Friday, March 30, 2012

Chinese boneyard

Rest in peace
Life is a dream walking; death is a going home. --Chinese proverb 

The southwest corner of Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery is a minimally-maintained nondescript lot.  It inters the remains of an unknown number of Chinese people, mostly men, who came to Portland in the 1800s, seeking work as miners, servants, and stevedores. 

Part of Portland's ugly history is that Chinese were subjected to racism and bigotry.  Portland elites were glad to hire them as butlers, gardeners, or laborers, but made no welcome for them.  Chinese were discouraged from settling here.  There was little or no mingling of the races.  "Make your money and go back to China" seems an apt expression of the general sentiment.

Those that died here were buried in the neglected corner of Lone Fir.  No records were kept, nor were individual graves maintained.  No one knows exactly how many persons are buried there.

In 1947, Multnomah County paved over the site and erected a government building.  An attempt was made to remove the human remains, but in 2004, it was discovered that there were yet more.  In a belated attempt to address the affront, the City of Portland razed the building and rejoined the plot with the cemetery.

And there it lies, a nondescript patch of land, strewn with loose gravel and patches of crab grass:  eternal home to people who came here on the promise of opportunity, who helped create what we have today.

Rest in peace.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Springtime ramble

Firwood Lake in Laurelhurst looks much healthier since the renovation
Troubled world. Racial tensions are running high because of that thing that happened in Florida.  Republicans savage one another, each striving to prove he hates more bitterly than does his rival.  Cheney continues to exist.  Villainy appears ascendant.

Same pond 2010:  Looks like pea soup
In spite of all that, things are pretty good here in the Rose City.  The water in Firwood Lake looks healthy.  There are ducks, but not too many.  In years past, folks would feed them bread.  I did it a few times myself.  I didn't realize that, by doing so, I was helping to create an over-inhabited, unhealthy cesspool.  An all-you-can-eat refectory alongside the migratory highway.  People know now not to feed them.  There are signs up to remind.

Dogs frolicked among cedars in the leash-less area.  Having a great time by the looks of it.  A happy sight.

Maty called on my third circuit through the park.  "Honey, can you get me galette from Grand Central?"

"Which one?" I asked.

"The mushroom."

"Okay, honey."

"You're not too far?"

"No, honey, I'm gonna get it."

I turned west.  About 30 blocks to Grand Central Bakery.  My spirits rose.  Doing things for Maty has that effect on me.

Good men believe they have gifts they must share.  Gifts they would die to share.  If they are lucky, they find people who honor that about them.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cheney's new heart

This is not my favorite post to write.  Anything touching on that villain is, by definition, corrupted and hateful.  But he's earned it.  And I'm not man enough to let it pass.

Dick Cheney got a new heart.  The Los Angeles Times reported on March 24 that  “Former Vice President Dick Cheney had a heart transplant Saturday morning after waiting more than 20 months on a transplant list, his office reported.  Cheney, 71, … has battled a lifetime of heart disease.”

"A lifetime of heart disease" is one way to put it.  Cheney's had 5 heart attacks in his life (so far).  The first occurred when he was 37 years old.  At the beginning of Junior's tenure in the White House, Cheney actually had more heart attacks under his belt than Junior had countries visited. 

The LA Times reports that Cheney waited more than 20 months on a transplant list and that --hey, it's not unusual for a 71 year old man to receive a new heart.  Sure, most heart transplant recipients are in the 50 to 64 age range, but you can't hold it against Cheney if he got lucky, eh?  I'm sure no undue influence was exerted.  (Just like back in the 60s, when Cheney finagled 5 military deferments to avoid combat duty in Vietnam (even though he supported the war)).     

But never mind.  All we need to know about Cheney is revealed in these facts*:
  1. With Dick Cheney as its CEO, Halliburton was on the verge of bankruptcy.
  2. George W. Bush appointed Dick Cheney to head up an exploratory committee to find a running mate.
  3. The committee chose Dick Cheney.
  4. Upon assuming office, Dick Cheney convened an energy policy task force, composed exclusively of energy extraction executives.
  5. Shortly thereafter, White House rhetoric was aimed at Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
  6. Our country was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.
  7. Key members of the Bush administration (including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, and Rice) began advocating an invasion of Iraq to "protect" the United States from terrorist attacks.
  8. George W. Bush ordered the United States military to invade Iraq in March, 2003.   
  9. Halliburton was awarded multi-billion dollar federal contracts without being subjected to competitive bidding. 
  10. Dick Cheney (who was still being awarded a deferred salary from Halliburton) and his cohorts got rich(er).
*excerpted from an earlier post, Kleptocracy in action

But apparently getting filthy rich by lying us into war isn't enough.  Cheney's contempt for his fellow man is so all-consuming that even now, after being responsible for untold death and suffering (all in the interest of the Cheney fiefdom), he has taken to cannibalizing the body parts of his victims.

