A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
We watched If Only You Could Cook the other night. It’s one of the early screwball comedies (1935) and by no means one of the best. The premise is worthy of four Pinocchios, the script has holes in it you could drive a Peterbuilt through, the directing is only competent (William Seiter, who made his name directing excellent slapstick with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, but screwball is not slapstick), and even the great Herbert Marshall seems to have trouble with his thankless role as the millionaire executive pretending to be a butler. It has Leo Carrillo looking and sounding as if he were doing an imitation of himself, and the great Lionel Stander with his voice like a cement mixer in need of new ball bearings. Great actors and great comedians all, but none of them are enough to really make it work.
But it also has Jean Arthur, the great, the delicious, the delightful, the incomparable Jean Arthur, the beautiful, vulnerable Jean Arthur. And I think it is that last quality that defined her and made her career as much as her talent, her comic timing, and her marvelous unique, raspy/squeaky voice.
It’s a very difficult thing, trying to define what makes one person a star and not another. We use the word charisma, but I not sure what that means or how to define it. It has to do with talent, but it is not talent. It’s something many actors can’t define or sometimes even recognize in themselves. There is a story possibly true, possibly apocryphal, that when Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud were doing some Shakespearean play together (Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, where they took turns alternating playing Romeo and Mercutio? some other play?) on one particular night Olivier reached a transcendent level of performance, wowing the audience and awing his fellow actors. But instead of basking in the glow of congratulations, he stormed into his dressing room and slammed the door. The other actors, dumbfounded, gawked at each other, and only Gielgud had the courage to go in and confront Olivier.
“My dear boy,” he said, “what on earth is the matter? You were absolutely, unbelievably magnificent.”
And Olivier looked up at him and said: “That’s what’s wrong. I know I was, but I don’t know how I did it.”
Of course many actors have techniques and tricks and tools they know work and work well, and they use them, but many actors never quite understand themselves what makes them so special. (On the other hand, of course, some are actually fools enough to believe their own press and think they really are special when in reality they are, at their best, dreary, and frequently loathsome.) Jean Arthur was beautiful, but not a great beauty. She was talented, but so were many others. She was sexy, but not nearly as obviously or as much so as many others. She was charming, but so were all of the ladies of the screwball comedy genre. But what made her so singular was the combination of beauty, talent, sex appeal, charm, the voice, all of it masking a tremendous vulnerability and fragility. She obviously knew enough about herself to understand her strengths and weaknesses (she preferred to be photographed from the left only), and she said herself she loved acting, but she also was apparently so stricken with stage fright that she used to frequently throw up before filming a take. Many actresses and even some actors throw up from fear before a stage performance, but I have never heard of any other actor who threw up from fear before filming on a sound stage. It evidently became worse as she got older; she was the original choice to play the lead in Garsin Kanin’s Born Yesterday, but got so terrified she quit, making Judy Holiday a star. She had a nervous breakdown trying to do Shaw’s Saint Joan for director Harold Clurman. She walked out on two more Broadway plays, unable to stand the extreme stage fright, and finally walked out on her career. She became an acting teacher, first at Vassar (where one of her students was, supposedly, Meryl Streep), and later at the University of North Carolina, and finally retired to a reclusive life in Carmel, California where she steadfastly refused to do any kind of publicity or interview. Even at the height of her success she was as reclusive as Garbo.
These actions have, to me, all the earmarks of a very vulnerable person, and I believe it was that quality underlying the raspy wisecracks and the niceness that made her so…well, okay, charismatic.
But in 1935, when she was just beginning to come into her own in terms of ability, fame, success, recognition, she manages to be the reason to watch If Only You Could Cook. It’s not even one of her best performances, but it has that wonderful charm, that quality of being a girl a man could talk to, would want to talk to. You want to take her in your arms and kiss her, but you want to say the things that will be a natural set-up for one her quips. You want to make her laugh and to laugh with her as you hold her. That’s Jean Arthur.
When I was in college, the nation was divided by the Viet Nam war. The vast majority of the country was conservative, red, and pro-government. A small minority, primarily college students like me with long hair and in need of a bath, were liberal, blue, and anti-government. (Of course, back then, the concept of red and blue didn’t exist.) Today the nation is fairly evenly divided between red/blue, conservative/liberal but with the difference that today it is the conservatives, the reds, who are anti-government, while the liberals, the blues, are pro-government.
One of the fascinating things about this sea-change is the change in the media. The media used to be regarded as an autonomous watchdog, the entity that brought the harsh glare of truth to bear on government. The most notable example, of course, is the Washington Post breaking the story about Watergate, a story that eventually drove Nixon out of the White House and into retirement at San Clemente. Things have changed. Today, the only mainstream media entity to have covered the Fast and Furious debacle, to pick one example, was CBS, and they came late into the game. The story was broken by two conservative bloggers, David Codrea of www.waronguns.blogspot.com and Mike Vanderboegh of www.sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com and even after CBS picked it up, much of the rest of the mainstream media devoted their efforts to painting it as right-wing conservative hysteria. No one was killed because of Watergate; at least two Americans and countless hundreds or thousands (no one knows how many) of Mexicans have been killed because of a Department of Justice operation that violated international law, Mexican law, US Federal law, Arizona law, and Texas law, yet there is no moral outrage among the media.
Do you think I’m a wild-eyed and exaggerating conspiracy theorist in a tinfoil hat? Consider Guantanamo: it was the symbol of all that was evil about the Bush administration and it was decried in the press daily. Obama ran on a promise, among other promises, to close it. It is still in operation, but when was the last time the media said anything about it?
