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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Longevity, Etc

     Today the Discovery Health Channel ran a program on the process of aging and factors that prolong life.   Prominent in the program were Okinawans, the inhabitants of the tropical island near China and Taiwan that, however, belongs to the Japanese, though less than 200 years ago it didn't.
     I have been been very interested in Okinawa for many years.   Thanks to the Air Force, I was stationed there in 1954.   I was only there for seven months and nothing of an especially striking nature happened, yet the place made an impression on me that has lasted to this very day, and in fact  I nearly re-enlisted just so  I could go back there.   Surely going to the Airmen's Club and getting soused on Whiskey Sours every night while ogling the cute little Okinawan waitresses couldn't have been the cause of all that, could it?
     Possibly!   Because that period on Okinawa was by far the most carefree period of my entire life.   I truly didn't have a worry in the world.
     The relaxed air must be endemic to that island.   It was one of the reasons that the Health Channel program gave for the fact that Okinawans tend to live longer than any other Japanese, and they have quite a large number of centenarians. 
     These are the ones who survived the truly terrible experience of being sandwiched by the American and Japanese forces in a very small space, and whose contemporaries and family members consequently died by the tens of thousands during the three months of ferocious fighting that followed the American landing, on April Fool's Day, 1945, which was also Easter Sunday that year -- the last great battle of the Pacific Campaign of WW2.
     Other factors for the greater longevity of today's Okinawans besides that kind of sheer luck in warfare and their relaxed lifestyle include getting plenty of exercise and eating small amounts of nutritious food.
     The program showed some Okinawan ladies fixing a stew that included fish cakes, tofu ...and pigsfeet.
     Over here pigsfeet are regarded as being practically pure, jellied cholesterol, but there it was.   I have absolutely no use for tofu or bean curd, but I love pigsfeet, though I have only had them to eat on the average of once every 10 years.   The idea of that stew greatly intrigues me, and I will have to look up the recipe on the Internet. 
     I have always been interested in what a person who becomes a centenarian makes of it, especially how it happened and whether they think it's a great accomplishment.
     On another TV program, containing the evening news of a long time ago, I saw a brash, young newscaster ask a woman how she had managed to reach age 100.
      I had heard other centenarians, grateful at being asked, give all sorts of answers to this question, most of them having to do with peace of mind and their diet.
       I loved this woman's answer, because, by comparison, it was such a towering example of bluntness, simplicity, and truth.
       "I don't know," she said.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Straight Scoop on the English

     England is a country that used to be gigantic but now has shrunk so much that it has to share a small island with two other countries, Scotland and Wales, and possibly others as well.  (Whatever happened to Pictland?)   Notwithstanding the fact that countries are usually self-contained, all three  of these are parts of a fourth country of uncertain size and location called Great Britain and also the United Kingdom, though in its best days it was ruled by queens.
     A short distance across some water are two other countries, Ireland and Northern Ireland or Ulcer, that may or may not be parts of Great Britain, too, though some also see Ulcer as being a part of not only Ireland but also of England -- a situation that is surely the explanation for its name.   As befits a place that could be a part of as many as three other countries, that name has a second spelling that, because it is less easily understood, is preferred, "Ulster."
     It's the kind of drollery that you get in and around those quaint and interesting people called the Brits and especially in ye olde England.
      I am very well informed on what goes on with the English of England.  I have never been there, but that very detachment puts me in an excellent position to collect insights, and so I will hereby pass a couple of them on to you, as follows:
     First of all you may be astonished to learn that only Americans still use the English language.   The  English spend so much time in their pubs that they necessarily suffer a great deal of language impairment, and, like the Australians, they have come to speak something else, and increasingly their films need subtitles.    Similarly because of all those pints they are not aware of this, and they will never become aware of it.   The Scots, however, have heard the ugly rumor that they've been heard speaking English or something like it, and now and then they try to scotch that by supplying subtitles.
       Everybody in England has lots of neighbors and never do anything without them.
       I think that's nice. 
       The English are too harmless and good-humored to commit real crimes.   The worst that can be said of the worst of them, even Jack the Ripper, is that they're rascals.   The English police, too, are very good-humored and they definitely know and appreciate a good joke when they see one, and everything in England is a joke because everything, even the gross stuff, is all in such good fun.  
      I think that's nice, too.
      Whenever they get tired of babbling in pubs and don't know what else to do with themselves, the English start up a business selling food on the streets to grownups, using beat-up trucks that apparently came from over here where they had been used for at least 50 years peddling ice cream to children.
      It is difficult to determine what those food items are, because I may have mentioned that in England they no longer speak English, and in this instance that's probably just as well.    People who would sell, buy, and eat stuff with names like chip butty, parsons nose, faggot, bubble and squeak, and spotted dick might not want that to be known!
      I know all this from watching their movies.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Left Behind

     Had I been visible to them from the beginning, the huge majority of people would say, "The world has passed you by."
     With only their values in sight, I would have to say that they have a point.  Still, because that world so often suggests to me a set of intermeshing hamster wheels, I would always have to make this impudent response:
      "Yes, but on its way to where?"


Sunday, July 25, 2004

Year of the Spiders

     Speaking of spiders....
     Around here, as with so many things, people both dread and welcome cold, snowy winters.   Along with the good things that such winters do for the water table, it is commonly thought that cold temperatures cut down the number of bugs in the coming warm months.   I've tried to confirm that but I don't know whether I can buy it.  
     I thought that last winter was unusually tough here even though it wasn't as severe as in many other parts of the country.   Yet it's been a great summer for a lot of the insects and insect-like things, especially Japanese beetles and spiders.   In fact, I can't remember ever have met up with so many spiders.  They seem to be wherever I turn, including inside buildings.
      That relationship of cold to the number of bugs depends on the species, too.   A good year for some insects is usually a bad year for other kinds.   So around here, this year, happily, has been notable for its relative lack -- so far -- of several kinds of tiny flyers that we generally call "gnats" but in places like Vermont are called "no-seeums."    I'll take the spiders instead, because the larger and fiercer kind of gnats have a great liking for flying straight into my eyes.  
     The main actors among this year's spiders aren't colorful or especially large, nor are their webs of any great beauty, as spiderwebs go, but those webs are numerous and gigantic.   Overnight these spiders can stretch their strands over spaces of 8 or 9 feet, from the ground to high overhead.   And the strands are tough, lasting, and inconspicuous, so that I feel them across my face before I see them -- though in that case I never actually see them, do I, because I'm too busy trying to wipe their ghostly touch off me.
     When I walk through the woods, I've taken to waving a stick in front of me, though I don't do it for long, because in my mind the image is ridiculous.   A while ago I wondered in this weblog about the origin of the idea of shaking a stick at things.   I guess, aside from schoolmasters, the utility of knocking down invisible yet very tangible spider strands makes a little sense.
     There are so many of those creatures and their works around here in any year that I wonder how people who suffer from arachnophobia make it, just as I wonder about those who are hypersensitive to stings from bees, wasps, hornets, and the like.    I know people who have to deal with both those dangers.   I thank my lucky stars that those things don't bother me at all.
       Spiders are second only to snakes on the list of the creatures that my neighbor, H., kills on sight, whereas  I just let them go on their merry way.   (It's been a good year for snakes, too.   I've seen six or seven so far, of various species.)   I haven't heard much from H. this summer.   Maybe he is being kept busy inflicting on all the spiders what this past winter failed to do.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Capital Cities