Appalling?  Certainly.  Suprising?  Not really.  He's always viewed us as a resource at his disposal.

Straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.  What a beast!

Friday, March 23, 2012

On the river

Willamette River ran high today...
The river was high today.  The early spring snow that fell Thursday morning, already slushy with the dawn, was gone by late afternoon.  Gone to the river.

...because of the snow yesterday.
I paused by a bench on the Vera Katz Esplanade, right down at the level of the water.  Flotsam drifted by.  The fuscous water slid at me, passing under my feet.  For an instant it seemed I stood at the prow of a sloop pushing her way against the current.

On the river --when you're on the river --whatever slides by on the river banks --thirsty fields, cities, lovers shy and brazen, acts of heartbreak, acts of heroism --is passing distraction, mild curio.  It is human to invest yourself in it.  But foolish. 

Because the river sweeps you past it all.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

David Mitchell and Cormac McCarthy

David Mitchell

As far as living fiction writers go, I've discovered two whom I've inducted into my personal pantheon of Great WritersTM.  (I'm sure there are more to discover.)

David Mitchell has written five novels in the last twelve years.  Judging from the quality of the three I've read, that's prolific.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas, and number9dream were each outstanding.  Not "good," not "entertaining."  Outstanding. 

Consider this passage from number9dream:
Inside, a man flies through the air, and through a mirror on the far side of the room. The mirror breaks into applause --the man drops out of view, to the drone-packed parlor below. The scene lurches. I gape --did I do that? Pachinko din from downstairs fills the office, unfiltered. Morino watches me from behind the desk with a finger on his amused lip and one ear cupped. I just have time to register the three horn players --they did the hurling -- and Mama-san knitting, before the chain reaction from below breaks out. Chaos, screaming, shouting. Morino rests his elbows on the desk. His smile is deep contentment. A jag of mirror falls from the frame. From outside Leatherjacket closes the door behind me. The cyclone subsides as the stampede clears the pachinko parlor below. Lizard and Frankenstein peer through the frame to inspect the damage. Morino sort of smiles with his eyelids. "Fine timing, Miyake. You witnessed my declaration of war."
This paragraph is packed full of information.  Note the brilliant use of metaphor:  "The mirror breaks into applause."  "The cyclone subsides..."  Note how descriptions of the characters reveal their natures:  "Morino sort of smiles with his eyelids."  Note how the paragraph pushes the action forward:  "A jag of mirror falls from the frame."  Masterful.

Mitchell writes with charm and humor.  But he can (and does) go dark.  He has a down-to-earth diction that is easy to channel.  

But more than his brilliant prose, it is the way Mitchell experiments with structure that sets him apart.  I'd call it ground-breaking.

Cloud Atlas, for example, is actually 6 subtly related stories, separated by centuries and spanning continents. The stories are nested within each other (recursive story-telling, if you will).  Each story is delivered in a different narrative voice (read my review of the novel here).  Mitchell's mastery is revealed in how he flits between them with pitch-perfect authenticity. 

Mitchell lists his profession as simply "novelist" which I find perfectly apropos.  Mitchell is blazing new trails.  He's redefining the art form. Reading David Mitchell makes me feel like a fool for even sitting at a keyboard.  I plan on gobbling up the remaining two novels, Black Swan Green and Ghostwritten, in the near future.  Plus anything Mitchell writes from here on out.  Mitchell is only 45 years old, which means, with any luck, I'll be reading his work for the rest of my life.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is the author of 10 novels, 2 screenplays, and 2 plays.  He's a brilliant writer, steeped in the tradition of that uniquely American genre, Southern Gothic.  I've read three of his novels, No Country for Old Men, The Road, and Blood Meridian.  McCarthy novels are like strong drink:  they should be taken in careful measure.  The worlds that he creates are dark and horrifying.

Consider this passage from The Road:
They went through the last of the cars and then walked up the track to the locomotive and climbed up to the catwalk.  Rust and scaling paint.  They pushed into the cab and he blew away the ash from the engineer's seat and put the boy at the controls.  The controls were very simple.  Little to do but push the throttle lever forward.  He made train noises and diesel horn noises but he wasn't sure what these might mean to the boy.  After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the track curved away in the waste of weeds.  If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same.  That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again.
Can we go, Papa?
Yes.  Of course we can.
The laconic narrative creates a sense of solitude and hopelessness.  His sparse punctuation and use of sentence fragments mimic human thought.  "Rust and scaling paint."  "Little to do but push the throttle lever forward."  Insight is delivered in lines weighted with painful wisdom:  "If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same.  That the train would sit there slowly decomposing for all eternity and that no train would ever run again."

