Saturday, December 31, 2011

Closing out the year, 2011

River runnin' high
Willamette River was running high yesterday on account of all the rain we've been getting.  Not just here in Portland, but all up and down the valley.  Raining like the dickens for the last few weeks.

That's western Oregon in December, though.  Shouldn't expect anything different.

Leftover Salmon and Cracker sharing the stage
Last night, Jeanine and I went to see the hippie jam band, Leftover Salmon at the Roseland Theater.  I'd seen them before back in the late 90s.  I believe the current incarnation of the band includes only two members from that time:  Drew Emmett, the singer/mando-fiddle-guitar player, and Vince Herman, the guitar-player/front man.  Banjo, keyboards, bass, and drums rounded out the ensemble.  Alas, I don't remember the names of the other members.

As you might guess from the instruments involved, Leftover Salmon has its roots in blue-grass.  But, being a jam band, they take it in many different directions over the course of the show.  The way it works is this:  the rhythm section hold things down, while the other members take turns soloing between verses. 

Roseland full up
Roseland boasts a capacity of over 1400, and I imagine last night's crowd approached that number.  It was pretty tight, especially down on the main floor.  People were having a good time.  And there were more than a few inebriates in the crowd.  But, as is nearly always the case at hippie concerts, the vibe was happy and peaceful.  Just another reason why I like hanging with hippies.

Here's a little taste of the show.

Jeanine and I stayed until the set break, then headed out just after 1AM.  Can you believe it?  We left before the show was over!  I'm getting old.  But not too old to manage a rally now and then.

View from Tabor
This morning, even though I hadn't slept but 2 or 3 hours, I pushed on up to the top of Tabor, determined to have one last look before the year was out.  Old Man Hood was nowhere to be seen, withdrawn behind the fog and gloom.  I suspect he conjured it up himself, rather than be bothered by the sight of supplicants on dead Tabor contemplating his imperious glory.

Follow the path
The last hours of the Year of Our Lord, 2011, slip away as I write.  It goes down as a good year in my chronicle.  No major disasters.  A few laughs.  A lot of love.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Movie review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

One thing I'll say for sure:  the story depicted in David Fincher's much-ballyhooed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Swedish alright.  Swedish to the bone.  No other culture could produce such a dark, angstful tale of horror and perversion than that of a people oppressed by endless Scandinavian winter.  Depravity beneath a thin veneer of respectability.  "Like an IKEA cabinet," as one prominent character put it.

The film is based on the eponymous novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. 

It's the story of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist who is hired by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a murder that occurred 40 years previously. Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a troubled young woman with a talent for hacking into computer security systems.  As their investigation proceeds, the unlikely pair begins to discover the disturbing, unseemly truth about a prominent Swedish family.

The film is expertly crafted, as one might expect from Fincher, who's previous works include Fight Club, and the sci-fi masterpiece, Alien.  And just as with those two films, Fincher maintains a consistent atmosphere throughout Dragon Tattoo.  Viewers are haunted by dread of what is to be revealed.  We don't know what it is, but we know we won't like it when we do.  

Rooney Mara's performance in the title role, as an alienated social outcast with a gift, was intriguing; and Daniel Craig's portrait of a stoic, joyless Swede seemed apropos, given what I know about Swedes.  But Plummer's performance was my favorite:  a wealthy, half-mad industrialist nearing the end of his life and determined to know the whole ugly truth about his own family.

Most of the story takes place in a small town in northern Sweden known as Hedestad.  But I especially enjoyed scenes depicting Stockholm, which brought back memories of my visit there in 1999. 

At the conclusion of the film, I wasn't sure I had enjoyed it.  I thought perhaps it was not the best film to view during these brief, gloomy days of early winter.  But after a few hours' reflection, I'm coming to appreciate the film's texture and its uncompromising obduracy.

All in all, I've come to the conclusion that David Fincher makes good flicks.  No doubt about it. 

Go see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by all means.  Just make sure you're up for it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The red rock of Sedona

A whirlwind Christmas trip to the snowbird home of Mom and Doug included a drive up to Sedona.  Up to the red rock country that was homeland of the Apache and Yavapai until 1876 when those vanquished peoples were force marched, mid-winter over 180 miles of desert country.  Hundreds died.

Bell rock
Some 10,000 people live there now.  Sedona has been a tourist destination for 5 or 6 decades and modern-day retirees came to settle there in the 80s and 90s.

But the vivid strata delineated on the sandstone cliffs provide evidence that even the first humans, those who came to hunt the mammoths and camels and the giant sloths some 15000 years ago, were but johnny-come-latelys.

Some hold that this country is a center for vortices of spiritual energy revealed in the way the juniper trees reach up from the dry earth.  Creosote, mesquite, and broom speckle the desert floor where black bear, cotton-tail rabbits, and even the vanishing mountain lions still roam.

The sights we have seen, together...
It is a haunted land.  But the spirits are not human.  They're older than that.  They rest in their rocky strata, recalling ages past when the land was shaped by molten lava, or lay under ancient seas.  The spirits call out yet, echoing a past that was lost long before the first men ventured here from their far-away savannahs.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Movie review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

With Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows, director Guy Ritchie confirms that he's onto a winning combination.  This film is the second interpretation of this latest incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's indefatigable savant detective, with Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role and Jude Law as his faithful companion, Doctor Watson.

I was steeled for disappointment when I sat down in the theater.  In my experience, sequel films rarely live up to the expectations of the initial.  I can think of no more apt comparison than the Indiana Jones movies of the 80s.  The first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was novel, frolicking, and delightful.  The subsequent films didn't hold up nearly as well.

But A Game of Shadows surprised me by not just equaling, but surpassing its predecessor.