     Although I spent the first 45 years of my life in Washington, D.C., one of the things I would do if I were elected President would be to weigh the option of moving the capital out to somewhere in the country's midsection where it belongs.  D.C. wouldn't necessarily lose all its utility, and in the meantime it could be renamed  "Monument City."
      It's very strange that events conspired to leave the nation with its capital city sitting on  one extreme edge like that, so distant from most of the other parts of the country.  Most other countries have done a better job of trying to have a centrally located capital.   But in 1776 who was to know that the U.S. would get its britches enlarged so much, especially because of the invention of places as unlikely as Hawaii, Alaska, and especially California?
      Lest the forefathers be charged with not being as foresighted in geography as they were in other respects, let it be noted that they did centralize a little, but mostly in the wrong direction, when they shifted the government southward from Philadelphia to the Potomac River, which, as it happened, was right next door to the plantation belonging to the winning Revolutionary War general, G. Washington.
     Ancient Rome was the model for so much that those founders decided to do, but not in the capital city's shape.   Instead of Rome's circle, D.C. was laid out in a diamond shape, with each of the four sides extending 10 miles, except that today that shape looks like something took a big bite out of the bottom corner -- the result of some "Indian-giving" by the home state of the Father of the Country.
     I think Ed Gibbon was a bit envious of Rome for its population.   Apparently in its heyday Rome had well over a million people, which made it larger than any European city of his time, which was in 1776.   But I think that not much later, in the next century, his town, London, reached that "magic number."
     I wonder where Rome put all those people, between all the public buildings and forums and temples and the huge villas and palaces.   Apparently they had a lot of what we would call tenements or apartment buildings.   These buildings had a height limitation of 70 feet, because apparently they weren't built with the same care as the Pantheon and suffered quite a few collapses.   Similarly, Washington, D.C. also has a height limitation, or at least it did during my days there, but for a different reason, having to to do with not wanting to subtract from the aspect created by all the various monuments and what-not.
     I've always found the "chewed diamond" shape and that height limitation of D.C. handy whenever I've tried to picture a million or more people.   Even today, D.C. proper doesn't have that many citizens, though of course with all its deeply encircling suburbs, it is part of a metropolitan area that totally dwarfs Ancient Rome.
     Still its impressive to think that any city of such antique times could accommodate that many people.
     The Romans themselves never seemed to have gotten around to conducting an accurate, scientific census, though you would think that that would have been easy for them, considering all their incredible engineering feats.
      Instead it got to the point where Elagabalus -- admittedly one of the most way-out of their emperors -- is said to have tried to determine Rome's population by checking out spiderwebs.
      Well, I guess that's one way!

Friday, July 23, 2004

The GWBush Presidential Library

     I heard a couple of very nasty rumors this year.
     One is that, many thousands of deaths later, after the attacks he ordered on Afghanistan and Iraq -- two considerably smaller countries whose armies had not attacked the U.S. -- GWBush has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.   Apparently a rightist member of the Nobel committee threw his name in the hopper.
      That was months ago, but hardly anyone jumped on it one way or the other, and little if anything is heard about it now.   Can it be that even Bush's staunchest supporters realize how ridiculous that is?
      The other nasty rumor -- well, I guess actually it is an absolute certainty, since so many of the other guys have one -- is that there will be a GW Bush Presidential Library. 
      Maybe work on it has already started.
      I don't know where it will be.   It is too much to hope that it will be where his ranch is, in a place called Crawford,  Texas.   If it is, people will feel fully justified in not going there, and they will be relieved.
      Crawford, Texas sounds to me like one of those places that ordinarily you would never find unless you were on your way to somewhere else.
      I live in just such a spot.
      ...Well,  even if you were looking for it, you wouldn't notice this place where I live anyway, but by this time the piles of bulldung deposited by the Bush crew in and around Crawford, Texas must have grown to such Himalayan proportions that they can be seen from 50 miles away.
      Isn't a GWBush Library a huge contradiction in terms, given his admission that he doesn't read?
      The most intriguing question is, will there be anything in it that he himself wrote?   If so, I guess those documents will be kept in a very special room -- and a VERY SMALL one!
      The GWBush Presidential Library will be filled instead with the emanations of luminaries who work with him, towering  minds like Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Andrew Card, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and others.  
      I can think, however, of one truly great and exquisite use for the GWBush Presidential Library, and I will present it here and now.   You are warned, though.   I expect to be paid good money for this idea!
       A most fitting punishment for Saddam Hussein, who is soon to be tried, as retribution for all his terrible crimes against humanity, would be to be shut him up inside the GW Bush Presidential Library, indefinitely.
      Don't worry, all you would-be GWBush scholars.   It wouldn't really be put to that use for long.   If all the windows were blocked off, and no music was played, and Saddam was in there absolutely alone, on a diet only of eggplant and Coca-Cola, and he was required to go through all the tomes and files shelf by shelf on the penalty of starvation and write weekly reports, it wouldn't be a year before he would have to be carried out of there, his mind permanently shredded and with every part of him wracked by the most unbearable pain -- or more likely he would have chosen the other way out.
      On the other hand, however, when he gets to the Saddam Hussein files, Saddam Hussein may get months of huge chuckles out of that instead.
      All right!   Forget I ever proposed that!
      However, if the GWBush Presidential Library does accomplish one other thing, then its construction will have been more than justified.
      Hopefully its example will put a long-needed end to the dreadful , inexplicable, and kneejerk custom of building Presidential libraries.
      Quick!   Raise your hands.   How many of you have ever been to one?

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Take Me to Your Leader

     How can anyone possibly think that John Kerry, along with millions of other American men and women, wouldn't make a better U.S. President than the present person who is daily allowed to use the Oval Office as if it is his own?   Anyone reading this would make a better Chief Executive.  Their spouses would.  They almost certainly know a bunch of neighbors who would.   There could even be as many as three Republicans who would.
      Even I would, despite my present shaky condition.   At least if I had been interviewed on "Meet the Press" those several months ago, I wouldn't have had to mutter something like "My military records aren't available right now.   They're being treated with Old Dutch Cleanser somewhere in Colorado."  Instead I could have waved a folder an inch thick with all my Air Force records from half a century ago and said, "Yeah!   Here they are, documenting everything I did in my little hitch of nearly four years!"
      Can anyone imagine an alien landing in D.C. and saying "Take me to your leader," and being escorted into the presence of this nondescript guy who doesn't read and isn't adept with the language of his country, to the point that he probably uses the word "terror" 3,000 times a day and "freedom" 2,000 as all-purpose terms to cover any issue or situation?   Yet this man is presumably the best we could find for the head of our government, out of a nation of close to three hundred million.  His attaining the office of President is perfectly incredible and a permanent blot on our political process.
      But I guess we don't really elect people at all, do we?   We just vote for concepts, and right now the reigning concept is the Republican one of extreme pugnacity and leaving scruples at home.
      GWBush reminds me of those bigamists that you hear about, with multiple wives in different places, and you wonder, after their secret is uncovered, why no one bothered to check their stories through so many years.   With his military career already wreathed in that sort of mystery, I think his college credentials should also be checked.
       A friend said  that it's impossible to believe that Bush wrote even one paper while he was at Yale and Harvard.   So he should also produce  a couple of those.  After all, he has to start stocking his Presidential Library anyway, doesn't he?   Or will everything in there date entirely from the day he seems to think he was born,  September 12, 2001?

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Scattered Thoughts on Memory

      Isn't it remarkable that memories can stay intact in tiny, tiny cells atop your spine for 70 or 80 years and longer, when so many things in the world have much shorter spans.   That's as amazing as all the heavy-duty work that our hearts do for similar epic lengths of time, and that's not to mention all the other working parts of that truly remarkable structure, the human body.   We should be highly grateful that those mechanisms don't weaken any sooner or more often than they do. 
     In speaking of Vidal's "Julian" yesterday, I wanted to say how great it is that over time the memory weakens just enough that books and movies can be read and viewed a second time exactly as if they just came out yesterday.   So you can get double and even triple duty out of those creations -- a good argument for holding on to books especially.
      One of my computer activities is to crank into www.buzztime.com.   It offers samples of their interactive trivia bar games.    You're given a choice of five answers, and you're scored on how quickly you can pick the right answer, and after each question and at the end of each round of 15 questions, a window appears in which the 10 highest-scoring players are listed.
      I play a game called Countdown.   The questions repeat, but as Countdown's database seems to consist of at least 6,000 questions, you may see some quite often and others not for months or even years at a time.
     Some of us who have been playing for several years can get perfect games now and then and even quite often -- that is, by answering all 15 questions instantly and correctly.   But once in a while we are criticized for not "having a life" by playing a game in which every question -- after various periods of time -- eventually becomes a repeat.   My particular answer is that getting the right answer the first time is good, but there's an equal delight in being able to test and exercise one's memory this way.   And there's some utility in it, too, with Alzheimer's being the threat that it is to so many.
     A good memory is integral with being a serious chess player.   When you are really into it, even a very long game can stay in the mind long enough that some time later you can write down the whole of it verbatim.  
     Once, in the Air Force, playing blindfold, that is, without sight of the board, I easily beat a guy who was looking at the board, in a game that lasted for 35 or 40 moves.   He had never heard of such a thing, and he was extremely impressed.   He thought I had used some sort of trick.   He didn't know how for someone like me it was child's play.
       But playing a bunch of games all at the same time is another thing altogether.  Another time I tried playing five blindfold games simultaneously.    I managed to keep things going till about the 15th move, but then something happened.   I can't remember now what it was.
     It used to be fashionable for chess grandmasters -- some of them -- to make money by giving blindfold simultaneous exhibitions.   That is, they would play a large number of games all at the same time with their backs turned to the players and the boards.   That's a prodigious feat of memory, considering that you not only have to keep the constantly changing positions of 20 or 25 different games in your head all at the same time, but also you have to make calculations in each so that you can win.  Of course the latter consideration means that it's best and even necessary to have only a bunch of scrubs for your opponents.
       Two grandmasters, the titan named Alexander Alekhine, and the less illustrious Miguel Najdorf, were especially noted for these incredible displays of memory, and the last I heard the record was 53 games!
     But, also when I last heard, today's Russians, who, collectively, are the world's foremost chessplayers, frown on that kind of activity.   They scornfully dismiss blindfold simultaneous exhibitions as being "mental masturbation."
     At first I thought that sounded good, but later I decided that the Russians had made a bad choice of terms or the term they used had been mistranslated.   There can be no doubt that holding such a large number of games in your memory all at once and without sight of the board is pain to an excruciating degree, and the same is not often said about masturbation.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2004


