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Paul Cajero

January 13th, 2018 10 Comments

 

There were certain faces that got you off to a good start:

Sweet Dick Dawson, who had such extraordinary sensitivity to mood that he could pick up on how you were feeling the moment you stepped into the make-up trailer, either working quietly and comfortingly, or if you were up to it, unleashing his wicked, razor-like tongue with comments that could leave you howling helplessly with laughter;

Bobby James, always full of beans and bounce and endless enthusiasm, almost childlike in his joie de vivre, cheerful in such an infectious way that only a corpse could not immediately feel better, laying out the countless wardrobe changes with such good humor it almost made tying the forty-seventh necktie of the day enjoyable;

And Paul Cajero. Paul always reminded me of the very best cops or doctors: he had that calm, unruffled competence that made you feel there was nothing, no emergency or disaster that could or even might occur, that he couldn’t quickly and effortlessly deal with. If North Korea had dropped the big one on Los Angeles, Paul would have been able to decide whether it would be better to finish the scene or go home immediately. And you would have trusted his judgement.

They were all wonderful people, the guys and gals (the guys and dolls, to get Runyonesque about it) who made up the crew of Simon & Simon. It is something Mackie and I have talked about many times over the years—the decades—since: how blessed he and I were to have had the privilege of working with such talented, patient, competent, good-humored, nice, and decent people. But always, in any group, there are some with whom you resonate more than with others, and Paul was one of those.

Disasters occur when filming. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, accidents happen, people screw up—not least the two so-called stars of the show, who were known to indulge themselves and get a lot crazier than they should have. It takes someone at the helm to keep things running, and that can be hard enough to do when things are going well. But when the light is fading, the clock is ticking, equipment is failing, tempers are fraying, when all about you are losing their heads and blaming it on you (to flagrantly steal a phrase), it takes a special kind of person to stay calm, stay organized, stay focused, and to keep everyone else at their posts, also calm, organized, and focused. Paul was one of those.

And he did it all with humor, good cheer, grace, dignity, and that special kind of humanity that keeps some people floating above the fray, never judging, never losing their nerve or their tempers, never indulging in the childish ugliness so many of us are guilty of all too often.

Wynton Marsalis once said that when life got you down, when everything seemed to be falling apart, and you didn’t know how you could keep on going, that Louis Armstrong’s music was always there to remind you everything was going to be all right. When I saw Paul Cajero on the set, I knew everything was going to be all right.

I only just found out about Paul’s passing this past October, but he is remembered with great love and great respect.

At the Movies: Only the Brave

January 7th, 2018 7 Comments

 

I wrote a review of the movie Dunkirk, where I delineated my disappointment with that movie. Briefly, Dunkirk failed as a movie because it failed on all the basic levels of story-telling: there was no one character in the movie for the viewer to invest in emotionally; there was no understanding or explanation of the critical historical importance of that extraordinary event; and the movie failed to convey the unbelievable scope of the rescue effort, let alone the miraculousness of its success.

All of those are the reasons why Only the Brave works, and that’s an understatement. Works? My God, it reduced me and Darleen and our friends to sodden pulps, and it did so because, first and foremost, it gives you any number of characters to invest in.

The way you make your audience identify with a character is to let the viewer know something about him. You can do it directly, showing him doing good things or bad things, making wise choices or bad mistakes. Or you can do it indirectly, having the character, or a third person, say things that reveal who that character is, his strengths and weaknesses, his human graces and his equally human frailty.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly are the three primary characters in Only the Brave, and the writers (Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan, and Eric Warren Singer) and the director (Joseph Kosinski) use both of those techniques to give us three fully-fleshed, very real, very complex, yet understandable characters. Not good, not bad; not heroes, not villains; not saints, not sinners. Just very real, very human, which in turn means very loveable in their humanity. Because we know them, we understand them, and because we understand them, we care passionately about them and wish them well.

But those are the leads, the most important characters, so of course any decent movie maker is going to spend time letting us discover who his protagonists are. Where Kosinski and the three writers excel is in giving us thumbnails about subsidiary characters, the guys and gals with just a few lines here, a small scene or two there. When those subsidiary characters spring to life on the screen, you know you have a great movie, and spring to life they do. Of those secondary characters, the only ones known to me were Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, but all of them turn in breathtaking performances.

As for the events that inspired the movie, and the unbelievable courage of those young men, again, Kosinski makes it very clear what they were up against, what it meant both to them personally, and to the towns of Yarnell and Prescott and…

Ah. That is what makes the young firefighters—in this case, the Granite Mountain Hotshots out of Prescott, AZ, but also every other young man or woman who risks his or her life to fight wildfires anywhere—such incomparably courageous human beings: no one knows, no one can accurately predict what a wildfire will do or where it will go next.

Many years ago, Darleen and I were the last vehicle, literally the last in line, allowed through on the 395 in Mono County during a wildfire. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of California, think the high eastern slope of the Sierras more or less near Mammoth. (Tom’s Place was the nearest community.) The fire was on the western side of the 395, moving east down the mountain, toward the highway, and what stunned me was the speed with which the wall of flames traveled, virtually leapfrogging down that rugged slope faster than any living thing could run. How far away it was and how high the flames were, are things impossible for me to guess, but I remember thinking that if anyone broke down in front of us, we would all be crispy critters in short order. We were miles away, in a truck, and I’m sure the firefighters and law enforcement involved would never have let us through if we had been in danger, but it got my attention, big time. Now think of being out there on foot, fighting such a monster, up close and personal. Like law enforcements officers and soldiers, those young men and women are the best of the best of America. Some are ex-convicts; some are college graduates; some are clean and sober former drug addicts; some are high school athletes who are adrenaline junkies; some are the lost looking to redeem themselves; some have always known who they are and where they belong; all deserve our unreserved respect and gratitude.

