Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wouldn't it be great if the government actually took suggestions?  I suppose they do in the form of polls and at the election booth but in the end it seems the government does what it wants to do anyway, regardless of what anyone else thinks.  The idea of the "suggestion box" apparently came from Heinz Company around 1910.  I would like to hear your thoughts on the many topics covered in this blog, good or bad.  I greatly appreciate that so many persons from so many different countries are looking in, and look forward to reading your thoughts when I return October 1  --  Jim.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen Years After

I would be most remiss not to remember that day in September when the skies were filled with pillars of smoke where the New York City Twin Towers once stood before.  It is still too early to make light of the event, but to be honest the day would have completely slipped by me hadn't I seen several mentions on facebook.  Apparently, these casual onlookers weren't so distant as Frank Rich thought.  Walter Sipser, one of the men in the photo, said they were all in "a profound state of shock and disbelief," as many were that day to see such a famous architectural icon go up in smoke.  The photo by Thomas Hoepker just made them look distant.  Even Hoepker seemed to question his own photo, not releasing it until five years later, when it became a "whipping postcard" for pundits and columnists alike looking to seize on anything to justify their moral outrage.  It seems the moral of this photograph is be careful how you are pictured in front of a tragic event.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum is now open, and the new Freedom Tower nears completion.  It would seem that we have reached some kind of closure on the event, but then Islamist extremism rears its ugly head again and all that moral outrage rises to the surface once more with everyone a critic of President Obama's reaction to the rise of ISIL, or ISIS, or whatever it calls itself.  Fox has been flashing videos of George W. Bush telling us "I told you so," and the Republican House is in a huddle with Dick Cheney as to what the best counter plan is to that which the Obama administration finally unveiled this week.  So, it seems we are right back to Ground Zero.

Fox & Friends pondered how hard would it be for Obama to ask Bush and Cheney for advise himself.  These pundits seem to forget Bush's profound statement came "true" largely because he chose to take out his self-righteous indignation on Iraq in the first place.  Even still, Obama did keep Robert Gates on board as Secretary of Defense to provide a bridge between the two administrations, and has been consulting the same military leaders as Bush and Cheney.  I'm surprised Steve Doocy and company didn't blame Obama for 9/11.  As it is, Obama is being blamed for a weak response to illegal immigration, which Rick Perry says has ISIS right at our back door.

Thirteen years later, I find myself pretty much in a similar state of shock and disbelief at how badly we botched the whole thing.  As Al Gore said when the Bush administration chose to go to war in Iraq, we squandered the world's goodwill.  We also squandered the world's trust, which Obama has had a very difficult time winning back.  The sooner we put 9/11 behind us the better.

The Dakotas

Most persons' impression of the Dakotas is Mt. Rushmore, which Alfred Hitchcock fully exploited in the movie North by Northwest.  The monument was dedicated in 1941 by Franklin Roosevelt, but had been started 14 years before under the Coolidge administration.  Like so many things about the Dakotas, it was a deeply contentious issue, as the national monument is located in the Black Hills, long regarded as the strong hold of the Lakota (or Dakota) Indians.

The French called them the Sioux, having first encountered the Lakota in the mid 17th century.  It's unclear where this term came from.  The conventional theory is that it is an abbreviation of the Chippewa term Nadowessioux, which is what they called the Lakota.  It supposedly meant "little snakes."  Seems like the Chippewa and Lakota didn't get along very well.  Unfortunately, the name stuck.

To the Lakota, Mt. Rushmore is the very emblem of their long-standing grudge with the federal government.  A sore eye, or should I say four sets of eyes, that represent all the broken treaties down through the years resulting in the infamous "Sell or Starve" Act of 1877 that formally turned over the Black Hills to the US Government, leaving the Lakotas with scant reservations, largely as a result of their bold act of defiance in the Battle of Little Bighorn, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, among others, the previous year.

Buffalo Hunt, engraving by Charles Vogel, ca. 1840
The Dakotas came into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and grew to include present day Montana and most of Wyoming by the time of the Civil War.  The huge territory proved too difficult to administer under one government and was first divided in 1868, which confined the territory to its present day boundaries of North and South Dakota, admitted separately into the Union in 1889 because of the far flung capitals, Yankton and Bismarck.  It also served the Republican Party, as it added up to six instead of three electoral votes in the new states.