         I am still reading, on the computer, Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," so much so, in fact, that it's been hurting my other computer activities, including keeping up this weblog.  Much more than in the past, recently I've been going through the stress of coming up to the 22nd or 23rd hours of the day before posting something.
        So far, though doing the same thing every day isn't my thing at all, I haven't let a day go by since starting this weblog without putting up a post.    I don't know why I feel it's so necessary to keep up that "record."   I'm well aware that if I miss a day, or two days, or a week, or any other length of time, the sky won't even remotely fall in, for me or for anyone else.   Then why?
       Lots of smiles may be in order!
       I've reached Chapter 23 of the book, and that means I may be near the halfway mark.   It's in the year 363, near the end of the  short but extremely significant reign of Julian, the Apostate Emperor.   He's up to his ears in an issue that is still red hot to this very day, and that is what should be put on the man-leveled top of "Mt." Moriah in Jerusalem.   The most important Jewish temple of all, built by King Solomon, used to crown that height, but it was reduced to ruins during the reigns of the emperors Titus and Hadrian.
       Julian, in his campaign to roll back the adoption of Christianity as had been put into effect by his predecessor, Constantine, attempted to rebuild Solomon's Temple  on the same spot, but events like an earthquake and a whirlwind and fireballs from a volcano or some such supposedly interfered, and then Julian died, and some centuries later, with new proprietors on the scene, a mosque was put on that spot.    A mosque is still there,  and with the Israelis now in control, it's still a very touchy situation.   You may recall Sharon's ill-advised visit to that spot that brought on the renewal of the Intifada just a few years ago.
       I've been reading "Decline and Fall"  closely, though I have to admit that when I got to Constantine and later Julian, I skipped over quite a few paragraphs when Gibbon's interest in theological matters exceeded mine.   I expected something like this to happen, but I thought it would be economics instead.    
        I'm waiting to understand how the Roman adoption of Christianity contributed to the empire's decline and fall, to the extent that Gibbon found it so necessary to expound at such length on the tenets and the arguments of that religion's early doctrines.   Instead, it would seem, so far, that Christianity instead breathed new life into the Roman fortunes.   I am sure, though, that it will all be made clear to me.
        Gibbon, meanwhile, got some competition for my attention, after I recalled that for years I've had a copy of Gore Vidal's "Julian," a historical novel about that very emperor.   I read it in the 1960's when it was even a best-seller, but it made hardly any impression on me.   I expect that now it will mean more.   But before I get too far into it, I guess I'll see what Gibbon has to say first.   The contrast should be interesting, as I expect that Vidal was much less reverent than Gibbon. 
       Hey!  Without much effort in just a few minutes I've typed up another post, just by rapping on what is chiefly on my mind at this moment.   So  my release from the benign tyranny of this weblog will have to wait till tomorrow or another day soon.     

Monday, July 19, 2004

Chess for Blood

       When I was a child and  teenager, quite frankly I was "slow,"  in several important respects.  But my private god (more about that elsewhere  ...maybe) allowed that to be concealed by several clever strategies,  though I didn't realize it at the time.    One was that I became seriously interested in trying to become a chessmaster. 
       In line with my delay in most things, at age 16 I came to chess too late.    You should start by 9 or 10 to have a good crack at fulfilling any serious ambitions.    So, while most guys my age were becoming ever more absorbed in cars and girls,  I spent the remainder of my coming-of-age years loading my memory with many intricate sequences of opening moves.    I didn't regret falling so far behind my contemporaries, as I figured -- I think correctly -- that those more normal obsessions would quickly saddle them with big burdens of bills,  babies,  and responsibilities that I felt I could do without for a while longer.  
       I was a good chess player.   For a short while I held the U.S. Chess Federation rank of Expert, a few points below Master.   But I was saddled with a disastrous flaw --  a lack of the killer instinct.   I could often get winning positions but I had trouble cashing them in.
       But  that was all just as well. 
       There are two kinds of chess,  as Edward Lasker,  the unrelated namesake of the great Emanuel Lasker (a chess giant throughout the first third of the past century) pointed out with the title of his excellent book,  "Chess for Fun and Chess for Blood." 
      Chess for fun is played by uncommitted people using those ornate and unusable Florentine pieces that you see in movies and living rooms.    Women, the more sensible sex,  tend to confine themselves to that kind of chess. 
       People unacquainted with the other kind, chess for blood,  can have no idea of just how exciting yet stressful the game can get,  once you know what is happening.   It is much like prizefighting, except that you are trying to batter an opponent's cranium from the inside instead of the outside.   But chess, in its strategies and in its tactics, is also accompanied by enormous beauty that so far I have been unable to detect in boxing and in nearly all other competitive pursuits as well.
       I'm not saying, however, that chess for blood is good for one's health.   One reason is that it is overseen by something diabolic called a CLOCK,  and in any sort of a close game it's difficult to avoid getting into a terrible fix called TIME TROUBLE.    And in the meantime you and your opponent are trying to deal heavy blows to something  nearly as delicate and as crucial as the heart or the brain -- the other person's PYSCHE -- and that in turn is corrosive to  your STOMACH -- if you're as much of a purist as I was and take it far too seriously. 
        But that was years ago and now I live where there aren't any chess-for-blood players for many miles around,  and I've been SAVED ...mostly, you have by now deduced,  from myself.

Sunday, July 18, 2004


     Where I live I didn't notice, earlier in this election cycle, any H. Dean "prayer meetings" being held, and so I didn't get the "spirit."   I missed getting the idea that the election this year, in 2004, would be about the apotheosis of the Vermont governor, however worthy he may be, or of anyone else.  For me all that has mattered is the more earthly necessity of sending the bums home,  i.e. the Republicans.

     John  Kerry's been down there in the muck and the trenches dealing with a bunch of bonafide nasties for a long time, and I'm not talking about Vietnam.   I'm talking about the U.S. Senate.  Some of the monsters he faced are now gone from those chambers -- Helms, Thurmond, Gramm -- but many are still there vandalizing the country -- Nickles, Santorum, Lott, McConnell, Specter, and almost all the other  Republicans as well.

     I voted for Kerry in the primaries not because the media or the Democratic establishment told me to -- I'm perfectly capable of coming to conclusions on my own -- but because to me he was the one most familiar as a dedicated Democrat, and in that connection he dated from farther back than his fellow contenders or, I would guess, even many of the avid supporters of H. Dean or the other candidates .

     Unlike those who vote in the general elections, the people who vote in primaries and caucuses -- one-quarter of them anyway -- tend to be those who pay attention to politics, and I would guess that most who voted for Kerry likewise remembered him from before, and they were thinking, "Maybe his day has finally come. In any case, let's give him the chance -- because he's had the most experience at sliding through the jungles with the big gun oiled, sighted in, and at the ready, no muss, no fuss."
     This just isn't H. Dean's year, but there's a good chance  -- and I use "good" in more than one sense -- that one of the cycles to come belongs to him.  

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Substitution of a Term

In an attempt to move the focus off the perpetrators of the act and onto the  victims of the act instead, some have urged that the term "suicide bombers" be dropped, and that "homicide bombers" should be used instead. 
 In one respect, that of memorializing the dead and injured, the suggestion has merit, but the idea seems to have fallen on deaf ears, and that's just as well, from the viewpoint of trying to understand why these bombings take place and in such a drastic and very personal manner.   Also it could be that the term "homicide bombers" has too much  redundancy.  All bombings of places where people are likely to be present are homicidal, whether they are committed by young Palestinian women with the explosive strapped to their bodies or by aircrews sitting safely in their B-52's high overhead. 