All of that is made clear by Kosinski: the dangers; the unpredictability; the varied characters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; the critical importance of being able to depend, completely and absolutely, on the man standing next to you.

The one thing the director of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) did exceptionally well was to convey, visually, a taste of the terrifying horrors of war. In Only the Brave, Director Joseph Kosinski somehow combines actual footage of real forest fires and computerized special effects, in ways I’m nowhere near smart enough or knowledgeable enough to understand, and the effect is overwhelming. The shocking and devastating wall of flame Darleen and I saw all those years ago was just a tiny soupçon of what Kosinski exposes his audience to, and—again—it gives you respect upon respect for those extraordinary young men and women who risk their lives to save our homes.

Finally—I’m not giving anything away here; everyone knows the tragic outcome and unspeakable loss caused by that fire—it is sometimes the unseen that conveys certain emotions more eloquently and viscerally than the seen can do. In a scene at the end, Jennifer Connelly is waiting to find out if her husband is alive or dead, and there is a late afternoon/early night-shot of the barn where she and Josh Brolin keep their beloved horses. Just a shot of a barn, with its interior lights on, backlit by a blood-red, fire-red, Arizona sunset. And from that barn comes the most agonizing howl of pain the human animal can make. Those of us who have lost loved ones to sudden violence have made that sound and know it too well.

Jennifer Connelly, Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Joseph Kosinski, and Only the Brave deserve every award there is. Take a box of Kleenex with you when you go to see this powerful film. Take two. And doff your hats, my darlings, as the firemen pass by.

All the News We Like to Print, Redux

December 23rd, 2017 21 Comments

 

I received some interesting comments about my fake news post. Twelve comments do not qualify as a lot, but I was intrigued and delighted that some of them came from readers I associate with another site that has nothing to do with politics, or the Second Amendment, or chance encounters with wildlife, or any of the things I write about, and—rightly or wrongly—I associate those readers with that very liberal site, so I was surprised to find some liberals were agreeing with me. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that was just my flu-meds working, because it finally occurred to me that perhaps they, like me, are conservatives who also just happen to be interested in the topic covered on that other site. Oh, well.

I actually received even more comments, all of which, ah, shall we say, disagreed with me and with those readers who had liked what I wrote, but I deleted those comments. However, since one of them (also deleted) took me to task for not posting disagreeing comments, I have decided to explain, as clearly as I can, precisely why none of those comments saw the light of day, and why certain comments will never see the light of day on this blog.

I am happy to indulge in civilized debate with any of my readers, and readers who have been kind enough to follow this blog for any length of time will know that. However, profanity does not qualify as civilized. Anger does not qualify as civilized. Ad hominem attacks do not qualify as civilized. Personal insults do not qualify as civilized. Sneering does not qualify as civilized. Contemptuous dismissals do not qualify as civilized. Those things are just the ugly venting of ugly little trolls.

But deleting ugly little trolls isn’t the only issue. In this case, there was the paucity of even the most rudimentary attempt to present an opposing point of view. There was absolutely no attempt, by any of those people, to point out a specific mistake or omission I made. And I might well have missed something; I don’t read all the papers, liberal or conservative. I don’t spend my days flipping from news channel to news channel. I don’t pore over online news sites, liberal or conservative.

If any one of those comments had politely pointed out that the New York Times had recently had to walk back their fulsome article praising Donald Trump for his heroic efforts to revive the dithyrambic verse form (don’t worry: they didn’t, and he hasn’t) I would have had to concede that all the fake news stories I cited were perhaps nothing more than legitimate journalist errors.

And even if I had chosen to clean up the frequently incoherent mangling of the English language in some of those comments, to delete the insults, and ignore the contemptuous dismissal of facts, there was a complete absence of any kind of logical argument. In fact, there was a complete absence of any kind of thought process whatsoever.

My mother was so intelligent and so well-educated that she sometimes used to be able to get away with total nonsense. Usually, but not always, and one of her efforts once reduced my stepfather and me to hysterics at the dinner table. My stepfather was a demon gardener and had cooked some kind of casserole, heavy on squash he had grown himself, and he was urging my mother to have some more. She demurred, and he persisted.

“It’s very good for you, Sydney,” he said, his face beaming with pride and bonhomie, the ladle, steaming and dripping, held in one hand as he reached for her plate with the other.

Another lady might have drawn herself up grandly at this point, but my mother didn’t need to; she was always drawn up, and she fixed him now with a look.

“Nice people,” she said, “don’t eat squash.”

There was a frozen moment of silence as my stepfather and I looked at her with our mouths open. Then our eyes met and we began to laugh, to howl, to roar so uncontrollably that after a while, to her credit, my mother began to laugh with us. And when we finally began to subside enough to be able to speak, she said, “Well, they don’t.” And off we went again.

It was just one of those lovely silly moments that occur in families, but it is also an excellent example of the kind of faulty syllogism so many people mistake for logical debate. Her thinking ran:

I am a nice person.

I don’t like squash.

Therefore, nice people do not eat squash.

It is a perfect example of the kind of nonsense that passes for political debate these days. Politically, that kind of tenuous and muddled syllogistic thinking (such as it is) comes out as:

I am intelligent and caring, and I want open borders, a socialist/communist government, gun control, and free everything for everybody.

