Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Russia Thing

I don't think I've addressed The Russia Thing more than peripherally on this site. It always struck me as stupid to be blunt about it. Russians certainly had a hand in shaping some opinions about candidates in the 2016 election, particularly Hillary, but so what? So did a lot of other interests, national and corporate, and it shouldn't matter in the larger scheme of things that Russia and Russians were also involved. That's part of the political game in this country and it has been as long as I've been alive. And no doubt it has been true as long as the US has been a nation.

When you look at it from a historical perspective, the focus on Russia's involvement to the exclusion of just about every other national and corporate involvement is distinctly odd. Not only were they not the only ones attempting to gain advantage from the election (of Trump, but it's more complex than that), they weren't necessarily the main foreign interest in the outcome of the election. Oh no, far from it.

But in order to understand what happened, we need to understand what was going on. Trump wasn't expected to win. Not even he expected to win. The outcome was a surprise and a shock to the entire electoral system including the funders, media, and candidates. The voters were largely appalled. How did this happen?

It's not easy to sort out what was happening that led to such an unexpected outcome, but among the things I was aware of was a very concerted online effort to influence the influencers. This is tricky; it isn't self evident that influencing the influencers had much of an effect, but I think it did.

"Stop Hillary" was a really big thing online. Bernie was the great white hope, but he failed miserably. Whether or not he was robbed by the DNC and Hillary's partisans is a question I choose not to get into. I'll just say from personal knowledge that the Democratic Party apparatus is tailor made for selected outcomes, and there isn't a whole lot insurgents (or Bernie) can do about it. In a lot of ways, the Party has fossilized around a set of rules and requirements that almost always ensure that a selected candidate achieves the presidential nomination, no matter what. And who does the selection? A committee of old timers, in effect a Politburo. Hillary was the foregone nominee, despite the fact that she was opposed a large minority of party voters. Realistically, so was Bernie. If they'd had their druthers, I'm not sure who the Democratic primary voters would have chosen. The problem was that none of the 2016 primary candidates really represented the interests of a majority of the party's voters. The factional split between Hillary partisans and Bernie partisans was unbridgeable. The Party apparat went with Hillary and the rest is history.

The factional split left a wide opening for "influencers" to do their thing, and I saw it happening in real time online.  Of course it had happened before, but not to the extent I was witnessing during the 2016 election. What I saw was a relatively limited anti-Hillary drumbeat -- from somewhere, initially I thought domestic, but it turned out to be generated in Eastern Europe, with a source apparently in Russia -- hammering away at her many flaws and being picked up and amplified by all kinds of online sites and eventually by the mass media. I noticed it seemed to start with apparent Bernie partisans, particularly the canard that Hillary was going to start WWIII -- which to this day is repeated as an article of faith.

I say "apparent Bernie partisans" because I don't think they really were. I think they were using Bernie's campaign as a launch pad, but they had no interest in his winning the nomination or the election. They wanted to stop Hillary. Whatever it took to do so.

When I started seeing "Macedonian teenager" memes showing up on a number of supposedly "progressive" sites, and not long after that in the mass media, I really questioned what was going on. Obviously these kids in Macedonia (which was initially where these memes were thought to be coming from) had a more or less direct line to the internet backchannels which in turn led directly to mass media backchannels. And then right out to the public.

It wasn't just the "$100,000 in Facebook ads" that the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency purchased. Oh my no. Those ads probably had no effect at all. What was having an effect was the meme generators, wherever they were located, trouncing Hillary for "starting WWIII", for Libya, for Syria, for Iraq, for "super predators," for her devotion to neo-liberalism, for her supposed illnesses, for Bengazi, for those damned emails, etc.

Here's the thing. It wasn't coming from the Trump campaign (which was just riding a little bitty wave), and it wasn't coming from the Bernie campaign, either. There had to be some other source. It was relentless and repetitious to the point of complete predictability.

Hillary, the Arch-Bitch, had to be stopped at any cost.

By whom? Why? I think those questions are yet to be answered. "Russia" is not the Answer, though it may be part of it.

Trump of course benefited from an enormous amount of free publicity, but it was widely thought that was OK because he would come across so badly. That kind of thinking was critically in error, but it seems to have been the underlying thought process of those who were giving him so much free airtime.

On the other hand, Hillary was given no quarter, she was criticized relentlessly for everything, and she got much less airtime, even as she spent wildly to buy ads and positive coverage -- or any coverage. She was thought to be the uncatchable frontrunner. Trump was being boosted to make it a horserace, but Hillary was going to win, hands down. Everyone was certain of it. Absolutely certain.

And yet she didn't. What happened? Officially, what happened was that less than 80,000 votes in three states meant that Trump won the Electoral College while Hillary won millions more popular votes. Yet again, the Electoral College handed the presidency to the candidate with fewer popular votes.

Among the factors that led to that outcome were voter suppression in Wisconsin and Michigan, to the tune of several hundred thousand eligible voters who either not permitted to vote or whose votes weren't counted. Pennsylvania had some very hinky voting machines that could not be audited. A recount was tried in all three states, and it was shown to be impossible. Jurisdictions refused to cooperate, machines could not be audited, votes could not be verified; in some cases there were no paper trails or any trail at all. You had to take the results on faith because there was no way to verify the counts.

Then there was the issue of "interference." Prior to the election we were told that the Intelligence Community and DHS would be closely monitoring the election for any "interference." Uh oh. To me, that meant they intended to interfere. I wouldn't put it past them. They could certainly do it. As I pondered that possibility, it occurred to me that a faction of those entities would very much prefer a jocular, macho racist idiot in the White House to Hillary, no matter what we might think. Indeed, there was an obviously strong anti-Hillary streak among the macho agencies, plain as day. Particularly true of DHS, but I wouldn't say that the other three letter agencies were much in favor of her. If they were going to monitor, there would be little or nothing to prevent them from jiggering the results themselves if they wanted to.

And when the tiny number of votes in three states made the ultimate difference, I nodded sagely. When it proved impossible to fully recount or verify those votes, I figured it was obvious.

But my thinking about it is distinctly in the minority.

"Russia!" was announced as the culprit. OK. Russia and Russians did do things, yes, and Trump is in thick with Russians and (especially) Russian money, things that were almost never mentioned during the campaign. But did Russia cause Trump's success? Uh, no.

No, what was happening was much more complex. What Russians and Israelis and many other foreign interests were doing -- and are still doing as far as I can tell -- is using every tactic they can to influence the influencers, hoping to set public policy in the US favorable to themselves. The people -- we -- have almost nothing to do with it.

And I suspect the focus on Russia! is part of an influence campaign itself.

We've been in a very decadent phase of the Republic, and realistically, we're near the endgame. Trump won't be Emperor, any more than Julius Caesar was. But his successor likely will be. The Republic will become extinct. And you know what? Most people will say "Good riddance."

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fire at Notre Dame

Unlike so many of those who have spoken and written about the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, I've never been there in person, but in a vicarious way I have, just like so many people who haven't been there have vicariously seen and felt the place through movies, teevee, picture books and so on. Notre Dame is in some ways more familiar to Americans than just about any other Medieval church on earth. Certainly more so -- perhaps oddly -- than the many Gothic piles that dot the British Isles. Hm. Wonder why that is so?

Of course the spectacular setting on the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine increases the visual impact of the church and its flying buttresses. It's a photographic and artistic wonder, especially as the light plays on the exterior stonework.

Until the photos and videos emerged following the fire, I don't think I had ever seen pictures of the interior of the cathedral, and from what I've seen so far, there was nothing particularly special about it -- compared to other Medieval cathedrals throughout Europe, or even their imitations in the United States. What I had seen and remembered were photos of the magnificent stained glass windows that line the walls and punctuate the ends of the cross. Amazing in every way, meant to delight the senses, windows which for the most part they say have been there "forever." They are said to be mostly original from the 1300s or a bit earlier or later, some damaged over the years of catastrophes, wars and revolutions, but never destroyed, and even with the fire, most of the windows appear to have survived intact. As I say, amazing.

The 850 year old oak raftering burned, the lead roofing melted or vaporized (that must not be pleasant) and the 150 year old spire collapsed in a flaming heap, puncturing the vaulting and forming a blazing pile of primarily wooden debris on the floor of the cathedral in front of the altar. That burning heap of rubble was doused with streams of water and fairly promptly put out while the roofing kept burning. Other parts of the vaulting collapsed or were punctured, but they say the damage, while significant, is repairable. As I'm sure it is. Medieval churches and cathedrals throughout Europe have been bombarded, reduced to rubble in many cases, gone up in flames and been shaken to pieces in earthquakes. Their devastation and restoration is almost routine. So there is little doubt that Notre Dame will be restored, and Macron has set a goal of completing the restoration in five years. To me that's unlikely, but the work will be done no matter how long it takes.

The fire was truly shocking, however, a visceral shock felt throughout the European and European-descent world. At first, it seemed like the entire structure was aflame and that nothing would survive. Gradually, it was realized that the fire was mostly confined to the roof and the spire, and that the stone building mostly survived though badly damaged. Some of the closeup views during the fire and its aftermath showed very deteriorated stonework though. Parts of the building were undergoing restoration, but much of the exterior looked like it was overdue. The fire appears to have started at the base of the spire where restoration work was underway. It has been tentatively deemed an accidental fire. Roof fires are not uncommon during restoration work on Medieval buildings and that seems to be what happened here.

