Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Downing Street Memo

Congressman Conyers has sent a letter to the White House asking the President to answer five questions about the now famous Downing Street Memos, whose minutes (to quote the letter) "indicate that the United States and Great Britain agreed, by the summer of 2002, to attack Iraq, well before the invasion and before you even sought Congressional authority to engage in military action, and that U.S. officials were deliberately manipulating intelligence to justify the war.These minutes indicate that the United States and Great Britain agreed, by the summer of 2002, to attack Iraq, well before the invasion and before you even sought Congressional authority to engage in military action, and that U.S. officials were deliberately manipulating intelligence to justify the war."

The questions are:
1)Do you or anyone in your administration dispute the accuracy of the leaked document?
2) Were arrangements being made, including the recruitment of allies, before you sought Congressional authorization to go to war? Did you or anyone in your Administration obtain Britain's commitment to invade prior to this time?
3) Was there an effort to create an ultimatum about weapons inspectors in order to help with the justification for the war as the minutes indicate?
4) At what point in time did you and Prime Minister Blair first agree it was necessary to invade Iraq?
5) Was there a coordinated effort with the U.S. intelligence community and/or British officials to "fix" the intelligence and facts around the policy as the leaked document states?

If you wish to add your name to Congressman Conyers's letter, go to After Downing Street Dot Org, where you can sign, and also contact your own congressman urging support for Congressman Conyers's letter.

Dick Cheney takes offense

Torture? Us? C'mon, guys. Well, one or two isolated incidents. Tops. Maybe even three or four. Yeah, some of the isolated incidents involved individuals who died. Stuff happens, alright. It's not alike a pattern of abuse. And OK, we stepped on their Korans. But we didn't flush. So what's the big deal?
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday he was offended by Amnesty International's condemnation of the United States for what it called "serious human rights violations" at Guantanamo Bay.

"For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don't take them seriously," he said in an interview that aired Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."

It's curious how a tough guy like Dick Cheney gets his feelings hurt about people suggesting that the White House had anything to do with the isolated incidents. If people want to misconstrue coincidences like the Gonzalez memo, you'd think a man like Dick Cheney would speak up as he spoke on the floor of the Senate, and say simply Fuck Off. But feeling offended? That puts him in bad company.
Also offended at suggestions of abuse.
Ind the dock, offended

Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day: My father's war

My father, Ben McCulloch, died a year ago, shortly before his 84th birthday, without ever telling any war stories. At least as far as I know. I never heard any. I had to do some research to find out that he did have some to tell.

He had 2 young children at the time he went into the Navy in early 1944. I suspect he was about to get drafted. I'll have to ask my mother about that. After boot camp and being trained as a quartermaster--which in the WWII Navy, I don't know about nowadays, was a steersman--he shipped aboard the USS St. Louis, a light cruiser which had put in for repairs in San Diego after heavy damage by a bomb.

After a brief stop in Hawaii, his ship was immediately sent, part of a huge fleet, to support MacArthur's Philippine invasion. Admiral Nimitz had opposed the invasion as unnecessary, and ordinary sailors like my father considered MacArthur a showboat, and a threat to their well-being. Evidently this sentiment had percolated down from the Navy high command. Anyway, the Japanese fleet and whatever air power the Japanese had available engaged the American fleet at Leyte Gulf. The Japanese fleet was destroyed, but with considerable American losses.

You can read about Leyte Gulf in Wickipedia. It's very complicated; the sort of thing that military wonks love to rehash and argue about. Admiral Halsey apparently made some serious errors. But one thing is obvious, and that is that from the POV of a sailor on any individual ship, the battle was confusing, prolonged, and terrifying. It went on for days (for the St. Louis, from the 16th to the 28th of November, 1944), in and out of the maze of islands between Luzon and Mindanao. The Japanese first used kamikaze attacks here. My father's ship was attacked by air 33 times, by kamikazes and air-launched torpedos. It was hit twice, by suicide attacks, on the same day, November 27th. This was about a month after he had walked up the gangplank in San Diego.

The St. Louis, though listing seriously, did not sink, but was put out of action until extensive repairs were done. Sixteen men were killed, twenty one were wounded badly enough to be sent home, and twenty two men were wounded but continued on board. This was of about 800 men on the ship.

This incident was a minor event in the Second World War, of concern only to the crew. And my father never mentioned it.

The St. Louis came under fire many times from then until the end of the war, especially off Okinawa, but none of her crew were killed.

My father did not come home when the war ended, a matter of some distress for my mother. The St. Louis did patrol duty for several months on the Yangtze River in China, and ferried part of Chiang Kai-Shek's army to Taiwan, then known as Formosa.

The only part of my father's war I ever heard him talk about was the part after the war ended, in China.

He brought back some hand carved chests and wooden statues he bought in Shanghai. My mother still keeps mementos in the ornate wooden chests smelling of tung oil.

USS St. Louis at the moment it was struck by kamikaze, Leyte Gulf, from Navy archives

My father and his brothers, all at home on leave, 1945. My father is the one in the white cap

Sunday, May 29, 2005

A bit of Sunday amusement

Some of you may have seen this already. The Texas Legislature has now passed a proposed amendment to the state constitution which will ban marriage. The intent, obviously, is to ban gay marriage, but, perhaps illustrating once again the terminal stupidity of the bigot mind, the actual words of the proposed amendment say something altogether different.

Article I of the Texas Constitution, as it will read if approved by the voters:

Sec. 32. (a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.
(b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

I am not leaving anything out. There is no section (c) to soften the blow.

It's hard to say what would be similar to marriage, but clearly, only one thing is identical to marriage, and that is...marriage. Hence, if the voters approve, the Texas Constitution will ban marriage.

As some wag said in the comments to another blog reporting on this, "we had to destroy the village in order to save it."

And if you examine it a little more, taking both parts (a) and (b) of the proposed amendment together, it would seem then that gay unions--since by definition they are neither marriage nor similar to it--would be quite legal.

"But...but...but you know what we _wanted_ to say!" True. And I am sure the Texas courts will be able to read the minds of the bigots who wrote the legislation, and make it come out as intended.


Saturday, May 28, 2005

America and human rights

May 25, 2005 Amnesty International statement by Dr. William Schultz:
A wall of secrecy is protecting those who masterminded and developed the US torture policy. Unless those who drew the blueprint for torture, approved it and ordered it implemented are held accountable, the United States’ once proud reputation as an exemplar of human rights will remain in tatters.

The full statement can be found at Meanwhile back at the ranch.

I have to differ with a premise of this admirable statement. While we are in fact an exemplar of high minded _talk_ about human rights, we are not, and never have been, a real-life, on the ground exemplar of the actual rights of real human beings. Far from it.

Our tolerance for ugly realities right under our noses has always been maintained by a wall, but less a wall of secrecy than of denial. The more insistent the reality, the more insistent, and at times frantic, the denial.

I mean, we _should_ do something about Darfur. I hope we join with civilized humanity in undertaking to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing and genocide there. It is good that we finally intervened, again in the company of others, in the Balkans. But it seems to be a flaw of our national character that we could write, and believe in, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, while human slavery was still legal and widely practiced, and as we were preparing to seize an entire continent from its then inhabitants--after having successfully killed, or ethnically cleansed, or stolen the lands of, the Indians of the eastern seaboard.

We are delusionally self congratulatory about our human rights record, and we base our self-congratulation entirely on our rhetoric. I say delusional because so many Americans believe the rhetoric and ignore the reality. It's hard to know even where to begin. The Indian Wars. The Mexican War. The Philippines. Vietnam. Central American murderers trained at Fort Benning. I'll pick something very small, just because it hit home for me, without my expecting it.

A few years ago, Kay and Eve and I were driving back to Austin from a vacation in Colorado. I decided to visit the places where my grandparents grew up in Oklahoma, so we followed the valley of the Arkansas from Colorado out into the widening horizon, and then at about the 100th meridian turned south toward Oklahoma. The high plains are one of the few places in the world I actually enjoy driving a car. I don't know why. The roads are empty, and the sky is, as they say, big. Giant anvil-headed thunderclouds in the distance would sometimes rise in the sunlight like blindingly white volcanic eruptions into the stratosphere. It was summer and the rolling plains were alternately green and tan, depending on whether any recent thunderstorms had come through. In western Oklahoma somewhere some sign or historical marker led us to turn off the road into the Washita National Historical Monument. It commemorates the Battle of the Washita. It should be more properly called the Massacre on the Washita.

It was a beautiful place. There was a little overlook where you could look down a slight slope into the valley of the Washita, the river visible as a line of low trees half a mile away. The river, more like a creek at that point, looped in lazy oxbows through the grass. My grandmother learned to swim in the Washita, fifty miles downstream from here about 1910.

These lands were the hunting grounds of the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Kiowa. It's easy enough to see why they developed a fondness for the high plains, especially in the summer, though the winters were hard. But all the plains Indians were being pushed aside, and, when they resisted, killed, during the 1860s and 1870s. My Texan ancestors had already driven them out of their previous hunting grounds south of the Red River.

The great Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, a man who thought it was possible to compromise with fanatics, and mollify them, helped negotiate a cessation of hostilities with the US Government and the State of Colorado, and was given an American flag and assurances of safety if he would take his people to an area set aside for them in Eastern Colorado, and the banks of Big Sandy Creek. The US Park Service web site states succinctly what happened next.

On November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington led approximately 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers to a village of about 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. Although the Cheyenne and Arapaho people believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army, Chivington's troops attacked and killed about 150 people, mainly women, children, and the elderly. Ultimately, the massacre was condemmed following three federal investigations.

The Park Service's estimate of the Indian dead is too low. According to Chivington's own testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War April 26, 1865:
From the best information I could obtain, I judge there were five hundred or six hundred Indians killed; I cannot state positively the number killed, nor can I state positively the number of women and children killed.

Chivington's men made trophy tobacco pouches of the scrotums of some of the dead Indian men, and according to testimony at the inquiry, sexually mutilated some of the female dead. One man, Silas Soule, refused to fire on the Indians, and testified against Chivington in the later inquiries. Soule was afterwards murdered. Chivington was suspected to have instigated the murder, though it was never proved.