McCarthy's eloquence is what first won me over.  At times, when reading him, I've been so horrified that I've been tempted to slam shut the book and try to forget what I've read.  But then he delivers one of his sublime, poetic passages that compel me to continue, to face the truth that he presents.  It's an act of courage.

As McCarthy himself said, "You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget."  

If you love literature, you can't go wrong with either of these authors.  Read anything by them that you can get your hands on.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bring back the draft

I had a conversation with an old friend recently. A military man.  Marines.  On his way to Afghanistan for his fourth tour of duty overseas.  Good friend, good man. 

Our conversation was spawned by the horrific news, last week, about the soldier that snapped and left his base in Kandahar province to murder 19 civilians (including a 2 year-old child) in their beds.  Well, as I've mentioned before on this blog, war breeds atrocities.

War is sometimes necessary, some will argue, in spite of its inherent evil.  Perhaps.  But if that is true, should not the burden of war fall equally upon all citizens of the nation engaged in it?  If the United States determines that it must go to war, who does the fighting?

As I mentioned to my friend, much more has been asked of him and his family (four tours overseas!) than of most Americans.  Even though our nation has been at war for over a decade, the events in Iraq and Afghanistan are little more than 10 minute segments on the television news for many.

In the early 2000s, when Junior was waving the bloody shirt for Iraq, Congressman Charlie Rangel (who was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service during the Korean War) put forth a proposal to reinstate the draft.  At the time, it seemed preposterous.  But with 10 bloody years of experience behind us, and with case after case of mentally-savaged combat veterans crumbling under the strain of disproportionate sacrifice, it seems a lot more reasonable.

My friend disagrees:
Dade, respectfully disagree with regard to the draft. An all volunteer force is well proven, albeit the Army has softened standards to meet recruitment, the Marines have nearly a year waiting list for boot camp. To these kids credit, they WANT to serve when they don’t have to, and, will water our eyes as they do their job in crappy conditions. Sure, it’s great resume fodder for future opportunities, but the draft isn’t needed, nor wanted by both military and civilian leadership.
I still disagree with the draft...and here's why. In short, let's take two an athlete gifted in many physical attributes, good stamina, intelligent,'type-A' sort; another somewhat less athletic, intelligent, aspergers- type-A sort of guy, more of an engineer type that can design a jet engine but can't ride a bike. Are you saying that you would put them in the same foxhole in combat, or, same cubicle at Lockheed-Martin? Exploring strengths, spiritual gifts, (whatever the term), works... That said, lessons learned from the Vietnam draft (and draft dodgers), is that morale sucks under conscription during war, and is a welfare program during peace. Draft dodgers will always hold the title of a union scab to military men.
Well, who wants to argue with a Marine about how to create an effective fighting unit?  Not me.  But, with all due respect to my friend, he's approaching the problem as a professional soldier.  My argument is sociological.

If we, as a society, determine that we must go to war, no one should be exempt from the sacrifice war requires.  Paraphrasing Representative Rangel:  "Declaring war without a draft is like saying 'Let's go fight.  Here, I'll hold your coat.'"

And there is this:  a draft might make debate over war a lot more serious and considered than it was for the Iraq lie.  One wonders how vociferously cowards like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, or Richard Perle would have argued for war if there was any possibility of their own kin being killed in it.  As it stands now, that bitter old adage has never been more true:

Rich man's war; poor man's fight.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book review: number9dream

Three for three with David Mitchell.  (32 = 9!)  Having just finished number9dream, the author's second novel, I am all the more convinced that what we have here, in David Mitchell, is a genius.  But, let's leave that aside in favor of discussing the book.

number9dream is the story of Eiji Miyake, a 19-year-old Japanese farm-boy out to find his unknown father in dazzling, polymorphous Tokyo in the early 21st century.  Eiji comes from the backwater island of Yakushima where he has spent his teen years couch-surfing from one uncle's house to the next.  Eiji's mother  abandoned him and his twin sister, Anju, early in their lives.  Anju's death, when Eiji is eleven, leaves him alone but for his anonymous father somewhere in Tokyo.

That's as much plot as I can, in good conscience, reveal.  But don't be fooled into thinking number9dream is just another "coming of age" story.  It's much more than that.

Eiji's adventures in the big city range from hilarious to horrifying to poignant.  Mitchell uses dream sequences, daydreams, and recursive story-telling (stories within stories) to great effect. (Mitchell expands on this technique in his subsequent novel, Cloud Atlas.)  The novel shifts between dream and reality often. Readers are sometimes uncertain of the distinction between the two.  Nested stories include an absurd tale about a goat that struggles to write (fashioned on Mitchell himself), the diary of a Japanese sailor assigned a suicide mission in World War II, and various dreams and fantasies imagined by Eiji. 

