Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book review: The Dervish House

Ian McDonald's The Dervish House is one of those rarest of phenomena:  a well-written science-fiction novel.

Set in Istanbul in 2027, The Dervish House explores a very plausible future based on today's trends toward nanotechnology and "wired-in" infrastructure. 

The story opens with a terrorist attack on a commuter train on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.  Necdet, a deadbeat with a troubling past, witnesses the attack and begins to suffer from illusions that he at first attributes to emotional trauma.  Young Can, a boy with a serious health problem, makes a discovery about the attack and turns to his only friend, the aging Greek economist, Georgios, to help him unravel the mystery.  Ayşe, an antiquities dealer, is at the same time approached by a mysterious client who seeks her services in locating a rare and valuable relic from Turkey's past:  a Mellified Man.  As we follow these and the dozen or so major characters in the novel, all of which are connected by their associations with an old structure in Istanbul's Adam Dede Square known as the Dervish House, we discover an international terrorist plot, a gigantic financial scam, and the birth of a new religious movement. 

McDonald's Istanbul is very much a city of the future: Miniature robotic devices, "bitbots," pervade civilization, affecting everyday life in much the same way that the printing press, the television, or the internet had done in their days.  Turkey has recently been admitted into the European Union, and the mighty Bosphorus Strait is the vital highway by which Russian natural gas reaches the rest of the world.

McDonald paints an intriguing portrait of Istanbul, shading her in ancient mystery, but also highlighting her cosmopolitan, city-of-the-future promise.  I found McDonald's prose to be quite beautiful in places, especially in his descriptions of the city.  His characters, while perhaps lacking in depth, are sympathetic, and some of their stories are quite poignant.  And McDonald does an impressive job of wrapping all the various threads of the story into a neat bundle at the end of the novel.

The book contains a copious amount of Turkish words, the pronunciation of which diligent readers will find arduous.  McDonald provides a (somewhat inadequate) key in the preface which helps.  Nonetheless, I found myself stumbling over words to the point of distraction in places.

Generally, I find genre-fiction to be a poor substitute for good literature.  But, although The Dervish House is a science-fiction novel, I found that the sci-fi elements added to the plot, rather than distracting from it.

Ian McDonald is a first-rate writer.  I enjoyed this book.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Chat with the GOP at the Oregon State Fair

Mom and I were walking through one of the exhibition halls at the Oregon State Fair last Saturday when we happened upon the Republican Party booth.  "Mom, why don't you go ahead and check out the quilting exhibits?" I suggested.  "I want to stop in here and talk for a minute."

Poor, long-suffering Mom looked around, noticed the gaudy red, white, and blue elephant painted on the booth facade, and quickly agreed.  "Be nice," she said as she hurried away.

I do this every year:  stop in and chat with the folks manning the GOP booth.  Occasionally, I'll hook up with someone with whom I can have an honest (if heated) conversation. 

This year, they were distributing mock ballots for folks to indicate who they might support among the current slate of GOP presidential candidates.  I picked up a ballot and put my check mark next to Jon Huntsman's name, then handed it back to the fellow standing in the booth.  He seemed like a nice enough fellow:  about my age, dark-haired, clean-cut, with an easy-going mien.  I think his name was Jerry.

"Are you a registered Republican?" he asked me.

"No," I said.  "I lean Democrat."

Another fellow, a passer-by like me, was standing near us and immediately jumped into our budding conversation.  "Oh, you're a Democrat, eh?" he said, with the telltale sneer in his voice.  "Why do you want $5 per gallon gas?"  The smirk on his face indicated to me that he was a Tea Partier

I ignored him, directing my remarks to Jerry.  "I lean Democrat, but I'm an Oregonian first.  I voted for Governor Atiyeh."

"Atiyeh was a great governor," Jerry said.