Anyway, Black Kettle escaped the Sand Creek Massacre, and during the next 4 years signed 3 agreements with the United States government, all broken by the United States government.

In mid-November, 1868, Black Kettle had just returned from Ft. Cobb and had received assurances from General Hazen that the Cheyenne could continue to spend the winter where they were camped on the Washita River. Even as these negotiations were going on, General Sheridan was secretly deploying forces under Lt. Col. George A. Custer with the intention of putting an end to the Cheyenne problem. 800 troopers of Custer's 7th Cavalry made a forced march through a foot of snow to arrive, undetected, at Black Kettle's camp on Nov. 26. According to the Park Service:
Peace Chief Black Kettle...was attacked by the 7th U.S. Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. Custer just before dawn on November 27, 1868. The controversial strike was hailed at the time by the military and many civilians as a significant victory aimed at reducing Indian raids on frontier settlements. Washita remains controversial because many Indians and whites labeled Custer's attack a massacre. Black Kettle is still honored as a prominent leader who never ceased striving for peace even though it cost him his life.

According to Custer himself, the 7th Cavalry killed about 100 of Black Kettle's band. Black Kettle was himself killed, at the side of his wife who was also killed. Custer lost 21 men in the unexpected resistance, and many historians consider that it was Custer's cowardice that caused this loss. A 7th calvalry detachment was cut off by a reinforcing group of Indians from a nearby encampment, and rather than go to their aid, Custer retreated--but not before killing taking 53 hostages, mostly women and children, and killing 800 Indian horses.

This was a minor event in the Indian Wars. But I was deeply moved by it, standing in the bright summer sunlight with clouds building above the northern horizon. Black Kettle's people, those few of them who survived, ended up on reservations, big outdoor concentration camps. Sometimes they are so big that we continue to nick away at their boundaries, making them smaller. The entire state of Oklahoma, a place that seemed worthless, was set aside as "Indian territory." Later, it came to seem not so worthless, so we took it back.

Few visitors come to that place. But it's hard to avoid a certain amount of realization about our history and how we came to be here and our nature as a people, reading the few words the park service put up about Black Kettle and his life.

I would not be surprised if these sorts of historical monuments eventually get closed down by Republicans. It must take money to keep them open, right?

Col. Custer in 1868.
 Custer  gif

The 53 Cheyenne prisoners, men, women, and children held hostage for a year
 Cheyenne hostages

The only known photo of Black Kettle, at the time of peace negotiations in Colorado.
Black Kettle

New Walmart superstore: a capsule review

As I remarked somewhere else, I don't get out much, culturally, and so when Walmart opened a new superstore not far from my house, I resolved to go visit it, see what it was all about.

I won't say the thing was built instantaneously, but it went from the phase of bulldozers demolishing the roadside rinkydink beer joints and knocking down the previous seedy sales outlets for repossessed single-wide trailer houses, to the finished product store like a toadstool after a rain, in a surprisingly short time. The superstore is surrounded by satellite businesses--a PetSmart, a Payless shoe store, a Whataburger hamburger stand, a 14-bay gas station, and a sit-down food franchise the name of which I forget where the waitpersonnel wear matching goofy uniforms. All the businesses have been unloaded from the truck with coordinated falsefront-saloon decor. They are surrounded by a vast expanse of asphalt with little islands of overnight-landscaping. Amazing.

Like I say, this is all new to me, so bear with me--I know I may sound like someone returned from abroad, wide-eyed with astonishment after too many years in a country with oxcarts, and that most Americans know all about this. But maybe not. We all (well, maybe not George Bush) have been in a Walmart store, but not necessarily like the one under review. It's like the difference between a rusty tramp steamer plodding along and a double hulled supertanker drawing down the water in the sound as it passes. Size is part of it. Plus it's all new right now. None of the automatic doors have out-of-order signs on them yet, nor has a significant percentage of merchandise gotten damaged on the shelves before purchase, as in, polyethylene trash cans with the lids already broken; and the entire store still has its carcinogenic new-plastic smell.

As I entered, past large bins of day-glow injection-foam flip-flop sandals for $1.94 a pair, the music that I could hear intermittently between requests for a manager at register eleven and cleanup on isle 24, and bursts of intercom throat-clearing, coalesced into recognition as a slow and desperately sad version of "Georgie Girl." I don't know why that seemed poignant to me, but it did.

In some ways it is just like any other cheap store. Only huge. Much more huge than any I have been in heretofore. Acres. The clothing section by itself was the size of a large free-standing clothing store. The grocery section was the size of a large grocery store. The miscellaneous junk section of the store was the size of an entire normal Walmart. I have to say, though, that the hardware section was relatively puny compared with, say, a standard-issue Home Depot, but now that I think about it, a Home Depot had already sprung up a few months earlier diagonally across the intersection. They must have a deal. This Walmart superstore seems to be mostly clothes, groceries, and housewares. Cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap, in every sense of the word, the sacrificial offerings of sweatshops and child labor hellholes from every shingle and strand of a globalized world.

Plus, the store has amenities, like: an in-store McDonalds. Busy, too. A Woodforest Bank, whose only visible employee was wearing a red white and blue Uncle Sam top hat so patriots would trust him with their earnestly filled-out credit card applications; a nail care salon; a beauty parlor; a portrait studio; a cell-phone franchise, Cingular if I remember right; a garden shop; a pharmacy; and an auto shop. And I think I forgot one or two.

Um, OK, what did you expect? one may ask.

Well, for one thing, I expected there would be more minorities shopping there. (No shortage of minorities _working_ there.) I was surprised. I think this is a failure of their business plan. I saw almost no African Americans, and given that it is in the part of town where a vast majority of residents are Mexican Americans or Mexican nationals, a relative deficiency of brown-skinned people buying things. It's not that Walmart doesn't want the trade of people who don't speak English. They are ideal Walmart clients. What could be better than customers who do not have the slightest idea, beyond the price, what the hell they are getting. I think it is simply that Walmart hasn't gotten the right local product mix yet. Give 'em time, I suppose.

I think they will need to calibrate their product line like my grocery store does. My grocery store, about a mile away, has 12 varieties of chili peppers (some of them are dried, of course.) I counted, yesterday, and right now peppers are out of season. Plus tomatillos and jícamas and half an aisle of tortillas. This same grocery store has close to 30 kinds of peppers, fresh and dried, available in late August. (Again, I counted.)

Whereas the grocery section in the new Walmart had only bell peppers for the Anglos and a big bin of jalapeños for the Mexicans. This clearly will not suffice to drive my well-adapted local supermarket out of business.

I was not impressed. I give it several thumbs down.

After my walk-thru of the megastore, I continued another half mile on the same road, to Mary Seawright Park, a very nice, large city park surrounded now by the city. The park has several miles of woodsy trails. It was a beautiful warm late spring day, but hot. I walked a mile or so under the live oaks, surrounded by the songs of invisible cardinals. Lots of painted buntings, too--they have thin, twisting songs that drift in the mind like falling tinsel. Off in the distance, crows were complaining about something, a raptor, probably. We should do the same.

After the Walmart: Oak trees with ball moss
oak branches

Friday, May 27, 2005

Friday cat and fossil oyster blogging

Grendel with Exogyra ponderosa from Onion Creek. Oyster is about 70 million years old.
cat and fossil oyster

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Not your usual defense of wilderness

Sierra Club idealizers of wilderness (don't get me wrong, I am a member of the Sierra Club) tend to expound the virtues of wilderness with motives that ultimately trace to Lake Poet nature mysticism. I would not belittle the Lake Poets, nor nature mysticism. But the wilderness in America is harder, more dangerous, and has more voltage. I love it for that, even the vacant lots left over at the ruined edges of cities.

Forty five miles from downtown El Paso is a relict Ponderosa Pine forest--almost unimaginable, if you are familiar with El Paso, but nevertheless true. One October night many years ago my wife Kay and had I camped there, at Aguirre Springs in New Mexico, under the Organ Needle, a 9000 foot rock-climbers' spire. To our west was the Rabbit Ears, a colossal pair of bare igneous liths also much mountain-climbed. You saw them sometimes, the climbers, tiny on the grim cliffs they clung to, visible mainly because you heard them first discussing routes and problems and then you could see their bright colored clothes, and in binoculars you saw they were strung to colorful ropes, immobile, chattering, scheming against the dumb stone.

The sun was going down, the sunset outriggered by long rays of shadow thrown by the mountains. Kay stood by the big, loud-popping white man's fire, puffed out in my old down jacket, which was all patches by then, with a red bandanna on her head and looking for some reason, like Geronimo. You could see the Sacramento Mountains through a sea of remote distance, across 75 miles of sandy floor of the desert. All around us were patches of a buckwheat of some kind, a haze of thin leafless gray-wired stems bearing hundreds of very small reddish flowers. No matter how hard your eyes tried to focus on the plant it remained hazy, so "hazebush" I resolved to call it. I think I mentioned in another blog entry that in El Paso I had gotten to be considered a minor local expert on plants, but I did not tell people that I invented names for some of them, mostly for those which have no common name. Most plants don't. It was my ambition to find in a botanical manual someday "Eriogonum Wrightii--the common hazebush." I considered names of things to be talismans, charms for good luck. Better yet, the Geronimo Hazebush.

I had the memory of this pleasant outing in mind when I went again some months later up to the Organ Mountains alone, camped out at Aguirre Springs, at the place of the pines and the flower-nodding meadows, but by the time I had gotten around to it the flowers were dead and gone, and the place looked like winter, chapped and cold. Not a soul was there, not an animal stirred, not a bird. I walked up the trail to where I laid out my sleeping bag and built a fire. Nature seemed to have retreated into its thoughts. The sun went down and it was very silent. A night full of glitter, crystalline lights; the only movement was the twinkling of the stars. I could see the great Nebula in Andromeda as it was a million and a half years ago; I even imagined I could see the tilt of its oval shape, which my binoculars verified, and I was suddenly chilled by an overwhelming desolation and struck cold all the way through. I lay there in my cocoon in a cold sweat, feeling, not thinking, wrapped in some great sense of loss, that came out of nowhere.