 "Suicide bombers" carries more meaning than "homicide bombers"  because it sheds more light on why the act was committed.   At least it says that normally sensible people felt so angry and desperate and otherwise helpless that they considered themselves to be driven not only to take the lives of an unknown -- to them -- number of strangers but also to add to that annihilation their most precious possession by far -- their own lives.
To deny the suicide aspect is to relieve people of any obligation to think about how to end the conditions that lead to such utter desperation, and to act constructively on their conclusions.   In an atmosphere in which only renewed grief, rage, and the thirst for vengeance are given room to operate, that denial continues to take place, no matter what the bombings are called, and that could be one main reason why the bombings haven't stopped being an ever-hovering and terrible threat.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Land of Shrimp and Gumbo

When we think of Earl Kemp Long (1895-1960), the lesser-known brother of the Kingfish, Huey Long, but like him the governor of Louisiana and for three terms no less, we're probably seeing snippets in our minds from the 1989 movie "Blaze."   That film was about his "scandalous" love affair with a stripper named Blaze Starr, whom he just refused to let go.   That isn't hard to understand, if Ms Starr was anything like the very appealing Canadian actress who played her, Lolita Davidovich.   (That, if I may say so, is my idea of a cool name.)   Before I forget, the movie also starred Paul Newman.

   Earl Long said and did a lot of things that convinced his wife and others that he belonged in a mental institution, and they had him put in one -- appropriately in Texas -- while he was still the governor of Louisiana.

"And there I was," he complained later, "with not enough clothes on me to cover a red bug." 
  (He is also quoted as having said "bed bug."   But I like "red bug" better.)

His stay in the insane asylum didn't last long.   He escaped to Arkansas (if that can be said) and restored his self-respect by indulging in a number of interesting purchases, the most fitting of which, considering how he had been so horribly denuded, was $700 worth of cowboy boots.   Meanwhile he fired everyone he could touch who'd had a hand in his being committed.

His tormentors thought he had lost his marbles mostly because of another memorable statement he made, in the heat of political battle.   Exasperated by the race-baiting in which he and every good Southern politician was expected to indulge, ol' Earl finally blurted out, "Niggers is human beings!"

In his interesting 1960 book, "The Earl of Louisiana," A. J. Liebling uses this statement, which came as such a big shock to many in those parts, to support his view of Earl Long as having been by far the most progressive Southern politician of his time, comparable only with his brother, Huey.  
According to Liebling, despite Long's great courage in making that "civil rights" statement, after Long's death in 1960 and at the same moment that John F. Kennedy was being elected President,  Louisiana, instead of advancing  sociologically speaking or at least staying in place, actually slipped backward a notch or two.
 Sadly, nowhere in his book does Liebling mention Ms Davidovich -- pardon me, Ms Starr -- and it is possible that that terrible omission is precisely the part that he himself unwittingly played in that momentary setback in Louisiana's outlook.
I suppose you could say that Louisiana is my ancestral home, though -- unintentionally -- it is one of only six states where I have never set foot.   To my knowledge I have never even been in a plane that was flying over it.

  I come by my lack of regret about that legitimately.   By the time I was born my parents and all the rest of my relatives had long since caught "the first thing smoking," northward, and they never expressed the slightest desire to return.  They didn't even have a good word to say for the Mardi Gras.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Troop Strength

Edward Gibbon began Chapter 5 of his book with a very interesting summation of how many troops are needed for typical situations. He presumed that these formulas had held true from the days of the Roman Empire, whose decline and fall was his subject, up through the many centuries into his own day, late in the 1770's.

I wonder if these figures still hold any relevance for today?

If they do, the first sentence of his passage supports my feeling that a draft in the U.S. any time in the near future can be easily talked about but not so easily put into action. There are too many people eligible for any kind of a fair draft and not enough uses for such a large number.

It's eerie to read the rest of the passage while keeping in mind the heavily armed and heavily clothed U.S. troops as they ride their humvees back and forth through what in recent times was unfortunately dubbed "Iraq" -- the name is too close to that of another country adjoining it. The Ancient Greeks more happily called the place "Mesopotamia" or "Between the Rivers."

Gibbon wrote:

It has been calculated by the ablest politicians, that no state, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness. ...There is no superiority of natural strength, artificial weapons, or acquired skill, which could enable one man to keep in constant subjection one hundred of his fellow creatures: the tyrant of a single town, or a small district, would soon discover that an hundred armed followers were a weak defence against ten thousand peasants or citizens; but an hundred thousand well disciplined soldiers will command, with despotic sway, ten millions of subjects; and a body of ten or fifteen thousand guards will strike terror into the most numerous populace that ever crowded the streets of an immense capital.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


In his "Meet the Press" interview some months ago, GWBush equated questions about his military career with denigration of the National Guard. At first that looked like a very bad logic disconnect, good coin only to his worshippers, because till then no one had spoken adversely of the National Guard. Not until one looked farther into the grounds underlying his complaint could it be seen what Bush was actually doing, by accident. He was letting slip his private opinion of the Guard, at least as pertains to the slack ways it had in his day, as he recalled things like "ghost soldiers" and people drawing pay for drills that they hadn't attended, and as he remembered stuff that he himself had gotten away with.

The crowning irony is that Bush has seen to it that things are now very different and far less relaxed for his successors in the National Guard. As a result of his unprovoked assault on a distant country and its boomerang effect, they're filling in the regular Army ranks and being sent to Iraq -- as far as it's possible to get, short of shipping out to the Moon, from the home shores that they're supposed to be guarding.

This "denigration" had the same non-existent substance as the dire threat that Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein posed to the U.S. This helps to demonstrate that Bush and his people are doing a lot of their governing by figment. In so doing they put themselves in the trap of needing another national catastrophe (though not necessarily on the scale of 9/11), if their figments are to continue to be seen as being more than that.

(The posting of the above was inspired by a post on the Guard by Andante today in her "Collective Sigh" weblog, though I actually wrote most of this a while ago.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


It is an interesting coincidence -- if coincidence it is -- that the first edition of Edward Gibbon's monumental cautionary tale on empires, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," came out in the same year, 1776, that a bunch of dissatisfied prominent North American colonists met in Philadelphia, Pa., and hammered out the Declaration of Independence, a document that announced the emergence of a new nation. That year Gibbon hadn't actually finished his book. He spent the next 12 years getting the rest of it worked out, just as the American Revolutionary War, having already started the year before, had another seven years to run.

It's too much to suppose that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the others had that quickly read Gibbon's account of the Roman experiences with government, but undoubtedly they had studied some of the same histories as those that Gibbon consulted, as had writers like Thomas Paine and John Locke, whose thoughts about what good government should be influenced the writers and signers of the Declaration.

Gibbon's task was more comfortable by far. With his military life behind him -- he had served in the British militia during the Seven Years War while seeing no action -- he had only to sit back in London and Switzerland and take 20 years to pull togther his comprehensive history of the latter days of Rome. The American patriots meanwhile had to worry about going to the gallows together instead of separately while in the meantime forming a new government from scratch -- a government that not only would last for a while but also would have the flexibility to meet all sorts of future changes in conditions.

This past 4th of July, as on every 4th of July, people like to ask others what that holiday means to them.

On most 4ths of July, it doesn't mean much to me, and I think that if they were honest with themselves, most Americans would say the same, because with each passing year the idea of independence from the British becomes more abstract and distant in time and urgency. And if I had been around in the Revolutionary War era, I doubt that I would have noticed much change in conditions anyway.

But usually, when I think of the founding of this country, I like to wonder what those signers of the Declaration would think if they could see their new nation now. It's fortunate that the future can't be accurately predicted, because otherwise there would've been a lot of quill-quivering in that room! The presentday complexity and power of this country is so mind-boggling that at times the state of things seems to be beyond the true comprehension even of the large bodies of people who are charged with keeping things going.

Also this year in particular, the 4th of July reminds me to be grateful that there are enough people with the same high ideals that (aside from the slavery that they couldn't bring themselves to end) were generally to be found in that room of the Signers -- people who still have the interest and the fortitude to oppose and counteract the huge number of those in today's U.S. who have the same degree of mistaken notions, obsessive self-interest, and evil intentions as did the members of the Praetorian Guard, the Legions, and those with imperial pretensions, who, acting together, set into motion the events that led to a long series of very unhappy years for the Romans before the final breakup of their empire.

In 1776 Gibbon's British Empire had yet to hit its peak and color half the globe pink. Still in that year the wheels started turning that would lead to the loss of Britain's most important colony, and meanwhile the representatives of that small collection of 13 states on the North American East Coast that declared themselves United thereby started the ball rolling to create what would become the American Empire. Never mind that its leaders have long pretended not to see the country that way, just as the ancient Romans studiously stayed away from calling their supreme leaders dictators or kings, when that was in fact what they were.