Just as with the first film, I was taken with the elaborate sets depicting London, Paris, and various European sites as they must have appeared in the late 1800s on the eve of the great industrial wars:  squalid and enchanting, ominous, shadowy.

Robert Downey is, as one might expect of a first-rate actor, positively brimming with charisma and he lays it on thick in this film.  The chemistry between him and Law, laced with a subtle homoerotic tinge, ("Lie with me, Watson," says a shirtless, lipsticked Holmes in one action-packed scene") sparkles.  And the supporting cast,  the gypsy mystic Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), Holmes' well-connected brother, and Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), Holmes' villainous nemesis, contribute admirably.

With the addition of the new characters, and especially Harris' Moriarty, a complex tale of subterfuge unfolds.  The plot is involved and requires sharp attention.  The dialog is sharp and quick; the pace, unrelenting.  There is plenty of shooting, plenty of explosions, but despite this, I would not hesitate to recommend (in fact, did recommend) this film to my easily-flustered mother.

Overall, A Game of Shadows is a visually-appealing, action-packed romp.  If you're looking for good family entertainment, this film fits the bill quite nicely.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas, 2011

So, way back in the 70s, when I was a kid working in the grape fields in the Coachella Valley, in California, my Uncle Don took me and some of my cousins to see a movie in Palm Springs.  I can't remember the name of the flick, but it was a documentary that purported to scientifically examine evidence that Earth had been visited by extra-terrestrial life.  Indeed, the film suggested that early American civilizations (the Incan and Aztec empires in particular) owed much of their development to the knowledge imparted from spaceship-traveling aliens.

It was a boring flick, as I recall.  The only memorable datum that came out of it was a prediction of the date when the aliens would return to Earth, as set by the Aztecs.  (Or was it the Incas?)  That date was December 24, 2011.  Tomorrow.

I've held that date in my memory for three and a half decades.  And tomorrow I will learn, we will all learn, the truth of the film's prediction.

This Christmas, we will either awake to a brand new world full of possibility brought about by renewed contact with a benefactor race or we will awake to our old world (also full of possibility) in which we  continue to struggle with our relentless demons while teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

I'd give odds in favor of the latter, but you never know, eh?  Either way, the world will be irrevocably changed on the morrow.  Just like it is on every morrow.

So, while this world is still as it is on this day, let me extend my best wishes for every good soul who might read these words.  Old or new, our world has been and will be beautiful. 

Let's live as if we were worthy of salvation.  Be kind.  Heal.  Help.  Love.

Holiday best.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solstice dream

Eve of the solstice, I dreamt I was back in Salem, in my tween years, calling my best friend, Edward.  In my dream, a number presented itself:  363-7190.  It is possible that that was, in fact, Edward's phone number, back in the day.  No way to know at this point.  Who knows what random bits of knowledge are tucked away in our minds?

In my dream, I was calling him for reassurance, just like I used to back then.  But the dream shifted before he could pick up.

I stood in the foyer of our house in southeast Portland.  I'd just come in the door.  It was warm in the house and I was pulling off my jacket.  Then Maty was hanging on my neck.  Her face was pushed into my collar and I could feel warm tears on my skin.  "What's the matter, sweetheart?" I asked.  Inconsolable, she couldn't answer.

Eventually, I awoke, relieved.  My dark dream was over.  And the solstice had arrived.

The days would be lighter from here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas, Mr. Boehner

SceneTuesday night, December 21st, 2011.  Speaker of the House John Boehner is sitting alone at the grand mahogany desk in his Speaker's office.  His staff has all gone home for the evening.  He can hear the whine of a custodian's vacuum cleaner from the hall outside.  He opens the shallow drawer at the left side of his desk, pulls out a bottle of Old Crow, unscrews the lid and takes a quick nip.  He does not notice the figure that suddenly appears in the doorway.

Senate Minority Leader McConnell:  Old Crow, John?  I must say, it is good to see the Speaker of the House patronizing his whiskey-distilling neighbors to the south.

[Boehner's startled exhalation is a whiskey mist that sprinkles the surface of his desk.]

Boehner:  Jesus!  Don't you ever knock?

McConnell: The door was open, John.  I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas before I left for home.  I won't be back here until after the new year.

[There is an extended silence as the moment ripens.]

Boehner:  Have a seat, Mitch.

McConnell [smirking]:  I know what you're going to say. So let me save you some time.  The answer is "no."

Boehner:  Will you do me the courtesy of at least letting me get the question out before you turn me down?  Come in here and sit down!

[McConnell steps into the room and sits at the desk across from Boehner.]

Boehner:  Listen, Mitch, I won't lie.  If I were in your shoes, I'd be putting the screws to me, too.  But think about it.  Who'd you rather deal with?  Me?  Or Cantor?

McConnell:  You know the answer to that, John.  I hate that snot-nosed punk.  But there's not a lot I can do.  I hope to be in the Majority Leader's office in the next Congress.  The only way for that to happen is for Senate Republicans to support the two month extension to the payroll tax holiday.  And, unlike you, I still have a degree of respect from my caucus.

Boehner:  Respect?  Don't be a fool.  If you win the majority next year, you'll have more than just Mike Lee and Rand Paul to deal with.  You think those Tea Party yahoos like you any more than they like me?

McConnell:  Times change, John.  What looks like gold today, might turn out to be nothing but yellow tinfoil.

Boehner:  Real folksy, Mitch.  Mark Twain's got nothin' on you.

McConnell:  It's that kind of snark that got you into hot water in the first place.

Boehner:  Listen to me, Mitch.  You've got McCain and Lugar and Scott Brown out there saying things that make me look bad.  It makes us all look bad, Mitch.  If you can't shut those guys up, the payroll tax holiday is gonna expire!  Don't you know what that means?  It means that the Republican party will be responsible for raising taxes!