It's a shame and yet after the initial shock it seems that Parisians -- and just about everyone else -- has moved on, confident that the monument will be restored, and the fire will eventually be forgotten.

I haven't mentioned the many billionaires who suddenly came up with hundreds of millions of euros for the restoration but were unable it seems to help fund the renovations that were underway when the roof caught fire. Nor, it seems, have they ever been able to find a way to help alleviate the growing problems of homelessness in France and elsewhere. It's one of the Great Mysteries, isn't it? How is it they can collectively come up with more than a billion dollars practically overnight to fund the restoration of Notre Dame after the fire but could barely find a penny to help before? Mystery!

And I couldn't help but think about the shock people must have felt long ago as one by one and sometimes in batches ancient Roman monuments fell to ruin from fire, earthquake, wars and revolutions. Only they weren't rebuilt. And I think of all the cities in the United States left partially abandoned by changing economic priorities, entire sections left to rot and ruin. The fire at Notre Dame isn't quite in that category, but it is evocative of a kind of creeping doom nonetheless.

And yet, life goes on...

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Cars

I had a skill when I was very young. I could identify year and make of cars by their badging, shape and trim. It was considered cute that I could do this almost perfectly at the age of three, and it's a skill I've sort of kept over the years. Well, newer cars are difficult for me. They tend to maintain their appearance over several years, and there are a lot of brands now that didn't exist in the '40s and '50s.

I'm trying to keep a list of the cars we had through the years. I've done a post on this topic before, but I'll try to do a list without referring to it.

1. 1942 Packard Clipper. It was Hunter Green, but the paint was very faded. There was a big dent in one rear fender -- did my mother back into something, or did the car get hit by another? I don't know. The interior was ratty. Upholstery worn and torn, stuffing coming out of various places. It had an odd smell, might have been burning oil. My mother got the car in the divorce settlement from my father, and I think she hated it. Finally, the clutch or transmission gave out and she traded it for another car.

2. 1950 Plymouth. This was gray, four door, a Deluxe model. It was a pretty nice car all things considered, but it was a base model, so it had no radio or heater. My mother drove it until 1957 when she was in a wreck coming back from her late call at the hospital where she worked. The car was pretty much totaled. She was injured, broken ribs and wrist, and a nasty knot on her forehead. So she bought a Ford.

3. 1957 Ford Custom 300. This was also a base model, but it seemed to me to be very advanced compared to the Plymouth. Being shiny and new of course was the main thing. But it had fins and chrome and a low and lean look to it, whereas the Plymouth was high and rather staid.

4. 1959 Hillman Minx. An oddball car to be sure. I don't remember why my mother traded the Ford for a foreign car so soon, just over two years, after she bought the Ford. My sister was driving a French Simca at the time, so that may have had something to do with it. Anyway, I thought the Hillman was pretty deluxe, though it was smaller than any car we'd had up to then. It had a radio and heater and green leather upholstery. It was a little difficult to get used to because the shift pattern was different, but otherwise it was quite fine in a British sort of way. It was the first car I drove on my own, badly.

5. 1961 Ford Galaxie.  Well. This one was kind of spectacular. It was black with a red interior. It was a "hardtop convertible" which meant there were no pillars between the front and rear doors. It seemed huge compared to the Hillman, and I think that's why my mother liked it.

Video below of a similar car.

5. 1965 Mustang. She couldn't resist. The minute the Mustang was introduced, she wanted one -- and she got one.This one was green with a black interior. It was pretty basic, but it was sharp looking and she loved it. When the clutch or transmission went out, though, she traded it in.

6. 7. 8. A series of used Thunderbirds. There was a 1959, a 1961, and I think a 1963. My mother bought these cars for herself and didn't keep any of them very long.

9. 1969 Dodge Coronet. This was not a success. Her step-father had worked at a Dodge dealership when she was young, and he had given her her first car, a 1934 Dodge Coupe. She hoped that a new Dodge would be as much of a thrill. It was a disaster. It was too plain after the luxury of the Thunderbirds, and for some reason, it didn't "sound right" and it was hard to drive. Within a month or so she traded it for a...

10. 1969 Pontiac LeMans. She loved this car. She kept it for at least another 10 years, maybe longer. I don't know that she ever bought another car -- but we were estranged toward the end of her life and I have only sketchy knowledge of her after about 1977. She died in 1987.

Because her step-father was a machinist who became the service manager at a car dealership before he went on mercurial adventures as the owner of his own filling station and auto court, eventually losing all his money in a bogus mining venture in Nevada, my mother always had an interest and fascination with cars. My infant skill in identifying makes, models, and years cars from the '40s and '50s was widely admired, but eventually, I didn't really share her auto interest.

I've had many cars on my own over the years, starting with a 1950 Packard convertible (the one pictured below may actually be it):

Imagine a high school kid driving something like that around in 1965. My god. Just looking at the picture gives me a strange sensation, part thrill, part horror.

That was followed by a 1951 Buick Roadmaster, which was followed by a 1958 Cadillac, then a 1967 Ford Fairlane, then a 1970 Chevelle Malibu, then a 1980 Ford Escort, then a 1988 Toyota Corolla, then a 1992 Subaru, then a 1998 Pontiac, then a 1997 Chevrolet Astro van (which I still have) and then a couple of 2008 Subarus purchased in New Mexico, one purchased in 2013 which was wrecked, the other purchased in 2016 which we still have. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

I Used to be 1/4 Irish

But now Ancestry DNA says I'm more than half Irish -- including Scottish and Welsh -- and less than half "British" -- Britain, including large parts of France and Germany, and all of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. There is no other DNA heritage in my updated DNA scan.

Well. The initial DNA scan was 1/4 "Irish", 2/3 "British", and the rest an amalgam of "Iberian," "Eastern European," and "Scandinavian."

My father's paternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland in 1850 or so; his maternal grandparents emigrated from what had yet to become Germany a few years later. This we know from extensive records and tales told by firelight. We know where our immigrant ancestors came from and I've been able to trace their ancestors into the 18th century. They're not quite who/what I thought they were, but close enough.

On my mother's side, it's more complicated. Her father was killed when she was very young, and she knew almost nothing about him. I've been able to trace her mother's ancestors pretty well, though, and almost all of them are deep-rooted in America, some going back to the 1600s in New Jersey, and then further back into the deep mists of time in England. Yes, almost all her ancestors on her mother's side are English. There are some exceptions. There's the Indian Princess (well she might be, it's hard to say; some of her descendants vigorously dispute it) in the 1700s; there are one or two Irish or Scottish folks who married into the family in the 1800s. But apart from them, it's all English ancestry on my mother's mother's side all the way down.

On her father's side, from what I could find out, it's a good deal more ambiguous. Her father's mother superficially appears to have been of New England English stock, thoroughly English but long time in America, with no Scottish or Irish admixture. But I wonder... One of her great-grandmother's last name was Scott.

My mother's father's paternal ancestors though... I could not trace his ancestors back farther than 1798 when his paternal grandfather was born in Virginia. Frontier Virginia. His paternal grandmother was Irish. They moved to frontier Kentucky, then to frontier Indiana where they settled and some of their descendants still are. So according to an ancestry chart, my mother's father's father was half Irish, my mother's father would have been 1/4 Irish; my mother would have been 1/8th and a little bit (allowing for Irish and Scottish ancestors on her mother's side), and that contribution to my ancestry would have only slightly increased my "Irish" from 1/4 to maybe 27-30% -- if that, since the way DNA works, my mother's "Irish" contribution might not show up at all, and my father's could be less than 1/4.

So. How did I get to be more than 1/2 Irish all of a sudden? It should be impossible. I don't have enough Irish ancestors, nor am I aware of more than a few distant (possibly) Scottish ancestors. (Ancestry DNA lumps Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestry into one glorious Celtish mass not three.)

I've been puzzling and puzzling this dilemma for months, and I just can't make it work. I even tried the proposition that my father wasn't my father, than one of his cousins was, a cousin who would have had 100% Irish ancestry. I even had a candidate in mind. Trouble was, I share abundant DNA markers with descendants of my father's sister and brother who have done the DNA tests. So many markers that we are from DNA evidence alone first and second cousins. If one of my father's cousins (the son of his aunt) were my biological father (possible though not probable) I would be more "Irish" but I would not be as closely related to my cousins as apparently I am. I would be third or fourth cousin rather than first and second. And if another (100% Irish-ancestry) man, not my father's cousin, had been my biological father, I would be half or more "Irish," but my cousins would not be related to me at all.

So it's still insoluble.

I tried to prepare this post a month ago for St. Patrick's Day, but I got caught up in research and other things and never finished it. The dilemma has spurred me to look ever closer at my mother's ancestry and at the people and places in Ireland that my ancestors must have known. The story I'm piecing together is pretty amazing. Not quite what I thought, but not that different either.

