Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Kicked off my winter stay-cation yesterday afternoon with a brisk hike up to the top of Mount Tabor.  A cool, gray Wednesday in the Rose City, just a few days into winter. I pushed at a pretty good pace to get the blood pumping, but it was full dark by the time I got back.

I'm through with work for the rest of the calendar year. I hope to close out 2014 doing the things I love best: reading, writing, going to the movies, playing games, and hanging with my African honey bee. Life is good.

Twenty-fourteen hasn't been a peaceful year. Neither for the world, nor for me, personally. Maty and I changed residence last summer, as told, and the stresses of that endeavor were compounded by stress and anxiety at our various workplaces, by health issues, by wars and rumors of wars. I try not to be troubled. All these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
Maty is working this Christmas morning: caring for sick and elderly people. She'll be home this afternoon, and we'll have our Christmas dinner and exchange gifts. Just the two of us, Muslim and  agnostic, celebrating Christmas.

Pumpkin pie ready for the oven
But I want to wish all of you --everyone out there whom I've had the honor of befriending, every cherished cousin, every good-hearted stranger who might stumble on this pronouncement --peace.

I wish you peace.

Pie's cooked! Merry Christmas, all! Peace and love!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Book review: The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell's sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, was an inevitable pick for my book club. We'd already read three of his previous novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas, and Ghostwritten) all of which were unanimously and thoroughly enjoyed. So Mitchell's latest seemed like a sure thing.

Well, although the novel is certainly an entertaining read, it failed to meet my expectations in some ways. And, among the members of my book club, I'm not alone. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Bone Clocks is the story of (among other things) an Irish woman named Holly Sykes. Rather than try to summarize the plot myself, I'll rely on Sceptre, David Mitchell's publisher:
In 1984, teenager Holly Sykes runs away from home, a Gravesend pub. Sixty years later, she is to be found in the far west of Ireland, raising a granddaughter as the world's climate collapses. In between, Holly is encountered as a barmaid in a Swiss resort by an undergraduate sociopath in 1991; has a child with a foreign correspondent covering the Iraq War in 2003; and, widowed, becomes the confidante of a self-obsessed author of fading powers and reputation during the present decade. Yet these changing personae are only part of the story, as Holly’s life is repeatedly intersected by a slow-motion war between a cult of predatory soul-decanters and a band of vigilantes led by one Doctor Marinus. Holly begins as an unwitting pawn in this war – but may prove to be its decisive weapon.
A much better synopsis than I could provide, with the added benefit that I can now proceed to what it is I like about the novel, and what I found lacking.

What I liked about the novel, first and foremost I suppose, is that it is David Mitchell. The man has a sublime talent for writing engaging, vivid prose. His dialog is so sharp it could slice sponge cake. The worlds he creates are not only mind-blowing but, more importantly, consistent and true to their own laws.

Which brings up another aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed: the continued unveiling of the David Mitchell universe. The Bone Clocks makes reference (in subtle ways) to all of the other David Mitchell novels published to date. The book is chock full of these "Easter eggs." I won't mention any specifics (wouldn't want to reveal any spoilers), but suffice it to say, I was regularly delighted, as I read this book, to discover that various characters were the very same that appeared in Black Swan Green or number9dream or Ghostwritten. Scenes that occurred in other novels are referenced in The Bone Clocks. I noticed many such references while reading this book, and I'm quite sure there are many I missed.

Also, The Bone Clocks is a contemporary novel in every sense of the word. Holly, the protagonist, is a teenager in 1984, which makes her a few years younger than me. At the end of the novel, she's in her sunset years living in a world that seems all too inevitable. Well, God willing, I'll live to see the accuracy of David Mitchell's future and I hope he's wrong!

What I didn't like about the novel: I found the long expository conversations about the nature of the two supernatural factions, the soul-decanters and the reincarnating vigilantes, to be tedious and a bit confusing. I'm sure David Mitchell has it all sorted in his head, and he relates the information through dialog rather than taking the easy way out (the way Margaret Atwood did with Oryx and Crake). Nonetheless, once the idea is fully exposed, it loses some of its intrigue. I found it much more tantalizing in Mitchell's other novels, when readers could only guess at the nature of the strange beings that appear from time to time.

But mostly, what I found disappointing about the novel was this: running throughout, there is a whiff (and just a whiff, mind you) of self-satisfaction. David Mitchell is widely acknowledged as one of the day's gifted novelists and I'm one of his biggest fans. But success is heady stuff. Or maybe it is that, when a writer attains a certain level of success, his editors become a bit more reluctant to use their red pens. In any case, The Bone Clocks seemed less "tight," less perfected than Mitchell's previous books.

That's the problem with being a virtuoso, I suppose. When you set the bar that high, people come to expect so much.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Grieving in the aftermath of the CIA torture report

The report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, the so-called "torture report," confirms a suspicion that many have had all along: the extent of the abuses perpetrated by CIA operatives was greater than previously known, and included techniques much more heinous than the (heinous enough) water-boarding.

I'm sick at heart, not only by the contents of the report, but also and more so by the reaction to it from many of my fellow citizens. Some random quotes from people with whom I've engaged on the topic:
  • "I feel no compassion for those animals."
  • "I will NEVER second guess or criticize those who put their lives on the line to keep all of us safe."
  • "When it comes to terrorists there are NO Christian values for them. We don't use Christian values on Muslim terrorists who want to kill all our people in the name of Ala [sic]." 
How easily cast aside, those little angels we've created to comfort ourselves! Matthew 5:39, the Geneva Convention, the Golden Rule --meaningless platitudes, one and all. People! Can't you see that torture debases not only the victims, but the perpetrators? It dehumanizes them. It makes them beasts.

Fear does ugly things to people. And people have been justifying atrocities in the name of God for thousands of years. There's nothing new in it. But to see it unfold before my own eyes... oh, America! I grieve!

Foolishly I'd hoped that at this point in life I might have endured most of my disillusionment. This report, and the reaction to it, exposes that sentiment as naive.

So I'll say this: for my part, I advocate prosecution of all perpetrators of torture, regardless of their nationality or faith and no matter the justifications they put forth. But the apologist voices (most of them, the very people who regularly complain that the United States has strayed from its "Christian values") ensure that that will never happen.

And I'll still allow myself one hope: the hope that I will never condone torture. To do otherwise would be to relinquish my humanity and I won't do it!

I pray I have the strength to live up to that conviction.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving brooding

The Dade of today
In the days before Thanksgiving, Mom and I had a conversation. We wondered how it would be to try to explain the world as it is today to departed loved ones. She mentioned Grandma Metzger and I was thinking about Dad.

The Dade that Dad would remember
Dad --Ross Cariaga, Junior --passed away in the spring of the Year of Our Lord, 2001. I remember how the world was in that time. I remember the world Dad knew. Two and a half months after Dad's passing, on September 11th, 2001, that world passed away as well.

Historical events shape our collective human perception of the world. On some fundamental level, Dad would not understand the world today.

