.  Very, very beautiful.
We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. . . . In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. . . . We shall rest.  --Anton Chekov

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Obama and the lame duck Congress clean some clocks

Big finish, Mr. President.
Ka-POW!  President Obama and the 111th Congress finish the session with a rapid-fire string of successes that furthers his agenda and leaves Republican leadership, and most specifically the two top Republicans in the US Senate, bewildered and humiliated.

Liberals, progressives, and left-wingers (like me) were still pissing and moaning about this president's lack of fight, about his apparent willingness to knuckle under to right-wing bigots, while President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went about dismantling their opposition in the Senate.

In the 6 weeks since the mid-term elections, the lame duck congress has racked up some huge wins for the Obama agenda:
  • Tax deal

    The president struck a compromise deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for top income Americans in order to win an extension of  Federal unemployment benefits and a payroll tax reduction.  This compromise infuriated a lot of us on the left, but when we see the other achievements that came as a result of the compromise, left-wing fury is mitigated (at least as far as I'm concerned).

  • "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal

    President Obama, with the help of Harry Reid, delivered on a campaign promise to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military.  He did this over the furious opposition of the supposed and fraudulent champion of the Armed Forces, Senator John McCain.  A big win for all Americans, but especially for my many dear friends and neighbors who are gay.

  • The New START treaty

    With the help of his friend and colleague, Republican Senator Richard Lugar (IN), the president netted 71 votes in the US Senate to win approval of the New START treaty with Russia.  Glory hallelujah!  The United States Senate has somehow managed to overcome its stupendous ignorance just long enough to do humanity a real service.  A fine solstice gift from the Great Whatever!  This vote, in particular, was a humiliating loss for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his top lieutenant, Senate Minority Whip John Kyl who had come out publicly against the treaty.  The Senate Republican caucus, for all its vaunted solidarity, fell apart.  Thirteen GOP Senators ignored their caucus leadership to vote with the president.

    (The thirteen Republican senators who voted for START, those Republicans who put country before party, are Lamar Alexander (TN), Bob Bennett (UT), Scott Brown (MA), Thad Chochran (MS), Susan Collins (ME), Bob Corker (TN), Judd Gregg (NH), Darrel Isakson (GA), Mike Johanns (NE), Dick Lugar (IN), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Olympia Snowe (ME), and George Voinovich (OH).  These Republican senators showed real integrity.  I offer my sincere gratitude to them all.)

  • Funding for 911 First Responders bill

    The president got a little help when advocates for the bill stormed the office of Senator Tom Coburn (OK) who was attempting to single-handedly kill the bill.  Coburn cowed in the face of the people's passion and folded up like an origami swan.

  • Food Safety legislation

    This bill enacts the most sweeping food safety regulations this country has seen in decades. 
All of these achievements (with the lone exception of the extension of top-bracket tax cuts) are unequivocally in the larger public interest.  But, from a political perspective, something even more portentous (or ominous from a right-wing perspective) is that President Obama was able to divide the normally lock-step Republican caucus and forge bipartisan coalitions.

Now, Mitch McConnell (who left Washington with a snarky "Wait'll next year" whine), has to wonder how much success he'll have with his new larger-but-still-in-the-minority caucus in the next Congress.

In the House, even though the GOP will have the majority in the 112th Congress, John Boehner will, I predict, be forced by the lack of solidarity within his party to cut deals with the ruthlessly competent Nancy Pelosi

The 112th Congress is going to be a very lively session.  If tea-baggers think they know outrage, wait until they see how easily Republicans cast aside all their petty, idiotic concerns in the face of political competence and popular appeal. 

Big wins, Mr. President.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter is come

Street lamps are mournful xanthic sentinels
Ringing the reservoir face out
Somber as herd mothers, hooves at ready
To ward away shaggy flat-tonguéd wolves
Panting and leering like perverts

Flat white sun slows and lowers then departs
Douglas-fir copses deepen, loom
Gloomy sentries cast down their pale faces
Mourning some small something that someone said
In some sleepy sometime long ago

Then the darkness is complete
Winter is come

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter solstice and Christmas trees

Winter solstice occurs tonight. Today is the shortest day of the year.  All over the country, people are decorating their Christmas trees and getting ready to celebrate the (nominal) birthday of Christ the Savior.  I wonder if, in these United States, most people with Christmas trees in their houses are aware of the symbol's pre-Christian origins, of its apparent contradiction with Christian faith.

In the early days of Christianity, when the priests set forth from Rome to convert the heathens away from their nature-worshiping ways, they often found that the most effective method for winning converts was to insinuate Christian teachings into the established pagan traditions.  Thus, we have Easter occurring near the spring equinox, and All Saint's Day (Hallowe'en) falling somewhere around the fall equinox.  Why conquer when you can co-opt, eh?