"But that's my problem with the Republican party today," I said.  "Leaders like Governor Atiyeh can't get anywhere in the party.  Think of the great Republican leaders in Oregon's past.  Governor McCall, Senator Hatfield, Senator Packwood.  None of them could go anywhere in the GOP today.  And the people you are running --Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich --they don't know the first thing about Oregon, about what we believe or what we want."

Jerry didn't disagree.  "The remedy," he said, "is to get involved.  That's how we turn this around.  We need people to get involved and help make a change."

The Tea Party fellow felt the need to chime in.  "You still haven't said why you want $5 per gallon gasoline," he said.  (Who knows what he meant by that?)

"Dude," I said, "Jerry and I are talking right now.  If you want to talk to me, wait until we're through."  Tea Party Man shook his head and walked away.  I turned back to Jerry.  "The Republican party in Oregon is in a shambles right now."

Jerry considered for a moment and then nodded.  "Yeah, it is," he said.  "But if people get involved we can change things."

We shook hands and I set off to find Mom.  But I've been thinking about our conversation ever since.  Jerry (if that was, in fact, his name) was a nice guy.  And he was obviously sincere.  He did more listening than talking.  If he were to represent the rank-and-file Oregon GOP rather than the Tea Party zealots, I think our state and our country would be well-served, indeed.  I might even be able, someday, to vote for a Republican.

Wouldn't that be nice?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fairs, fairs, fairs

Fair entrance
Oregon State Fair

Mrs. Batey came down to visit this last weekend. On Saturday we went to the Oregon State Fair.

Prize-winning orchids
There are always plenty of sights to see at the Fair.  We spent a good while admiring photos, arts, and crafts.  And we took a stroll through the animal pavilions to see the various livestock.  Mom likes to go see the big horses:  the Clydesdales, Belgians, and Shires.  This year, there were no Percherons.

Believe it or not, this is a cake.
Oregon has a wealth of talented bakers, artists, and crafts-people as we saw from the exhibits for cakes, and photographs, and quilts. 

Piglets with momma
This year, Maty had to work and couldn't join us, which broke a 6 year tradition.  The State Fair was one of our first dates.  But Mom and I had a good time, nonetheless.

Colorful Hawthorne folk
Hawthorne Street Fair

Then, on Sunday, the Hawthorne Street Fair was on, so Mom got a good taste of my quirky neighborhood

Unicycling bagpiper
The freaky Hawthorne folk did not disappoint on Sunday.  They were out in all their freak regalia.

Peruvian chess set
Mom seemed to have a good time in the morning, talking to the merchants and meeting my neighbors.

Mom and Maty clowin' around
Maty got home in the middle afternoon and the three of us took another spin through.

Heading for home
I found it serendipitous that the Hawthorne Street Fair coincided with Mom's visit. She got to see the neighborhood at its best. An excellent late-summer episode.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ripe blackberries

Lost in thought
Pushing up Tabor, I spotted the first ripe blackberries of the season.

Himalayan (or Armenian) blackberries are the most prevalent blackberries in the Willamette Valley.  The Oregon Department of Agriculture considers Himalayan blackberry to be a noxious weed, and it is certainly an invasive species. It has pretty much choked out the native Oregon blackberry.  (What a shame!  Why can't they co-exist, peacefully?)

According to the ODA website, Armenian blackberry was first noted in Marion County in 1922. Now, less than a hundred years later, it is everywhere.  And it is hard to kill.  I've been battling a bramble in one corner of my yard for 10 years now.  Tough stuff.  To call it a "hearty" plant would be like saying Rasputin could take a punch. 

First blackberries of the season
It's always bittersweet to see the blackberries ripen.  They go from emerald green, through crimson, to purple-black, and then they're ready for eating.  And they're delicious.

But ripe blackberries have a sad significance as well.  They foretell the end of summer.

New fence curtails mountain-biker derring-do
This has been a kind summer.  And it's not over yet.  But when the blackberries ripen, I start to feel a searing little pain in the back of my throat.  It's the pain you get when you lose something that you've always known you would lose, but that you still can't bear to see go.