That is a sad and strange thing to think about. Dad, whom I always believed to have unclouded perceptions, to be savvy and worldly-wise, would be rendered naive in today's world by an event that occurred just a few weeks after he passed.
The Dade that Grandma would remember
"Well, think of me and my mother," said Mom. "I'd have to start by explaining to her that there was no more Soviet Union!"

Indeed.  Gertrude Metzger passed in 1987. A very different world.

Certainly, Dad and Grandma would have marveled at the wonders of today's world. How strange would it seem to them to have a face-to-face conversation with someone a thousand miles away while sitting in a coffee shop? How difficult would it be for them to believe that the entire catalog of human knowledge was at their fingertips? Accessible from anywhere at any time?

And, while they would likely recognize today's horrors --they are, after all, the same four horsemen that have always beset mankind --they might be startled by the strange, new vestments in which Plague, War, Famine and Death appear. I don't believe Grandma ever heard anything about global warming. And Dad might find the ever-increasing magnitude of hurricanes and typhoons in the days since his passing to be unsettling.

I guess that's just the way of it, though. I don't suppose the world I know will long outlive me. But the human chronicle will continue to unfold.

For a time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Movie review: Interstellar

Having seen ("endured" is probably a better word) Christopher Nolan's new film, Interstellar, I'm befuddled by the favorable, even exuberant, reviews it has received.

Did I somehow wander into the wrong theater?

Interstellar is a film about near-future Earth, where environmental degradation is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is an honest farmer and former astronaut raising two children with the help of his father, Donald (John Lithgow). Cooper has been disrespected and unrecognized throughout his life: his wife died years earlier, the all-powerful school board has determined that his son cannot attend college, and the prospects for his daughter seem bleak. Cooper's future stretches before him like the dusty horizon. Nonetheless, he doesn't complain. Doggedly, heroically, he resigns himself to growing corn to feed the unseen masses that rely on his efforts. (He's holding up the world, don't you know?)

What a surprise, then, when Cooper is recruited by NASA to pilot a space craft through a recently-discovered wormhole to locate an alternate home for humanity. It's a risk that Cooper is reluctant to take. It would mean leaving his family. But the brains at NASA, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his biologist daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), prevail upon Cooper's inner martyr, convincing him that the risks he must take are worth it. It's for the sake of all of humanity, after all!

There were so many things wrong with this film that I don't really know where to start. But I guess I'll start with the acting. It was exceedingly poor. The child actors and the entire supporting cast were embarrassingly bad. Anne Hathaway was adequate. Acting heavyweights, Michael Caine and John Lithgow delivered mailed-in performances that really disappointed. (Mr. Caine, if this is all we can expect from you henceforth, just go ahead and retire already!)

But the biggest tragedy of this movie is the damage done to Matthew McConaughey's credibility as an actor. His performance seemed like a half-hearted encore of his role as Detective Rust Cohle from the HBO series, True Detective. His delivery was mumbled and terse, perhaps meant to sound profound, but coming across as lackluster.

All that said, I can understand if the actors didn't put their hearts into their performances. Lithgow and Caine certainly have enough savvy to recognize a shitty script when they read one. And boy did they get one in this film! Director Nolan and his brother, Jonathon, co-wrote the script, which is probably the flick's biggest failing.

The dialog is appalling: stock, stale, uninspired. It's full of "gems" like these:
Cooper: You're ruling out college for my son now? He's fifteen.
Principal: Tom's score simply isn't high enough.
Cooper: What's your waist line? What 32, 33 inseam?
Principal: I'm not sure I see what you're getting at.
Cooper: You're telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son's future? 
(Har, har, har!)
Cooper: Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.
(Real head-scratcher, that one!)
Brand: Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.
(This one defies further commentary.)  
The characters lack any kind of complexity. There's an R2D2-like robot that lacked even enough depth to be annoying. There are a couple extraneous crewmen that are more robot-like than the robot. The most developed relationship in the flick is the creepy relationship between Cooper and his 10-year-old daughter Murph. In one particularly unsettling scene, Cooper clings to his daughter as she lays in bed, her back to him. Tears stream down his face as he begs the young girl for forgiveness. Uncomfortable!

Although this is billed as a science fiction film, the science of it is inane. Much of it is explained in wooden, expository dialog that kills whatever momentum the film might hope to develop. (This seems to be a habit with Nolan. Remember Inception?) The script uses all the right keywords ("event horizon," "quantum entanglement," and so on) but none of it makes any real sense.

And then, in the ultimate failure, the script relies on a cheap deux et machina enigma to close the loop. I read a review that compared this film's unexplained ending to that of Stanley Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's an offensive comparison and an insult to a master like Kubrik.

Hans Zimmer's score was overbearing and cheap and at times it overpowered the dialog. Worst of all, Nolan used it to cue viewers. "You see? This music is suspenseful! This is a scary part!" God knows, without the score, the audience would often have had no clue how they should feel.

Ten minutes into the flick, I was ready to walk out. It was apparent to me that the film was specifically-targeted to middle-aged men with low self-esteem who feel they've been cheated by life. "You see?" Nolan says, "Even though your daughter hates you and your boss thinks you're an idiot, you're really a hero."

I spent most of the interminable 3 hours and 9 minutes of this film cringing and slapping my forehead. I felt like I should have been wearing a bag over my head when I left. 

Mr. Nolan, two strikes is all you get. Never again, by God!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The sins of Bill Cosby: I'd rather stay ignorant

By now, we've all heard of the allegations against Bill Cosby. Although it's not a new story (apparently, the first accusations came to light back in 2006), public attention has only lately become focused. The charges are that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted multiple women throughout his career.

In response, NBC has cancelled a planned sitcom featuring the 77-year-old comedian, and Netflix has put on hold a comedy special, originally planned to air on Thanksgiving Day. Cosby hasn't helped himself at all. He's refused any comment and just yesterday, tried to intimidate a reporter into scuttling any mention of the issue in an interview.

The whole thing sickens me. If the allegations are true (and, given the number of women coming forward, and the consistency of their stories, it seems likely) Bill Cosby would not be the first hero to fall. But unlike Joe Paterno, a football coach (I know a thing or two about football coaches), or Michael Jackson, who was out-of-touch crazy, Bill Cosby, or rather the myth of Bill Cosby, was so beloved and unstained and such an integral part of my childhood that these allegations wound me to my core.

Sexual assault is a heinous crime. Perpetrators deserve reprobation, at the very least; criminal prosecution, ideally. If the allegations against Bill Cosby are true, he must pay with his reputation, his career, and whatever justice our legal system can mete out.

But I don't want to know the details. I know too much already. Let it play out as it must. I don't want to know any more about it.

Mine is not a courageous stand. In fact, it's cowardly and hypocritical. I admit it.

But I just can't bring myself to take part in the destruction of the beloved myth. The myth of Bill Cosby.

