Thursday, March 31, 2005

Today's political rant

The term "WMD" appeared in the popular press early in 1998, according to a Lexis search I just did of major newspaper headlines. From the beginning, the term referred to real or imagined Iraqi weapons capabilities. There is some uncertainty where the phrase came from, but it clearly was a policy-wonk meme that was useful to President Clinton's, and later, President Bush's, Iraq agendas. (In the three years before 1998, the term did not occur in headlines at all--except as an abbreviation of the name of a drug company.)

Since it was known that Saddam had used chemical weapons in his Iran war and against Kurdish rebels, I think most wonky types assumed that Saddam had "WMDs" in 1998, at least in the sense of nerve gas. And since the terms could also refer to atomic weapons, indeed may have been a translation of a Russian cold war term referring to a heavy ICBM attack using thermonuclear warheads, the term lent itself to hysteria-mongering.

A perfect word, as far as Rove and Bush were concerned. They loved it.

But--really--atomic weapons would be the only type of WMD that would be militarily useful to Saddam in a conflict with the United States. And, if you think about it, we would never have invaded Iraq if the White House had gotten the faulty intelligence the Bushies are now happy to have it portrayed that they were victims of--that Saddam had actual weapons capable of real, genuine "mass destruction".

So what does this have to do with today's official report exonerating the White House and blaming "mistaken" intelligence in the lead-up to the war? Are we to believe that Bush and company _really_ believed that Saddam had weapons that were actually threatening to the US? Which, you'll remember was why we went to war. This error was because of bad intelligence?

Give me a break.

Well, to backtrack a little, I think there was an intelligence failure.The Bush administration had every reason to expect to expect to find a few rusting canisters of nerve gas in a warehouse somewhere in Iraq, which would enable them to trumpet "WMDs found!"

I think they were genuinely shocked that it didn't turn out that way.

But nobody in the White House could have believed that Saddam had nukes, or could put up a _serious_ WMD-based fight of any kind. If they had thought that, would they have invaded Iraq? Are we going to conduct a ground invasion of North Korea? Bush may be crazy, but he does have a rudimentary political-survival cunning.

That's why we knew Cheney was lying, when we heard him say, a couple of days before the invasion, that Saddam had "reconstituted nuclear weapons" whatever that was supposed to be. You don't have to be embedded with your intelligence sources to know that.

Another whitewash.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Not about politics

Reading a recent post in Creek running north about the Mojave Desert and ravens, I was reminded of a rock art trip in the Mojave desert my wife and I took, a long time ago, about 1975:
Our newfound friends who live on the edge of the Joshua Tree National Monument in California are proud of their local prehistoric Indian artists, and of their Joshua trees. I was amazed by how beautiful the California desert is, the mountains in the distance, and higher mountains beyond, the Joshua trees scribbling wildly out of the immediate foreground, sky, and rabbits and roadrunners and flowers whose names I did not know.
But the thing I remember about that trip was an oasis; we spent the night at one, the real thing, miles on a rocky and pitted road up a furnace canyon. The canyon wall stone looked so hard that it would chime if struck, and the air rung with heat at noon. Then there was a vision of palm trees, thirty or so, a washingtonia species, tall over the violent green thorn bushes, floating, mirage-silvered; when we got there the air was full of flowers and pepper smells, and birds, and humming insects. Bees threading the acacias. Hard alkaline water to drink from a primitive creaky pump. We rested in the shade. I cannot describe how pleasing it was. Hundreds of hummingbirds, the air overloaded and spilling out chaotic iridescent buzzes, and great flocks of whitewing doves; synchronous wingflashes everywhere in the corner of your eye. On the canyon wall there were a few faint enigmatic Indian markings peened into the rock.

We stayed overnight, and a little before dawn I awoke briefly and looked around at the warm stars and the thin sickle blade of the moon rising before the sun, and felt like a Tuareg, or a Bedouin, like Abraham would have felt. I understood, then, the Moslem feeling for the crescent.
When you sleep indoors you wake up slowly and test the day, toe first, but at sunup that morning I was wide-awake, the sun had crashed over the canyon wall and clubbed me hard in the eyes. Everybody was up and folding up their bedding. But instead of hollering at the camels, and loading them, we threw our stuff into Jeeps, and moved out into the desert like a military column, eating trail mix out of plastic bags for breakfast while we drove, with thermos jug coffee--the roar of the engines thickening the air, and the hot wind blurring my eyes, the horizon sweltering in the heat. The sun filled the day like blare from a trumpet. I had sudden hallucinations of mountain streams, water limpidly dissolving stone.
Erosion was powered by raw sunlight working on the cliff rock, rippling the desert-varnish black stone with surface cracks which flake off when no one is looking, into rubble, then pea gravel, and finally sand which the wind picks up and rasps at Palm Springs, where it settles into heaps that threaten suburban houses.
I only barely remember where this now-mirage-like oasis was, somewhere south of Joshua Tree National Monument and I-10. My fear is that such a beautiful and fragile place is either destroyed and gone altogether, thanks perhaps to too many motorized expeditions like the one that took me there, or made into a resort for the wealthy. I'll never find out because I have lost track of our guides, and I would never be able to find my way back on my own.

So I hope for the best.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Cultural notes--a glimpse of the new South

I consider myself a southerner, but it’s been a long time since I’ve spent any time in the red state south. Austin is blue. But I grew up in the red.

I remember driving around like a tourist some years ago in part of East Texas, which has always been definitely politically and culturally south. The nominal reason was to go to a wedding of a friend of my wife, and along the way to look at old graveyards and abandoned farmhouses.

It didn’t really seem that much different from any other part of America. But then I didn’t talk politics or religion with anyone. I concluded at the time that the South I remembered was gone. I seemed to be an archaeologist, poking around in the ruins.
Leaving Austin, at first there was nothing but farms, well kept and neat and plowed into quarter-mile brown patchwork rectangles ready for spring planting. This was not properly East Texas. The farms prosper in the long wedge of blackland prairie running down along the eastern front of the Texas hill country; the farmers are Germans who came here and found a treeless plain underlain by a sticky black soil only North European peasants could love. After the Texas Rangers and the US Army had killed most of the Comanches and Kiowas, the previous owners, and driven the rest up into Oklahoma, Germans came and stayed and farmed. They are here still.
The land immediately east and north of Austin was flat. The only trees are in hedgerows and along creeks. Turkey buzzards drifted down the languid thermals of January in their frayed road-kill plumage, tilting motley-feathered and dilapidated, yawing and gliding slowly, reminding me for some reason of the 1950's convertibles, with sprung shocks, of my high school years.
So we continued on our way. Taking back roads and taking pictures. The sunset was in the clouds at our backs, the spectacular blood and pus sunset of the Texas winter, streaked pink orange and gray. We ended up spending the night in some little town.

The next morning was cold and rainy. We ate breakfast in a roadside cafe which had three highway patrol cruisers and a deputy sheriff's car parked outside; by legend a sure sign of real Texas cafe food. Inside, the lawmen, bulging necks pulsing with strangled arteries like high pressure hoses, sat loudly around a big table made of 2 regular tables jammed together. They all had on their white Stetson hats, pushed back. You don't take off your hat if you are a Texas law officer in a cafe, not so much because of the Code, but because you would get syrup on the hat if you put it on the table. Hat racks are not used and chairs put the hats at risk. They were enjoying bacon and eggs and biscuits and pancakes with their coffee, and discussing their trade. Kay ordered the same. I ordered orange juice, causing the matronly waitress to squint at me as if I were ill, perhaps contagious. I was thinking if she asks me her question, “You OK, honey?” and I say something like “Yes ma'am, it's just that I'm a vegetarian,” would the officers of the law leap up and arrest me, overturning chairs? I was not actually a vegetarian, but the thought came to me anyway, like thoughts of guilt to an innocent person taking a lie detector test.
The man at the sticky vinyl-seat booth next to ours said we were not in East Texas yet, East Texas begins at Palestine, (pronounced "palesteen") 30 or 40 miles down the road.
By the time breakfast was over the rain was coming down pretty hard. We stopped to look at the county courthouse, which had as its main historic ornament a cannon said to have been hauled back from the failed Confederate invasion of New Mexico and buried in the ground during Reconstruction. Afterward it was dug up by southern patriots and installed in front of the courthouse. It looked small and harmless in the rain.

So let me tell you about the wedding. It was in Omen, Texas, in the middle of the Good Omen oil field, which is played out. The church looked like it was built by carpenters in the congregation and so was not as ugly as more modern or more prosperous Baptist churches. It was a little barracks built on cinder-block piers, and had asbestos siding and a couple of square wooden columns holding up the porch which in turn held up a small steeple maybe 8 feet high, resembling, except for the size, the Tin Man's hat in the Wizard of Oz. Inside there was a somewhat worn red motel-office carpet. There were red velvet drapes with tassels on the windows, plastic plants on the altar, and a gold archway of anodized aluminum with plastic ivy growing on it, for the couple to stand in front of, with matching candle holders. A boy dressed in a white tuxedo marched down the aisle reverently holding a long taper from his crotch, and lit all the candles while keeping the base of the long candle clamped to his privates. Then he wheeled triumphantly and marched out again, brand smoking.
Before the wedding a small plump man with a red bow tie who looked like a reincarnated Liberace was crooning inspirational Christian songs, accompanying himself on a keyboard that had the muted timbre of a funeral parlor organ. The ceremony was brief and was followed by a passionate man-and-wife kiss which pleased the assembly. Then the couple left; then they came in again and posed for the photographer and then they really left, and finally we all drove 20 miles to the reception in the groom's bachelor A-frame house in the pine forests where all the groom's friends, who seemed to be gay, got drunk and mimicked the country relatives.
My mind wandered. The worst flaw of the southern intellectual has always been an unreasoning loyalty to the South, to its culture and to its people. I had been wondering if I had this problem, but here I was beginning to notice that my culture--as I remembered it anyhow--might not exist any more, outside of isolated pockets of racism and illiteracy. My memories, perhaps, were the memories of a child, of a world that never was.
My great-great grandfather General Henry McCulloch was the military commandant of the Northern district of Texas during the Civil War, and his headquarters was in northeast Texas at Bonham, maybe 80 miles north of the Good Omen wedding. The area was a backwater full of deserters and outlaws, and beyond the Red River and out on the plains roamed hostile Indians. Most of the fighting involved the deserters, who had gathered in armed bands of two or three hundred men in places like Jernigan's Thicket in Delta County. The deserters would waylay and shoot down the Confederate troops, and the troops would summarily execute deserters they captured. My great-great grandfather (hereinafter MGGF for short), to his credit, did not like this and ordered a stop to it. He wrote to one of his colonels after a string of murders attributed to the colonel's men.