When you go up onto the mountains, and go out into the desert, you sometimes get more than you bargained for. I thought of the psalm, "Hear my prayer, O Lord, I am a stranger with thee and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more." Eventually the chill passed on--I do not know why--leaving me in a strange world, mind given a body by chance and imprisoning sifted memories and empty shells of riven days and a name. Jacob wrestled till dawn to find out his name. I struggled for a while in the night for fear of losing mine.

But I did not wrestle till dawn, and though my hip too was stiff, it was from sleeping on the hard ground. I dreamed of an airliner at some great height and speed exploding into a mist of blood, a pink cloud that floated serenely as fiery bolides of wreckage arced to the ground, and headless trunks spilling gouts of blood.

The sun in my face was a shock. Long streams of yellow leaves from the ashes and cottonwoods higher up the mountains drifted down, high overhead in the west wind. I puttered around in the warmth and light all morning, drinking coffee and listening to the birds, juncos, twitter. I felt like a man who has had a close call of some kind.

The wilderness is full of experiences like this. And you never know when. Some people go on vision quests all their lives, and some people get knocked down by it ten feet from their cars.

I thought, for no obvious reason, of a story that I had read of the death of Aeschylus, who had been told by a fortune teller that he would be killed on a certain day by the fall of a house. So on that day he was staying outside away from all houses. In the eastern Mediterranean eagles supposedly eat turtles, or did so in the Golden Age of Greek Literature, and to do this they dropped the turtles from a great altitude to crack them open. So, an eagle mistook Aeschylus' bald head for an adequate rock, and let loose a turtle, and the poet died from the concussion.

It was the Greeks who discovered the wilderness. I think their word for it was panic.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Nickle and dimed, and used politically

What's the matter with Kansas? Nothing, say conservative intellectuals of the David Brooks type, who benefit professionally from pulling the wool over the eyes of the kind of people they personally consider worthy only to trim their hedges. Kansans are the salt of the earth.

This pretended fusion of the values of people of privilege and power with Kansas populism is really a good trick, like a piece of stage magic, like finding a quarter in your nose or pulling a white rabbit with pink liberal ears from a black top hat labeled "elitism." Unlike instances of stage magic, though, the project depends on making the worse appear the better reason, although assuredly there'll be no hemlock for Mr. Brooks, though he would otherwise be flattered at the trope. We owe the conservative success at this unlikely project to the ideological jujitsu perfected by Karl Rove. Science? Knowledge. Trip them up with ignorance and passion. Plus a few strategic lies. But the chattering classes are essential to the success of the whole deal.

Though Brooks is the one who irritates me the most, the country seems to be effectively enveloped in a fog of myth created by a swarm of conservative upper-upper middle class word-people, editors, journalists, propagandists, speech writers, flacks, hacks, lawyers, lobbyists, bloggers, and of course, executives, all invigorated by the glow of post cold war triumphant capitalism , enjoying ever-greater riches, privilege, and self-congratulatory bonhomie WRT the ability of their cohort to live off the labors of the ever-more-numerous and increasingly manipulated people who actually have to work for a living; an ability which, in their belief system, they term simply "success," as if they have earned it the way bricklayers earn their pay.

And they are busy as beavers showing that this whole system, where they get the rewards and the people of Kansas get fast food and Intelligent Design, is the way things are supposed to be.

Their curious bond with the people of Kansas springs from recognition that without the discontent of the red-state yeomanry they, the David Brookses and Thomas Friedmans of the world, would not be secure in power and privilege--except they are circumspect enough not to call privilege by its right name, preferring to regard their station in life as the product of merit, a natural event like rain or excellent SAT scores after a good prep school and suitable coaching. Strangely, this same privilege, in the few cases it is enjoyed by high-achieving liberals, is called by its right name.

Privileged conservatives as a class no longer remember what it is like to toil, assuming they have ever had such an experience at all, which if they have had, will almost certainly have been via a summer job in a Wendys at a payscale that they can for the remainder of their lives use as didactic material for a set-speech on how one can rise in the world from the wages of Walmart to the rewards America confers on those who prove their worthiness.

And surely it was only by taking the good folks of Kansas seriously that Thomas Friedman has discovered that the world is flat.

Currently the only contact of the Brooks-Friedman axis with people who toil would be (and I am guessing here) when they evaluate the labors of their servants prior to paying them, except that of course it is unfashionable to call them servants; preferred terms would be housekeepers, nannies, or yardpersons, except that, since even those words now have the slight taint of not-playing-well-in-Kansas, let's say landscape-maintenance contractor instead of yardman, because for one thing it elevates the person who directs the activities of the undocumented workers doing the actual lawnmowing, to the status of a shirtsleeve brother-in-labor with the new Republican ruling class, at least for the moment, as they both engage in guy talk about the difficulty in getting hardworking employees as the contractor is paid off and the boys load up the tools.

So we have a class of conservative chatterati who are frivolous, self-important, and in some strange way self-deceptive or, as it might be more gently phrased, pragmatic. I doubt very much if there is a single pragmatist among the hundreds of thousands of such pragmatists inside the beltway and in editorial offices and think tanks in New York City, who actually themselves share the down-to-earth values of the good folks of Kansas.

The Rapture? Creationism? Closing the abortion clinics? I don't think so. But pretending to believe, or if not that, at least pretending to respect this stuff, as a means of keeping control of the Dobson crowd, is their thing.

I believe that's what ruling elites generally try to do. The problem with the operating principle of inflaming populist discontent and pretending to agree with it, is that populist leaders sometimes arise who decide to dispense with the services of the chattering elites.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Traces of other Americas

Alamo Mountain is 75 miles northeast of El Paso in New Mexico, part of a group of volcanic crags and buttes right north of the Texas line. Alamo is a Spanish word meaning cottonwood; there used to be a lone Rio Grande cottonwood growing gnarled by the small spring on the west side of the mountain, but a rancher dynamited the spring trying to make it flow more copiously. The blast killed the cottonwood and turned the spring into a seep in the rocks.

The mountain rises in solitude a thousand or so feet out of the antelope plain, and its lower slopes are surrounded by scree and rubble, as if the mountain had been hammered from below with great violence right out of the crust of the earth. In fact the mountain is the product of a burst of volcanic activity 30 or 35 million years ago. It is roughly a mile in diameter. There are several of these great islands of rock in the desert floor, 15-20 miles apart. This one is flat on top, a surprising lost world up there, a piñon and juniper park with mule deer which would peer over the edge at us rummaging the rocks on the beach below.

The Indians wrote on the talus boulders, pecking such statements into the desert varnish as:
Apache horseman
an idea we had no trouble with.

Other narratives were more difficult:
Apache Twin Gods

Who were these guys? Were they Gods? Shamans? Spirits of the wind? Did they still hang around Alamo Mountain? I watched carefully, but I couldn't tell, as I picked my way among the rocks, expecting rattlesnakes, the wind tugging at my clothes.

The waterhole was a stop on the Butterfield Stage route to El Paso. The first time I was there there was still a grave below the spring marked with a traveler's name. The marker has since disappeared. The same traveler's name is written, probably by his own hand, as part of the kilroy-was-here grafitti on the rock at the previous stage stop, at Cornudas Mountain.

Once at Cornudas Mountain, which is near Alamo Mountain and product of the same episode of volcanism, I noticed a curious slickness high up on some of the giant boulders tumbled around the base; it looked like something had been rubbing against the rock. But these spots were ten feet off the ground and on vertical slabs.

I had seen this kind of slickness on the floors of Indian rock shelters, where the Indians had used the shelters for centuries, sometimes millennia, and thus the rock had been worn shiny, polished and oiled by human feet.

We mentioned this to an old rancher who lived near Cornudas all his life, a man named Bob Jones who was one of a type the west is still full of, men whose reading and thinking and isolation lead them to toss out startling but offhand conversational insights. He poured his coffee into his saucer to cool it, an old custom that is dying out; and he said "Oh, I figure it was mammoths that made those slick places high up on the rock."

"Of course" I thought, suddenly illuminated, "a mammoth rub." It was really pretty obvious. Neither trees rubbing against rock, nor glacial forces, could make such a polish. But even though it seemed intuitively right--certainly no other animal could have rubbed against these rocks--I considered it a matter of conjecture, a brilliant rancher insight into something science would not care enough about to investigate. Later, though, I found an old report in a 1947 issue of Science, where some geologist took a thin section from the surface of this same slickened rock and by heating it extracted oil, ten or fifteen thousand year old rancid body oils, apparently of animal origin.

I later found other mammoth rubs, and every time I could get up to reach one, I would rub my hand over it. Touching the smooth old rock was the next best thing to touching the mammoth itself, old cool smooth rock that soothed great itches thousands of years ago.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Crazy Monday thoughts on art and music and stuff

When it comes to appreciating art--I was talking about music earlier, which led me to these further ventures onto the thin ice--it occurs to me that there's this giant first-time factor. Far more than with sex. You know? You have only one chance at a good first time for a poem or a novel. I mean, you can read it again but the likelihood of epiphany is diminished, if not gone. There are exceptions to the diminishing returns to re-reading. I have mentioned Dickens, for me, but there would be limits even there. So--you have to be careful when and where you first open a novel.

Likewise with movies. After the first time the experience goes downhill. You usually can't recapture it. People try. Cinema buffs will see a movie lots of times--imagine it, Citizen Kane ten times, Casablanca maybe even more, and who knows what, multiple arthouse or dvd viewings of Alexander Nevsky, all the Godfathers, maybe, in a lifetime, maybe in the spirit of attending mass, but like attending mass, if something does happen it is probably because of the religiosity brought in the door. The nice thing about the growing obscurity of the growing great-movie canon is that there is at least a chance that, with a _really_ obscure classic great movie, that you may have never seen it before when you pop it into your dvd player.

Visual art is little different, at least the art on people's walls. For me. Even though I stop seeing what is on my walls, most of the time, there is a kind of atmosphere still there that I like. It is similar to how I feel about several large plants in my living room, which I like even though I don't spend a lot of time being conscious of them. Likewise, what I have hung on the walls. The experience of this is ongoing, and good, and maybe has something to do with art. But nevertheless, I hardly ever actually see it. Maybe this is what is going on when people listen to music as background or mood in their lives--which, for music at least, is hard for me to do.