I'd rather stay ignorant.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie review: Whiplash

Yesterday, I took advantage of the bright, crisp weather (a rarity in November, Portland's rainiest month) to walk the ~four miles from condo to Fox Tower Cinema, there to view a matinee showing of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. The film received much praise from critics and the preview intrigued.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a first year student at the prestigious Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York. Andrew comes from humble beginnings, being the son of a failed writer, Jim (Paul Reiser), and is determined to achieve greatness. Specifically, he hopes to become a great jazz drummer in the mold of Buddy Rich. His playing catches the eye of a virtuoso jazz instructor, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who brings him into Shaffer's elite jazz ensemble. Fletcher is a demanding instructor. His tools include emotional manipulation, intimidation, physical and verbal abuse, and sabotage. Andrew, suffering under the demands placed on him by Fletcher, finds some comfort in the company of Nicole (Melissa Benoist), whom he sees working the concession counter at a movie theater. As the story progresses, Andrew discovers the price demanded by greatness, and must decide if he is willing to pay it.

This is a very good flick.

The writing is good. There are some great exchanges, in particular the dinner scene in which Andrew explains his aspirations to his bewildered family. But the writing is secondary. What really makes this film work is the acting.

The two headliners, Teller and Simmons, are especially good. I've liked JK Simmons since his days on Law & Order, and his role as Fletcher seems like a breakthrough performance. Miles Teller used to play drums for a church youth group and that real life experience seems requisite for his role in this movie. 

The music, by the way, is infectious. I was tapping my foot throughout the 107 minute run time. On the bus ride home, I added Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker to my Pandora play list.

I came away from the flick with a new appreciation of jazz, certainly. But more than that, Whiplash (and Birdman, which I saw a while back) provided fresh insight into the toll that creation exacts on the artist. 

Everything comes at a price. And you get what you pay for.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Anxiety is a thief

I got robbed the other day.

Maty and I were sitting on the couch together in the front room of our brand new condo in the early evening. We had the fireplace going. I was playing with my iPad and Maty was watching YouTube videos on the television. A rare moment. Most evenings, one or the other or both of us are off doing something. But this evening we were there together, relaxing. 

Maty was delighted when a Senegalese music video came on the screen. The percussive, happy music reminded her of her home. She popped up off the couch and danced an Mbalax dance while the music played. The joy on her face lit up the room.

I recognized the moment for what it was: a thing to remember, a Good Time to hold in my memory and savor.

And yet, in that moment I was robbed. Although I did experience joy and happiness watching my wife dancing and smiling, I was also sad and afraid and angry at myself. Sad, because I knew the moment would be fleeting. Afraid, because I live in dread of some unforeseen cataclysm that will dispel all the joy I felt in that moment. And angry at myself, because I knew my worry was irrational and stupid, and it was robbing me of a precious moment of happiness.

That's the way anxiety disorders work, I'm afraid. I take meds to keep it under control, but nonetheless, at odd times and for no particular reason, anxiety breaks through all my safeguards and grabs at my soul.

And I f*cking hate it.

Still, life is good. And I will always remember that moment when Maty was dancing in front of the fire, with her face turned to the ceiling, beaming joy out to the cosmos.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Election 2014: Oregon provides the silver lining

Democrats nationwide are in the doldrums today. And for good reason. The GOP increased its majority in the US House, won some big gubernatorial races, and, biggest of all, won the majority in the US Senate! Now we can all look forward to evenings with  Mitch McConnell's palid, corpse-like visage on the telly, spewing forth more bile and deception.

But in Oregon, things aren't nearly so bad. Just like in 2010, the Beaver state shattered the Big Red Wave.

US Senator - Jeff Merkley

Senator Merkley won reelection handily, defeating Dr. Monica Webhy by a solid 19-point margin, 56%-37%. A look at the county-by-county returns shows that not only did the Senator get a big margin from blue-as-hydrangeas Multnomah County, but also won less blue counties like Deschutes, Jackson, and Coos. Times have changed in Oregon, that's for sure.

Dr. Webhy ran a terrible campaign: dodging the press, not showing up for interviews, and so on. It's not necessarily her fault. I'm afraid it's a reflection of the poor state of the Republican party in Oregon. I really wish they could do something to restore their credibility. Right now, they have none.

Senator Merkley has to feel pretty good about this win. He hardly had to break a sweat to win his second term. From my standpoint, he's an ideal representative: from a small lumber town in Oregon, with populist views (just like me). Here's to a long career, Senator Merkley.

US Representative, 3rd District - Earl Blumenauer

Earl won huge in the 3rd Congressional District, with 73% of the vote. As I mentioned in my pre-election post, I didn't vote for him, but that's because I knew he was a shoo-in. Anyway, the other 4 congressional incumbents won as well (Bonamici, DeFazio, Schrader, and Walden) which maintains the 4 to 1 advantage Democrats hold in the Oregon delegation. This is a very blue state.

Governor - John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber will serve a fourth term as governor of Oregon, an historic first. Despite late-breaking scandals (which, I suspect, will turn out to be insignificant), and a considerable degree of Kitz-fatigue, he managed to beat Dennis Richardson by a bigger margin (6 points) than the margin by which he defeated Chris Dudley in 2010.

To add to the good news for Kitzhaber, Democrats scored big in the state legislature, increasing their majorities in both the Senate and the House. In the Senate, Democrats hold 17 seats versus the Republican's 12. As of this writing, one Senate seat is still undecided. In the House, Democrats won 35 seats versus the Republican's 25.

Got that? Democrats control both state houses and the governor's mansion. If you're an Oregon Republican, that's got to sting. They just can't win for losing.

State Representative, 42nd District - Rob Nosse

As was generally acknowledged, the primary turned out to be Rob's biggest challenge. He won in the general by a huge margin. The Republicans didn't even bother to field a candidate to run against him.

State Measure 86: Post-secondary education fund - No
This measure was defeated. I'm disappointed but not surprised.

State Measure 87: Employ state judges by National Guard and state public universities - Yes
Passed. I never heard a good reason (in fact, I never heard any reason at all) to vote against it.

State Measure 88: Oregon resident driver card without proof of legal residence - No
This measure got clobbered. My county, Multnomah, was the only county where it carried. In my opinion, this measure's defeat is due almost entirely to stinginess and xenophobia. Undocumented immigrants are here; they're not going away. And they're going to continue to drive on our streets and highways. It only makes sense to get them into the system.

State Measure 89: Prohibits denial or abridgement of equal rights based on gender - Yes
Passed overwhelmingly. It's about time.

State Measure 90: Changes general election nomination processes; top two vote-getters in primary face-off in general election - No
This measure got crushed, which came as a complete (albeit pleasant) surprise to me. Oregonians saw through the slick ad campaign promoting this measure as voter empowerment. Take that, Koch Brothers!

State Measure 91: Allows possession, sale of marijuana to/by adults, subject to state licensing, regulation, taxation - Yes!
I never thought I'd see this day, but marijuana will soon be legal for recreational use in the state of Oregon. It's a realistic, practical solution, of course. But when have realism and practicality ever carried any weight in politics?

State Measure 92: Requires food manufacturers and retailers to label "genetically-engineered" foods -No
This measure was defeated by less than a single percentage point. Supporters can take some small amount of solace by considering that the campaign to defeat the measure spent $20 million, the most ever spent in an initiative campaign. At the very least, we bled Monsanto.