"My orders are sufficiently barbarous for any Christian land...but I do not desire men shot after they throw down their arms and hold up their hands nor after they are captured... let [such things] occur no more."

But the outrages continued anyway. Even worse, Quantrill's raiders, temporarily driven south from their bloody plains, appeared as unwelcome visitors in northeast Texas and committed robberies and murders indiscriminately against civilians, deserters, or soldiers; whoever they happened to outnumber at the time. "They regard the life of a man less than you would that of a sheep-killing dog. [They are] but one shade better than highwaymen" said MGGF of Quantrill's forces. This situation was complicated by the fact that Quantrill was a personal favorite of MGGF's own commanding officer, General Kirby Smith. Nevertheless, MGGF called Quantrill to his headquarters and arrested him there for murder, but made the mistake of accepting Quantrill's word as a gentleman that he would not leave the room on the west side of the Bonham courthouse. Gen. McCulloch, whose wisps of idealism about human nature were in this case misplaced, then went across the street to eat supper and Quantrill took the opportunity to escape. Quantrill rejoined his men and they retreated across the Red River, since it was getting hot for them in Texas.
The desultory war between groups of deserters and the threadbare detachments of soldiers under McCulloch's command went on until the end of the war. MGGF said of that part of Texas, "I have never been in a country where the people were so perfectly worthless and cowardly as here." We are talking about an area extending from what is now styled by its FM radio announcers as "the Dallas Ft. Worth Metroplex," (fulsomely, I discovered, in the tone of voice appropriate for announcing the next act in a circus) nearly to Houston.
The entire Civil War in General McCulloch's district of Texas consisted of Indian fights, on the one hand, and ambushes and random killings and shoot-outs between gangs of ragged, ignorant, and desperate white men, on the other. I would like to think MGGF acquitted himself honorably, attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to suppress what would now be considered war crimes. But I have never been able to find out if his stated aversion to his troops committing atrocities extended to actually preventing them from doing so.

My old-South reverie ended when I noticed the Liberace organist flirting with one of the groomsmen, and no one seemed to be thinking of lynching either of them. But this was, as I said, several years ago. Possibly, influenced by Karl Rove and Fox News and Family Values, it would be different today.

Monday, March 28, 2005

I'm not sure I want this one to be true

All I can say is that this is really weird. Billmon has found a story from today's New York Times and put it together with something he found in the Boston Globe from February--and taken together, they are, well, troubling, to say the least. The NY Times piece mentions, in passing, that one of the protesters outside the Woodside Hospice House is a former military intelligence officer in Iraq named Bill Tierney, who "cried as he talked about watching the Schiavo spectacle on television and [felt] the utter need to be at the hospice." He brought his daughter with him.

Next comes a quote from the Boston Globe story of Feb. 13, where the same Bill Tierney, described as a civilian contractor who worked for the Army, goes on at some length more or less admitting that he had not only mistreated prisoners himself, out of a necessity to break them, but thought it was a good thing, justifying it on our civilization vs. their civilization grounds. He ended by saying that the torturer arrives at a place where he says "this is fun."

If these quotes are real, and it looks like they are, we are obviously in the presence of a very troubling person. There is just something creepy about this, a guy who claims that he got off on torturing Iraqi prisoners now showing up in the center ring as part of the milling pro-life crowd in Florida.

So now, before I go to bed, I find that the story has somehow activated the least charitable and most unpleasant part of my own psyche, the part that I don't sleep well with--that wants to believe these guys are a nasty piece of work, complete wackjobs from another planet.

Maybe it'll turn out to be a hoax.

Today's letter to my state representative

Dear Representative Keel:

In today's Austin American Statesman, we see that the State of Texas is demanding 6 weeks of unpaid overtime from its prison guards, resulting in a high turnover of guards, to the astonishment of no one but Republicans. Or rather, a higher turnover of guards.

Considering that (according to the Christian Science Monitor) the starting salary of a Texas prison guard is slightly under $18,000 per year, simple arithmetic tells us that the state is pretending to pay them about $9.00 per hour, assuming a 40 hour week for 50 weeks.

It seems to me a cruel hoax, as well as an invitation to prisoner abuse, to make an elaborate and false pretense of giving prison guards "comp time" for overtime work, which, of course, due to the shortages that required them to work overtime in the first place, they _never get to use_. At the end of the year, they lose it.

Wouldn't it be more honest to simply hire 18 year olds (the current minimum age to be a prison guard) for a 45 hour week instead of the fictitious 40 hour week? That way there is no deception.

In other words, they will know up front they are being paid $8.00 per hour, rather than $9.00.

Next question is, what kind of prison guards do you expect to get for $8.00 per hour?


Jim McCulloch

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Galveston birdwatching notes

Listen to the seawall's thunder, breaking the slow trough and tilt of the hurricane Gulf, unresting wormgear sea, muffled drum whose drumroll is time. A long tectonic horizon evaporates islands in effortless winds like bubbles hissing on a wave, a moment, a foamy drift gone in the sun, a vision.
Flying wedges of clumped live oaks hunker down recoiling from the saltsting wind. In a marshbound inlet a pair of hooded mergansers bob like hunters’ decoys, in dark water dead-flat as poured mercury. Behind the ducks march armies of soldier green sedge and spikerush, shouted rapiers waving chaotically against the sullen gray sky, pricking the empty wind.
The marshes merge with the drier land windward, fields of slicing weeds where flocks of geese, sandhill cranes, and white ibises graze wintering against the mind's grain in a grass of a million papercuts, wisps of brown pixels whispering across the retina, a rasping landscape lumpy with outcrying birds.
The birds, tuning their orchestra, browse on the bottom of an unseen bell jar of sound, gargles, wheezes, honks, creaks, gobbles, coughs, and barks, a constant noise of electron-swarm density.
A shrike crouches on a wire, insane with alertness.
A semipalmated plover drills in receding surfwrack.
A plodding willet gulps a fingerfish.
A Caspian tern, gliding down an invisible wire in an arc, suddenly comes untethered--the bird drops, military like a vaned shell flashing into the sea, beyond the windy beach.
Pelicans, like old newsreels of flying boats, lumber over the wave tops, on a cushion of inches.
A harrier flows up over a thicket (where the wild grass tangles in a ribcage of black winter sticks) in a background radiation tonality of menace, growling cannons offshore.

I think of the meaty thrash of sailfish standing the wave tops. I think of a previous aerial view of this membranous shrinkwrap sea, the Gulf of Mexico seen from the approach to Houston like a wrinkling skin delicately aging.
Porpoises rise, breach, slide into the air, and scatter the swells into sparkled beads then sound into unknown green glassliquid sucking down bubbles behind them.
The seas ride up the leg of an offshore drilling platform, lathered, subsiding. The watery molecules relax and for a moment bide their time.
The present wrapped in the invisible cloak of the past. "When the cloak falls away you will die" says a voice in my head. A neural misfire. A spark like a small bird singing on a wire.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The guy shoulda behaved himself

The reason for the Bush Administration effort to deny the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over American soldiers may become a little clearer here. The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over war crimes.

The Army has decided not to file previously recommended criminal charges against 17 soldiers involved in killing 3 Iraqi prisoners. The NY Times has some details about the case against 11 of them involved in the death of an Iraqi Army lieutenant colonel.

According to the NY Times the Iraqi prisoner was "determined by investigators to have died of 'blunt force injuries and asphyxia' at an American Forward Operating Base in Al Asad, Iraq, in January 2004." He had been beaten and hoisted by his neck with a baton.

The Army investigators had recommended that 11 soldiers face charges. However, the Special Forces Command had determined that the use of force had been lawful "in response to repeated aggression and misconduct by the detainee."

He was acting up. So they beat him, and choked him to death with a baton.

Even the full knowledge of Abu Ghraib and My Lai, it remains an article of Republican faith that we are the "good guys", and our enemies the "bad guys." (Can you imagine adult human beings talking this way? Thru the joint good offices of the media and Republican apparatchiks, most Americans can now imagine it, and indeed consider the terminology normal.) It is also an important article of Republican faith that only our enemies commit war crimes, and thus any effort to bring an American to trial for a war crime would just be--wrong.

But wait. Here we have clear evidence of a war crime, and a brutal one at that. Nevertheless, the investigators could only say, gently, gosh, it was negligent homicide--notice they put the facts of blunt force trauma and choking together, in the context of a prisoner of war death, yet cannot bring themselves to say "war crime" at all--and then the people who decide whether to actually bring charges back away even from that. Whoa! Did we hear negligent homicide? No way!

The Army Special Forces Command has a point: if their guys beat the prisoner and choked him till he ceased his misconduct, i.e., croaked, then clearly this could not be "negligent".

Case closed.