The disputes with the Lakota hadn't ended however.  The Black Hills was a lawless area personified by the town of Deadwood, which became synonymous with the "Wild West."  Just about every famous cowboy, outlaw and cowgirl passed through this town at one time or another on their way West, notably Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.  Their western romance had been the stuff of legend ever since they first met in the 1870s.

The Dakotas weren't all dark tales.  Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her experiences crossing the Great Plains in the 1880s in Little House on the Prairie.  That homestead was in De Smet, South Dakota, and one can visit it today.  Her father had filed for a homestead like many other Americans at the time, heading to the interior of the country to literally carve their homes out of the sod.  They had to endure grueling winters and a short growing season, but yet they somehow survived and prospered.  Her stories inspired the television series in the 70's, and have been beautifully packaged in a Library of America box set.

The Black Hills gold rush of 1874 had brought all these new fortune seekers and settlers into the region, setting off a volatile chain of events that culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  Dee Brown's book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee recounted the event through the eyes of the Lakota.  It brought to an end the reign of the Lakota in the region, who now find themselves confined to scattered reservations throughout the Dakotas.

Wounded Knee 1973
The incident inspired the creation of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s, which made the Oglala Lakota reservation their home base in the 1970's.  This resulted in a second bloody insurrection in which two FBI agents were killed on the reservation and Leonard Peltier stood accused of the murders.  His trial and conviction was the subject of  Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Michael Apted's documentary Incident at Oglala.  Even Kevin Costner took up the Lakota's lost cause in Dances with Wolves, setting it against a post-Civil War backdrop of the late 1860's.

In the 90's, as in the 70's, attention was called once again to the bitter conflicts that defined this region and the native American situation as a whole.  This was the time I passed through South Dakota, taking in the Badlands, as I passed from Sioux Falls to Rapid City, much like Roger Thornhill did in North by Northwest, but the delicate situation was not lost on me.  Peltier still remains in federal prison, despite no concrete evidence he was anywhere near the scene of the crime of 1975.

The Lakota reservations had come to personify the plight of the American Indian.  These were desolate outposts with degrading poverty and alcoholism, which had been poorly administered for decades by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and corrupt tribal officials.  Ian Frazier offers a gripping account of life On the Rez, referring to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Not only had the Lakota lost most of their land, they were forced to live in the shadow of the Black Hills, which they had long regarded as their sacred land.  The land dispute has lingered for decades.  The Lakota won a nominal claim in 1979 for roughly $100 million in reparations, but continue to fight for title to the land to this day.

This long running dispute tends to cloud one's impression of the Dakotas. The two states remain sparsely populated, dominated by vast open ranges.  North Dakota has boomed in recent years thanks to new oil reserves, inspiring trailer parks like this one, as well as overnight millionaires, but this new discovery has proved to be a two-edged sword, especially for farmers who literally find their land being mined from under them with no right to the reserves.  They can take a lesson in humility from the Lakotas.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Americanization of Robert Plant

It's not like Robert Plant and that former band he played with haven't sampled American classic songs before.  Plant sang a stunning version of When the Levee Breaks on Led Zeppelin IV, a song first sung by Memphis Minnie in 1929.  Like so many of the British bands, Led Zep loved sampling American blues, twisting the music and the lyrics into their own rock ballads.

Led Zeppelin first came to the United States in 1968.  Their first major show was that Christmas, backing Spirit at the Denver Auditorium.  They were unbilled.  This became the snake that bit them earlier this year, when allegations of plagiarism surfaced in regard to the opening guitar melody on Stairway to Heaven being lifted from Randy California's Taurus.  This was apparently an attempt to block the release of the deluxe remastered set of Led Zeppelin IV, until Randy's family got the long overdue royalties they felt they deserved for the song.  Randy had never pressed the case himself before his death in 1997, and the remastered set came out as planned.