But then there's this other thing, when you actually look at something and you are moved by it. I think _that_ diminishes if you try to repeat it. I am saying all of this tentatively--I am not all that sure about it.

I prefer small art museums, because you don't use up too many objects of art at once. I went once the the Uffizi gallery in Florence, and then the Pitti, and then some other famous art museum all in the same day, man, and I got just art-galleried out, I saw hundreds of great paintings, the original stuff, and so did all these people all double-timing through there at the same time, and it was just a total brain-fry, trying to fucking absorb this stuff, somehow just suck it in and make it part of you, and really now I don't remember a single painting I saw. Not one. I bet nobody else did either, the day I was there, unless they took notes, and some of them did.

And two or three days later, I don't remember, I was in Rome and I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel--this was before it was restored, so it was still dark--with maybe a thousand people in there shoulder to shoulder staring straight up at this high dim ceiling in this cavernous room, like I said it was before they took all the dark varnish off, and everyone's neck hurt and it was hot in there and the air smelled like garlic and cabbage farts with with all those people, ten different European cuisines plus Japanese, and everyone had a brochure and guides were shouting in pidgin in many languages, and I had this _great_ experience, man, of something that may be totally the opposite of art, it was exhilarating, actually. This tremendous feeling of exaltation, watching the tops of people's heads, the bottom of their chins, heads craned and necks twisted and faces contorted with their eyes bugged out trying to take in the almost-black ceiling and their brochures at the same time, all staring at this faintly visible steroid God on high in the gloomy light at the top of the room, the whole thing was a kind of Dante-esque, Disneyland version of the Renaissance.

I actually liked it. Kay and I laughed all the way back to the hotel. I don't think that's what art appreciation is supposed to be.

To get back to music, I think music is the most emotional and mysterious of the arts, and is for me the most repeatable, but even with a song I still can't hear a song a second time, really hear it, the way I heard it originally.

Of course repetition _can_ be esthetically powerful, I mean, like people getting high through prolonged bongo drumming or Nazi mass rallies or dancing in voodoo ceremonies and slitting the throats of chickens and hallucinating in the Amazon jungle under the influence of banisteriopsis. Perhaps it is our good fortune that epiphany happens only once most of the time, if at all, and by accident.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Zen and the art of plagiarism

A couple of people have sent me this via email, and it made me laugh, and I thought I'd pass it on. I think--but I'm not sure-- that it's from a book by David Bader called Zen Judaism, which I have not read.

Zen Judaism

If there is no self,
whose arthritis is this?

Be here now.
Be someplace else later.
Is that so complicated?

Drink tea and nourish life.
With the first sip .. joy.
With the second ... satisfaction.
With the third, peace.
With the fourth, a danish.

Wherever you go, there you are.
Your luggage is another story.

Accept misfortune as a blessing.
Do not wish for perfect health
or a life without problems.
What would you talk about?

The journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single "oy."

There is no escaping karma.
In a previous life, you never called,
you never wrote, you never visited.
And whose fault was that?

Zen is not easy.
It takes effort to attain nothingness.
And then what do you have?

The Tao does not speak.
The Tao does not blame.
The Tao does not take sides.
The Tao has no expectations.
The Tao demands nothing of others.
The Tao is not Jewish.

Breathe in. Breathe out.
Forget this and attaining Enlightenment
will be the least of your problems.

Let your mind be as a floating cloud.
Let your stillness be as the wooded glen.
And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with such rounded

Be patient and achieve all things.
Be impatient and achieve all things faster.

To Find the Buddha, look within.
Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.
Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.
Each blossom has ten thousand petals.
You might want to see a specialist.

Motorcycle maintenance, do the following:
get rid of the motorcycle.
What were you thinking?

Be aware of your body.
Be aware of your perceptions.
Keep in mind that not every physical
sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

The Torah says, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
The Buddha says there is no "self."
So, maybe you are off the hook.
The Buddha taught that one should practice loving kindness to all
beings. Still, would it kill you to find a nice sentient being who
to be Jewish?

Though only your skin, sinews, and bones remain, though your blood and
flesh dry up and wither away, yet shall you meditate and not stir until
have attained full Enlightenment.
But, first, a little nosh

Some idle Sunday thoughts on music.

My daughter, who is soon to be 23 years old, likes to listen to music while reading her email, or reading, or studying, or hanging out with friends. She may occasionally listen to music just to be listening to music, but she is a busy young person, and prefers multitasking.

I can't do that. I can't listen to music and, say, write a blog entry, any more than I could carry on a conversation with someone and at the same time write a blog entry. Carrying on a conversation uses up too much of my limited brain horsepower. Ditto, WRT listening to music. I am not sure whether it's a generational thing, or what. I don't think it is.

The most likely explanation is simply that my mental abilities are, um, a bit limited. This is not true of everyone. I find that I can't really _hear_ the music if I am immersed in thinking, or writing, or if I am talking to someone, or if I am reading a book. And I find a condition of partially hearing the music, distracting, and unpleasantly so. If I can make it into 100 percent background noise, it becomes unnoticed but probably pleasant (if not, I would turn it off), like a movie soundtrack you don't really hear but which informs the mood of the film without you being conscious of it.

But I am not sure that qualifies as listening to music, and I am pretty certain that is not what my daughter does when her computer is playing songs as she carries on an instant message conversation with someone. (I would ask her, to be absolutely sure, but she is away on a trip right now.)

Some music is actually difficult for me to _not_ concentrate on. The more I like the music, the more distracting--and distressing-- it is for me, if I am trying to pay attention to something else. But if the music belongs in the huge grey zone of sounds neither distressing nor pleasing, I can make it recede in consciousness so that other higher brain functions can go on. I can eat without spilling my soup.

Likewise, I don't take music along when I go birdwatching or walking. Of course birdwatchers listen to bird sounds, so it is obvious enough that real birdwatchers won't carry ipods, but when I walk, I like to walk. When I listen to music, I like to be at home and turn up the sound real loud. (Not to the hearing-damage level of the clubs, though.) And just be here with the music.

I tend to do this alone, even though my daughter seems to like the music I do. But you never know. When my wife was alive, if she was at home she would come along and change the music to something we could dance to. Which was OK. Bit still...

Anyway, I don't know if subject this will elicit any feedback--but it's gotta be a huge area of human brain differences. (Or maybe cultural differences--I have never worried much about cultural vs. biological causes for stuff.) I'd be interested in anyone's comments, in any case.

Plus, finally, a thing that occurred to me last night. I was listening to Morley and Susato, both 16th century composers, and I was thinking that this is the music of a people whose genius lay in the perfection of field artillery. So...European. The music is very beautiful, but something about the mind-set behind it boded ill for the world.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Growth or collapse? Or something else? Some reflections after reading Jared Diamond

Beneficiaries of the present social and economic arrangements, and economists, who are its theologians, like to suppose that economic growth produces the best of all possible worlds--but I think that's just plain, flatly, not true.

Money and wealth are not what make people happy. You'd think everyone would understand that.

But economists play dumb on this matter. If someone says that economic growth does not maximize human happiness, and moreover that growth in a global market economy imperils civilization and maybe mankind, the standard economist response is that everyone knows growth is good and that interference with the market leads to inefficiencies and distortions, and that planned economies and communism have failed.

That's what's called a non-sequitur. Pointing to a bad solution to a problem does not confirm that we have chosen the right way of solving the problem.

Such pointing is evasive about the serious question raised. But beyond the non-sequitur is a failure of imagination. Economists are trained to think of the economy as a thing, in and of itself, but obviously the economy is part of a larger world. We have a planet.

Economists, by training and preference, engage in magical thinking, believing in something logically impossible, an endless expansion of the economy and an endless availability of resources .

But the planet is finite and non-expandable, and it is the only place we will ever have to live. This is so profoundly obvious that most economists don't notice. For one thing it does not conform to their only experience, which is of growth. In that they are no different from the rest of us. Growth has been the experience of humankind, from the beginning of history till now.

But in a certain sense, economic growth is already illusory. When we take stuff from the larger environment to grow the economy, then of course the economy grows, but the larger environment, does not, indeed it is diminished in some way. But if you look only at the economy, all you see is growth.

There are two problems with economic growth. One is the well-known problem of what economists weirdly call "externalities", such as, pollution, turning the Amazon rain forest into a bulldozed smoking pasture for cows and the Rocky Mountains into a string of open pit coal mines, and so on. Economists now at least recognize this problem, though they don't like to because it presents a difficulty to the neoclassical self-regulating best-of-all-possible-worlds mythology about how the market (ideally) works.

Presently, the people who create the externalities like mercury in the coal smoke, the destruction of natural beauty, global warming, and so on, are subsidized by being able to escape the cleanup costs, which they offload to someone else. Or else the shit is not cleaned up at all, and it diminishes the quality of life for the rest of us. Though economists are at least thinking about how to fix this, fixing it within the present market system seems to be very difficult.

The other problem is the fact of actual limitation--the economy cannot continue to grow indefinitely, because the world from which it takes its stuff is--limited. What you see is what you got. A blue and white sunlit marble in a large expanse of black space. What's on the planet, and the sunlight, are the only sources of everything we use. And its worse than that-- indeed, some resources are more limited than others, they do not all diminish at the same rate. We will use up our oil and natural gas before our coal.

In principle the planet's resources are not enlargeable.

Unexpected technological advances may give us some breathing room, but we have used such respite badly in the past.

There is only so much farmland. There is only so much water. There is only so much air. Peak oil, if it is actually occurring now, would in my opinion be a godsend, because it will force us to deal with the end of growth while it is still possible for humanity, and hopefully civilization, to survive.

But it will be a hard time, because nobody knows how to live with a non-growing economy. Growth, of the population, of the economy, and of energy use, has been a fact of life from the beginning of human memory until now. It is hard to imagine its end. But it looks to me like were gonna have to imagine it pretty quick, because the end of growth is soon going to be upon us, ready or not.