What we call a modest proposal: A second amendment for the 21st century

Yesterday the NRA's vice president Sandra Froman, thinking outside the box, told The Associated Press that a possible solution to school killings like the one in Minnesota is to arm the teachers.
Given an NRA world-view, this may be a step in the right direction, but immediate problems appear. Teachers, who as we all know are underpaid, overworked, and stressed by being placed in a closed room for hours at a time with individuals who know how to push all their buttons, presently have occasional harmless breakdowns, sobbing, or ranting, in the teachers lounge, but if they have a Glock 17 in the desk drawer, who knows what may happen? New headlines appear, never before seen, "teacher, fed up, goes postal..."
So, if we continue to let our thoughts run loose outside the box, the answer becomes obvious. Arm the students as well.
Hence. The National Rifle Association's plan: The self-regulating school. If _anyone_, student, teacher, janitor, principal, or teacher's aide runs amok, he or she is immediately cut down in the ensuing gunfight, instilling a lesson in practical civics for the survivors, as well as providing useful vocational training for those destined for service in the Middle East.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Friday cat blogging

Grendel, displeased with the servants once again

His Excellency

Religious notes

The defining practice of Zen Buddhism is that we are supposed to sit zazen, which can be roughly translated, if you go by the etymology anyway, as sitting in a trance. But that is not what it is at all. If I were more dedicated in my practice I would get up at 5 and sit facing a wall in the darkness, trying to keep my eyes open, which is hard at that time of day especially, unless the mind is agitated, as mine usually is, and then the eyes stay wide open but don't see the what is in front of them, but rather see whatever is seen in the thousand yard stare, which is usually a busy, noisy, and tumultuous, maybe completely crazy scene. TV pundits, gibbering.

I don't know about other people's minds, but my mind is like a roomful of parrots, and the room is somewhere else, not here. Some forms of Buddhism encourage you to lovingly train the parrots to shut the fuck up, some forms of Buddhism encourage you to ignore the fucking parrots, and some forms of Buddhism I know nothing about enable you to become enlightened, release the parrots and ascend with them to the pure light of reality, squawking about it, presumably. Or so it is said.
What I do is sit noticing my back increasingly hurting and my knees and hips hurting more than that and notice that the discomfort enables me to make the obvious distinction between primary (goddamn creaky joints hurting) and secondary (parrots) and occasionally a kind of metaconsciousness or I don't even know the word for it that arranges them in a lightningflash whole, which is then...alas... gone. Damn.

Zen Buddhism is a religion of blockheads, people who can't even get to first base, reality-wise, unless you bring them up short, often with physical pain. Basic meditation in Soto Zen is this. Count your breaths till the pain kicks in. You will probably lose track of the count before you get to ten. Half the old zen stories have students being subjected to harsh treatment that today would get the teacher arrested and the zen center shut down. People would go to greater lengths then to attain wisdom, according to the old stories. We live in an age of mappo, degeneracy, it is said. Buddhists of all kinds agree on this.

So I sit facing a wall . I have done this for 30+ years. Ideally, every day, though as we all know, the ideal and the real differ wildly. People who do this claim it is beneficial. I, like most who do it, or try to do it, would have a hard time explaining exactly _what_ the alleged benefit actually is. But the fact is that I have persisted, for whatever reason, all these years.
I believe the test came when my wife was ill with leukemia. All I can say is that I feel like I at least came close to passing the test, closer than I would have otherwise, in being there in a way that was clear and useful, for the woman I loved who was dying, and that the 30 odd years had something to do with it.

The reason Zen Buddhists don't proselytize is that we know that not everyone is a blockhead. The reason other Buddhists don't proselytize is that they know that we live in an age of mappo, as you can see all around you (or if you can't repeat the words Schiavo, Delay, Iraq, WMD, Abu Ghraib or what-you-will until the circuit breaker trips) and there is no point in trying to outshout professionals.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Are we all singing from the same hymnal, here?

A discussion was going on Yesterday over at Shakespeare's Sister yesterday as to whether the non-religious left is too intolerant of religion. To which I wonder, what non-religious left is that? Seems to me that the real religion of America, and we all take communion there the way we all think in English without being able to get around it unless we go to a lotta trouble to learn another language reallyreally well, is like a recurring small but not still and certainly insistent voice of absolute should-be-ism, at least I hear it speaking in my soul, with an obverse of schadenfreude "well you oughta've known, asshole, and you deserve it".

Ifn you go someplace else (nuther culture, we say, approvingly, widening ourselves) and eventually it dawns on you that these other people (Paraguayans,in my case of nuther culture) don't personally give a shit whether I think this way or live that way, but watch out they say, helpfully, don't let the government think you're a commie or they'll grab you and push you out of an airplane.

We're not like that. I say this of course with a vision in my head of what should be. The furthest we ever got from our old time religion, in my lifetime, whether atheist or Baptist or some other flavor of puritanism, was I think the sixties counterculture flower child revolution which inspired paroxysms of fear and parody and of course it soon went away, and hey, anyone who really believed "if it feels good do it" deserves what they got, well maybe not AIDS but...hey. Strange to say we are still haunted by the ghost of this departed heresy. What else could account for both Doktor Dobson and David Horowitz?

Still, personally I loved it, and wish it was yet here. The lost religion of my youth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Natural (and un-natural) history notes

It was a fine spring day for birdwatching at the Onion Creek greenbelt close to my house. But the birds didn’t want to be watched. I did see a red shouldered hawk make a wingfolded thunderbolt drop on something, but I couldn’t see what happened.
The greenbelt is a kind of wilderness now, but in the early 1900s was part of a thriving cotton-farming community called Bluff Springs, which is now gone. In my walks I have located one of the springs--but the people have all disappeared. There was at one time a post office, a one room school, and a cotton gin--now no trace of any of them. Cotton farming declined steadily until by WWII it was gone for good.
The problem was really that Austin is too dry for reliable un-irrigated farming. The farmers slowly went broke and got jobs in town and the fields reverted to pasture, and then to tracts now for sale as eventual subdivisions, except land closest to the creek which is subject to catastrophic floods, which is why the greenbelt exists.

So the greenbelt is all secondary vegetation, except the land that never got farmed that is right next to the creek and thus is the way it has always been, with big baldcypress trees right at the creek's edge, and pecans in the bottomland to the inside of the oxbows. The oldest abandoned cotton fields beyond the creek bottom have grown up into a thick forest of mainly hackberry and cedar elm, with a few introduced species like chinaberry. The most recently abandoned fields, which were cow pastures 15 years ago, are now dense thorny mesquite thickets, with small cedar elms underneath now struggling for light, but destined to eventually triumph.

Most of the area is underlain by cretaceous chalk, but a few miles away we have a small, unobtrusive volcano called Pilot Knob, defunct now, which spumed and thundered in the cretaceous sea but whose eruptive output never kept ahead of wave erosion--an atoll formed around it, but no permanent island stood above the central cauldron of boiling smoke and steam. Only now 65 million years later with the seas gone does the small basaltic knob stand a couple hundred feet above the surrounding limestone. The atoll still rings the hill, and Onion Creek cuts through some of the volcanic outcrops, where it forms a waterfall.

There was a human succession, like a vegetation one, in the abandoned cotton fields. Caved-in shacks mark farmsteads that were simply abandoned, and sold at auction. Lots of people held on but worked in town, running a few cows on their land. The auctioned-off land usually ended up as rental property with a single-wide trailer and and an illegal septic system. In the 60s and 70s some pretty rough people lived out here: the manufacture of speed was a cottage industry, and I remember reading about one dope dealer who lived in the shadow of the volcano who was beheaded by business associates, but the killers felt it was the humane thing to do to release the pet monkeys owned by the deceased so they would not starve, and the murder was only discovered when neighbors found the monkeys rolling the head around in the yard.

Nowadays it is very different. Subdivisions are on the march, and 3-bedroom 2-bath, nearly identical tract houses appear almost overnight in neat rows and columns, and a month later have people living in them, watering spindly so-called "Spanish Oaks" (Quercus texana Buckl.) replacing the bulldozed out hackberries.

Meanwhile, the greenbelt is slowly and eventually reverting to an as yet unknown climax wilderness, almost under their noses. The subdivision folks never walk here. Off in the distance the crows are mobbing a hawk.

Horse trail across Onion Creek
Horse ford

Under the volcano

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Chimes in the graveyard

It was too windy to go bird-watching today, so instead I went to visit my wife's grave. The impulse to visit the grave sites of the dead must be very ancient, probably as ancient as our species. It is quite irrational, and, as an aficionado of the irrational (properly compartmentalized and with other standard disclaimers applying) I find such irrationality restorative.
Kay wanted to be buried in Live Oak cemetery, a country graveyard not too far from our house. The old part of the graveyard is typical of late 19th early 20th century southern Anglo-American burial grounds. Lots of big live oaks, tall arborvitaes. Most of the older tombstones are of native limestone and eroding badly enough they are hard to read, and the newer ones are of granite.
The new part of the graveyard does not allow upright stones. In this it is typical of a majority of graveyards in Austin nowadays. Terry Jordan, in his excellent book, Texas Graveyards, discusses the traditional funerary customs of our various racial, ethnic, and religious groups in some detail, up basically to the advent of this type of flat cemetery--flat, of course, to facilitate mowing. As far as I know, no cultural historian has looked closely at this type of burial ground.
So I will give you a quick tour. Many of them have the name, or the promise, of "perpetual care" which seems an extravagant lie, when you think about that. Live Oak Cemetery, which is run lackadaisically by a cemetery association, seems only to promise perpetual neglect, punctuated by sporadic episodes of mowing. The mowing of the flat part if anything must be harder than the mowing of the traditional area, because of the astonishing amounts of memorabilia and personal tokens of affection for the deceased left on the graves, and which, by custom, and possibly law, are left in place, subject to the ravages only of the weather and inevitable episodes of theft and vandalism.
First impression, today: cacophony.
For some reason the new part of the cemetery is full of wind chimes--hundreds of them, jangling, several to a tree sometimes, each with its own chord, no chord in tune with any other. Windy days can make this distressing. Almost every grave has an American flag on it, something that happened after 9/11 and has not gone away, although many of the flags are tattered and faded. The flags rattle in the strong wind. We see a more determined funerary patriotism in ingenious sheet metal flag cutouts, with the stripes painted red and the empty space between the red stripes representing white. I counted exactly 50 holes in the blue rectangle on the one I looked at closely. I knew there would be 50 holes before I started counting.
Visually, it's kind of exuberant. Countless tufts of artificial flowers, At least one bunch per grave, plus junk of all kinds here and there, carefully and lovingly placed. It this respect these new graveyards are more like a traditional Mexican cemetery than like a traditional Anglo one.
Of course southern graveyards, new or old, have never had the austere quality of New England ones--no skull and crossbones with grim warnings like "Take heed traveler, as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so you shall be, prepare for Death and follow me" that you can still see on old gray slate stones in Boston. We southerners have always preferred the mawkish to the stark in our treatment of death in general.
The new model graveyards amplify this. Kitsch reclining angels and bad cherubs are quite abundant, but we also see some inventive folk art--as I walk around I see, for example, a replica of Mexican church a foot high, with a lot of detail, detail, very colorful, red, blue, and green, on the grave of a woman who has a black and white photo under glass on her headstone. No reason that we can know for the church replica. She is clearly, by name and appearance, Anglo. Maybe some cultural fusion going on, a fine thing IMO. Nearby is a wire hanging basket holder with a wicker basket. The basket contains notes presumably addressed to the departed, pulped by weather, plus a cigarette pack--not crumpled, but placed there deliberately. Plus a rosary.
I could go on at far to great length discussing the stuff on the graves. The overall effect is--touching, even when grotesque. A cowboy, engraved in granite, on horse, with a rope around neck of an engraved, struggling cow.

