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Book Review: The Mullet Manifesto

July 28th, 2015 8 Comments

Mullet Manifesto

 

On the copyright page of every work of fiction published in America, down at the bottom, there is always a disclaimer intended to stymie and frustrate the kinds of lawyers who advertise on television and steal money out their mother’s purses: “This is a work of fiction. All names, places, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination…” Etc., etc.

One of the first things I thought when I finished Roger Pinckney’s latest novel, The Mullet Manifesto, was, “Oh, please, don’t let that be true.”

Pinckney’s characters, every last one of them, are so real, so singular, so engaging that they get in amongst your heartstrings in much the same way that your own children do: you love them desperately, even as you wonder why you didn’t drown them in a bucket at birth.

The protagonists of The Mullet Manifesto are three teenaged boys seen variously through the eyes of one of them, and through the eyes of the man that boy has become. These are the kinds of boys whose parents have every reason in the world to grope for the bourbon bottle come sundown: not bad, just… Just teenagers, groping their uncertain way toward adulthood back in the last days of true childhood freedom.

It’s hard for today’s younger generation to comprehend the freedoms that were possible for children fifty or sixty years ago, especially in small towns and rural areas. A boy wandering down the railroad tracks during deer season with a rifle over his shoulder would bring in a SWAT team today; back then, he elicited nothing more than a smile and a wave from the engineer. An older woman who seduces a teenaged boy today would be branded a pervert and thrown in prison. Back then, she was just greatly appreciated and is remembered with happy affection by the man looking back from his fireside chair.

And the man who looks back from that chair writes in one of the most unique voices of any American writer since Faulkner. It’s a voice that both echoes and evokes the southern coastal lowlands as richly as Cormac McCarthy caught the voice of the Southwest in No Country for Old Men and The Border Trilogy. Listen to the protagonist both recreating and commenting on his friend’s speech:

“But I ain’t mean to shootum. I pull the trigger real slow.” Cuffey smoked Prince Albert in his beat-up briar, fired with kitchen matches he struck on his thumbnail. When he blubbered Geechee around both sides of his pipe, you’d wish he came with sub-titles.

Ostensibly a novel, The Mullet Manifesto is a loosely stitched pastiche of short stories that follows the boys through the arc of adolescence from their first restless stirrings through the final and inevitable breaking away from their world. And what a world it is! The fragile, vulnerable lowland country between Charleston and Savannah, from the ACE Basin to the islands that gave Sea Island cotton its name, a world of marshes and duck hunting, shrimp boats and coastal fishing, Gullahs and oyster beds, bourbon and Baptists, a world where wild young boys can misbehave to their hearts’ content, up to a certain point. Pinckney evokes that world so vividly that the marshes and coastal barriers and tidal pools become characters in their own right. There is a plot, of sorts, but it is rightly subservient to boys and old black men, to handmade boats and makeshift cars, to beloved old shotguns and vintage rifles, to tides and fishing, to seasons and inlets, to ducks and deer. And chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes.

James Thurber, who knew a little about writing humor, once made a comment (I can’t find the exact quote right now) to the effect that he preferred to evoke the bittersweet rather than tears. There is an element of the bittersweet in The Mullet Manifesto, as there must always be in any story that touches on the end of things—of childhood, of freedom, a beloved hunting shack, a way of life—but it resonates precisely because there is so much humor. My wife came out of the bedroom in the wee hours and asked me to either close the door to the library or laugh silently.

The Mullet Manifesto is that good.

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There Oughta Be a Law!

July 26th, 2015 7 Comments

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Two beautiful young ladies were shot and killed in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, and most of the news channels have covered little else.

The news agencies have all reported the Lafayette shooting with a lead-in line referring to three deceased victims. That is both inaccurate and disingenuous, since one of the dead is the shooter, who turned his gun on himself, an action that Dave Workman of Examiner.com correctly described as a public service.

Any horror like that is a tragedy, but the reaction to this shooting in particular has been a universal call for more laws, for greater, stronger, more stringent, more draconian laws, specifically more “common sense” gun laws. CNN aired a segment with a panel almost immediately in which they called for, “…a more realistic interpretation of the second amendment,” and “common-sense gun laws.” The usual politicians, notably President Obama, who gave an interview to BBC News just before he left for Kenya, lamented yet again that America does not have, “…sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws.”