One such tradition was that of the Yule log.  The origin of the tradition is lost in time, but the working theory is that the pagans would adorn their homes with boughs and branches from evergreen trees as a sign of renewal at the winter solstice.  As the solstice approached, the days grew short, causing people to fear that the sun would eventually disappear forever. But, while deciduous trees, bushes, and crops died or hibernated in the winter, the evergreen trees remained green, suggesting that they had magical powers that enabled them to withstand the rigors of winter.

It is not clear when or how the Christians adapted this pagan tradition into their faith.  One story has it that St. Boniface, a German Christian who lived in the 8th century, cut down an oak tree in the presence of some recently-converted Christians.  (Oak trees, of course, were holy to pagans.)  The oak miraculously split into pieces, revealing an evergreen tree growing in the center of the oak stump.  Christians put forth this story as proof that Paganism was overcome by Christianity.  (Those Christians and their symbols!)

Well, anyway, that's the way these things work, isn't it?  Ideas get co-opted and hijacked and transformed to the point that they scarcely relate at all to their original purposes.  It's not the Christian way, or the Pagan way.  It's the human way.

So, with that in mind, here's wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy Solstice!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Volunteering at the Oregon Food Bank

Yay, Jeanine!
In the spirit of holiday community, my friend, former coworker, and hiking/camping companion Jeanine Potts and I went down to the local facility of the Oregon Food Bank to donate a little time on Saturday.  Times are hard, folks.  Why deny it?  I'll do my part.

And besides, it gave Jeanine and I a chance to catch up.

Lots of bustle!
We walked in, signed an attendance sheet, and found ourselves scrubbed, gloved, and hair-netted in a twinkling.   A grocery chain had donated pallets of oats.  Our crew, which included a Girl Scout troop, a family, a church group, and some fellows who might have been donating a few hours of court-mandated community service, were put to use repacking the food in family-sized packages.  We apportioned 2 lb. of oats in appropriately-sized plastic bags, dropping in a yellow paper slip with cooking instructions, then tying the bag closed with a twisty-tie.  Boring, mundane work:  perfect for Jeanine and I to each get the news on the other's life since last we saw each other.

Workin' for the people
We worked a 2 hour shift, then joined the offered tour of the facility afterward.  Our guide, Mr. Nymicantremember, took us through the storage warehouse, with the fully stocked shelves of food, mostly in mislabeled boxes.  Jeanine pronounced the 8000 sq. ft. freezer "The biggest walk-in ever!"

All the food gets cycled through the facility in about two and a half weeks.  Most of it comes as donations from grocery chains.

Food warehouse
If you don't know about the Oregon Food Bank, they've got a very informative and easy-to-negotiate website right here.  They are a not-for-profit private enterprise that derives 98% of its funds from private sources.  The facility in Portland is the main distribution center for the entire state.  Their website explains how it all works, but simply stated, the Oregon Food Bank hands out food on an as-needed basis, no questions asked.

Looks like beer... but no!
These are tough times, no doubt about it.  But we're still living in the land of plenty, people.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Maintaining perspective

Cold as the dickens on top of Mount Tabor this afternoon.  The sun never showed its face, but diffused its pale aura across the hazy December sky.  Looking east, the teeming city stretched away toward Gresham, already in twilight.  In the distance, Old Man Hood glowered, livid in his marvelous blue-white cloak.

In the eyes of Old Hood, it was only yesterday that the humans arrived, their feet wrapped in beaver pelts, chipping out knives from congealed magma and flint, wading through the courses of his spring shedding.  They are so numerous now, they've climbed up on his skirts; the merest shrug of his shoulder crushes them. 

Fire-spitting Tabor had no sooner gone silent than was overrun by their swarms, as Hood sees it.  But he has no such fears for himself.  He'll be here long after the humans are gone. 

By the time I walked around to the westward slope of Tabor's husk, the sun was low enough to stroke the cloud bellies pink.  Away across the Willamette, darkness deepened in the woods of the West Hills.  Before their void were the lights of the city.  Those thousand peeping beams --office windows, navigational beacons, streetlamps, headlights of Formicidae automobiles --seemed a fractal replica of the larger cosmos scattered across the limitless Void beyond.

In the endless river of time that is the life of that infinite cosmos, even Old Man Hood, even eternal Pacifica, are but short-lived eddies.

As I watched, the light faded rapidly, like the accelerating descent of a man resigning to eternity.  "That's very fine, indeed," said I.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

ASL Red Barricades: Today the Volga, tomorrow the Vistula (Pt. III)

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

Dave Hauth and I are engaged in a playing of RBCGI:  Into the Factory.  I'm the Reds.  He's the Jerries.

We're each maintaining a blog correspondence as the game progresses.  We've a Gentleman's Agreement that neither of us will read his opponent's blog until given express permission to do so. 

Readers are encouraged to comment!  Speak your piece! Just be sure not to inadvertently reveal any information about Dave's plan to me or vice-versa. 