City of Portland Measure 26-159: Bonds to fix playgrounds, trails, parks - Yes
Passed overwhelmingly. Dollars for Mount Tabor!

Metro Measure 26-160: Retain prohibition on Metro-required single-family neighborhood density increases - Yes

Portland School District #1JT: Levy renewal - Yes
Try as I might, I haven't been able to find the results for this measure. But I think it passed. Which is good.

Well, there you have it. That's how it all shook out this time around. Although the national results leave a lot to be desired, I'm pretty happy with things here in Oregon. We win again, Oregon progressives!

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Movie review: Birdman


Alejandro González Iñárritu's new flick, Birdman, is nothing short of it. Two minutes into the film, hypnotized by Antonio Sanchez's pulse-quickening drum score, held rapt by the vision of a fiery, portentous comet burning through the sky, I was entranced. I stayed that way throughout the film's entire 119 minute run time.

Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a has-been actor, best known for his decades-old performance in a superhero flick called The Birdman. The role made him famous and type-cast him for life. Ever since Riggan turned down an offer to play the lead role in a Birdman sequel, his career has stalled. (The parallels between fictional Riggan's Birdman, and real-life Keaton's 1989 Batman flick are obvious, n'est pas?)

In an attempt to reestablish his relevance, Thomas undertakes to write, direct, and star in a Broadway production of a work by Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." When the film begins, opening night is three days away and Riggan is struggling to put the final touches on his production. It's an exercise in disaster management. At the same time, his personal life teeters on collapse, as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) attempts to reenter life after a stint in rehab and his sometime girlfriend and co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) informs him that she might be pregnant.

Iñárritu places enormous demands on his cast. Although Birdman conforms to the classic five act play structure, there is no break between scenes. It's all done in one "shot," with each scene leading into the next. Intimate camera work reveals the most minute facial expressions of the actors. The dialog is sharp, complex, and rapid-fire. 

Naomi Watts, who plays Lesley, the female lead in Thomas's production, said "[Birdman]'s the hardest thing I've ever done," and it's easy to see why.

All of the cast delivers. Zach Galifianakis plays producer Jake superbly in a role I never would have expected from him. But I can't say that any one performance outshone the others (they were all over-the-top great). My favorite was Emma Stone's portrayal of Riggan's troubled daughter. Check out this discourse she delivers in Act III.

As I said, the lines come hard and fast and there are no throw-aways. Everything is significant. And there are some great lines:

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend" quips Riggan's co-star, Mike (Edward Norton).

"Why don't I have any self-respect?" wails Lesley. "You're an actress, honey," consoles Laura.

Birdman is funny, touching, and disturbing by turns. Riggan's struggle is a struggle we all know: the struggle for significance, the struggle to believe that we matter. It's an old story that's been told countless times, but rarely so effectively. In one particularly surreal scene, Iñárritu inserts an homage to the Bard, when a raving, other-worldly voice delivers my favorite Shakespearean soliloquy.

When I first saw the (rather perplexing) trailer for this flick I didn't imagine I would bother to go see it. But I thank my lucky stars that a rainy Portland morning with nothing else on the schedule had me give it a go. This is the most excited I've been about a flick since No Country for Old Men, back in 2007.

Michael Keaton's performance is iconic. Iñárritu's acheivement is dazzling and awesome.

I'm going to see it again next weekend.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie review: The Judge

I count myself lucky to have even heard about The Judge, David Dobkin's new film about --well about a lot of things, really. The film doesn't seem to have been promoted much.

I became aware of it when I just happened to catch Charlie Rose interviewing Robert Downey, Junior, a few weeks back. Rose played a short clip from the film during the interview, an exchange between Robert Downey and Robert Duvall. It was a powerful clip featuring two of my favorite actors and I knew immediately that this was a flick I wanted to see.

Wish fulfilled last weekend.

The Judge is the story of a hot-shot Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns home to  small-town Indiana to bid farewell to his recently-deceased mother. Any homecoming is fraught with peril, as we all know, and Hank's is no exception. He's confronted with his past sins, which include a partially-crippled older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and an abandoned lover, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). But Hank's biggest challenge is his long-avoided reunion with his stern father, Joseph (Duvall). Joseph is a prominent citizen, the much-respected judge of the small town. The relationship between Hank and his father is complex and fraught with both respect and resentment. The plot thickens when an incident occurs on a dark night drive along a country road. The consequences of the event culminate in Judge Joseph being accused of murder and facing prosecution from a resolute and ruthlessly competent DA, Dwight Dickam (masterfully played by Billy Bob Thornton). Things look very bleak for the Judge, and Hank, the prodigal son, must defend his father in the very courtroom where Joseph most recently presided.

The strength of this film, as one might imagine, is the acting. It's a powerhouse cast and Dobkin seems a skilled hand at getting the most out of his actors. But despite all the big names, there is no scenery-chewing. The performances are restrained, but powerful.

Some reviewers complain that the story is cliché, but that seems like a nit. The film's value isn't so much its moral explorations or its bizarre characters. The Judge is a film about ordinary people facing ordinary dilemmas. That's why it succeeds. Nearly everyone can find a character in this film with whom to relate: the failed baseball star, the old man plagued with doubt, the resentful son. The superb cast does the rest, delivering convincing, heart-felt performances.

The Judge is a good flick that I can recommend to anyone.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Movie review: Gone Girl

Last weekend's date night for me and my Senegalese princess included a matinee showing of the new David Fincher flick, Gone Girl, featuring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Maty and I rarely agree on what constitutes a good movie, but this one held promise. The story --husband falls under suspicion while searching for missing wife --is the kind of thing that Maty loves. My attraction was due to the mostly favorable reviews of the film and the fact that Ben Affleck was at the top of the bill. Despite his appearances in some real barkers, I've always held a reservoir of respect for Ben Affleck based on his performance in Good Will Hunting. So, all in all, Gone Girl seemed like a fair bet to please both parties.

The film is based on the eponymous novel written by Gillian Flynn, which I have not read (nor, it must be said, will I ever). Flynn derived the plot, I assume, from high-profile crime cases from the recent past (Scott and Laci Petersen come to mind).

Mr. Affleck plays the part of one Nick Dunne, a middling successful bar owner in Missouri who, on his fifth wedding anniversary, discovers that his beautiful and rich wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has gone missing. That very morning, he reports the fact to the police, who respond with amazing (and altogether unbelievable) alacrity. Full scale searches are launched, press conferences held, and web sites established, all to find a woman that has been missing for less than 48 hours. Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) is assigned a lead role in the case and a couple of suspects from Amy's past emerge, including ex-boyfriend Desi Collins (Neil Patrick Harris). But as the investigation proceeds, suspicion begins to fall on Nick, who soon finds that his only allies are his sister Margot (Carrie Coon) and his high-profile celebrity lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Where to start? With the acting, I suppose. In a phrase, it's sub-par. Whether it was because David Finch didn't know how to coax performances out of his stars, or because the actors themselves realized that the script was a losing effort is impossible to know. Ben Affleck came across as a half-witted meat-head rather than a criminal mastermind. Rosamund Pike's character was a one-dimensional harpy. Tyler Perry seemed like he was in a car commercial. And it may be unfair, but Neil Patrick Harris will always be Doogie Howser to me.