Ah. Here we have "Blaze Foley, poet-songwriter-musician 1949 1989" in white letters on a black granite headstone. Mr. Foley is now Kay's neighbor. Foley was a local musician, and his headstone has the outline of a guitar with the names of his songs inside the guitar, plus an etched likeness of Foley himself, long bearded, grizzled, a cowboy hat. Here we find a more individualized verse than average for a southern epitaph, probably one of his songs:
I like to drink beer, hang out in the bars
I don't like buses, I don't like cars
Don't like presidents Don't like stars
Never had stitches but I do got scars
I love to go to parties, I love my friends
I got no books but I got book ends
Think I'm crazy but that depends
I don't seem that crazy to me.

Mr. Foley's headstone:
Foley headstone

And Kay's grave
Kay's grave

Post deleted

So, blogging for a week, and I've already deleted one of my posts, my latest Schiavo outburst, because, on reflection, I had to admit that it was intemperate, excessive, and stupid. That in itself would have not been grounds for removing it, since I have never claimed to be temperate, moderate, or wise, and a personal blog should be nothing if not honest; but it seemed to be of a nature to exacerbate ill-will and the poisonous political atmosphere around us, and thus harmful (even if my readership should be as small as I suspect it is)--and for that reason I took it down.
Perhaps this blog will be a quicktime imitation of the physical universe, beginning with a bang, expanding, until it finally stalls and begins to contract and eventually swallows itself up and disappears as I grow more and more insightful and take it all back. We'll see.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Your lawyer was asleep? Well, we'll get you a lawyer who works for the other side

It looks increasingly likely that the legislative answer to Texas's problem of death penalty defendants receiving inadequate court-appointed lawyering, will be for the pool of eligible lawyers to be widened to ex-prosecutors. Say what? You heard it right. Ex-prosecutors otherwise insufficiently experienced as defense lawyers.

My own representative in the Texas House, tough-on-crime Republican Terry Keel (a pleased-with-himself ex-prosecutor with a mullet hair style, which you'd think would be a liability outside the halls of the Capitol, especially in front of a jury, were he himself to receive employment under his new law--maybe he knows that) filed the bill. He also chaired the committee the bill came out of, and the legislation is on track to get final House approval today. Too many people on death row? Let's grease the skids.
I watched a news clip of Keel bullying an ACLU lawyer who appeared before the committee, who had her facts straight but was not allowed to present them because Keel interrupted every third word she spoke with variants of the rhetorical question "don't you realize ex-prosecutors can do the best job because they know how prosecutors think?" If Keel would have ever allowed her to actually finish an answer, I am sure she would have pointed out that that is not necessarily a good job qualification, especially if these people _still_ think like prosecutors, as Keel, quite revealingly, does.
Texas is on a collision course with reality, law'n'order wise, because the state is seriously strapped for money and the harsh-sentence orgy of the past 20 years is presenting the state with a funding problem. The only thing more sacred in Texas than being tough on crime is keeping taxes low. What to do? It's a problem. One of the bills filed (not by Keel) is Texas's own version of extraordinary rendition--to fund privatized Texas prisons in Mexico. Fortunately for everyone, the Mexican government, which has enough problems, is not interested.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Your daily flashback

When going to the anti-war march previously reported here, to avoid the South by Southwest traffic I took a route thru an old neighborhood where I used to live. It is close-in to downtown Austin. Gentrified now. It was a bad neighborhood when we were there, not so many years ago. Actually, it was a good neighborhood, in the sense that we liked living there, until we got careless, but that's another story.

What Austin has gained in international cachet in the music biz, it has lost in a certain grittiness, signified among other things by significant numbers of poultry in Mexican neighborhoods, as well as lawless loose dogs.

At the outset of our story I am asleep:
Bam! Bam! "Hola! Hola! Yoohoo!" Bam! Bam! Bam!
"OK, OK, dammit!"

I went to the door and opened it. I had been awakened so suddenly I had a hard time focusing my eyes. The two small, angry Mexican ladies, hopping up and down on my porch, began pouring out their story before I could say anything. My dog had seized one of their chickens and had run with it down the street to my house as they followed in pursuit. The dog and the chicken both had disappeared underneath the house only seconds ago. Without my shirt, I went out and called the dog, a scruffy cur named Foxy who might more descriptively have been named Coyote.
"Foxy, Foxy, HEEEEER Foxy!"

Foxy came out from under the house, which was on a pier and beam foundation, evidence of the crime visible around her muzzle, but no chicken. At this point the two women burst into bitter lamentations, mostly in Spanish, that they were widow ladies and poor, and used to have a whole bunch of chickens plus the rooster, that the neighborhood never used to be this way, that dogs had come in the night and killed all but 3 and that now this dog had run off with their most prized remaining hen in broad daylight, Mother of God, as they watched, and they were going to call the police. My offer to pay them for their loss only redoubled their outcry, until finally one of them said there is no point in discussing this with someone like you, and they marched home.

I got a flashlight and crawled under the house and sure enough at the furthermost end from the access hole was a large white chicken with a big bloody gap chewed in its side.
Oh shit, I thought, crap, mierda, God damn it to hell. I crawled on my stomach elbows and knees 20 or 30 feet back to where the bird was squeezed into a space under floor joists inches from the ground. It was dazed from the wound, I thought, but in actuality it was only hypnotized by the flashlight; when I grabbed it with the idea of putting it out of its bleeding misery it exploded into a horrible struggling flurry of wings, gurgles and squawks blurred with blood so that I had to drop the flashlight to try to choke it to death--shit, why am I doing this?--while I was stretched out flat on my belly. Eventually I emerged from under the house covered with blood and feathers and dirt and spider webs, carrying a big limp dead chicken by its leg; I hid the evidence of my deed in a plastic garbage sack like an axe-murderer hiding the evidence, and shamefacedly dumped my victim into the garbage can by the alley.

After about an hour I went to the house down the street where the women lived and offered again to pay them. They were not so angry now and said they would accept ten dollars, which I forked over. "The police won't come about stuff like this," one of them said as she took my money. "There ain't no justice anymore for poor people like us."

Now, as then, that's true.

All these worlds that usually don't mix, weather, music, and politics.

Just back from today's anti-war rally and march here in Austin--it was low-key compared with the fiery and angry and much larger events right before the war, but heartening in its mere occurrence. We marched thru the middle of the 6th street South by Southwest music carnival (if you don't know what this is, it takes too long to explain), whose attendees, tho for the most part seeming befuddled, as befits hardcore music people blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight of early afternoon as they came out of their dark and noisy venues to gawk, maybe wondering if we were an especially large and musically impaired band (not a handicap in Austin), sometimes recognized something not connected with SXSW was going past and in actual approval extended two fingers, palms towards us, as we went by with our banners and effigies and placards and drums and chants. No hostile onlookers whatsoever, that I noticed. An Austin touch, someone along the parade route opened up a big cooler and started handing out cans of beer to the marchers, till he ran out. I think we pulled in some of the music crowd in our wake, because we ended up with a lot more people than we started with, maybe a thousand at the end. There, at the plaza in front of the new Austin city hall which looks like a giant UFO has crashed and the twisted and angular wreckage colonized for office space, we had speeches and then singer songwriters performing their own stuff, all earnest and upbeat.
I left at that point, because it looked like rain--getting home just in time for a massive hail storm to batter the roof of my house, with golf ball sized hail. At least it didn't break the skylight. But I suppose Monday morning I need to call the insurance adjuster about roof damage--the joys of homeownership.

Parade view of large Bush effigy, with storm gathering:
Bush effigy, Austin anti-war parade 3/19/2005

Friday, March 18, 2005

Have they no shame? the question answers itself

It's hard for me to put my finger on what's so disagreeable about the politicization of the Schiavo--I don't even know what to call it--medical situation, I guess. But when I read in today's New York Times that the Republican leadership in the United States Congress--Frist, Hastert, DeLay-- are trying to save "Terri's" life, by issuing a desperate last-minute subpoena for her to testify before a congressional committee, hence delaying any removal of life support, I didn't know whether to bang my head against a wall--possibly creating a similiar "medical situation" for my subsequent caretakers--or cry, or laugh, or sell all I have and move to Costa Rica. The statement from Hastert and Delay announcing the subpoena says, "This inquiry should give hope to Terri, her parents and friends, and the millions of people throughout the world who are praying for her safety. This fight is not over."
When we suddenly have nationally important Republicans on a first name basis with someone they never met personally who has been in a persistent vegetative state for some years now, I think we are seeing the dark legacy of Karl Rove, whose genius has now become generalized within the Republican party the way the response to blood in the water has become generalized among sharks. I would hesitate to call it genetic, but it almost seems like it.
Liberals, trying to murder a helpless injured woman. View it now, from the Republican grandstand!
The actual situation for the few people involved for whom this is reality and not a news event, and who are really suffering, is very sad, and as a husband whose wife died three years ago, I can understand the feelings of the husband, and as a father I can understand the feelings of the parents.
But I don't think you have to be either a spouse or parent to at least have compassion, if not understanding, for the real people enmeshed in the dispute. By real people I do not mean the Republican congressional leadership. I know they are real people, at some point, at home maybe, when no one is looking, but they certainly don't let on in front of the cameras.