It’s a very natural, knee-jerk reaction to tragedy. You look at the dead and think of all the unspeakable heartbreak of the people who loved them, the loss of so much potential, the senselessness of it all, and your first reaction is, Somebody’s got to do something! This sort of thing must be stopped! There oughta be a law!

I have bad news: there is a law. In fact, when you combine federal, state, county, and local ordinances, there are over 22,000 laws on the books governing every aspect of gun ownership from purchase to use to misuse down to the disposal of the chemicals used to clean a gun after firing it. (By now it’s probably considerably more than 22,000 laws; that statistic is at least a decade old.)

Part of the problem is that all the laws in the world will have no effect on either evil or stupidity. The greater part of the problem is that all the laws in the world are meaningless when they are not enforced, particularly at the federal level.

Syracuse University, which describes itself as a “private research university,” has something they call their “Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse,” where they monitor federal law enforcement in various categories. One of those categories is the federal enforcement of firearms laws currently already on the books against armed criminals. Some of those laws include: prohibitions against illegal possession of a firearm in a school zone; sale of a firearm to a juvenile, a felon, or a drug addict; illegal transport of a firearm across state lines. Some of those laws are redundant, since it is also a violation of federal law for a convicted felon to even touch a firearm. Ever. The penalty is a mandatory ten-year sentence. And yet…

And yet, US News & World Report, quoting Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, states that when it comes to enforcement of those laws, the three districts—out of ninety—with the worst, lowest record of prosecuting federal weapons crimes, per capita, are the districts of eastern New York (that includes New York City) in eighty-eighth place; central California (that includes Los Angeles) in eighty-ninth place; and northern Illinois (that includes the shooting and murder capital of the United States, Chicago) in ninetieth place. Dead last, you should pardon the expression. It is no coincidence that those three cities, in particular Chicago, also have some of the highest homicide rates and the highest rates of crime and violence in which a firearm is used.

It has been well documented that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has, since it was signed into law, resulted in a pathetically small percentage of prosecutions (less than ¼ of one percent) of those people who attempted to break the laws governing gun purchases.

(For the record, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is the system that many anti-gun organizations, most notably Shannon Watts’s Moms Demand Action, claim doesn’t apply to 40% of gun purchases. That claim is a lie that has long been debunked. No one can legally purchase a handgun in this country, from a licensed store, at a gun show, from a buddy at the range, without passing the NICS check, which means going through a licensed FFL dealer.)

But the point is, it is a violation of federal law to lie on any federal form, specifically, in this case, on ATF 4473, and if you are the kind of person who is willing to violate federal law to get your hands on a firearm, we can safely assume you might be the kind of person who would violate other laws, like those that prohibit killing people. And yet the government doesn’t prosecute these cases.

To be fair, in some of those cases, federal prosecution would be redundant because the state involved does charge and prosecute some felons earmarked by the NICS system, but no one knows what percentage are caught by the states because those records are not kept. But the federal government can’t claim a law doesn’t exist just because they can’t be bothered to enforce it.

Consider Chicago. I don’t have to document the ludicrously out of control murder rate there. Look at the news. Murder is up 48% so far this year, with roughly (the statistics vary, depending on who is doing the reporting) 250 people shot to death so far this year. Yet Chicago has the most restrictive, most draconian gun laws currently on the books of any American city.

If you can’t buy a gun in Chicago, where are the guns coming from? Out of state, smuggled into the city. That is a violation of federal law carrying a ten-year sentence. If you’re already a felon doing the smuggling, that’s another ten years added on top. If drugs or violence are involved, that could result in an automatic life sentence. But it’s all meaningless because the federal government doesn’t enforce its own laws. The government could mandate a sentence of public execution by boiling convicted criminals slowly in oil in the town square. What difference would it make? Nobody’s going to be prosecuted anyway.

A nasty, suspicious, paranoid kind of person—the kind of person who thought the government’s Operation Fast and Furious, where they illegally allowed guns along the border to “walk” into drug cartel hands, was a deliberate attempt to boost the government’s argument in favor of stricter regulations in border states—that kind of person might well think the government is deliberately not enforcing its own laws in order to build a case for new laws that it can also not enforce.