Monday, July 12, 2004

A Classic Finally Being Read

I'm finally reading the massive and famous but probably little-read classic "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," by Edward Gibbon.

I'm reading it on the computer, something that until a short while I wouldn't have considered doing. In addition to habit, the main reasons for that avoidance were the small 15" and even 17" monitors of the past, but now I have a rock-steady 21" screen that, besides the obvious advantage of larger type, allows for easier scrolling.

Still, I will have to fight off the temptation to buy the book anyway, "just to have it," even though I'm well aware of how that makes no sense this late in the day -- a day that has consisted of the lifetimes of three people accumulating books until now my house is so crammed with reading material that there's scarcely room for anything else.

I don't know why I waited so long to read this book, since Ancient Rome has always been of such great interest to me that reading it amounts to an absolute necessity. Maybe, because "Decline and Fall" was written so long ago (first published in 1776), I thought the language would be too learned and archaic. And actually the language does present problems. In the intervening generations there have been not only lots of changes in the meanings of words but also in fashionable sentence constructions and in the names of people, places, and things. But those obstacles haven't turned out to be formidable.

I think I am reading this book at a good time -- immediately after the U.S. once again celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and so soon after I re-read Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War, because, underlying their central themes, both books are also close explorations into governments and the age-old question of which kind works best.

In that respect Thucydides and Gibbon could be the chief authorities on the ancient Greek and Roman experiments in government respectively. Thucydides had the advantage over Gibbon in writing of democracies, oligarchies, kingdoms, and the like in which he had lived or had witnessed close up. Gibbon, on the other hand, while having always lived in a kingdom, had the advantage over the banished Athenian general in that he could write about Rome from the comfortable remove of well over a thousand years, with access to materials accumulated over all that time.

And now I have the advantage over Gibbon in knowing about the reappraisals of things about which he had a somewhat different view.

Just for instance -- I've only finished the first four chapters so far -- today the wall that the Romans built to separate England from Scotland is commonly called "Hadrian's Wall," but Gibbon gives the credit for it instead to Hadrian's immediate successors, whom he calls the "Two Antonines."

Also he has no use for the Emperor Claudius, usually calling him "stupid." But Gibbon didn't have the advantage of having seen the great BBC TV miniseries of some years ago, "I, Claudius," based on the book by Robert Graves, which paints Claudius as actually having been a very shrewd and moral operator who used the perception of him as being light in the head to protect himself from the plethora of deadly characters that surrounded him.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

All That Is Asked

The most obvious drawback of marrying someone of the same sex is that the partners themselves can't produce children. That's a big frowner for the Force that regulates all life on Earth.

The Life Force doesn't ask that much of us.

The Life Force doesn't require us to be virtuous, nor does it attack us for being villainous. The Life Force doesn't care whether or not we're smart or stupid. The Life Force is not concerned with what color we are, or how tall or how short, or how fat or how thin, or how strong or how weak. The Life Force doesn't give one diddly damn about how affluent or poor we are. The Life Force is not interested in the glitter and abundance of our ranches, our houses, our cars, our boats, our coin collections, our stocks, or any other of our possessions. The Life Force is indifferent to the state of our happiness. The Life Force has absolutely no interest in the U.S., Andorra, Israel, Denmark, Japan, Botswana, democracy, capitalism, communism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, pro football, Britney Spears, Halle Berry, global warming, freedom, or the price of gasoline. The Life Force couldn't care less about our achievements and our failures.

The Life Force IS interested in whether or not we're healthy and whether or not we're attactive to the opposite sex, but not even in those respects is its interest overwhelming, judging by the surprising number of exceptions that it makes.

The only thing that the Life Force really demands of us is that we reproduce -- and it's obsessive in that respect.

In that light maybe it can be said that same-sex marriage has one good result. The Life Force and human beings have worked together TOO well, and now the planet is badly threatened by the myriad problems caused by overpopulation, and same-sex marriage works against that trend.

But that "contribution" will always be just a drop in the bucket. The Life Force always holds in reserve far more effective solutions for that situation.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

A Hunch of Red Meat

A while ago the Bush people proposed adding to the U.S. Constitution a provision that would forbid marriage between persons of the same gender, and the Senate is now considering the idea.

I have a hunch that "gay marriage" is merely a lump of red meat thrown in to the civil liberties guard Dobermans to distract them, as in Whoopi Goldberg's 1987 film "Burglar," while the thieves calmly go through the rest of the house rifling it of all its valuables, which in this case consist of more critical matters, like the unprovoked assault on Iraq, the economy, civil liberties themselves, and the environment.

All my ideas about permission to marry can be expressed in just a few words. People of any persuasion should be allowed to marry anyone that they can find that they like and that would marry them.

I would vote against that ban of gay marriage, but I wouldn't go to the barricades to fight it -- first because I'm not a barricades-manner, and secondly because I find the idea of marrying a person of one's own gender difficult to understand. Not particularly distasteful but definitely a puzzler.

I theorize that one reason for this is that, for all their frivolousness, selfishness, spitefulness, and all the other vices that they favor, I place women up on some very high pedestals, where desirability and so forth are concerned. I spent the first 20 years of my life largely in the company of two beautiful and nurturing women, namely my mother and my sister, both of them now sadly deceased, and then there's been my wife. Much more often than men, women have had a salutary hand in every turn of my life. I might even say that my lifelong shyness helped turn them into these wonderful even if unrealistic Holy Grail beings, compared to which men are like rusty, dented garbage pails. Therefore the idea of a man marrying another man instead of a woman is way past my powers of projection, while two women marrying each other is just a waste of two wives.

But if that's what two people want to do, I say more power to them. It's strictly their own business, and no one else has a right to have a veto in the matter. Nothing at all in the universe will collapse -- except a few pretensions of the Bushian kind, inflated by gospel.

Friday, July 09, 2004

The Fear

When I was young, even before it was really clear what sort of things set them off from others, I saw how much venom was dealt out to those with a preference for their own gender. (In those days the most benign term applied to them was "queers;" "gay" had not yet come in.) I wondered if they were unlucky sufferers of a horrible mental dislocation or a weird disease like leprosy or vitiligo that I, too, could contract in spite of everything, and I found that possibility too terrible to accept. Being subject to all the nonsense and cruelty of Jim Crow was already more than I thought any person should be expected to bear.

At the same time, knowing how bogus it was for people to observe a million customs and laws designed to oppress a group merely because of their skin color and hair texture, it wasn't hard to conclude that the same kind of ugly thinking was at work against gays. But the fear still raced ahead of the logic, and I figured that even if homosexuality turned out to be just an affectation, I could see people indulging in all sorts of such behaviors that they thought were absolutely the last word in cool, but to me were other ways of thinking that I would have to take care to avoid, as I saw them in a totally different way.

For instance I saw men taking great pride in togging themselves out in expensive business suits and silk ties, when to my eye they had put on chimpanzee costumes and self-applied hangman's nooses. I saw people spending large amounts of money, labor, and time on their persons in order to go to fancy restaurants and spend other large amounts on strange kinds of food, when for me an equally sumptuous meal of just the right amount could be gotten from any Campbell's Soup can (except tomato). I couldn't understand how the ability to instantly identify the exact make, model, and year of any car made in the last 30 years was considered to be so down with it, when as far as I could see you couldn't do anything with that erudition unless you were an auto mechanic.

Things would have been better if I could have gotten a better idea of what causes a person to be "gay," and whether there's any voluntary element in it, and -- to borrow from a song about the blues, I think by John Lee Hooker -- whether it is even possible to get out of it alive. But even today, in weblogs, I have seen people who should know look as if they're about to give their idea of the real nitty-gritty, but all too quickly, before revealing much of anything, they start satisfying themselves with berating "straight" people for being so wrong-headed. The truth must be that they have no clear idea themselves.

My mind also produced objections on another ground, which was that, as I didn't have an all-controlling libido, it seemed spurious and vain to me that anyone should pursue a whole life ethic and thus differentiate themselves based solely on sexual practice.

It was the same as the way that my refusal to believe in things for which I couldn't see clear evidence led me to strongly question following a whole life ethic based mainly on religion. And similarly my refusal to have anything expected of me purely because of my melanin count caused me to reject all notions of following a whole life ethic based mainly on race.