Like other primates, we have intense emotions about fairness, and perceived unfairness has in the past created unrest and revolution, unpleasant and sometimes totalitarian solutions to the unfairness.

The modern free-market way of dealing with this unrest problem is to grow everyone's slice of the pie, without diminishing Bill Gates's slice. This supposedly makes everyone happy.

But it doesn't. Mr. Gates, unimaginably, but nevertheless truly, still wants a _bigger_ slice, God knows why, and and even though the rest of us, on average, have twice as much wealth as we had at the end of WWII, we are not in the slightest happier than we were then. I don't know Mr. Gates personally, but I doubt if his second 20 billion dollars made him any happier than his first. It's hard to see how it could.

So growth, even while it is occurring, does not solve the problems of social discontent, in the absence of fairness and some semblance of equality. And when growth begins to end, but the unfairness does not, we are in for a time of trouble, I believe.

Right now we have postponed the idea of fairness and banished the idea of equality. This is very shortsighted.

What is it that people really live for? Usually it has to do with their family and friends. Almost by definition it has to do with emotion. Love. Friendship. Fun. Beauty. Meaningful work. Excitement. Sensual pleasure. Spiritual uplift. These kinds of things. These things don't necessarily depend on wealth. But in an important way they do depend on fairness and equality.

To the extent that our present growing economy makes people toil like dogs and leaves them no time or opportunity for the stuff that's important--indeed, actively maximizes personal fear and insecurity, makes people sick, destroys natural beauty, leaves people with no time for what they actually care about, and causes them to feel (very reasonably) that they are treated shabbily and with contempt--we have an economy that works against what an economy ought to have been created for in the first place.

I'd say the end of growth is not necessarily a catastrophe, if it is met in a sane and just way. Jared Diamond, in his book _Collapse_, which I have just finished reading, finds that societies faced with a crisis like the one we will inevitably face, sometimes react in ways that are adaptive, and sometimes not. Hopefully, we will adapt to new conditions in an adaptive and livable way. I try to be an optimist about here. Magical thinking of my own, perhaps.

In any case, it will be the end of the Republican Party as we know it.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Friday lizard and cat blogging

Grendel, the hunter, hoping for lizards on our more-or-less enclosed back porch
lizard hunter

Texas spiny lizard, Sceloporus olivaceus, safely outside on a brick wall. These are closely related to the eastern fence lizard, S. undulatus
Sceloporus olivaceus

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Several blogs note that the same number of days have gone by between 9/11 and today as went by between Pearl Harbor and the VJ Day. One thousand three hundred forty six days.

So. What will victory be like, when it comes? Who will surrender? And when will the surrender come?

Dick Cheney said that he expected the War on Terror to last "fifty years or more." His associate, the President, never the one for thinking before speaking, said on the other hand, quite some time ago, that our mission had been accomplished. Possibly carried away by the thrill of playing dress-up on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the presence of a large crowd while the band played hail to the chief, he forgot the important Vice-Presidential talking point that we should be prepared for a half century of war. The Republican revolution of lowered expectations.

Fifty years is a long time. I will be dead and my daughter will be old. I think I know what kind of America Mr. Cheney envisions, during this half century. I think it is the same America Senator Frist and Justice Scalia and Congressman Tom DeLay envision and are preparing for, a permanently Republican America. Permanent war. Permanent fear. A permanently Faith-based America. Permanent GOP Big Brothership keeping you safe.

In other words, they think they have hit upon the recipe for perpetual rule. And the essential ingredient: a war that by its very nature can never be won, a "war against an abstract noun" as Michael Moore described it.

The War on Drugs might be considered a test-drive.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Social class

The New York Times series on social class in America has, so far, been unenlightening, like more and more things in the New York Times. So far they say very expected things about social mobility, education, income, occupation and wealth. But the subject interests me.

I have been puzzling for many years over how, and why, I grew up to be a fire-breathing liberal, coming from a background that did not seem to portend that at all. I think the answer has something to do with social class. It’s hard to articulate why. Maybe this story will shed a little light on one moment in the origin of a southern liberal. That in itself would be of little interest, except that maybe there is some moment like this behind everyone’s politics.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, in Victoria, Texas—this was about 1952 or 1953—I knew this kid named Billy, who lived in a small renthouse in the middle of a 20-acre farmstead which was at the edge of town but had been surrounded by development after the Second World War. It was owned by an old alcoholic named Red Box.

Mr. Box would drink bourbon from a pint bottle while he supervised people repairing his fences, and he would say to me (one of his crew, one summer), "I've got a helluva hard gut. Hit me in the gut as hard as you can, kid." So I would. So would every other 12-year-old around. He had a hard gut. Nothing happened. It was like hitting a side of beef. He would go back to drinking his Jim Beam in the mesquite shade he had parked his pickup under and we would go back to tamping down post-holes with a crowbar.

Billy's father rented the little house on Mr. Box's land. You got there by going up a hundred yard long rutted dirt drive. The house was small and square, with a tin roof. It had 4 rooms. A windmill whumped and clanked in the back yard, filling a concrete tank which would occasionally overflow. The San Augustine grass, which we called “carpet grass” watered by the tank overflow was long and green, as was the grass over the septic tank. We were forbidden to play on the windmill derrick, but we climbed it whenever Billy's parents were gone, and enjoyed the extended vista of weeds. The east side of the yard was shaded by hackberry trees whose warty bark harbored small oval caterpillars with a sting like a splash of napalm, which were locally called "asps," a name that later led me to think Cleopatra died an even more terrible death than legend has given her.

Billy's father was by trade a butcher. He had once been a cowboy, he told us, working on ranches. Whether that was true or not, he was now a serious rodeo competitor. He kept a herd of about 15 or so calves at any one time, which he fattened up and sold when they got too big to be used for his calf-roping practice. He traveled all around Texas, going to rodeos. His event was the calf-roping. He had turned a fenced cowlot on Mr. Box's property into a practice arena, with chutes for the calves and everything; it looked exactly like a real rodeo arena except that it lacked wooden bleachers and a crowd.

Billy and I would shove and shout the calves into the holding pen and then into the release chute, for Billy's father to rope. Billy would hold a stopwatch and at a signal I would release the gate, and the calf would bolt in terror, with Billy's father's big quarter-horse pounding close behind. He would throw his loop and if it landed around the calf's neck he would snap the rope back with his right arm to tighten the slack and in the same motion he would dismount the horse which was stopping as fast as a half-ton animal can stop. The horse would always be stock-still and braced by the time the calf would hit the end of the rope full-tilt. The calf would flip backwards and usually land on its back. Billy's father would run up and tie 3 legs of the calf with a small rope called a piggin' string. He would throw up his hands when he was through, and Billy would stop the stopwatch. I had the impression that Billy's father was pretty good. He sometimes won the calf-roping events he traveled to.

The smarter calves would hasten their trip to the auction block by learning to stop when they felt a rope fall around their neck. This ruined their utility for roping practice.

Sometimes Billy would rope calves also. I envied that. I got to ride the horses, but I never got to throw a lariat rope except on foot in Billy's back yard where a big acetylene tank had been set up on a sawhorse structure so that it was cradled horizontally, one end closer to the ground than the other. The low end was considered the head, and we would stand behind the cylinder and try to rope the head, the far end. I got pretty good at it, but Billy's father was obviously worried that I would fall off and maybe get hurt if I tried to do it from horseback with a real calf.

A new lariat rope was stiff and hard. This was desirable because the stiffness of the rope kept the loop open. Billy and I mostly had to make do with old ropes in our cowboy games. When Billy's father was not around we would chase the calves on foot and try to rope them, but mostly they were too fast for us. Billy's dogs were used to being roped and would just lie down until we let them go. Billy’s father would sometimes joke that he needed to auction off the dogs.

I did not like Billy’s father much, but I liked to hang out at Billy's house. Though we did not have much money ourselves, my parents considered Billy "low-class", whatever they meant by that, and did not approve of me playing there, though they never actually forbade me to.

I liked the barn with its smell of alfalfa and oats and decay, the smell of mold and humid slow combustion in forgotten composting hay-piled corners. I liked the ropes hung up stiff on the walls with the bridles in the tack room. I liked the saddles. I liked the horses, though I was never a very good rider. The horses were used to sudden bursts of speed when kicked lightly in the flanks, which would often leave me in the dirt. I liked breaking open the big rectangular bales of hay to feed the horses. I liked the cowboy talk. I liked pushing and shoving and struggling to get the calves into the roping arena chute. Moving an unwilling calf was a sort of rough ballet, where I twisted the calf's tail and one ear as I heaved the beast in the direction I wanted it to go while it trampled painfully on my feet, as we circled in a tight thrashing mutual orbit, the sum of whose many vectors was normally not the desired direction.

Billy's father, who required that we end all statements directly addressing him with the word "sir," was a little banty-rooster guy with the beginnings of a beer-gut. He walked with a cowboy strut that I now theorize must have originated in an effort to maintain manly dignity while wearing too-tight blue-jeans and high heels. High heel boots. This distinctive swagger is typical of rednecks outfitted in hats and boots to this day. I had an anthropology professor in college who was puzzled by the cowboy walk. He was from Boston and had never seen it. I told him my Levis theory, but he preferred a structuralist Levi-Straussian interpretation of his own.

Billy's mother was a curvy, pretty woman who was very quiet and who also wore blue-jeans that were too tight, to very different effect. She dressed this way on weekends. She worked as a secretary during the week and wore regular clothes. Billy was her only child. She cried a lot, for reasons I was never curious about.

Occasionally in the course of the calf-roping, two or three times a year, maybe, a calf would break its neck hitting the end of the rope too hard. This would give Billy's father the opportunity to show off his butchering skills, and he would make a big production out of it, bringing out a satchel full of knives to skin the animal and cut it into various hunks which he wrapped in butcher paper upon which he would write things like "Pike's Peak roast" and "tenderloin," illustrating for me the mystery of animals transformed into groceries. He put the packages in a big freezer he had in his garage.