On the other hand, what is forever really worth?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In hard times, management hold all the cards

The cafeteria on campus at my place of employment is operated by an independent catering company. The staff --the people that cook, run the cash register, prepare the salad bar, and make the sandwiches --are hard-working folk.  Mostly Latinos.  Generally popular with the people they serve.  They earn $10-$12 per hour.  They are not organized in a union.  This morning, when I went over for a breakfast burrito, I found them in turmoil.

Management informed them that some of them will, over the course of the next year, be transferred to other sites around town, to be replaced by new workers.  Or, they can resign.  No reasons given.  No further discussion.

Never mind that the decision will disrupt the lives of those hard-working folks that make the catering company profitable.  Never mind that they will have to spend more time and money getting to and from work, or may even have to change residences to make their new commute feasible.  If they don't like it, there are plenty of desperate people who will gladly fill their positions.

This case is, no doubt, one of myriad other similar cases around the country.  It is a clear example of how, in this economic climate, management holds all the cards.  Management makes a decision and hands it down to the workers, confident that the workers will have no choice but to accept the new terms.

I remember back in the late 90s, when the unemployment rate was below 5%.  I had a great job, working for a great company.  Besides having fantastic bosses and coworkers, the economic conditions of the country were so favorable that I had complete confidence in my ability to find work.  I didn't live in fear that I might join the ranks of a growing army of long-term unemployed people with no hope for the future.

Things are different now.  These days, when management announces bad news (denying cost-of-living pay raises, demanding longer hours, requiring increased co-payments on employer-provided health care plans, etcetera), the follow up line is usually "I'm just glad to have a job." 

Folks, they've got us right where they want us.

Capitalism at its finest.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bagby rite of passage

The trail to Bagby runs along Nohorn Creek
Bagby Hot Springs is an Oregon rite of passage.  Anyone who has lived in the upper Willamette Valley for any length of time knows the name, at least, of the natural hot springs that bubble up on the southern flanks of Old Man Hood. I venture that most who avail themselves of the beauty of the wilds around the mountain have visited them.  Not so, I.  At least, not until last Saturday.

Devil's Club berries provide stark color contrast in the forest undergrowth
Fortuitously, on the very day that Portland temperatures surpassed the 90 degree mark for the first time this calendar year, Jeanine Potts and I took a hike up to Bagby.  Several weeks earlier, we had done some tramping along the banks of the Clackamas River and were so enchanted by the beauty that we decided to go further, to see what might be seen.  The rangers at the Ranger Station suggested Bagby and, since neither of us had yet been there, we gave it a go. 

A fingerling trout, camouflaged but betrayed by his shadow
Bagby has something of a spotty reputation.  It is known among the general public as a hangout for drunks, rowdies and trouble-makers.  Apparently, in past years there have been incidents involving drunkenness and violence.  I know people who fear to go to Bagby.

When we arrived the parking lot at the trail head was full.  A plaid-shirted volunteer, an older fellow named Norman, had set up his trailer there, where he might keep an eye on parked vehicles to prevent thefts.  There were many folks of all ages on the trail, and the only danger I could imagine would have been a tumble into a rocky ravine or stream bed.

If you don't ramble, you grow moss
The hike was easy and beautiful.  We arrived at the hot springs, with their rustic bath houses just as we were hitting our stride and so rather than stop, we pressed on, agreeing to check out the tubs on the way back  The trail extends beyond the hot springs into the Bull of the Woods wilderness.  We saw some excellent camp sites along Nohorn Creek

We went up another mile or so into the woods and found a gravelly beach along the creek.  We didn't yet know that Portland was cooking, but we were plenty warm from our hike.  So the coolness of the water, when we forded the creek, was bliss.

After we'd sat for a while, munching fruit and sandwiches, we were discovered by stinging flies, which swooped in for a bite.