My suggestion is to make it a violation of federal law for any politician to suggest, and for the government to pass, any law and then not enforce it. I would recommend the death penalty.

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California Drought

July 24th, 2015 9 Comments

Deer 002 (Small)

 

If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that California is in the throes of one of the worst droughts of the last hundred years. If you haven’t been following the news, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your grocery bills are going to go up considerably this year because all the farmers in the Central Valley are either without water entirely, or having to pay a lot more to grow the food you hope to eat. We could have a lively debate about whether it is more important for people to have groceries or for a subspecies of smelt to have water, but I have other things on my mind at the moment, specifically rain.

California’s rainy season typically runs from November through April. In one of Wallace Stegner’s novels, Angle of Repose, the heroine is an Eastern girl transplanted by marriage to California, and one of the numerous troubles she has adjusting to the West is the absolute absence of precipitation from May to October. There are rare exceptions: I once had to leave home on June 8th for a business trip, and I had to keep my truck in four-wheel drive all the way down the mountain because it was snowing so hard. But such things are anomalies.

Well, we had an anomaly the other night. In fact, we had a damn downpour the other night, roughly two inches in a matter of hours. The guy who built our house knew what he was doing: he situated it well; he had the pad graded very cleverly, so that water flows away from the house; he had drainage cuts dug into the side of the hill behind the house. All of things have always worked in the past, and they worked the other night, but…

But one of the side effects of the drought is that I haven’t given a moment’s thought to the drainage cuts for almost four years, and at the height of the storm (my bed time) one of them was clearly having trouble performing its duty and diverting the unprecedented downpour. So instead of curling up with Graham Greene (The Quiet American) or Will and Ariel Durante (The Renaissance), I was outside with a shovel and in a pair of waterproof boots that I quickly discovered are no longer waterproof, doing manly things and being a manly man.

No troubles (other than my back the next morning); I got it done and the next day I used the tractor to improve and expand on my handiwork, so we had no damage to our property other than my driveway which tries constantly to run away to new and exciting destinations at lower elevations.

Others were not so lucky. Darleen had to go into town two days later and she was so stunned by what she saw that she came back and took me for a drive to survey some of the damage.

There are only three roads in and out of this valley, and during the height of the storm, while I was being a manly man and for many hours after, all three of them were completely closed by mudslides. But “mudslide” isn’t an accurate description because what comes down the mountains isn’t just mud. It includes boulders ranging in size from basketball to small refrigerator. Some of the dirt side roads that lead to small ranches and little subdivisions simply don’t exist anymore. A local vineyard has also ceased to exist, with mud and boulders an honest two feet deep over about sixty percent of it. (Don’t weep for the owner; he had let the thing go to seed, so it’s no loss.) A horse breeder who also puts on horse shows in his arena lost his primary pasture, but he’s both smart and lucky, because he was using that pasture as a buffer between him and the main road. The main road, needless to say, was still closed when we went for our drive. A newly installed parking lot at a local B&B has ceased to exist; you can’t even tell there was ever any asphalt there at all.

On the sides of the really steep slopes, deep vertical cuts had opened up, and what they will become can only be determined by Mama Nature, but if we get another anomaly—excuse me, I meant monsoon—it will set up the potential for ever greater runoff and ever more mud and boulders and ever more destruction.

For those of you who live in more sheltered conditions, protected from the more surprising effects of the elements, let me quote a local heavy equipment operator who was interviewed on the news. He lives in a canyon about ten miles from my house, and he told the reporter that his bulldozer was washed about a mile downstream, while a backhoe got washed almost two miles away. Think about the weight and mass of those things; it gives you an idea of the force of a wall of mud and rock.

Yet we still desperately need rain.

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The Cat Came Back

July 17th, 2015 22 Comments

bobcat and Bear 005 (Small)

 

Darleen, whose childhood was clearly subject to dubious influences, likes to sing a very dark and disreputable ditty, the title of which is, “The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day.” It purports to be a child’s song, but it involves murder, mayhem, and the dropping of both an atomic bomb and an H-bomb. And those are the more cheery and uplifting parts. The tag-line of the song, repeated after each new bit of death and destruction, is, “But the cat came back the very next day.”