You don’t want those things.

Therefore, you are a loathsome, selfish, hateful moron.

Unfortunately, the only true aspect of the argument is the minor premise (I don’t want those things), so the whole argument falls apart, but in any case, calling me names does not change the truth of what I wrote, nor does it advance the debate.

A good example—a brilliant example—of an opposing comment that not only advanced a debate, but my thinking on that issue as well, a comment I jumped at the chance to post, can be found here: (http://www.readjamesonparker.com/archives/date/2015/01)

I have been fortunate enough to have many other intelligent, thoughtful, well-written, and civilized comments, and they are all still up on my site, but this one is hands down the best.

There are other categories of comments you will never see posted on this blog.

I will not tolerate America bashing.

I will no longer waste my energy explaining for the millionth time that the lies—that’s lies, not misspeaking, nor exaggeration, nor hyperbole, nor any of the other euphemisms the media and politicians like to use when caught telling lies—of the Shannon Watts/Gabby Gifford/Mayor Bloomberg/Schumer/Feinstein anti-gun crowd are precisely that: lies made up out of whole cloth. If you are computer-savvy enough to read this blog, you are certainly computer-savvy enough to make your way the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (or the Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] or the CDC National Center for Health Statistics) and look up the truth yourself. Be sure to remind yourself, as you study the actual numbers that, because of the time-lag in compiling and processing those numbers, the truth was compiled under the Obama administration.

And if you are anti-Zionist; if you are stupid, hateful, and evil enough to support the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement, you are, as far as I’m concerned, an anti-Semite, and I won’t even bother acknowledging that you exist.

All the News We Like to Print

December 15th, 2017 17 Comments

Is there any news that isn’t fake these days?

In an episode of the old Mary Tyler Moore show, Mary commits some embarrassing journalistic blunder, and in an effort to console her, her gruff-but-lovable boss (is there any other kind on television?), Ed Asner, tells her of a blunder he committed during the early days after America’s entry into World War Two.

As a junior editor, alone in the newsroom late at night (he tells her), he got a frantic call from a trustworthy source telling him unbelievably horrible news about another surprise bombing by the Japanese. He had no way to confirm the story and had to make his decision completely alone: go with it, and risk making a colossal mistake; or pass, and risk losing the scoop of lifetime. He decided to go with it, and the next morning, his newspaper was the only newspaper in America to report on the surprise Japanese bombing of Cleveland.

I may have some of the details wrong (the Mary Tyler Moore show went off the air in 1977), but you get the idea.

I remembered that episode while watching the acclaimed and sometimes controversial journalist Judy Miller, who once won part of a Pulitzer Prize (it was a team effort) for her reporting, and who once spent eighty-five days in jail for refusing to reveal a confidential source involved in the Valery Plame affair during the George W. Bush administration. So no one can claim Ms. Miller’s credentials are not admirable, or that she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. But I watched her defending the spate of recent journalistic “blunders,” otherwise known as fake news stories, by saying journalists have to be bold and have to be allowed to make mistakes in the interests of holding our government accountable. I should point out that Ms. Miller has herself made some journalistic blunders, so there may a personal bias in her argument, because she was alluding to embarrassingly stupid violations of the most fundamental rules of journalism, stories so blatantly incorrect and completely unverified they had to be later retracted by… oh, pick a news outlet, print, televised, or online. The recent list includes, but is not limited to:

Brian Ross on ABC reporting false nonsense about Gen. Michael Flynn and Donald Trump; CNN reporting false nonsense about James Comey and Donald Trump; the Washington Post reporting false nonsense about Russia hacking into Vermont’s power grid; the Washington Post reporting false nonsense about Russia’s disinformation campaign; Slate’s false nonsense about Donald Trump’s “secret email server;” Fortune’s false nonsense about the Russian hacking of C-SPAN; CNN’s false nonsense about Wikileaks and Donald Trump; Bloomberg’s and the Wall Street Journal’s false nonsense about how special counsel Robert Mueller subpoenaed Deutsche Bank to get Donald Trump’s financial records…

The list is longer, but I’m sure you get the picture. I’m also sure you see the trend: virtually every one of those journalistic blunders, also known as fake news (some might call them lies), involves Donald Trump in a negative light, or Russia in a negative light that is linked, either directly or obliquely, to Donald Trump.

And it is that single-minded focus that makes Judy Miller’s argument indefensible: when mistakes are made, they must, by definition, be mistakes, not intentional efforts to deceive. If any news source, just one, had mistakenly reported something erroneous that reflected well on the Trump administration, I would buy the argument that these are just unintentional by-products of an overly vigilant fourth estate (or, perhaps, in our country, fourth branch of government). But there hasn’t been one story that erred the other way.

There is another, more ominous, aspect to this. All of those stories came from confidential sources, and because of the sensitive inside information involved in each of the stories, the confidential source in each case must have been a person or persons in any one of the various governmental agencies that had access to sensitive information. That fact should scare the hell out of all Americans.

Consider what we know about some of our governmental bureaucracies:

-Conservatives groups know all too well they cannot trust the IRS; just think of Lois Lerner.

-Ranchers have long known they cannot trust the BLM or its parent agency, the Department of the Interior; too many cattlemen have been run out of business and/or criminally prosecuted for you to doubt that.
-Small businesses, ranchers, and farmers have long distrusted the EPA, which has had a litany of abuses and one embarrassing catastrophe after another, from financial mismanagement of your tax money, to draconian overreach, to the devastating toxic waste spills of 2015.
-No one should trust the NSA, which was caught spying on American citizens opposed to the Vietnam War, and has more recently been caught conducting illegal surveillance on millions of American citizens, and illegally collecting data from cell phones to track the movements of millions more.

