Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Assessment and orientation

Laurelhurst Park sets the mind to right on days like this one. Brooding, mundane days when one hears all too well the rattle in the mind's closet.

In the afternoon, a dishwater sky weighed down on Portland. Morose, yes, but Rose City instincts are keen against the rain. We knew it would not. People dressed in hoodies and sweatshirts to walk their dogs. No umbrellas. No hats.

At the foot of the red brick stairway on the park's north side, a wide-eyed toddler held his mother's hand, mouth agape. His tottering steps indicated that the little fellow had not been walking long. To him, the world was new and wondrous. He gaped at me as I walked past, so I smiled and gave him a little wave.

His young mother smiled back, knowingly, and I wondered if she thought I had children of my own. Or maybe she thought I had grandchildren.

Shane and Kirsty sang in my earbuds:
I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you
These moments come at odd intervals --these moments of assessment and orientation.

How did I get here? I never planned it. It just happened.

And I have no regrets. How could I? With everything I've been given?

Monday, February 25, 2013


Stuff to do on a fair weather Sunday that urged relaxation and mellowness. Things needed getting done. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

I took the wheel. We set out into the thick, slow Sunday traffic.

The drive to Winco was a slalom. I darted from lane to lane, trying to find those extra few seconds. Between over-the-shoulder lane change glances, I kept an eagle-eye on the road, anticipating and trying to avoid snarl-ups.

It availed us little. An elderly woman in the car just ahead could not make up her mind whether to turn or continue on. Her car hung suspended at the corner, impeding our progress while she considered. The signal blinked like a dim child.

Winco was packed with families doing their weekly shopping. My heart sank when I beheld the full parking lot and the long check-out lines. Maty led the way and I pushed the cart. Anxiety rose as I sought to negotiate around shoppers standing mid-aisle gawking at the dazzling displays of laundry detergents, frozen pizzas, hamburger patties, homogenized milk. They did not think to move their carts to one side or the other.

Our list was short, but it was not a quick stop. My foot tapped as we stood in the line.

Back to the car and another frantic sprint through traffic. Our house guests would arrive anon and there were still things to do. We unloaded quickly and I dashed back out for a birthday cake for Sister Chae.

There was a line at the Baskin Robbins, where I was to purchase the icecream cake. The woman in front of me was chatty. She chatted with the girl behind the counter. She inquired about the ice cream. She inquired about the girl's heritage. She was delighted that the girl was American Indian. Did the girl know that she, the chatty woman, was American Indian, too?

My jaw ached from gritting my teeth.

Grabbed the cake and headed back. Maty was already cooking. I got the grill going and threw on the burgers.

Somehow everything came together at the appointed time. Everything, that is, except for our guests. They called to say they'd be about an hour late.

After the call, I was rueful.

I'd spent all that energy steering the car, steering the shopping cart, steering myself --steering to avoid, steering to save time --and I still ended up in the same place, with events unfolding in their own time.

 There is a larger lesson there somewhere.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Galactic/Latyrx at the Crystal

Latyrx rocks the Crystal
At my age, shows that don't start until 9:30pm are a challenge. Nonetheless, Jeanine Potts and I rallied last night to attend a late-night show at Portland's Crystal Ballroom. Featured was Galactic, a funk/jam band out of New Orleans with a new album called Carnivale Electros. San Fransisco's high-energy hiphop band, Latyrx (pronounced la-TEE-rex) opened.

Latyrx generated a ton of energy with their rapid-fire, hard-hitting lyrics. It's more performance art than music. The ensemble consisted of frontmen Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker, backed up by a drummer and a deejay. (I've never been clear on what a deejay does... Is it just a matter of playing samples?)

Their tunes are chock-full of hard-hitting rap lyrics. The word count of each song would probably match that of many short novels and the ideas expressed therein come at you so fast that it's nearly impossible to follow them real-time. (Remember that old cliché about drinking from a fire hose?) The message was generally positive and the set did not let up.