And in all my DNA results -- originally and updated -- there is no sign of German ancestry at all. The "British" in my DNA includes the western quarter of Germany which is where my German ancestors lived, but my cousins -- descendants of my father's sister and brother -- show definite specific German markers. I don't. It's a mystery...

The church on the road in Ireland near where some of my Irish ancestors lived:

And here is the church in Galisteo, not far from where I live now:

Both were constructed c. 1810.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Chopping Wood and Carrying Water

Before Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

After Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

Well, that takes me back a long way, fifty years or more, when Ms. Ché and I sat in meditation in our tiny studio on Hunter St. in Stockton, CA.


At the time, the practice of Zen meditation (Zazen = Sitting Meditation) wasn't commonplace, but it was no longer wildly exotic nor confined to strictly Japanese Buddhist communities. It was available to other seekers, and even if one didn't have a Master, one could practice on one's own or in lay communities, no Master required. Not unless one was a novice monk or nun. In which case, one had a hierarchy and a rule to understand and follow along with one's practice of meditation: the garments, the positions, the bows, greetings, chants, and on and on and on.

Enlightenment (Satori = Sudden Enlightenment) was possible whether you were a monk or nun or not. It was always my belief, whether wrong or right, that the monastery and nunnery could delay enlightenment, in fact may have been designed to do so, in an emulation of Sakyamuni's -- the Buddha's -- long quest for his own enlightenment. He had to experience everything and go through the literal and figurative fires of hell before he was granted nirvana. Many Buddhist devotees, in his time and now, seek their own enlightenment by following his path as closely as possible. The monks and nuns are most adept at it. In his own time, many of the Buddha's followers were "granted monkhood" by the Buddha himself. It was considered the highest favor and the highest calling of a mortal being.

But not everyone could be or should be a monk or a nun, for society would not be able to function if they were. Buddha -- generally pronounced "Buhddh" (no "uh" ending) in Hindi and other Northern India languages -- acknowledged as much in his own time, and encouraged leaders and kings to adopt the core Buddhist principles and practices while continuing to serve their communities and people in their roles as kings and princes and headmen. Women could be ordained as nuns, but their social role, though important, was subsidiary to that of men, and would be for many years to come.

Nowadays, many of the most honored and venerated Buddhist scholars, thinkers, and practitioners are women, most of whom are nuns but some are lay women who have achieved enlightenment.

The final episode of the Indian TV series "Buddha" was a presentation by its producer, B. K. Modi, who saw that his calling was to help restore Buddhist thought and practice to India and to help spread it throughout the world. His biographical series about the Buddha was a step on that path.

Comparatively, India has few Buddhists today, while other countries, near and far, have proportionately more Buddhists, approaching 90% in some places. We may ask why that is so.

According to what little history I've read about it, Buddhism was suppressed in India from before the time of the Mughal conquests in the 12th century until the establishment of the British Raj in the 19th century (when the Crown took over rule from the British East India Company). There was a slight revival under the British, but after Independence, Buddhism became more widespread especially among the Dalits (formerly Untouchables.)

The suppression of Buddhism in India contrasts strongly with its flourishing in Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Everywhere Buddhism flourished, a somewhat different form of the practice was developed.

Our introduction to and practice of Buddhism was an Americanized version of Japanese Zen. I wouldn't say we necessarily achieved Enlightenment, but the practice had a profound effect on our lives which continues to this day, even though we haven't practiced for many years. Correction: Ms. Ché sat in daily meditation at Naropa last summer, and she intended to set up a meditation space at home when she got back, but for whatever reason, she hasn't done it yet.

What has happened, though, is a gradual transformation of our house to accommodate the possibility of a meditation space in due time, and a restoration of Mindfulness in our daily activities. Ie: Meditation without (necessarily) Sitting.

Still we chop wood and carry water. That is fundamental.

One origin of the precept is as follows:


A young boy became a monk. He dreamed of enlightenment and of learning great things. When he got to the monastery he was told that each morning he had to chop wood for the monks fires and then carry water up to the monastery for ablutions and the kitchen. He attended prayers and meditation, but the teaching he was given was rather sparse.
One day he was told to take some tea to the Abbot in his chambers. He did so and the Abbot saw he looked sad and asked him why.
He replied every day all I do is chop wood and carry water. I want to learn. I want to understand things. I want to be great one day, like you.

The Abbot gestured to the scrolls on shelves lining the walls. He said, "When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward. Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is,'chopping wood and carrying water.' and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same."

Sunday, February 10, 2019


Lately Ms Ché and I feel like we're coming around full circle in some ways. Buddhism has re-entered our conscious lives. It never really went away, though our lives veered strongly in other directions between the time we started Buddhist practice in the late 1960s and now. Oh my yes.

In the interim we sort of drifted between a Franciscan-ish Catholicism, Native American-ish spirituality, and a kind of strict atheism. God, what God? I know of no God. Etc.

But underneath it all was a core of Buddhist thought and practice dating so far back in our lives that we forgot its origin -- must have been Japanese in our case, Zen, sitting meditation, satori, and semi-enlightenment, flashes, coming, going, dissolving, reconstituting. Very California when you get down to it. Zen masters and other spiritual teachers including Gary Snyder and some of his disciples. This was a long time ago. I feel every moment of the time that has passed. So many years but yet it seems to be only yesterday.

So we live our lives of Adventure, dashing around the country, seeing sights, meeting people, working in a wide variety of environments, living a kind of dream we never quite awaken from. So many aspects of a dream never deferred but always present. Even our retirement to the New Mexico wilderness is part of that ongoing dream. An illusion.

And then the signs... For a time, we were beset with Adventists, Witnesses, and Mormons. I tell you it  was a constant circus parade at our front door. "Come! Join us! God awaits!" The Catholic church down the road, modest and plain, run by Carmelite monks, seemed calm by comparison. Oh they had their issues, one being abortion, that sometimes got them so worked up it was a strange and bewildering environment. If it had been a Franciscan run church, like the Cathedral-Basilica in Santa Fe might have been if history hadn't intervened, maybe, maybe... oh, but they have their issues, too, which I won't go into here, but will just say that their bankruptcy has been driven by many years of priestly abuse of parishioners.

So a household Franciscan observance/altar was set up in a corner of the living room, and we included many Native American elements in it. Well, it seemed only natural. Then we added a Native section that just kept growing, so that now the Franciscan part, while still important, is the lesser of the side-by-side home altars.

St. Francis is not as highly regarded in New Mexico as he is elsewhere, in part because it was the abuse by Franciscan priests that touched off the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The stories I've heard of what the Franciscans did to the Indians are almost impossible to imagine. Their cruelty was way over the top. To my mind, this wasn't Franciscan at all. Something deep-rooted and thoroughly evil had replaced the compassion and charity and love the Saint had preached.

I'd say in a way, New Mexico -- Spanish and Native alike -- has never forgiven the Franciscans for what happened. As a consequence, St. Francis's presence is minimized though the Santa Fe Cathedral Basilica is dedicated to San Francisco and there is a looming statue of him in a side courtyard. Ave.

In California, it's not that way, so we brought some Franciscan thought with us and we honored the saint in small ways. Of course the Cattery is the main Franciscan observance but let's not get into that right now. (Cats!)

Ms. Ché spent part of last summer at the Naropa Institute (as we still call it, though it is a University now) in Colorado. It is a Buddhist-founded institution, a Rinpoche, I believe, being the inspirational and spiritual founder along with Allen Ginsberg and a number of other creators and writers. Ms. Ché says it's not part of any Buddhist order, but Buddhist practice -- on one's own and in community -- is encouraged in any form of devotion and meditation one chooses.

Well, that brought back many early memories for her, and she said she felt refreshed and alive once she got used to it. Again.

As I say, Buddhist inspiration has never really left us, it just went dormant. For decades.

Time passed, and it was clear Ms. Ché yearned to recreate at home some of that spirit she reconnected with at Naropa, and every now and then a little clue would emerge. Years earlier at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca asked me, "What is a Bodhisattva?" For heaven's sake. Why would anyone ask me that? But then I realized it was a koan, and stumbled around coming up with a patched together "Devotee/practitioner on the way to Buddha-hood" answer. But it's much more than that. More and other. Both. Never mind.

So while I was cruising around Netflix one day, I stumbled on a 2013 TV series from India, "Buddha". Started watching it and saw promise. We're up to episode 36 now. Siddharth has achieved enlightenment and is starting to spread the word and spirit. He is now "Buddha" -- The Enlightened One. There are 20 some episodes left in the series. We try to see one or maybe two every day. And it has reconnected us with long ago Buddhist inspiration. I think the series was designed to introduce Indians to Buddhist thought and practice that once was prevalent in their land but has mostly been pushed out. I understand it has partially returned among Dalits, but not so much among the higher caste Indians. Perhaps now is the time.

Active Buddhist communities are all over Northern New Mexico and into Colorado, but out here in the wilderness, we might be something of a singularity. It's hard to say. There are many Catholics, a few Native spiritualists, and that plethora of Witnesses, Mormons, and Adventists I mentioned earlier. If there are Buddhists, they keep a low profile.

Maybe some of the cowboys sit in meditation from time to time, though. I wouldn't be surprised.