-And the FBI… Where to start? From wiretapping and surveilling Martin Luther King, to the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that may have been responsible for the murder of various black civil rights activists, including Malcolm X, to their incomprehensible actions—aided by the ATF—at Ruby Ridge, and the equally incomprehensible and mismanaged siege of the Branch Davidians, to the most recent Clinton/Lynch/Trump/Russia/DNC labyrinth of misinformation and stonewalling, practically no one trusts the FBI or its parent agency, the Department of Justice. In fact, name an agency today that has the unqualified trust of the American people.

Are any of those organizations the ones responsible for leaking false nonsense to a gullible and rabidly anti-Trump press? Or (being a child of the cold war and its use of dirty tricks) is Donald Trump’s administration deliberately leaking false information about itself and him for purposes of…? (That’s where I fall apart with that theory, because I can’t imagine how such a dangerous game would benefit him.) No one knows what the truth is. The only certainty is that while many people rightly distrust the agencies mentioned above, practically no one trusts the press, and since almost every day another piece of biased nonsense is solemnly reported as gospel truth—until it is quietly retracted—no one is likely to trust the media. The fourth estate, the supposed watchdog of our democratic system, has become even less trustworthy than the various agencies that have abused their power. And that’s about the saddest thing I can think of.

Hell, these days, I’d be encouraged just to hear the Japanese had bombed Cleveland.

Morning’s Minion

December 8th, 2017 8 Comments

 

I was driving home the other day, when I saw a Peregrine. Those of you who know anything about this most remarkable falcon will understand what I am saying is: I caught a quick glimpse of a Peregrine. I was driving one way and it was flying the other, and since the Peregrine is considered the fastest bird on earth, I didn’t really have much of a chance to study him.

I should qualify that. The Peregrine has been regularly clocked at speeds well in excess of two-hundred miles an hour during its stoop (the hunting dive a bird of prey makes when it plunges after its prey), but it doesn’t routinely fly that fast while en route from point A to point B. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly lollygag, either, and this one was clearly a Peregrine with places to go, people to see, and things to do.

Another notable thing about the Peregrine is that while it is the most widespread raptor on earth, being found virtually everywhere except New Zealand, it is also quite rare (my 1990 edition of Roger Tory Peterson lists it as endangered), so seeing one in the wild is a big deal. I’ve only (knowingly) seen three in my lifetime, but by far the most unusual sighting was the first one I ever saw, in the Arc Dome Wilderness area of the Toiyabe Mountain Range in central Nevada.

I was deer hunting, and for reasons that have now faded from the memory bank, I was sitting with the outfitter’s wife, overlooking a very deep and rugged canyon, when she spotted a Peregrine gliding below us, presumably in search of his dinner, as I was in search of mine. I think I can safely say there are not many people in the wide world who have had the privilege of looking down on the back of this revered bird.

There are multiple subspecies of the Peregrine, and I am nowhere nearly knowledgeable enough to know which is which or how to tell them apart (my friend Steve Bodio— http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com– almost certainly can), but judging by maps of ranges, it is a safe bet that all three of the ones I have seen are the so-called American Peregrine falcon, since that’s the one found in all of the lower forty-eight states with the exception of the Pacific Northwest. (The one in the Northwest is known as a Peale’s falcon.)

Peregrines were once almost, if not completely, exterminated on the East Coast by pesticides, but after they began their comeback, New York city made a specific effort to introduce them into the canyons of Manhattan. If memory serves, this was done in part for purposes of preserving the species, but also in part to keep the pigeon population in check, pigeons in the Big Apple being as plentiful and obnoxious as pickpockets, purse snatchers, and politicians. Apparently that reintroduction effort was successful, and the average birdwatcher today is more likely to see a Peregrine in Manhattan than in the mountains. But wherever you see one, it’s a thrilling sight, just as seeing any accomplished predator is thrilling.

I know I’ve posted this before, and I know the term “windhover” refers to a kestrel, not a Peregrine, but it is still a poem well worth posting and reading over and over, especially at the beginning of this Christmas season.

 

The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

To Christ our Lord

 

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

 

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Wheelchairs Redux and Updated

December 2nd, 2017 11 Comments

 

“Owing to… what’s that something of circumstances you hear people talking about? Cats enter into it, if I remember correctly.”

“Would concatenation be the word for which you are groping, Sir?”

“That’s it.”

Talking my lead from Bertie Wooster and the inimitable Jeeves, owing to a concatenation of events and personal projects, I have been somewhat remiss in maintaining this dusty and disorganized blog. In fact, I have been more than somewhat remiss, not having written a word since mid-November. This may have been a source of relief and joy for some people who think I should cease and desist altogether, but too bad for them.

I was running my dogs the other day and ran into a neighbor who mentioned she had contributed to my daughter’s wheelchair-funding campaign on GoFundMe, and that chance meeting sort of brought me back to earth. To update you, my daughter reached all the funds necessary for her new wheelchair, and I want to thank everyone who contributed—either through GoFundMe or other methods—to helping her achieve her goal. I am deeply touched by and grateful for the immense generosity of so many people. Your kindness and willingness to open your hearts and wallets have helped a very remarkable young lady more than you know. Please accept my sincerest gratitude and respect for your generosity.

Thank you.

Communism, Glorious Communism!

