Friday, October 30, 2009

A Poem for Monday (on Friday)

This Love

I don’t understand this love;
It is not like the others.
It did not ignite like a rush of summer fireflys,
Nor consume with equal parts elation and pain.
Other loves did.

Other loves pushed forward with the involuntary embrace
Of primal instinct and spiritual fascination,
So alive and desperate,
They made me feel.
But not this love.

This love is a new page
When I thought I had already read them all.
This love is a quiet joy,
A goose on the lake,
A ripple in the leaves,
A purple hue on the waking mountain.
This love is a knowing laugh and a long sigh.
It settles calmly like the rhythm of pleasant tinkering,
And it is my home now.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Long lost Sarah Vaughan

The first time I ever heard Sarah Vaughan was at the end of "Master Harold and the Boys," a play by the South African playwright Athol Fugard. It was a filmed version of the play with Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae, and John Kani in 1985. It was a superb production (with the exception of Broderick's poor excuse for a South African accent) and it ends with the two black South Africans dancing as the credits roll. The voice of perfection I heard singing as they danced was completely transformative. It opened up a entirely new musical landscape for me. As a young kid in the 70's and 80's, any kind of music popular before 1960 was completely unknown, and, presumably, uninteresting, since that was what my parents listened to.

I asked my mother who the singer was and she said she was pretty sure it was Sarah Vaughan. I immediately began to listen to everything I could find by her. There were no credits noting what the song was, so I found the play in a library and checked the end. The play only says that, "Sarah Vaughan sings as Sam and Willie dance."

After going through fifty or so albums and looking all over the web, I found what I was looking for just a few months ago. That song that started my infatuation with Sarah Vaughan was on Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan. It is, "Little Man You've Had a Busy Day." It was recorded in the early sixties when Sassy was at the height of her powers. She had honed her delivery over the previous two decades, and time (and her continuous smoking) had not diminished her vocal instrument at all. She never really lost her voice or much of her range, but it did deepen quite a bit in her later years and her notes stayed out of the stratosphere.

But anything before 1970 (which includes hundreds and hundreds of songs over three decades) by Sassy will be exquisite. I know ella Fitzgerald is known as the clearest voice ever, but for me, I place Sassy just a bit higher in the jazz all-stars. When I hear her sing, I think that must be what they mean when they speak of Heaven.

Monday, October 19, 2009

King of the Gun

Here's a tale of mine picked up by Andrew Sullivan on his blog on how one gay Marine became "King of the Gun."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Afghan Campaign

There's an incident depicted in Steven Pressfield's "The Afghan Campaign," in which Macedonian soldiers threaten a Mesopotamian shopkeeper that they will cut off his son's foot unless he returns a stolen purse. The shopkeeper feigns innocence until, as the blade descends upon the boy's foot, the boy's young sister screams and points to the money's hiding spot. As the soldiers leave, the senior one points out to the junior ones that the shopkeeper and his wife were going to let them cut off the boy's foot. He then adds that even now, they were very likely thrashing the young girl to within an inch of her life for giving up the purse, even though she saved her brother's foot (and probably his life) in the process.

This incident reminded me that nothing much has changed in the region in 2000 years and that cultural barriers to understanding are often immense. When I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, one of the Marines who provide security to the post fell ill. He was down hard and on bed rest at the Marine House for several days. One of the secretaries, a local Arab girl, was friendly with the Marines and asked her friend to drive her by the Marine House so she could drop off some hot soup for the sick Marine. When they arrived, noone was there except the bedridden Marine and the gate guard, so the guard told her to leave the dish inside on the foyer table. She did so and left.

She didn't show up to work for two weeks. When she did she still bore the bruises from the severe beating her brother administered upon hearing that she had entered a house alone with other men, and infidels on top of that. Even though she was in the house for the briefest of seconds, the family honor had been jeopardized. So she was beaten. This was not the only such incident I had heard about while in that region of the world, but this was the closest to me. I had chatted with the young lady. She was bright and smiling most of the time before her assault. Very reserved and withdrawn afterwards.

Such events cause me to wonder, along with Christopher Hitchens, why Western liberals seem to give a pass to this barbarism under the name of multiculturalism. I rarely hear it addressed by feminists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali being at least one exception. Why is this?

I don't pretend to have a grand framework of cultural understanding by which to pass judgement, but I feel strongly that free people, right, left, or center, must stand against this kind of thing, of whatever culture.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ode to the Far Kingdoms

O Babylon unmake your name;
Unfurl your sheets of veiled shame.
Disband the guard across your gates
And let us wander to our fates.

Jerusalem, break down the wall
That wails and weighs upon us all.
Fling our God-prayers to the wind
And heap the ash on those who’ve sinned.

From Damascus down to Tel Aviv
I saw her naked body grieve;
I saw her brothers pray for war
And sisters hide who knew the score.

O Babylon returned to dust;
Jerusalem, your gates are rust;
Damascus down to Tel Aviv;
Grieve, grieve, grieve.

A bit of doggerel before heading home to a fine Scotch. Tonight I think it will be Tomatin.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Grab bag

I heard a woman on the radio today talking about getting ready to evacuate her house due to approaching forest fires. She said she was placing same irreplaceable items in her pickup truck - paintings and heirlooms, and locking up her family's important papers in a firesafe.