Now that I'm well outside of passion's line of fire, that fear has largely vanished, and I can take a more detached point of view, and certainly we are assured by its numerous practitioners and defenders that being gay doesn't equate in any way with being evil or obsessed or (I can never resist getting this kind of shot off, as it so obviously belongs in any presentday listing of the Eight Deadliest Sins) voting Republican.

Not that I ever thought homosexuality was ever any of those things in the first place. Actually I rarely thought about it, period. Instead I just kept it safely esconsed high up there and nearly out of sight on that shelf of life's big mysteries.

It was similar to the way that I've shied away from all statements about how many stars there might be in the universe. My mind just can't absorb those fantastic numbers. I can't do anything with them.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

In Reality

It is being widely said that R. Reagan, a man who held the office of U.S. President in the 1980's, died recently.

This is a case of yet another loose use of language, for the term "died" had reference only to the final cessation of operation of his heart, lungs, and some other organs. In all the ways that distinguished R. Reagan from being more than just a collection of body parts suffering from lack of a functioning control system, he had already died long ago, and it happened at several different times, in several different ways.

The first occurred when he drained his sensibility of nearly every drop of its former humanity -- or 96.25 percent of it anyway -- by switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

His next demise took place when he left political life, to the great sadness of some and to the great relief of others. Then -- directly at least -- he could no longer have the often deleterious effect that he had been having in the office of President. He was certainly a great boon to the Republican party, but that in itself was an extreme disservice to the rest of the country, especially in its balance sheets and in its shift closer to being a police state.

His third and by far really final death happened when -- as if having in mind his lack of sympathy toward AIDs sufferers -- the Life Force dropped over him the terrible veil of another highly dreadful ailment, Alzheimers, and on that account sympathy was due to him and even more to his wife and children and other loved ones.

From that moment on R. Reagan was like an aerial balloon that gradually loses its helium and keeps collapsing until eventually it becomes just a limp pile of material on the ground, useful -- if that can be said -- only for continuing a process that actually began years ago, namely being cut up into bits and pieces to be recycled for other unfortunate excursions through the political smog by others of his sad persuasion.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Confession of a Partisan

I confess. It appears that I can indeed be called that awful thing, a partisan.

I notice that in progressive and regressive circles alike, to be a partisan carries strong disapprobrium. Yet I think that a case can be made for saying that that is the most honest and direct way to be, especially in the situation that we're facing.

Partisans have a long and honorable tradition. In the defining war of my lifetime, until the big armies arrived the partisans were the people who fought the Axis most fiercely -- or at all -- in occupied France, Russia, Norway, Yugoslavia, and other countries. Now it is the U.S. that, in a political sense, is occupied.

As a native of Washington, D.C. I wasn't permitted to vote in the national elections or even for mayor of the town until I was well up into adulthood, as I recall not till the early 1960's -- because of D.C.'s status as a Federal enclave and not because of the racial situation --not directly, anyway, though nowadays one has to think that the ethnic coloration of D.C. is very much at the heart, though rarely openly expressed, of the refusal of Americans of enough of the other states to allow D.C. to be represented in Congress by a real Representative and real Senators. Though it has a larger population than at least one state, Wyoming, Washington D.C. has only a single delegate in Congress, and he or she isn't allowed to cast a vote.

An honest Republican -- there may be a few -- will openly tell you that, as long as they have anything to say about it, they will never allow D.C. to have such representation in the Congress, because the town is so overwhelmingly Democrat. So much for the American Way!

When I finally could vote, I thought I'd be sensible and clever and keep all my options open by registering as Independent. But that didn't last long, after seeing that the Democratic party always had the best candidates and the most admirable positions, and meanwhile I had already noticed that the Republicans sided with the Southern Democrats (who later all disappeared into the Great Beyond, the GOP, or other oblivions) in being cold to and in opposing Civil Rights, and in the Executive Branch Eisenhower likewise had been indifferent to those aspirations.

That situation has carried straight through to the present day. Nixon and Reagan weren't any better and various of the Bushes' helpers have been just window dressing, and it has always been Democratic Presidents -- from FDR to Clinton -- who have actively tried to create a better climate for less privileged Americans. Also it didn't help to see the Republicans become the party of choice for the David Dukes, the Strom Thurmonds, and the Jesse Helms' of the world.

So, while progressives and regressives alike can enjoy other options, for someone like me there is only one choice, the Democratic Party. Third parties are a good idea, but the Reform Party and the Green Party were crippled in recent election cycles by serving as little more than personal vehicles for H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in their megalomaniac modes -- even though that may have been the only thing that enabled those parties to get as far as they did.

Some could say that, by consistently going with the Democrats, I am actually self-segregating myself, and not taking advantage of the freedom and range of American politics. But first I have to be shown that freedom and range. The stakes have consistently been too high for me to go to a polling place as airily as I would to a race track.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Second Shot

Shortly before my 7th birthday, in 1938, my father died. Despite having two small children (neither of whom was consulted or forewarned, I might add) my mother was soon snapped up by a lawyer (or she snapped him up, though it would have to have been both -- people neglect to give the real reasons why they marry almost as much as they omit telling exactly why they divorce). We moved from D.C. a few miles out into Maryland, into what was then largely the country but now very much more is not.

Across the road from our house and beyond a barbed wire fence, a large field sloped down to a creek and then up again to a white house occupied by people of allegedly the same color, set high in the distance. Quite often this field was occupied by huge, fearsome, lumbering beasts that to my dismay had absolutely no expression on their faces, and I couldn't tell what they were thinking. It couldn't have been much, because they spent all their time munching grass and from their rear ends carelessly dropping all over the place large, dark, smelly messes that were natural booby traps for the feet of carefree kids. Those monsters held no fascination at all for this city boy, and I was always glad when they were nowhere in sight.

Once in a while in the first year or two of this marriage my stepfather's grandchildren by his first marriage, snooty city kids, threw parties for their snotty city friends, and those events were highlighted by climbing through that fence and loudly trooping down to the creek and making a general mess of things there.

That got me into the habit of playing in that creek, too, but not every day or even every week, because of the cows and because I had other far more important things to do. These tasks included getting ready to fulfil my childhood ambition -- to become one of what I even now consider to be those coolest of all Americans -- a Chippewa, a Sioux, or any other kind of Indian.

Nevertheless I spent hours down in that creek, mainly catching eels but also watching the whirligigs and water spiders and marveling at how they could so easily glide across the water as if on a dance floor, while I challenged nature by building large sand dams to hold back the water. And though they had nine years to do so, not once did any of those "white" people way up there atop the hill ever come down to chase my clearly trespassing and somewhat darker self off their property. In fact, I have no recollection ever of having laid eyes on them. And because no one showed up to dispute my claim, I came to look on that stream as being "my" creek.

Then, in 1948, a truly horrible thing happened. Some crews with heavy machinery showed up at the creek and they buried it. Overnight my creek disappeared inside a gigantic pipe, which was then covered over, and the cows and their numerous plops and the field itself disappeared, to be replaced by hordes of ugly new houses and other junk. My wonderful creek was gone forever.

Mercifully that was the same year that my mother moved us back into D.C., as five years earlier my stepfather had also died, and the estate had finally been settled.

Twenty-eight years went by.

In the middle 1970's, I was bitten by the "back-to-the-land" bug, which in that decade spread its ravages far and wide among people who were of a certain disposition. Against her better judgment my wife went along with it, and we found 20 acres of woods in Virginia, 175 miles from our home in D.C. The trees were beautiful enough, consisting as they did mainly of tall oaks, hickories, maples, tuliptrees, and other hardwoods that hadn't been timbered over for close to a century. But best of all, a shallow but clear and strongly running creek wound through that property for quite a distance.

It was like an exact twin of the creek that I had lost to suburbia long ago in Maryland, except with more shade and no cows!

And ever since then I've had a great time playing in it, too.

Once in a while life does give us second shots at things that we thought were gone for good, and more often than we might want to think.

Monday, July 05, 2004


...But if their handling of him had been incorrect, their discharge of the rest of the affair seemed to be perfect. As they drove to jail, the streets were deserted and not a shot had spoiled the tropic dawn.

"Pretty quiet for a revolution," the Small Man said with a faint smile.

"Why not?" the lieutenant said happily. "Your tyranny has sickened everyone. From now on there will be freedom in this country."

Mother of God, the Small Man thought. We are all young at some time but nobody has a right to be this young.

--From "The Tent of the Wicked," by Robert Switzer, 1956.

In the above-quoted novel, the quiet confidence of the Small Man, a banana republic dictator, turns out to be fully justified, and he soon regains control, though his rule is always under threat.