An interesting side effect of all this red/blue, liberal/conservative, us/them polarization that has been growing exponentially in America is the stance more and more conservative states, county sheriffs, and firearm or firearm-related manufactures are taking. Half a century ago, young left-wing hippies and a small number of liberal “extremists,” doctors, teachers, entertainers, writers, artists, and such, started holding anti-war demonstrations and burning their draft cards and railing against the “establishment,” by which they meant the government and everyone who supported it. Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, and so many others advocated some form of civil disobedience or resistance. Civil rights marches in the South were brutally broken up by police. In the North, the National Guard fired on and killed students at KentState, and Chicago Police, acting under orders from Mayor Richard Daley, beat up students protesting outside at the Democratic Convention, and roughed up reporters inside the convention.
Now the pendulum has swung to a side I thought I would never live to see. President Obama signed twenty-three executive orders designed around “common sense” new gun laws, and in response Texas, Wyoming, and most recently, Idaho promptly proposed legislation that would make it a crime in those states for any law enforcement officer to enforce new federal gun laws, statutes, rules, or regulations. Sheriffs and police chiefs in many cities and counties across the nation have also announced they will not enforce any further gun bans or regulations enacted by the federal government.
Today, California, Washington, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, and most notably New York and Connecticut, have all passed or proposed laws that would, by “grandfathering,” make law-abiding gun owners de facto felons, subject law-abiding citizens to confiscation of private property (sometimes with compensation, sometimes without), create registries of non-confiscated firearms, impose labyrinthine fees and restrictions, and subject firearm owners to warrant-less home “inspection” by law enforcement. In fact, the state of New York rushed their new and draconian laws through so quickly they inadvertently made illegal most of the firearms their own police carry. In response, over one hundred (last time I checked; the number was growing steadily) firearm manufacturing companies (I am including companies that make accessories and related items, such as magazines) have refused to sell their products to state or county law enforcement agencies where those same products are not also available to the civilian population.
The second amendment, the fourth, and the fifth all take a beating from these new laws, but putting Constitutional issues aside, it indicates clearly the great divide that exists in this country. I was reading about all this and I decided to explore correlations between political affiliation, gun laws, and financial solvency, and after wasting an inordinate amount of time cruising the highways and byways of the internet, this is what I found:
According to Forbes, the five states with the most severe economic troubles and debt are all blue states: Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California. The five states in the best economic condition are primarily red states: Utah, Nebraska, and Texas, along with two politically mixed states, Virginia and New Hampshire. Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California are also the five states with the most draconian, repressive, and constitutionally questionable gun laws in the nation. Utah, Nebraska, Texas, and New Hampshire, are rated by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as barbaric (my word, not theirs) with no gun laws worthy of the name, while Virginia gets a bad rating from them as one of the states with the weakest gun laws.
What can we deduce from all this? Damned if I know. But taking as a guide the quotation variously attributed to Mark Twain, or to Benjamin Disraeli, or to someone else entirely (“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”), we can say, speaking in broad and general terms, on average, Republicans with guns are richer than Democrats without guns, and this is a seriously divided country. And that’s about all one can deduce.
I also tried to correlate the relationship between gun laws and murders committed with guns on a per capita basis by state, but the FBI considers its data on a city basis, not state (that I could find) and beyond that there is so much conflicting information out there, and so many completely contradictory studies and statistics and maps and graphs and God knows what else that the task became overwhelming. However, one indisputable and terrifying fact did emerge: when it comes to either murder by a firearm, or murder by any means whatsoever, the hands-down leader of the list on a per capita basis, by an overwhelming margin, is not a state, but the District of Columbia, which is tied with Chicago as having the most restrictive and absurd gun laws anywhere in the country. Here, at least, we can make a logical and irrefutable deduction: governmental good intentions can kill.
I have never before posted anything I have not written myself, but Montana rancher and author John L. Moore sent me two views he wrote about the Bundy-Federal government stand-off, and I find them both so compelling that I have asked him for permission to post them here. He graciously consented, provided I wait until they were published by Aleteia. They have been published and I post them now for your edification and enjoyment. The second piece in particular is very apt for Good Friday.
If you took a map of the United States and colored the federally-owned land in red it would appear as if the American West was bleeding. Or on fire. It is.
The ongoing Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada is evidence of that. On April 5, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, utilizing helicopters and hired cowboys, began removing Cliven Bundy’s 900 head of “trespassing” cattle. Citing threats from Bundy over the past two decades, the feds arrived with their own law enforcement including hilltop snipers and attack dogs. Two designated “free speech areas” were set up by authorities which was insult-to-injury to Bundy supporters, many of whom were well-armed. Soon YouTube was sparking with videos of citizens being “Tased” and set upon by dogs. Not good public relations for the feds.
Bundy, on the other hand, looked like an overweight John Wayne, though some had reason to question if his white hat really represented his nature. It is easy to have sympathy for the state of Nevada unless you’d enjoy living where 85% of the land is federally-owned; the largest urban center is nicknamed Sin City; vast landscapes hold the ESA protected Desert Tortoise (the said reason for the termination of cattle grazing in the Bunkerville area); a senior U.S. Senator, Harry Reid, who’s viewed with contempt by many; and a history, including the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s-80s, of fighting for states rights.