Worst of all was the story. The plot line writhes in agony. In order to stay with it, viewers must stretch credibility to its utmost limits. Police and FBI agents are stupid; doctors and medical personnel, incompetent; the general public, gullible and naive. (Well, that last one might not be all that far off the mark.) We must believe all these things for the story to work. As Maty later described it, Gone Girl is a flick that would be most at home on Lifetime Channel.

Three-quarters of the way through the movie, I was rolling my eyes and desperate for the scroll of closing credits. But Maty liked it, so that was enough to make me feel like I hadn't just wasted the previous 149 minutes of my life.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Voted! 2014

Gotta love Oregon's vote-by-mail system. My ballot's filled out and waiting to be dropped in the mail slot. Which I will do later today.

Here's how I voted:

US Senator - Jeff Merkley

Despite having met the Republican candidate, Monica Webhy, and judged her a nice person, I never considered voting for her. Jeff Merkley is a lot like me: from an Oregon timber town (he from Roseburg, I from Klamath Falls) with progressive, blue collar, power-to-the-people views. I met Senator Merkley when he was running against Gordon Smith back in 2008 and I liked him then. His performance as a US Senator is first-rate, in my book. It is nice to have someone in the Senate that is championing my views.

Sorry, Dr. Webhy. You're a nice woman, but I can't vote for you.

US Representative, 3rd District - Michael Meo

Earl Blumenauer is my congressional representative and I like him just fine. But he is in no danger of losing his seat. Which frees me up to vote for Michael Meo, the Pacific Green party candidate. I met Michael a few years back at the Oregon State Fair and we talked about the need to bring former Bush administration officials to justice for their lies and crimes. So, although I know he won't win, I voted for him again this year. Call it a vote to keep Earl honest.

Governor - John Kitzhaber

The bloom has definitely come off the Kitzhaber rose. But despite recent dust-ups over his girlfriend's sham marriage and trumped-up (in my opinion) ethics complaints, he's the only choice for this election. In past elections, I've been a full-throated supporter. I canvassed for him in the 2008 election. I met him once at a fundraiser. And I don't think it's his fault, necessarily, that his appeal has diminished. I mean, for goodness's sake, he's running for a fourth term! Even the most hard-core supporters have got to feel a little Kitz-fatigue. But it's a default vote. The Oregon Republican party is a shambles. Dennis Richardson is at the wheel of a rattletrap clown car. It would be good for Oregon if the GOP could get its act together, but I think that's still a long way off.

State Representative, 42nd District - Rob Nosse

As a Democrat representing Oregon's 42nd district, Rob Nosse faced his stiffest competition in the primary. But since he won that, he's a shoo-in for the general. His only competition is a Libertarian candidate named Bruce Alexander Knight. I don't know the first thing about Mister Knight and it doesn't matter anyway. I didn't vote for Rob Nosse in the primary because he seemed like a single-issue candidate. Rob is gay and married and during the primary, that's all we heard about. I'm all for gay rights and marriage equality, but there are other issues that are just as important. Anyway, all that aside, he got my vote in the general.

State Measure 86: Post-secondary education fund - Yes
I'll always vote to increase access to education for everyone.

State Measure 87: Employ state judes by National Guard and state public universities - Yes
Why not? It just seems like a good idea. And I note that there were no arguments in opposition in the Voter's Pamphlet.

State Measure 88: Oregon resident driver card without proof of legal residence - Yes
People, there are many undocumented residents in Oregon. They're here to stay and they're going to be driving on our streets and highways. It is safest and best to get them "into the system." But, of course, I don't expect the frothing xenophobes to understand that. Let's see if this measure passes.

State Measure 89: Prohibits denial or abridgement of equal rights based on gender - Yes
This seems like a measure that should have passed decades ago.

State Measure 90: Changes general election nomination processes; top two vote-getters in primary face-off in general election - No
In these post-Citizens United days, this is just another method for ultra-rich oligarchs to buy elections. I'm afraid this measure will pass. But let the record show that I voted against it.

State Measure 91: Allows possession, sale of marijuana to/by adults, subject to state licensing, regulation, taxation - NO!!!! (Just kidding!) Yes! Yes! Yes!
See here or here. Whether or not this measure passes (and I think it will pass), marijuana will be legal in Oregon in the near future. The humorous part of it is this: the state may think it can license, regulate, and tax it, but that'll never happen. Marijuana is easily available to anyone without the approval or oversight of the state. This measure won't change that.

State Measure 92: Requires food manufacturers and retailers to label "genetically-engineered" foods - Yes
I follow the general maxim that the more information that is available to the consumer, the better. Besides, Monsanto has spent $2.5 million to defeat this measure. When a corporation as unethical and amoral as Monsanto is against it, you know it's something you should support.

City of Portland Measure 26-159: Bonds to fix playgrounds, trails, parks - Yes
Portland is a great place to live. I'll pay to keep it that way.

Metro Measure 26-160: Retain prohibition on Metro-required single-family neighborhood density increases - Yes
The wording on this measure is tricky. But I think, if passed, it will continue the trend toward in-fill that is crucial to saving farmland outside Portland. Rural folks probably can't understand this, but Metro is a good thing. On balance. We pay to protect our quality of life.

Portland School District #1JT: Levy renewal - Yes
I'll always vote to increase the quality of public education. It's our future.

All in all, this was a pretty cut-and-dried set of choices. I didn't have to  do a lot of mulling over how to vote. Easy election. Let's see how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Agnostic lament

Agnostic : a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not

By this definition, I'm an agnostic. As I see it, agnosticism is a recognition that Truth is forever beyond human comprehension. To believe otherwise is vanity --vanity and ignorance --whether it is the condemning piety of the faith-blind devotee or the scoffing cynicism of the jaded atheist.

I've discussed theology with persons from each of those groups --Believers and non-believers --and I've found that, apart from their fundamental disagreement about the existence of a "God," they share a dead-sure certainty.

Atheists discount scripture in favor of "science" or the "rational mind." That seems arrogant.  Scriptures are the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human contemplation. To mock the Upanishads or the Koran or the Bible is to ridicule our forefathers, our ancestors, ourselves.

Worse than the atheists, though, are the insufferably arrogant (and utterly misguided) religious zealots. The people who deny well-established phenomena (evolution, climate change, et alia) because such observations don't fit the simple reality they've derived from their shallow interpretation of scriptures. People like that deserve ridicule and scorn. When minds are that tightly shut, people become capable of all kinds of atrocities.

I'm all for ridiculing faith-healers, snake-charmers, and Tongues-speaking charlatans.  But not scriptures. The beauty and truth in scripture has outlasted the petty schemes of people like that for thousands of years. Atheists fall victim to the charlatans by allowing them to claim scripture as their own.