McConnell:  It's about time Grover Norquist got his ears pinned back.  Don't you agree?

[Boehner shakes his head and buries his face in his hands.  He stays that way for a long time.  McConnell gets up and walks to the entryway.]

Boehner:  So that's it, then?  You're really gonna let me go down in flames like that? 

[McConnell pauses at the door.  He turns his head and smiles sadly.

McConnell:  Merry Christmas, Mr. Boehner.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lamps in the fog, oracle in the window

Three days from solstice I walked in the dark through Laurelhurst Park.  The cold had a bite to it.  Darkness rushed to its fell revelry.  Stalwart pathway lamps shone like the besieged heroes of a lost city.

I called my brother while I walked.  Brother Eric and I bemoaned our various physical infirmities, now that the bloom has come off our respective roses.  We've had more than one talk on this subject in recent years.  Time passes so quickly. 

Walking home along Hawthorne Boulevard, I experienced a --well, I don't know what to call it.

As I passed my favorite coffee bar, I glanced in and caught a glimpse of a barista I know.  A man in his early thirties.  He was standing behind the counter.  He's a tall fellow and easy to spot.  Dark hair cut short and close, and a distinctive handlebar mustache.  His face was lifted toward the ceiling, but his eyes were cast down his nose toward the person with whom he was speaking, a patron at the shop.

This image lasted no more than a second.  I did not break pace as I strode past the facade windows.  But in that instant I swear I saw my coffee-serving friend transmogrify.  His hairline receded to a point high on top of his head.  His chin became less pronounced, pulling back into his neck which grew thick and dark with stubble.  His shoulders slumped and his abdomen pushed out.  Creases grew from the corners of his eyes and mouth.

And then I had passed.

It was a puzzling thing.  Passing strange.  It seemed that the barista went from vital youth to humbled middle-age in a flash.

Of course, it wasn't possible.  But I had no inclination to double-back and lay the illusion to rest.  What if it wasn't an illusion?  What if I were to glimpse my own reflection in the divining glass? 

I do not care to see myself in the future.  There is no need.  I know what's coming and I'll get there soon enough anyway.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The problem with genre fiction

Recently, I've had conversations with self-described "science fiction" writers about the (rather lofty) subject of literature. 

I'm afraid I take a rather dim view of arguments that hold genre fiction to be literature.  I've raised a lot of hackles over the years, even amongst respected friends, by suggesting that any book that is ascribed a crass label like "fantasy," "science fiction," "romance," "thriller," or "what-have-you" cannot be literature.  Labels categorize.  They restrict.  Genre fiction, then, is confined by the label that identifies it.

Art, literature, cannot sustain such confinement and remain art.

For example, consider Professor Tolkien.  The sadly misguided Time columnist, Lev Grossman, referred to Tolkien as "the master of epic fantasy."  (Please refer to my previous post, George RR Martin: American Tolkien?)

Were Professor Tolkien alive today, I suggest he would have been puzzled by that appellation.  Professor Tolkien didn't set out to write a "fantasy" novel.  He created a mythos with a (very Catholic) morality and an examination of the nature of good and evil.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a by-product of his invention. 

With genre fiction, these purposes are reversed.  The prime objective of genre fiction is to tell a story that meets with certain criteria.  (Science fiction, for example, emphasizes technology, or futurology.  Fantasy involves the supernatural.  Mystery novels involve crime, and so on.)  Rather than examining truths or exploring eternal questions, genre fiction seeks merely to tell a story that falls within the parameters defined for it.

This is in no way meant to suggest that science fiction or fantasy or murder detective books are not worthwhile, skillfully written, or entertaining.  Who doesn't love a lark into a dragon-populated Disneyworld or a hyperspace leap across light years?  And writers like Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, or George RR Martin can certainly captivate and enthrall.  But these books are diversions, not literature.

Ezra Pound said “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”   So long as that single criterion is met, the setting can be anything:  a space ship in a far galaxy, a rat-infested back alley, or a grass hut on a beach.  What defines a work as literature is its examination of the universal human condition.

Reading good literature, we recognize truths.  We can't fail to recognize them, because they are eternal truths.  Eternal, and eternally worthy of examination, because they remain just beyond our comprehension.

At least, that's how I define great literature.

Okay, I'll get off the high horse now.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Push on through

Sunset occurs at 4:28pm today.

God willing, at that hour, Maty and I will be scooting about town in our little city car, making our little plans for our little future.  Together.

That's how I defy the darkness:  by pushing on through.  Because even if the world ends, I've still got this wife and this family and these friends that I must see to, in my own puny way. 

Sinking down toward the solstice, still five days off.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Republican Ragnarok

"Why can't they love me?"
He is not a nice human being. He is a bad person when it comes to demonizing opponents. When he puts on his political helmet he is a terrible person…. Let me tell you something: the Republican establishment will never make peace with Newt Gingrich. They just won’t. They won’t. This is an important point. Because the Republicans I talk to say he cannot win the nomination at any cost. He will destroy our party. He will re-elect Barack Obama, and we’ll be ruined. --Joe Scarborough, former Republican representative and television talk show host

Read more
These remarks, made by Joe Scarborough, who served as part of the House Majority when Newt Gingrich was Speaker in 1994, are not atypical of those made by national conservatives.  Take a gander through the remarks made by other right-wing pundits.  You'll see phrases like "hubristic volatility," "prevaricating," "unstable," and "temperamentally unsuited for the presidency."

Obviously, Newt Gingrich isn't getting a lot of love from Republican intelligentsia.  The general sentiment among such folk is that a Gingrich nomination would mean disaster for the Republican party. 