Galactic takes the stage
Galactic took the stage sometime around 11pm.

The core band consists of 5 members: Jeff Raines (guitars), Robert Mercurio (bass), Richard Vogel (keyboard), Ben Ellman (saxes, harmonica), and Stanton Moore (drums). They were joined by a trombonist and vocalist (whose names I did not catch).

As one expects from a "jam band," the set consisted of long extended jams and solos that highlighted the astounding musicianship of the band members. Everyone excelled, but in particular Mercurio's mid-show bass solo was one of the best I've seen. And Stanton Moore played the entire set without a break. (He seemed to revel in it.)
Latyrx's Lyrics Born joins Galactic onstage
The band played a mix of original material and covers (I particularly enjoyed their rock solid cover of "I am the Walrus.")

We left before the encore at about 1am. Great show. The Crystal Ballroom, with its suspended dance floor, is a unique venue, and the Galactic audience is positive and mellow.

Latyrx made me a fan. I'll definitely be adding them to my Pandora play list. Galactic, of course, was already on it.

If you get a chance, go see either/both of these bands.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rachel Maddow reopens the lies of Iraq

Rachel Maddow's new documentary, which first aired on MSNBC on Monday night (and which you can view here), recounts the story of how the Bush administration fabricated its case for war against Iraq. And although I can already hear right-wing apologists complaining about the "inherent bias" of MSNBC and Rachel Maddow, the case she presents is irrefutable.

In case you missed it, I provide this succinct summary: the Bush administration lied to start a war that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.

For anyone who was paying attention back then, at the beginning of the last decade, this is nothing new. Rachel's documentary covers how the administration promoted lie after lie: the Prague meeting between Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence officers that Dick Cheney promoted on Meet the Press, Condi Rice's aluminum tubes, Curveball, the Iraqi informer with his own agenda.

Rachel doesn't go into motives in her documentary. But it's easy enough for me to speculate. Dick Cheney, Junior, Condi, Rummy, and all the bit players (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, and more) --each had his own motives, not one of which was "serving the public interest."

Watching this documentary reignited the burning hatred (and, yes, I use that word carefully) I hold for these irredeemable scoundrels.

So long as these people go unpunished (and I've given up any hope of justice) our high-minded egalitarian ideals are just chaff in the wind. Any fool who's managed to stay alive long enough knows that the notion of human justice is a childish fantasy.

I don't know. Maybe that's just how it is. Maybe the power hierarchy, where some people operate above the law, is an inherent part of civilization.

Thank you, Rachel Maddow, for compiling a comprehensive account of the lies and deception that the Bush administration used to fool the people of the United States. I knew back then, and your documentary was a painful reminder: we'll be paying for their villainy for the rest of my life.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Harbingers of spring

A seasonable weekend here in Portland. Temperatures run in the mid- to high-forties. The sky is bright and white and uncertain, like a precocious child.

I noticed the crocuses this morning, walking to Fred Meyer. They strained blindly toward the lights, petals closed.

I saw them again on the way home. Their petals were wide as fledgling beaks awaiting the worm.

It must have happened quickly. The interval between the two sightings was no more than 20 minutes. If I'd stayed to watch, I might have seen it.

As the worry-worn among us will note, there is yet another month of winter to go and we might still have snow. It has happened before.

But on a weekend like this weekend, it's hard to believe.

And why would the Great Whatever play with our hopes like that?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mitch McConnell's a stoner now?

"And so, I'd like to thank my colleagues from Oregon for... uh, what now? Wow! Have you ever noticed how blue the carpet is on the Senate floor? Say! Does anybody have any Cheetos? Nothing satisfies like Cheetos!"
I caught this little snippet in the Daily Beast and just about lost my cookies!

Kudos, first of all, to my two senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who are sponsoring legislation to allow industrial production of hemp at a federal level. This legislation would allow farmers to legally cultivate industrial hemp without fear of federal prosecution. (Oregon farmers can grow hemp without violating any state laws, but the legislation proposed by Wyden and Merkley (my favorite senator) would remove the federal penalties for doing so.)