At one point, a fly landed on my left forearm and as I raised my right hand to swat it, another, bigger fly, a predator species, swooped down and plucked the first fly off my arm.  It all took less than a second, but I was struck by the incident.  Wheel of Fortune, indeed.  And, like Hobbes said:  "...[natural] life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Have a soak!
We did indeed stop in at the tubs on the way back down the trail.  There were probably two dozen others there as well.  The water comes out very hot, but we drew cold water from the cistern to keep it tolerable.  Muscles tight from the hike loosened up nicely in the sulfurous water.

And, after all, it's Bagby Hot Springs --a rite of passage.

Update:  Thanks, Shusli, for correcting me.  What I had identified as elderberries are, in fact, Devil's Club.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Sugar ants bubble out of sidewalk seam,
From cool, homey darkness;
Leggy sextets, paired antennae wave,
A frantic scramble;

Each beaded body conveys great purpose
In furtherance of goals
Vital and apparent for all to see,
Were we only ants;

I'm amused by this mindless bustle
But cannot stay to laugh;
I've always held that time is money;
Mustn't be late for work;

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rainbow family drifters on Hawthorne

Rainbow family refugees
I chanced upon two drifters on Hawthorne Boulevard the other day.  They were sitting on the sidewalk in front of Fred Meyer.  The barefoot, dread-locked fellow with the outlandish cap held a cardboard sign informing passers-by that the pair were "4:20 short of a Taco."  The young woman (also dread-locked) was at work making friendship bracelets from twine and beads, which she offered in exchange for food, money, or other supplies.

I simply had to stop and talk.  Turns out they were in Portland for a court date.  They had passed through Portland earlier in the summer, on their way to the Rainbow Family gathering (which was in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, up in Washington state), and they'd run afoul of a city ordinance about alcohol in a public park.  Indeed, the police had issued them a citation for having opened a can of beer in Mount Tabor park!

So they were in town long enough for their appointment with the judge and then were off to wherever life took them next.  She mentioned family in Wisconsin.

My reward may await me in Heaven, but for now, I'll take the friendship bracelet.
I'll confess to an inclination toward hippies generally, but especially peace-loving Rainbow Family drifters. And as I said, these two were bartering friendship bracelets for food, money, or other supplies.  Well, I didn't have any food or money to give, but seeing as they were only 4:20 short of a taco, I found a way to help them out.

And I'm still wearing the friendship bracelet.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Musing with the Hopeful Muser

A blurry image of the Muser
The Hopeful Muser is in town this week, coming all the way from Houston, Texas, reuniting with his band, Sam's Cross, to play a wedding here in Portland.  Sam's Cross plays traditional Celtic music (jigs, reels and drinking ditties) and Muser is the front man, with lead vocal and mandolin duties. 

It's a point of pride to me that I am at least partly responsible for the Muser's passion for music. He and I were bandmates in the Mahatma Candy Daze. Back in 2000, when Dave Thompson, Lori Hefley and I were just beginning our musical endeavor, I encouraged the Muser to join us as our percussionist, which he did, although with much diffidence.  It turned out alright.  In fact, considering how the Muser continues to play music to this very day, I'd say it turned out quite well. 

Last night, the Muser and I reunited for a bite to eat and some catching up.  Time did not seem to have changed him much, but that impression was belied by his words.  "It's been a difficult year," he said, standing in my foyer, removing his sandals.  When he said it, I thought for a moment that the lines etched around his eyes and the corners of his mouth became more distinct, but I couldn't be sure.

We walked to the local Vietnamese restaurant that was one of our favorite haunts back in the daze, then went home and sat on the front porch --the very place where we had written many of the Mahatma Candy tunes.  In the time we spent talking, the conversation never flagged, nor was there any sense of estrangement.  We know each other well.  The good and the bad.