One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading Mitchell is in recognizing and deciphering the many clues and hints ("Easter Eggs," if you will) that he drops into the narrative.  For example, the book's title "Number 9 Dream" is also the name of a song on John Lennon's Walls and Bridges album.  John Lennon is Eiji's hero.  And like Eiji, real-life John Lennon never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother at an early age.  The number 9 also figures prominently throughout the novel.  There are 9 chapters in the book.  The book mentions nine different brands of cigarettes.  A computer virus invented by a brilliant computer hacker perpetuates itself through 99 iterations.  And so on.  (In Cloud Atlas, the magic number is 6).

The novel didn't grab me right away.  By the time I was through the first three chapters, I was convinced that this novel wasn't going to measure up to the other two Mitchell novels I've read.  But then things started coming together. 

Eiji Miyake is Mitchell's most sympathetic protagonist yet.  Eiji comes to Tokyo a dreamer and an escapist, but also a noble, honest and kind-hearted young man.  Mitchell draws Eiji so sincerely that readers can't help but root for him.

As I read the last few pages, I found I was already missing Eiji.  I found I was hoping things would work out for him.  I yearned for him to succeed.  I wished him the best.  It is rare to empathize with a character so strongly.

By all means, read this book!

Bravo, David Mitchell!

Friday, March 16, 2012

GOP candidates bag Portland debate

What?  No party?
According to Oregon Republican Party Chairman Allen Alley the GOP primary debate that was to take place in Portland on March 19th is cancelled.  There go my plans for Monday night.  Bummer! 

Really, though, it doesn't make much sense for the GOP candidates to have a debate in Oregon.  Consider:
  1. Oregon is as blue a state as they get.  Republicans do not hold a single state-wide office.  Governor Kitzhaber's current term is the fifth consecutive term in which Democrats have held the Governor's office.  Both senators and four of five Congressional Representatives are Democrats (including newly-elected Suzanne Bonamici).  Our 7 electoral votes have gone for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1984.  In short, Oregon is not fertile ground for Republicans.  Must be something in the soil. 
  2. By my count, there have already been 27 (!) GOP debates so far this election cycle.  And nearly every one of them has produced footage of one or another of the candidates saying something embarrassingly stupid.  Like when Rick Perry couldn't remember which three federal agencies he would eliminate.  Or when Hermann Cain complained that for every woman who came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, there were probably thousands who did not.  
  3. The reception that Republicans get in Portland, while loud and enthusiastic, is not all that friendly.  After his reception in the Rose City back in the late 80s, Bush the Elder called the Portland "the Beirut of North America."
Too bad.  I would have enjoyed welcoming Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to town.

Actually, there's no need to cancel the debate entirely.  Newt committed to attending back when the debate was announced.  And, as far as I'm concerned, Newt is all that is needed.  He's got at least 90 minutes worth of contradictory positions.  He could have a debate all by himself.

Dig that grin!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Coach Miles and the Hustlin' Owls do it again!

My old college alma mater, Oregon Institute of Technology, triumphed yet again in the Division II NAIA Men's Basketball championship.  Congratulations to Coach Danny Miles and all the Hustlin' Owls!  (Read about the game here.)  The Owls exploded in the second half to overwhelm the Northwood University (Florida) Seahawks, 63-46.  With this win, the Owls tie Bethel, Indiana for most Division II national championships at three.  All 3 titles came under the leadership of Coach Miles.  The other two were in 2004 and 2008.

My place of employ (being a high-tech company) has many OIT alumni (engineering students) on the payroll so there is a lot of strutting and woofing going on today at work. 

OIT's success is a point of pride for me not only because I'm an OIT alumnus, but because Danny Miles is a lifelong friend of the Cariaga clan.  My dad and Danny came to OIT at about the same time, back in the late 60s.  They spent a lot of time together over the years.  When Dad passed in 2001, Danny organized a get-together with some of Dad's football players, my brothers and I, and some of the OIT coaches.  We hung out in the press booth up above dark and empty Moehl Stadium, had a drink or two, and told stories about Dad.  I've always been grateful to Danny for that.

So, congratulations to OIT Hustlin' Owls everywhere on this big victory.  And special congratulations to Coach Danny Miles:  a dear friend to my family, and one hell of a basketball coach.