You can't help but take a guitar lick here or a refrain there, but one would be pretty hard pressed to think Stairway to Heaven sounds anything like Taurus.  I think much of this fuss probably arose from the stunning rendition of the song by Ann Wilson at a Kennedy Center Honors tribute to the British band, with Nancy Wilson doing the contentious melody on acoustic guitar.  Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham is on drums.

This tribute more or less capped Plant's time in America.  It started with a surprising collaborative with Allison Krauss in 2007, where the two sang a beautiful collection of bluegrass songs on Raising Sand.   T-Bone Burnett, who had previously done the monumental soundtrack Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, produced this album, which went even further to bring bluegrass back into the mainstream of music.

Plant had long drawn from Celtic and British folk music, so it wasn't as big a stretch as many would think.  He was steeped in Celtic folk music at the time he penned Stairway to Heaven.  Bluegrass music may be considered Americana, but it more than likely made its way over from the British Isles and was transformed over the decades into its own unique sound.  Raising Sand is less traditional but no less pungent in its sound.

The ageless songster didn't stop there.  In 2010 Band of Joy grew out of his relationship with Patty Griffin, a more rootsy singer than Krauss.  This was a crossover album that played on both American and British folk themes, underscored by an all-star band that harked back to his original band in 1966, which had previously included John Bonham.  

He and Griffin were living together in Austin for some time.  Griffin said that it was Plant who initiated the project, but that it was Buddy Miller's staggering collection of Americana music from which they drew their songs. There are some interesting contemporary pieces from The Great Destroyer, an album by Low, and a song by Los Lobos.  Plant and Griffin took this show on the road, even touring Europe in 2011.  Robert Plant looked and sounded in his element.

Plant also plugs young talent like the North Mississippi Allstars, who were touring with his Band of Joy in 2011.  He even did a cameo on the band's 2013 album, World Boogie is Coming.  He also plans on joining Jack White for at least one song on an upcoming album.

Inevitably the questions circle back to a Led Zeppelin reunion, especially in the wake of the recent re-issue of their first four albums on disc and vinyl.  However, Plant seems to view his Zeppelin days in the past, even if he often pulls a song or two up in his concerts.   It also seems that his time in America has drawn to a close, as he has gone back to England to tour with his Sensational Space Shifters on his new album, Lullaby and ...  The Ceaseless Roar, although he offers a new version of Little Maggie, which he said he had tried before and failed.  Sounds very good this time around, especially with the African one-string violin.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Man Who Would Be President

If not king, it seems Romney wants to be king maker, saying he would "be helping the person who takes the banner for us."  What banner, you may ask?  That of "loser?"  This is a man who has tried twice to run for president and failed.  Last time around, there was so much animosity toward him in his own party that we saw no less than seven highly dubious candidates thrust to the front of the pack to take the "banner" of front runner away from him.  Each fell by the wayside, but not because Republicans rallied around Romney, rather because his war chest was so big none of these Republican pretenders had the money to compete with him across the grueling primaries.

As it was, Santorum carried the popular vote in 11 states, Gingrich two, and Ron Paul managed to steal away the Virgin Islands.  At one time or another, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman all led Mitt in national polls before their campaigns self destructed.  Yet, here we are two years later, and we are led to believe many persons would prefer Romney to Obama.  In fact, Romney is so popular at the moment, the media is making him the presumptive Republican nominee in 2016, should he choose to run.

It doesn't matter what media outlet you turn to, they all seem positively giddy about another Romney candidacy.  The man himself has taken to the talk show circuit, saying not only that he would have been a better president than Obama ("no question!") but he would be better than Hillary ("more experienced").  So, what's stopping him from running?  The Rom seems to regard it as a question of age, saying that his time has come and gone (such a shame), possibly opening the door for Paul Ryan, who he seems to regard as his political heir.

His interview with Chris Wallace is telling, if you can stomach it.  This is a guy who clearly thinks he still has all the answers.  It doesn't matter that the economy has been steadily improving since 2012.  Even Forbes magazine notes that Obama has outperformed Reagan (whom Romney is being compared with) on jobs, growth and investing at this point in their respective tenures.  They both inherited failed economies, although one could argue that the situation was far worse in 2008 than it was in 1980, as a recovery had already begun under Carter.  This is a conservative magazine, mind you, that has been sharply critical of Obama throughout his two terms.  Yet, Romney thinks he is the champion of the middle class, which despite the recovery still finds itself odd man out in this economy.