We talked about our times in the band, recounting some of our more memorable gigs.  (Memorable, mind you --not necessarily successful.)  Muser remembered our first gig in Ireland, at a little bar in Rosslare Harbor where we played well enough to coax the local Irishmen out of their nook in the tavern to sit and listen.  I had no recollection of that gig.  But Muser did not remember our second gig  in Rosslare, on our way back from Wales, when the crazy Welsh girl danced while we went through our various sets. 

Still can't remember, Dan?

There were plenty of other gigs to remember as well.  There was the gig on the Muser's birthday when the audience danced while we played our tune, Bobby Sunday.  There was the gig at Conan's where the monitor system quit mid-song leaving us high and dry and much embarrassed.  There was the gig at the Boat, in Monmouth, Wales, where we played un-miked to a raucous and appreciative crowd that would not let us quit until we had played every song in our repertoire.  And as we remembered our old gigs, other memories came to the fore:  old girl friends, crazy parties, wild, reckless behavior.

We have a wealth of memories together, the Muser and I.  Not all of them are sweet.  But that's to be expected.  The painful memories add to the texture of the whole.

The Muser believes this has been a difficult year, as told.  But if that is true, he has come through it alright.  He seemed more at peace than I remembered him being the last time we met.  He's changed some.  I expect he'd say the same about me.

But yesterday evening, there we were, sitting on the front porch where we had played and sang a decade earlier --writing tunes, creating, laughing.  Nothing is permanent in this world, of course.  But it is quite nice when the past throws up an echo that strikes a chord.  Especially a major chord.  In key of G.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Congratulations, Congresswoman Bachmann!

On Saturday, Republican presidential candidates faced off in Ames, Iowa for a straw poll to see if an early leader might be discerned from the crowded slate.  I'm not convinced that the results of this non-binding event have any real relevance, but the national political punditry has been giving it a lot of air time, so what the hell?  (After all, they've got to have something to talk about, eh?)

The big winner, barely squeaking past perennial libertarian candidate Ron Paul (R-TX), was none other than Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.  Ms. Bachmann received 29% of the 16000+ votes cast which was enough to give her the first place finish and euthanize the presidential campaign of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Once the results were in, even Pawlenty could see that his distant third place finish wasn't going to be enough to get the big donors to write him any checks.

Mitt Romney had a very poor showing, but that was expected.  Former Governor Romney didn't spend much time or money in Iowa.  He has opted instead to put his eggs in the New Hampshire primary election basket, which will come on the heels of the Iowa caucuses later this year.  Meanwhile, on the very day of the straw poll, Texas governor Rick Perry announced his own candidacy from South Carolina, where his brand of neo-Confederate rantings sells well amongst the mint julep crowd.

Nonetheless, despite the most fervent wishes of Mitt and Rick, the day belonged to Michelle Bachmann.

I have to imagine that the king-makers in the GOP are quite perturbed by Ms. Bachmann's victory.  Were she to win the Republican nomination, it would be a mortal blow to the plutocrats and robber barons at the top of the GOP.  It would mean that, no matter who won the general election, the President would not be their tool.  Because, like her or hate her, Michelle Bachmann is a rabble-rouser and a populist.  And the plutocrats can't have that, which is why they are now floating Rick Perry as a substitute.

Whispers are also floating around that the Obama administration is elated to see Bachmann succeeding.  But if those whispers are true, I think the Obama organization had better think again.  President Obama's popularity is low enough to make him vulnerable, and the base of the Democratic party, the Left, progressives and liberals, are dispirited and unenthusiastic.

If you watch the cable talkie shows, you know that Ms. Bachmann is the target of much scoffing and ridicule by pols and pundits.  On the left, she is considered a lunatic and an extremist.  On the right, she is an embarrassment.  Apart from Sean Hannity, no one takes her seriously.

But I'm not so sure the dismissals are justified.

Firstly, having caught glimpses here and there of her campaign events, Ms. Bachmann's organization seems well-run and professional.  (Her campaign manager is long-time national Republican operative Ed Rollins).