He would nail the hide to the shed until it was dry and then cut it up in strips. "Rawhide" he said. "In the old days the Indians would wet it and tie up their prisoners with it and stake 'em out in the sun. In a couple of days whatever they tied it around, would just fall right off." He paused. "I bet that sure hurt." Then he would laugh. He used the rawhide to wrap the eye splice of his lariat ropes.

One day in 1954 I remember Billy's father leaning against a fence reading a newspaper, which he rarely did, even though his son had a paper route. He was reading about Brown v. The Board of Education. His face was dark with anger. I remember it like it was yesterday.

"God-damn nigger-lovin' sons-of-bitches," he said of the US Supreme Court. "They ain't never gonna make my son go to school with no niggers. Ain't that right, son?" he said to Billy.

"Yes, sir."

And indeed it turned out to be so. And it was true for me, too. I was in one of the last classes to graduate from the high school while it was still all white, and Billy had already quit school. I heard that they had moved out in the country somewhere. And later I heard that Billy became a first-rate rodeo cowboy.

It was at that exact moment that Billy's father expressed his defiance of the Supreme Court that I became a liberal. Or maybe I already was one, and realized it then. But I can't tell you why.

A few brief remarks about George Galloway's senate testimony

Hopefully anyone who reads this will have seen the extended clips of this amazing event on the web, as I did. George Galloway is a fiery Scottish MP who speaks his piece plainly and well. He spoke to the depravity and dishonesty of our actions in Iraq from the Gulf War to the present. The senators brought him there as part of their dog and pony show about the oil for food "scandal." They intended to pillory him for his opposition to the current war, and somehow tie it to the supposed scandal, and got more than they bargained for. It was one of these electrifying moments you don't often see in public discourse. A breath of fresh air. I think for people who saw it, it may have been kind of like Joseph Welch before the McCarthy subcommittee. It was like watching someone turn on a bright light in a room full of cockroaches. Most of them froze, though there was some scurrying in the corners. Senator Coleman looked slightly paralyzed, seemingly unable to believe that anyone could dare to talk this way.

The difference between this and and Army McCarthy hearings is that everyone in America who had a television saw that Joseph Welch spoke simple and obvious truth, and that McCarthy was a bully.

Galloway, likewise, spoke simple and obvious truths, and dealt easily with the feeble attempts at bullying by the committee. But most people in this country, now, thanks to the way TV news is done these days, are not going to get to see it.

I went to the BBC on the web and watched every word of his testimony, from beginning to end, roughly 25 minutes long, I think, available courtesy of the British version of TV news.

Then I went to Fox News, on actual cable television, not the web, and watched their reportage of the same event. Now I don't usually watch Fox News, and so some people may find my amazement at their dishonesty naive and laughable. But I was actually dumbfounded. They had a few disconnected seconds of Galloway's words. They devoted most of their reportage to discredited accusations against Galloway. The longest segment where we actually got to see or hear Galloway came after a claim (which Galloway had refuted eloquently) that Saddam had paid Galloway millions of dollars to speak up on Saddam's behalf. So then Fox takes a moment of Galloway's attack on the morality of the war, and appends it to the previous accusation, so it sounds like Galloway, here and now, unrepentently, is speaking up again for Saddam, as he, by implication, was paid to do.

The dishonesty of it was just incredible.

This sort of thing makes me dispair for public discourse in this country. The web may be our only real hope. If it were not for that I would have had _no idea_ what Galloway said, or how definitively he said it. Which means, for those of us--namely most of the people of the United States--who do not go to the trouble to look up the extended remarks of Mr. Galloway on the web and watch them there, as far as they know it was just another day of wrangling before a senate committee.

Sigh. I think I need to go write about birdwatching for a while.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Newsweek lied and people died? Give me a break

Now the lunatic fringe, which, alas, rules the country, and has aspirations to rule the world, says the Koran-in-the-toilet story was a lie--and people died. Newsweek immediately rolls over on its back exposing its soft underbelly and whines O Yes We Lied We're Sorry, O, So Very Sorry, Please Don't Hurt Us.

At this point it's best to take a few deep breaths. A lie. And people died.

OK. If you pause a moment to think about it, neither you, dear reader, nor I, nor anyone else who was not in the Guantanamo Gulag either as prisoner or jailer can possibly know, at present, whether the story of the flushed Koran is a lie.

What we _can_ know is the track record for truthfulness of the protagonists.

Bush and Rummy and company lied about weapons of mass destruction, and people died--lotsa people. So they lied and people died. For starters.

We know that.

The world knows that.

They lied brazenly and outrageously, and they have relied on the industrial-shop-vac memory-sucking powers of the Media as it auto-repeats Administration talking points, to vacuum away any public recollection of that raw fact, and of its correlary, which is that as a consequence of the lie maybe 100,000 Iraqis and almost exactly 1600 American soldiers, so far, have died, plus about 200 "coalition" soldiers, and who knows how many hired mercenaries and truck drivers and cooks and unlucky journalists.

It is also true, getting back to track records, that various prisoners, in Iraq and elsewhere, including Guantanamo, have claimed they were tortured. We don't know if _all_ of them were telling the truth, but we do know that _some_ of them were telling the truth. Somehow the talking-point chorus hasn't been able to get those pictures out of our heads.

I am willing, like a reasonable man, to admit I don't know the veracity of the Koran-flushing story, but like a reasonable man I am willing to assign probabilities, provisionally, based on what I know of the motivations for lying, and the past record for lying, of (a) the Bushies, and (b) the prisoners.

If I were a betting man I would not bet on the Administration telling the truth, even by accident.

Yet another open letter to my state senator

Lest anyone think that my excessively truthful language will alienate my state senator, and thus perhaps harm the very cause I favor, I hasten to say that Senator Wentworth was, according to the person I spoke to in his office, the actual sponsor and author of the previous anti-gay marriage atrocity passed by the previous Texas Legislature. Hence his position is well-known, and, sad to say, inflexible. The pending bill in the present legislature goes further in banning civil unions as well as gay marriage. Indeed it goes so far as to ban legal arrangements that might in some way duplicate some of the legal characteristics of marriage. So far the only opposition to bill has been based on the possibility that such language could infringe on the sanctity of Contract, which, in the halls of the legislature, is nearly as holy as Matrimony.


Dear Senator Wentworth:

What is the matter with our legislators? The pending anti gay-marriage bill is pure, loathsome, unadulterated, raw, disgusting, sewer-rat bigotry. Nothing more, nothing less. I mean, the very same arguments were made against, um, what was that word? “miscegenation”, yes, that was it! Marriage between people of different races would destroy the sanctity of marriage. Destroy it! Yes! They said that! Can you believe it? The same arguments were made then, by exactly the same kinds of people as our present-day raving, illiterate, drooling, Bible-thumping, knuckle-walking hypocrite legislators who are lining up behind this bill, apparently with the intention of openly and publicly raping decency even as they moralize about the evils of homosexuality.

I guess irony is not your strong suit, down there in the capitol building. If the Texas Senate passes this bill it should be to the sound track of Dueling Banjos.

Jesus H. Christ! I am just at a loss for words. I guess we just don’t live in a civilized world, at least not here in Texas. Every time you people come to town, I think, oh no, man, no, there is no way they can get any worse than they were last time, but, as God is my witness, I am wrong every time. Unbelievable!

I suppose our only hope—I am speaking of civilized humanity, here—is the coming of the very Rapture the morally and Biblically illiterate have been praying for, which, should it fortuitously occur in the next several days, would levitate these same preening self-righteous bigots to the heavenly reward they look forward to and leave the rest of us to live in peace, and, I dare say, harmony, now that the halls of our legislature are silent and for the most part, empty.

The best of all possible worlds.


Jim McCulloch

Monday, May 16, 2005

Some faith-based values

So on Sunday a priest in St. Paul, Minnesota, denied the eucharist to about a hundred people wearing rainbow sashes. You wonder what's going on in this man's head. I am afraid it may be something Biblical.

If we are going to have faith-based values, derived specifically from scripture, let us be well aware of what the scriptures actually say. Historically, the Church has considered the Bible inerrant. Catholics, until recently at least, have been less literal in their understanding of the errorless words than fundamentalist protestants, but that may be changing. And a combination of literalism and the notion of inerrancy is worrisome, as we see below.

It is indeed true that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but it specifies that the penalty for it is not the denial of communion, but rather--execution. Are we ready for that? Not yet, anyway. I am happy to note that a slight plurality of Americans support civil unions, but unhappy to note that about half of all Americans oppose gay marriage. At present--and I am just guessing here--not very many of those who oppose gay marriage would actually spring for the penalty specified in Leviticus. Let us hope not.

Just to put such faith-based views of homosexuality in some kind of perspective, let's look at what a few other death-penalty offenses in Leviticus, and other books of the Bible, are.

If you curse your parents, the penalty is death. (Ex. 21:17) Indeed, if you are a rebellious and stubborn and disobedient son, and perhaps a glutton or a drunkard, you are to be taken out of the city and stoned to death. (Deut. 21:18-21) Likewise, if you hit your father or mother. (Ex 21:15) These passages might be a little too close to home for mano a mano Dubya. You'd think he of all people wouldn't have that much enthusiasm for scripture-based law. But maybe being born again changes that.

Bestiality is forbidden. Neal Horsely, it seems, would have to be put to death, along with the mule. Lev. 20:15). In a rare Biblical display of sexual equality, the same penalty is specified for a woman who does it with a mule. Plus in both cases the mule gets it. (Lev 20:16)

If you mow your lawn on the sabbath, you shall be put to death. (Ex 31:14-15) Specifically, stoned to death (Num 15:35)

If you are female, and lose your virginity before marriage, you must be stoned to death (Deut 22:21-24)

If you ignore the commands of a priest or a judge, you are to be put to death. (Deut 17:12). So those rainbow sashes could get you in more trouble than mere denial of communion.

If you sleep with your neighbor's wife, both you and your neighbor's wife shall surely be put to death. (Lev 20:10)

If you blaspheme the name of the Lord, whether you are a member of the congregation or a stranger, you shall be put to death.

You must kill the missionaries of other religions. (Deut 13:6-10) If you go and serve other gods yourself, you must be put to death. (Deut 17:2-5)

You will not allow a witch to live. (Ex 22:18) If you visit a fortune teller you are to be put to death. (Lev 20:6)

This is just the short list.

