October, 2016

Thinking the Unthinkable

October 30th, 2016 23 Comments

Hillary Clinton

 

There is hysteria, left and right, over the latest announcement from the FBI about Hillary’s emails. I’d like to provide a measured and non-partisan response from a man long dead.

In 1972 I was living in northern Virginia, working at night in a dinner theater, and by day trying to support my acting addiction by driving a taxi and working as a gardener. One of the gardens I tended belonged to one of the highest-ranking intelligence officers in the CIA at that time. (I won’t mention his name.) I had landed the gardening gig at his house because government generally and the intelligence branch in particular were both still very much an old-school-tie affair back in those days. Everyone knew everyone and they had all gone to the same schools and the same colleges; in this particular case, the CIA officer and his wife were friends of some friends of my parents and were charitable enough to help keep a friend’s friend’s son from starving to death.

It just so happened that the day the Watergate scandal broke in the Washington Post (those of you under fifty please go rent All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) I was working in the CIA officer’s garden. He had recently had a serious heart attack and was recuperating at home, sitting in the sun on his back patio with the morning paper in his hands. When I saw he was reading about the break-in, I asked him what he thought of it. Without missing a beat he said, “Well, if I were on the Democratic National Committee, and I wanted to make sure my boy” [George McGovern] “got elected, I might stage a phony break-in to make Nixon and the Republicans look bad.”

I was flabbergasted. That way of looking at things had never occurred to me. As it turned out, he was wrong. Things were much simpler than a CIA officer could have imagined, and Richard Nixon and his cronies were as crooked as they seemed.

 

So now we have James Comey announcing that emails found on a server belonging to Anthony Weiner contained material that justified the FBI’s decision to re-open their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private-server-classified-email peccadillos. In case you’ve been living under a rock, let’s review the bidding:

One of Hillary Clinton’s most trusted senior advisors, the vice-chairwoman of Hillary’s campaign, and her former deputy chief of staff at the Department of State, is Huma Abedin.

Huma Abedin is married to Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former Democratic Congressman and New York City mayoral candidate who likes to “sext” photographs of his, uh, not-so-private parts to under-aged girls, which is why all of him is under investigation.

Hillary Clinton came under investigation for using her private, non-governmentally secured server to send and receive classified and top-secret material to various parties, including Huma Abedin.

Ms. Abedin has been accused (by some extremely conservative Republican congressmen) of having ties to the radical Muslim Brotherhood, an association which, they claimed, made her unqualified to have any kind of security clearance. This appears to have been pretty much dismissed as tinfoil hat material.

We know, from James Comey’s testimony to Congress, that Hillary lied, both under oath and to the American people, about sending and receiving classified and top-secret material.

Now we have a situation where Huma Abedin’s husband (they are separated but still married), who is under investigation for sex crimes, has emails on some of his devices (the same devices, presumably, with which he sent under-aged girls photographs they would probably have preferred not seeing) that are “significant” enough (Comey’s word) to justify the FBI re-opening their investigation into the question of whether or not Hillary’s poor judgement and preference for convenience over national security might constitute illegal behavior.

No matter how you look at this, whether or not you believe Hillary Clinton’s behavior was criminal or merely “careless,” whether or not you believe Huma Abedin should or should not be allowed access to classified material because of her possible ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, even if you believe Hillary Clinton is a pristine and flawless saint who should be canonized, there is absolutely no way that classified emails about the business of the United States government should end up on the server that a pedophile uses to send photographs of his eponymous body part to under-aged girls, thereby—presumably—giving said under-aged girls potential access to classified information.

I hope, I pray, sincerely, that there is some kind of simple, innocent explanation for all this, that it is no more than proof of the extraordinary, mind-boggling stupidity and incompetence of the Woman Who Would Be President and her top advisor, but remembering an aging CIA officer and his immediate response to a vastly less serious crime, the writer in me can easily come up with a half-dozen scenarios that are considerably more ominous. I pray for our country and for an innocent explanation because the alternative is unthinkable.