"Why can't they love me?"
But there's a problem. Mitt Romney, the only viable Republican alternative, is anathema to grass-roots Republicans.  Check out any political forum on the internet.  Conservatives use terms like "RINO" (Republican-in-name-only), "neurotic," "committed government spender," and "too slick and well packaged," to describe Mitt.

All of this makes apparent the fault line that exists between the upper and lower factions of the Republican party.  The upper faction, the pundits and op-ed writers and king-makers, are terrified at the thought of a Gingrich nomination.  The lower faction distrusts Romney's motives and his character. 

Republicans are in a fix of their own making.  After years of incendiary rhetoric, vilification of political opposition,and shrill insistence on ideological purity, Republican demagogues have convinced the GOP base that there can be no compromise; that alternate political philosophies are not just misguided, but evil.  Well, they sold that message very well, apparently.

If we can believe the polls, Newt Gingrich is, at this moment, the favorite to win the Republican nomination.  Newt gives voice to all the vitriol and contempt that grass-roots Republicans have for Democrats, Muslims, gays, and anyone else who is not a grass-roots Republican.  Romney, a former blue state governor, a consensus-builder and a man who seems reluctant to vilify, cannot pass the ideological litmus test that the GOP base requires. 

The real irony is that Newt Gingrich, with his long, ugly history of political flip-flops, over-the-top rhetoric, and unscrupulous opportunism, merits not a whit of trust or confidence from anyone.  (Just ask his ex-wives.)  But like any mob orator, he says nasty, ugly things about people.  And that's what the GOP base wants.  His positions on the various issues are beside the point.

We're less than a month from the Iowa caucuses and the GOP is divided into bitter, distrustful camps.  For now, the knives are sheathed, but what might happen next is anyone's guess.

Will the fat lady sing?  Will she invoke Republican Ragnarok? 

We'll see soon enough.  But whether it happens in January in Iowa, or some other time at some other place, the GOP is in for a bout of nasty internecine blood-letting.  It couldn't happen to a nicer group of people.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thinned-out Veil

The Veil thinned out this evening.
I caught myself reaching for
The cell phone in my pocket
Thinking to call souls long gone
Or dead or from life absent,
Floating through fog and darkness.

Such tricks and phantoms do lurk,
Mourning like grieved Nienna,
Bent forlorn and regretful,
Among soft-heartwood Doug firs.
Sober sentinels judging
No pained act of ghost or man.

Nothing might be named madness
In such light-suffocating
Cold, wintry solstice cycles,
When haunts and lamentations,
Leech through such a

Monday, December 12, 2011

Courageous Christianity

Maybe He was on to something...
No matter what they say I don't believe the path to God is easy. 

I keep going back to that moment.  The moment when Robert Rule, a bereaved father, broke Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, the murderer of Mr. Rule's daughter.  (Video here.)

Robert Rule's act is one of the most courageous displays of Christianity I have ever witnessed.  Humbling and and terrifying and beautiful.

Humbling, because I've never had occasion to show the kind of courage that Mr. Rule showed.  I don't know that I could muster it.

Terrifying, because --well, because, Lord!  How could You have done that to this man?

And beautiful, because it shows us, plain as Day, that we are none of us beyond Redemption.

Paraphrasing the good Professor, while evil is evil, it may yet also be good-to-have-been.

Christmas approaches.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gonna be a cold night out

Under the bridge
For inspiration, I went walking.  I headed for the river. There is still that story that I must finish.  That story about the river.

The morning was gray, cold, and unpromising.  A ghostly shroud hung over the city.  The thermometer read 34oF.  Too warm for snow, but too cold for this time of year.  The air was bitter on the flesh.

But a man must do what a man must do.  So I set out. 

Keepin' the team together
Two lost souls were encamped under the Hawthorne Bridge, near the bike path, near the Fire Station.  The woman sat on a folded-out sleeping bag, on a tarp, on the ground.  She wore a hoodie under a jacket.  She'd covered her legs with blankets.  The man, hooded and bearded, stood to one side.

"Are you keeping warm?" I asked.  I directed my question to him.

He frowned in response to my query.  He seemed upset.  He stammered and mumbled, but couldn't quite get a thought out.

She answered for them:  "We're tryin'," she said with a shake of her head.  Her chin was long and loose.  She had but 4 or 5 teeth.

Between the two of them, they'd seen some times.

"Where ya from?" I asked.

"Here!" she said.  "Portland for forty-eight years."

"You know, there are places downtown that'll take you in," I said.

"Yeah, but they wanna break up the team," she said.  She patted the blankets beside her.  Somewhere under the folds a puppy whined.  "We're a team," the woman said.  "We gotta stay together.  They don't want us to bring the dog."

"What about food?" I asked.

"There's soup kitchens downtown," she said.  "We don't have no trouble getting fed."   She brightened suddenly.  "But you know what helps?  Propane.  Or sterno.  We got us a little stove here."  She indicated a camping stove attached to a Coleman's propane bottle.  "We run outta fuel."

"You gonna be here a while?" I asked.

"Where we gonna go?" she replied.

32o and holding
I got home in the early afternoon in time to get warmed up before Maty called.

Her call came just after 3pm.  "I'm ready," she said.  "Come get me and we gonna go to Winco."  Which we did.  The place was jam packed.  People loading their carts with groceries.  "With weather like this you never know,"  Maty said.  "Maybe the power's gonna go out."

"That's true, honey," I said.

On the way home, I took a detour down by the river.  The temperature had dropped to 32oF.  "It's cold enough to snow now, honey," I said.

"You think so, it's gonna snow?" she asked.

"Maybe," I said.  We drove into a parking lot under the ramps of the Marquam Bridge.

"Be right back," I said.  I left Maty in the car with the motor running so she could keep warm. 