And that line "Have you no shame, sir?", so effective the first time, has lost its power (possibly also the legacy of Karl Rove) now that we need it even more.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Afternoon birdwatching notes--no politics today

Heard the faint, urgent clamor of sandhill cranes far overhead. It took a while to spot them--they were half a mile high I'd guess, pulsating north in perfect Vs and Ws for a while, then encounting some invisible disturbance or uncertainty about the directions and breaking apart into a gyrating confused eddy, until a leader once again broke northward and and the throbbing string Vs and Ws resumed their northward ho! hurrah! sweep towards Canada. Idly I wonder how it feels to migrate north. Like hunger, or incompletion, or nostalgia, or something we can't imagine? Probably that. So away they go, following a flyway drawn in the lines of magnetic force, and soon they become a haze and then I can't find them anymore even with my 10x50 binoculars, but I think I still hear them.

This cheers me up.

Near Onion Creek a red-shouldered hawk circles over the still-bare hackberry trees, and blackbirds (female redwings, I think) erupt with a giant subsonic flutter that you can feel and seems much larger than the sound it makes.

Beautiful day. No clouds, 65 degrees. Some of the more risk-oriented trees, like the cedar elm (ulmus crassifolia) are already putting out leaves, no doubt they would opt for private accounts. I see lots of deer tracks--one whitetail deer breaks cover with a sudden blowing noise like a porpoise surfacing that startles me, like it always does. Along the horse trails you can see lots of coyote turds, distinct from the common dog turd by its being matted with felted rodent fur. But no actual coyotes, or dogs, or horse riders are out today to share the trails. It's a workday, after all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Cultural notes--Travel is not like this any more

TSS’s 1971 New Year’s Belize trip, as told to Jim McCulloch

Restaurant La Favorita in Queen Elizabeth Park in Orange Walk Town—sign says “no spitting on the floor.” TSS asked for eggs; a search produced none; the Mayan waitress said there was nothing but “escabeche.” (pickled fish, presumably) What’s that? She could not describe it, except to say that it was black.
They stayed at the Mi Amor hotel, propr. Mr. Solomon Tillett, father of 21 children by 5 women, not all of them his wives. TSS admired this. TSS quotes the estimable Mr. Tillett, “sometimes I like to roam.”
TSS talks to a scrawny Mennonite in bad German. Mennonite had brought his son in to a curandera on account of a fer-de-lance bite. Only the native healer can cure him, “if he goes to the hospital he dies.” Healers make a compound of ground up roots and a snake’s head, put it on the wound and have the victim drink some. Son was getting better. Father was Abram Friesen of Shipyard Camp.
Florencio Campos, a timber merchant, says the pain and shock of a yellojaw (fer-de-lance) bite is such that the victim doesn’t know where he has been bitten, or how many times. They may be treating a wound here (gesturing to foot), but when they remove shirt find 20 bites on his back.
Thatch store in August Pine Ridge featured a cobwebbed picture of Queen and Prince Consort.
In Belize City stayed at Stuart Haylock on Eve Street. A parrot named Moses said “Good morning, Moses” to a bearded hippie.
In Belmopan, in the capital, restroom has handlettered sign “if you don’t bring toilet paper, don’t come here.”
The Creole name of the yellowjaw is tommogoff—told this in Stann Creek.
Back in Orange Walk, a woman who may be a Tillett wife and a Mayan girl joke with TSS. Mayan girl wants his cigar. Possible wife says, no, it is too small. TSS says he has a bigger one.
Thieves break into the car, steal Tom Decker’s tools and film. They are caught in the act. One, very thin, escapes through a crack in Tillett’s wall. Tillett gets a carpenter to board it up. “He will have to get thinner.”
Thieves brought to trial the next day. Witnesses took an oath on the Bible and kissed it.
Tillett, Lois, Lin, Tom Decker, and Corporal Pech were witnesses.
One of the accused had no questions of witnesses until Corporal was on the stand, then attacked his credibility with some energy. Thomas Lopez found guilty, one year at hard labor. Albert Barclay not guilty as there was a small glimmer of doubt that he was the escaped thin man.

Karl Rove's rapture

Bill Moyers has an article in the NY Review of Books worrying about the menace of contemporary right-wing Christianity. I have been around fundamentalist religion since my childhood, though I confess, having been raised as a Methodist, and a lukewarm one at that, I can't claim any deep personal understanding of the fundamentalist psyche. Methodists, of my generation anyhow, still had their ancient Arminian instincts intact, such that it was not enough to have a visitation from the Holy Spirit announcing your personal salvation in order to be assured of a place in the Kingdom, you had to actually walk the walk, and live like Jesus said to. So we were in general much more circumspect about our prospects in the sweet bye and bye than Baptists or members of the other Calvinist sects were, though logically their predestinarian views should have had the opposite effect. I was always puzzled by that.

But for most of my life the real fundamentalists were off by themselves with their ecstatic glossolalia and going to church twice a week, which I don't recall Methodists doing, and trying to keep their secondhand pickups running. Minding their own business, in other words.

But in the past couple of decades it is a sort of general southern cultural background radiation thing that you hardly notice even as you are being slowly boiled in it like the frog, that Christian fundamentalists are more and more angry and political. And maybe more more numerous. It seems to me increasingly true, though I can't prove it, that Southern Baptists, the biggest Calvinist sect, have gotten more fundamentalist in the ordinary contemporary sense of the word, i.e., more fanatical and intolerant, especially intolerant of homosexuals and liberals. Thus we now commonly have quivering-jowl Baptist pastors declaiming against these and other sinners to their audiences (who seems to be undergoing the same supersizing on an individual scale as Goliath megachurches in the South on a corporate scale--will diabetes scourge fundamentalist Christianity the way AIDS has ravaged Africa?) as they sit in convention-center sized temples and immerse themselves in their church's million-dollar sound system to hear the good news that they will float up to heaven like so many helium balloons untethered from a used car lot as Jesus returns to earth, and the rest of us here below, the liberals and homosexuals and Jews are in for some bad trouble.

There is a lot of schadenfreude hidden in the message of the Rapture. Why is that? The message has been around since a preacher named Darby invented it in the 19th century, but it seems to have caught on just as red state residents got more unhappy in general. And why indeed shouldn't they get more unhappy? The bottom 2 economic quintiles in the country (heavily represented in red state America) have been getting steadily poorer for 30 years, the middle quintile is getting steadily more uncertain that they won't be next, and thru the genius of Karl Rove the Republican wurlitzer has provided a steady menu of scapegoats for whatever is troubling you. Liberals. Homosexuals. Feminists. Muslims, since 9/11. We are all familiar with this. But why are fundamentalists in particular so susceptible to this stuff? (My hope is that Republicans are making secret payments to Baptist ministers--but I doubt the answer is that simple.) I don't claim to know the real answer, except that messianic movements thrive in times of generalized stress and unhappiness. So is the Rapture simply the psychological equivalent of the magic shirts of the Ghost Dance religion? Reality usually makes short work of messianic outbreaks, but not in a way that anyone can want.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More red state blues

Chronicles of life and politics in Georgia. A blog I like to read.

Why the bass player cried that night

Today's political rant

What is it about David Brooks that pisses me off? Could it be nothing more than his tight retentive smile? I think it's more than that. He is fond of implying that he has his sources (whose names, presumably, not even a grand jury could force him to reveal) among the American yeomanry, such that he can write on their behalf--yet he himself is not, as far as I know, likely to ever need his social security to pay for groceries in his retirement years. I'll bet no one has ever seen Brooks renting a U-Haul trailer to move to a new and cheaper apartment at the end of the month.
In other words, unlike Judith Miller, he is not embedded with his sources. And who can quarrel with that? I guess it's just the presentation that bothers me.

Today Brooks has a column saying, gosh, the Republicans sure overreached on social security, but, gee, the Democrats should get over this hatred thing and offer a reasonable compromise. Yeah. Sure. Like, someone wants to shoot you in the head, and Joe Lieberman, a Brooks kind of Democrat, sez, why don't we shoot you in the heart instead. Thanks for offering, Joe.

Brooks's basic schtick is that liberals are elitists claiming "moral superiority", who condescend to ordinary Americans, or at least so his sources tell him.

Now if we back up, take a deep breath, and actually think for a few moments, we will remember that Brooks's own man George W. Bush is the great-grandson of Samuel Prescott Bush, who, besides being a steel magnate of vast wealth and the first president of the National Manufacturer's Association, was a family friend of the Rockefellers and the Harrimans and an advisor to President Herbert Hoover. Dubya is also the grandson of the enormously wealthy banker and Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, who attended Yale and was there a member of Skull and Bones, said by some to be an elite society. Brooks's man Dubya is the son of George Herbert Walker Bush, who attended Phillips Andover and Yale and was also a member of Skull and Bones before going on to a political career in Texas and, of course, the presidency. Finally, Dubya himself attended Phillips and Yale, not necessarily through his own merits, and was himself, surprise, inducted into the Skull and Bones Society, for reasons that are secret. A man of the people, as we see.

Unlike David Brooks, I live in a red state. Yet, I'm a liberal. How can that be? I grew up in Texas, and have lived much of my life here. During the 2nd World War, when I was a little boy, my grandfather would let me hold on to the handle of the plow pulled by two mules as he directed the plowing. We lived on a farm in South Texas. Our house was made out of adobe and had a dirt floor. We got our water from a hand-dug well, and we had an outhouse to shit in. We only got electricity on the farm--hats off to the Rural Electrification Administration--toward the end of the War.