It is not quite as easy to have sympathy for Bundy, though one may concede a certain admiration. Bundy is not of the ilk of the late E. Wayne Hage, whose Nevada ranching family continues its seventeen-year battle against the BLM and government intimidation. The Hage family wins lawsuits. Bundy, representing himself, loses. To Bundy supporters it doesn’t matter if he is scalawag, scofflaw, skunk, or saint. He is there. And those on the far right are demanding that he is theirs. This question of character and whether it counts, has caused deep division in the already-fractured West. On a personal level, I’ve had numerous people, including two friends, challenge me passionately because I urge caution before jumping on the Bundy bandwagon. “This is a bellwether event,” one said, insisting Bundy had to be championed “warts and all.”
Those of us who not only remember the Montana Freemen Standoff, but were close to it, don’t jump quickly. Through the late winter and spring of 1996, I watched conveys of FBI and news media vehicles drive past my eastern Montana ranch on their way to Brusett, Montana where the Freeman — described by Wikipedia as a Christian Patriot movement — were barricaded in a small farm house the media called a “compound.” The vehicles went north in the morning. They returned at night. The Freemen spouted lofty ideals, but essentially, were farmers in financial trouble who hated banks, liked guns, and used bullying tactics. The FBI used restraint, but no one believed they wanted to. What seemed to have a Waco-destiny to it, was resolved peacefully when a true ‘white hat,’ Montana Lt. Governor Karl Ohs, rode his horse up to the compound and talked the Freemen out. Long prison terms awaited them.
The two situations, Bunkerville and Brusett, are similar but not the same. The Freemen were attacking an economic system, the Bundys, at their best, are challenging a states rights issue. The Montana Freemen are now just a footnote in history. What will this Bundy incident be?
The last sentence above — “What will this Bundy incident be? — sounds like a concluding question, but this story is larger than Cliven Bundy and Bunkerville and reveals a terrifying reality. The rural West is fed-up. We are tired of being treated like the nation’s petting zoo, tourist destination, and ecological petri dish by eastern elites, left coast Cannabis consumers, agitated animal rights activists, and many high priests of the various denominations of the High Church of Environmentalism. For decades we’ve endured schemes, both unrealized and implemented, that stagger common sense: The Big Open, The Buffalo Commons, mustangs (feral horses), reintroduction of wolves (and not even the same wolf that was here, for it is already extinct); free-roaming bison, one endangered species after another, and it could all come to a fiery conclusion with the Greater sage grouse, if not before. The Greater sage grouse is one of several wild fowl that could be placed on the Protected Species List in September of 2015. I choose it for my example because I know the bird. I can see them daily if I want to. The sage grouse habitat area is said to be 186 million acres spread over 11 western states. Of this, 40% is on private land. The ESA is the big hammer. Private land be damned, is it’s mantra. If Cliven Bundy is fighting mad over land that is questionably his, wait until the nation sees what happens if thousands of ranchers and farmers on deeded ground face removal or unrealistic restrictions. Then the West will glow red. People here are already talking civil war. The frustration is buried so deep, the love of freedom so intense, that some seem itching for the shooting to begin. The West is boiling and Clive Bundy is simply the thermometer in the pot.
On Cowboys, Conflict, and Christ
When I was approached by Aleteia to write an opinion piece on the Clive Bundy/BLM dispute in Bunkerville, Nevada I was surprised but not daunted. I have years of experience with ranching, dealing with the government, and observing others doing the same. When Aleteia came back and asked for a follow-up on how a Christian should respond to confrontation I was not surprised, but I was daunted. I am a Christian, but not a Catholic. I am neither a theologian nor a historian. But I am storyteller and this is my story.
I am a person of the land and in that I relate to the Jewish people. Is there a culture or religion on this earth more defined by land? I was born into ranching in 1952, left it for eight years to experience life: a little college, a few years of newspaper work, 12,000 miles of hitchhiking, a stint in the Air Force, but the pull was always there. When my father died I received a hardship discharge and returned to the ranch. That was 1979.
In the past 34 years ranching has tried breaking me many, many times. Not just financially, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Several times, at the end of our ropes, my wife Debra and I cried out to God saying, “we will leave if this is what You ask.” But the nudge was to stay, to push on, to persevere. We endured the family tests that all ranching families know: Death. Too many heirs, not enough land. We saw our two children, not sensing land in their immediate destiny, leave for cities. I’ve endured frostbite, hypothermia, and drought so long and bitter your soul tasted like sand. I’ve broken ribs and one leg, displaced a shoulder repeatedly, separated ribs, torn a meniscus tendon, cut through a tendon in my foot, and, at 61, have arthritis in my hands, limited motion in my neck, and stiffness in pain in my lower back. I’ve fought fire until the smoke damaged my lungs, have had calves die in my arms, put good old saddle horses down at my hand, and have seen hail ruin our pastures not once, not twice, but four times in four straight years. And I would do it all again. I know how ranching families feel about land, and as a Christian, I feel also, the call of stewardship and the warning to hold nothing too tightly.
Of all the threats against our heritage, I only fear two: the government and environmentalists. I know that government can be helpful when it is small and sees its role as a servant. I know the bullying and arrogance of a government that has grown so large it is convinced it does not work for you. You work for it. I fear environmentalists because they are, to me, what so many accuse Christians of being: smug, self-righteous, above reproach or questioning. When I was young I wanted to be a naturalist. As a high school leader I started the first Earth Day in my community — I regret that now. But, those were the days of ecology. We understood that systems were part of a whole in Nature’s world and one effected all. But I don’t know what an environmentalist is. It’s like the word cool. How do you define it? Teenagers on Facebook, celebrities on television, even little old ladies at bridge clubs announce they are “an environmentalist.” So, it is something beyond science and training. It is a belief, a philosophy, a creed.