Michael Stipe, "I am not a Buddhist," but then he is.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold

The Second Coming
W. B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus MundiTroubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Looking at the political trainwreck of the last few weeks, one can't help but think the paradigm shift under way is coming close to a climax. Of course, one has thought that before and one has been wrong, so we'll see, won't we?

It's not just the gold-plated turd that is Trump, though he is certainly the Shiny Object keeping attention away from More Important Things. His constant ravings have fully captivated the media, and they hold more sway than they should over the public attention.

Yet many are beginning -- finally -- to see that Trump isn't an outlier of his class; he is a representative of these insensitive pricks who've ruled us for doG knows how long. He is them, they are him. The entrance of one prickish billionaire after another into the political fray demonstrates clearly that these people, mostly privileged white men, are appallingly dense, vicious, stupid and cruel. Well, yes. That it wasn't obvious before is the peculiar thing.

The whole "populist" act that Trump has been putting on is failing -- the Foxconn Debacle being a case in point -- but he keeps trying, so I'll grant him that. He's also methodically putting together a War Upon War finale to his reign that might just pull the popular will right along with him into the Abyss.

Yeats wrote his dirge post-Easter Rising, post-WWI. He could see -- how could he not? -- that what Used to Be was no more, and wasn't coming back, either.

We're not at that point yet, but we're getting closer.

So I'll go make some coffee in my ancient MidCentury Universal percolator. Sit and contemplate with Siddarth Gautam Buddha, nag champa incense wafting through our dusty, drafty house in the middle of nowhere. Wondering what today's new cycle will bring.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Cold

Woke up to another below zero morning. -5º right now, or so the weather thing on my notebook says.

This is fairly rare around here, thankfully, though there was a period back in the Aughts when it was below zero overnight for several days and never got much above the teens in the daytime. I wasn't here at the time, but I got a call from the city to tell me my water bill was going through the roof and I might want to check on things. In the meantime they'd turned off the water to the house. I flew out from California the next day and sure enough. None of the pipes had broken, but the valve in the toilet was stuck open after it unfroze and it was running constantly. That was an easy fix, but many neighbors had broken pipes. And some had no heat or not enough to keep warm. It was pretty bad. People still remember it as one of the interesting hazards of living out here in the wilderness.

Oh,  I did say the city contacted me and turned off the water when the bill suddenly went very high after the cold snap?Though we're in a rural area in the unpopulated central highlands/East Mountains, we are actually within the city limits of a tiny town that gained a city charter in the 1950s. Among the things they did to become a city was install a city well and piping to a number of houses and businesses -- perhaps 400 or so -- and (get this) they put in a sewage system too. So even though fewer than 2000 people live in this area, maybe 1200 or 1500 within the city limits, it is surprisingly well serviced. Most roads are paved (not necessarily an advantage in the winter), there are streetlights here and there, we get city water (which we don't drink or cook with -- a topic for another post maybe), the sewage gets treated so we don't have to have a septic tank, there are two stoplights in "town" (!), and so on.

One day I might do some research and find out how this happened back then, as such services are very rare anywhere in rural New Mexico. There are very few actual cities in New Mexico, and this is definitely one of the smallest. In the '50s it must have had a much smaller population,. I seem to recall hearing that it was an era of drought and dust storms, too, worse than during the Dust Bowl era.

And here we are now, freezing our hind ends off. It's not so bad in the house, even though it's somewhat drafty thanks to self-built incompletion  -- like fitting the floors all the way to the walls. It was particularly bad in our bedroom, where there was a gap of as much as an inch between the floor boards and the north wall. Well, that let in quite a lot of cold air, and it was only a week or so ago that I got around to fixing some of it. There are still some drafts, but it's not nearly as bad. There are drafts elsewhere in the house where uneven settlement has opened up some gaps. But they are relatively minor. I've fixed some, and others I'm still searching out. One day, I hope to find and fix them all.

As for heat, we have a great big gas fired behemoth in the living room that heats most of the house relatively well. It replaced a  '40s era gas heating stove that looked something like a streamlined console radio. I wanted to keep it, but the renovation contractor (who apparently didn't notice all the drafts) said it wasn't salvageable. Sad. He installed a new Williams fan-forced console heater. The fan gave out a while back, but we really don't need it. We use portable electric radiators where we need spot heating, and they work pretty well.

We have one frozen pipe right now, the hot water line (ironically) to the bathroom, and it's not likely to unfreeze until the outside temperature is above freezing for at least 24 hours. Not gonna happen for the rest of this week and possibly not next week for long enough. We still have hot water in the kitchen, and if that one freezes too, we can use the heating stove or the gas range to heat water as long as one cold water line stays unfrozen.

We have been through this before.

Before we bought the house, we were told that the pipes froze and burst one winter (probably 2003) and were replaced with plastic which wasn't supposed to burst when it froze. So far, we've been lucky.

I spent my first winter in Iowa where the Christmas picture in the last post was taken. That was a cold winter, I'm sure. When I went back in January, 1969, after my father died, temps were in the single digits. I have no memory of cold in Iowa when I was an infant but I do remember the smell of the coal fired furnace in my father's house. I don't remember seeing or experiencing snow in Iowa either. So it was kind of surprising how cold it was in Iowa when I returned in the winter of 1969.

Cold used to make me angry. This was practically a Pavlovian response that I didn't understand. Yet any feeling of chill was likely a trigger for anger that left me bewildered. As I say, I had no memory of my first winter in Iowa. And in California where we lived near the Coast or in Los Angeles County or in the Sierra foothills or in the Central Valley, cold, real cold, and snow and such were almost unheard of.

And yet...

Cold is a relative thing, isn't it?

You're cold compared to something else; "warmth". Cold is uncomfortable compared to what you're used to. Cold is an absolute depending on the thermometer, but your feeling of cold depends on a variety of factors including how well you're bundled up in cold weather.

I had a brief introduction to cold weather in Iowa in 1969. I stayed only a few days, and all I had were "California clothes" so I got pretty chilled, but I didn't think it was so bad. And I recall anger. It's complicated because I was also mourning my father's death, so I couldn't really sort the anger I felt at being cold from other feelings at the time.

Years later, I spent entire winters in Upstate New York and Alaska, and I'll admit those were cold. Very cold. And they did sometimes make me angry. Anger that I didn't understand.

There was no reason for anger or so I thought, and letting the cold get to me seemed stupid. I felt it might have been a body memory. In other words, something must have happened to me when I was young to make me angry when I was cold -- even if the cold wasn't anything like that of Iowa or Upstate New York or Alaska.

For years, I had no idea what it might be. What could have happened and where?

These days, my memory is not what it used to me. It's pretty much shot to hell. Many memories are scrambled. Others are gone (Ms Ché likes to taunt me about it because her memory is still very sharp -- though it too isn't quite what it used to be...). But while pondering the issue I had with cold and anger, I was able to figure out some things that had long perplexed me.

I remembered some times when I felt shivering cold when I was an infant and toddler, up to age three or four, and how in some cases, I was furious about it.

Let me explain. We lived in Santa Maria, California, which usually doesn't get very cold or very hot at all. It's about eight miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains. It's foggy on a lot of mornings and evenings all year long. It rains in the winter and spring. Almost never freezes. It may have snowed once in the last fifty years.

My mother was a late shift and on-call hospital employee which meant she had to go in at all hours after she'd worked a full shift -- which was sometimes 3p-11p and sometimes 11p-7a. Until she left to break into Show Business in 1951, my sister would  take care of me at home no matter what my mother's on call and regular shift hours might be. But after she left, my mother had to figure out something else, and what she figured out was to put me in the back of the car and take me to the hospital with her.

In the wintertime, it was foggy, damp and relatively cold and being woken up and hauled to the hospital in the backseat of the car (at that time, a 1942 Packard Clipper on its last legs) was not a treat for me. I had to stay in the car while she did what she had to do in the hospital.  I had a blanket but it didn't keep me warm. The nuns ( it was a Catholic hospital) wouldn't let me stay in the hospital lobby to keep warm. Sometimes my mother had to stay at the hospital for hours before she could go back home to get some sleep herself.

But even when we got back home, I probably did not sleep myself. I would probably still be shivering cold, as the only heat in our house came from a gas radiant heater in the non-functional fireplace. It heated the living room but not the bedrooms or bathroom.

The warmest room in the house was probably the kitchen where the gas oven was lit and the oven door was left open heating the room nicely.

When I thought of those late-night treks to the hospital and how very cold I felt, I could easily imagine becoming angry at a situation I could not control, and I could see that as a trigger for my later feelings of anger at being cold.

I remember particularly Ms. Ché and I were in New York City at Thanksgiving one year and it was cold. We were enjoying ourselves even so until... we got caught in the Macy's parade crowd, and for a time we couldn't move. I wasn't scared, I was angry, and that anger actually helped get us out of that predicament. Our hotel was only a block or so away, so by dint of fury, I was able to thread a path for us out of the crush and escape back to our hotel.

But fury and rage at cold didn't always have a positive effect. It could also be utterly inappropriate. So many times I responded with anger to something that didn't call for it, and every time, I would be bewildered.