 

Reductio ad Absurdum

October 21st, 2016 17 Comments

nc17

 

What is your definition of a government’s duties? If the function of government is to protect and serve—serve—the people, at what point do the powers of government shift from serving to dictating? In other words, how would you define governmental overreach? When do laws and regulations cease to be a benefit to the general welfare and instead become onerous and intrusive? In your bedroom? In public bathrooms? To take it to an extreme, when does a government become so immersed in minutia that it ceases to be a democratic republic and becomes a fascist dictatorship? Or just an absurd joke?

I thought the state of California had gone as far as it could go in terms of overreach when a few years ago the state passed a law limiting the weight of the schoolbooks a child may carry in his backpack. The problem with that law, like all governmental attempts to micromanage the lives and activities of its citizens, is that not all children are the same and one size does not fit all. When the state passes a law where one size must fit all, it serves no one.

But I had honestly had no idea of the extent to which the progressive liberal boneheads in Sacramento were willing to go. I like to vote early, by mail, and I recently received my ballot. For your edification, I will now simply transcribe here the exact wording of this year’s California Proposition 60, The Adult Films, Condoms, Health Requirements, Initiative Statute, as it appears on my ballot:

“Requires adult film performers to use condoms during filming of sexual intercourse. Requires producers to pay for performer vaccinations, testing, and medical examinations. Requires producers to post condom requirements at film sites. Fiscal impact: Likely reduction of state and local tax revenues of several million dollars annually. Increased state spending that could exceed $1-million annually on regulation, partially offset by new fees.”

Of course, offsetting the state spending would be the creation of a whole new, specialized line of work in the entertainment industry: the vitally important job of Condom Inspector, affectionately known as Rubber Wranglers. I sure am glad my state representatives are spending my tax dollars and their clearly limited intellectual resources on this critical issue.

Book Review: Shadow Country

October 18th, 2016 9 Comments

shadowcountry

 

The prolific and immensely talented actor James Best (most famous for his role as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazard) owned an acting school in Hollywood for many years. One of his admonitions to any of his students who happened to get cast as a villain was, “After you rape all the women and murder all the children, make sure you pat the horse on the ass before you leave the scene.” It was a shorthand way of saying, ‘No matter how loathsome your character, find a way to give him a humanizing dimension.’ It’s excellent advice for actors and writers both, and it is why I have a problem with Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country.

I have no proof of this, but my impression is that Americans are more prone to romanticize their villains and make heroes of them than people of other nations. Think of the violent criminals of the post-Civil War days: Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, the Daltons, Tom Horn, and a score of others, less well known, but also romanticized gunslingers. I haven’t even bothered to include some of the famous names that were nominally considered lawmen, but who moved back and forth across the line between law and crime as it suited their purposes. (The Earps, Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday… The list is lengthy.) Moving along into the twentieth century, think of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Machine Gun Kelley, Pretty Boy Floyd, the glorification of the Mafia generally in books and on film. These were all murderous, vicious, amoral, and narcissistic thugs, but every single one of the names above has had at least one book written about him and been featured in a movie, and most of those names have had multiple books written and multiple movies made about them, and some have passed into legend, forming part of the mythology of America.

Enter Peter Matthiessen with his monumental and massive (892 pages) portrayal of one of the bloodiest and most ruthless and little known members of that legendary group.

Edgar Artemas (middle name later changed to Jack) Watson, nicknamed “Bloody” Watson for reasons that scarcely need explaining, was a pioneer of one of the least known, least appreciated, and least understood wilderness areas remaining in America at the end of the nineteenth century.

The extreme southwestern coast of Florida is known as the Ten Thousand Islands, islands here including any little islet, regardless of suitability for habitation. While most of those little tangled islets are nothing more than mangroves growing on submerged oyster beds, they have two very desirable qualities. One is they provide an ecologically rich buffer zone for the ecologically rich coast proper. The other is they provide excellent cover for people who might prefer their activities to be screened from the prying eyes of the law-abiding world. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Ten Thousand Islands (the name is a great exaggeration; there are nowhere near ten thousand of them) was a conveniently remote and inaccessible area for people who might be of great interest to law enforcement. And nothing has changed in over one hundred years; when I worked down there in the early eighties, the area was considered one of the primary ports of entry for the illegal drug trade, and I suspect little has changed in the past thirty-five years.