That reminded me of a conversation I had with a lady whose house did burn down in California (San Diego) four years ago. She also left important papers behind in a firesafe. She'd only had about five minutes warning before the fire took her house, so she can't be faulted. And when she returned to the pile of ashes that used to be her home, she found the fireproof safe intact and still locked. But when she opened it, as soon as oxygen hit the contents, everything crumbled. Apparently fireproof safes will keep the flames away, but the temperature will still reach several hundred degrees and bake everything inside until its brittle.

Her advice? - put all your important stuff (birth certificates, marriage certificates, deed to the house, passports, etc.) in a grab bag that you can get to in under a minute and take with you.

Bound by lines on the map

One central lesson of geography is that humans are bound to the earth around them. Globalism has indeed made the world seem smaller (or flatter, acccording to Thomas Friedman) but the supremacy of typography and the tyranny of distance have not been transcended yet. Over the years I have lived on both sides of the U.S. and have spent about a decade outside the United States in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Far East. And I noticed that in most places people generally have at least two names to describe where they live: a poltical name and a geographically descriptive name. The political name is official, usually recognized by other political states and organizations such as the United Nations and usually gives no clue as to the physical environment of the place; it has no descriptive value. The descriptive name is normally unofficial, often not known widely outside the area, but universally known and used by the residents.

Those who live in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Suffolk, or Hampton Virginia (yes, they are all rip offs from English towns or counties) are united by the knowledge that they live in the Tidewater region. It describes their litoral existence on the Virginia coast and unites them to their common geography. Their are many such regions. In Texas there is the Hill Country. In Kentucky, the Bluegrass. In New Mexico, the Otero Mesa. The Ozarks unite Northern Arkansas and Southern Missouri in common customs and lifestyle and is more of an identity for the people there than the imaginary border between them. In fact, this is often the case.
People use these alternate names because they often feel tied to these geographic realities much more than to the artificially drawn state boundaries that were often simply the result of expedient compromises reflecting the political landscape of centuries past.

By ignoring natural boundaries in favor of statute and treaty-drawn ones, we impose artificial restrictions on ourselves and, often, sow the seeds of conflict where otherwise there might flourish cooperation. Where I currently live is one example. The city of El Paso should rightfully be part of New Mexico. El Paso shares a common heritage, trade routes, climate, an aquifer, and the Rio Grande river. El Paso, technically part of Texas, is nearly 600 miles from the nearest major city in Texas, San Antonio. It is only 30 miles from Las Cruces. El Paso and Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, are 3 1/2 hours apart by car. For decades there has been a heated clash over water rights, El Pasoans arguing for more water, New Mexicans turning a deaf ear. All of El Paso's water originates in New Mexico. The residents of New Mexico decide what to do with the Rio Grande without much thought or consideration to El Paso, not to mention Juarez in Mexico. This situation produces no end to the consternation and debate in the region. But what if the political boundaries were drawn just a bit differently? What if El Paso county were ceded to New Mexico? Wouldn't it be better for all involved to address the issue of shared resources more democratically? Indeed, why not include Juarez as well? Think how the fortunes of Juarenses would be different today had the Texas border been drawn twenty miles to the south?

Elsewhere, the problems generated by haphazardly drawn boundaries often result in more than hard feelings and thirsty farms, they result in war. In Africa, boundaries drawn by the European colonial powers in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars created political divisions right through indigenous tribal nations, administratively separating them forever. In Nigeria, for instance, major ethnic groups who shared neither language nor religion, and often fought each other, were thrown together and told they were fellow countrymen. Conflict continues there to this day along tribal and religious divisions, as Ibo Christians clash with the Muslim Fulani and Hausa. It is a dire situation resulting from the sad combination of ignorance and power wrought into imperial imposition. Quick and thoughtless decisions by conquering powers 200 hundred years ago, in complete ignorance of the internal social or physical geography, continue to cause needless suffering. All because of lines on the map.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Human Paradox.

The human paradox is that nothing can be known with a deal of certainty, yet we are forced to act. - Morris West

America does not have an immigration problem.

Pat Buchanan's alarmist screeds notwithstanding, America really doesn't have an immigration problem, at least when compared to Europe. Yes we have several million people pour over the southern border every year. But they are coming to work. And most go back when they are done. And those who stay assimilate. And they come to become Americans. They do not come to turn America into Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or even Mexico. They come for the same reasons immigrants have come here for the last three centuries, because of the promise of a better life in exchange for hard work.

Yes, Europe has a serious problem, and I don't think it makes one a nazi to wonder whether bringing millions of poor Muslims from North Africa and Asia into the heart of Old Europe is a good idea. The problems can be seen across the communities of Europe as they struggle to reconcile this vast new, teeming, strange, and often severe culture into their refined, socialized environment. The French revulse at the Hijab. The Dutch ignore honor killings as too foreign to deal with. The Germans riot against a Turkish "invasion" in their small towns.

The situation in America is wholly different. Immigrants, legal or otherwise, from Mexico and points south, already share the predominant religion, speak at least Spanish, the second most common language in the country, and often share community ties across the borders.

In The Border, by David Danelo, he relates a tale by the owner of Pilgrim's Pride, the company that provides most of the chicken eaten on America's tables. Apparently, Bo Pilgrim's greatest challenge is "an inability to find laborers" willing to work hard ten hours a day processing 9 million chickens a week. Even though they pay more than $10 an hour, the company has has trouble finding Americans willing to work there. According to the CEO, they've gone to homeless shelters, halfway houses, temp agencies, and college campuses. They found no one willing to pick up chicks for ten hours a day. Most of their workers are hispanic. They had to present documents to the company, but most are probably false, and most are probably in the U.S. illegally. But what are we to do? Is the United States going to give up eating chicken anytime soon?