What blew my mind was that Senate Minority Leader (and arch-Republican) Mitch McConnell has signed on as a cosponsor of the bill!

Why? Because hemp is a species of Demon Weed! Ganja! Marijuana!

Currently the federal government considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 drug, like heroin or LSD or other, more dangerous drugs. The designation has always been ridiculous, but I've come to expect idiocy and hysteria from the GOP. Previous attempts to remove the designation from hemp have been met with horrified protestations that it would put us on a path to (gasp!) COMPLETE LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA!

So, what the hell? Has Mitch McConnell had some kind of mind-opening epiphany?

I'm doubtful. Rather, I'd suggest a couple more likely possibilities.

One is that McConnell is trying to present a new face to Kentuckians. He's up for reelection in 2014, and according to polls in his home state, he's in real trouble with his constituency. The Blue Grass state's legislature is currently working on a bill that would legalize hemp production, just as we have done in Oregon. If McConnell can remove the federal prohibition, he's bound to win favor with hemp farmers in Kentucky and demonstrate to all Kentuckians the advantages of having such a powerful senator (whom they should, of course vote for next year).

Another possibility is that this is an effort by McConnell to get the GOP to loosen up a little bit; to not appear to be anathema to anyone under 40. Any time a politician on the national level makes an announcement, you can bet that the issue has been poll-tested and checked out long before he stands at the microphone. And the results of the election in November demonstrated clearly that the GOP needs to improve its image with vast swathes of the electorate. Could this be McConnell's opening bid?

I'll tell ya, though... the best thing Mitch could do to show that he's really changed his ways is to sit down with one of his staffers and get high. (And you just know there's a toker or two on McConnell's staff.) In fact, if Republicans in Congress hit the bong once a week or so, our politics would be a lot less contentious. Hell, they might even manage to get some things done up on Capitol Hill!

So go ahead, Mitch! Take a little toke! It won't hurt ya.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Poor old Saint Valentine

Saint Valentine heals the blind girl
It's Valentine's Day! The day much of the world sets aside to celebrate love and lovers.

This day is named for an historically uncertain saint, Valentine, who was martyred by the Roman Emperor Claudius II sometime around 270 ano domini.

According to one legend, Saint Valentine was a bishop of the early Christian church in the Umbria region of Italy. In that era, it wasn't easy to be a Christian. Rome hadn't yet made the conversion and Christians were generally viewed with suspicion. They were the whacky religious cult of that day (similar to today's Oprah Winfrey fans).

Valentine ran afoul of local authorities by performing certain no-nos of the time. Specifically, he provided marriage services for Christians, which was expressly forbidden by Roman law.

A local judge, Asterius, had Valentine placed under house arrest and confined to the judge's own estate. But while thus confined, Valentine continued to work on Asterius, expounding the virtues of Christianity. Asterius resisted for the most part, but in the face of Valentine's persistence, proposed a test. Asterius had an adopted daughter who was blind. He told Valentine that if he could restore the girl's sight, ostensibly through his Christian faith, Asterius would do whatever Valentine asked of him.

The girl was brought before them, Valentine did his thing and --lo and behold! --the girl could see once again. Humble Asterius then bade Valentine instruct him as to how he could become more godly. "Destroy all the false idols in your home," replied Valentine. "Then fast for three days and return to me for baptism."

Asterius did as he was directed and, upon being baptized, was reborn. He immediately ordered the release of all Christians held in his dungeons.

If Valentine had left good-enough alone, it might have ended on that happy note. But you know how those bull-headed martyrs can be, eh? He continued to preach and advocate for Christians until he eventually attracted the notice of Emperor Claudius, himself.