November 16th, 2017 10 Comments

 

I somehow missed the fact that October marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of communism. Communism is not something I tend to dwell on, having grown up overhearing the soft conversations of adults discussing, with deliberately vague and carefully chosen words, the “bad things” that were happening in Russia and China; conversations about the domino effect and the Dulles brothers; hearing the names of tiny countries in southeast Asia that would later become unhappy household words in American homes; hearing—and seeing a photograph in the newspaper—about women and boys being murdered in a place called Yugoslavia because they threw rocks at tanks.

“But Daddy, aren’t tanks made out of metal? How could a rock hurt the tank?” And my father would try to explain, in his inimitable style of talking to, never down to, a child as he might an adult, only with slightly simpler words.

Only a few years later, when I was thirteen (the year the Berlin Wall went up, in fact) a friend and I, a German boy of fifteen, tramped and hitchhiked through Yugoslavia during a great and glorious summer adventure my father allowed me to take part in, and unlike every other country we passed through on that remarkable adventure that unforgettable summer, the peasant farmers we saw in the fields of Yugoslavia never hailed us or even waved. Instead they leaned on their tools, or stopped their teams (there were damned few tractors even in western Europe in those hard, post-war years) and stared at us—just stared, as if we were things not quite unknown, but not quite human enough to merit any interaction. Pancho (my German friend’s real name was Dieter, but for obscure reasons his nickname was Pancho) and I had waved at first, but we soon gave it up, defeated by the blank, unresponsive stares; not hostile, just completely emotionless, as if the lessons of survival under the tender mercies of communism (Don’t give them anything they can hang a label on. Don’t wave back. Don’t react in any way. You don’t know who they are or what they might be. Just pretend they don’t exist.) had been learned so quickly in just the few short years between those newspaper accounts and our long trek down that grey land.

And for the most part, we did cease to exist. The only conversation I do recall in that country was when the authorities confiscated our money for some reason. By the grace of God (who was not supposed to exist under the communists) they missed the little safety stash I had hidden in a leather pouch around my neck, but it was hardly enough to get us through. In Greece, people smiled and waved and invited us into their homes to share their meals—and Pancho, who was very blonde and very handsome, became an object of great interest to the beautiful young black-haired, black-eyed girls in those tiny houses—bakers gave us the burned loaves, and farmers handed us tomatoes and grapes right off the vine, otherwise we would have gone hungry. But in Yugoslavia we didn’t exist, and we went hungry.

I saw my first hammer-and-sickle in Yugoslavia. We hiked more than hitched, because there were so few automotive vehicles of any kind. And I attributed my discomfort in that country in part to the photograph I remembered, and the remembered conversations of what had happened, and the other conversations I had not been supposed to hear, and I couldn’t wait to get to Greece. But now, looking back, I think I also picked up in some way on the despair and fear of the people who wouldn’t talk to us. How could one not?

That was my experience of life—if you can call it that—under communism. But what I saw was the good side. Let us now, on this one-hundredth anniversary of the creation of the great utopia of shared bounty and perfect equality in a worker’s paradise, take a quick look at just a tiny bit of what communism achieved in the twentieth century.

In the USSR, under Stalin (note that it is under Stalin exclusively; the number does not include other, comparatively less heavy-handed, rulers of the USSR) twenty-million (20,000,000) people were exterminated. That is the conservative estimate; Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who managed to survive both imprisonment and a labor camp) estimated sixty-million (60,000,000). Other sources that include the numbers of those who were allowed to die of starvation, as opposed to being actively murdered, put the estimate even higher.

In China, under Chairman Mao, the labor camps were relatively benign, being responsible for only a paltry, estimated, over ten-million (10,000,000+) deaths, but when it comes to famine, ah, there we can all learn of the joys of life under a real Communist Leader when he rolls up his sleeves and puts his mind to it. It is hard to nail down an accurate number, but the conservative—conservative!—estimate is that Uncle Mao knowingly allowed (most historians claim he deliberately and actively encouraged) approximately thirty-five-million (35,000,000) of his people to starve to death during the Great Famine (1959-1963), so that including the executed, the labor camps, the famine, and various noble social reforms of other Chinese leaders, the estimate is somewhere between sixty-five-million (65,000,000) to seventy-five-million (75,000,000) killed between 1949 and today.

The People’s Paradise of good old North Korea seems like Disneyland by comparison, though of course that unhappy land had far fewer people to murder to begin with, so you can’t blame them for not competing with the big boys. Nonetheless, an estimated three-million and up (3,000,000+) murdered one way or another isn’t bad.

Cambodia, under fun-loving Pol Pot, managed to do almost as well, with over two-million-six-hundred-thousand (2,600,000+) murdered, but most of those were murdered pretty horrifically. (Note for research: is there a way to murder one’s citizens wholesale that is not horrific?)

Afghanistan and Vietnam both come in at around one-million-seven-hundred-thousand (1,700,000) people murdered by their respective Communist regimes.

Ethiopia managed to kill over one-million-three-hundred-thousand (1,300,000+) people, some by active means, some by starvation.

The list of communist countries where death has had a field day continues, with staggering numbers: Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Mozambique, Angola, Cuba, what used to be known as East Germany…

We live in an age when enormous numbers are the norm. A million dollars today is chump change; if you ain’t got a billion, you ain’t got nothing. A thousand miles from New York to Kansas City is an easy jaunt when you think of 33.9-million miles to Mars. It’s no big deal to add another trillion dollars to the deficit. But those numbers listed above represent human beings, people like you and me, lives and loves, hopes and dreams and infinite possibilities, all gone, wiped out in the name of a perverted vision of an artificial and impossible concept of man being something other than what he was, is, and always will be.