You can read earlier episodes of my account:
You can read Dave's blog here

Aftermath of CG Day 2

Disaster... that's how I describe Day 2.

Things started well for me when Dave stumbled right into my ambush on the west edge of the board.  I stung him well over there, blunting his initial thrust down the board edge.  Meanwhile, he advanced very cautiously through the factories such that, at the beginning of Turn 3, I was feeling pretty confident.  I had evacuated the J13 and J15 factories with minimal losses and was lined up to hammer him when he entered the big O10 factory.  All was proceeding as I had hoped.

But then, his overwhelming firepower destroyed my forces in the west, and his tanks led the charge into the O10 factory, shattering my lines.  My goal of holding the O18 building was quickly proved forlorn as the Germans, using Panzers, busted through my strong-point like it was nothing.  At that point, I was in full retreat in the north and trying as best I could just to salvage as much as possible of my rifle company.

In the south, things were better.  I held my own against his advancing rifle company in the K27 factory, and I'm still in control of the P21 factory. 

The casualty points tell most of the tale.  The Germans scored 61 CVP; the Russians, a mere 29 CVP.  But that's not even the whole story.  Take a look at the perimeter.

Day 3 Perimeter
Notice that ominous salient up near the Commissar's House?  Now, any thoughts I may have had for defending in the north are over.  I'm faced with the prospect of having to defend the Commissar's House and hold my ground in the south for the next day.  The Chemist's Shop and the riverbank are German for the taking and there's nothing I can do to stop it.

The good news is that Dave is low on elite troops so he is almost compelled to buy a Sturm company (or maybe even Pioneers) if he hopes to maintain his thrust.  Also, he simply doesn't have enough troops to man the entire front.  On the other hand, since he purchased a Heavy Weapons platoon, he has plenty of machine-guns and, now that he holds not only the Power Station, but building O18 as well, he can set up nasty fire groups that can rain hell on my troops at almost any point along the perimeter.  Not a good situation.

Day 3:  Stand and die

I'm cornered.  There is nothing to be done but stand and take my medicine.  If I can withstand one more day of attack, I might be able to hold on.  Things look bleak, at this point.  But Commissar Nikita gave me my orders:  Hold at all costs.  So, here we go...

My retained forces are these:
  • 447 x 13
  • 527 x 7
  • 426 x 6.5
  • 10-0, 9-1 x 2, 9-0, 8-1, 7-0 x 2
  • HMG x 3, MMG, Atr, Lt. Mtr.
  • KVII M42 (disabled CMG) dug-in U9
  • T60 M42 dug-in O23
Not a lot to work with, eh?

I'm allotted 16 CPP for Day 3.  These are my purchases:
  • I5 Militia Coy 4CPP
    426 x 12
    MMG, LMG, Atr, Lt. Mtr.

  • I2 Guards SMG Coy (reserve, depleted) 6CPP
    628 x 7

  • O2 Btln Mortar w/Pre-registered hex P20 (scarce ammo) 2CPP

  • G3 INF Battery 4CPP
    76* INF Gun x 3
I hate to complain about dice rolls, but I'm going to do it anyway. I had a string of bad rolls when I rolled up my reinforcements, resulting in a depleted Guards SMG company, with no DC, and a single leader. Then, to add insult to injury, I rolled up scarce ammo for my Battalion Mortar module. Less than ideal.

Dave sees this...
Red bear at bay

Things look pretty desperate. This could very well be the last day of our campaign game, depending on what happens. The German salient in the northern factories necessitates that I abandon everything in the north. Even the Commissar's House is vulnerable.

But while the situation is bleak, I must remember that his forces have been whittled down.  He only has about a half a company of elite troops remaining from his Day 2 forces.  Certainly, he will have purchased more for Day 3, but unless he spends the extra 3CPP to set them up on board, he will have to enter them on Turn 1 and hustle them across the board to get to the action.  That buys me a little time.

Day 3 setup
My plan for the day is to skulk as much as possible, stay hidden, and try to keep the Germans away from the eastern board edge. There's no profit in trying to anticipate where the German hammer will fall.  Let them come.  We're as ready to die today as we will be tomorrow.

Day 3 setup, north
There is not much to show in the north.  I have 2 platoons of unfortunate militia troops stationed in the Chemist's Shop.  Between them and my KV tank, I hope to at least make him work.  The Commissar's House is also vulnerable.  But I don't feel I have the troops to spare to try to defend it.  My SMG company gets the unenviable task of putting up a thin line of defense and hoping the Germans choose another target.
Day 3 setup, south
I've loaded up the factories in the south.  This is where I make my final stand.  This area is well protected from his high-level vantages in the Power Station and the O18 building, which I hope will force him to come in close where I can punish his troops in close combat.  It will also be hard for him to land artillery in the area due to the restrictive lines of sight.