Secondly, Ms. Bachmann is positioned very well to co-opt the boisterous low-information voters who have been left searching for a candidate in the wake of Sister Sarah's fizzle.

And lastly, Ms. Bachmann wields the power of conviction.  She really does believe that crazy sh*t that she learned when she was attending Oral Roberts University.  She is the genuine article; much more so than cynical, greedy Sarah Palin who, by the way, made a bus stop in Iowa on Saturday to pitch some book or movie or some other scam.

If the Republican party truly wants to represent its base,  Michelle Bachmann is the most deserving of the announced candidates.  She's a full-on Know-Nothing.  And I'd welcome her nomination.  Not because I'm certain that President Obama would defeat her in the general election.  I'm not at all certain of that.  The reason I'd welcome her nomination is because the Bachmann versus Obama election might finally lay out the Know-Nothing creed, in all its glory, for all Americans to see.  And, finally, Americans could decide if it really is what they want, what they believe.

And so I say with all sincerity, congratulations, Congresswoman Bachmann.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Can we get over it, already?

Plus ça change...
Although pundits and politicians have been reluctant up to now to call a spade a spade, conditions are progressing to the point where no one can deny it and remain credible:  the United States (and the world) is in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in the last 80 years.  National unemployment hovers near 9% (that's the "official" rate; some analysts put the "actual" rate much higher).  Our infrastructure is falling apart.  Our national treasury is plundered.  An entire population, millions of people, exists unacknowledged within our borders.

It's a crisis of our own making, the result of our lack of vision and leadership; the result of our mutual contempt. 

We hate each other.  Not as individuals, mind you.  But as tribes, as factions.  Conservatives demonize the poor and the unemployed (as well as racial and religious minorities).  Liberals demonize corporations, religious fundamentalists and plutocrats.  And despite President Obama's continued efforts to bridge the gap, we despise each other so much that it seems impossible to work together. c'est la même chose
I want no association with beasts like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, or Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.  To the extent those creatures are aware of me, they hate me.  They hate people like me.  They reveal it in every public utterance, in every hypocrisy, in every mealy-mouthed slur. And, as far as I'm concerned, the sentiment is reciprocated.

So can we at least get over the red, white, and blue flag-worship fakery?  Can we refrain from pious and hypocritical declarations of patriotism?  Can we lay-off the crocodile tears that we shed every time we see some poor grunt come back from Afghanistan to hug his wife and kids?  Can we quit holding hands and singing "God Bless America?" 

Maybe that Texas lizard Rick Perry had it right, anyway.  Let's quit pretending that there is anything more important than destroying each other.  Let's be honest about the depth of our mutual hatred. 

Bring on Ragnarok!

Wisconsin update:  The outcome of the special recall elections in Wisconsin is inconclusive.  Democrats did manage to unseat two Republican state senators, but could not manage a third, leaving the Wisconsin Senate in the hands of the GOP with a one vote margin.  Both sides are claiming victory, but for my part, I'm disappointed.  I had hoped and believed that Wisconsin might be the beginning of something big, a peaceful populist uprising.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Wisconsin Democrats make their stand

Today is a big day in Wisconsin.  Today, the herculean efforts of Badger State Democrats either succeed or fail.  It's election day, and Democrats are seeking to recall at least three Republican state senators.  If they succeed, they gain control of the upper house of the Wisconsin state legislature and can block the union-busting power grab of Governor Scott Walker and his corporate masters.

A big, big day.  Not only might this day foretell how next year's national election will shape up, but the future of the Labor Movement is at stake.

Momentum would seem to be with Wisconsin Democrats.  And, after all, the fact that they managed to organize and build support to force recall elections at all is in itself testimony to their determination.  And you know that Governor Walker is feeling the heat. But, as we saw last March, these kinds of fights are highly unpredictable.

Of the six recall elections that occur today, Democrats have a clear advantage in one race and 3 of the remaining 5 are too close to call.  