Evidently Mr. Bobcat, pictured here, is a big fan of that song. We’ve actually seen him several times since the last time he posed for his portrait, but this is the first time since then that he has consented to linger and be recorded for posterity.

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I think here he just said something about my mother, but I didn’t catch it clearly.

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I did hear him this time, and while I won’t repeat his very vulgar choice of words, the general thrust of the thing was that he is used to a much higher class of surroundings.

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I include this photograph just so you can get a feel for how close he was to our dog yard. Note the chain-link fence, the scalloped edging to keep the gravel in, and the black blur in the foreground is my barbeque grill. I was surprised, not only to see him so close, but clearly so comfortable within ten yards of a house with it’s windows open and the television playing. For a moment I was confused and thought he might be listening to Fox News, but then I realized he probably surveys the house regularly and has something else on his mind.

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Meet Little Bear, an eleven week-old Australian shepherd pup of infinite charm and almost as much mischievousness. Now you know why we never allow our dogs out by themselves and unattended.

 

 

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Book Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

July 7th, 2015 18 Comments

Wolf Hall first

 

Movies based on books rarely live up to the magic of the book. That’s not a condemnation of movies or the movie industry, but rather a reflection of greatest source of magic of all—man’s imagination. No reality ever lives up to my best fantasies.

Normally, I read a book first and then—if a subsequent film production gets rave reviews—I’ll see the movie. Occasionally, the movie will live magnificently up to all my wildest expectations; To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of movie-from-book perfection. And occasionally, rarely, a movie will surpass the book. I thought The Graduate a mediocre book, but the movie was and always will be a classic portrait of a particular time and place.

Which brings us to Wolf Hall. I’m not sure how and why I missed the book. It won a Man-Booker Prize (Great Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, though over there they might say the Pulitzer is America’s equivalent of the Booker) and then author Hilary Mantel turned right around and won another Man-Booker for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. That is, I believe, the only time Booker prizes have ever been awarded to a novel and then its sequel.

Mark Rylance

 

Not only had I missed the book(s), but at first, when I saw the trailers on PBS for the film version, I wasn’t all that intrigued. Downton Abbey had just finished its last episode of the season and it was hard to imagine anything equaling that. So, a mini-series based on Henry VIII and his wretched excesses, told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s, ah, shall we say, less fastidious enablers… Ho, hum. I’ve read my history; I’ve seen A Man for All Seasons; been there, done that. But a Close Relative By Marriage insisted we watch, and after the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. That’s how good the production was, and Mark Rylance (above), the British actor who stars as Thomas Cromwell, gave one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen: quiet, understated, absolutely convincing, and absolutely electrifying. So consider this also a rave review for the PBS series.

(By the way, for those of you interested in historical tidbits: any great English house with “abbey” as part of its name, as in Downton Abbey, is so named because they were formerly Church lands. When Henry VIII, aided by Thomas Cromwell, took the great monasteries from the Pope, he awarded some of those lands to favored courtiers who retained the appellation “abbey.”)

After the second episode I galloped to my desk and ordered copies of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for myself and just about everybody I know, and as soon as they arrived, I dove in. Now I know why Hilary Mantel won the Man-Booker twice. She deserves it.

In case you’re even more of a troglodyte than I and you’ve never heard of Hilary Mantel or Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, yes, it’s Henry VIII and all his unfortunate wives and all those men and women who circled around the king and his court like flies around a corpse, but… But how much do you actually know about Thomas Cromwell? Ah. That’s the point. That’s part of Hilary Mantel’s genius: she has taken a famous and influential man about whom little is known and gone to town with him.

Thomas Cromwell is one of those mysterious figures in history who beggar the imagination. Acknowledged as arguably the single most influential minister (that’s minister in the political sense, not ecclesiastical) in all of English history, he seems to have sprung fully evolved out of his own imagining and will power. Even the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica describes his origins and early life as “obscure.” Probably (no one knows for certain) born around 1485; probably (no one knows for certain) born in Putney, at that time a decidedly seedy suburb of London; probably (no one know for certain) born to a man who may have been named Cromwell, but who may have been named Smyth who was probably (no one knows for certain) a blacksmith, but who might have been a brewer or a cloth merchant or all of the above; Thomas Cromwell probably (no one knows for certain) and improbably somehow ended up in Italy early in his life; he probably (no one knows for certain) lived in the Low Countries (think Flanders, Holland, Belgium); and he was probably (no one knows for certain) somehow associated with the London Merchant Adventurers. His early history contains the qualifying words “seems,” “appears,” “might have,” and “probably” almost more than any others.