In order to avoid the fiasco of Day 2, where his tanks crushed my line of defense, I purchased a battery of infantry howitzers.  In addition to putting out some murderous fire, especially at close range, they can place smoke which will hinder long-range German target-seeking.  My 80mm Btln Mortar will drop smoke in the pre-registered hex (P20) to further shut down German fire bases.

Beyond that, I can only hope for the best against some pretty long odds.

We're scheduled to play on December 27th.  Wish me luck... I need it.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rage on, you nutty rednecks!

He may be a thoroughly-misguided knucklehead, but I'll say this for Christmas Tree bomber Mohamed Osman Mohamud:  he sure has given us something to talk about around the office water cooler!  I've had more than one semi-heated conversation with Oregonians (some of them quite liberal) on the topic.

There is not a lot of sympathy out there for Mohamud, but I wouldn't really expect there to be much.  After all, to the extent that the criminal complaint filed by the US Justice Department is accurate, Mohamud "attempted to detonate what he believed to be an explosives-laden van that was parked near the tree lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square."  Not exactly endearing behavior.

But for now, I would rather not consider facts or speculate about the methods employed by the FBI, or even weigh the severity of the crime.  All those things will be determined in the trial.

Today, I wonder about the anti-Muslim sentiment the case has stirred up, right here in Portland, Oregon.

Out-of-state conservative pundits (who wouldn't know Oregon from their own back yards) are calling for Mayor Sam Adams to "opt in" to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which our city rejected when we saw that it was yet another tool for Junior Bush to spy on and intimidate law-abiding citizens.  And, in the vanguard of such efforts, of course, are all the tea-bagger types who are so rabidly anti-Muslim that they are blind to anything else.  The day after Mohamud was arrested, someone tried to torch a mosque he sometimes attended in Corvallis.

I mean, for goodness' sake, we only just had a real terrorist attack in Woodburn in 2008, when Bruce and Joshua Turnidge set off a bomb in a local bank, killing two law enforcement officers.  And don't forget about Joseph Stack, Jim Adkisson, James Von Brunn, or Scott Roeder.  But nobody seems to be calling for police monitoring of redneck white guys who spout anti-government rhetoric.

One of my conservative friends who applauds the actions taken by the FBI in the Christmas Tree bombing plot explained it this way:  "I know there are pockets of crazy Christians out there.  I know there are people like Fred Phelps [minister of the Westboro Baptist Church that routinely protests soldier's funerals].  But Phelps doesn't represent the majority of Christians.  On the other hand, I can't be sure about Muslims.  Are they truly peaceful?  After all, there are madrassas where they teach kids to hate America and all that we stand for."

What if I were to turn it around?  Let's try this:  I know there are crazy Muslims out there.  I know there are people like Abdul Rahman Zahed [a Taliban leader].  But Zahed doesn't represent the majority of Muslims.  On the other hand, I can't be sure about conservatives.  Are they peaceful?  After all, they have Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck raging against Muslims, against gays, Mexicans, liberals and everyone else.

Any fair-minded person can see the absurdity of both statements.  But the seductive ease of simple hate is a powerful siren song.

Anyway, the trial of Mohamud will reveal many things, I hope.  But I'm not fool enough to imagine that facts have the power to change the hearts of bigots.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Movie review: Black Swan

With Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky delivers again.  The New York director/producer's latest film is brilliant.  And brilliance is what we have come to expect from him.  Aronofsky set a high bar for himself with his previous works:  π, The Wrestler, and the profound and horrific Requiem for a Dream.  But Black Swan is a jewel to match any in that crown.

It is the story of Nina Sayers, a professional dancer in a New York ballet company who is awarded the prima ballerina spot in the company's production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.  The lead role of the Swan Queen requires that Nina not only dance as the innocent White Swan, but also as the sensual, passion-driven Black Swan.  For Nina, living under the watchful eye of her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), the part of the White Swan is an easy fit.  It is the part of the Black Swan that presents problems.

The ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has doubts that Nina can find the necessary abandon for the darker role.  Meanwhile, a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), looms as Nina's ambitious alternate.  Lily is not as technically precise as Nina, but is more in touch with the dark passions required of the Black Swan.  Nina is also haunted by misgivings when she sees how easily cast aside and forgotten is the dancer whom she replaces, Beth (Winona Ryder).  Under the enormous pressure, Nina starts to exhibit symptoms of madness. She experiences hallucinations; she self-mutilates.

Aronofsky's flick shows us that dancing in a New York ballet company is a serious bit of business.  It exacts a terrible toll on those who undertake it.  The price goes far beyond the physical demands of the body; it ravages the mind as well.

This film will speak to many women, I think.  Aronofsky gives us an up-close look at the impossible demands that society makes on women.  We demand perfection; we demand sacrifice; we demand that women demand these things of themselves.

Natalie Portman's performance is wonderful.  And she is amply supported by the entire cast.  In particular, I found Barbara Hershey to be brilliant as Nina's creepy mother, wishing for her daughter's success, but being all too ready to accept her failure.