Valentine proved to be a bit of a smooth-talker, apparently. When he was brought before the Emperor, he managed to gain Claudius' favor despite Valentine's "crimes." Legend has it that Claudius admired Valentine and was inclined to give him a pass up until Valentine, with that galling zeal that impels all evangelists, tried to convert Claudius to Christianity. In doing so, he pushed the envelope too far. Claudius had Valentine dragged out to the Flaminian Gate where he was beaten with clubs and then beheaded.

That day, the day Valentine laid his head on the axeman's block, is known as Saint Valentine's Day.

And with that, I bid you all a happy Valentine's Day. I suggest celebrating by exchanging gifts and smooches with loved ones. Don't go out and club anybody to death, eh?

Monday, February 11, 2013

The opposite of schadenfreude

Humiliation: the degradation of one's position in the eyes of others or one's self. It's a terrible thing to experience, certainly. But it is also terrible to witness it happening to someone else.

Don't get me wrong. There is a delectable schadenfreude in watching the demise of a high-profile villain like Karl Rove. But Rove is a public figure about whom most of us know nothing beyond his unethical public persona. I don't know Karl Rove from Adam, and that makes it easy to hate him.

It's a different story when the humiliated is a person in your own life --even if the humiliated person is not particularly likeable; even if you feel the humiliation is deserved.

Well, humiliation came crashing down on a person in my life recently; a person with whom I have very little in common; a person whom, were we not compelled by our jobs to interact, I would gladly exclude from my life. My relationship with this person has been grudging and vaguely antagonistic. I don't much like him, and I'm sure he doesn't care for me, either.

Nonetheless, it pained me to see him humbled. As events have unfolded, I've seen him transform from brash and callous to modest. He's considerate. He's diffident. He speaks in an abashed tone. It's as if he has called into question his own value as a person.

Over the years, this person and I have each made efforts to improve our relationship. (We have to work together, after all.) But try as we might, we never have much success. Put it down to widely divergent world-views.

But now that he's had his comeuppance, I'm experiencing more sympathy toward him than ever before. It has evoked a compassion in me that is the opposite of schadenfreude. I've been where he is right now and I know it to be a very lonely place.

The whole thing has taught me a valuable lesson: it hurts to see a person you know be humiliated. And that's because humiliation is something we all know through painful experience. No one gets through life without being humiliated.  

And knowing that makes it impossible to feel any triumph or smugness in my coworkers abasement.

As they say in France, "Mais par la grâce de Dieu j'y vais."

Friday, February 08, 2013

Burn, Karl, burn!

These are the Salad Days of national politics, Karl Rove. Salad Days.

The Republican party is in a shambles and at war with itself. John Boehner hates the Tea Party. Kentucky hates Mitch McConnell. Fox News hates Dick Morris and Sarah Palin. And, Karl, everyone hates you.

For me, it was enough that you humiliated yourself on election night. Your on-air meltdown when Fox called Ohio for President Obama was delightful. You had poor Megyn Kelly running back and forth between the set and the decision desk like a bleach-blonde marionette. I saw it live and savored every second. And I can't tell you how many times I've watched it on YouTube. It was like watching your worst enemy drowning in quicksand.

You spent $300 million to get Mitt Romney elected and win control of the Senate for the GOP and you failed spectacularly. That was money you'd suckered out of your plutocrat masters, and they didn't like it when they came up empty.

But here's the delicious irony: even though you blew through 300 million of their favorite dollars, you're responsible for the loss. You cost the GOP the Senate and perhaps even the White House. You're responsible for the GOP becoming the "stupid party." (Those are Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's words, by the way.)

Back in 2004, you calculated that Junior Bush could get elected to a second term by stoking the homophobic and racist flames inherent in the Republican party.

Well, it worked. Despite Junior being a filthy liar and Dick Cheney a soulless villain, the Know-Nothings, the racists, and the rednecks (collectively known today as the Tea Party) swung the election in Junior's favor.