At the very least, today stands as testament to the courage and determination of Democrats at the state and local levels.  Nationally, the Democrats are a disgrace:  weak-kneed, unprincipled, and timid.  Not so the fighters in Wisconsin!  Nor, those of us here in Oregon who busted the Big Red Wave last November.

Fight on, Wisconsin!  I'm with you in spirit.  Today's the day.  Let's see what happens...

Monday, August 08, 2011

Adieu, Senator Hatfield

Oregon lost one of her favorite sons yesterday.  Former Governor and Senator Mark O. Hatfield passed at the age of 89.

Senator Hatfield was a lifelong Republican and a native Oregonian, hailing from Dallas.  He was a veteran of World War II, where he saw combat at Iwo Jima.  No doubt as a result of the horrors he witnessed at that battle, Senator Hatfield remained a pacifist throughout his political career.

Hatfield served two terms as Governor of Oregon (1958-1966) then was elected to the US Senate in 1966 where he remained for 30 years.  He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War, which he called the “sin that scarred the national soul.”  In 1991, the senator bucked his own party and president (Bush the Elder) by voting against military action in the first Gulf War.

In 1995, when the Republican Party was pushing for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution (part of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America"), Senator Hatfield faced down enormous pressure from his own party and cast his vote against the amendment which fell one vote short of passage.  When then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole tried to persuade Hatfield to reconsider, Oregon's senator offered to resign rather than compromise his values.

Although I never voted for him, I did admire Senator Hatfield for his courage and his deep personal convictions.  It is hard to imagine that a man like Senator Hatfield, a liberal Republican, a pacifist, could succeed in today's GOP.   

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Heartbreak in the elevator

There are few places in my world that are as heart-breaking to visit as Doernbecher Children's Hospital. 

A young boy I know is today, this fine day in August, in a hospital bed recovering from surgery.  Last night, I went to visit him.  As I negotiated the maze of buildings, sky bridges and towers that together comprise Oregon Health Sciences University, I encountered many drawn and haggard faces in the halls, in the lobbies, at the windows that look out over the terrestrial galaxy formed by the lights of the city below.

A message scrawled with permanent blue ink on the inside of an elevator door caught my eye.  It read:

"They won't let me see you.  I hope you know I love you."

Tough read.  Tough place. 

It is futile to seek answers in a such a place. 

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Young Christians in Tabor

Western Seminary basks in the sunset
Yesterday, as I returned home from my constitutional up Mount Tabor, I passed a group of about a dozen youths sitting in the grass by the soapbox derby track. They were good-looking kids, in their middle-to-late teens, clean cut and open-faced. They were dressed for summer, in shorts and tee shirts and sandals. They lounged on either side of the path, their teenage diffidence revealing itself in the way the boys sullenly prostrated themselves in the grass; in the way the girls humbly hugged their knees under their chins.

A young man, a bit older than the rest, stood in their midst, speaking.  I listened as I passed through.

"... it's about who you follow," he said.  He held his hands before him, palms to the fading sky. He spoke earnestly.  He spoke honestly. To the west, the sun painted the horizon pink.  "If you choose to follow Jesus, you become part of a family," he said.  "You're automatically just as important as anyone else."  

I found it impossible not to like the kids.  All of them.  Who can resist the innocence and oblivious beauty of youth?  Especially youth motivated by the desire to do good, to be good, to contribute to society in a positive way?

But, of course, being the angst-ridden hair-splitter that I am, I was troubled by the young man's statement.

Not the bit about being part of a family when you follow Christ.  That is one of the aspects of religion that I admire most:  the way that it encourages and promotes community, the way that it brings people together, the way it encourages a morality that, frankly, elevates us above brute existence. 

But the youth's second sentence:  "[If you are Christian] you're automatically just as important as anyone else."  I found that troubling.

Why?  Because there is an implication that, if you are not Christian, you may not be as important as anyone else.  Or, putting it another way:  The only way to be sure you are as important as anyone else is to be a Christian.