And yet, somehow, out of these inauspicious beginnings, Thomas Cromwell suddenly burst into history in 1520 as a solicitor (that’s “lawyer” to we simple-minded Americans) to the great and immensely powerful Cardinal Wolsey. How did a man from such meager beginnings in such a rigidly stratified society manage to catapult himself into the halls of power and the pages of history?

I stumbled across an interview on the internet with Hilary Mantel, and that question is pretty much what compelled her to start her journey. So that’s half the genius.

The other half is Mantel’s writing.

To quote Rudyard Kipling:

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

And every single one of them is right.”

Doubtless very true, and who am I to question as great a writer as Rudyard Kipling? But some methods of construction are righter than others, and Hilary Mantel’s writing is breathtaking.

Of all the varied ways of constructing tribal lays, the one that appeals most to me is the kind where a master artist plays with his or her materials. Think Shakespeare. Think Faulkner. Think Cormac McCarthy. Think Hilary Mantel. The English language, so rich and varied, so ripe with multiple subtle meanings, lends itself to a kind of imaginative playfulness, verbal pyrotechnics, if you like, that amaze and delight. She writes in the present tense, third person singular, which lends an urgency to her tale, but she jumps back and forth in time, sometimes in a sentence, sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes in a section, using the mnemonic device of Cromwell’s memories to give us information about him and his past. But it is the oblique grace with which she tells her story that is so delightful. I will give you one example.

Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of what will eventually become Mantel’s trilogy, opens with Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII out hawking. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s daughters have died, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of grief. He lives to serve the king, and as a minister to the king he cannot indulge in such distracting luxuries as grief or rage or love or hate. Whatever he might feel or want must be subjugated in service to the throne. So in “Falcons,” the opening chapter of Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell and Henry are sitting their horses and watching their falcons, and a lesser, more pedestrian, writer might have opened the book with a paragraph such as:

“Cromwell watches his falcons plunging after their prey. He has named the birds after his daughters, and as he and the king watch from horseback, this one, Grace, takes her prey in silence, returning to his fist with only a slight rustling of feathers and a blood-streaked breast…”

And so on.

Now, consider this, Señorita; consider how Hilary Mantel handles the opening.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

If you don’t like that, you don’t like chocolate cake.

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Independence Day

July 3rd, 2015 18 Comments

American flag

 

There were not many Fourth of Julys when I was a child. Half of my first sixteen years were spent in different countries in Europe, where America’s Independence Day was a matter of low priority, if it was acknowledged at all. But the ones we did celebrate in America stand out as bright and vivid as the fireworks themselves.

We lived primarily in Washington, DC, a city whose site had been chosen with many advantages and potential goals in mind, but—like Rome—with no consideration for the natural marshiness of the land, with the result that during the summer in those pre-air-conditioned days, in spite of the beautiful architecture and general air of being a sleepy overgrown southern town, the whole place turned into a miserable and sweltering miasma of breathless misery and very busy mosquitoes.

My parents tried to get us out of the city as much as possible during those sultry sticky days, and I have only one recollection of an Independence Day being celebrated in the city:

Sparklers; firecrackers of various kinds and sizes doled out with appropriate admonitions to be careful; cherry bombs dispensed with far more strident warnings to be very careful, and not, under any circumstances, to light them and then put them into anything such as tin cans. It was a concept that almost certainly would never have occurred to us, but since it was suggested, my best friend, Rowland Kirks, and I scoured the trashcans (the old-fashioned galvanized metal variety that made such a racket and that did double duty during the winter months as receptacles for the hot ashes my father would rake out of our coal burning furnace morning and evening) in the alley for tin cans which we dutifully stuffed with cherry bombs to see what would happen. Why either of us have our fingers and eyes is a God-given miracle. And then that night, my father having no greater love of large crowds than I do, we went up onto the roof of our old, brick, three-story house, where we could see the fireworks display being put on by the government down at the National Mall.