At times, Wallace challenged Romney but in the end he too champions the man, noting a recent Iowa poll that put him ahead of all possible Republican challengers, but Chris failed to note that Romney trails Hillary Clinton in national polls by double digits.  She would be his prospective opponent in 2016, not Obama, as much as Republicans seem to wish was the case.

The funniest part of the interview is when Romney says Hillary "doesn't have the experience" in foreign policy, referring to the United States as an "enterprise."  WTF kind of enterprise is that, sir?  Chris Wallace should have asked.  Instead, Wallace quickly steered Rombo away from the subject so as not to further embarrass himself, like mentioning Benghazi.  However, Chris does bring up former Governor Bob McDonnell, recently convicted of fraud.  Romney had him on his "short list" of prospective running mates.  Like I said, this was a very telling interview if you read between the lines.

Romney may consider himself the President in exile and many Americans may have "buyer's remorse" in having voted for Obama a second time around, but that is largely because this is the way the media has chosen to shape the narrative, conducting its own polls to reinforce these perceptions.  If we had the same election again the result would most likely be the same again because in the end Romney is his own worst enemy.

Gatsby's second life

It seems the novel would have died the same death as its namesake had it not been for its inclusion in the Armed Services Editions in 1945.  Maureen Corrigan notes in her new book on The Great Gatsby that the novel had floundered for decades, unable to sell, due it seems to its lack of strong female characters.  Even Fitzgerald lamented that this was the case in a market driven by women readers at the time.  Not even a film version in 1926 could boost sales.

So We Read On appears to be an engaging new look at the novel.  Corrigan herself said she was nonplussed by the novel upon first reading, but after 50 readings has come to regard it as America's greatest novel.  Of course, she's not alone in this opinion.  The Great Gatsby frequently tops lists and is number two (behind Ulysses) in the Modern Library Top 100.

The novel has been reprinted many times in many different languages, resulting in more than 25 million copies sold worldwide.  When Fitzgerald died in 1940, the book had only sold 25,000 copies.  The Armed Services Edition distributed 123,000 copies in 1945.  Surprisingly, you can still get a first printing of the original edition for a reasonable price.

The book seems fitting today.  Jordan Belfort looked like a modern-day Gatsby in The Wolf of Wall Street, helped by Leonardo DiCaprio having played Gatsby in Luhrmann's misguided film earlier the same year.  Corrigan says the takeaway from this novel is: "you can't escape the past, but isn't it noble to try?"  I guess that depends on how many embittered persons you leave in your wake.

United States of America v. Citizens United

All the Kochs' money and all the Kochs' horses will be needed to try to put Citizens United back together again after the Senate voted resoundingly to bring an amendment overturning this highly contentious Supreme Court decision to the floor.  It is still an uphill battle for Democrats to defeat Citizens United, but they have some unlikely allies in the Tea Party, which is just as much pissed by how old guard Republicans use corporate backing to stay in office.  In fact, Americans overwhelmingly want campaign reform so that insurgents have a better shot of taking down long sitting incumbents, whether they be Republican or Democrat.

Still, the reach of corporate power is pervasive in our society and it will be difficult to get the 60 votes needed to overturn Citizens United in the Senate.  The USSC decision in 2010 opened the floodgates for corporate backed candidates in national and state elections.  Newt Gingrich kept his 2012 campaign alive almost entirely on the back of Sheldon Adelson, who donated $10 million to a Super PAC supporting Newt, allowing him to soundly thump Romney in South Carolina.  But, Romney had Super PAC money of his own, and eventually quashed Newt, as he did other GOP pretenders in the primaries, thanks to massive corporate support, leaving the embittered candidates sniping at him from behind.