From the Oregon Tech Athletics web site:

Danny Miles

Danny Miles will begin his 41st campaign at Oregon Tech when the 2011-12 Hustlin’ Owls take to the hardwoods in November. Miles has led Oregon Tech to two NAIA II National Championships, in both 2004 and 2008, while leading Oregon Tech to a NAIA national tournament "Sweet 16" appearance in 2011, finishing with a 30-5 overall mark, including a perfect 19-0 home record - The Owls’ third undefeated season in a row. Miles home win streak now stands at a school-record 57 straight. In the last 15 seasons, Miles has led his squads to an overall 424-110 (.794) record with 13 trips to the NAIA Division II National Tournament. Oregon Tech’s tournament record stands at 28-11, including 13-straight wins in first round games.  Oregon Tech holds the record for most wins at the division II tournament. In his tenure at Oregon Tech Miles has guided 16 men’s basketball teams to the national tournament.
On April 21, 2005 Miles was honored by his alma mater Southern Oregon University as the recipient of the 2005 Distinguished Alumnus Award at a dinner held in his honor on the SOU campus. In March of 2001 Miles was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in Point Lookout, Missouri. He was then awarded the Favell Museums Klamath County Western Heritage Award later that spring. In 1996 Miles was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. He also has attained similar recognition as a charter member in both the Southern Oregon University and the city of Medford Halls of Fame for his outstanding athletic fortunes.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Afghanistan nightmare

Lord, remember your children in Afghanistan!

The mass murder of 16 people, including 9 children, by a staff sergeant from Fort Lewis is a vision from hell. Initial reports are that the victims were killed in their beds or execution style.  A 2 year-old child is among the dead.

The vision is made all the more appalling in how it illuminates the chasm between US policy and reality in Afghanistan.  There is no purpose to our presence there.  Any purpose we may have had was swallowed up  years ago by the savagery, the cruelty.  As John Gardner wrote in Jason and Medeia:  "War proves itself."

We chose war over law enforcement in our response to 911.  One decade later, the horror continues to grow. 

The perpetrator of the crime must, of course, be prosecuted with the full weight of the law. That is, if we choose to maintain that we are a nation of laws.  If we can't control our military, why bother to keep up the pretense?

It is possible that this latest atrocity, committed by the staff sergeant from Fort Lewis could be one of those catalytic historical phenomena that change everything.  A single grain pushed off the weighting platform of a delicately balanced scale.  Beam forsakes equilibrium.  World tilts.  Maybe. 

Regardless, these 11 years have brought horrors and suffering far beyond anything we were led to expect by war's advocates.  Are we any wiser for it?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kitchen remodel - before

Goodbye old kitchen!
Tonight is the eve of a major transformation to the Cariaga hacienda. By the end of the day tomorrow, our old kitchen will no longer exist; the new (with alder cabinetry, ample lighting, electric hood, built-in dishwasher, stainless-steel sink, garbage disposal, quartz counter-tops, et alia) will have begun to form out of the wreckage.

Gulp!  It's a big (expensive) step.

We've gone over the plans for the new kitchen in fine detail.  We've asked the contractor all the questions we can think of to ask.  We've been judicious in balancing need and luxury.  We've picked out colors and tiles and cabinet handles.

But it still feels like we're going into this thing blind-folded.  Or, at least, with vision obscured.  Who knows what financial landmines might be revealed as the contractors strip away the passé?  I've heard horror stories about remodels that reveal hitherto unknown problems with the house.  Problems that raise remodeling costs well beyond any worst-case scenarios.

And what, really, will the new kitchen look like?  We've seen the computer mock-ups.  We've examined and compared the various cabinet stains.  We have a vague notion. 

But the only way to ultimately know what the new kitchen will be and how it will work is to see it upon completion.  Which, if all goes according to schedule, will be 5 weeks hence. 

In the meantime, Maty and I will be eating from the refrigerator and microwave (which will be relocated into our living room), taking advantage of the numerous restaurants in our neighborhood, and coping with workmen being in our house all the livelong day.

I'll post photos of the completed job.   With any luck, we will witness our very own Ugly Duckling fable.

Wish us luck!


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Book review: Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent's Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is probably as close to an exhaustive history of Prohibition in the United States as one can reasonably expect.  Okrent covers it all:  the sodden state of the general populace in the pre-Prohibition days, the utterly bizarre coalition of forces that made Prohibition possible, the myriad personalities, both dry and wet, that inhabited the political and cultural landscape throughout, and Prohibition's legacy, which is still with us today.

That old adage about politics making strange bedfellows was never more clearly demonstrated than in the decades leading to passage of the 18th Amendment, invoking Prohibition.  Okrent describes the unlikely coalition of suffragists, Southern Baptists, Ku Klux Klan, moralists, Know-Nothings, wealthy industrialists, and women suffering from abuse and neglect by drunken spouses that held together to make Prohibition a reality.  Mistrust and scape-goating between the nation's brewers and distillers, as well as full doses of nativist xenophobia and Bible-thumping racism provided kindling to the unlikely fire.  Colorful historical figures (William Jennings Bryant, Carrie Nation, and political wizard, Wayne Wheeler, among others) completed the forumla.

The book is dense.  Jam-packed with information.  The subject-matter, of course, requires it.  But keeping track of the various players and factions is arduous.  At times, the book is a bit dry (no pun intended).  Okrent is not a poet, but he does liven up the text with humor and simile (with varying degrees of success).