But therein lies the problem. You relied on the Tea Party, and they knew it. They knew they were the key to Republican electoral victory. And that knowledge has made them boisterous and demanding. Now, they actually have the temerity to expect the GOP to implement the policies to which they paid lip service.

Immigration reform?

No! Deportation!

Diplomacy and international consensus?

No! Bomb Iran!

Health care coverage?

No! Ban abortion!

As you well know, this kind of rhetoric is anathema to most of the electorate. Racial minorities, women, and pretty much anyone under 40 is repulsed by it.

By your own estimate, the GOP lost 7 senate seats over the last two election cycles because of the antics of people like Todd Akin, who believes that women can't get pregnant from "legitimate" rapes. Or Christine O'Donnell who felt compelled to come on television and assure voters that she wasn't a witch.

And that leaves you to try to kill this monster that you helped create. Just this week you announced that you're forming a new PAC, the Conservative Victory Project, that is expressly designed to slap down koo-koo crazy Tea Party candidates.

I can tell you this, Karl. Those people you're trying to slap down are a hateful lot. And while they'll always hate liberals and gays and racial minorities, they'll reserve a special hatred for you and people like you. You'll be the Judas, the Betrayer. They'll blame you for every electoral beating they take for the next 20 years.

So raise your money and go out and fight them. Go for the throat! Lay waste!

You might destroy them or they might destroy you. Or you might destroy each other.

But no matter how it works out, know I'll be watching. Watching and laughing.


Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Drone attacks can now target US citizens

In September of 2011, a drone attack in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two American citizens. Although both men were suspected Al-Qaeda affiliates, neither had been charged with any crime, nor had they been indicted by any US Court.

Catch that? Two American citizens were killed by the government of the United States because they engaged in suspicious activity.

These killings were the result of a policy initiated by the Obama administration, the details of which were revealed in an exclusive story uncovered by veteran Washington reporter Michael Isikoff. A Justice Department memo, outlining policy, asserts that the United States government can summarily execute its own citizens. Further, the legal requirements for such an execution are very low. The memo states that "the condition that an operational  leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

Get it? The Justice Department asserts that the government can execute any American citizen whom the Justice Department deems might someday pose a threat to the United States. More bluntly, if you talk to the wrong people, the President can have you killed.

This issue, which has been simmering for at least 18 months, is now being brought to the fore because the Obama administration has nominated counter-terrorism adviser James Brennan to be the new Director of Central Intelligence. Brennan is an advocate and supporter of this policy.

At long last, and with the national election (conveniently) behind us so there can't be any meaningful debate, this blockbuster issue is getting some much-needed exposure.

I've never been comfortable with the drone policy. It would seem to be disastrous from a counter-terrorism standpoint. Although the Justice Department stresses that the attacks are targeted, when a bomb drops on a wedding or a funeral or a random village innocent bystanders will be killed. Americans don't generally worry too much when people in exotic places are killed by their government. But now that American citizens are included in the list of viable targets maybe we'll get some public outcry.

I'd love to blame all of this on Junior Bush and his rotten administration, but the truth is that although Bush expanded drone attacks during his term, President Obama has taken it to a whole new level. Killing American citizens by executive order!

Republicans looking for an impeachable offense would have one here, except that they don't have the stones for it. Besides, they no doubt see the usefulness of the policy. They'll be back in the White House one day, after all. This is bipartisan. (Can't you just see John McCain gleefully rubbing his hands together?) President Obama is merely advancing the whole misguided drone policy to its logical next state.

The drone genie got let out of the bottle a decade or more ago. Given the moral corruption of our corporate-owned government, it is hard to imagine that we'll ever get it back in.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Movie review: Silver Linings Playbook

Having seen three of the films from his canon, I now proclaim Director David O. Russell an authority on gritty and real East Coast America. Every one of the films I've seen (Flirting with Disaster, The Fighter, and now Silver Linings Playbook) is the story of an urban East Coast family dealing with very real and all too familiar demons. And each of them rings true, poignantly and at times hilariously.