I have had disputes with the Bureau of Land Management. Nothing like what is transpiring in Nevada, but enough to make you lose sleep at night. Most of these were small concerns: matters of a government employee’s attitude, a problem with trespassers, the pettiness of certain inflexible rules. Personally, I have liked many BLM people. Still do. Only once did I reach the point of demanding to meet with the State Director. Over coffee in a cowboy cafe I expressed concerns that seemed to bore him to death. He fidgeted, look at his watch, acted like I was small and he was big and his time more valuable than mine. So, I did what I hate to do. I played the journalist card. “I’m not just a rancher,” I had to say. “I’m a journalist, too.” He gave me a bemused stare. “Look,” I said, “I’m not talking about writing a letter to the local paper. I’ve been published in the New York Times Magazine. Everything changed then. He became a political animal and couldn’t offer to help me enough.
So when I saw the Bundy conflict on television and YouTube I empathized with the protesters. Good for them! But as the emails and Facebook messages begin flooding in I felt sick. Two main groups were writing me. Cowboys and ministers. The cowboys being mad I understood, but declared men of God was another matter. Where was Christ in this? I saw the law officers in another light. Surely among them, perhaps the one that might catch a Militia bullet, was a devout young man with a wife and young family. He probably served his country in Iraq and Afghanistan and dreamed of a career in law enforcement. He was not a “jack-booted thug.” He was a brother.
True evil always stands behind a few deceived men who stand behind a thousand men who do not understand the men they work for. Had I no compassion for men under orders? What would change their minds, their hearts? The threats of bullets? They are warriors. The threat of women being put at the front so the nation might see them die at their hands if shooting started? They are men under command. Of all things in the emails and messages I sorted through, what bothered me most was the rancor and opportunism from some of my Christian friends. Was this the day, as Christ said, that we go and buy the sword? The Body of Christ has known those days before. Was the cheek-turning over, had peacemaking ceased, were we ready to reap the seeds we seemed so eager to plant? Were our methods as noble as our cause? Did we so fear Tribulation we demanded to hurry it?
In that rancorous din I found one peace: A man had to follow his own heart. I was reminded of a dream I’d had in May, 2011. In the dream what seemed to be an angel said to me, “The key to the End Times is Ezekiel 1:12.” I awakened and read the Scripture. “And each one went straight forward; they went wherever the spirit wanted to go, and they did not turn when they went.” How cryptic can you be, Lord? Straight forward to where? Forward to battle? Forward to a cross of sacrifice? But that wasn’t the message. It wasn’t a matter of where. It was a matter of listening and obeying. It was a matter of priorities. Of what comes first. Not country, not land, not Constitution, nor righteous anger.
The standoff in Nevada between rancher Cliven Bundy and the United States government is being represented by some portions of the mainstream press as being about a stubborn rancher’s refusal to pay grazing fees to the federal government on “federal land.”
Even on conservative Fox News that was the stated cause of the current standoff, Fox News being evidently as unaware as the more liberal press that this has absolutely nothing to do with “federal land.” For one thing, there is no such thing as “federal land.” Article I, Section Eight of the United States Constitution says: “[The Congress shall have the power to] Exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings…” That’s it. The federal government is allowed to own the District of Columbia and the land necessary for military use, and nothing else. All the rest that the feds and others like to call “federal land” is actually your land. My land. Our land. The feds may administer it, but they most emphatically do not own it.
Other more liberal news organizations have attempted to make it seem as if this is about environmental issues, specifically a desert tortoise, trying to portray the tortoise and cattle as adversaries, never mind that tortoise and cattle have co-existed on desert land ever since cattle were first introduced to North America. Besides, Nevada’s Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, has apparently already moved the boundaries of the protected desert tortoise land to allow some of that land to be developed by one of his cronies, so it can’t be about the tortoise.
More recent news reports claim Senator Reid and his son, Rory Reid (already embroiled in a campaign contribution scandal), want the land for a Chinese energy firm represented by Reid, Jr. that plans to put up solar panels, and that that is why the Senator made his former Senior Policy Advisor in charge of public land issues, Neil Kornze, the head of the Bureau of Land Management. And that may very well be part of the reason why Mr. Bundy is being driven off his land.
But if you watch the news, you will see aerial shots of Mr. Bundy’s ranchland with cattle grazing near a stream, and the old Watergate adage of “follow the money” is applicable here, because in the American West, “follow the money” and “follow the water” are the same thing. Water is gold in the American West, and whoever owns the water rights is—or will be once the water is diverted from cattle to golf courses in Las Vegas and Los Angeles—very, very rich. And taking ranchers’ land away from them on thin or non-existent pretexts to get their water is nothing new.
For those of you unfamiliar with land ownership and water rights in the American West, there is a concept here called the “split estate” which makes land ownership very interesting. If you buy a big tract of land, you get just that, a bunch of soil, but the water rights and grazing rights are separate properties that may be purchased or sold by themselves, as are the mining rights, timber rights, oil and gas rights, wildlife rights, easement rights, development rights, trespass rights, and possibly other rights that I’m not aware of. If you take the concept of the “split estate” to its illogical extreme, it is theoretically possible for you to own a piece of land in the West with which you can’t do a single damn thing except pay taxes and boast.