Now, however, though it is freaking cold outside, and not that warm inside in some rooms, I don't feel angry at the cold. It's just another experience to cope with. I am grateful that the anger I used to feel at being cold no longer applies.

Only memories -- maybe scrambled -- now.

Happy New Year!

1/5/2019 UPDATE -- This appears to be the seventh day in a row of single digit or below zero overnight temps, and so far only one above freezing daytime temperature (yesterday) -- 37º for a couple of hours. Frozen pipes all over the area (our bathroom hot water pipe is still one of them, but so far the rest have stayed unfrozen thanks to running a stream of water all the time. Most of the main roads are clear, but there is ice in patches, and our local roads are packed snow and ice. Have to go to Santa Fe today. What fun...

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas Memories

My one and only Christmas in Iowa
That's the earliest picture of me taken at Christmastime. There are some others taken later but none after about 1952. By then my life seemed to have taken a strange turn from which it would never entirely revert to... well, "normal."

I have quite a few Christmas memories. Most of them are good ones, so even if things weren't exactly typical of a White-Boy Childhood in the '50s otherwise, Christmas was almost always a happy time for me. I never felt like I lacked for presents at Christmas. If anything, it sometimes seemed like I had too many. In a sense, the abundance of gifts at Christmas may have been meant to make up for some of what I lacked the rest of the year.

Christmas in my childhood always meant a live tree, one that smelled strongly of pine forests in winter. Lots of decorations on the tree, different kinds of Shiny Brites in a range of sizes, the old-fashioned lead tinsel (or was it tin?), icicles made of silvered glass and later white plastic, glass birds with long white tassel tails, lots of multicolor lights including those bubble lights that I guess are still available. The tree-topper was usually one of those glass spike things, but we had a star as well, and some Christmases, we put the star on top of the tree instead of the spike.

We still have some old Shiny Brites on the tree we keep up all year in New Mexico. I'm not sure that any of them were saved from either my childhood or Ms. Ché's. I know I've been collecting them from thrift stores for several years, and I think that's where all the Shiny Brites we currently have came from. We also decorate the tree with newer imitation Shiny Brites that aren't quite the same as the genuine articles. We also use lots of local decorations like glass chiles, tomatoes and saints in their nichos and such. No tinsel though; too risky for the cats.

After about 1951, the Christmas tree always had the Lionel train set my father gave me around the base. There's nothing quite like them any more. The steam engine was long and heavy and intricately detailed.

There were little tablets you could put in the smoke stack to make smoke. The headlight lit up as the engine chugged around the three-rail track. The whistle sounded 'whoo-whoo!' when you pushed a button or moved a lever on the power transformer. I don't remember which, but I do recall there were two levers on the transformer and one of them controlled the speed of the train. There was a little black plastic thing with two red buttons that allowed you to switch the track the train ran on.

There was a coal car, two freight cars -- one red, one white, a flatcar with logs, a tank car, a baggage car, a passenger car, and a caboose. There were milk cans in the white freight car and a man dressed in white who unloaded the milk cans onto a platform at the station. The passenger car windows lit up. The brake wheels on the cars turned. It was a nice train set, and I kept most of it through all the many moves of our household around southern and northern California. The pieces started disappearing when I was a teenager, and the only one I managed to hold on to was the caboose. And now, I'm not sure where it is.

I have some other train memorabilia, but nothing like the Lionel train set I'd get out every Christmas when I was a kid. One of the ironies of my ancestry research is that I discovered that my father's German grandfather (as opposed to his Irish one) worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway in the Iowa yards as a carpenter. More irony was that I learned my mother's father was killed in the St. Louis Wabash rail yard where he worked as a switchman. One of his brothers was an engineer with the Wabash line. I was surprised to learn of my ancestors' railroad connections and still haven't absorbed the significance of it -- if any.

Gifts at Christmas usually included lots of school clothes, and typically science or art supplies. Toys? I suppose, but I recall very few. One that I remember was a large model airplane that had a motor and propeller and was supposed to fly at the end of a long double cable. I could rarely get it into the air, and when I did, it usually crashed within seconds. My friends weren't much more successful with it than I was, so in the end, the plane wound up as decoration hanging on the wall in my room.

I received a number of you-put-together model cars at Christmas, all antiques and classics. I had a collection of Floyd Clymer Historical Motor Scrapbooks and the model cars were in many cases examples of the cars in the magazines. The one that took the longest time and most patience to put together was the Dusenberg, which ultimately was pretty spectacular, but I'm not sure what happened to it.

One year, I received an elaborate chemistry set with which I made much mischief. Another year, it was a rock and mineral collection. I kept the garnet from the collection for many years. Still another year, I received a crystal radio kit which I put together and was amazed at how well it received stations, though I had to listen through earphones.

Then there were the encyclopedias. I remember we had a complete set of the New Standard Encyclopedia, but I would also receive one or two volumes of a child's encyclopedia every Christmas for several years. Since I was a voracious reader, both sets were paged through again and again. I had a lot of books from an early age a few of which I still have (I think!)

One Christmas, I think it was  in 1957 or 58, I received an "all chrome" bike. It wasn't actually all chromed; I think the frame was painted silver, but it was very fancy and unusual. There wasn't another one like it in the neighborhood. It was a full-sized adult bike, and at first, I had difficulty riding it because it was too big. But eventually, I got the hang of it, and I rode it everywhere. I didn't have to ride to school because the school was right behind our house, but after school and on weekends, I rode that bike all the time.

One day toward the end of the school year, I rode down to the Stassi and Humphrey market about a mile from my house and I parked the bike outside while I went in to get some chewing gum and soda. When I came out, the bike was gone, stolen.

I didn't have a lock. Nobody locked their bikes in those days. Bikes were stolen fairly often, but usually they were recovered within a few days, so it really wasn't a big deal. I never got my bike back. Police were notified, and they said they checked with known bike thieves and fences, but no luck. I suspect the thieves promptly sold the bike out of the area because I never saw it again, nor did I ever see one like it in my neighborhood.

My mother bought me another bike soon afterwards, a plain-jane Schwinn, and I kept it for several years and several moves until it, too, was stolen, lock and all.

Throughout my childhood and well into adulthood, I looked forward to Christmas, not so much for the presents, but just for the simple joy of the holiday and its festivities. As I got older, it really didn't matter so much, but even now in my dottage, I find I enjoy the holiday more than not.

And as my memory fades (oh yes!) I am grateful for the snippets I  can recall.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Who Are These People?

My great-grandmother Carrie with three of her grandchildren, George, David, and Florence, c. 1910
Yes, who are these people?

While checking my Ancestry.com profile the other day, I came across pictures posted by someone descended from my mother's father's family tree. I don't know who it is. I'd seen one of the pictures before, but the rest were new to me. The one above was particularly interesting.

Carrie and three of her grandchildren... She had at least one other grandchild at the time, but it was complicated. There may have been others. Some she may not have known about.There was a boy living in Wabash with his mother. His father, Carrie's son  Clyde, had been killed in a hunting accident shortly before the boy was born. There would be other grandchildren later, including my mother. But these three were interesting to me for who they were.

George, David and Florence were the three children my mother's father sired with his first wife Maud. By 1910, Maud and my mother's father (Lawrence) had divorced and by the time this picture was taken, Lawrence and my mother's mother (Edna) were married. Maude, so far as I've been able to figure out, had moved to St. Louis and become a housemate/companion/wife? of Lawrence's brother Hal. The boys were sent to live with their grandparents. Florence, on the other hand, was sent to live with another of Lawrence's brothers, Frank and his wife, a different Edna. But exactly when that happened, I can't say.

So what I see in this picture is my great grandmother, two of my uncles, and an aunt. Though these children were my mother's half-siblings -- and there would be others -- they are my grandfather's children and thus are my uncles and an aunt, without a half-measure.

George came to visit my mother and me in the mid-Fifties, I believe it was 1956 or 57. My mother had tracked him down by calling everyone in the LA phone book with her father's last name, and sure enough, she located George. I'm not entirely sure that he knew of her or she of him beforehand. But they got together, and I remember him as a rather jolly fellow though I can't say that he seemed like any kind of relative at all. So far as I knew at the time, I didn't have aunts or uncles (later I would find out I had quite a few of them). I didn't have grandparents. My father was far away. My (half) sister had moved away when I was three and I very rarely saw her. I didn't even know she was living in Los Angeles the first few years my mother and I lived there, for example. She was a student at LA City College.  And trying to break into show business.

Through relatively recent research, I found out a bit about George. He had quite a life. When I look at the picture above, I see a striking resemblance to his father. What I remember seeing when he came to visit was a rather distinguished middle aged man, salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a suit and tie, polished shoes, smelling of Old Spice. I think he drove a black Buick. He smiled and laughed a lot while I was around, but my mother wanted to talk to him privately, so I went in the other room and watched TV while they talked. It seemed serious.

They no doubt talked about their father. George was born in 1898; my mother was born in 1911. There was quite an age gap. Another half-brother was also born in 1911, but I doubt either George or my mother knew of him. A half-sister would be born in 1914, and my mother certainly knew about her as she mentioned her to me by name (Helen) as someone she had seen/met at her father's funeral in St. Louis in 1916.