For those fascinated with history, this is an enjoyable book.  Readers might be surprised to learn just how much of the current national zeitgeist is a legacy of the crazy Prohibition era.  When one reads about how hypocrisy, greed, and appeals to base prejudice and ignorance combined to manifest perhaps the biggest farce in national history, it is easier to understand the stultifying behavior of our own modern-day politicians.

In today's United States, the idea that a coalition could form to pass a Constitutional Amendment is nigh on inconceivable.  And how much more so the idea of an amendment that so fundamentally affects individual life-styles?  But, as Okrent points out, it was no less unimaginable in the late 1800s, when the Prohibition movement first stirred to life.  Inconceivable.  But it happened.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Tortilla Flat: The vieja doubts the Blessed Virgin

Dad would sometimes quote from the works of John Steinbeck.  Dad was a big fan of Steinbeck.  He read nearly everything the man ever wrote.  If there were ever a screen adaptation of the writer's work (Cannery Row, East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, et alia), Dad was sure to tune in.

So, naturally, Steinbeck was one of the first "great" authors I read. Sister Paige and I both went through a "Steinbeck phase," where we read everything we could get out hands on.

Steinbeck wrote about life in next-door California, which may explain why his work resonated.  There is a certain mindset among people that live on the Pacific coast.  As a lifelong Oregonian, that mindset is part of me.  I felt a kinship with Steinbeck because of it.

I also attribute my political attitudes to Steinbeck.  I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, after all.  If you have any doubts about where Steinbeck stood on political issues, read Grapes of Wrath.  That'll straighten you right out.

Right-wingers can have Ayn Rand.  I'll take Steinbeck any day.

Today, an excerpt from Steinbeck's wise and hilarious novella, Tortilla Flat. The book describes the lives and adventures of Danny's Friends, a group of paisanos, living near Salinas, California in the 1920s.  In this (abridged) story, hard times have fallen upon the household of Teresina, a local woman with a passel of fatherless children.
Excerpt from John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat, Chapter XIII:  How Danny's Friends threw themselves to the aid of a distressed lady.

SEÑORA Teresina Cortez and her eight children and her ancient mother lived in a pleasant cottage on the edge of the deep gulch that defines the southern frontier of Tortilla Flat. Teresina was a good figure of a mature woman, nearing thirty. Her mother, that ancient, dried, toothless one, relict of a past generation, was nearly fifty. It was long since any one had remembered that her name was Angelica.

During the week work was ready to this vieja's hand, for it was her duty to feed, punish, cajole, dress, and bed down seven of the eight children. Teresina was busy with the eighth, and with making certain preparations for the ninth.

On Sunday, however, the vieja, clad in black satin more ancient even than she, hatted in a grim and durable affair of black straw, on which were fastened two true cherries of enameled plaster, threw duty to the wind and went firmly to church, where she sat as motionless as the saints in their niches. Once a month, in the afternoon, she went to confession. It would be interesting to know what sins she confessed, and where she found the time to commit them, for in Teresina's house there were creepers, crawlers, stumblers, shriekers, cat-killers, fallers-out-of-trees; and each one of these charges could be trusted to be ravenous every two hours.

Is it any wonder that the vieja had a remote soul and nerves of steel? Any other kind would have gone screaming out of her body like little skyrockets.

You will wonder how Teresina procured food for her family. When the bean threshers have passed, you will see, where they have stopped, big piles of bean chaff. If you will spread a blanket on the ground, and, on a windy afternoon, toss the chaff in the air over the blanket, you will understand that the threshers are not infallible. For an afternoon of work you may collect twenty or more pounds of beans.

In the autumn the vieja and those children who could walk went into the fields and winnowed the chaff. The landowners did not mind, for she did no harm. It was a bad year when the vieja did not collect three or four hundred pounds of beans.

When you have four hundred pounds of beans in the house, you need have no fear of starvation. Other things, delicacies such as sugar, tomatoes, peppers, coffee, fish, or meat, may come sometimes miraculously, through the intercession of the Virgin, sometimes through industry or cleverness; but your beans are there, and you are safe. Beans are a roof over your stomach. Beans are a warm cloak against economic cold.

Only one thing could threaten the lives and happiness of the family of the Señora Teresina Cortez; that was a failure of the bean crop.

When the beans are ripe, the little bushes are pulled and gathered into piles, to dry crisp for the threshers. Then is the time to pray that the rain may hold off. When the little piles of beans lie in lines, yellow against the dark fields, you will see the farmers watching the sky, scowling with dread at every cloud that sails over; for if a rain comes, the bean piles must be turned over to dry again. And if more rain falls before they are dry, they must be turned again. If a third shower falls, mildew and rot set in, and the crop is lost.