I must have gotten a dose of the rural populism, once widespread in the South, that Brooks's secret sources didn't tell him about.

So in any case I went to college in 1959--maybe the problem was education--and quickly became a an activist in anti-segregation demonstrations, then soon enough a little bit beyond liberal, and by the end of the 60s a full-tilt revolutionary socialist. Though I have long since mostly reverted to the sanity of mild liberalism, I believe to this day, in my heart, that my utopian values of giving ordinary people a fair deal, including good value for their taxes, do not include letting the elderly forage in dumpsters if their private accounts have worked out badly. Self interest, perhaps, since I am approaching an age that could be called elderly, myself.

The point of this is meandering diatribe is that nowhere in this fairly typical southern liberal trajectory--for a southern liberal of my generation at least-- is any habit of condescending to people who have to shop at Walmart. I know, from experience, that most of them (us, actually) would be perfectly happy to buy better stuff, and buy it in stores less renowned for screwing their own hired help than Walmart, if they could afford it. One wonders when was the last time Brooks bought a cheap pair of shoes made in China at a big box store.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Cultural notes--They don't make them like this anymore

I think it was our friend Carolyn Garner who many years ago ran across a poetry chapbook entitled something like "My mother the rain goddess who lives in the jungle," and called up my wife Kay wondering if it somehow referred to Kay's mother and if Kay or any of her sisters had written it under a nom de plume--the reasoning was that there couldn't be two rain goddesses who lived in the jungle.

Lois, who died recently at the age of 94, was my wife’s mother. Lois was not a conventional woman. She made a lot of money as a slumlord in Austin, after she began to drift away, in the 1960s, from her original marriage. She was shrewd in her investments, and she was an excellent person to rent from, if you wanted to be let alone and were willing to take care of your own plumbing problems. Her tenants included several of the Overton brothers, a notorious gang of Austin bank robbers, and Robert Zani, a psychopath who is believed to have killed his mother, and who was eventually convicted of murdering George Vizard, a political activist. Zani would sit on the back porch of one of Lois's shanties on Boggy Creek, and fire his pistol into the side of Turkey Hill for target practice. Later, bullets dug out of the soft chalk hillside supposedly helped convict him of Vizard's murder. Lois liked tenants who did not complain and who paid the rent on time, preferably in cash. She wasn't troubled much by gunfire. She told me years later that criminals were excellent tenants.

Always restless, Lois moved to Belize, or British Honduras as it was called then, in the late 1960s or early 1970s. She bought a several thousand acres of jungle with the proceeds of her Austin real estate ventures. She settled in on her land near the village of August Pine Ridge, visited occasionally by her lawyer boyfriend who had a private plane. She liked it there and began to go native, in her own way, and the lawyer spent most of his time with his Teamster and other unsavory clients in D.C. She would fly back to the States and buy as many supplies as she could load in his plane or if she flew commercial flights she would lug her stuff to the airport in a taxi, usually with appliances and going-out-of-business sale merchandise tied to the top. She would ship this stuff as her baggage. I once helped her carry three French fold-up bicycles and a kerosene powered refrigerator tied to a dolly she had bought at an estate sale up to the airline ticket counter, and she tried to have them accept it all as her luggage--including the dolly.

Her excursions to her new properties in Belize were never, in fact, done in a normal way. There is a story that she once smuggled a hive of bees, including the queen, to Belize and only after the plane was in the air did the stewardess notice the ominous hum of Lois’s carry-on luggage. Lois would carry contraband on the return trip as well, most spectacularly when she brought 400 hermit crabs back to the United States in a shoe box for a grandson’s aquarium business in Houston, and when they got loose on the plane Lois energetically searched out all of the runaways, saying to people, “excuse me” in her lovely Charleston accent, “some of my crabs ran under your seat” and plunged in between people’s knees and plucked the crustaceans up one by one and put them back in the box in the midst of general pandemonium. She also smuggled a snake, a small boa of some kind, coiled up between 2 pieces of bread, disguised as a sandwich, back to Texas for another of her grandchildren, who was fond of reptiles. It grew large, and eventually escaped, causing neighborhood alarm. These smuggling stories have been repeated, and possibly exaggerated, over the years, but I believe they are true simply because they conform to what I knew of her character.

She bought a used yellow Texas Highway department International Harvester station wagon, which had two hundred thousand miles on it, at an auction, had a son-in-law (not me) cut off the top with a skil saw (ruining the saw), loaded it with a dozen mattresses she had gotten on sale somewhere, and by herself drove her mattresses to Belize, through Mexico, without paying a bribe to anyone. She covered the mattresses with plastic sheeting to protect them against the rain. She slept on the mattresses at night to keep them from being stolen.

She had hired Mayan Indians who had lived in the jungle since pre-Columbian times to build her a wattle and daub hut with a thatched roof. They did so, and she was pleased by it, and thought in her natural way that it would be good to have more, and that maybe she could make money out of them. So she had several of them built during the dry season a mile or two from the village of August Pine Ridge, and furnished them with rustic beds and the American mattresses. She advertised the largest hut in Field and Stream as a jaguar hunting lodge, and advertised the others in Mother Earth News as back-to-basics alternative-lifestyle ecological-living cottages.

These latter she succeeded in selling--usually sight unseen--to American hippies, who would send a down-payment and would later arrive in pairs dressed as pioneer couples. The hippie men would be wearing bib overalls and the women long dresses, both sexes with spindly arms and wire-rimmed hexagonal eyeglasses. Many of them were in fact turned back at the border when they appeared at the bridge on the Rio Hondo in their battered VW buses. The starched and correct Belizean customs officials would tell them that they could own land in Belize if they wished, but to enter they had to have a specified amount of cash and the men could not have too much hair. The hippies who actually got there turned out to not be very good at tropical farming, and had to buy food and supplies from Mennonite farmers in exchange for their meager cash. The Mennonites lived 5 miles up the sandy rain forest road. The Mayans who had always lived there squatted and watched and joked at the edge of the tiny counterculture gardens as the hippies tried to clear the land.
Lois's enterprising character did not necessarily gain the esteem of either the hippies or the Mayans. One of the hippies, a drop-out lawyer from New Orleans, once confided to me that he believed that if someone were to kill Lois, she had it coming. The Mennonites, unlike the hippies and the Mayans, liked her a great deal and admired her industry. Although Lois did not know it when she bought her holdings, it turned out she owned part of the Mayans' traditional lands. One of her first acts when she moved to British Honduras was to send a notarized proclamation to be posted in the village that all fields on her property must be vacated. The villagers sent a delegation to the prime minister. They complained they were being evicted by an American rich woman from lands they had farmed for three thousand years. The government authorities spoke to Lois's lawyer, who then informed Lois that for a foreigner to own land, it must be cultivated or else Belizean law required that it be confiscated. Lois, who was always fast on her feet, quickly perceived the Mayan fields to be an asset and encouraged clearings on her properties, charging the natives a small rent in produce or cash. She was then buried in a deluge of papayas and mangoes and grapefruits and bananas which she sold to the American settlers who were starving in their sooty fire-cleared gardens, not to mention eaten alive by mosquitoes in their thatch cottages on account of having brought no mosquito netting.

The American hippie colonists slowly got to the end of their rope. When they ran out of money they would go back to the United States to earn more money for another stab at it. Of course they would never came back. Ultimately only one family stayed; dour and reclusive, they raised their children in jungle isolation and worked hard in their fields. They were never social enough to wonder where everyone had gone. Possibly they are still there. This was in the mid 1970s.

Some of the Mayan cottages were temporarily abandoned during the rainy season following their construction because Lois had built them in an intermittent swamp which filled up with five feet of water during the rains. Her own house was on one of the sandy ridges covered with palm trees and tropical pines, and of course remained dry.
Lois had by then caused factionalism to arise in the village of August Pine Ridge by creating employment--a condition hitherto unknown in all the centuries that the village had stood in the jungle--which in turn led to wealth differentials and envy. She paid her workmen in Belizean dollars, not produce. She was busy--she had repossessed all the flower-child cottages except for two or three that had been paid for outright and was busy reselling the now dry but caved-in and vermin infested huts along with surrounding plots of swamp seething with fer-de-lances to a new wave of hippies, who again tried to farm on the sandy ridges where they burned trees and lived in colorful nylon tents as they slowly built geodesic domes out of bamboo poles and baling wire and palm thatch which was full of large scorpions. They planted corn in the middle of the dry season which sprouted three months later when the rains came. By then they had run out of money to buy grapefruit and mangoes and eggs from Lois and had left to go back to Colorado to earn more money leaving behind their colorful Volkswagen buses abandoned on blocks in clearings next to the skeletal geodesic domes with remnants of thatching where bright jungle birds would scrabble and scratch looking for succulent tropical arachnids. And in the end the Mayan villagers harvested the corn in the desolate hippie clearings.

Lois all the while made it a habit to ride her fold-up bicycle along the sandy roads and trails singing "Volare". She was almost always cheerful like that.

Meanwhile George, the lawyer boyfriend, no longer flew down from Washington in his private plane. He was Lois's first lover after she left her first husband. George had rekindled flames out of ashes, and Lois's sexual desires were now too intense for his tastes, which, though catholic and strange, were somewhat dulled by age. She, like George, was in her sixties. Lois had phoned him one day from Orange Walk Town with an urgent request that he come down so they could make love and he said he couldn't; that he had important business. He told her, in his offhand way, to hire someone. It wasn't clear whether he was serious. He forgot about it.