Aronofsky sometimes seems to exhibit a lack of trust in his audience.  Black Swan is another take on the classic alter-ego story, a las Joseph Conrad novella The Secret Sharer, or Truman Capote short story Miriam.  It's not that the ideas are ground-breaking or original. And yet, Aronofsky is not subtle with his symbols and imagery.  It's as if he is afraid we won't get it unless he spells it out for us.

But the film is so beautifully crafted, between the intimate and gripping camera work, the deftly wielded score (by Englishman Clint Mansell), and the powerhouse acting, that such complaints are scarcely worth mentioning.

In the early part of the flick, when Leroy, the company director, announces to the troupe that they will be performing Swan Lake, he says (as best I can remember) "[Swan Lake is] done to death, I know.  But not like we'll do it.  Stripped down and primal."  That, to me, was Aronofsky himself, speaking directly to his audience. 

In fact, I found that line to be a good summation of Aronofsky's work more generally.  With his unflinching eye, Aronofsky reveals the unvarnished reality of the world around us.

Black Swan is a great flick.  Go see it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Blazing face

She held before her form splay-fingered hands
Inviting me to paint with my mind's eye
Warm shadow-hidden valley that did lie
Below sharp edge where gauzy fleece began

My hand passed o'er silky curve of hip,
Her unassuming smile revealed the thrill
Of calloused manus on the downy skin
We smiled; we lingered, let long moment slip

Demure, she held my savage eyes entranced,
Then, blushing at my blazing face, she danced;

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Pete DeFazio calls bullsh*t on Obama's tax deal

Someone tell me why I didn't vote for Pete DeFazio when he ran against Ron Wyden to be the Democratic nominee for US Senate back in 1996.  What a mistake that turned out to be!  If Pete DeFazio were in the US Senate right now, President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would be up sh*t creek.

But Pete DeFazio isn't in the Senate.  He's in the House.  And they don't have a filibuster in the House.  So, even though DeFazio led a revolt in the House of Representatives against the Obama-McConnell tax deal, it doesn't make any difference that nearly the entire Democratic caucus joined him.  (You can read about it here.) 

This was, as DeFazio himself knows, a symbolic vote.  The tax deal is destined for passage no matter what DeFazio or Barney Frank (MA) or Anthony Wiener (NY) or Chris Van Hollen (MD) want.  Nancy Pelosi, legendary vote-getter that she is, will get the bill through the House.

That's the sad fact of the matter.   

But I salute Representative DeFazio.  He is, by far, the most respected of Oregon's Congressional delegation among the people I know.  And most of the people I hang out with are true-hearted Oregonians.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Obama surrender

Back in September 2009, I posited that President Obama had reached a crucial moment of decision in his young presidency.  (Please see What's it gonna be, Barack?)  I asserted that the position the Obama administration took with regard to the inclusion of a public option in the health care reform legislation would determine whether President Obama would be a bold advocate for the people or an appeaser of corporate lobbying interests.

Well, we all know how that turned out.  At the time, although I bitterly resented that the most obvious, least expensive solution for health care reform was ignored and discounted and excluded from the debate in an obvious kowtow to the interests of health care insurance providers, I couldn't bring myself to blame President Obama. 

But this latest surrender is a bridge too far.

On Monday, President Obama announced a tentative deal with Republican Senators.  In exchange for an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the highest income brackets, Republicans agreed to a 13-month extension of unemployment insurance, a reduction in employee payroll taxes next year, and the continuation of a variety of tax credits aimed at lower- and middle-income Americans.  To sum up, Republicans agreed to throw bread crumbs to the masses, but only on the condition that their principle constituency, the über-rich, continue to be absolved of any significant contribution to federal revenues. 

There is little use in pointing out the Republican hypocrisy on this issue.  Yes, the tax cuts pile another $700 billion onto the federal deficit.  And, yes, that flies in the face of the supposed fiscal concerns the GOP and their mindless tea-bag zealots shrieked about during the recent political campaign.  And, yes, it is two-faced of Republicans to complain about adding the relatively small cost of unemployment benefits to the federal deficit while advocating for extending tax cuts.  But, at this point, only a fool would expect anything less than bald-faced hypocrisy from Republicans.  It sustains them.  It is their lifeblood.

What is most offensive about this "deal," is that President Obama rolled over so willingly.  He seems averse to cornering his political opponents and forcing them to take tough votes.  If he had taken a stand, as he repeatedly suggested he would do during the campaign, there is no telling how things would have played out.  As the clock ticks toward January 1, when the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire, all sides would be pressured to cut some kind of deal.  But Obama let the Republicans off the hook and scorned the left-wing of his own party.

Add this betrayal to the long list of bullsh*t concessions that Obama, who led unprecedented Democratic majorities in both houses of the 111th Congress, has handed over to the very people who scorn and disrespect him, and who have shown not the slightest interest in compromise. 