When the beans were drying, it was the vieja's custom to burn a candle to the Virgin. In the year of which I speak, the beans were piled and the candle had been burned. At Teresina's house, the gunny sacks were laid out in readiness.

The threshing machines were oiled and cleaned.

A shower fell.

Extra hands rushed to the fields and turned the sodden hummocks of beans. The vieja burned another candle.

More rain fell.

Then the vieja bought two candles with a little gold piece she had kept for many years. The field hands turned over the beans to the sun again; and then came a downpour of cold streaking rain. Not a bean was harvested in all Monterey County. The soggy lumps were turned under by the plows.

Oh, then distress entered the house of Señora Teresina Cortez. The staff of life was broken; the little roof destroyed. Gone was that eternal verity, beans. At night the children cried with terror at the approaching starvation. They were not told, but they knew. The vieja sat in church, as always, but her lips drew back in a sneer when she looked at the Virgin. "You took my candles," she thought. "Ohee, yes. Greedy you are for candles. Oh, thoughtless one." And sullenly she transferred her allegiance to Santa Clara. She told Santa Clara of the injustice that had been done. She permitted herself a little malicious thought at the Virgin birth. "You know, sometimes Teresina can't remember either," she told Santa Clara viciously.

It has been said that Jesus Maria Corcoran was a greathearted man. He had also that gift some humanitarians possess of being inevitably drawn toward those spheres where his instinct was needed. How many times had he not come upon young ladies when they needed comforting. Toward any pain or sorrow he was irresistibly drawn. He had not been to Teresina's house for many months. If there is no mystical attraction between pain and humanitarianism, how did it happen that he went there to call on the very day when the last of the old year's beans was put in the pot?

He sat in Teresina's kitchen, gently brushing children off his legs. And he looked at Teresina with polite and pained eyes while she told of the calamity. He watched, fascinated, when she turned the last bean sack inside out to show that not one single bean was left. He nodded sympathetically when she pointed out the children, so soon to be skeletons, so soon to die of starvation.

Then the vieja told bitterly how she had been tricked by the Virgin. But upon this point Jesus Maria was not sympathetic.

"What do you know, old one?" he said sternly. "Maybe the Blessed Virgin had business some place else."

"But four candles I burned," the vieja insisted shrilly.

Jesus Maria regarded her coldly. "What are four candles to Her?" he said. "I have seen one church where She had hundreds. She is no miser of candles."

At Danny's house they held a conference.

This must not be told in some circles, for the charge might be serious.

Long after midnight four dark forms who shall be nameless moved like shadows through the town. Four indistinct shapes crept up on the Western Warehouse Company platform. The watchman said, afterward, that he heard sounds, investigated, and saw nothing. He could not say how the thing was done, how a lock was broken and the door forced. Only four men know that the watchman was sound asleep, and they will never tell on him.

A little later the four shadows left the warehouse, and now they were bent under tremendous loads.

Pantings and snortings came from the shadows.

At three o'clock in the morning Teresina was awakened by hearing her back door open. "Who is there?" she cried. There was no answer, but she heard four great thumps that shook the house. She lighted a candle and went to the kitchen in her bare feet. There, against the wall, stood four one-hundred-pound sacks of pink beans.

Teresina rushed in and awakened the vieja. "A miracle!" she cried. "Come look in the kitchen." The vieja regarded with shame the plump full sacks. "Oh, miserable dirty sinner am I," she moaned. "Oh, Holy Mother, look with pity on an old fool. Every month thou shalt have a candle, as long as I live."
A beautiful story of doubt and faith, no? One might say that Teresina's family was saved from starvation by pilfering lay-abouts. But good luck in trying to convince the vieja of that.  To her, everything is owed to the Mother of God.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Rah, rah, Ricky!

Okay, so maybe he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but at least a President Santorum would keep us safe from --er --well --never mind...
Former (Republican) Congressman Bob Ney, who now works for Talk Radio News Service reports that, heading into the big Super Tuesday Republican primary in Ohio, he received the following robocall from the Santorum campaign:
“Hi, my name is Brian Camenker; I’m a Jew from Massachusetts.
“And, this is Darcy Brandon; I’m a Christian from California. If you believe as we do that marriage and sexuality should only be between a man and a woman, please help us stop Mitt Romney.”
“As Governor, Romney signed ‘Gay Youth Pride Day’ proclamations, promoted homosexuality in our elementary schools, and unconstitutionally ordered state officials to make Massachusetts America’s first same-sex marriage state. Romney supports open homosexuality in the military, the appointment of homosexual judges, and the ENDA law, making it illegal to fire a man who wears a dress and high heels to work, even if he’s your kid’s teacher. When you vote tomorrow, please vote for social sanity and Rick Santorum, NOT for homosexuality and Mitt Romney.”
So, forgive my ignorance, but who are Brian Cameker and Darcy Brandon? I mean, besides being "a Jew from Massachusetts" and "a Christian from California?" (Never mind Muslims. We all know that they're in cahoots with homosexuals, anyway.) Whoever they may be, Ohio Republicans can be glad that Mr. Cameker and Ms. Brandon have clearly delineated the differences between Santorum and Romney.