Of course, if you own the land and the water rights near Las Vegas, you can make a fortune putting up houses, solar panels, and selling water to drought-stricken cities. It’s a very lucrative win-win for somebody.
Update: As of this morning, the Federal Aviation Administration has declared a “no-fly zone” over the area around the Bundy ranch, effectively preventing news helicopters from obtaining footage. One wonders what they’re afraid the American public might see. Other than the water.
For the first time in all the years we’ve been married, Darleen and I are down to one dog. We’ve never had less than three, and at one point, due to circumstances beyond our control (soft heads, soft hearts, dogs in need of rescue) we had five, and the chaos level in the house was on a par with a badly run kindergarten. Imagine the lunatics not even bothering to run the asylum. We have decided to keep it down to two, but that still leaves us one dog shy, so we drove down to the nearest city to see about rescuing a dog. I’m not sure why, but southern California seems to have more than its fair share of irresponsible pet owners. Between three and four million dogs and cats are euthanized at shelters all across America every year. That translates to roughly 80,000 animals a week, and the shelters in southern California are overwhelmed. Apparently large numbers of people labor under the misapprehension that neutering old Rover or Miss Tabby is somehow cruel. Or maybe they’re just so dumb they don’t even think of it at all. The Audubon Society claims that the single greatest killer of migrating songbirds is the domestic (or feral) cat, yet people all over the nation think it is cruel not to let their cats out to play. It is possible the birds who get played with have a different perspective. And every mentally negligible moron in the country seems to think his dog is worthy of reproduction (“Let the kiddies see the miracle of birth.” I have actually heard that.) with the result that every time you go to the local shopping mall there are kiddies standing out in front with cardboard boxes of puppies they are trying to give away. Or starving pit-bulls running loose along the interstate. Or unidentifiable messes of bloody fur on the asphalt. In the years we have lived in our little rural corner of the mountains, ten miles out from a very small town, Darleen and I have averaged two stray dogs a year on our property. For the first four or five years we earnestly tried to find the owners, but after one such paragon of compassion told Darleen on the phone, “Ah, just kick him in the gut and send him on home,” (that’s a direct quote) we stopped trying to return them. Now we feed them and take them down to the shelter or, if injured, to our local vet. If you’re too stupid and irresponsible to get your dog micro-chipped, and you can’t be bothered to even keep a collar with a tag on him, you don’t deserve to get him back. But rescuing a dog is not as easy as you might imagine. We had to rule out a wide range of the shelter’s offerings. Pete is a male, a male with a tendency for brawling, and I have broken up more than my fair share of dog fights during my life, so it’s female only. We ruled out dogs with obvious communicable diseases, and dogs that showed any signs of aggression toward people or toward Pete or toward cats. After that we ruled out various characteristics or breed types that would make our lives miserable for one reason or another. We spent two days at two different shelters and finally gave up. The best of the bunch was a sort of Labrador kind of cross that had been neglected in a backyard for so long that it had reached a state I can only describe as catatonic in terms of its reactions to humans. She was fine with Pete, but completely unresponsive to the vet tech, to me, to Darleen. I can understand a dog being unresponsive to me, but if a dog is unresponsive to Darleen, it has serious problems. A pet rock would respond to my bride. So we are still, for the time being, a one-dog family. But what the experience left me with was a conviction that there is something seriously wrong with man’s relationship with his best friend. And if man can treat an animal with such callous disregard, how will he treat his fellow man? I don’t think we’re going to see peace on earth anytime soon.
We had to put our old corgi down. She, Belle, is the alert one in the photo above, shown with her friend Scooter in a chair I used to be able to sit in myself. Old is a relative term; she was only ten, which is old for some breeds, but not—or it shouldn’t be—for corgis. Belle was a semi-rescue (what breeders euphemistically call “pet quality”) that no one else wanted and so, being soft-headed and soft-hearted, we took her. She was a delight. She had tremendous charm and brains enough to know how to use it. When guests came over, she would work the room like a cabaret singer, and when we went out with her somewhere, she invariably made everyone smile. She was a mess. She had terrible structure, including excessively turned-out feet that caused her great difficulty and necessitated a surgery in her later years. In her later years (which should have been her middle-aged years) she also developed Cushing’s disease, something I had thought only horses got. She was a delight. She was hands down, without question, the finest and most alert watch dog I have owned, seen, known, heard of, or encountered. If she went on high alert and growled at the back door, it invariably meant there was something up on the hill behind the house, frequently something so far away that it took us and the other dogs a long time to spot it. If she went on high alert toward the front of the house, it invariably meant someone was driving up the lane, even if the car was still a quarter mile away. Both of these she did regularly, summer and winter, even when the house was buttoned up tight and the television was showing the Animal Planet. She was a mess. Her nerves were so bad she was terrified of practically everything, which made taking her anywhere extremely difficult. Even walking her around the fields in our own neck of the woods could be problematic: my neighbor to north sometimes practices shooting in the canyon north of his house. The distance is about half a mile, and the shooting is always muffled by the canyon wall, but she would begin to shake and, if she was off-leash, she would run back to the house. Since the only way to (hopefully, possibly) get a dog over a fear factor is to ignore any behavior exhibited, taking her anywhere was a challenge. She was a delight, getting along with everyone, human, equine, canine, and feline. She always stayed calm around the horses, resolutely ignored the cats, and bedeviled Pete the Boxer into games. She also used to bedevil me into playing tug-of-war with her, but only with one very specific toy. I lived in fear that toy would disintegrate and that she would be inconsolable. We purchased another, identical in every way save color, but she wouldn’t touch it. Unfortunately, the toy lasted longer than she did. She was a mess, badly bred by an irresponsible breeder; but even the typically callous, venal, avaricious breeders so prevalent today in America, even that despicable person couldn’t destroy the essential sweetness of one of the world’s oldest breeds. She was a delight.