One summer, one set of my godparents (he was the British Reuters correspondent, she an artist) had gone back to England and they turned their house over to us. It was out in the Virginia countryside, redolent with the scent of Paul’s omnipresent and always lit pipe, as well as the oils and thinners from Vivi’s studio, and it had—oh joy of joys!—a swimming pool where my patient father taught me how to swim. Again that Independence Day there were sparklers and firecrackers and that night my father amazed and thrilled us all with our own, personal, private display of fireworks, a host of Roman candles and similar rocketing devices, the whole affair made even more thrilling by the unspoken but tacit and universal fear that my father might manage to blow himself or possibly the whole area to smithereens. He was many wonderful things, my father, but practical mechanical skills of any variety were beyond his ken. If a lightbulb needed to be changed, he called an electrician.

But the most magical memories come from Vermont. (Oh, that long drive in a un-air-conditioned 1948 Ford packed to the gills with suitcases, my sister and I and our one-eyed Boxer hanging out the back windows, gasping for air, and then the arrival, in the dark mysterious cool of the northern mountains and a whole new world waiting to be discovered and explored.) Several summers in a row (Three? Four? I don’t remember now.) my father rented a primitive little farmhouse on a hillside overlooking the White River Valley and, hidden in the trees, the little town of Randolph. The house was morbidly named Wecumwego (I kid you not; the word was painted in fading black letters on a peeling white board over the entrance to the little attached barn) and was in need, even then, of extensive renovation, but it had a lawn out front where we could all sit in the long northern summer evenings and relish the fact of being slightly cold.

Mother would read out loud to us and while I know she read many things, in my mind she was always reading The Master of Ballantrae, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark and macabre novel about two brothers at odds with each other during the divisive dangers of the Jacobite uprising. It is a sprawling novel that takes place in many different parts of the world: Scotland, the high seas, the Carolinas, India, France, and—most importantly, in my memory—in the “wilderness” of New York. Wilderness could be interpreted to mean many things in that big state, but my mother was convinced that a certain amount of healthy terror was good for small children, and she told me emphatically that in this case, the wilderness was the Adirondack region of upstate New York, and on a trip to Lake Champlain she carefully pointed out the Adirondack mountains to me, even—as I recall it—pointing out the precise mountain where the climax of the story takes place.

And what a climax! That’s where the good and deserving brother digs up the body of his wicked brother, the Master, and finds that the equally wicked East Indian servant has taught the Master how to swallow his tongue and live without oxygen. Yes, yes, I know it’s an improbable fantasy adventure, and not Stevenson’s best work, but to a small boy sitting on a lawn in mountains right next door—I mean just over the hill, that one there!—from the Adirondacks, the Master’s undead body became a very real danger lurking in the dark of the barn overhang, behind the door in my bedroom, waiting with drawn sword in the hall to the bathroom.

But it was on that lawn where the most magical Independence Day celebrations took place. The little town of Randolph put on a parade every year (one year, my father entered us, our family, our dog, our car, in the parade to mock a recently passed tourist tax that Vermonters feared might keep tourists away; we tied suitcases and “antiques” to the roof of the car and sported a sign saying we would tolerate any tax to be in Vermont; we won third prize) and after dinner, after too many ears of corn and too much freshly-made strawberry shortcake, all of us over-tired and over-fed and happy, we would sit in the lengthening shadows until the fireworks display began in the valley below as if specifically ordered for our personal pleasure, and we knew, even if our father hadn’t told us as he always did, how lucky we were to live in the greatest nation on earth.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day.

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America’s Deeper Thinkers

June 30th, 2015 11 Comments

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The Washington Post recently published an Op-Ed piece by a self-proclaimed gun owner and hunter named David Fellerath. The title of the article was, “I own guns. But I hate the NRA.”

This appears to be a growing trend among anti-gun news organizations: find a shill who can convincingly pass himself off as the kind of red-blooded, red meat-eating, rightwing, camo-wearing Neanderthal anti-gun types imagine us all to be, and then turn him loose to argue that guns are bad. The Huffington Post has even gone so far as to regularly publish a blog by a gentleman who calls himself Mike “the gun guy” Weisser, who uses his putative standing as a “gun guy” to decry guns and gun ownership.