Consider these outtakes from various holy writings:
  • To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven --Ecclesiastes 3
  • A kind word and forgiveness is better than a charitable deed followed by hurtful words: God is self-sufficient and forbearing. --Quran
  • Just as, my dear, by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is clay --Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:2-6
Believer or non-believer, we can all recognize truth in these verses, no?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Feast of the Sacrifice

This is just a part of the spread
One advantage of marrying a Muslim woman is that now, in addition to the Christian holidays I've observed all my life, I have opportunity to enjoy Muslim holidays as well. And being something of a trencherman, I make note of an obvious benefit. More holidays means more feasts!

Halal lamb with trimmings
Last Saturday was the Muslim holiday of Eid. (West African Muslims refer to the day as "Tabaski.") It's a commemoration of the day when Ibrahim (or Abraham) led his son, Ishmael, to the place of sacrifice where he believed God had commanded him to sacrifice the boy as a demonstration of faith. Ibrahim, though saddened and horrified, was prepared to carry out the act, but at the last moment God revealed a ram to be offered up in the boy's stead. Thus, did God pronounce the end of human sacrifice.

It's a story that is, of course, common to all of the Abrahamic religions, although I don't believe that Christians or Jews commemorate the day as a holiday.

Maty and Nadia hard at work
Maty, devout Muslim that she is, endeavored to have a celebratory feast in our new home. After attending the big Muslim prayer gathering that occurred at the Convention Center, she spent Saturday and Sunday slaving away in the kitchen to prepare a grandiose banquet.

African girls
On the menu was Halal lamb, grilled chicken, kale and fruit salads, various cheeses, yassa (Senegalese onion sauce) served over vermicelli, and ném (Senegalese spring rolls).

I ate too much, of course. By the end of the evening I was uncomfortably full. But I defy anyone to resist the flavors.

The woman that made it all happen
Muslim holidays are often hard for Maty. She thinks of her family in Africa and knows that they are celebrating and it makes her miss them all the more. So I'm very grateful that she's found a way to find joy in the holidays here in America, even though she's so far from her home. And we're blessed to have so many friends that love her and that we can call family.

A very happy Tabaski (Eid) to all!

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book review: Here's to you, Jesúsa!

Here's to you, Jesúsa!, Elena Poniatowska's semi-fictional novel about the life of a Mexican peasant woman in the early 20th century, reads like the transcription of a long, rambling monologue.

In the foreword to the novel, Poniatowska explains that the main character of the book, Jesúsa Palancares, is based on a campesina named Josefina Bórquez whom the author befriended while living in Mexico City.

The novel is a recounting of Jesúsa's life. It begins with dim memories of her mother's burial, and continues through her childhood as she tags along behind her roustabout father, a foot soldier for the rebellion in the unsuccessful Mexican revolution. From there, the story progresses through the period of Jesúsa's marriage to an abusive cavalry officer, her widowhood, and her hard-bitten existence as a servant for the Mexican upper classes. It's a story of hardship, brutality, and poverty with only the briefest glimpses of love, laughter, and happiness.

Sounds like a downer, doesn't it? But really, it is not. The virtue of the novel is in its portrayal of Jesúsa's astounding resolution. Jesúsa is a suspicious, unforgiving woman, prone to believe the very worst about people. (And who could blame her?) And, yet, behind the unconquerable defenses of her pessimism and irascibility is a woman who yearns for a justice that can only be delivered by God. 

The book conforms to a uniquely Latin American tradition in literature, the testimonio.  It's not a form I had previously encountered, but Wendy Gimbel of the New York Times describes it as "basically a survival story, [that establishes] credibility by means of language that is direct, never ambiguous."

Consider this passage from the opening chapter:
This is my third time back on Earth, but I've never suffered as much as I have now. I was a queen in my last reincarnation, I know, because I saw my train during a revelation. I was standing in a beauty shop and there were these huge, long mirrors that went from floor to ceiling and I saw my dress and the train. It stretched back really far, and way back there almost at the end, at the tip, there was a triangle of marbled black and yellow tiger stripes. My clothing was all white, like a bridal gown, except for that forked piece of tiger skin, tike the very tip of the devil's tail. Columbine and Pierrot peered into the mirror on either side of me, both dressed in white with those black polka dots they always wear.
    I told them about my revelation at the Obra Espiritual and they said that the royal white clothing was what I was supposed to wear at my final judgment hour, and that the Lord had allowed me to see what I'd been like one of the three times that I came to Earth.
    —That spot on the train of your dress is all you have left to whiten, and if you don't, it will devour your innocence.
    I was wearing a queen's dress with wide sleeves covered with trim. Pierrot and Columbine were my servants but they didn't attend to me as they should have; they spent the whole time fooling around with each other. Queens are always alone. I also told them at the temple that I'd seen a large valley full of spotted cows:
    —It's the herd that the Lord has entrusted to you and you must return them to Him cleansed.
    I have a lot of things going on right now and I don't know when I'm going to get my herd together to remove their stains, if it'll be in this lifetime or in the next, when I evolve again ...
Direct and unambiguous language, just as Gimbel suggests.

The passage also reveals the narrator's deep-seated wisdom. It's a wisdom earned from a lifetime of hardship and from a secret hope and belief that there is more to existence than the bleakness of grinding poverty.

When at first I finished the novel, I wasn't particularly sympathetic to its protagonist. Nor was I all that enamored of the book. But now that I've digested it a bit more, I can see why Here's to you, Jesúsa! is revered among Mexican literary circles. It's a window into a world that is too often ignored and an homage to the Mexican spirit --a spirit that continues to endure even through the country's present-day torments.

Here's to you, indeed, Jesúsa!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A People's Climate March

On this, the last day but one of the hottest summer on record, Portland hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the twenty-first time this calendar year. A fitting day for the event I reluctantly attended this afternoon: the People's Climate March.

Sticking to the shade
Reluctantly, you ask? Well, yes, I'm afraid so. For reasons that I'll relate forthwith. But first, let me describe what I found when I hopped the old Bus #14 (with a stop just outside my front door) and rode down to Waterfront Park.

Temperatures were near 90F
The event was a demonstration for progress on limiting carbon emissions, on reversing the economic trends that threaten to fundamentally change the weather patterns and climate of our planet. A noble and worthwhile goal.

My hopes for turnout were buoyed by the number of demonstrators that boarded the bus as we neared downtown. In fact, all seats were occupied, and many folks had to stand. Senior citizens, families with children, hippies, hipsters, church folks, labor unions --all were represented.

I conversed with a woman a few years younger than me, named Angela. She was on her way to the demonstration with her tween-aged daughter.

"Looks like we might have a good turnout," Angela said, glancing around the bus at the people with their placards and their noise-makers.

"Yeah," I said. "I hope so. But I've got to tell you, I don't know if these demonstrations do much good. I remember when we had the massive demonstrations against the Bush administration and the illegal Iraq invasion. We came out in our millions and--"

"--it didn't make any difference," she finished, nodding glumly. But then she brightened. "These events are good for community building though."

"True," I admitted. "And it's encouraging to gather with other like-minded people. You feel less isolated."

On this we agreed.

The crowd at Waterfront was sizable, but not huge. It was such a hot day and the sun so merciless that people clustered in the shade patches afforded by the trees along the walkway and the stretched shadows of the high-rise hotels across the street. The crowd on the swathes of sun-beaten grass closer to the river  was spottier.