Arguably the most beautiful state in the West, Colorado seems to have veered off onto a course that has more in common with California, New York, Connecticut, and possibly Oz than with any semblance of sanity. Let’s review the bidding:
Just a little over a year ago, Colorado passed four questionably constitutional anti-gun laws, laws that a majority of the state’s county sheriffs publically announced they neither could nor would enforce. The passage of the laws, coupled with an extraordinarily insensitive response to a rape victim by then state Senator Evie Hudak, resulted in a recall election in which two other senators lost their seats and Ms. Hudak resigned. The passage of the laws also prompted one of Colorado’s larger employers, Magpul, a manufacturer of firearms and firearm accessories, to leave Colorado entirely. (They are still technically in Colorado, but are in the throes of moving their manufacturing plant to Wyoming and their corporate headquarters to Texas.)
Just a few months later, the state passed Amendment 64, legalizing the use of marijuana. Regardless of your views on drug usage, marijuana use, possession, sale, distribution, or cultivation is still illegal under federal law. In my state of California, marijuana is cultivated by drug cartel employees in remote places where both hunters and Fish and Wildlife agents have come under fire, making the once bucolic job of Fish and Wildlife one of the most dangerous law enforcement jobs in the state. (Marijuana is also, according to the Sheriff’s Department in my county, considered to be as much of an impediment to driving as either alcohol or cell phone use. It is further considered to be a “gateway” drug, meaning it—pick a word—encourages, inspires, tempts young users to try other more dangerous drugs.)
And now, a U.S. District judge in Colorado, Christine Arguello, has handed down a two-year sentence for a woman who was convicted of buying a gun for a recently paroled felon and known white supremacist who subsequently used that gun to murder two men, to severely wound a Texas Sheriff’s Deputy, and to fire multiple rounds at other police officers during a high-speed chase. Purchasing a firearm for a person who is himself legally unable to buy a gun is a straw purchase. It is a violation of multiple federal and state (specifically Colorado) laws. Since in this particular case, the gun was knowingly bought for a convicted felon, and subsequently used in two murders, it would not be a stretch to charge the woman in question as an accessory to murder. Instead, Ms. Arguello chose to give the woman in question a slap on the wrist.
So what is cumulative message being sent here? We can deduce that Colorado state legislators regard federal laws more as suggestions than as laws and that they, the state legislators, may pick and choose which of those suggestions they wish to enforce. We can deduce that the state legislators also regard the (federally illegal) marijuana business as more desirable than the legal firearms manufacturing business. We can also deduce that Colorado state legislators regard passing laws restricting the freedoms of law-abiding gun owners to be an effective way of discouraging criminals, even as we also deduce that at least one federal judge regards being an accessory to the murder of two men and the wounding of third as a relatively insignificant crime. We can further deduce that if violating existing federal and state gun laws (conducting a straw purchase, for example) is not taken seriously by judges, those laws become as meaningless to criminals as, oh, all other gun laws, or let’s say the federal drug laws the Colorado legislators choose not to enforce.
And finally, we can deduce that perhaps Colorado is no longer the crown jewel of Western states. Unless of course you’re in the marijuana business.
Back in the golden days of classic Greek theater, when Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were ruining their health and tearing their hair out dealing with narcissistic actors who complained they didn’t have enough lines, or it would be better if their character did it this way, or couldn’t they move here instead, there was a tradition of violence taking place off-stage. This was done, in part, because the Greeks of the classical era knew very well that nothing they could show would ever be as appalling as what the audience could imagine.
Fast forward roughly two and a half millennia to, oh, let’s say the days of Simon & Simon, when television censors demanded all violence be sanitized, made tasteful and decorous, so that a man might be beaten, stabbed, shot, and thrown off a rooftop, but when the camera closed in on his dead body, all the audience saw was a delicate little trickle of stage blood from one corner of his primly closed mouth.
Now fast forward again roughly two and a half decades to the over-the-top movies of, oh, let’s say director Quentin Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein, where mindless and meaningless violence is glorified almost as an independent art form in and of itself. (Remember Steve Martin as the producer of ultra-violent movies in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon? “Where are the brains? When he shoots him the script calls for brains splattering against the window. Where are the goddamn brains!? Am I the only one who’s trying to be true to the script here?”)
I am not a fan of the Quentin Tarantino/Harvey Weinstein oeuvre. In part, I find their movies moronic, and in part, having been shot twice, I have no need to be titillated by their grotesqueries. (To be fair to both of them: I briefly attended an acting class where Quentin Tarantino was a student, back in the early eighties, and found him highly intelligent and quite funny in a quirky sort of way. And Harvey Weinstein, in spite of his tasteless and morally bankrupt hypocrisy in making a fortune exploiting gratuitous violence with guns and now vowing to destroy the NRA for being violence-mongers—never mind the complete inaccuracy and dishonesty of that assessment—has actually made some delightful and life-affirming movies, notably Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chocolat.) Nothing shown on film can ever be as horrifying as either reality or imagination. Do us all a favor, please: don’t sanitize it and don’t glorify it. Don’t even show it. Take it off-stage.