It's easy to make fun of stuff like this, but it's also sobering to realize that a large number of values-based Americanists claim, and probably believe, that their values are Biblical. I don't think that they are, in reality. That is, the homophobia of most Americans is not directly rooted in scripture. But on the other hand, a bunch of them will selectively refer to scripture to justify their homophobia. I don't know if it does any good to point this other material out to them.

Oh, gosh. Now that I think about trying to reason with a homophobe in this way, before you know it, the old imagination steps up to the plate and provides me with the unwanted image of the homophobe and his family and friends responding to reason by gathering up stones to march down the street, an angry scriptural mob, toward an unsuspecting guy on his riding lawn mower.

OK, so reasoning with believers--at least in this way--might backfire. I just wish I knew what the right tactic might be.

Finally, here's a little bit of blasphemy, for which in other times and places I would be put to death.

Jesus is sitting sitting on the ground minding his own business, as he was wont to do, and suddenly an agitated crowd carrying rocks comes surging around the corner and pushes a woman up to the front. The leader of the mob says to Jesus, "Rabbi, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act, and the Law says to stone her to death. What do you say?" Jesus, draws in the dirt with a stick for a while, and then says "Let whoever of you is without sin cast the first stone." Silence. The people in the crowd look at each other, uneasily. Convicted by their own conscience, one by one the members of the mob drop their stones. The crowd melts away. Jesus says to the woman, "Go, and sin no more." Just as she is leaving, an old lady comes around the corner, picks up an stone, and whack! hits the poor woman with it.
Jesus says, "Dammit, Mom, sometimes you really piss me off."

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Call of the wild

I am feeling blog-lazy today, so will post only some photos of my backyard. This portion of the yard has grown up in wildflowers.

Here are two populations of Mexican hats, Ratibida columnaris, some completely yellow, some mostly brown. And some hedge-parsley
Mexican Hats

Here are some Gaillardias and Mexican hats growing near a little-used bench
Flowers near bench

And here are more Mexican hats, behind a Lady Banksia rose gone bad
behind the rosebush

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Things I think about while blowing my nose

Having escaped having a cold during the cold weather, I have acquired one now. So I have been sitting out in the hot spring weather in my yard, by the sundial, off and on during the day blowing my nose and listening to the mockingbird in the pecan tree. Mockingbirds are said to mimic other birds' songs, but that is true only in the sense that glossolalia mimics actual speech. Mockingbirds are like a person having a manic episode, unable to finish a sentence before rushing into another one.

I made the sundial myself. I have always been fascinated by these instruments, and I learned enough of the lost art of hand engraving to actually make them for sale at one time in my life, though the better I got at it the more I became discouraged in my awareness of how good the old dialmakers were at their craft with their engraving tools. I stopped doing that about the time I stopped being a hippie. I only have one engraved dial left, one of my earlier ones. It tells what is called local apparent time, which seems to me to be a more natural way of dividing up the day--assuming you are going to divide the day up at all. Maybe there is nothing particularly natural about our time-telling project at all.

I have engraved the equation of time on the dial, which is a correction for tilt of the poles and ellipticalness of the earth's orbit. Using it, and making a longitude correction (for the difference between Austin and the center of our time zone), and for daylight savings time, all of which you can do in your head, you can come up with the time, as we usually speak of it, accurate to within a couple of minutes. Picture below, but not much detail at blog-resolution.

I prefer to simply be aware of local sun time, which the dial tells directly.

It will also tell you the biblical hours, if you want to know what time of day it was when someone talks about the third hour or the sixth hour in the Bible. And it tells you the time of year, accurate to within a few days, assuming you know the zodiac months.

I started making sundials in El Paso, maybe because it was so sunny.

Spring in El Paso, though, was very different from Austin, or any other place I have ever been. So maybe I will tell you about spring in El Paso.
In some ways it was like winter in other places in that bad weather forced you to stay indoors for days altogether. The hostile element was the wind that came down off the mountains at 40 or 50 miles per hour steady, and then rose to blasty crescendos like someone firing a shotgun against the side of your house. It jiggled the Spanish tiles on the roofs, and a spring headwind once blew my old Volkswagon to a dead halt as I was driving up Trans-mountain Pass. You could oftentimes actually see wind in the desert in the spring. It was not a solid flowing sheet uniformly bending all the yuccas like the tide bending seaweed, but instead traveled in bursts like riptides in the air 50 or 100 yards wide, full of dust. You could see one coming toward you, skipping sand off the ground, and when it hit the gust would last a couple of minutes, and when the wind slowed a little you could make out another wind packet coming if your eyes were not full of grit.

In the early spring we would have the first premonitory winds, usually coming up in the afternoons, promising excitement, bull-voiced, looting the alleys, sucking throaty through the mountain passes; billowing out great fanshoals of yellow dust in the dry unpaved city of Juarez visible from my distance of 4 or 5 miles, blowing up a whole winter's worth of settled powder; later on in the spring the wind would blow the dust away, blow harder and move heavier particles. The air stung your face.

Some of El Paso's old graveyard tombstones had been sandblasted nearly clean by a century of wind. John Wesley Hardin was becoming more anonymous the longer he was dead--although now the old sandstone slab has been replaced by a marker for tourists put up by the State of Texas.

Other experiences of El Paso wind, closer up. Your lungs would decompress a little as you stepped into the slight vacuum behind windbreak buildings and walls, and your ears felt funny. You had the impression of a huge undertow of enormous, almost audible, low frequency decibels underlying everything, like a big cathedral organ if you were deaf and turned off your hearing aid.

In El Paso, downtown, only the pigeons would function normally, massed in the square; in the sudden breathless moments between gusts you heard their regular, guttering, jerky, hysteric mumbling. Flocks on the ground would applaud themselves thunderously into the air with an explosion of clapping wingbeats, and overhead in squads they would dazzle in the sunshine like confetti in a whirlwind, enjoying unseen tornados and wind tunnels.

I once climbed up Mt. Franklin in such a spring wind, and when I reached the top I was nearly blind, and the wind, already strong and cold, burst over me like a shower of freezing light, and I could not distinguish light from wind from cold, and I was nearly blown off the ridge of the mountain.

Thoreau advises not taking binoculars to a mountain top, on the grounds that if you want to see small things, stay below. Well, I saw nothing, large or small, for a few seconds or minutes, I don't know how long. Everything was pure perception, pure reception. But then I wished for the binoculars, wanting to see the tree-protected house where I lived, five miles away. On the way down the mountain, when my eyes cleared, I could see the snowy peak of Sierra Blanca 110 miles away in New Mexico.

When a gale of wind would come up, it would strand all the migrating warblers, all the trees in town were full of them. One day I saw a warbler let go of its heaving, windy bush and get blown downwind like an agitated leaf. You have to admire them, migrating across those huge winds, up the long glimmering loops of the Rio Grande flyway, up to their Rocky Mountain summer forests, tiny eyes alight with a purpose carried in their cells, moving inexorably against the gong pulse of wind through the great stone continent.

Maybe I got rhetorically carried away there.

Warblers here in our central flyway are not as heroic.

My backyard sundial

Friday, May 13, 2005

A little more on the Eisenhower quote

Returning to the Eisenhower papers social security quote, I had gone to the original document simply to verify that the circulating Blogistan copy was correct (turns out the circulating version had some slight, and in fact insignificant, omissions.)

Anyway, I have had time to read the whole letter, which was to his extreme right-wing brother Edgar. It is actually pretty interesting. It is an attempt to defend what Ike considered pragmatic and moderate policies against the extremist views represented by his brother, who had written him a letter critical of those policies.
(The document, number 1147 in the Eisenhower Papers, is here)
Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this--in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything--even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon "moderation" in government.

Immediately after this was the quote that is making the rounds. In the context of the letter, it's clear he was defending a certain amount of big government against what became in later years the Goldwater wing of the party, represented here in its embryonic form it seems in Edgar's complaints to Ike.

Interesting, but what comes next is chilling:

No matter what the party is in power, it must perforce follow a program that is related to these general purposes and aspirations. But the great difference is in how it is done and, particularly, in the results achieved.

A year ago last January we were in imminent danger of losing Iran, and sixty percent of the known oil reserves of the world. You may have forgotten this. Lots of people have. But there has been no greater threat that has in recent years overhung the free world. That threat has been largely, if not totally, removed. I could name at least a half dozen other spots of the same character.

This being true, how can anyone be so unaware of what is happening as to say that this Administration has conducted foreign affairs under the same policies as did the former Administration?

Here we have Eisenhower defending the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, in the coup that brought the Shaw to power; a coup that, ultimately, lost Iran to the Ayatollahs and made the United States the perceived enemy of fundamentalist Islam. John Foster Dulles's coup was ultimately catastrophic for the United States, but this would not be known to Ike in his lifetime. Although our Israel policies may have made enemies of Arab nationalists, it was the overthrow of Dr. Mossadegh and the Shaw's CIA backed efforts to crush the Shia Islamists that eventually caused us to become the Great Satan in Shia eyes. Sunni Islamists could not be left behind on that bandwagon, and weren't.

So it would seem, by Eisenhower's own words, that if the policies of the Truman administration had continued, we would have "lost" Iran to a secular, modernizing, independent democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Unfortunately, under the influence of his Gray Eminence, John Foster Dulles, "moderate" Ike perceived that possibility as equivalent to communism, and, hence, intolerable. He was, perhaps understandably, a prisoner of the Cold War. And he genuinely believed he had secured our oil supply for the future.

And here we are, fifty years down the road, living with some very unforeseen consequences.