Nobody's home
I quick-stepped it back to the place under the bridge along the bike path.  All their stuff was there, but they were not.  Probably off at the soup kitchen for some supper.

Darkness was coming down fast as I left the grocery bag with the three cans of Coleman propane next to the shopping cart.

They've probably found it by now.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Doane Perry explains

Doane Perry
On November 1, 1997, brothers Eric, Calee, and I found ourselves at the Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon to see our favorite rock band, Jethro Tull.  I don't remember much about the show, itself, I'm afraid.  I've seen so many Jethro Tull shows (perhaps a dozen), that they all run together.

But the reason this show stands out in my memory is because, after the show, my brothers and I hung out at the stage door to see if we could snag an autograph or two.  (Eric and I got to meet Ian Anderson (himself!) in 1994 after a show in Portland.)

We waited for quite a while, along with probably two dozen other fans.  As the time stretched, the crowd dwindled.  Eventually, one of the security staff (and what an obnoxious lot they were) came out to announce that the band had all left by another exit. 
As we turned to leave, two Englishmen, obviously with the band, came out.  They saw us. "Sorry, fellows, everyone's gone," one of them said.  "Except for Doane."  He looked at his companion.  "Doane's still here, isn't he?"  The other man shrugged.

They'd hardly finished this exchange when Doane came out the door.  He wore his iconic red beret.  A gym bag was slung over his shoulder.  Doane Perry stands some 6 and a half feet tall.  His face is oval, with a high forehead and owlish eyes.  He joined Jethro Tull as the band's drummer in 1984. 

We were thrilled to meet him and he amiably agreed to sign our playbills.  I wanted to make the most of the opportunity, but I couldn't think of a good question.  It was Calee who finally came out with one.  "Will you help me settle a bet with my brother?  Who's a better guitarist?  Steve Howe? Or Ian Anderson?"

I've always remembered Doane's answer.  He smiled and shook his head.  "There's no 'better' in music.  There is 'faster' or 'more techincal.'  But there is no 'better.'"

It was so self-evident that I felt foolish not knowing what his answer was before he said it.  It is a lesson I've carried with me ever since.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The good old nature and the good old humor

Hear him now:  "Attack it, son.  Get out there and attack it."

That is how he dealt with things.  When he was crowded by darkness, he lashed out with his terrible flames, dispelling the shadows, causing them to flee to the corners of his awareness.  But when his fury subsided, they always returned.  Despite his larger-than-life personality, his dazzle, his charm, he was yet an angst-ridden man, haunted by doubt.

Terrible ghosts followed him all the way to his grave.  They linger yet, haunting me and the others he left behind.

But he wrote his own last chapter, these 10 years gone.  The epilogue is for me.

The best times were when we laughed, when we traded jokes between us that no one else would understand.  When we were invested by the good old nature, by the good old humor.

Come then, winter.

Monday, December 05, 2011

ASL RBCGIII: Stand fast, Comrades! (Prelude)

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.

Greetings fellow ASL players!

Dave and I are at it again.  This time the game is RBCGIII.  The big one.

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

You can read Dave's blog here.

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. 

Also, I'd be remiss (and have been remiss) in failing to express my gratitude to Rodney Kinney, the designer of the VASL game engine, which is the source of the illustrations Dave and I will use for our blogs.  Thanks, Rodney!  You're a good egg, old bean.

An attempt at balance

Here we go.  Winter is nearly upon us.  And winter is the perfect time to initiate that most engrossing of indoor activities:  a Red Barricades campaign game.

I'll tell ya:  get a fire in the fireplace; your wife and her friends are cookin' in the kitchen; you put on some music; burn a little ganja; then you and your buddy spend the day trading punches on the big RB map...  Folks, that's high-livin' in my book.

I certainly can't remember how many campaign games Dave and I have played over the last 15 or so years, but we must be approaching two dozen by now.  Many hours hunched over the gaming table.

And, as much as we enjoy the campaign games, we've come to the conclusion that none of them, CGI, CGII, or CGIII, is balanced.  In our experience, CGI and CGII are nearly impossible for the Russians to win, while CGIII is unwinnable for the Germans.  (Of course, dear reader, your experiences may differ.  I'd be interested to hear other perspectives.)

So, this time, Dave and I are incorporating some "house rules" into the CGIII campaign to see if we might arrive at a more balanced campaign.  Specifically, we've changed the CG victory conditions and made some modifications to the rules.
CG Victory Conditions:  At the conclusion of any CG day, the German wins if he can draw a continuous perimeter that controls all but 5 stone locations west and north of the M45/U37 road, west of hexrow U, plus Buildings X9 (The Chemist's Shop) and B18 (The Commissar's House). 
All but 5 locations to the left of the line, plus Chemist Shop and Commissar's House
In our experience, the Germans simply do not have enough resources to attain the CGIII Victory Conditions set forth in the ASLRB.  So, rather than require that the Germans control all but 5 stone locations anywhere on the board, we've cut off the easternmost third of the map for victory determination.  And given the vital importance of the Chemist's Shop and Commissar's House, we've also required that the Germans include those buildings within their perimeter.  (I wrote up an explanation of why I think those buildings are important at the beginning of our last campaign game, which you can read here.)

Changes to CG rules

In addition to changing the VC, we're modifying the campaign rules to help the Germans a bit.
  1. Disregard the campaign balance provision.
    In our experience, the Germans nearly always win the first 4 or 5 days of any campaign, thereby invoking the balance for the Russians.  After the first few days, the Russian can pretty much count on 18CPP in the refit phase.  We want to rectify that. 