In Wisconsin, the Kochs bankrolled Scott Walker's campaign through Super PAC's, allowing him to win the governor's seat in 2010 and survive a recall in 2012.  In turn, Walker did the Koch Bros. bidding by undermining collective bargaining in the state, which ostensibly serves as their home base.  Pretty amazing, when you consider that Wisconsin was once considered a Democratic union stronghold.  The same thing happened in Ohio.

The USSC decision seems to have favored Republicans moreso than Democrats, and for awhile the Tea Party seemed OK with it.  The aim in 2010 was to come up with a "majority" of 41 in the Senate to stifle any bills that might encroach upon corporate interests, so it was worth supporting insurgent campaigns like that of Scott Brown and Ted Cruz, Tea Party favorites.  But, as the TP grew increasingly volatile, and threatened to unhinge the GOP, that money dried up and the TP has struggled in Congressional races ever since.  

The Democratic Party is more or less stable, also benefiting from large corporate contributions that keep its power brokers in Congress.  But, it can win with or without this massive corporate support as witnessed by Obama's campaign in 2008, which appealed directly to the people.  Now, the Dems are struggling to hold onto their majority in the Senate, and one way to do that is to limit the corporate funding that keeps so many Republican campaigns afloat, as the GOP doesn't have this kind of mainstream support.

The Dems will need a half dozen Republican votes to carry the bill in the Senate.  They have to look carefully at the two dozen Republicans who crossed over in the procedural vote to move forward the bill and see if there are six or so who actually favor the bill and are willing to overturn Citizens United.  A win here doesn't assure a win in the House, where the Republican leadership can block the bill from ever coming to the floor, much as it did the immigration reform bill, which the Senate approved last year.

Sadly, American politics has become so muddled that it is difficult to stand up to these corporate power brokers, except in the streets or state legislative houses, as Wisconsin citizens did in 2011 when Walker introduced his anti-collective bargaining bill.  After surviving the recall election the following year, that energy evaporated.  However, the unrest is still there if only the Democrats can find a way to tap into it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Speak Up!

I know that this may seem like my private bully pulpit, but feel free to comment!  This is an open forum.  I don't bite, at least not hard any way.

BTW, it was great to see "Benito Cereno" have fun with TR. Great title!  I wish I had thought of it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Big Sky

It was the novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr. that attracted me to Montana.  The Big Sky set the stage for Guthrie's homage to the West, which would consume him in the years to come.  The story follows the life of Boone Caudill, a native Kentuckian, like Guthrie's father, who gives into the great Westward urge.  He becomes a mountain man, friend of the Blackfoot Indians, and finds love and loses love in Teal Eye in rather melodramatic fashion.  However, it seems his biggest love is for the great expanse the West has to offer, which he describes in vivid fashion.

Guthrie settled down himself at the Montana, and for better or worse set the template for Montana literature according to history professor, Keith Edgerton.  Guthrie won the Pulitzer Prize for The Way West and his books were eventually made into movies.  He became a screenwriter himself, notably for Shane, set in neighboring Wyoming, which is still regarded as one of the best Hollywood Westerns.

I drove across the expanse of Montana along Interestates 94 and 90, worried mostly about gas in such a big sparsely populated state, as I normally would have taken a US Highway like 2, which runs further north through the state.  I passed through the well known cities of Billings, Bozeman and Missoula before turning down through Idaho, and picking up the trail of Lewis and Clark.

This was all Blaskfoot country at one time.  They called themselves Niitsitapi, or the "original people." Their confederacy stretched well up into Canada, and it was pretty hard to pass through the region without encountering them, which had been the case with Lewis and Clark.  Hostilities between the Blackfoot and American settlers can be traced directly to this first encounter.  This may explain why it took so long to establish a territory in Montana in 1864.

Statehood would come in 1889, as part of the Enabling Act, long after it had achieved its pre-requisite 60,000 citizens.  In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad made access to the state much easier, bringing an end to the dominance of the Blackfoot, which had relied heavily on buffalo for both its spiritual and nutritional needs.