Name a communist country that has thrived and prospered with human rights and justice for all. Just one. Call me when you think of it.

Wheelchairs

November 4th, 2017 18 Comments

 

This past August, when the great Jerry Lewis died, I wrote about my admiration for that extraordinary man and his tireless fundraising efforts on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Muscular dystrophy is one of those diseases that rarely make the headlines or the evening news, in part because it is so relatively uncommon. Illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s… The list of loss and heartache is long, too long, and society very naturally has to perform its own version of triage and allocate resources accordingly.

In addition to relatively small numbers, muscular dystrophy rarely makes the news precisely because advances come so slowly, so agonizingly slowly, and what works for one will almost never work for all, because there are so many variations. Look at an alphabetical listing of the many different kinds of muscular dystrophy; only the letters J, Q, and V are not represented, almost one hundred varieties in all, with sub-categories within each one, usually indicating variations in severity. And there are even more that have no names because they have yet to be properly identified.

My daughter’s variation is Facioscapulohumeral (FSHD), so called because it most frequently affects the muscles of the face (facio), the shoulder area (scapula), and the upper arm (humeral). But that’s not truly accurate. It can and frequently does affect far more; in my sweet Kat’s case it began early on to affect her ability to walk, targeting the muscles of the hip and lower leg especially.

I have a memory from many years ago, while she was still a teenager, of going to meet her at the Los Angeles airport and watching her walk toward me, struggling to make each step, trying to use her will to dominate her legs, fighting so desperately to retain a measure of autonomous mobility. It was not to be.

FSHD has taken much. What it has not taken and cannot take is her ready—and sometimes frightening—intelligence, her sweetness, her indomitable will, her lively interest in the world around her, in people (her friends are many and disparate), books, and living her life as independently and productively as possible. (She edited my book, Dancing with the Dead, admirably correcting my creative spelling, catching dropped words and other errors, and correcting my fanciful attempts at Spanish.) She has a loving partner who matches her in intelligence, and she works steadily.

But now she needs help.

Our medical system is in disarray. It was before Obamacare, which didn’t improve it, and it appears poised to become even less functional now under whatever system may or may not replace it. But it would be both churlish and unfair of me to blame our health-care system for Kat’s current troubles. A corollary of the rareness of anything is cost. Gold costs more than lead, rubies more than garnets. Relatively few people need motorized wheelchairs of the complexity of those needed by muscular dystrophy patients, so while those wheelchairs exist, the cost is exorbitant: think the cost of a brand-new, top-of-the-line, one-ton pickup with all the bells and whistles; think the cost not so long ago of a nice, middle-income house.

She has insurance that covers some of the cost, but there are certain things, features that would make her life much easier and give her more autonomy, and those things insurance will not cover. To that end, Kat has established a GoFundMe account (https://www.gofundme.com/w96dm-help-me-buy-a-new-wheelchair). I understand we all have our troubles, and we all have our own financial burdens these days, but if you can help, you would be helping a remarkable young lady. And that’s my objective opinion, not the proud parent talking. Thank you.

At the Movies: Maudie

October 31st, 2017 5 Comments

 

Darleen dragged me off to see a movie I hadn’t heard about, nor did I particularly want to see it when she tried to explain what it was about. But it was clearly something that was important to her and—let’s face it—there aren’t all that many movies even made these days for people over forty inches in height, so we went to see Maudie.

Part of the reason I wasn’t particularly wild with desire to see it was that Darleen made the mistake of telling me about a review she had read in The New York Times. I compounded her mistake by actually paying attention and imaging, erroneously, the Times might have something intelligent to say. After we saw Maudie, I was so stunned by the complete disconnect between the movie and the review that I took the time to read of bunch of reviews in some other major papers and magazines, and before I give you my own reaction to the movie, let me fill you in on what I read so that you too, gentle reader, will never trust anyone or anything other than your own opinion. That includes me.

A quick synopsis of what I read in various mainstream publications:

The opening is so boring and bleak that the only reason to bother sitting through it is the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;

The opening is the best part of the movie, which is only redeemed after that by the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;

The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) wisely don’t adhere to the reality of Maud Lewis’ life;

The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) might have created a better movie by sticking closer to the truth of Maud Lewis’ life instead of going for commercial success;

The directing is a masterpiece of subtle understatement, wisely staying out of the way and not trying to impose theatrical conventions on the story;

The directing is uninspired and vacillates between the irreconcilable extremes of Maud Lewis’ life;

The score was hauntingly beautiful and understated;

The score was pushy and inappropriate.

I have used my own words here, obviously, but essentially stuck to the essence of what was written.

And then there were the snarky, Snidely Whiplash comments within the reviews, as if each critic had his or her own personal animosities they wanted to air, the most egregious one dismissing Kari Matchett’s lovely turn as the vacationing New Yorker who basically discovered Maud Lewis as “Cate Blanchette doing Katherine Hepburn.”

Yet, to be fair, all these critics grudgingly praised the film and especially the performances of Hawkins and Hawke.

For my part, I was absolutely blown away by everything to do with Maudie.

For those of you who don’t know who Maud Lewis was (I didn’t), she was essentially a Canadian Grandma Moses, an untrained folk artist, whose cheerful and colorful depictions of rural life in Nova Scotia caught the attention of the world.

That’s the sanitized version. It’s true, but as with all human affairs, the truth was rather more difficult: a life that was mostly very grim, very hard, and very unforgiving. Whatever the reality was or was not is unimportant here. This is a movie and should be judged solely on its merits as a movie, and on that basis, it knocks the ball right out of the park.