I wonder if George and David and Florence and Carrie went to Lawrence's funeral. The pater familia, D. H., probably didn't go, as he didn't look well in a family portrait taken the year before at the 50th wedding anniversary of Carrie and D. H. Given that Lawrence had established yet another family in St. Louis it was obvious things could get ... complicated.

George and David both went to Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, a rather prestigious technical school, but I have found no record that either of them graduated or even made it to senior year. If that's the case, it would be sad, to say the least.

Florence seemed to flourish in the household of her aunt and uncle, and died in Florida 92 years old. The boys didn't live so long. David died in San Diego at 55; George died in Los Angeles at 65.

Carrie died in 1918, I suspect she was one of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish flu victims in the United States. Her husband, D. H., died in 1921. By then, the boys were grown and one assumes they were on their own. Lawrence was dead. Maud moved back to Indianapolis.

Marie, Lawrence's wife in St. Louis, married the yard boss of the rail yard where Lawrence was killed and she died there in 1987, two days after my mother died in Butte County, California. Marie's daughter Helen committed suicide in 1940 on the anniversary of her husband's death from cancer.

I'm sure there are amazing stories for all  of these people, but for the most part, I didn't know anything about any of them. I wish I could have asked George about his stint in San Quentin when he came to call. But no.

Surprising how many records, though, turn up on Ancestry.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Fires This Time

California burns. We  know this, right?

When I was a snot nosed kid in LA,  every year I'd sit on my back fence watching the San Gabriels burn about eight-ten miles north. One year the fire came up the hill down at the end of our street, and when it started burning on our side of the hill, neighbors  panicked and got their garden hoses out to wet down their roofs, and some packed their cars and made a hasty escape just before the fire trucks came and put the fire out. 

Sometimes ash and smoke was very heavy in the air, and I already had breathing problems from the smog which was crisis-terrible in LA in the 1950s. So Fire Season and the Santa Ana winds were not a good time for me healthwise, but it could be exciting.

Moving to Northern California in 1959, we at first lived in a rural community on the edge of the Sierra foothills. Our house was in an oak forest, which my mother called a firetrap. She worked up the hill in Auburn, and in those days, the I-80 freeway had not been built yet. Highway 40 got you up the hill and eventually over the mountains into Reno, but it was a haul. She didn't feel safe if there was a fire, because it would be too hard to escape, and she angled to get us out of there as soon as possible. 

Of course there were numerous fires in the foothills and mountains in those days, and every year, the rice growers would burn their stubble in the Valley.  It was  considered normal. It may not have been healthy, but what could you do? And in those days, too, it was understood that fire was part of the cycle of nature, and it was a bad thing only when people and houses and businesses were in the way and burnt got burnt up. That happened from time to time, but it was fairly limited. 

The tragedies were limited in part because there were fewer people in California, particularly in Gold Country --- the west side of the Sierras and the Sierra foothills. In those days, the Gold Rush communities were mostly ghost towns with a few  dozen to a few hundred people still living in them at most. They were not bedroom communities for people working in the Valley as many of them are today. They were not retirement communities as so many are now. They were not surrounded by extensive suburban style real estate developments as they are now. They were what was left after the gold was extracted and the miners and fancy women left for greener pastures.

Consequently, when forest and brush fires burned, as they were bound to do, it was fairly simple to protect towns that might be in their path. Volunteer fire departments were the pride of many small towns in the foothills, and they were generally sufficient to keep fires at bay and protect the towns from incineration. Many of these Gold Rush and mountain communities had buildings that dated back to the 1850s and 1860s, and there has been many fires since then. Residents coped.

Though there must have been some, I don't recall evacuations of whole towns in those days. If fire came close, some people in the way would get out of course, but many stayed to fight the fires and keep them from destroying the towns. And they were mostly successful.

The really bad fires seemed to be burning in Southern California in those days, and they were bad because houses burned and sometimes people burned with them. The population of Southern California was growing fast, and some were building and living on hillsides and ridges that were natural fire paths -- in other words, where they shouldn't have been building and living -- and so, year by year, there would be more houses burned to the ground when the annual Fire Season commenced. The Santa Anas blew the fires into firestorms and there was very little you could do about it except get out of the way.

And hope and pray. 

So there have been a few bad fires recently in both Northern and Southern California, with thousands of homes burned and many people killed and missing. The term "Apocalyptic" is hardly too strong for the scenes that have been playing out during the coverage of the fires. It's been terrible. Heartbreaking and gut wrenching.

Paradise above Chico was all but wiped out, but so were most of the towns and settlements up there: Pulga, Concow, Magalia, and so on. Most of the media attention has been focused on Paradise, partly for the name (even though Trump called it "Pleasure" several times; I wonder why... no, I don't), but also because it was the largest and easiest to reach fire location.

I've been to Paradise several times, and Ms. Ché and I briefly considered it for our own retirement. But no. No. The forest within which most of the town was built was beautiful and it smelled wonderful.... BUT it was an obvious and rather horrifying fire trap. There were too many houses built too close together and too close to the trees, there were too few ways out should an evacuation be necessary, and it was becoming too big a town (this was during the early '90s) for the area. If anything, Magalia was worse. Not so big, no, but even more of a firetrap. More and more real estate developers saw big money in putting up homes in both places, bugger the risks. Besides, the demographics were... how to put this gently? Inevitably terminal... Lots of old people, plenty of "rugged" types, not a few "sovereign citizens", druggies, and bikers. A mixed bag to be sure, but for the most part, not what one would think of as productive movers/shakers.

But it was the forest setting that put me off. Nice place to visit. Wouldn't want to live there.

Apparently there was a fire about ten years ago that took out a swath of homes west and south of the main part of Paradise, and it was discovered at that time that evacuation was darned nigh impossible. So they came up with a plan to order phased evacuations in the event of a future fire.

Problem was that the fire this time moved too fast and communications with residents were spotty or nonexistent. Too many people didn't know until too late that they needed to get out. And those who tried to get out were too often caught in hours-long traffic snarls... and some of them burned to death in their cars or trying to escape on foot.

Most people got out, but too many didn't/couldn't/wouldn't. The death toll so far (Tuesday morning 11/20//18) is about 80, but it is expected there will be more, perhaps many more, bodies found -- or what's left of them in the ashes. There are still 600 or so missing and unaccounted for. Some of those who perished in the fire will never be found.

More than 10,000 homes burned in the fire. This is unprecedented in  California -- with the exception of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire which destroyed 2/3rds of the city and left perhaps 3000 dead. For decades, the death toll was deliberately misreported as 360 or something like that. It wouldn't be surprising if the death toll in the Camp fire is underreported as well. The devastation is almost too horrible to imagine as it is.  Adding in hundreds and hundreds of dead -- if that's what happened -- is likely too much to bear.

Trump went and saw a bit of the devastation and said many stupid things and left to go "console" the survivors of the Borderline mass shooting in Thousand Oaks. Bless his heart.

Of course there was a fire a couple of miles from there, too.

What a nightmare.

To the Trump regime, the problem is entirely one of "forest management." If the forest floors were raked and cleaned the way they do in Finland, there wouldn't be these problems, right? It's all the environmentalists' fault, right?

Well, no. Not exactly.

The problems in Paradise specifically  include a multi-year drought followed by one season of heavy rains followed by return to drought -- both of which can be attributed to climate change. Building right in the very stressed forest is a disaster waiting to happen anyway. There were few ways out and evacuation notices didn't reach everybody. High winds blew the initially small fire west at break-neck speed -- witnesses said it traveled horizontally burning everything in its path. Most of Paradise and Magalia were in flames before people could evacuate, and it wasn't because of poor forest management.

In fact, from the videos I've seen of the aftermath (kudos to the reporters who've gone back to document the destruction) many of the homes that burned had requisite "defensible space" around them. It didn't matter. The fire was being driven by the wind, and no amount of space seemed to be enough in many cases. Some of the houses that survived did not appear to have sufficient "defensible space," and yet they stand, some of them completely undamaged. It seemed to depend, more than anything, on the wind and whether or not embers were blown directly onto a building or not.

From what I could tell, there wasn't a lot of brush and small-tree cover that would result from "poor forest management." Instead, there was a lot of dry grass which burned fiercely and helped spread the fire very quickly. A controlled burn might have mitigated the dry grass problem, but you can't do it in high wind conditions. And given the long drought, it's conceivable that a controlled burn would quickly get out of control no matter what.

It was a perfect storm.

So what do you do?

There's been a settlement in Paradise since the Gold Rush, and it survived until now. A key to its survival was that it was very small until fairly recently. More than 90% of the homes in Paradise were destroyed in the fire and nearly that high a percent burned in Magalia. I would say the number of surviving homes is probably the maximum residential carrying capacity of the area for the foreseeable future, and that means that rebuilding should be very limited. From what I've seen, most of the forest withstood the fire, the way forests tend to do if they are maintained properly (which means brush clearance and periodic burns.) But houses should not be built among the trees the way they were.

What will be done, as opposed to what should be done, is still up in the air. We'll see.

In the meantime, I've been feeling as devastated by the fire as some of the survivors. It hit me hard, and I'm still in a state over it. All good wishes to the survivors. Respect for the dead.