  2. For CPP replenishment, ignore all modifiers other than the historical modifiers.

  3. No depletion rolls.
    We've decided to forgo depletion rolls for this CG.  All purchases are at full strength.

  4. Armor recall/return.
    We're adopting a rule wherein if a tank platoon is recalled at the end of a CG day, it will return to the battle if the player rolls a "1" during a subsequent Refit Phase.  When a tank platoon returns, it enters as reinforcements and is again subject to recall at the end of that CG day.  If a tank platoon is recalled a second time, it is gone for good.

  5. The Germans replace one Pioneer company for a Sturm company and another Pioneer company for 2 rifle companies in the total forces available.

  6. Stuka reinforcements consist of 2 '42 Stukas with bombs.

  7. Flame-throwing tanks.
    Each player may expend 1CPP in the purchase of a tank platoon in order to exchange one tank in that platoon for its equivalent flame-throwing tank.  The Germans may do this twice in the campaign; the Russians once.  This is a piece of chrome we're adding just for fun.
All of these modifications work to the German advantage, in our estimation.  And it may be that we've gone too far.  Or maybe we haven't gone far enough.  I guess we'll see...

We agreed on all these modifications before determining sides.  That way, we removed any subconscious advocacy for one side or the other.  At least, theoretically.  Once we had it all worked out, we selected sides randomly.

Guess what?  I'm the Reds.  Again.  But that's okay.  I've already got some ideas for nasty traps.  Come on in, Jerry!  We're waiting.

We'll start playing in the next month or so.  Stay tuned...

To be continued...

Friday, December 02, 2011

Governor Kitzhaber reprieves a murderer

Convicted murderer Gary Haugen
Last week, Governor Kitzhaber issued a reprieve of execution for convicted murderer Gary Haugen.  The Governor effectively declared a moratorium on executions in this state for as long as he remains in office.  In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of Illinois Governor George Ryan (a Republican) who declared a moratorium in his own state in 2000.

Governor Kitzhaber stated that the capital punishment system in this state is "a perversion of justice." He pointed out that, in the 27 years since voters passed a referendum legalizing capital punishment, only 2 persons have been executed, both of whom had waived their legal rights.

Disregarding the particluars of Haugen's case, the Governor's decision is easy to justify.

From a purely fiscal perspective, it costs two-and-a-half times as much to execute a convict as it does to imprison that convict for life, when you take into account the legal processes and the additional strain on our over-burdened justice system.  In this light, executions seem to be expensive extravagances.

Further, there is statistical evidence to suggest that capital punishment is administered disproportionately against racial minorities.  According to the Death Penalty Focus, racial minorities compose 55% of convicts on Death Row, but are less than 30% of the general population. So, according to the irrefutable statistics, capital punishment has an inherent racial bias.  No one can support that.

And most importantly, since our justice system is a human institution, it is capable of error.  Anyone who reads the papers has surely read about the reversals of convictions that have come about because of recent advances in DNA analysis.  Those are proof of the system's fallibility.  And since the system is not (cannot be) perfect, with life and death at stake, the only moral conclusion one can come to is to discontinue it.  Clearly, it is better to spare the life of a murderer, no matter how heinous his crimes, than it is to mistakenly take the life of a wrongfully-accused innocent.

Contrary to one typical counter-point, this is not at all about "coddling murderers" or being "soft" on criminals.  Spending the rest of one's life in an 8' X 10' cell hardly seems like a reward, no?

In 2006, when Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, was sentenced to life in prison in solitary confinement, Judge Richard Jones said this:  "As you spend the balance of your life in that tiny cell, surrounded only by your thoughts, please know the women you killed were not throwaways or pieces of candy in a dish placed upon this planet for the sole purpose of satisfying your murderous desires."

As Ridgway faced the families of his victims, he remained in control of himself.  That is, until he faced Robert Rule, the father of one of his victims...

Can someone watch this and still think Ridgway got off easy?

Capital punishment is something we should probably end.  I support Governor Kitzhaber's decision.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The view from here, November 30th

Hoo, boy.  Ol' Man Anxiety's got me by the throat lately.  Not for any reason I can name.  He's just here chewing on me.  Quoth Good Mister Minor, "You're runnin' around here like a bug waiting to get squashed by a hammer."  Candid, as ever.

These are dying days.  Cold and bright, like a crone's eyes.

Rumors of war and catastrophe, ghastly keening ghost-clouds, pass with the wind.  In Iran, they stormed the British embassy.  At home, a convicted murderer, outraged that Governor Kitzhaber spared his life by placing a moratorium on executions in Oregon, called the Governor a "paper cowboy."  Such grim curiosities are legitimate cause for anxiety, no?  What if they are omens?  What if they are precursors?

The sun sinks too quickly.  The solstice is still three weeks out and I'm already feeling crowded by the darkness.  It grows out of the shadows.  It suffocates the light. 

Is there some horror out there that we can't yet see?  Are the gods holding their breath as we slide toward the Abyss?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A proselyte, a death

One morning when I was feeling I had done wrong by everyone, I stood beside Julija Laenen's bench up on Tabor.  Peering eastward to see if the Old Man would grace me with a glimpse of his wisdom, I became aware of the thunder and boom of a ritual drum.  A deep and sonorous music rolled across the hilltop and through the majestic Dougs.

Alejandro played his drum next to bronzed Harvey Scott.  Alejandro, reaching for wisdom, had come upon a fervent truth.  He seemed eager to share it with me.

"Every day is a ceremony," he said.  "I've seen how people have gathered.  In the last year I've learned so much and come so far. "  His thoughts stumbled upon each other as they raced to get out.

"On the day that I was born, they said I was the grandfather of the earth, that I came down from the stars to spread the spirituality.  I look to the East, to Quetzalcoatl.  To the West, where the sun will set:  the sun that will guide us when we die.  Every day we pray for the transformation.  To the North, is the final resting place.  To the South are the sun temples.  It is there that I will return.