Both Mike “the gun guy” Weisser and Mr. Fellerath use a variation of Shakespeare’s famous tactic from Julius Caesar, where Marc Antony tells the crowd, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” and then proceeds to limn the late Caesar as a saint.

They start off presenting themselves as gun owners and lovers just like every other gun owner, and then they roll up their sleeves and go to work, condemning, damning, slashing and burning. Both gentlemen, Mr. Weisser in particular, remind me of Lord Haw Haw during World War Two.

(Lord Haw Haw was the nickname of the Anglo/American traitor who did radio broadcasts for the Nazis. He was American-born, but he held British nationality, and had been raised in Ireland (actually, there were several Lord Haw Haws, but this was the primary one, and while his name is known, why bother keeping alive the name of someone so despicable?) and he used to do his radio broadcasts in a veddy upper-crust British accent, mocking the English for their losses, attempting to undermine English and Allied morale, and spreading Nazi propaganda. As one of the most contemptible and insidious tools of the Nazis, Lord Haw Haw was promptly and quite rightly hung immediately after the war.)

I’m not going to walk you though all of Mr. Fellerath’s (pick one) inaccuracies, “misspeaking,” or outright lies, because it would involve walking you through lengthy numerical statistical information and your eyes would glaze over, but he did say one thing that really caught my attention and started me thinking. Toward the end of his article he wrote:

“Rather than being our American birthright, gun ownership should be a privilege earned after thorough examination and training, like driving a car. But in 21st-century America, arms-bearing is an inalienable right, thanks to 27 anachronistic words of a constitution ratified in an 18th-century world of slow-loading muskets.”

Wow. Mr. Fellerath, you are so close! The problem is you haven’t taken it far enough and you haven’t started in the right place. With your gracious permission, I would like to respectfully and modestly propose that we start with the first amendment:

Instead of being our American birthright, freedom of speech and freedom of the press should both be privileges earned after thorough examination and training, like driving a car.

Think what this would accomplish! For one very fundamental thing, we might once more regain some semblance of proper English usage. No more semi-literate news anchors on television butchering subject-verb agreement (there is lots of examples I could give you); no more confusing the use of “less” and “fewer,” (which would give us less newscasters); no more fragmentary sentences in headlines (“But I hate the NRA”).

More importantly, it would mean our poor leaders elected officials wouldn’t have to put up with troublesome and awkward questions from members of the press, let alone from private citizens; with no questions allowed except from trained and qualified members of an approved press corps, just think how much they could get done!

But most importantly, in the printed media, it would mean fewer (or less, if you like today’s journalism) damn fools expressing their opinions and prejudices as calcified fact.

Unfortunately, freedom of speech is still an unalienable right, thanks to ten anachronistic words (out of forty-five) of a constitution ratified in an 18th century world without the internet or any other troublesome form of mass communication.

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Desert Bighorn

June 29th, 2015 9 Comments

Desert bighorn

 

Driving back from Arizona on the I-40, across the Mojave desert in the middle of a heatwave (109-degrees by my truck thermometer), I was stunned to see my first ever desert bighorn close to the highway. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, but he looked very much like the one pictured above, and he was standing in pretty much the same position, still as a stone carving, watching cars go by.

The desert bighorn (Ovis Canadensis nelsoni) is a marvel of adaptive evolution, capable of living in areas where a lizard would be hard-pressed to survive, and making do with unbelievably small amounts of water, or with no water at all for long periods of time. From what I have read, their bodies are able to adapt to the great temperature extremes of the desert (it can be almost as cold in the winter as it is hot in the summer) by actually fluctuating several degrees. Certainly, it is their ability to live in areas where predators cannot that has helped them endure, even if only in small numbers.

There were several things that struck me as odd about my sighting.

First, obviously, was the fact that he was car-watching so close to the highway.

Second, while I’m not going to get too specific about where I saw him, it was an area where, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, desert bighorn are even more few and far between than they are in other parts of the desert, and there aren’t many of them anywhere, the low numbers being spread out over vast expanses of territory.