As my friend, Dave Hauth pointed out, Obama has
  • refused to investigate the many overt crimes of the Bush Administration, and has actively worked to squelch such investigations by Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom;
  • done nothing to end either of the two unnecessary (and, in the case of Iraq, illegal) wars;
  • continued Bush administration Constitutional abuses (expanded warrant-less wiretapping, claimed executive power to assassinate United States citizens);
There's more.  But why bother continuing?

One wonders how different things would be if Mad Johnny McCain were president rather than Obama.  McCain might have had us in a couple more wars by now, but other than that...

It's impossible to know how history will judge President Obama.  But the sad truth of the matter is that I don't see a whole lot of difference between him and his imbecilic predecessor.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A solitary walk on a fine fall day in Portland, Oregon

Eastbound, Hawthorne Bridge
For the sun to be so proud at this time of year seems a good omen.  I could not resist the allure and, freed of all responsibility for the day, set my feet to wandering.
Luxury apartment living (for squirrels) on Portland's enchanting waterfront
Everything was out on Sunday. Old Man Hood was glowering over in the east, his blue-lined greatcoat brilliant in the sun.  He was a marvel to behold.  I couldn't find a vantage that did sufficient tribute to his glory and so declined to affront his dignity with a less-than-deferential photo.  If you were about at all on Sunday, you undoubtedly saw him yourself.

A sad memory on the Burnside Bridge
The East Wind came blustering in, boisterous, but not unfriendly.  She'll be back again soon and most probably, she won't be in such generous spirits.

The key in the tree
I saw a key hanging in a sapling maple that was dropping into slumber.  The key had the air of destiny about it and I knew not to touch it.  I sensed a confluence of paths, a great junction in the honeycomb tunnels of fate.  But my path remained apart.
Down away south, looking across Hawthorne Bridge toward the new development.  That's Marquam Bridge in the middle distance; you can see Ross Island Bridge beyond.
Sunday was a mighty fine fall day.  The sun was so kind that I counted myself compensated, at least partially, for the Summer that Wasn't.  I walked through this fine city of ours, and I felt blessed and maybe a little proud.  And since I never want to get too proud, I read Shelley. 
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Blood Meridian: The judge and the forbearance of the kid

NoteIf you have not yet read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and you think someday you might, be aware that this post may contain plot "spoilers."

"He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite.  He never sleeps, the judge.  He is dancing, dancing.  He says that he will never die."
Cormac McCarthy's genius ability to mesmerize while horrifying has made me a reluctant fan.  His novels challenge in many ways.  Sometimes, as with his novel The Road, he goes a bit too far for me.  But for all that, the brutality and horror in his work is purposeful and pedagogical and never, never gratuitous.   

I've just finished Blood Meridian (a selection for my book club) and I'm still befuddled and bemused and fascinated by it.  There are so many facets to this evil red gem that I'll be thinking about it for years.  But for now, I ruminate on one particular element.

In Chapter 20, after the Yumas have massacred most of the Glanton Gang at the river ferry, the survivors of the slaughter are gathered around a water hole in the middle of the blistering desert.  Toadvine and Tobin the expriest are there, as well as the kid and Judge Holden with the imbecile.  Tobin is urging the kid to shoot the unarmed judge, saying "You'll get no second chance lad.  Do it.  He is naked.  He is unarmed.  God's blood, do you think you'll best him any other way?  Do it, lad.  Do it for the love of God.  Do it or I swear your life is forfeit."

Despite these exhortations, the kid declines and opts instead to set off across the desert with the expriest, knowing that the judge will follow and perhaps kill them later.  Toadvine has already cut a deal with the judge and remains at the watering hole.  So here's the question:  Why didn't the kid kill the judge when he had the chance?

To answer that question, let's examine some of the passages that reveal something of the nature of the judge.

Recall Tobin's tale in Chapter 10, wherein he describes the conditions when the Glanton Gang first came upon the judge.  The party is fleeing across the desert, with no gun powder and a hundred or more Apache warriors on their trail.  The men know that the end is near.  "That sunrise we'd looked to be our last," says Tobin.  He continues:
Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self.  Aye and there was no rock, just the one.  Irving said he'd brung it with him.  I said that it was a merestone for to mark him out of nothing at all.  He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he'd give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin:  Et In Arcadia Ego.  A reference to the lethal in it.  Common enough for a man to name his gun.  I've heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady's name.  His is the first and only ever I seen with an inscription from the classics.
The Latin appellation the judge has affixed to his gun is from Virgil and can be translated as "Even in Arcadia I exist."  It is a reference to Death, but in this case I think it is also something more. 