Too bad.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Intimations of summer on Onion Creek

Perhaps my true calling as a blogger is to be the designated natural history writer for the Austin Onion Creek greenbelt. And, on Onion Creek, summer is icumen in. Spring is definitely on its way out. The flowers on my afternoon walk included lots of Gaillardias, usually called Indian blankets, large pretty sunflower-family plants in extensive orange-ish meadows. Here and there I see occasional patches of purple flowered skeleton-plants (lygodesmia) which look leafless, yellow cutleaf daisies, and two or three other yellow daisy species.
It rained 3 or 4 days ago, and so there is now a crop of white rainlillies, which will be gone in another couple of days. Cooperia pedunculata. Silver nightshades are increasing in prominence, as the weather gets hotter. Ditto white pricklypoppies.
I still see some clumps of small, but pretty skullcaps, belonging to the mint family. Spring leftovers. Two kinds, one fuzzy leaved and smaller, a scutellaria, one larger, a brazoria species. Everywhere, there are patches of of yellow Texas parsleys, full of wasps, and white hedge parsleys (torilis arvensis), the latter usually called beggarticks (not to be confused with beggarticks in other parts of the country, another plant) which form tiny seeds that stick tenaciously to clothing. If you walk through a lot of them wearing fuzzy socks, you will never get all the seeds loose, and the socks must be abandoned. I have some experience in this.

A bumelia, a small spiny and tough tree along some of the trails grabs at my shirt. Big blue mealy sages of spring are lovely now, but are also their way out.

Lots of summery Mexican hats now. They are very lovely flowers, when seen up close. They have big smooth glossy auburn petals, whose tips are have a variable patch of orange or yellow. Seen as a mass of flowers in a field, from a distance, the subtle beauty of the petals is lost, and instead it looks like a mass of _brown_ flowers, and you think, wow, a field of brown flowers, what a strange idea.

In the way of birds, today, unlike yesterday, I saw no indigo buntings, but heard several--they have a blurry, metallic, extended trill--as with many birds it is hard to imagine a biological origin for the sound--it sounds slightly but defectively electronic. A very fine yellow-billed cuckoo came sneaking by silently in branches surprisingly close to me on the trail, its plumage very elegant. I thought of a quiet riverboat gambler checking his cufflinks. I had a glimpse of a migrating thrush, but could not tell if it was a Swainsons or a wood thrush. Cardinals are everywhere--they are so common it is easy to forget how pretty they are. Birdwatchers are perverse that way.
A tricolored heron was moving slowly and studiously on his stilts in the creek.

Resuming the plant watching, some of the agaritas (a spiny barberry, berberis trifoliata) already have a crop of berries, which are quite tasty if you can find a way to get them off the heavily defended bush without loss of blood. The early settlers would put sheets under the bushes and beat them with sticks, and make jelly of the berries.

Overhead, a glimpse of a migrating flock of gulls, but I could not tell what kind, plus a slightly confused small heron of some kind, who was trying to be part of the flock, but with a different habit of flight seeming to have a hard time keeping up. Cliff swallows, barn swallows, and chimney swifts traced their arcs in the evening sky.

Finally, spitbugs, a lot of them this year. You see them as a white gob of spittle on many different species of plant. Concealed under the spit are sucking insects, sometimes called (don't ask me why) froghoppers.

Going to PlantAnswers.com, we get this:
This spittle is a combination of a fluid voided from the anus and a mucilaginous substance secreted by glands on the 7th and 8th abdominal segments, mixed with air drawn in between a pair of plates under the abdomen. The mixture is forced out under pressure, as from a bellows, to make uniform bubbles. The tail, going up and down, operates the bellows and deeps the bubbles coming.

You needed to know this, right?

Cactus and spitbug gob
cactus and spitbugs

Gaillardias and prickly pear cactus flowers

Ike? Was he a Republican?

A quote from Dwight Eisenhower concerning social security and other social programs has been making the rounds in the blogosphere:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
--Document #1147 Eisenhower Papers, letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower

Well, times have changed:

Republicans get serious about personal accounts

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

True believers

The Green Knight blog has some interesting remarks on right wing politics and sex with animals. Worth reading. He has hit upon a couple of important and closely linked aspects of fundamentalism (whether political or religious) which are its externalized morality and its Manichean worldview.

His post is about the widely publicized spectacle of some right wing political figure, Neal Horsley, who claimed, on national TV, to have had sex with farm animals. Liberals have jumped on the story as verifying everything they had ever suspected about the depravity and the simultaneous hypocrisy of right wing extremists. I think dueling banjos is the relevant sound track here.

GK noticed that the story in all likelihood plays entirely differently with right wingers. In their eyes, in fact, it verifies the depravity of liberals! In other words, the point Horsley was trying to make was that he _was_ depraved, till he became a true believer. In his depraved (read, if you will, secular, or by extension, liberal) state, he was capable of anything. If anything was allowed, everything was allowed. So he had sex with farm animals. Now that he is a true believer, he no longer does. Or so let us hope.

One of the ancient traits of fundamentalism is that it is often accompanied by a conversion, with a conversion narrative, a cautionary tale told afterwards. The most famous is St. Paul's probably psychotic episode on the road to Damascus. Before the conversion, we have a sinner. Afterwards, a true believer.

What interests me is why some people are susceptible or predisposed to such conversion episodes. At first glance you would think that the externalized, authoritarian right wing moral code does not provide its adherents with anything like an internal morality to limit their behavior. I think this is an oversimplification.

First of all, I think it is most likely that the sex with animals story was a lie, precisely to dramatize the sinner to saint pilgrim's progress story. And even if it wasn't, the conversion represents the result of a hidden tension in the head of a person brought up with conventional norms, but does unconventional things. At some point (maybe in the barnyard) you are brought up short (as in, "my God, what am I doing?"), and either have to revert to the ideology of your childhood or forge some other way out of this internal tension. The easiest way out is back to the ideology of childhood. Hence, the conversion narrative.

To illustrate, in a much less bizarre way:

Years ago, in El Paso, during the time of the hippies, I knew this woman, I think her name was Linda, who taught yoga classes at the YWCA or somewhere. When I first met her she was married to an accountant or something who had bought her a new car right before she left him. She ditched him because he was so square. She would come over to the house my future wife Kay and I lived in then on Awbrey Street, down toward the lower valley, and demonstrate yoga exercises for us, and tell us how these asanas could improve your life. Her face was heavy and plain and she had dark hair. I felt a certain lust when she did her yoga poses in her leotard, as I gazed at the soft flesh of her thighs as she put her legs behind her head and stood on her hands and chattered about how this enabled you to get in touch with your body and improve your digestion. She had a nice body, womanly, a little heavy, maybe, but very pleasant to look at, as she performed her spiritual contortions.

She introduced us to an eccentric Buddhist who would go on meditation-marches under the full moon along the high barren ridge of the Franklin Mountains with a youthful friend, a philosophy student at UTEP. These spiritual forced-marches were pretty arduous. Alternatively, they would do a nightlong walk down in the sand and yuccas of the desert floor. They would carry prayer flags and a drum. They would chant mantras as they banged the drum and barged through the yuccas under the all-night moon. Linda went along on one of their walks. For this trek they were going to walk from El Paso through the desert night all the way to Hueco Tanks 25 miles away, a place sacred to the Indians. She asked us to meet them there at dawn, so we agreed to bring coffee and doughnuts. Kay and I drove out there as the sun came up. They hadn't arrived yet. The moon was setting in the west. I got up on the rocks of the cliffs facing El Paso and watched, and about 9:00 o'clock I saw a couple of walkers coming in from the desert, trudging in the sand between yuccas and creosote bushes. It was the Buddhist and his sidekick.

"Hallloooo" we waved and shouted. After a while they waved back.

"Have you got anything to eat?" they shouted when they got close enough." They were famished, and gobbled up the doughnuts we offered them, without talking much. They seemed exhausted. They had not achieved enlightenment.

Linda had dropped out along the way and had said she would wait for a rescue party to come get her. After breakfast I took the UTEP student in our old Volkswagon and drove out into the desert, along a jeep track in the general direction they had come from, and back 7 or 8 miles there she was, sleeping contentedly in the warm morning sand. We took her back in the overloaded car, and a rock ripped off the muffler on the way back, so Kay, and the Buddhist who was gloomily seated in a full lotus position contemplating one of the horned gods of the Indians painted on the rocks, could hear us coming a long way off. "I wasn't afraid," Linda said, "I hummed mantras while I waited," before falling to sleep.

Eventually she decided to go live in Taos, because it was a very spiritual place.

We did not see her or hear from her for a couple of years. Then she reappeared in El Paso, and Kay invited her over for supper, and after some chitchat I asked if she was still doing yoga.

"Uh, no." Long pause. "I don't do yoga anymore."

"How come?"

"Well.." she hesitated. "It was, kind of, not what God intended me to do. If you have Jesus, you don't need yoga."

"Far out" I said, in the spirit of 70's hippie ecumenicism. So she told us about her conversion to Christianity. She had lapsed from her original goal of spiritual advancement when she got to Taos, she said, but it was all part of God's larger plan for her.

"I had gotten very, uh social, y'know man, very sexual, in fact I was havin' a hell of a good time..a heck of a good time. I was the Boogie Queen of Taos. People called me that."

A moment of regret, or possibly nostalgia, crossed her face as she said this. The Boogie Queen of Taos.

"I came home one night and turned on the light, and all of a sudden I fell on the floor and couldn't move. I couldn't speak or anything. [shades of St. Paul!] My boyfriend found me. He got completely weirded out, man. He thought I was dead. I was still breathing, but I was paralyzed. The doctors thought it was some kind of stroke or somethin'. I could blink, that was the only way I could, like, respond to questions. But nobody knew I was conscious, y'know, I mean they knew, sort of, but they would forget. I could hear everything everybody said, and people talked like I wasn't there. But I knew I was gonna get well." She said she was totally serene in her paralyzed state. Unaccountably so.

She said she remained in this condition for a month, listening to the nurses who acted as if she was brain-dead as well as paralyzed, who would talk about her as they turned her in her sheets. Then a silent bearded man, whom she later realized was Jesus, came to her in a vision, three days in a row.

"The last time he came, he touched the back of my head and I suddenly knew I wasn't paralyzed any more. I moved my arms and hands to make sure I really could. I just waved 'em around. I looked for the man but he was was gone. So I called for the nurse."

She said all the medical people were amazed. She said her muscles had atrophied some, but she progressed rapidly, and in two or three weeks she was totally back to normal. She was completely blissful and confident.

Except for the long dress she was wearing and a new moral code she appeared to be her old self.