Which brings me to quite the most violent film I have seen in a long time, possibly ever, a movie so graphically violent that my friend, screenwriter Dan Bronson, simply couldn’t watch it. The difference is that this is violence for a very specific cinematic purpose, violence seen from the point of view of the men committing it and to whom it is committed. It is violence portrayed in a way that vividly brings home an understanding of the PTSD returning vets have to deal with.
Lone Survivor is based on the non-fiction book of that name, written by the eponymous Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg. The plot, very briefly, revolves around a four-man Seal team sent out to kill a Taliban leader. In a complete fluke, two Afghan boys and an old man, herding goats in the mountains above their village, stumble onto the team, and the characters in the movie, like the real-life members of the team, are thrust into the greatest moral dilemma any man can face, a moral dilemma worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides. There is no question about the loyalties of the three Afghans; even with no understanding of a word they say, it is clear they will run back to their village and alert the Taliban. The mission has been jeopardized, and the only possibility for the Navy Seals to even have a minute chance of success, or even to survive, is to kill or neutralize the civilians. They quickly distill their choices down to killing the villagers outright; tying them to trees, with the certain knowledge they will freeze to death during the night or be eaten alive by wolves; or letting them go.
From a purely historical perspective, I found this to be the single best moment in any movie I have seen in memory. How do ordinary men make such decisions? It is war, and in all wars from the beginning of recorded history until very recently, the rules have been very simple: there are no rules. We want this land, wealth, whatever, and we simply kill or enslave everyone who stands between us and our goal. I have an unnerving memory of a national hero from World War Two, a man whose name is now a household word for all we revere in our warriors, telling me once how he bombed a town in Germany (we bombed without concern for civilians back then, remember?) and the next day, knowing the survivors would be burying their dead, he went back and strafed the funeral procession, killing the women and old men and children who had escaped his bombing.
Today, war has changed. There are rules of engagement, ludicrous Marquis of Queensbury rules for fighting against people who still fight by the old, bloody non-rules of Tamerlane and Attila and Genghis Khan. We are supposed to surgically destroy the soldiers while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the widows and orphans we create. It is perhaps the stupidest philosophy of war ever known. And yet…
And yet, what would you have done?
One of the things Lone Survivor does is to put you there on that mountain, with the means, the motive, and the opportunity for doing what should be done, what must be done, not merely for the sake of the mission, but for the sake of life itself, and asking you if you have the stomach for it. Could you kill someone to save your life? It’s not an abstract question. It’s not a question of death at a tastefully sanitized distance, from the cockpit of a plane, or from a sniper’s position eight hundred or a thousand meters away. It’s not death in the unambiguous throes of combat, killing the man who is lunging at you with your death in his hands. It’s not a moral question of saving the lives of your wife and children as the door bursts open in the night. It is playing God in the most agonizing possible way, Abraham cutting his own son’s throat, the boy’s eyes looking up in disbelief, incomprehension, three Isaacs helpless before you on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Watching, you know what the smart thing is, as do the ordinary young men who have been put in this position. You know very well that to let those three Isaacs live is to seal your own fate, to make your own death an immanent and gruesome reality.
What would you have done?
The rest of the movie is devoted to the frantic and hopeless attempts of these young men to stay alive, and it concludes with the equally random fluke of Marcus Luttrell’s survival. And at the very end, there is a montage sequence of the actual soldiers who were killed on that mountain, real-life snapshots and a video of one of them from their civilian lives, with beloved mothers and fathers and wives and children, a happy dog who will never again see the man who makes his life, and that montage brought Darleen and me to tears.
What would I have done?
The East is in the grip of yet another icy winter storm, but here in California were are not only experiencing the worst drought in years, but we are also experiencing the earliest spring I can remember. It’s only the second week in February and already the Flowering Pear trees in town are in bloom, while the Flowering Plums we planted in front of our house are pink with blossoms. The southern Sierras are noted for a relatively mild climate, but this is ridiculous. February?
Taking advantage of the mild weather, I was barbequing pork loins the other night under the watchful supervision of Pete the Beautiful Big Brave Brainy Bouncing Brindle Boxer. Supervising is what Pete does. After mature consideration and close observation, Pete has come to the conclusion that Darleen is not competent to do anything without his supervision, especially if it involves going somewhere in the car, and that while I am reasonably competent in the barbequing department, there is always the chance I might drop the plate. If you’re a Boxer, when it comes to food, hope springs eternal. Hope, and a marked tendency to lie about when or even if you last had a meal.
Pork has to be watched closely, so the two of us were outside doing the watching, when I saw a bobcat working his or her way through the tall grass on the hill behind the house. (Note I said I saw the bobcat; Pete doesn’t get easily distracted when watching barbequed meat.) The cat was only about thirty yards outside the fence walking slowly and steadily along, neither hunting nor hurrying. Since Pete and I had been talking, and I had been rattling the barbeque grill, opening and closing the top, turning the loins, and moving around on the patio, there is no way that cat couldn’t have been aware of us, barring hearing impairment and a visual handicap. He, or she, walked past the stumps of the dead pines I had to have cut down, across a wide open space, over a large boulder, never looking down at us, and only as he began to wind through some smaller boulders did my watchdog extraordinaire finally see him.