Everything starts with the script. Written by Sherry White, a Canadian actress and writer I had never heard of, the script is as spare as it should be, considering she is writing about a shy and reticent lady married to an almost non-verbal man, but within that framework Ms. White manages to balance beauty and brutality, laughter and tears, the physical fragility of her heroine and the indomitable resilience of her spirit. There are lovely touches of humor and hope in the bleakness of these two people’s extremely circumscribed lives, but I confess I had to take my glasses off and wipe them more than once.

Directed by another lady I had never heard of, Aisling Walsh, an Irish director who managed to balance the widely disparate elements of the story with remarkable grace, and who had the sensitivity to allow two immensely gifted actors to bring their characters to life, even when that life sometimes took them off-script. Ms. Walsh also did an exquisite job of capturing the harsh beauty of the environment that inspired Maud Lewis, a job that must have been exceptionally difficult: filming in cold weather is fraught with challenges, from fogged-up lenses to frozen batteries that can no longer power the cameras, to freezing cast and crew members. And much of the film takes place in different seasons, something that must have brought its own challenges. Kudos to her.

And then the performances! Oh, my. There isn’t a false note or bad lick from anyone anywhere in the film, but it is Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins who simply took my breath away. Actors choose projects for many varied reasons, but the challenges inherent in any given role are the primary lures for actors who have confidence in their own abilities. How do you find and convey the wisdom and humor in a tiny, fragile, deformed, possibly limited lady whose only means of real expression was through her art? Sally Hawkins does it.

If you like the kinds of action/adventure movies that depend so heavily on stunts and special effects, Maudie is almost certainly not going to be your cup of tea. But if you are interested in your fellow man, if the hidden bits and pieces of the human psyche that we know are there in all of us but that we so rarely see, if William Blake’s world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower, if those things appeal to you more than gun fights and car chases, you will love this movie. No matter what conflicting nonsense the damned critics spout.

The Reason Why

October 23rd, 2017 27 Comments

 

I received the following comment from a reader:

“I find it disgusting that some people have to voice their opinions with threats. With social media that seems to be more and more the case. Would most of these people say these things to a person’s face? I also want to say that being a Canadian I am more liberal in my views although I would never put someone down because of more conservative views. I would never, nor do I know of any other Canadian, who would vote Republican.  Republicans are far too much to the right for most Canadians. What I am wondering is why a lot of Americans feel so strongly about the right to bear arms.  I realize that it is a right in your Constitution and that we should fight not to have rights taken from us. I hear many Americans say that they need to protect themselves. From what?  As a Canadian I am not given the right to have a concealed weapon in my purse and I am 100 per cent okay with that. I feel, just as you do, that I live in a free country. I hear that it is to empower yourselves in case there is an uprising with the government. Really? I have never feared my government nor the head of state of Canada, the Queen. Whenever I am on holiday in Florida I also think in the back of my mind “many of these people could have guns on them”. This is not a reassuring feeling. I do also realize that the majority of you are carrying guns for protection and peace of mind and are not about to shoot me while I’m shopping at Target. As a Canadian I actually feel safer at home.  I guess I just want you, or your readers, to explain to me why you feel so passionately about guns and the right to carry one?”
Nancy Ontario Canada

Dear Nancy,

Thank you for asking a very reasonable question. I won’t go into the Republican versus Democrat issue, because that is a separate topic and relates to completely different views on what kind of government is best for America, views that were, once, possibly, long ago, during a brief and halcyon moment immediately after our revolution, debated with courtesy and respect for the other man’s opinion, in a gracious and honest attempt to reach what both sides knew must ultimately be a compromise. Them days is long gone.

But as to the right to bear arms, I am delighted to try and explain our uniquely American outlook on the God-given right to self-defense.

First, we must accept that self-defense is a God-given right, something no government can take away from you. Throughout all of man’s history, from the earliest known records of the Mesopotamian civilizations, men have always gone armed and usually in groups, precisely to be able to defend themselves. It was only with the rise of unprecedented wealth created by the industrial revolution that people in Western civilizations began to relax a little and stopped wearing swords or carrying guns for the first time, but during America’s colonial days, weapons were a fact of life and, in rural areas, of survival.

(An anti-gun history professor at Emory University, Michael Bellesiles, was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2001 for his book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, purportedly showing that firearms were relatively scarce in colonial America, and therefore proving the historical construct for the individual right to keep and bear arms was a bogus invention of a gun industry pandering to wingnuts like me who wanted to justify their strange obsession with guns. Obviously, I am taking liberties here, because I honestly don’t know, nor does anyone else, what Mr. Bellesiles’ motivations were, but while his book was initially, gleefully, accepted by gullible and eager anti-gun types and the virulently anti-gun media, his purported “scholarship” was almost immediately called into question by legitimate historians and scholars, with the result that within a year, the prize was rescinded and he was fired from Emory. I mention this incident only to show that, unlike Michael Bellesiles, I am not making things up when I say that owning and carrying guns has been a tradition in America since before it was America.)

Understand that our founding fathers, the men who initiated and spearheaded our revolution and subsequently created as close as we are likely to get to an ideal democratic republic, were men who decided to revolt treasonously against the crown precisely because they felt they were being crushed by a monarchy that neither cared for them nor for the colonies, except as a source of revenue and geographic expediency. There is much debate about what the final straw was, but the embattled farmers who stood by the rude bridge that arched the flood and fired the shot heard round the world (Ralph Waldo Emerson is rolling in his grave for how I’ve mangled his poem) were there specifically because they had received intelligence that the British army was coming to confiscate their weapons. That’s worth remembering.