Thanksgiving tomorrow. We're headed to an Indian casino to celebrate Indigenous People's Sunrise...👍👍

Monday, October 1, 2018


This intermission in the absurd Kavanaugh high drama (or is it low?) gives us a chance to consider what we've seen so far and come to some conclusions of our own regardless of how the Senate eventually votes. My bet -- right now -- is that the Senate majority will confirm him by a hair, but he may not be seated for reasons I'll try to get into below.

I've watched the hearings and tried to keep up with the chatterati about his nomination. It was clear that Kavanaugh was trouble, though initially, that was overlooked in the widespread bipartisan belief that he'd have a relatively smooth ride into the Kennedy Seat on the Court. He was OK to the Rs and enough Ds to ensure it. Or so it seemed.

He wasn't as radical as some of the potential nominees  (they said) and wasn't as ideological as others, though he was said  to be "more conservative" than Kennedy. But that was OK given the tenor of the times. Or something.

But when I saw him at the first hearing, it was obvious to me that there was something off about his presentation. He was performing the role of an independent judge, but he wasn't believing it. Rs were lavish in their praise and Ds were circumspect and careful in their questioning about matters that had apparently been bothering them for quite a long time, such as stolen emails used by Kavanaugh and others in the Bush White House to formulate strategies to get their judges approved. Inside baseball, I know, but this was an obvious bone of contention. Other matters included peculiar rulings once he was on the bench in the DC Circuit, attempts to make law from  the bench, and an apparent cruel streak toward non-whites and the unwashed who came before him. From what I could glean he was largely a standard model corporatist/authoritarian on the bench, but with a definite mean streak and a very odd -- indeed, false -- way of describing his own rulings and dissents. He was defensive to say the least.

It became clear that Kavanaugh was a right-wing political operative who had been put on the bench as a reward for loyalty and service to the Bush II regime. Oh. Swell.

It was also clear to me that he didn't know the law or precedent and didn't care. He was a political operative on the bench. He didn't so much interpret law as he ignored it and created his own whenever it suited him. He wasn't very bright, and he was repeatedly slapped down by other judges on the DC Circuit. He didn't know what he was doing, and it didn't matter to him. A suck up, a fuck up, a kiss up, a kick down.

Very interesting, but not that odd. Courts throughout the land are infested with just this sort of person. They are there as a reward for political service. Ms. Ché has worked for a couple of them at the Superior Court level, and I've encountered them in my own work. Most, I guess, are harmless enough -- the institutional inertia usually controls them -- but some cause havoc due to their ignorance and arrogance among other things, and they taint the whole judiciary.

This was the picture I was getting of Kavanaugh. It wasn't pretty. And he couldn't tell the truth.

He routinely lied or distorted facts.

On that basis alone, he disqualified himself from the Supreme Court, and I felt he shouldn't be serving on the Circuit Court, either. Or any court for that matter.

Then came the recent hearing on the allegations of Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her when she was 15, and oh my god on a crispy cracker. What a hot mess he was.

His guns blazing deportment, his crying, shouting, lying deportment said it all. Dude is whack.

If he kept that up, he'd have to be taken out in a straightjacket. No, a judge does not -- ever -- behave that way. Kavanaugh demonstrated that he lacked proper judicial temperament when under stress.

It just got worse from there.

Now I understand Trump loved the show, but maybe he didn't care for what was revealed. I'm certain he doesn't care about whether Kavanaugh assaulted Blasey Ford. That would be for them to work out in his book. What he might care about, though, are the reports of Kavanaugh's drinking and drinking and drinking, which we're led to believe is one of the few red flags that will get one ejected from Trump World in a New York minute.

Observers pointed out that Kavanaugh appears to be and acted like a severe alcoholic in need of intervention and treatment.

During the first hearing Kavanaugh had been drinking from two different cups, one clear, one a Dixie cup. The clear one appeared to hold water. Ms. Ché asked what was in the second one. I speculated it might be coffee or juice. She said, "Or vodka." She recognized the signs of an alcoholic from that first hearing. I didn't see it until the second. When you couldn't miss it.

He sure wouldn't be the first alcoholic on the bench. Far from it. For it to be so in your face, however, has got to raise red flags if nothing else had up till then.

Dr. Blasey Ford has been criticized for not having a complete memory of her assault when she was fifteen. Yet she has a very compelling memory.  And one that is certainly believable. She's been criticized for alleged CIA ties which I haven't explored, but I wouldn't be surprised. She comes from a relatively small circle of suburban Washington elite families. They are all interconnected with various elements of the government and with one another. Blasey Ford's father is said to be golfing buddies with Kavanaugh's father. Etc. And sure, a CIA connection is possible. But is it meaningful? Probably not. Especially since Kavanaugh seems to be quite favorably disposed to government power and authority -- in the right hands of course. He's a Bush and Justice Kennedy protege, and I don't see the CIA ginning up a fuss about him.

Based on his behavior, Kavanaugh probably needs to be in a recovery program, not elevated to the SCOTUS. And here's where I suspect this drama will lead:

Kavanaugh, I think, is probably a victim of childhood sexual abuse himself. Possibly by a priest or potentially even a family member. Who knows how long it went on, but it was likely long enough to transform him into the kind of hyper alpha he describes himself being in high school and college: number one student, number one athlete, virgin goody-two-shoes... and described by friends as a raging drunk who could become a nightmare of belligerence and... worse.  While I don't know whether he was the one who assaulted Blasey Ford, he easily could have been, as his assaults on female committee members made manifest.

For someone who "always treats women with respect" he sure didn't do so with Dianne Feinstein or Amy Klobuchar. No, just the opposite. I wonder if he treats his mother and wife that way.

So what do we make of this?

My sense of things right now -- subject to any kind of change as the week wears on -- is that he will be confirmed no matter what the FBI reports to the committee. However, he's likely in my view to go off the deep end into alcoholic despair either before or soon after the vote to confirm him, and will wind up unable to take his seat on the Court.

We'll see, won't we.

Note: once he is confirmed, even if he can't take the seat, a vacancy no longer exists, and someone else cannot be appointed. Talk about "checkmate..."

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Problem With Kavanaugh

He's a dick, sure, but that was obvious -- at least to some of us -- from the outset. It was clear, long before the emergence of these multiplying sex stories, that this man should not be serving as a judge in any court of law let alone the Supreme Court because he's a "Bad Judge."

No matter what he says, he doesn't understand the law or precedent, he doesn't comprehend the proper role of the judiciary, and he misuses the power of the court to attempt to enforce his personal will. He misrepresents his own opinions, and in too many cases, his opinions misstate or misunderstand the plain wording of the laws he's supposedly devoted to and in the end they present novel interpretations that cannot withstand the slightest objective scrutiny, though they certainly serve to advance a corporate, partisan and cruel agenda.  This appears to be his purpose. That and ensuring that no Republican president ever face the kind of scrutiny that, say, Clinton did.

This was all very obvious and nothing about the sex stories when he was in high school and college changes any of that.

But apparently it takes "the sex" to even begin to derail his nomination.

That's a big, big problem.

The courts throughout the land are chock-a-block with bad judges like Kavanaugh, and that is a problem. But you'd never know it, and you wouldn't know it about Kavanaugh if one of his victims hadn't brought up his long ago propensity for drunkenness, assault and sexual highjinks. In other words, his bad judgment from the bench didn't really matter all that much. It was mentioned of course, but apparently he was to be given a pass on that because, well, why not? In fact, his seat on the Supreme Court was pretty well secured until... the sex stories started.

I suspect he will be confirmed despite all, just like Thomas was, simply because there seems to be an agreement that unless a nominee is some kind of raving communist or completely unreliable to the ruling class, they will be confirmed come hell or high water. In the current situation, an agreement to confirm Kavanaugh seems to have been reached even before he was nominated. He was something like the consensus candidate given the others in line for the seat.

That's why I think he will be confirmed despite the accusations.

And he will be a problem on the court, but so was Scalia.

If people had any idea how common his kind is in the judiciary, or how common Trump's kind is in the high and mighty class...

I don't know that anything would change, but maybe it would.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Living With The Old Things (Redux)

Our 70 year old coffee percolator seemed to be on its last legs the other day (still works, though, as long as you jiggle the electric connection just so) and I got to thinking about living with the old things again.

Yeah, we still do. The house is old (c. 1900), and most of the stuff we have inside is old as well. So are we, both Ms. Ché and I now 70 ourselves. The car is ten years old (and supposedly needs a new engine thanks to extreme oil consumption, but that's another issue for another time.) The van is more than 20 years old and is decrepit, but it runs and transports things just fine,  so we keep it though there have been many offers to buy it from passers-by who want an Astro van (who wouldn't?)

Most of what's in the house is old, from the Philco radio (c. 1942), to the "Downton Abbey"-ish floor lamp (c. 1930), to the high back chair (c. 1880). We kept our California neighbor Joe Francis's easy chair (c. 1940) after he died, though the Pickles (other neighbors who took care of Joe until they put him in a home) wanted to take it to the dump. Looking around the room, the only things that aren't old are the couch (c. 2015), the TeeVee (c. 2014) and a shelf unit and a small table I picked up for my meds last year. Oh, and some books and magazines. Always books and magazines!