"I've seen how we can become enlightened.  I've seen what we're capable of.  If we all come together in the way that our ancestors believed, we could change the world."

I fumbled for eloquence, but found none.  "I'm behind you 100%," I said.  "Change the world, will you?"

We were at the top of Tabor.  The sun, our guide for the Great Transformation, shone proudly.

Alejandro returned to his drumming.  The throb and boom of his cadence buoyed my spirits as I departed.

A death
I descended to foggy surface streets, remembering the bold and mellow sun, shining on 20-year-old Alejandro.  But for 49-year-old me, the sun was a pale disc somewhere beyond the mist.

A murdered pigeon lay on the sidewalk. A scarlet spot marked the place where its life-blood had gone.  The eyes were closed, the talons clutched upon themselves, as if in ecstasy.

The ecstasy beyond all judgement and doubt.  The ecstasy that comes with arriving at a certainty.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tea Party: Vote Newt! He's everything you want in a candidate!

What a charmer!

It looks like the Tea Party , in their frantic quest to find somebody --anybody --to carry their flag instead of Mitt Romney, may have finally settled.

New Hampshire's influential Union Leader newspaper on Sunday endorsed Newt Gingrich, for President of the United States.  Newt Gingrich!  Can you believe it?

Frankly, I like the Union Leader's pick.  When it comes to representing Tea Party values, there really is no more apt candidate than Newt Gingrich.  Consider:
  • He's (pseudo-)smart!  As one Tea Party enthusiast  recently informed me:  Newt Gingrich is the most intelligent candidate to run for president in the last 20 years.  Gingrich is an ace at speaking in those condescending tones that make Tea Party people swoon.  Or, as Paul Krugman put it:  "...[Newt Gingrich] is a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like." 
  • He will fight for his beliefs!  If there is one thing that Newt Gingrich has proven over his long, storied (and I do mean storied) career, it is that he will fight to the bitter end for what he believes in.  And what he believes in is Newt Gingrich.  That $1.5 million he made lobbying for --er, excuse me --serving as an historian for Freddie Mac from 1999 through 2007 was a tidy sum, but still not enough, apparently, for him to close out his account at Tiffany's where he recently maintained a balance of some $500,000.  His transparent self-interest is refreshing for Tea Party people.  It validates their own stingy attitudes.

  • He is constant as the Northern Star.  Constant, at least, in his inconsistency.  Like so many Tea Party folks, Gingrich can say something one day, and contradict himself the next, nor even bat an eyelash when the contradiction is pointed out to him.  My favorite of his bald-faced absurdities is this remark, which he made when he was trying to extract himself from the mess he got into when he called the Paul Ryan budget "right-wing social engineering."  And I quote:  "Any ad that quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood."

  • He's a Washington outsider!  Even though he "served" as Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, he isn't part of the Washington establishment.  After all, his own Republican party forced him to step down in the wake of an ethics scandal that cost him $300,000 in sanctions.  (That pesky Ethics Committee found him guilty of lying to Congress and of violating tax laws.)  Tea Party people respect politicians who treat the Federal government with contempt
In short, Newt Gingrich is the manifestation of Tea Party values:  condescension, cruelty, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

For those of us disinclined to vote for Newt Gingrich (or, for that matter, for any Republican) this is good news.  Newt may not win the Republican nomination, but man oh man, will he make the primaries ugly.

We're just weeks away from the Iowa caucuses, progressives.  Sit back and enjoy.

Run, Newt!  Run!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Movie review: The Descendants

The Descendants, starring George Clooney (the man is nigh on ubiquitous at the cinema these days), opened this weekend to big box office success.  Indeed, the viewing I attended Saturday afternoon at the Fox Tower was full up --not an empty seat in the house.  Credit the marketing folks and Clooney's star power, I suppose.

The Descendants is the story of Matt King (Clooney), a successful Honolulu lawyer.  Matt's wife, Alexandra, is the victim of a recent boating accident that has left her in a coma and Matt in a predicament as he tries to deal with her condition and with their two daughters, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  Elizabeth is a rebellious teenager and Scottie is a tender-aged tween.  Matt is simultaneously negotiating a rich land deal that is drawing public attention (and most of it negative).  When he gathers the family, he learns through Elizabeth that his comatose wife was having an affair.

The film has some poignant moments.  'Twould be a hard-hearted soul indeed who could sit through a viewing and not dab at his eyes a few times.  Clooney plays his part humanely and honestly.  And his supporting cast does fine.  I especially enjoyed Robert Forster as Matt's curmudgeonly father-in-law, and Nick Krause as the meat-headed but loveable Sid.

But this flick is all Clooney.  Not complaining, you understand.  I'm a George Clooney fan.

But in the final assessment, despite the sensitive, understated performances, the movie lacks a point.

The film's director, Alexander Payne, seems to have a habit of making films that depict authentically American lives. Authentically American, and frankly, just as pointless.  His earlier efforts, Sideways and About Schmidt, also feature everyday protagonists adjusting to cataclysmic changes in their lives.  And, just as with those two flicks, in the end, you feel as if you've just spent two hours watching an elaborate character sketch.

The Descendants has no great revelations nor any particular wisdom to impart.  It's a film about a middle-aged guy in Hawaii, fumbling through life just like all the rest of us.

This flick is a fine diversion for a rainy afternoon, but don't expect too much.  Payne doesn't seem to aim very high.

Friday, November 25, 2011

ASL scenario replay: Return to Sender

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.

Greetings fellow ASL players!  Thanksgiving weekend would be lacking without a day-long gaming session, would it not?  So I spent a busy day today, raking leaves and running errands for my beloved wife that I might have all day tomorrow to game with ol' Dave Hauth.