There can be no question of Saddam Hussein likewise regaining the power that he held for so long, even if the sentiment in Iraq is almost equally divided between those who think he should be shot and those who think he should be released. The evidence is too clear that he presided over some monumental blood-letting suffered by his own people as well as by Kurds, Iranians, and Kuwaitis, and a number of Iraqis justifiably mean to hold him to account. Meanwhile the Bush forces have to have something to show for all the lives and money that they invested in capturing Saddam. They don't have much else. So they're going to hold on to his person even if they have to bring him back for zoo exhibition in the U.S. He's their prime and so far only trophy of any real importance.

But a trophy of what?

Setting up two uncertain republics on either side of unfriendly Iran, that's what -- hot spots in which the Bush people have to keep large military forces always on hand, partly to protect the leaders that they installed and partly to fight guerillas that they have no real prospect of eliminating.

The Bush people mightily wish that Iraq and Afghanistan could emulate Germany and Japan after their surrenders in World War 2. The American occupations were quietly accepted, for the most part, by both those large populations. Unlike today's Iraq and Afghanistan, West Germany and Japan had stable, heterogenous, disciplined populations with no internal conflicts to keep their pots boiling.

The former Axis countries shrewdly saw economic advantages in letting the U.S. be responsible for their defense. Finally they could safely forgo the huge amount of expenditures necessary to maintain large military forces, and instead they could concentrate on rebuilding and pumping up their economies. This strategy was so successful that for a while in the 1970's and 1980's, if he were not told beforehand, a visitor from outer space would have supposed that Germany and Japan had been the victors in WW2, while the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Britain had been the losers, if the relative states of their economies were any indicators.

In contrast, the Bush military is seen by the Afghanis and Iraqis not as protectors but as oppressors, and its use of overwhelming and destructive firepower to assert itself yields only a harmful kind of respect.

No, Saddam cannot succeed himself ...but younger people who grew up studying in his "academy" can.

A news item out of Iraq today says that the militant Shi'a cleric, Mugtada al-Sadr, has seemingly reversed recent comments of apparent conciliation, and has vowed to continue his military campaign to rid Iraq of the occupying forces, even if those forces feel that that's no longer what they should be called.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Day of the Cults

After the cautionary tale of the Iowa corn planters, Court TV turned next to cults, specifically one based in Taunton, Massachusetts, called The Body. The defendant, a young cult member named Karen Robidoux, was charged with second degree murder. Her husband Jacques, though still in his 20's, was an "elder" of the cult -- it is a tiny group -- and he had already started serving a sentence of life without parole for the same crime. These two parents of the infant Samuel Robidoux had allowed him to suffer extreme hunger and eventual death just before his first birthday, because they felt that they had to adhere to a "leading," a decree that the cult leaders claimed to have received from Above.

The Court TV people got in the way here even more than they had in the Iowa case. Unhappy with letting the witnesses tell the story, and despite the big thing they make of calling the viewing public the "13th Juror," the commentators found it necessary to keep cutting short the various testimonies, in favor of bringing in "experts" and educating us and themselves on the subject of cults, between their own copious opinions. But cults have been motes in the American eye so often and for so long that I wondered why so much of that review was necessary.

Certainly anyone who was an adult in 1978 and paid attention to things heard an indelible thing or two about that most extreme of cults, the one headed by Jim Jones that came to a truly apocalyptic climax in Jonestown, Guyana. For younger people the 1980 film "The Guyana Tragedy: the Story of Jim Jones," does a great though chilling job of telling that story.

When they weren't educating us, the Court TV people kept applying the standards of the larger society to the case, and they struck me as being fully willing to see Robidoux receiving the same sentence as her husband without further ado. They had trouble buying the proposition that she was almost as much a victim as was her late son, because she had suffered abuses of the cult world from an early age, and they were gratified by the many emails they received that expressed the same outlook, overwhelmingly from women. In fact, the prevailing view seemed to be that all the cult members should be jailed, for watching the crime happen and doing nothing about it.

Undoubtedly it is among the worst of crimes to see your child going hungry and to know that he's suffering, but, because of some belief impressed upon you by others, you feel obliged to continue feeding him on an ultimately fatal diet while you hope for a miracle. Still, in terms of practical effect, I would think that a trial like this is like a court of geese trying a duck because it isn't a goose. Doesn't punishment of the guilty parents amount to the larger society wreaking the revenge of the child upon his parents and nothing else?

Realizing that vengeance has its limitations, legal people insist that, even more importantly, trials and the resulting verdicts and sentences serve as object lessons with a deterrent effect. And that may be true -- but in this kind of case that element is absent, though it's necessary to carry on with the proceedings as if deterrence is possible anyway.

People who enter cults have entirely thrown off the belief systems of the larger society, and that includes their assessment of the consequences of their actions. Often a cult is an extreme reaction and a complete denial of those belief systems. So, what the larger society maintains means little or nothing to a true cult member, and that includes feeling the expected remorse for their actions, even while they are suffering the pain of their punishment. They are in an almost literally different world.

Cults, however, figure to be always with us. Weren't all the big, recognized religions of today looked upon as being cults in the beginning? There will always be weak-minded and lazy people who will be glad to cast aside all responsibility for thinking for themselves and instead remain content in allowing everything to be decided for them by one central, charismatic leader. So, even in the unlikely event that cases like this will be known to them, that still won't mean much to the believers of tomorrow.

This trial took place several months ago, in February. K. Robidoux was convicted only of assault and battery, a misdemeanor, for which she was given the maximum sentence of two and a half years. But, as she had already served close to three years in a mental facility, she was set free. Meanwhile she had also lost custody of all four of her remaining children.

The wide disparity between the sentences dropped on the two parents is striking.

All I know is that the line between the insanity defense and a cult like this is hard to detect.

Once, before taking a long group auto trip to Maine, everyone in the Body had to leave their valuables behind in a trash bag, including their glasses and all their money. When one of their cars ran out of gas in the backwoods of Maine, they all put their hands on the hood and prayed, in the expectation that the tank would suddenly be filled.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Saddam in Court

They left the Presidential Palace, the Small Man walking calmly in the midst of his captors. ...Very badly handled, actually, he thought. The first thing the lieutenant should have done was smash me in the mouth with a rifle butt and then I wouldn't be strolling out of here with all this dignity. A prisoner must never be dignified, and it is extremely difficult to walk impressively with your teeth snapped off and your lips shredded and you still staggering from the blow.

--From "The Tent of the Wicked," by Robert Switzer (1956).

You may have noticed that, with jailing people having become an American fine art, both at home and abroad, their military police never allow their charges to be seen walking with dignity if they can at all help it. The prisoners are always heavily shackled and are escorted with guards on either side, as if the captives, regardless of age, are aged and decrepit and need support every step of the way. On the occasion of his court appearance a few days ago, Saddam Hussein was no exception, though one wonders how fast and how far a degenerated, easily recognizable guy in his late 60's can be expected to run.

But in the temporary handover of Saddam to the Iraqis and in the interest of courtroom decorum, the GI's had to take the shackles off their prize prisoner and reluctantly stand aside, upon which Saddam immediately reverted to what they could never take from him, which is his position in his own mind as the lifetime highest authority among his people.

I can't imagine that anyone in the Bush camp can be happy with Saddam's performance in the courtroom. He was as proud and defiant as ever, and he immediately swept away any idea that he had been permanently humbled by the manner of his capture or by having had to walk in mincing little steps because of clanking chains binding his feet and hands.

Like Rambo powerfully resisting being fingerprinted in "First Blood," Saddam refused to sign anything, and no one tried to force him. He appeared without his lawyers present, and he said what he wanted to say, which was mainly that trying him was merely theater being staged by Mr. Bush. He also stated that he was still the President of Iraq, and no one tried to disabuse him of that notion either.

The judge had to bring up Saddam short when he called the Kuwaitis dogs, but otherwise I had the impression that the awe of his authority remained strongly implanted in those courtroom Iraqis as in Saddam himself, and it's going to be interesting to see how they will prosecute him effectively, even with -- or maybe also because of -- a reported 30 tons of documents on their table.

The people trying this case have a job on their hands. That's a LOT of documents to have to read, and meanwhile it's high risk to let Saddam be seen in a courtroom atmosphere. By the sheer force of his presence, he will win those rounds every time. He's had a lifetime of practice at sitting in the host chair. And since none of the charges had to do with the massive attacks he had poised to obliterate New York City and Podunk, Kansas, the American presence looks irrelevant, except for non-stick humiliation purposes -- a weak role, and you have to wonder what's in it for Mr. Bush. Most of the charges have to do with the Kurds, and regard for them and their aspirations don't often crop up in his speeches.