Living with the old stuff is comforting in many ways, but it requires a certain level of constant care to keep the old things decent condition and I couldn't do much of anything those several years I was pretty much incapacitated with RA.

Then you wonder: should we just get rid of it?

Like people, stuff deteriorates over time. Especially in the dry and dusty air of our current home in New Mexico. We don't require utility from things, but I know that some of the older books (and we have many of those) have reached the point of disintegration. They look fine as long as you don't open them. If you do, the pages may crumble away to dust.

Now that the treatment I'm having for RA seems to be working, I can do more things -- yay! -- but I'm still limited, and under the circumstances, it's wise for us to consider eliminating the unnecessary old things we've lived with for so many years.

That won't be easy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Rebel Rebel

The "Trump-Traitor!" meme is now embedded in the firmament. After their tete-a-tete in Helsinki, Trump and Putin have become the New Not-Normal destroyers of worlds (riffing off the Oppenheimer Bhagavad Gita quote.)

OK. So now what? When you strike at the King, you must... There can be no backing down or away from the next step or...

We've been in the strangest pickle for the longest time. Trump was not supposed to ascend the throne, but the truth is that nothing was done that might have been done to stop it. All along the way from the campaign to now, Trump and his cronies have been mostly enabled rather than thwarted (despite the catcalls and lies). The #Resistance is focused on electoral triumph in the fall and periodic street demonstrations about this or that, but not about interfering or intervening in the course of events transpiring under the current regime. 

Our Betters, the High and the Mighty, the Oligarchy, in and out of government is doing essentially nothing about the regime's chaotic wrecking crew. In many ways they enable it. There is no discernible  effort from any quarter to be done with this nonsense, even if the cry today is one of Treason! Most Foul! They may cluck their tongues from time to time but that's about it, while everything short of The Revolution roils the media and the masses. 

As I've said more than once, Trump is entertainment. Whatever damage he's doing in office -- and there's plenty of it starting with beclowning the office of president itself--is considered either repairable or necessary destruction. Creative, right?

But what happens when he ceases to be an entertainment and become a clear and present danger?

Look away? Say it can't happen, institutions are strong enough? I don't know. Constant crisis is not a sustainable path. And we may have reached the limit of crisis. Where to now?

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Leering Sphere or The Bomb in New Mexico

Today July 16, 2018, is the 73rd anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in New Mexico.

Santa Fe Opera interpretation of The Gadget -- "Dr. Atomic" 2018 Season

This titanium sphere -- or was it stainless steel? -- hung menacingly over the entire production of Peter Sellars' and John Adams's "Dr. Atomic" which opened at Santa Fe Opera last night [July 14], shortly before the 73rd anniversary of the detonation of the world's first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range (then the  Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range.)

The Gadget as it was called, memories of The Gadget, the enormity of what was created at Los Alamos -- a bare 25 miles from the semi-outdoor Opera House ("the audience can see Los Alamos from their seats" quoth librettist and director Peter Sellars in one of the talks we heard before the performance), and the aftermath of the atomic bomb test at Trinity Site, July 16, 1945, some 200 miles south of Los Alamos resonate profoundly in New Mexico, in some ways more profoundly than anywhere else in the world except Japan.

There were far more US nuclear tests outside Las Vegas, NV, and in the Pacific than in New Mexico (just one -- the first one --that we know of in our backyard) but ultimately the atmospheric tests elsewhere became a kind of twisted Cold War entertainment - "whoa, wouldja lookit that!" -- that was sometimes shown to school kids before their Duck and Cover exercises to scare the  shit out of them (how well I remember.)

"Dr. Atomic" deals with the tragic story of Dr. J, Robert Oppenheimer ("Oppie") at Los Alamos and Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the hours leading up to the first atomic bomb test and its echoes through time to today. 

It's a complex story that doesn't exist in linear time, and apparently the complexity and non-linearity as well as the often jarring contemporary musical score can be off-putting to some opera-goers though it wasn't apparent opening night. It was a full house. The audience's attention was as intense as the music and performances. The response was enthusiastic.

I overheard one rather fancy looking woman talking during intermission: "My friend told me I wouldn't like it. Well, I rather think I do," she said. Indeed.

I can't say I "liked" it, no. But I will say I was quite taken with it and had no problem staying for its 3 hours and 20 minute length (with intermission) and the interminable after performance getting-out-of the-parking-lot minuet. (I said to one of the parking boys, "At this rate, we'll be here all night." He grinned and said, "That's only because my co-workers are incompetent. Have a safe trip home!!" Chuckle,)

We got home at 2:45 am tired but moved.

We've been semi-immersed in the story of nuclear weapons and the struggle against them in New Mexico for as long as we've been here, for almost as long as we've been coming here (more than 35 years now). I've written several pieces about it, about visiting Trinity site, about going to Los Alamos, about duck and cover, and so on and so forth. No one of my generation escaped fear of the looming mushroom cloud. It was the defining image of the post WWII era, one that seems to have been largely forgotten now or set aside by the younger generations. Thoughts of nuclear annihilation, instant incineration, barely reach consciousness except under the most extraordinary circumstances these days. And then the images seem to be off the mark.

Hardly anyone seems to understand what a nuclear weapon is or does anymore. And maybe that's a good thing.

Peter Sellars said he tried to maintain the classical tragic unities of time and place, and he tried to tell the story of the tragedy of what happened not just to Oppenheimer but for many of those who worked on developing The Bomb and of course for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who died as a result of its use.

It's pointed out during the opera that many more Japanese civilians died during the firebombings of Tokyo and Yokahama that preceded the use of nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To say, then, an atom bomb is a unique horror is something of a stretch, no? No, it's not a stretch at all when one bomb can cause in an instant more destruction than thousands dropped over a period of hours or days.

The scientists at Los Alamos agonized over the use of nuclear weapons, and hundreds tried to convince Washington authorities not to use the creation of their laboratories on populations -- ever, if possible. Of course, then and now, there was a contrary faction who dearly wanted to use nuclear weapons, not just for effect, either.

Particularly torn by his creation was J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. A point is made that he is driven mad by what he has created. He never fully recovers, and in a sense, his creation kills him -- as well as many, many more.

Sellars reconceived the production for Santa Fe. For one thing, the production takes place within sight of Los Alamos (if you look hard!), and within hailing distance of Trinity. Those of us who live here and have paid attention know these places and these stories rather well. Earlier productions (we have a DVD of one, I believe it was in Amsterdam) focused more on the story telling than on its meaning, and they were visualized much more completely. The DVD production uses a close replica of The Gadget that is brought out at a particular time to be hoisted onto the tower, whereas in Santa Fe the Sphere that represents The Gadget and much else is never not there; its presence looming -- and leering -- throughout.

Sellars said the shiny Sphere was meant to reflect the audience, but it doesn't really do that (at least not from where we were sitting in cheap seats toward the back of the orchestra section.) What it reflected instead were the lights on stage which had the effect of creating many different facial expressions, from evil and bloodthirsty to almost benign. It was remarkable and mesmerizing. The picture above was taken by your correspondent some time before the beginning of the performance, and it is one of the many instances when the "eyes" of the Sphere gazed impassively on the scene before it.

In this production, too, Sellars made a conscious and mostly successful effort to include Native Americans on stage and integrated into the story in somewhat the same way they were part of the story of the creation of the Bomb. This is Indian Country, the events happened in Indian Country, and the effects are still felt throughout Indian Country -- particularly on the uranium miners in Navajoland and at Laguna Pueblo. That deadly effect is not dealt with directly in the opera. Sellars was asked by a Diné gentleman at one of the talks whether he'd included the miners, and he wouldn't answer directly. He said something about the "effects on everyone then and now" are included, but that isn't what he was asked. In fact, there is no mention of miners at all. There is only passing mention of Downwinders -- people who were unwittingly affected by the fallout from the Trinity test,. But at least they are there -- actual Downwinders on stage -- along with dancers from the Tesuque, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos. They performed a ceremonial corn dance prior to the performance of the opera -- as a healing gesture -- and then returned in the second act as a Presence, representing the Original Peoples upon whom and among whom but not by whom this monstrosity of war was created and perpetrated.

The presence of the Indians helped to ground the production but I felt they were not integrated into it the way  they might have been -- and that that was probably their choice. It's not their story, and they're not telling. They could and one day probably will tell their own story, though, and it will be quite different.

As we were making our way to the parking lot before the performance, there were sheriffs deputies along the road, signs saying "Ticket holders only beyond this point" and at the entrance to the parking lot a young man asked to see our tickets. He said there were protests expected, and they had to check. Hm. As we were making our way from the parking lot to the Opera House, a young man in the high priced parking area near the venue asked that we take some literature  from the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition protesting the production and the proposed increase in nuclear weapons development in New Mexico. This was intended, said the literature, to make New Mexico the sole production site for "plutonium pits" -- something I'd never heard of -- that were the essential cores of nuclear bombs.

They were protesting the production because they saw it as a celebration of nuclear weapons and war.

Uh. No. It's not. Far from it. That's the thing about tragedy. It doesn't celebrate.