Briefly, Edgar Watson was one of those who found the area to be convenient, being a person of interest in various other parts of the country for the reasons that led to his “Bloody” nickname. Like so many other semi-legendary characters, like the islands themselves, his soubriquet was probably a great exaggeration. It owed its genesis to rumors that he was the man who killed the notorious Belle Starr while he was hiding out in the “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). There is no doubt that he killed at least several people, but probably nowhere near as many as are attributed to him. There is also no doubt that he raised sugar cane and vegetables very successfully in the Ten Thousand Islands. After that, much is conjecture.

Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen’s rich imagining of Edgar Watson’s life, but unfortunately, Matthiessen ignored Jimmy Best’s advice: his Edgar Watson is loathsome in every single way you can imagine and admirable in none. Yes, as written by Matthiessen, Mr. Watson is highly intelligent, but so what? There are highly intelligent psychopaths in every prison in America, but intelligence doesn’t make them people you want to hang out with. Yes, as written by Matthiessen, Mr. Watson is ambitious and has the foresight to see the potential in swampy, mosquito-infested land, but every crooked politician in the country has ambition and foresight, and those qualities don’t make any of them the kind of person you want to spend 892 pages with.

Mr. Watson’s bad qualities (murderous violence, treachery, the kind of unspeakable racism that regards blacks as disposable non-humans, brutality toward his own children, infidelity, sexual predation of every pretty thing who crosses his path regardless of age or willingness, sexual brutality toward even the women he purports to love, an inclination to justify his murders and treachery by saying other people do it too, alcoholism and a host of other self-destructive traits) so outweigh whatever miniscule and fleeting good impulses he might have had that it was only Matthiessen’s exquisite writing that kept me forging on to the end. If I want to hang out with people like that, I can find them in any city in the country. Hell, there’re a lot of them on Capitol Hill. And I frankly got tired of the litany of killings; the bodies kept piling up without remorse or even learning from experience on the part of Mr. Watson. Except for a brief interlude as a child, Mr. Watson starts out bad and progresses only as far as worse.

Originally written as a much longer trilogy, Shadow Country is condensed down into three connected books in a single volume. The first and last of the these work the best.

The first is told in a wide range of voices and from a wide range of different points of view, all of them discussing Mr. Watson and his exploits from their singular perspective. And here is one of the areas where Matthiessen is unsurpassed: like Twain, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, Matthiessen has the rare ability to catch the real and natural vernacular of uneducated people even as he achieves something almost like poetry.

The third book is told from Mr. Watson’s point of view, and while that doesn’t make his actions any prettier, it does provide a fascinating portrait of a man almost completely devoid of empathy, compassion, understanding, or any other trace of humanity. He may be despicable, but he is the personification of raw courage and self-reliance. He never whines or shows any more self-pity than he does pity to various people he uses and uses up for his own ends. It’s an intriguing masterpiece of writing, and in the last three or four pages, Matthiessen even managed to engage my sympathies for this despicable man.

The middle book, told from the point of view of one of Mr. Watson’s sons, is the most revealing yet least successful. The boy is educated, so he lacks the vernacular poetry of the more uneducated people in the story, and—probably in the interests of time and brevity—Matthiessen has other people, some of them total strangers to the boy, overly eager to tell him the unvarnished truth of everything they know about his father. And yet, in Matthiessen’s gifted hands, truth becomes as tenuous and slippery as it is in real life.

I have one other cavil, one in which I am not alone: covering over half a century and the entire southeastern quadrant of the country, not including occasional forays into the past, there are sooooooooooooo many characters I had to keep referring back to the genealogy just to keep Mr. Watson’s family members and multiple wives straight. More irritating and more to the point, there are sooooooooooooo many ancillary characters, some of whom appear briefly in book one and don’t reappear until book three, that I would really have appreciated a list of all the dramatis personae. Or perhaps not: I’m willing to do that for War and Peace because I find Russian names confusing and hard to remember, but I shouldn’t have to do it for Shadow Country.