But trials don't come cheap, and this one is an example of how that is especially true on an international scale -- thousands of deaths and as much as a hundred billion dollars later.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Open and Shut Case -- Pt 2

In the Iowa vs. Heemstra case that I spoke of yesterday, for me the person of the deceased victim, Tom Lyon, didn't come "alive." Maybe I missed the testimony about what a great guy he was. Certainly the Court TV luminary Nancy Grace saw him that way, but I take everything that that egregiously ugly-minded woman says with a very large grain of salt. So he had substance only in the testimony of his killer, Rodney Heemstra, and in that of one of his neighbors named Michener, a woman with utter dismay and tragedy deeply etched around her unblinking eyes. She is another widow who nevertheless seems to be bravely carrying on with her farming alone. She spoke of how Lyon did farm-type things for her -- at pay.

On the other hand, because he was the perp and because he was right there testifying for all he was worth in the desperate attempt to retain some sort of a livable future, Heemstra was vivid, and the issues surrounding him are what I think made this trial important.

Actually Heemstra committed more than one crime.

The first was deciding to carry a gun in his pickup. When a person does that kind of thing, whether or not he admits it to himself, it usually means that he has brought himself to that most unacceptable of points: he is ready to take a human life. Admittedly there are now six billion human lives swarming all over the planet. Nevertheless, on a cosmic scale, in which it took several billion years of happy accidents to create a mechanism as elaborate as ours, and of which there's nothing comparable for zillions of miles in all directions, a human life is truly a rare and precious thing and never to be taken lightly or at all.

Heemstra's second crime was that he took the gun out of his pickup though Lyon hadn't shown a weapon, and not only that but also he pointed it at someone, in this case Lyon, and not at the man's feet or his knees either but at an especially critical spot, Lyon's head.

Heemstra's third crime was that in that volatile moment of arguing with a man whom he saw as his constant tormentor, out in the bruising cold of a lonely Iowa road at 3 in the morning, he put his finger on the trigger.

I think that the TV and film industry does the American public an extreme disservice by showing so many scenes in which a character likewise produces a gun as casually as he would scratch his head, and just as easily points it at someone with his finger on the trigger. That sight always makes me cringe.

Even the worst gun nuts, like my neighbor H., will tell you that all that is a big no-no, especially because the involuntary action of an already nervous finger, made more nervous by the stress of a situation, gives a high probablility of accidentally squeezing the trigger.

It's my guess that Heemstra's intent was not to shoot Lyon but to scare him off for good, so as to end all that rigmarole about the water on that contested farm and the ownership of the property itself. But it was at night and undoubtedly too dark for Lyon to fully make out the two clues that might have made him see the danger he was in: the rifle and Heemstra's face. Sadly, according to the only surviving witness, Heemstra, Lyon didn't back down and instead continued to taunt him.

Ms Grace and other Court TV commentators roundly condemned the extreme profanity that Heemstra testified came out of Lyon's mouth, while saying that other witnesses didn't see Lyon that way. But Ms Michener, obviously a fine, sincere, upright church-going lady, testified that Lyon told her that he "ran that a-- h---'s a-- off that farm" every chance he got. (I am pleased to continue her first-letter convention, which she used with the permission of the judge.)

If it is true that Lyon, despite the gun, continued to shower Heemstra with invective, then that means that he, too, committed a crime, that of being the inveterate bully and hassler, and the jury must have considered that point while taking 11 hours to reach their verdict of Heemstra being guilty as charged.

Who knows? Maybe there had been earlier incidents in Heemstra's life -- he looked to be relatively mild-mannered -- stretching as far back as his childhood, when he had similarly been pushed and bullied and hassled. Though it may be eventually dropped and forgotten by the bullier, that sort of behavior is never forgotten by the one who was hassled. And that behavior should always be stopped in its tracks, whether it is committed in a schoolyard or on an international scale by a superpower.

In that light, then, it could be that Lyon paid for wrongs committed by others in some distant and now forever vanished past.

The firing of the bullet came as a huge surprise to them both, and it crushed both their lives. Now Lyon is dead, and Heemstra is condemned to a living death spent for the rest of his days in a penitentiary and in his memory of a frigid pre-dawn morning on a country road, far from all his beloved farms that he so enjoyed buying and running himself ragged visiting and choreing. There's plenty of tragedy there for all, and no saving Grace.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Open and Shut Case

First off, let me just say straight out that I regard all or certainly most court proceedings as being just exercises in nastiness, and I'm glad that events have kept me far out of their precincts, except for having served on a couple of juries.

That said, lately I have had a renewed interest in looking at real cases on Court-TV. That interest doesn't reside much in how the law enforcement people conduct themselves or in questions of guilt and innocence. Instead it's all the other issues involved that grab me, and also I like checking out the parade of various witnesses.

Court-TV just finished a case in which an Iowa farmer shot and killed one of his neighbors. I don't think this trial appealed much to the urbane commentators on the show, but I was fascinated, not least because of the picture that the case painted of the farm culture in Iowa, which is so different from the rural life here in Virginia yet also has many similarities.

Court-TV advertised the killing as being the result of a land feud, and therefore I thought it would be a fight over boundaries, but this dispute had another cause that usually is less lethal.

A farmer named Lyon, who already owned 390 acres, had been using an adjoining farm whose male owner had died. He had told the widow that if she ever decided to sell, he wanted the first crack at it. The widow and the farm's co-owner, her extremely sharp daughter, took their time about deciding, but, once they decided, they moved fast. They listed it with a realtor, and later the same day, they told Lyon what they had done. Lyon wasn't happy with the price they asked or with the fact that they had listed it first before offering it to him.

The very next day, a neighboring farmer named Heemstra, a land baron of sorts, made an offer, and the ladies answered with a slightly higher counter-offer. Heemstra immediately accepted, and he ended up with the farm.

By previous agreement, however, Lyon still had the right to use the land for several more months. When cold weather started to set in, there was some mixup about Heemstra turning off some of the water that he didn't think was being used. The water was turned back on, but that added to the contention caused by the sale of the land. There was conflicting testimony that on the one hand Lyon continued to be furious about losing out, and he took his resentment out on the successful buyer. On the other hand someone said that Lyon was glad that he hadn't gotten that land with its attendant financial burden.

According to Heemstra they kept having confrontations of one sort or another, till finally, at about 3 one cold morning, they met up on a road in their pickups. Lyon swerved and partially blocked the road, stopping, and ordered Heemstra to get out of his truck. Heemstra did so, and they had more words, at the end of which Heemstra pulled out of his truck a .22 rifle that he had taken to carrying. Lyon had no weapon, yet in self-defense, as Heemstra said, or in a rage, as the prosecution said, Heemstra pointed the rifle at Lyon, and, being dared to, he pulled the trigger, and Lyon died instantly from a bullet to the head.

Heemstra didn't tell anybody what he had done. Instead, as Lyon was too big and heavy for him to lift into his pickup's bed, he strapped him to his pickup and dragged him a short distance into an adjacent field and dropped the body into a shallow well, head first, afterward covering him with hay but not enough, so that Lyon's feet stuck out.

While Heemstra tried but failed to conduct his affairs normally in the next day or so, Lyon's family and friends quickly noticed his absence and started a wide-ranging search. The body was soon found, and Heemstra readily admitted to being the shooter, but said he had done it in self-defense.

Not surprisingly the jury found Heemstra guilty of first-degree murder.

I missed the beginning of this case, and I don't know how much testimony was offered about certain things, especially the amount of provocation, which only one man, the defendant, could really know for sure. The way that Court-TV conducts its shows wasn't helpful, as they are lamentably short on showing court proceedings and entirely too long in letting its commentators ramble on with their opinions, which often are not well-grounded and instead actually offer a running insult to the viewers, who apparently are seen as not having an equal capacity to analyze and to draw their own conclusions. Also the TV people seem to think that trial proceedings are too dry and dull and need to be spiced up with bright and peppery remarks by glossy TV big mouths. But I find the "dry, dull" everyday people who are testifying to be much more interesting than the Court-TV stars. I like to study the appearance and the bearing and the speech of the everyday people and to wonder who they are and where they've been and where they're going.

The Court-TV people, having consigned Heemstra to life imprisonment from the start, felt gratified by the decision, but they were dismayed by the fact that it took the jury 11 hours to reach the verdict. It did look like an open and shut case, yet I, on the other hand, was glad that the jury didn't summarily consign a man to a harsh fate without first taking the time to ask a few questions.