One of the wonderful things about Boxers is that they don’t get hysterical. They don’t frighten easily, or possibly at all, but they don’t bark unnecessarily either. In fact, the only way I could be certain Pete saw the bobcat (he wasn’t about to leave the barbeque) was that his entire energy changed and his eyes hardened. I know that may sound strange, but Boxers have marvelously expressive faces, and now his normal goofy eat-play-love expression was gone and he was back on active duty.
The two of us watched the bobcat pick his way through the rocks, across another open space, and when it finally passed the twelve o’clock position relative to us, Pete trotted out toward the far end of the fence. For the first time, the bobcat glanced down. He was clearly so completely terrified and caught off-guard by seeing a vicious, bloodthirsty man and a ferocious Boxer thirty yards below him that he had to sit down and scratch vigorously behind one ear to relieve his feelings. Then, with that curious mixture of languor and grace peculiar to cats, he jumped up onto a large flat boulder, reclined elegantly on his side looking down at us, and began a lengthy toilette, grooming himself carefully from ears to tail. Pete sat down in the gravel below him, the two of them watching each other, Pete with interest, the cat with magnificent unconcern.
Just then I saw Darleen through the window and signaled to her to bring the binoculars. She looked at the cat through binoculars and we talked in normal tones until the pork was done. Taking the meat off the grill and putting it on a plate finally drew Pete away from his observation post—after all, it’s all very well being a loyal watchdog and protector, but let’s not get our priorities skewed—and we all went inside. But what stayed with me, what especially delighted me, was the complete unconcern of the bobcat: man, wife, dog, barbeque, conversation, opening and closing of the door, none of it bothered him. I hope he stays close by. I hope he kills some of the damned ground squirrels that are coming out of my ears. Hell, I’ll happily barbeque some of them for him.
I have received comments and emails from many of you who are having various kinds of trouble either getting subscription notices, or making comments to the blog. I have no idea what is going on, but I have forwarded your messages to the computer guru who might be able to fix the problems. There is no computer program so good that it can’t be fouled up ten ways to Sunday by improving it. In the meantime, as we try to get this fixed, I appreciate your patience. Here is another review.
The quest is one of the tried-and-true themes that has driven works of fiction probably for as long as man has been making up stories to entertain his fellow man. Think of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the only reason I don’t go back even further is because I haven’t gotten around to reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the only work of fiction I know of that predates Homer. The quest is a theme that allows for almost infinite variations: a golden fleece, a girl’s heart, a new country, a monster that must be slain… The permutations go on and on, though of course the goal is unimportant and the quest is all.
In Nebraska, Bruce Dern sets out on a misguided quest for a million dollar prize he thinks he’s won. Old, semi-crippled and semi-senile, no matter how often his son or the police or both track him down and bring him home, he turns again and again to the east, like a bug resolutely set on a direction as mysterious to us as our interference doubtless is to the bug. His determination is as epic as the quest theme itself, and finally, in an effort to bring the affair to an end, his son takes time off from work to drive this irritable, alcoholic, indefatigable old man from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where, Dern believes, his million dollar prize is waiting for him.
So, a two-hander where one of the people is a taciturn, monosyllabic alcoholic sliding into senility, and the other isn’t much more verbal himself. That should be a riveting laugh riot.
Actually, it is not only very funny and very moving, but also very compelling. Writer Bob Nelson hails from Yankton, South Dakota and knows his world inside out. It just so happens I’ve done a lot of hunting in both South Dakota and Nebraska (I do love those great rolling open spaces where the horizon tempts you on and on, ever farther, even as it fades constantly in front of you) and I was caught up in the almost documentary feel with which director Alexander Payne imbues his movie, catching the look, the feel, the sounds, even the texture of that lovely open land and the worn, weather-beaten small towns. He chose to shoot in black and white, which adds to the documentary feel and gives the movie the same kind of vivid, starkly beautiful look we associate with Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photographs. But more than that: to continue the documentary analogy, the performances in Nebraska manage to achieve so completely the illusion of reality that you find yourself wondering if these are actors, or if Payne simply found actual residents of that small-town world and pulled performances out of them. Bruce Dern is obviously Bruce Dern, but even there I found myself wondering if I was actually watching a great performance, or if maybe he was getting a little gaga with age. When you get caught up in the illusion of reality to that degree, you know you’re watching a hell of movie.
A quick example of Payne’s deft touch: father and son stop to spend the night in the small town where Dern grew up, and there is a scene outside, at night, that takes place while in the background we hear the distant monotonous barking of a dog. That sound effect has nothing to do with the scene being played or with the larger action of the movie, but it anchors us in the reality of small town, semi-rural life.
Bruce Dern is Bruce Dern, and another national treasure who makes an appearance is the great Stacy Keach, but who are these other actors? Will Forte as the patient, decent son driving his father east, Bob Odenkirk as the other son who follows with their mother—Mother, what a mother!—played to acid-tongued perfection by June Squibb, the various family members and distant relations and former neighbors in the small town where they stop, all of these are the real and familiar individuals we might meet in any small prairie town. It’s an old truism that whenever an artist creates a real and true and believable individual, he ends up creating an archetype. With that in mind, Nelson, Payne, and cast have captured an essence of the America most people fly over, and they have done it with gentle good humor.
Along the way, and especially in the small town stop-over, we and Will Forte learn much about Bruce Dern and the past that shaped him, which is to say we learn much about ourselves. There is no million dollar prize, of course, but that’s the beauty of all quests: sometimes the prize we find, while not the one we set out for or even thought we wanted, is far more precious than gold.