Interestingly enough, it was William Clark who introduced George Catlin to the Blackfoot and other tribes in the Western territories in the 1830s.  It was part of a diplomatic mission to ease anxieties, stirred by the deportations taking place east of the Mississippi.  George Catlin had made the Blackfoot famous with his portraits of their great chiefs, which he made part of his touring "Indian Gallery" in 1838. The "salon style" portraits are important because they gave the native American leaders a dignity normally reserved for white statesmen and leaders.  No doubt these images inspired Guthrie a century later, setting his story in the same time frame.

The Western identity has been preserved to some degree by the national and state parks and reservations, with bison reintroduced to the state.  The Blackfoot are still represented in the northwest corner of the state, where their reservation merges with that of Canada in the beautiful area of Glacier National Park.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Franco does Faulkner ... again!

You be the judge from this short clip of The Sound and the Fury, but for me it doesn't look very promising. as Caddy (I presume) seems to be channeling Lauren Bacall, long before there were even talkies.  The story was initially set in 1910 (as told by Quentin).  Not that novels such as this one can't be re-imagined, but they usually don't turn out very well, like Baz Luhrmann's lurid interpretation of The Great Gatsby.

This isn't the first time James Franco has tackled Faulkner.  Last year he gave us As I Lay Dying, another story that doesn't lend itself to an easy screen adaptation.  It was a game effort and I guess this gave Franco the confidence to go after Faulkner's signature novel.

Martin Ritt had been the only one previously to take a shot at The Sound of the Fury, filming it in 1959, with Yul Brynner and Margaret Leighton as Jason and Caddy, with the interesting choice of Joanne Woodward as Quentin.  It was a star-studded cast that also included Ethel Waters as Dilsey, along with a jarring jazz score by Alex North.

Franco surprisingly casts himself as Benjy, leading one to assume that he will give the woe begotten brother a larger role in the movie.  The opening part of the novel is told through Benjy's eyes, set in 1928, which for first-time readers of Faulkner can be quite a challenge.  In Ritt's version, Quentin is the narrator, taking the second part, set in 1910, as the jumping off point for his story.  For me, it was Jason's perspective in the third part of the novel (forward again to 1928) that brought the story together, as I had struggled mightily with the first two parts to make any sense out of what was going on in this narrative.

So why Franco's interest in Faulkner?  He grew up in the Silicon Valley.  His mother is Jewish and his father of Portuguese and Swedish decent, according to IMDb.  What's his connection with the South?  In an interview with Michael Bibler of Salon, Franco said he felt he "really was in conversation with Faulkner, even though he wasn't alive, he was alive in his work," when he first read As I Lay Dying in high school.  Of course you could say this of any good author, although most directors would be wary of taking on such an ambitious task where others had failed before.

I can't think of one Faulkner novel that has been successfully brought to the screen, largely because his novels were meant to be read, not seen.  Pylon was probably the best screen effort.  Faulkner was in Hollywood by this point and writing screenplays, which is what this novel set in the early days of aviation feels like.  Even still, it was 22 years later that Douglas Sirk adapted the novel to the screen in The Tarnished Angels with Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone.

The Sound and the Fury will be interesting to see nonetheless, although I think Seth Rogen would have been the more likely choice as Benjy.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Grumpy Old Man

You have to hand it to ol' Dick.  He doesn't miss an opportunity to castigate the current president.  He can't even write a short "biography" without condemning the Obama administration, turning an innocuous occasion like the Wyoming State Bar convention into front page news.  Now, others from around the country will no doubt fill the vacancies left by Wyoming lawyers who were upset by Cheney politicizing the event.

Some thought that having a new ticker would give the former Veep a new lease on life, but since his heart transplant in 2012 he hasn't let this administration off the hook, blaming it for anything and everything under the sun.  As a result, he makes many appearances, like this one on ABC News only four months after the surgery.  He used this opportunity to castigate Obama as well, calling him one the weakest presidents in history, and saying he even preferred Carter.  Of course, that was an election year and maybe he thought he was helping his buddy, Mitt Romney, out.

It's been a busy year for Dick.  He has a new book out in hardback and another one issued in paperback, as well as a documentary, all of which he has been busily promoting on the talk show circuit.  At each and every turn comes another swipe at Obama.  A veritable "one-man zombie apocalypse," as Ana Marie Cox points out in this book review of Heart, released last October.