Gemsbok

 

Third, given that water in the Mojave desert is scarcer than an honest politician in Washington, and given that the state is in the throes of the worst drought in modern times, what on earth was he doing in a part of the desert noted for having even less water than the rest of that barren moonscape? Many years ago I was on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, an area either about five-hundred miles long, or one-thousand miles long (depending on who is doing the defining) where there is virtually no water whatsoever, so picture my confusion one morning when I stumbled across the tracks of a large antelope. I did some inquiring and was told by several knowledgeable people that there is a subspecies of the gemsbok (above) that is able to survive by inhaling moisture from the coastal fog that—occasionally—blows in off the ocean at night. That may sound incredible to you, but consider this: when I left my host’s home in Arizona, over two-thousand feet higher in elevation, the humidity was exactly zero, and his part of Arizona is a tropical rain forest compared to that part of the Mojave. What water? What moisture? How?

And finally, one of the ways desert bighorn survive the intense heat is to bed down in the shade (think caves and rock overhangs) by day, so what was he doing standing on a barren rock pile at high noon in a heatwave? The local village idiot? Suffering from delusions caused by the intense heat? Trying to hitch a ride?

If anybody has any knowledge, please share it.

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Charleston as Paradigm

June 21st, 2015 19 Comments

AME church

 

As it did everyone else, the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina left me sick to my stomach. So, equally, did the predictable, poorly-timed, shrill and tasteless politicizing that followed, most notably and most dishonestly by our Commander-in-Chief, who stated that such horrors only happen in America and then only because of our lax gun laws, conveniently forgetting that there are already redundant laws in place that didn’t do a damn thing to stop that evil, racist lunatic; also forgetting the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris that left twelve dead and eleven wounded and another five dead and eleven wounded again the next day; or the Norway shooting in 2011 that left sixty-nine dead by gun and another eight by bomb; or the recent multiple mass shootings in Finland, or Azerbaijan, or Germany, or…

Oh, never mind.

Instead, let’s concentrate on the good that came out of this horror. I have never seen such dignity, grace, restraint, and eloquence, as that shown by the people of the city of Charleston generally, and by the families of the victims in particular. All the natural and completely understandable reactions one might have expected, that I, for one, might have given vent to under those circumstances, such as rage, desire for revenge, hatred, none of those were shown or expressed. Instead, there was only love and forgiveness. If this is an example of the kind of Christianity taught at the AME, we should all join that church. God bless them all for setting such a fine example for those of us who aren’t as good. May God bless the rest of us with equal dignity and grace.

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CNN’s View of the Police

June 15th, 2015 12 Comments

Fredricka Whitfield

 

What is going on with CNN and the police departments across this country?

After the Michael Brown shooting in Fergusson, Missouri, CNN hosts Sally Kohn, Margaret Hoover, Sunny Hostin, and Mel Robbins all expressed support for the “protestors” (looters and thugs, is how I would have characterized them), holding up their hands in a “hands-up-don’t-shoot” solidarity gesture, and pontificating about police “overreach.” I don’t know how or when defending your life against a three-hundred-pound thug became overreach, but that was how they described it.

During the Baltimore riots, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin appeared to suggest that military veterans who become police officers are part of the problem, implying that PTSD leaves them unfit for public service.

During the same riots, CNN’s Chris Cuomo, on air, told a young black “protestor” to “…be careful, because you know how they [the police] are…” as if the police should somehow have been even more restrained than they were in Baltimore.

Then, CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill expressed the following opinion: “There shouldn’t be calm tonight. Black people are dying in the streets. They’ve been dying in the streets for months, years, decades, centuries. I think there can be resistance to oppression and when resistance occurs, you can’t circumscribe resistance… I’m not calling these people rioters. I’m calling these uprisings and I think it’s an important distinction to make… What I’m saying is we can’t pathologize [sic] people who, after decades and centuries of police terrorism, have decided to respond in this way…” Mr. Hill went on at a later date to describe the police as, “an occupying force in the hood.”

Now consider, specifically, CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield’s assessment of the man who opened fire on a Dallas police station from an armored vehicle booby-trapped with pipe bombs. Instead of categorizing that individual as a rabid coyote, she called him, “brave and courageous.” She later declined to apologize, only tersely saying that she, “misspoke.”

Indeed.

It may be a popular pastime for some to attack the police and highlight every case of bad while ignoring the countless daily incidences of courage and kindness and self-sacrifice, but when it sinks down into praising would-be cop-killers, I lose my patience.

To hell with CNN. To hell, specifically, with Fredricka Whitfield.

 

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