As the husband of a devout Muslim, of course, this is going to chafe.  But, to the extent that I understand Christian dogma, isn't it contradictory?  After all, didn't Christ say:  “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence. Love others as well as you love yourself”? 

Or this:  "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble"?

Or this:  "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another"?

That well-intentioned young man on the path in Mount Tabor, I am sure, had no inkling of the un-Christ-like implications of the second part of his statement.  A glance at his sincere expression revealed as much.

But, if I could have done so without intruding, I might have said to him:  "Son, no one is any more important than anyone else.  I can't say I'm a Christian, but I've always believed that.  And, you know, I think that may be what Christ preached."

N'est-ce pas?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A big win for the plutocrats

Guess who gets screwed in this meeting!  (Hint:  It's not anyone seated at the table.)

Every day, I find fewer and fewer reasons to support President Obama.  The ugly negotiation over lifting the Federal debt ceiling just about ices the cake.

The "deal" that they worked out (Harry Reid, John Boehner, Steny Hoyer, Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden, and the President, himself) involves $2.4 trillion (trillion!) in cuts to Federal spending and not a single red penny in raised revenues.  Nothing will be required of the corporate robber barons and the über-rich.  Nothing will be required of General Electric, which made billions in profits last year and paid nothing in Federal income tax.  Nothing will be asked of mega-polluters ExxonMobil and British Petroleum, which continue to "earn" record profits while, at the same time, receiving Federal subsidies.

Looks like this is as far as we're likely to get.

Everything will be required of the poor and middle class.  Less money for national parks, schools and infrastructure.  Less money for public health.   

You'd think that this kind of regressive policy would have the Tea Party patriots kicking up their heels with joy.  But if you thought that, you'd be wrong.  Tea Party folks are too stupid to recognize a victory when they see one.  (They're even more stupid imagining that this policy serves their interests.)  Their puffed-up outrage provided the justification for political leaders (and, yes, that includes the Obama administration) to do what they wanted to do, but couldn't justify without the Tea Party.  That is, to continue to fill the coffers of the plutocrats and scrimp on providing services to the general citizenry.  And yet, heady with their false sense of empowerment, Tea Partiers rage that the deal doesn't go far enough. 

For liberals and progressives, for people like me, this situation is horrendous.  Unlike in the Bush years, when we had no ambivalence, when we could focus our antipathy and contempt on villains like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Junior, we are now stuck behind a president that, for all his mealy-mouthed passivity, is still the only alternative to insane nihilists deep in the grips of Ragnarok anticipation.

The Democrats have been calling me relentlessly over the past several months, asking for my time and my money.  I've been turning them down flat.  They usually don't ask me why, but I tell them anyway.  Yes, I will probably vote for President Obama.  But I won't do so with any enthusiasm.  And I won't be donating my time or money any more.

F*ck it, Mr. President.  Let the Tea Party burn the place down, if that's what you want.  To the extent that you give a sh*t, I object.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Use that summer!

View from Mount Pisgah near Springfield, Oregon
Summer's halfway point, 2011.  So far, so good.  July is usually generous, here in Oregon, and although there have been rain and cool temperatures, this summer has been an improvement over last year, when the thermometer read 48 degrees (Fahrenheit) on the morning of July 5.

Wild flowers
Most years I talk a good game about spending time in nature, but this year I'm actually doing it.  My intrastate travels since June have taken me to Southern Oregon, the Oregon Coast, into the Mount Hood wilderness, and to various places up and down the Willamette Valley.

Roll right, stones
So, today, a post to exhort anyone out there who might agonize that summer is going by too fast.  Get out there and enjoy it!  You only get so many summers in your life and each one is a precious gift.

Alas for the departed
He came down through fields of green
On the summer side of life
His love was ripe

There were no illusions
On the summer side of life
Only tenderness

And if you saw him now
You'd wonder why he would cry
The whole day long
--Gordon Lightfoot
What a life!