So, America had a tradition of keeping and bearing arms even before it was America, and unlike Canada, which is still technically part of the United Kingdom as a parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy, America had to fight for her freedom, enduring enormous hardship and great loss of life in pursuit of a dream of equality and autonomy.

Even the western expansion of our two countries was radically different: American settlers and the American government fought battle after bloody battle against various indigenous tribes (and routinely and serenely disregarded treaty after treaty, which is why pro-Second Amendment types frequently and ironically say, “Of course you can trust the government. Just ask an Indian.”) while Canadian settlers relied upon their government (the Mounties specifically, if memory serves) to broker peace treaties instead of waging war. (Perhaps a better and more humane strategy, but all those Canadian treaties worked far better for the settlers than for the native tribes.)

I’m not trying to praise or condemn either one of our separate histories here: I’m just pointing out that there are historical differences between America and Canada and that those historical differences are reflected in our different attitudes toward self-defense today. Canadians, judging by the ones I know personally, by statements like yours, and by the accounts I read in local papers and saw on the local news during the three-plus months I worked in Edmonton, really believe in their various levels of government, and in their national government especially. Americans, at least conservative (read Republican) Americans, tend to look at their various levels of government with a much more jaundiced and distrustful eye. We also tend to be more self-reliant (for want of a better phrase) from the point of view that we do not expect the government to be there for us when we might like it to be. Anyone who has ever frantically called for the police in a life-threatening emergency knows that, with the best will in the world, law enforcement can never get there as quickly as we need them to be there. (I did it once; my ex-wife did it once. In neither case were the police able to arrive until well after the danger was past. In my ex-wife’s case, she was saved, literally, by the fortuitous and random appearance of a private security guard.) Nor is that the police’s mandate: our courts have ruled that the duty of law enforcement is to protect society in general, not the individual, a ruling that compels law enforcement to try and solve the crime and arrest the bad guys, but not to prevent the crime from happening. And, realistically, how could they?

So, while you, as an individual, have the right to defend yourself, just as every individual in the wide world has the right to defend himself, only in America is that right codified in our Bill of Rights, and spelled out to specifically mention arms. Not only is it codified, but it is given the honor of second place, preceded only by the rights of freedom of religion, expression, press, peaceable assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, all lumped together under Amendment One.

Even a cursory glance at the writings of the founding fathers, their letters amongst themselves, their diaries, and specifically and most importantly what we refer to as the Federalist Papers (a series of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay), shows that they considered the armed individual to be a necessary requisite to balance the power of any government. Our anti-gun politicians and the media keep spouting fatuous nonsense such as, Nobody needs a (fill in the blank) to go duck hunting. But no kind of hunting is ever mentioned anywhere in the Federalist papers or any other writings. What is mentioned, repeatedly, is the right to self-defense, and the importance of an armed populace to keep a government from becoming too enamored with itself and taking liberties with individual rights. Think it can’t happen? Read your history. I won’t bother listing the all advanced, civilized, well-educated countries that descended into murderous chaos when their governments came under the thrall of leaders with evil in their hearts. It has even happened—on a very small scale—right here in America; the reason it hasn’t happened on a larger scale is precisely because an armed populace would, and more importantly, could, rise up.

So, what do I and other Americans, feel we have to defend ourselves against? Evil and stupidity and mental illness exist everywhere, and no legislation in the world will ever stop them. Fortunately, they exist in minuscule amounts, and are greatly outnumbered by good and kindness and selflessness, but they do exist. I have used a handgun to defend my life and the life of one of my sons. I have used a rifle to defend myself and my late hunting partner from a bear. Even our Center for Disease Control (CDC), an agency which has not had a traditionally pro-gun stance (to put it mildly), stated in a report commissioned by former and virulently anti-gun president Barack Obama, that “defensive gun uses by victims” [skip] “range from 500,000 to more than 3-million per year.”

Does that mean that 500,000 to 3-million times a year law abiding Americans whip out their gats and throw slugs around? Of course not. In my case, I never even got the pistol out of its holster; just the act of reaching for it caused the two men to spin around and jump back in their van. Usually (and countless studies and statistics prove this) just the presence of a firearm resolves potentially violent criminal situations without a shot ever being fired, thank God. Nor is the average person likely to go to places where bears will regard him as the first course of this evening’s dinner, but rabid animals and aggressive and out of control dogs seriously injure thousands of people every year.

Obviously, as someone who has been around firearms practically all my life, I have a very different feeling about guns than you or anyone who is unfamiliar with them. Not long ago, driving through Arizona, where constitutional carry is the law, I stopped in a big-box store and saw two men carrying sidearms openly (in holsters outside their clothes) and identified several others who were clearly carrying concealed sidearms. My immediate reaction was one of safety, of (to paraphrase Mr. T in The A Team): “I pity the fool who starts trouble in here.” But that’s a result of my knowing that guns are inanimate objects, tools that do not cause bad behavior or discharge by themselves. I quite understand that urban people who have never been around guns, let alone seen or handled them, might respond with fear, but always remember: there is far more good in the world than evil, so if you are in a state where law abiding citizens may legally carry firearms, take comfort in knowing that if evil should raise its head and see a man with a gun on his hip, evil is likely to retract its head and leave quietly for other venues. If that doesn’t happen, at least there is someone around who has the means to take care of the situation while you wait for the police to arrive.

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