In Silver Linings Playbook, the setting is suburban Philadelphia where Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a former school teacher, comes home to live with his parents, Pat Senior (Robert DeNiro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver) after a stint in a mental institution. Pat was diagnosed as bipolar after a violent incident involving his wife and her lover. But when Dolores gets Pat released from the hospital, he sets out to win back his wife's affections through clean living and positive thinking. As he goes about implementing his "silver linings playbook" he encounters a young woman named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) with problems of her own. Together, they make a deal to help each other achieve their goals despite the doubts and wariness of those around them.

Russell does a great job at presenting an authentic American family, with all its warts and virtues. The film touches on a plethora of common family neuroses: sibling rivalry, parental angst, spousal recriminations and resentments. Indeed, Robert DeNiro's (outstanding) supporting performance as a hot-headed but well-intentioned father, hit uncomfortably close to home for me.

This is a touching story. It's full of humor (at the viewing I attended, the audience laughed loudly several times) as well as angst. And it keenly illustrates the arbitrary nature of mental illness diagnoses. Very early on in the story it becomes clear that the two main characters, whom everyone deems to be crazy, are really no different than anyone else. Why is Pat any more crazy than his OCD father or his seething best friend or his worry-ridden mother?

It's a lesson that Pat and Tiffany learn as they take their emotional journey.

The movie's greatest charm is its sincerity. In fact, that is why I'm now a fan of David O. Russell. There's nothing pretentious about his flicks. They're gritty and real. Rather than focusing on set construction or fancy camera work, Russell puts his effort into telling real stories with sympathetic heroes. And he tells them from the heart. Who can't appreciate that?

Silver Linings Playbook is one of those films that makes you feel good because it reassures you. Yes, you're crazy, but it's okay. Because you sure as hell aren't alone.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Book review: The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's fascinating and highly-entertaining novel, The Shadow of the Wind, is difficult to describe. Is it a coming-of-age story? A comedy? A Gothic horror? The novel contains elements that lend themselves to each of those genres. Convincingly so. But Zafón is an adept and versatile writer and his novel defies blanket categorization.

The Shadow of the Wind is the first of four planned novels (as of this writing I believe only two of them have been written) that deal with a mysterious bibliotheca in Barcelona called the Cemetery of Lost Books.The novel's protagonist, Daniel Sempere, learns of the Cemetery when, at 10 years of age, his father takes him there to distract him from the death of his mother. The Cemetery is a labyrinth populated with obscure, mostly forgotten books. Daniel finds a book entitled "The Shadow of the Wind" by a mysterious author named Julián Carax, which Daniel reads and becomes enamored with. The book is such a rare find that, when a book collector catches wind of Daniel's discovery, word soon spreads. A host of characters, both good and evil, come into Daniel's life as a result, setting in motion a series of events that evoke dark shadows from Barcelona's past. All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and Franco's dictatorship.

The novel benefits from a complex plot and an extensive cast of fascinating, well-drawn characters. Zafón obviously delights in story-telling. Every character, from Daniel's sage and hilarious mentor, Fermín Romero de Torres to sinister Inspector Fumero, and even including the minor characters (taxi drivers, prostitutes, servants), has an elaborate background and history. The relationships between the characters and the complicated plot lines are testament to Zafón's skills as a novelist. It takes an enormous amount of skill to pull something like this off.

Although the novel is translated from Spanish, I think it was one of the better translations I've read. The prose was vivid and highly descriptive and the humor came through very well. (Parts of the novel, in particular some of the exchanges between Fermín and Daniel, were knee-slapping funny.)

I especially enjoyed references to places I had visited (Les Quatre Gats, for example) when I was in Barcelona in 1999.

The obvious comparison for any Spanish-language author is, of course, Gabriel García Márquez. But due to his sure-footed genre-hopping, I'd also compare Zafón with David Mitchell. In both cases, Zafón holds his own quite well.

The Shadow of the Wind is a great book. If you get the chance, read it!