A little later, it must have been 1974 or so, Kay and I arrived in August Pine Ridge in a an old red Volkswagen we had driven down through Mexico. We were on vacation. The first night we were there Kay heard funny noises from the kitchen cottage, and sent me to see about it. Lois’s sawed-off International Harvester station wagon was parked nearby, her French fold-up bicycle was leaning against a tropical pine tree, and the radio was playing "Lucy in the sky with diamonds..."
"Lois...Lois?..." I said.
“Jim, you go away” Lois said, in a sort of strangled voice.
I went back and reported this.
Kay said “Mama doesn’t act this way. Something’s wrong.”
Kay rushed out, which led to the awkward situation of Kay bursting in and finding Lois making love with the man she had hired in accordance with George's instructions.
Unperturbed, but somewhat breathless, Lois sent Kay away. “Nothing’s wrong, Kayzie, go back to bed.”

George called up Kay when we got back to El Paso and asked if she knew why Lois wouldn’t talk to him any more. Kay said she it was because Lois was sleeping with someone. George, who was open-minded about things like that, asked why Lois should keep it a secret from him. “Perhaps because he’s black.” There was a long silence, then George sputtered something unusually inarticulate, along with an unpleasant racial epithet. George then hung up.
He was from Charleston, same as Lois. That was how they had known each other, from the College of Charleston. She herself was free of prejudice. So that was the end of it. After George was gone Lois said she was happy to be shed of him, because he had hammertoes. She said she did not like her lovers to have physical deformities.

Lois, always restless, after a year or two sold her jungle holdings at a profit to the Mennonite Colony, and moved offshore to Caye Caulker, where she acquired a Belizean husband, adopted a baby boy, and built and sold houses, always at a profit.
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

In doing so, existing comments were stripped out. Sorry. They have been read.

Friday, March 11, 2005

A moment--or, Dogen steps outside of time

The Japanese Zen guy Dogen, in his mysterious essay called Uji, usually translated as "time-being," said counterintuitively that "each moment is all being, and is the entire world." The thing is, most moments don't seem as significant as the "entire world." I dunno about your moments but mine do not get very remarkable most of the time, but a few days ago I experienced one which gave me a view of what Dogen may have been talking about, in a way that surprised me.

I was mowing the area around the garden, which is some way from the house, a hundred feet or so--I rarely mow this part of the yard, preferring weeds and habitat for rabbits and birds. Kay always preferred it mowed, so we usually compromised. But she’s dead now, and it's weedier. The weeds have gone to stubble, and are dried up after the winter and are a fire hazard, so I was out there running the lawnmower, not thinking of anything at all, and as I was about finished I looked toward the house--it was a beautiful late afternoon--and something, not yet a thought exactly, but a feeling right before a thought, overtook me and stopped me in my tracks. It was a "hey, it's getting late--it's time for Kay to come home" thing, and with that moment came a sense that she would be very pleased when she made her way thru the house and came out the back door and saw what I was doing.

I was transfixed when the feeling, which had a lot of happiness in it, got overtaken microseconds later by a consciousness that Kay would never be coming home. These two events were imperceptibly separated in time, but were welded together into the entire world. It was very odd. It was like the past and the present became one and stepped out of the temporal altogether.

But that's what we normally think a moment is, anyway--the combination of past and present. It's just that the past component of our moment-consciousness is usually the short term memory of what is immediately preceding the uncatchable knife-edge now, not a sudden slip into a past three years gone. When a three year old short-term memory gets into a present moment it is, as we try to keep saying in Austin, weird.

Letter to my state senator

Dear Senator Wentworth:

The runaway tuition increases announced by the University of Texas regents could have been predicted easily enough--but now some of our legislators are shocked, to the extent perhaps of shaking their wattles from side to side vigorously, that the regents feel that state universities have been given a green light to screw the middle class, or, more politely, charge what the market will bear.

It would appear, though, with privatization of our public universities, that the regents were just thinking, perhaps logically, that we are finally on the road to Republican nirvana, with a flagship university that will one day cost as much as Harvard, but will continue to subsidize a football team that occasionally beats Nebraska, and a coach whose salary is higher than that of the president of our fine Homeland.

Let me commend you for swimming against the tide, in the matter of tuition increases, however futile this may be. The middle class in Texas deserve a break.

I confess a certain self interest. My daughter, a recent graduate of UT, is thinking of grad school or law school, possibly at UT, and given that my teacher retirement pension does not increase as fast as tuition (indeed, does not increase at all, last time I looked), these greater-than-inflation tuition hikes certainly burden her with a potentially ugly mortgage on her future, at the outset of her working life, and will somewhat straiten my own circumstances as well.

Please continue to do what you can to dampen the enthusiasm of the UT regency for sucking the blood out of its students, and, equally to the point, the parents of its students.


Jim McCulloch

Clash of cultures

Note: I sent the following brief reflections on an obscure and different culture war a few days ago to an online list devoted to the discusstion and study of rock art. An artist had written the list that he and some fellow artists were thinking of doing some public art in a canyon in Mexico where there was some Native American rock art, as a tribute to these earlier Americans. This set off a firestorm of criticism and, indeed, abuse, of the artist and his project. Vandalism and cultural insensitivity were themes.

To the list:
I noticed at the time of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, that the actual Buddhists I know were less troubled by it than most other people. One, a western Buddhist, suggested to me that what was going on here--besides the ongoing political stuff--was an offense to the belief system (or as he put it, the religion) of cultured secular westerners. He, being one of those, may have had a worthy insight. As a semi-cultured semi-secular westerner, I certainly found his view plausible.

I think this discussion is interesting. On the whole, the substantive reasons given to our naive would-be rock-artist for abstaining from his project are perfectly reasonable. He might paint over some real rock art, not noticing it. His stuff might attract graffiti. He might be breaking Mexican law. Etc. However, the attribution of grave offense to the beliefs of people long dead is perhaps a bit of a projection, similar to the one I mentioned above. Likewise to the sensibilities of the local people of that part of Mexico today. Maybe it would be best for critics of this project to just be straightforward and say "don't paint in our cathedral", instead of "don't paint in _their_ cathedral".

Twenty five or so years ago I knew a guy in El Paso who would go out in the desert and create his own rock art. He did this for religious reasons. He said he had some Native American ancestry--not as a justification of his right to do this, but as a partial explanation of why he did it. In my hiking in the desert I myself later found two of his artworks, one a small painting in a rock shelter at the north end of the Franklins and one a petroglyph out near Mt. Riley. God knows how many are out there, waiting to confuse the unwary. His style was utterly unlike any ancient indigenous southwest rock art, and derivatively resembled some modern Pueblo pottery painting, as best I can recall. Anyway, no one will ever mistake it for the real thing. Even if it could be so mistaken, I am not sure what the harm would have been, frankly. Indeed, if his stuff survives in the desert long enough, it will inevitably (like the mid-19th century stagecoach stop graffiti at Hueco Tanks), receive official cultural recognition and protection.

My suggestion is of a practical nature: I think the artist should try to get official permission from the Mexican government for his group to do their project. I doing so, the existing rock art will be protected, if only because his group members will grow in maturity (or possibly grow old and die) before emerging from the legal thicket with a permiso--and in the process they will all enlarge their understanding of another culture. And, equally desirable, none of them will end up in jail.


--Jim McCulloch

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Travel notes--fragments recovered while cleaning out my garage

The River:

Quenched in the Macal River, the rainbow hisses in the rain receding into a remote dark wind. The bus is full of Americans. Stop, they say. Clowns spill out. Cameras click and whir. King Double Bird of Tikal may have seen this rainbow as the warriors of Caracol carried him trussed on a pole across this river in May of the European year 562, a captive on his way to the ceremony where he would sit for the stonecutter's flint knife cutting his memorial bas relief. These days King Double Bird sits graven in hard limestone, cross-legged and dour with his hands tied and his testicles draped by their cords around his neck.

In Caracol a sleek tropical fox materializes out of the shadow, disappears quickly as a politician's grin back into the understory, his afterimage lingering for a clown and his maiden daughter who look from the high terrace where King Double Bird lived his captivity. The king was brought down from the pyramid during ceremonies for public torture. A gleam of sharp teeth flashes this memory down the centuries.

Later, in granite, the Macal River runs down ceremonial pools. European women whose sunburnt bodies glow with a photonegative aura of fevers like dim prayers in the paralyzing light, swim in the blind water of the sun. The Macal river sometimes takes a tourist. The sign at the path down to the river says proceed at your own risk. It was put up after the river submerged and held a visitor to some cool underwater altarstone and fixed the fever on its film of remembrance. Dark forms move sleek as otters beneath the water.

The troupe of clowns sit on the rocks, cooling their bunions in the waters of forgotten gods. Dazzles of sunlight dance from the water to the eye, a choreography from the infrared spectrum that feels like amnesia. In the recovering shadows the shoes congregate apart like iguanas, scaly, rough and, to the casual observer, wily.

Lord Water was the name of the King of Caracol who vanquished Tikal.

The cave:

A deep clear green stream flows out of the dark cavern mouth under the jungle cliff. Clowns in a small flotilla of canoes crowd through the narrow entrance gash and disappear into the darkness. The cave widens into a ceremonial hall whose vaults disappear high over the transparent black water, mufflings and bad air. Blades push the bottomless water. The clowns are breathing hard.

Far into the cave a Mayan skull on a ledge above the clowns attracts and fastens the wandering search of flashlights. The glittering skull is riveted with encrusted calcite, in air thickened with carbon dioxide and silence. The cave wall contains boulders of cemented shards of breccia thought to be the remnants of the Yucatan asteroid impact 65 million years ago that was such bad luck for the dinosaurs. A clown chills his hand directly on the heat-drained broken stones of the Cretaceous world.

Farther into the cave, at the behest of their guide, the clowns extinguish their lights. They have never imagined such a darkness, and after a few seconds shafts of light leap from the canoes and rove the wall nervously and ceaselessly like captive animals. The clowns turn back.

At the sight of the entrance-- where karstic water rains from overhead and the blackness around the carnival of shining leaves merges into a velvet fern green framing a world the clowns now remember with relief--they cheer.