Consider this passage.  The party has just come upon a burned out wagon train.  The wagon train folk have been horribly massacred by a party of raiders who tortured and killed them, then rode away with their loot.
The tracks of the murderers bore on to the west but they were white men who preyed on travelers in that wilderness and disguised their work to be that of the savages. Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupation of men engaged in rash undertakings.  The trail of the argonauts terminated in ashes as told and in the convergence of such vectors in such a waste wherein the hearts and enterprise of one small nation have been swallowed up and carried off by another the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.  The posting of witnesses by a third and other path altogether might also be called in evidence as appearing to beggar chance, yet the judge, who had put his horse forward until he was abreast of the speculants, said that in this was expressed the very nature of the witness and that his proximity was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?
Solipsistic themes are clearly evident in this passage.  It's a macabre variation on the old "If a tree falls in the forest..." speculation.

Next, consider this exchange between the judge and Toadvine, (whom some have likened to Starbuck from Melville's Moby Dick).  Toadvine has earlier passed up a chance to kill the judge.  Now, the party is gathered around the campfire.  The judge is examining bird specimens he has collected during the day and making notations in his book.  This is a great mystery to the illiterate Toadvine.  He asks the judge what is his purpose.  The judge responds.
Whatever exists, he said.  Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked.  He nodded toward the specimens he'd collected.  These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world.  Yet the smallest crumb can devour us.  Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men's knowing.  Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

What's a suzerain?

A keeper.  A keeper or overlord.

Why not say keeper then?

Because he is a special kind of keeper.  A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers.  His authority countermands local judgments.

Toadvine spat.

The judge placed his hand on the ground.  He looked at his inquisitor.  This is my claim, he said.  And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life.  Autonomous.  In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire.  No man can acquaint himself with everthing on this earth, he said.

The judge tilted his great head.  The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear.  Superstition will drag him down.  The rain will erode the deeds of his life.  But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate. 

I don't see what that has to do with catchin birds.

The freedom of birds is an insult to me.  I'd have them all in zoos.

That would be a hell of a zoo.

The judge smiled.  Yes, he said.  Even so.
What a joker, that judge!  Here, the judge overtly states his belief in himself as the source of all creation.  The judge indeed is a solipsist.  That is, he believes that the Universe is his own creation, the invention of his will.

So, returning to my question:  why did the kid not kill the judge when he had the chance?

Remember, the kid is a passive witness in all these passages.  Could it be that the judge, with all his powers of persuasion and his conviction, has delivered the kid to believe that he, the judge, is the center of all creation?  Might the kid actually believe that he is nothing more than a part of the judge's vision?  Or, put another way, might the kid have accepted the judge as his god?

If that's the case, the kid can't kill the judge.  To kill the judge would be to kill the kid himself and to destroy all of creation in the bargain!

Well, as Canterbury says in Henry VIt must be thought on.

I encourage fans of Blood Meridian to avail themselves of the lectures by Yale Professor Amy Hungerford.  I found her lectures fascinating.  You can view the first one here.

McCarthy's prose is so eloquent and lyrical that I can almost catch its rhythm as I type it on the keyboard.  So let me close with the last words the judge speaks to the kid. 

The judge and the kid --now, the man --are the only survivors some two and a half decades after the Glanton Gang reached the bloody end of the road at the river crossing.  It has been many long years since the kid had his chance to kill the judge.  They meet, seemingly by chance (although the judge would scoff at that notion), at a tavern in an ugly little town on a prairie littered with the bones of millions of slaughtered buffalo.  Someone has just shot the dancing bear that was entertaining on the stage, at the judge's instigation.  It is the last time the judge and the kid will meet, save for that one last horrible encounter.
The judge set his bottle on the bar.  Hear me, man, he said.  There is room on the stage for one beast and one alone.  All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name.  One by one they will step down into the darkness before the footlamps.  Bears that dance, bears that dont.
The judge is not a nice man.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

I think you do it by trying

We're mountain tarns reflecting fair weather.  We dazzle each other with the ricocheted shards of a thin, white sun.  Our faces are rippled by the breezy cold words we breathe upon each other.
 We've worked ourselves into a pickle this time, haven't we, honey?  My, my, my.  Such a pity.

Well, it's no news, really.  Good-hearted people will sometimes find themselves at odds with each other despite their noblest efforts.  And when times are dark, it can be hard to maintain perspective. Some days I get by on faith.  Other days, it's the knowledge that the cards are already dealt and it's just a matter of turning them over and reading them. 

Road-weary pilgrim, stony mountain pass.  Sun rents the clouds as he stands at the summit.  In the valley, the golden city is spattered by diamond sparks.  Fall away, weariness!  Let the mist come now! 
I don't know much about holding things together.  There's not a lot that has held together for me over the years.  But I think I can guess how it might work.