What kept me plowing on, more than anything else, is Matthiessen’s felicitous writing and the real hero of his story: the beautiful, fragile, vulnerable southern Florida wilderness, a wilderness as abused and doomed as any of Mr. Watson’s many women.

America At Her Best

October 12th, 2016 8 Comments

weatherby-decal

 

I do some work for the Weatherby Company, makers of some of the finest rifles in the world, including the renowned and vault-like Mark V, and I went to my local range yesterday to play with their new ladies’ model, called the Camilla.

It’s a private, unsupervised range, and the only other person there was an older gentleman shooting a few tables away. When I turned to signal for down time to check my target, I noticed he was shooting a Weatherby and that his truck had a “Semper Fi” sticker on it with the cursive Weatherby W decal right above that. I had never met this gentleman before, he had no idea who I was (we didn’t even exchange names until later), and I said nothing to him about my having any connection to Weatherby. This, paraphrased and condensed, is what came out, unsolicited, in our conversation:

His name is Jim Neal and he is an eighty-year-old former Marine, originally from Montana. He and his family (children and grandchildren) drive up to Dillon, Montana ever year for a couple of weeks of deer and elk hunting. His rifle is a synthetic-stocked Mark V .340 Wby that he bought secondhand thirty-two years ago as his all-purpose hunting rifle. He had Weatherby install a muzzle brake a few years back when age began to make the recoil a little unpleasant. He had a Kahles scope on it originally, but earlier this year, when he started to practice for his family hunt, the focus ring froze up. He sent the scope back to Kahles, but they told him it would be months before they could repair and return it. He mounted another scope and found, to his horror, that his shots were going all over the paper. He asked a friend to shoot it as a double-check. Same thing. Another scope. Same thing. He called Weatherby and then drove the rifle across the state to them in Paso Robles. He dealt with a lady named Cheryl in the Service Department who took him in back to talk to a gunsmith named Vladimir, who examined the rifle.

How it happened, or how he had been able to shoot the rifle, I don’t know, but this is what they found:

The stock was cracked, the magazine was bent, the floorplate hinge was cracked, and the safety wouldn’t engage properly. Weatherby put on a new stock, repaired the magazine and the floorplate, fixed the safety, and installed a new trigger, but the new trigger had too much creep in it, so they replaced their replacement. Then Cheryl and Vladimir gave Mr. Neal a Weatherby cap, a butt-stock ammo carrier, a sling, and Vladimir gave him his own ratchet screw-driver because Mr. Neal likes to do his own gun-smithing.

The total cost to him for all their time and labor was exactly zero. On a secondhand, thirty-two-year-old rifle.

Ask me why I’m proud to be associated with Weatherby.

Who You Gonna Vote For? Vote Busters!

October 10th, 2016 33 Comments

Donald Trump

 

I have become something of a one-issue voter, not because I only care about one issue, but because that one issue—support for or repudiation of the Second Amendment—is an accurate touchstone of a candidate’s understanding of and belief in the Constitution, and if a candidate doesn’t believe in the Constitution, it is, as far as I’m concerned, an accurate sign that person is unqualified to hold public office in this country.

It was for this reason that I was going to hold my nose, buy a ticket on the Titanic, and vote for the Trumpster. But I have been thinking about the latest revelations that have surfaced about his admitted—boasted about—sexual predation, thinking about those revelations in the context of my two daughters and my granddaughter.

I have done many things in my life that I am ashamed of. Most were mistakes, errors in judgement, poor decisions, and what are described in old-fashioned novels as “youthful indiscretions.” But I can honestly say that I have never sexually assaulted any girl or woman. I can honestly say that, even while quivering with desire, I have never forced myself on any girl or woman. And I can also honestly say that it would never have occurred to me to grope any girl or woman. I can even honestly say that I’ve never discussed girls or women in the way I heard on that video clip, or used the terms I heard on that video. And more, I can even honestly say that in the raunchy, smelly, loathsome confines of the locker rooms of the various schools I attended I never heard anyone use quite that kind of language or display quite that kind of attitude. I have used inappropriate language about specific women while moved to anger, but I have also used equally inappropriate language about specific men while moved to anger, and in both cases I have always reflected later that use of such language in anger is a sign that one’s brain has ceased to function.