At some point you have to wonder to what degree this contempt for the president is pathological.  Of course, you could say that about many persons on the Right, who have been vociferously antagonistic toward Obama even before he took the oath of office.  Rush Limbaugh was among those who hoped Obama failed as President.  So did Dick, it seems, as he continues to admonish the President for a foreign policy he helped set while serving in the Bush administration.

Fact of the matter, the Obama administration hasn't failed.  His administration might not have delivered on the hope many had during the 2008 election that he would set a new tone for the White House, but Obama has maintained a steady course throughout the last six years, with a slowly improving economy and a foreign policy based as much on international cooperation as on American hubris.

But, the Wyoming State Bar won't see a debate on the merits and demerits of the Obama White House.  Cheney will have his unfettered say on the matter before a convention full of lawyers, who probably won't care much one way or the other what the former Veep has to say.  However, I doubt anyone will be inviting Dick quail hunting afterward.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Roll On Columbia

There are more famous peaks in Washington but the one that drew me back to my home state in 2004 was Desolation Peak.  It's not too far north of Seattle.  You take Highway 20 into the North Cascades and you will find the trail head.  After leaving Japhy Ryder (aka Gary Snyder) behind in Berkeley, Kerouac hitched the train up to Seattle and took a job as a lookout at Desolation Peak.  I had outfitted myself at REI and made the trek to the US Forest Service fire lookout, which had become a mecca of sorts for Kerouac fans.  He spent 9 weeks there in the summer of '56 commuting with nature in an attempt to maintain the state of ecstasy he felt after his time with Snyder, or so the story goes.  It had been Snyder who recommended the post to him.

I had long been drawn to such lookouts.  This one sat on a ridge.  In Florida they were raised up on metal scaffolding.  Desolation Angels was penned later, and wasn't published until 1965, after the success of On The Road.  Apparently, he didn't do much writing at the time.  The novel more or less completes his Road Trilogy with Dharma Bums (my favorite) in between, as one segues into the other in his free-flow narrative.

The Pacific Northwest had attracted many writers and artists over the years.  Seattle has had its homegrown music scene since the 50s with its very own style of Rhythm and Blues.  While everyone knows Hendrix and Nirvana came from Seattle, a lot of folks probably don't know that Heart started out in Seattle or that one of the pioneers of rap, Sir Mix-a-Lot, started out in the Capitol Hill District.  Quincy Jones formed a college band at Seattle University and still makes his home there.  Sadly, Hendrix's boyhood home could not be saved after numerous efforts.

All this lends to the hip atmosphere of the Emerald City that looked anything other than "emerald" when it was first founded in 1851, which the initial settlers called New York.  Later, it was named in honor of Chief Sealth, whom the settlers called Seattle.  The Duwamish people had befriended the early settlers, but they were not treated as kindly in return, forced onto a reservation that resulted in the Battle of Seattle in 1856.  Later, Chief Sealth became a favorite of environmental activists, as a result of this speech attributed to him.  In 1908, a bronze statue was erected in his honor in Pioneer Square.

If you take the Underground Tour, you will notice old flush toilets raised up on wood platforms.  The city had grown rapidly but much of the port area was below water level.  This was the only way to avoid a foul backup from the sewer lines.  Seattle had become an active port town, the last stop before heading North to Alaska.  Eventually, the port area was raised but it is still a bit of a grimy place.

I spent my newborn years in a Sears pre-fabricated bungalow on Green Lake, which my grandparents had bought in the 1930s.  My grandfather dug a basement under it, where my grandmother stored her preserves.  Woodland Park is nearby, where you can still lawn ball, but my grandmother took up dancing after my grandfather died.

My great grandfather had established a steamship company in the 1880s that served Alaska.  It was one of his many ventures that eventually folded, only to be revived by someone else and made into a success.  Today you can take cruise lines to Alaska, taking in all the rugged beauty along the way, or a ketch like Jonathan Raban did in Passage to Juneau.