It seems to me that you do it by trying.  Trying to hold it together.  Trying all the time.  Trying to forgive.  Trying, trying.  Trying to love each other.  Never stop.  Never stop.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The year I dropped out

"Security Staph" at 2003 Oregon Country Fair
Universe decreed, in summer of 2003 that I was to take a hiatus from the world of software development for an indeterminate period.  Victim of both down-sizing and out-sourcing.  War in Iraq was just underway even though Junior, jackass that he is, had already declared "Mission Accomplished" at his dress-up party on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

It was an angry time.  And, in the spirit of the age, I was beside myself with hot, red fury.  I held in contempt the uninformed citizenry that had (for the most part) stood by and allowed Junior and Cheney to carry out their short-sighted (and ill-fated) plans for hegemony in the Middle East.  I was disgusted at the antics and scheming in my former workplace.  I was enraged with and disappointed by myself for a whole lot of reasons.  But mostly I hated the Bush administration and its principal constituency, Big Oil.

Conferring with perpetual candidate for Multnomah County Sheriff Andre Danielson on the way to the Dead show in George, WA
I was financially secure (at the time) and so, used the opportunity of my lack of employment to take a meander on the side roads of life for a while.  I dropped out; I quit contributing. Rather than paying income taxes, I collected unemployment insurance.  Rather than pay fuel taxes, I walked or rode public transportation. 

Three-and-a-half years of living in the inner city had very much fitted me to urban lifestyle.  I enrolled in some classes at Portland State University, studying Spanish and writing, did a little traveling and spent a lot of time playing guitar.   

2003:  Ken Kesey's "Further" bus outside the Bagdad
Gas prices were soaring in those days, and although there is no evading completely the blood-tithe extracted by corporate pirates, I triumphed with every green penny I denied them.  It is different now.  Times are tough and everyone is afraid.  But 2003 was a good year.  It was a good year, indeed.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book review: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian is not so much a story as an exposition on the nature of the Universe and mankind's role in it.  And, let me tell you, if Cormac McCarthy has it right, it ain't a pretty picture.  In true McCarthy fashion, the novel plumbs some very dark depths.

Set in 1850 in northern Mexico and what is now the southwestern United States, the novel chronicles the life of another of McCarthy's unnamed protagonists.  "The kid," we are told, "can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence." 

The kid leaves his home at 14 and makes his way to Texas where he is drawn into the savagery and violence that defined that region in that era.  (The novel is based on historical events.)  The kid is conscripted into a gang of scalp-hunters, led by a killer named John Glanton and a monstrous, charismatic, utterly depraved creature named Judge Holden.

The judge is an attractive figure, compelling in spite of his evil, in the mold of Milton's Satan or Melville's Ahab.  The judge is erudite, adept, knowledgeable and savage.  Tobin, an expriest that has fallen in with the Glanton Gang says this of the judge:  "Mayhaps he aint to your liking, fair enough.  But the man's a hand at anything.  I've never seen him turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it."

The judge displays expertise in archaeology, geology, chemistry, and language.  He's an accomplished musician and an elegant dancer.  He is also a cold-blooded remorseless killer and perhaps a pedophile.  In fact, the judge is, by far, the most distinctly drawn of the novel's characters.  The kid and almost all of the other characters are kept deliberately vague, slightly malevolent.  The solipsistic themes of the work are revealed by this; the judge is creator/destroyer of all.  "He says he will live forever."

The book is full of literary allusions:  Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, the Bible, King Lear. As with all his work, McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian captivates.  His mastery of diction, vast vocabulary, and genius for lyricism; his sparse punctuation and narrative authority, his ear for vernacular dialog that rivals the work of Mark Twain or John Steinbeck --all of these elements make Blood Meridian a spell-binding read.

Consider this passage:
In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north.  The sun to the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies.  The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.
Pure poetry.

But no sooner does one become lulled by the beauty of such a passage than McCarthy appalls and horrifies with vivid portrayals of obscene violence.  For example, following close on the preceding passage, we are presented this:
...when the black stepped out of the darkness bearing the bowieknife in both hands like some instrument of ceremony Tobin started to rise.  The white man looked up drunkenly and the black stepped forward and with a single stroke swapt off his head.

Two thick ropes of dark blood and two slender rose like snakes from the stump of his neck and arched hissing into the fire.  The head rolled to the left and came to rest at the expriest's feet where it lay with eyes aghast.  Tobin jerked his foot away and rose and stepped back.  The fire steamed and blackened and a gray cloud of smoke rose and the columnar arches of blood slowly subsided until just the neck bubbled gently like a stew and then that too was stilled.  He was sat as before save headless, drenched in blood, the cigarillo still between his fingers, leaning toward the dark and smoking grotto in the flames where his life had gone.

There is so much to chew on with this book that it really requires multiple readings.  In fact, some of the writing is so dense that I had to read passages several times to comprehend them. But it will be a while before I steel my nerves for another read.  The book is chock full of ghastly, apocalyptic violence; so much so, actually, that the reader almost becomes inured to it, as no doubt, McCarthy intends.

Cormac McCarthy is a literary force.  Blood Meridian, which some have called his magnum opus, is a major literary work, startling in its ambition.  With this novel, McCarthy adds his name to the litany of Great American authors in the tradition of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Faulkner.