Cultural notes--the new Austin

When I went to the new Whole Foods imperial headquarters during its grand opening I realized as I turned into the parking garage that I had made a mistake--the sinking feeling you get when you impulsively decide to attend some outdoor thing with thousands of other people and find yourself inescapably in a line of car traffic being directed to some unknown remote destination by guys with flags, and it is too late, there is no way back. It was like that. Lower and lower into the subterranean reaches of the parking garage, and finally released from the guidance of the last flagperson I found an empty space between two late model SUVs, and I realized as I began my hike towards the dim lights that said "escalator" that my car was old and had a lot of birdshit on it which I momentarily thought might be why they directed me to the ultimate bottom circle of parking, but I retain a semblance of mental health and so realized that that was crazy thinking and went on in.

Once within the store, I felt like I had to walk thru the whole thing. It is quite amazing. The food is _very_ pleasing to the eye. I think it's the kind of place where average white people would like to go shopping if they had more money, which they don't. I felt a lot of nostalgia for utopian grocery experiments I have known, like Austin's Wheatsville Coop. But they put something in the air that causes you to spend before you leave, and I left with a couple of chunks of hard cheese, some dark chocolate, and a tin of green tea, all of which set me back $35, and I bought the low-priced items.

The escalator down to the bottom of the parking garage, which slants so you can roll a shopping cart on it, has a creepy feel to it. It's hard to explain, like you are going to topple forward. I bet Mackey is going to get sued there one day, when some elderly person with balance problems is found crumpled at the bottom of it.

Occasional political rants

The Reviewer Reviewed.
A Belated Response to Kaplan's _NYT Book Review_ Review of 'The Interrogators' and 'Torture' (1/23/05)

Robert D. Kaplan was, once, a kind of travel writer. The personal narrative of the civilized traveler who describes his encounter with the degradation, filth, and dangers of backward countries and peoples is an ancient, if not honorable, thread of European and American journalistic prose. The benefit to the reader is similar to that of vicariously reading about a colorful seedy traveling carnival instead of personally puking while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Usually, however, the travel writer neither becomes inflated with his insights (the natives are dangerous, and smell bad, and do not share our values), nor possessed with a sense of mission to alert the world about the threat the natives pose to our way of life.

Alas, Kaplan is a little different. In brief, but fairly, Kaplan has become obsessed with the idea that the world is full of dangerous people, who do not cherish our institutions or our values, who will kill us and destroy our freedom unless we are willing, in the service of virtue, to kill them first, without much scruple in observing some of the niceties which our civilization has, unfortunately in Mr. Kaplan’s eyes, traditionally observed. Now it might be well at this point to remember that this outlook, properly generalized, already has a track record--statesmen whose worldview consciously or unconsciously incorporated such a vision and have justified their actions with arguments similar to Kaplan's, brought us most of the wars of the previous century, including, of course, Vietnam, not to mention various Gulags, third-world torture-chambers, genocides and ethnic cleansings.

In the animus behind his opinions, as well as the quality of his reasoning, he is kinda like someone you avoid at a party who has been scandalized to see a fat woman using food stamps and feels that it makes him an expert on welfare reform. The last thing I read by Kaplan, before this piece in the New York Times Book Review , was _Warrior Politics_, a pompous and silly book, a sequence of crotchety and pontifical dicta on the nature of man, society, and government; a tribute to that special warrior spirit we find in the thinking and writing of our present-day conservative apologists for public viciousness, who coyly wrap their preferences for things ugly, deceitful, tyrannical, and cruel in a cloak of see-thru grandeur, Wizard-of-Oz Caesarism, and imaginary manliness, with occasional obligatory striptease references to Machiavelli. No personal narrative there--instead I remember being slightly astonished by Kaplan's strange homages to such disparate figures as von Clausewitz, Livy, Polybius, Thucydides, Churchill, Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu, Kant, Hobbes, and Malthus, worthies last sighted by most of us in Philosophy 101, Survey of the Great Political Thinkers; all enlisted into the service of shock and awe, a phrase not yet invented but now apt as a summary of how that slight book would have us deal with those who oppose us.

So now Kaplan, like Dershowitz and a few others testing these waters, thinks it may be prudent to add torture to our shock'n'awe tool kit, qualifying its use, of course, with a proviso that we should be judicious about it--a slightly discordant image there, when you think about that, like drawing and quartering but gently and only when absolutely necessary. Using the slender reed of two books so briefly mentioned and so ill-described that to call his piece a review is either a great kindness or a great dishonesty, to support his own musings on torture, we get this final sense of "uh, wait, this guy is really saying torture is OK". At least that's my reading. The review dances delicately past some obvious moral issues, as Mr. Kaplan inducts himself into the War on Terror Club trying to fuse his previous Kissingeresque realpolitik with more current and less reality-based Neocon thinking, and ends, as we see below, with the image of the well-run dungeon. Where the action is, I suppose. Where, if we torture enough political prisoners, and torture them long enough--and, I hasten to add, judiciously enough--we might someday extract the secret location where Little Nell is tied to the railroad tracks.

Hence, with the help of imaginary ticking bomb scenarios, one may justify the non-imaginary thumbscrew, er, excuse me, waterboard.

And, perhaps as a sop to those who might otherwise find his views extreme and offensive, Kaplan says, hey kids, if we'd just improve the training of our interrogation teams and teach them better Arabic and interviewing skills, maybe we wouldn't even have to resort to such, um, measures. "An interrogator armed with fluent Arabic and every scrap of intelligence the system can muster, who has mastered the emerging science of eye movements and body signals, who can act threatening as well as empathetic toward a prisoner, should not require the ultimate tool." Nice--but not reassuring--how we get the phrase "ultimate tool" where I at least was expecting a plainer word.

Language notes

A little background on the word homeland, gleaned from a Lexis search of newspaper headlines in the past decade:

The phrase homeland security was not used in US newspapers in its present sense before April 2000, when an obscure national security report was issued by a bipartisan commission headed by former senators Gary Hart, D-Colo, and Warren Rudman, R-N.H, which called for various "homeland security" measures against potential terrorism. The report sank like a stone. The phrase appeared only sporadically in newspapers between then and 9/11/2001. The now famous phrase was unknown to most of us until 9/20/2001 when Bush decided to form a homeland security agency.

Before that the word homeland--by itself--was common enough in American English, but as far as I can tell was always used in one of three ways.

The most common usage was to refer to the place where an immigrant to this country had come from. "Vietnamese immigrant homesick for homeland"--would be an example newspaper headline.

The second usage was to refer to a tribal "homeland," usually in South Africa, where, as you probably remember, bogus "homelands" were created by the white South African government. Also, occasionally the word would be used in newspapers in this sense to refer to similarly dodgy entities such as a "Navajo homeland" or a "Cherokee homeland."

The third way the word was used--and not very commonly--was to refer to a situation in some other country (often Germany) where "defense of the homeland" against an enemy was the subject of the article. "Historian notes von Ribbentrop returned from Canada to defend homeland" would be an example.

To me, at least--perhaps because of this third kind of usage--the phrase "homeland security" has an unpleasant Third Reich sound to it.

And, of course, actual Americans, excluding members of the Bush Administration, never, even now, refer to the United States as "the Homeland."

Occasional political rants

Dear Senator Hutchison:

It is a sorry commentary on the descent of America into a moral abyss, that in my lifetime we have gone from a War on Poverty (how long ago _that_ seems!) to a War on the Poor. It is an even sorrier commentary that the senators from Texas, once a populist state, have joined up as loyal footsoldiers in that war.

So Texas will soon once again be back the way it's spoze to be, a land of hard-workin' sharecroppers, plus that happy few, the credit-card-company-stockholder Massas sittin' on the verandah drinkin' mint juleps. Whoopee.

Jim McCulloch

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Cultural notes--hippie days in New Mexico

I don't care for Taos either, but I still like southern New Mexico,
which has always been more endangered by open pit mining than by
gentrification. Perhaps the former is what it takes to hold off the
latter. I remember about 4 years ago sitting one moonlit night in a
seedy little rock lined outdoor commercial hot spring somewhere in the
middle of absolute nowhere off the road from Deming to Silver City and
it was really beautiful and the water was terrific, several pools of
different temperatures, and all the people enjoying it were cowboys or
maybe unemployed miners plus some high school kids. You could rent a
bathing suit for a dollar or so, guaranteed by the proprietorship to be
freshly laundered, if you ran across this place by accident or came on
the spur of the moment. My wife and I were both renters. We were
cautioned to watch for rattlesnakes. It was great. Hopefully it is still
in business. Can you imagine what such a place would turn into if it
existed within a hundred miles of Taos or Santa Fe? There would be a
faux adobe building or maybe a real adobe building designed by a faux
architect next door with a conference room and an art gallery, and
spiritual retreats would be held there, and the experience of one night
under the stars would cost you half my social security check.

Back in the early 70s Kay and I once went up from El Paso where we
lived, to Taos, or a little town near Taos, I don't even remember the
name now, to visit Guilford Webb on his commune devoted to the
furtherance of the teachings of Herman, a guru from Brooklyn who I
believe was satirized briefly in one of Edward Abbey's books. We never
actually met Herman, but we were received with intense hostility by his
acolytes and indeed everyone with whom we were not previously and
personally acquainted, namely everyone but Guilford and a couple of others,
old Austin beatniks whom we had known from the early 60s. It
seemed to be the Taos style. As best I could tell, all the communes
were suspicious of each other, and of course the hispanics did not care
for the hippies at all, and the Indians did not like anyone, with good
reason I am sure, and the rich anglo newcomers in Santa Fe were
disliked by one and all, but had enough money not to notice. It was not
at all like Austin, or for that matter anyplace else I had ever been
which had a sizable hippie presence.

Kay got really mad at Guilford about this, who like most of the
permanent hippie residents of northern new mexico had money from home,
in his case a trust fund, to support his spiritual quest. When he came
to visit us in El Paso she chewed him out about the rudeness of his
fellow communards. He didn't know what we were talking about. He said
we should meditate more and we'd get over it. He pulled a cushion off a
couch and assumed a lotus position on the floor and closed his eyes and
began filling up our living room with loud resonant AUMMMS. Sure enough
Kay got over being angry.