A vote for Santorum is a vote for procreative, missionary-position sex (which, Santorum assures us, is the only sex that God approves of), while a vote for Romney will have us all hanging out around public restrooms late at night.

And, people please! If we don't act now to protect our kids from cross-dressing school teachers, next thing you know we'll all be buying feminine hygiene products at the grocery store!

Okay, sarcasm aside, let's have a look at what's going on here. It's Super Tuesday. Ten states hold primaries throughout the nation, with 419 of the 1144 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination at stake. Romney is in good position to win the lion's share of those delegates. After all, Santorum and Newt Gingrich didn't even make the ballot in Virginia, which is one of today's primary states.

So, for Santorum, Ohio looms large. 

Santorum's been shooting his mouth off a lot, lately, and it's hurt him. Since his big three state sweep last month, Santorum's gone from serious contender to ostracized religious fanatic. But in this age of mega-rich political donors, all Santorum needs to stay afloat is to show even a little electoral strength. Santorum's Daddy Warbucks, Foster Friess, who advocates aspirin between a woman's knees as the most effective birth control method, is surely willing to cut another fat check if he thinks Santorum has any momentum.

But what does it reveal about the nature of Santorum's support that, in pulling out all the stops to win votes, he falls back on that old Republican stem-winder: the Homosexual Menace? Could there possibly be a more condescending and contemptuous appeal to ignorance and fear?

What a sad, sad joke.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Mount Tabor casualty

Yesterday, one of the big Dougs up on Tabor fell over dead.  It was there near the children's playground over by the restrooms where you can get a good look at decapitated St. Helens, weather permitting.

The tree fell some time around nine in the morning.  People were in the playground when it finally succumbed.  It caused quite a stir amongst the on-lookers according to the Parks employee who was limbing the corpse.  "You don't see a hunerd foot tree fall every day," is how he put it.  Thankfully, no one was in the way.

A tree 100 feet tall.  Assuming it grew at 20 inches per year (a reasonable average for a Douglas-fir) the tree lived for 60 years.

But trees die in slow-motion.  Where the trunk had snapped, about three feet from the ground, one could see that insects had been at the heartwood for a while.  The tree had been dead on its feet for a decade or more. 

Tunnels wormed through the rotted wood.  I imagined generations of termites, for whom the world of the dead Douglas-fir was an eternity, a universe entire.  Would the event of the tree's fall be the dimly-recalled cataclysm to haunt future generations of termites? 

On a happier note (perhaps), crocuses, delicate harbingers of springtime, were up and out. They spread wide their petals, like young women welcoming handsome lovers to bed.  In this case, the sunlight, which has grown stronger of late.  In these last days of winter.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Good with my people

Ross Cariaga: traveling Beaver
Dad's spirit paid a visit today.  I got email from his old teammate.  James Funston, left tackle. (They played both ways back then.  "We were the Light Brigade," said James.  "I weighed 205 lbs."  Nowadays, of course, 205 lbs. would scarcely make a fleet-footed cornerback.)

The 1962 Oregon State University Beavers football team is being inducted into that school's Hall of Fame in September of this year.  Fifty years after they last took the field.  James is contacting teammates (or their surviving families) to inform them of the event. 

"If you come, there'll be some guys there who can tell you stories about your dad," James said.  He chuckled.  "I might have a couple stories for ya, too."  I can well imagine.  Dad and James were young men in college in the early 60s.

I informed my sibs about the encounter and was overwhelmed with enthusiastic queries.  "What is the event?"  "We want tickets!"  "Maybe we should rent a box at the game!"  Everyone wanted to come.

Dad's ghost still stirs up the Tribe.  

Mom, Sister Mia, and Brother-in-law Tim at my 50th birthday party last month
Then, this evening, Mom called from LAX.  She and Doug are on their way to South America.  Peru, specifically.  And from there, Chile and Argentina.  With a stop in Rio.  Mom and Doug, snow-birding in Arizona, traveling the world, living the good life of retirement.  The life they've earned.

I asked Mom if she remembered James Funston, but she didn't.

Maty and I picked up dinner from the Thai restaurant down the street.  Pumpkin curry and pad woon sen.  It wasn't spicy enough, but we didn't mind.  We munched our food out of the cartons and talked about what the house will be like when our new kitchen is ready.  Six week countdown.

A good day.  Mom is traveling abroad, sibs are planning a reunion, Maty and I are dreaming of our future, and Dad breezed through. 

Things are good with my people.