I was disappointed. Reports had it that, on the other side of the country, in Manhattan, the climate march attracted 300,000-plus. Portland, of course, can't expect to match the crowds in the Big Apple, but we are still the feisty Rose City, whom Bush the Elder named the "Beirut of North America." I felt we could have done better.

Governor Kitzhaber addresses the crowd
But then again, maybe there are other Portlanders who share my resignation, my sense of futility.

Which gets to the reason I was reluctant to attend.

Clever play on words, madam
You see, I lost something after Iraq. Or rather, I lost something when the American people failed to punish Bush for Iraq. In spite of our massive demonstrations, Bush and his coterie were able to pull off the invasion and avoid any accountability. The American people even voted to keep him in office after the fact.

I learned a valuable and bitter lesson from that travesty. It's something that I first encountered when I read Tolstoy's War and Peace in my college days, and which my experiences since have only served to confirm: Human events, history, social evolution, progress --whatever you choose to call it --operates outside human wishes or desires. War, technology, economic development are phenomena that have lives of their own quite apart from the petty wishes of individuals or even societies.

And that, I suspect is what will determine the fate of humanity as regards climate change. Carbon emissions will rise or fall according to laws that are quite beyond what anyone might want or hope --whether it's the Earth-loving hippie or the greedy short-sighted Texas oilman.

I would've liked to see a better turnout
"Well, Dade," one might ask, "if you feel that way, why go to the demonstration?"

Because of this: In some far-flung future, if and when there is some entity or society that looks upon our race and wonders about us --whether we were aware of our doom, whether we were concerned, whether we cared at all --I want to be part of that contingent that registers our capacity for compassion and hope and concern for the people of the future.

That's why I went today. That's why I'll go next time. I'll always go, if I can.

And I'll try to keep smiling. Even while the house burns down.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

River (Pt. XVIII)

Sweat has washed away most of the makeup. Muddy runnels stripe Jonah's face. But the story is moving on its own now:

The trail climbed higher yet, switching back and forth across the face of the rise until it let out onto a shelf of land --a level place about the area of a barnyard. Here the ground was barren of foliage and the bare dirt packed firm by the traffic of many feet. Scattered about were clusters of tents --the salvaged canvas of lost ships. A large stone-ringed fire pit, several paces across, marked the center of the clearing. Within the ring, low-burning flames glowed orange-yellow, like iridescent jewels. The boles of fallen trees were arranged around the fire pit. For sitting, Eligius reckoned.

A hunch-backed crone tended the fire. Hat-less and balding, she wore a drab, moth-eaten shawl. A crooked hand protruded from her mantle, turning a spit that impaled a fleshy mass over the flames. Eligius experienced a long moment of horror before he realized that the corpse was a butchered pig.

El Cocodrilo, at the boy's side, spoke. "Welcome," he said. He swept off his hat and bowed before the boy. The tip of his plume brushed at the dirt. "Forgive the lack of comfort, but such economies are necessary when one is away from home. Perhaps one day I will take you aboard La Sirena. I assure you the accommodations there are more agreeable."

The vagabond crew came forward and swept past them, saying nothing --neither to each other nor to their captain --moving with haste and purpose. El Cocodrilo spoke urgently as they passed, "Quickly, now, compañeros. Our guests are not far behind."

Eligius saw that, though many of the pirates were undoubtedly mad --the slavering, rat-faced marinero with eyes that weren't right, the hulking, shirtless black man with the scarred face --there was yet method in their actions. Some rummaged among the tents, producing a hodgepodge of weapons --cutlasses, belaying pins, lances, here and there a musket. Others brought forth scarecrow figures fashioned from brush and animal hides, which they placed at various points around the camp.

Cocodrilo stood, feet apart, hands on his hips, overseeing the activity. 

"What are you going to do with me?" Eligius asked.

Cocodrilo shook his head. "Do?, he said. "Nothing! You will choose your own fate. "

Eligius remembered the glint of the sun reflected on brass as he stood on the overlook with Cocodrilo's spyglass. He imagined Maximo at the head of a troop of soldiers and hidalgos, hastening toward them.

El Cocodrilo spoke again. "Today is a fateful day. Word of my presence reached the governor several days ago, you see. He learned that I have encamped here on the highlands and, believing an opportunity had arisen, has spent the last several days mustering the hidalgos and preparing his soldiers. Even now, they approach, hoping to take us unaware. Your father--" El Cocodrilo placed an emphasis on the word that Eligius found puzzling "--is among them, of course."

"But how did you know to find me?" Eligius asked.

El Cocodrilo shook his head. "It was no scheme of mine that brought us together. But fortune sometimes smiles on the wicked as well as the righteous."

Eligius cursed himself for his foolhardiness. In his zeal to prove himself to Maximo, he had walked into the hands of the scourge of all good Spaniards.

El Cocodrilo seemed to read his thoughts. "You should consider yourself fortunate, lad. You've been placed at a fulcrum, a fork in the great river. Together, you, I, and the man you call your father shall bear witness to the birthing of a future that will endure forever. But enough for now. My guests will be here soon. I must prepare a proper greeting for them." Cocodrilo smiled, turned away, and strode toward the back of the shelf, leaving Eligius standing, forlorn, among the bustle.

The corsairs continued their preparations. Those with muskets filled powder-horns from a barrel near the back of the camp. Some concealed themselves in the woods along the trail. Others positioned themselves at points around the camp. 

Cocodrilo ducked into a tent and then emerged carrying a heavy musket. He made his way to the back of the camp, where was a small rise before the mouth of a narrow ravine that led further up into the high wooded areas above the shelf. The camp dogs, suddenly unified in purpose, trotted behind him.

When Cocodrilo reached the top of the rise, he mounted the musket on a stand and sighted down the barrel. The dogs were sat at his feet, ears cocked and peering toward where he pointed the musket. Eligius understood that from that vantage Cocodrilo could see the place where the trail emerged on the plateau. Anyone coming up from the lowlands must pass within the sites of the weapon.

Underneath all the commotion, Eligius became aware of a persistent scratching sound, like wasp feet scratching on paper. He took his eyes away from Cocodrilo to see if he could find its source. 

The old crone stood near him, turning the spit. Her eyes were pale and watery. Her mouth trembled and moved and Eligius realized she laughing. She leered at him, making clawing motions with her free hand. "Ven aquí, chico," she said.

With no other earthly idea of what he should do, Eligius approached and sat on a crate near the fire. The old woman gazed at him, her soft mouth forming a ghastly, toothless smile. "Mira, el Cocodrilo," she rasped. Eligius turned his gaze to where Cocodrilo peered down the barrel of his gun. "He can become as a stone," she said. "I have seen him stand thus, in blazing heat, waiting for a wild pig to wander into his sights. The sun was high in the sky when he first took aim. It rested on the treetops when finally he pulled the trigger." She looked at Eligius, gauging his comprehension. "His shot dropped the pig, stone cold dead." She continued: "He is not like other men. He has powers. He sees what will come better than what has been. He is aware of others before they are aware of him. Do you doubt? ¡Verdad! Those who know him best, know this is true. If you turn your eyes to him, you will find that already he is watching you."