Dave and I are set to play the Armies of Oblivion scenario, Return to Sender.  This scenario represents actions that took place in Serbia, in late 1944, when the Bulgarians left the Axis and sided with the Allies, turning on their hitherto comrades.  This action has elite Germans defending a hill from a horde of Bulgarian troops supported by armor they had seized from the Germans.

Dave has the part of the Bulgarians; I'm the Germans.  I'll lay out my plans today, then tell how it all turned out in a future post. 

Here's to the Fatherland!

Dave see this
Return to Sender, designed by Brian Martuzas, features Germans with big Flak guns defending a hill from an onslaught of Bulgarians.  The Bulgarians outnumber the Germans by better than 2 to 1, are supported by two platoons of Pz IV tanks, three armored half-tracks, air support, and a module of 100mm artillery.   The Germans are 548 squads (designated as SS units by SSR), 2 light Flak guns, and 3 big 88L Flak guns.  The Bulgarians enter from the east (board 11).  All German units, apart from the big Flak guns must set up on board 18 and the western half of board 11.  The 88L Flak guns must set up on board 50, the westernmost board.

The Victory conditions are straightforward:  at game end the Bulgarians must control all level 3 and level 4 hill hexes.

Bulgarian advantages are unopposed armor, high mobility (there are 6 trucks to transport infantry) and 30 squads.  The scenario length (10 turns) also works to the Bulgarian advantage, but I suspect the issue will be decided one way or the other long before turn 10.

German advantages are the big Flak guns, which will have no problem cutting through the armor of those requisitioned panzers, and the huge disparity in troop quality between Germans and Bulgarians.

German setup
Note:  Acquisition markers indicate bore-sighted locations.

As the German, I think my biggest advantage is the difference in infantry quality.  My elite Germans will tear up those poor Bulgarians, tanks or no tanks.  The Bulgarians have two platoons of shaky troops for each one of their 5 leaders.

My defense is devised with an eye to exacting a toll on Bulgarian infantry and not worrying over much about the 2 panzer platoons.  The three 88L Flak guns are positioned with good lines of sight across the battlefield, and I'll trust them to make life difficult for marauding armor.

My first order of business, in constructing this setup, was to place my Flak guns, both big and small.  Here's what I did.

Flak gun placement
The big guns are set up with good fields of fire all across the approach to the hill.  By SSR, the Germans must use Red TH Numbers, but even so, this looks like it could be a turkey shoot.  Dave will have to make good use of blind hexes as he moves his tanks forward.

But, of course, given the quality of his infantry, he will need to use his panzers aggressively.  A difficult quandary, methinks.  We'll see how he handles it.

The small Flak guns are set to whack Bulgarian infantry making their way across the low board 11 hills.  Not an inviting prospect for the Bulgarians.  And with such poor troop quality, broken units will be slow to rally.  Dave's leaders will, I predict, have their hands full rallying, probably for the entire game.

Next, I placed Roadblocks.

These placements are pretty straightforward.  The roadblock in E3 and that in Q6 are simply there to channel tank movement toward the center of the board and into the sites of the big Flak guns.  The Roadblock in Y1 is part of a tank trap I hope to create in that area.

At this point in the setup, I organize and place my infantry.  I've got 14 squads and three leaders with good support weapons and foxholes for fortification.  The Bulgarians enter from off-board, so my allotted 16 concealment markers can all be used for dummies.

I divided the infantry between the leaders, 4 squads per leader.  The remaining 2 squads are setup in ambush positions and fulfill my allotted HIP assignments. 

Upper-right sector:  Tank trap
The 8-1 leader directs the MMG and squad and will be looking to punish Bulgarian infantry.  So too with the two 548s with the LMGs.  The tank trap, such as it is involves the 548 with the DC and the hidden squad in Z0.  I put 3 dummy counters in G4 to appear as a squad with machine-gun.

Upper left sector
The remainder of my dummy counters go in this sector to keep Dave guessing. I predict that he will attack down one flank or the other, so I set this area up to appear strong.  Or at least to appear as if it might be strong. Dave is pretty cagey when it comes to these things though, so I don't expect the ruse will last very long.

Middle-right sector

The 9-1 directs the HMG, supported by the light mortars.  Everyone is holed up in Foxholes and ready to beat feet back to the victory hill if the assault comes too strong.  Of course, if things go wrong, these troops will be quickly isolated and destroyed.  C'est la guerre, mon frere.

Lower left sector
If Dave attacks on my left flank, I'm prepared to give ground generously.  The upper left sector is empty deception (apart from a few bore-sighted locations, of course).  But he'll meet resistance when he gets to this point in his advance.

If the attack falls on the right flank, these troops will head for the victory hill to await the final assault.

Victory hill
If the game does last long enough to produce a final Bulgarian assault on the victory hill, I like my chances. The Bulgarian armor will have trouble providing close range support due to the woods and crag hexes that hinder their movement.  The Bulgarian infantry will have to get up close with perhaps as many as two full platoons of elite Germans.

Before ever having rolled the dice, it looks to me like this scenario presents a pretty tough row for the Bulgarians to hoe.  I've told Dave as much.   We'll know soon enough, I suppose.

Update:  What a disappointment!  As I feared, this scenario is utterly lop-sided in favor of the Germans.  The 88L Flak guns commanded the approaches to Board 50 and the Bulgarian infantry "perished like straw in a great fire," as Professor Tolkien put it.  Bummer!

I wonder... is there anyone anywhere who has won this scenario as the Bulgarians?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gratitude for these

Were it all to end tonight, I could only say that I've been given more than any man might hope to expect. For so many reasons.

Among them these:

Where I am.

Who I'm with.

What I believe in.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!