But it’s not just locker room talk. Just as Bill Clinton wasn’t impeached for sexual predation (in which he may have done far worse than the Trumpster), but rather for the crime of lying under oath, so too the Trumpster shouldn’t be judged by an example of obnoxious adolescent locker room talk, but rather by the fact that these were things he was boasting about having done. It’s not a question of looking at a girl and saying, “Whoo boy! I’d love to bathe her in scented oils and take her to my tent.” It’s that he reported doing things that are not only distasteful, but criminal.

I cannot bring myself to vote for a woman who is a pathological liar, who came under criminal investigation by the FBI for what can be described as, at best, egregiously careless and arrogant attention to her own convenience rather than the nation’s security, who may still come under criminal investigation for her conflation of her public office and her private financial dealings, and one who has expressed her disdain for and contempt of people like me who believe in the importance of the Second Amendment. But before I cast my ballot, I will think about my daughters and my granddaughter.

Maybe I’ll write in Mike Pence.

Please Do Not Annoy the Elk

October 6th, 2016 12 Comments

Elk 068 (2) (Small)

 

Twenty years ago or more, Darleen and I went for a hike in Alberta’s Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton. Its name notwithstanding, it is a refuge more famous for its herds of bison than elk, with warnings everywhere to be wary of the bison and not get too close. In fact, in the parking area there was in those days a graphic photograph of what could happen if one did get too close to a one-ton mass of aggression and attitude, a photograph that inspired a lot of respect.

We chose a trail that went in long loop (roughly eight miles, if memory serves), starting at the parking area and ending at the parking area. At a little over the six mile mark we came to a large marsh where the only way across was a narrow wooden causeway perhaps a hundred yards long. At the far end of the causeway, at the foot of the steps back down to the trail, there was a large bull bison dozing in the sun.

There was the bull. There we were. There we stayed. Our options narrowed down to waiting for him to finish his nap, or turning around and walking back, making our pleasant eight mile jaunt a somewhat more rigorous twelve-mile-plus schlep. We tried waiting, oh boy did we try waiting; we tried yelling at him; we tried positive thinking; we tried prayer, but it was clear this was a bull who had found his place in the sun and planned to get his beauty rest, so after about forty-five minutes we gave up and went back the way we had come.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when we tried to take our dogs to a dog park in a nearby community. It’s a very large fenced and mowed area in an even bigger park where we can let them off-leash to blow off steam in continuous wind sprints without picking up the foxtails in their fur which necessitate a good hour of grooming afterward. It wears them out (a tired dog is a good dog) without wearing us out (a tired dog owner is a grumpy dog owner).

We pulled into the parking area to be greeted by four giant bull elk grazing leisurely in front of the gate into the dog park. One of them, a magnificent eight by seven, was as large as any bull I’ve ever seen. Of course, with running the dogs being the only thing on my mind, I hadn’t brought my camera (that’s an old photograph above), so all we could do was leave the dogs in the car and stand and admire. And that was what we were doing when a woman in spandex and high-tech walking shoes showed up. She had a smart phone and took some pictures of the elk, but she seemed annoyed at having her path blocked, and when Darleen made a comment about the beauty of the bulls, she launched into an exasperated tirade.

Those same elk, those exact four, it appeared, had been on her lawn, on the front lawn of her house, mind you, and had grazed there too, pulling out great chunks of her grass, her expensive front lawn, her manicured and beautifully maintained lawn that she had spent so much money on, damaging it, and when she had told her husband to go out and shoo them away, he had said, he had actually told her to go shoo them off herself! 

She flounced off on her hike in the opposite direction, away from the elk, and I found myself wondering at anyone who could find such beauty a nuisance. I think I would like her husband.

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