Eligius shook his head. He cast a covert glance toward where the Crocodile stood atop the rise. He had not moved; his head was lowered to the barrel of his weapon. But Eligius saw a glint of light from the shadow beneath the broad brim of the hat. Cocodrilo was indeed watching him.

The crone cackled. "Whatever is to happen here today, I tell you now that I wish you no harm. Far from it." Eligius turned his eyes to her and she nodded. "Time is short, but there is much you can learn from me that you may find helpful in the moments to come." Fat dripped into the flames; the fire hissed.

"To you, I am a stranger," the old woman said. "But it is not so. These knobby hands that you see now turning this spit were the first to hold you when you entered this world. I pulled you from your mother's womb and held you to me as you bawled." 

Eligius said nothing, but the doubt and fear in his heart swelled. The crone eyed him closely. "That woman --Maximo's wife at the hacienda --she has never told you the story of how she found you? She has never told you the truth about your origins? It may be that she does not know the truth. But, if that is so, it is only because she has not sought for it. It lays heavily about her and about you, thick as the mud on the banks of the stream where first she found you."

Eligius's heart was in his throat, but he did his best to summon the commanding tone he had heard Maximo use with the slaves. "What is this nonsense you speak, woman?" he asked.

"On your breast, there is a mark, shaped like a woman with the tail of a fish," the old woman said.

Eligius's hand rose to his breast. How could this old woman possibly know of his birthmark?

The crone coughed a laugh, like the bark of an old dog.   "I saw that marking when I wrapped you in swaddling clothes and handed you to your mother."

"My mother?" 

She nodded. "Your mother. The woman whom you know as Dolores. The servant woman who has cared for you all these years. I delivered you from her womb these fifteen years ago."

"Dolores?" Eligius said. "Dolores is my mother?"

"Your mother and my daughter," the woman cackled.

"What do you say?" Eligius asked, incredulous. "But --that would make you my--"

"--grandmother," the woman said. "Tu abuela."

Eligius's head swam. "But what about Lupe and Maximo?" he asked.

"No son tus padres. But you knew that already."

Eligius looked around. The camp was full of motion. A hulking leather-faced man hurried past Eligius, a crossbow in his hands. Across the clearing, another man, one side of his face a slab of scar tissue, arranged a scarecrow figure behind a barrel. 

Eligius cast his eye up to the top of the rise. El Cocodrilo was no longer sighting down the barrel of the musket, but looking directly at the boy, an amused smile on his face. It seemed clear to Eligius that the Spaniards who followed them would walk into an ambush. He could imagine them laboring up the trail, Maximo urging them on. It seemed unlikely that any of them could survive.

The crone spoke, seeming to answer his thoughts. "Maximo is driven by a great force. His very being pushes him toward us. It is the force of blood. It is true, as I say, that Maximo is not your father. But still you carry his blood. 

"Maximo came here, to this land, as a young man of incredible strength. His days he spent clearing land, building fences, digging irrigation channels. But the daylight hours were not enough to expend his strength. In the night time, he was still full alive with purpose. In the years before his bride arrived from Spain, he knew women. One of those was a young beauty from a village that lay not far from here."

Eligius looked at the old woman. Her face was craggy and lined. Her hair thin and white. Her mouth was soft and her lips wagged. It was hard to imagine that she had ever been beautiful. But his heart perceived the truth of her words.

"We dallied for a long, carefree summer. Our nights were spent together in a shelter in the clearing where is now his grand hacienda. It was there, under canvas and mosquito netting where we conceived our daughter. 

"When I discovered that I was with child I told Maximo of my condition. I brought the news to him knowing that things would be different. Maximo was a man who believed he might create his own destiny. His fate could not be hampered by a young Indian woman and a bastard child. On the night I told him, I vowed I would never again return to the little clearing where our love had lived. It is a vow I have kept." The old woman sighed.

"You should know, hijo, that this is the way. There is a great current that moves all things. There is no resisting. We only float along. That is what the tides that took Maximo away have taught me."

Eligius saw Cocodrilo making his way back toward them. The pirate grinned broadly. His own musket rested near the stand at the top of the rise, waiting for his return. In his hands he held the Maximo's musket --the musket that Eligius had taken from the hacienda in the faraway morning.

But Eligius had another question for the crone. "Who, then, is my father?"

She cast him a sour glance and Eligius felt foolish.

"Do you see how it will be?" asked Cocodrilo. He stood before the boy, grinning, grasping the musket with both hands.

The scene unfolded in Eligius's mind. He had an image of Maximo clutching his breast, confusion and pain on his face, a red stain spreading across his shirt.

Cocodrilo set Maximo's musket against a cask and hung the powder horn over the barrel. "When the time comes, you will know what to do... hijo." He peered intently at the boy. 

"Will you spare Maximo?" Eligius asked. 

Cocodrilo laughed. "Would he spare me?"

A silent moment hung between them. Then he spoke again. "When the hidalgos and the soldiers come up the trail, they will see the camp. When they assault the camp, they must leave the trail there." He pointed to the place where the trail emerged onto the plateau. "The fourth man to emerge will be my target. Not the first, nor the second, nor the third. The fourth man. So, you see, Maximo's fate is entirely his own to choose.

Eligius was silent.

"When I fire, the men will set upon them from both sides and I will loose the dogs. The battle will be over before it is properly joined."

Eligius felt weak. He gasped. "Father..."

Cocodrilo frowned and he peered closely into the boy's face. The he stiffened and his face grew hard. He nodded once, turned, and made his way back up the rise. Maximo's musket still leaned on the cask.

The crone's laugh was a rustling breeze. "Mira," she said, nodding toward the musket. "He gives you a choice."

"A choice?"

"Come, help me," the old woman said. She wrapped her hands in the folds of her shawl, indicating that Eligius should likewise protect his hands. "Let us take this to the table," she said. Together they lifted the spit from the fire, the old woman at one end, the boy at the other, and carried it to a block table where were carving knives and cleavers. "I must prepare this feast for the victors."

"For Cocodrilo and his men?" asked Eligius.

"For them or for the hidalgos. One side will be victorious, the other will be vanquished. It makes no difference. I cook. I care not who eats."

Eligius glanced at Maximo's flint-lock musket, the powder horn hanging off the barrel. Then he looked up to the top of the rise where el Cocodrilo sat, watching him. "You mentioned a choice..." he said.

A cloud of flies gathered above the steaming meat. The crone waved at them ineffectually.  "El Cocodrilo told you his plan for the battle. He stands in plain sight, aiming his weapon where Maximo must pass. He returns your weapon to you. Are you blind?"

Eligius stared at the woman, his grandmother, uncomprehending.

"Already I told you," she said. "He is not like other men." She turned away from him and took up a carving knife. "I have work to do," she said.

Eligius stood dumbfounded. The possibilities before him began to take shape. The Spaniards could not be far away. Each moment brought them closer to the jaws of the trap.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.