For a region mapped in 1805 when Lewis and Clark followed the Columbia River to its end, it took many years to be organized as a territory in 1853.  You can visit Fort Clatsop, which marked the end of the famous expedition.  Washington was originally part of the Oregon Territory, and was going to be called Columbia, but Rep. Richard Stanton felt this would be too easily confused with the nation's capital.  One of the many ironies that plague the state to this day.

Washington didn't gain statehood until 1889 thanks to an Enabling Act that brought in four new states in the month of November, Washington being the last. This was also the year of the great fire, which ravaged Seattle.   Among the many contentious issues at the constitutional convention in Olympia was women's suffrage.  The territorial government had allowed women to vote, but the territorial supreme court had overturned this on two previous occasions.  Women would regain this right in 1910.

That early liberalism is still apparent on the West side of the Cascades, but cross over into the rain shadow on the East and it is a whole different story.  This is plains country, dominated by ardently conservative rural voters.  You can follow the Columbia River, which had inspired Woodie Guthrie to write one of his signature folk songs in 1941.  Roll On Columbia was part of the Columbia River Ballads, commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration to promote hydroelectricity, which is one of the major sources of Washington electricity.  The largest city in the East is Spokane, which hosted the first environmental themed World's Fair in 1974, better known as Expo '74.  This helped transform the city, not to mention put it on the world map.

Seattle had hosted the World's Fair in 1962, and its Space Needle still dominates the skyline.  There is now an EMP Museum devoted to music, science fiction and pop culture at the foot of the Needle, which the monorail runs through.  There have been various initiatives to expand this monorail over the years, but the cost is prohibitive, and it is easy enough getting around the city by bus.

Seattle today is a fusion of cultures that almost seamlessly come together.  This wasn't the case during WWII, which David Guterson describes in Snow Falling on Cedars, when 800 Japanese residents were forced to leave their homes on San Piedro Island in Puget Sound, and shipped off to a California internment camp.  It wasn't until 1988 that a formal apology and reparations were made.

Washington created quite a buzz with a marijuana initiative, which was approved in December 2012, but some towns continue to fight the initiative.  This ongoing battle could end up in the Supreme Court.

I suppose with all those wet cold days it is not a big surprise that coffee is quite popular.  Those who bought stock in Starbucks when in first went public in 1992 no doubt enjoy their dividends, but there are far better coffeehouses, like Caffe D'arte, around the city.  As one employee once told me, Starbucks doesn't sell coffee, it sells milk.  Most coffeehouses give you two shots of espressos with a tall latte, whereas you have to pay for the second at Starbucks.

Seattle also became the home of Microsoft, Amazon and Adobe, resulting in a silicon boom of its own.  Paul Allen could probably run for mayor and win given the success of the Seahawks, a team he bought after he retired from Microsoft.  It was during their run for the Super Bowl, dubbed the Marijuana Bowl by some, that many of Seattle's famous faces came out in support of the team, including this amusing take by Rainn Wilson.

However,  it is the city's love for books that stands out in mind.  There are an astonishing number of independent bookstores, like Left Bank Books by Pike Street Market, spread throughout the city and its boroughs; as well as a beautiful library system, anchored by the stunning main center designed by Rem Koolhaus.  It is also a city that has embraced environmentally sensitive architecture as seen in the Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.  If feeling nostalgic, you can always check out the Green Lake Library.

Another great pleasure of living in Seattle is the easy access to so many outdoor activities, especially the ferry service which takes you to the many islands in the Puget Sound.  On a good day you can even see Orca breaching off the bow.   At Tellicum Village on Blake Island you can enjoy roasted salmon and watch a native dance in a reconstructed long house, with echos of the distant past.

At the end of my extended stay, I drove with my godmother up the Sound to Whidbey Island, where I had scattered my mother's ashes at Rosario Beach five years before.  She and my mother had come here as children.  This is how they would have remembered it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gun Peak

I guess there's a Humboldt Peak for guns as there is for oil.  Not surprising given the estimated 300 million firearms in circulation in the United States, especially considering the durability of guns to last a lifetime.  The only real worry is ammunition.

Sales have dropped sharply in recent months, as there no longer seems to be an impending worry of zombies or gun controls.  Not even the recent USSC decision on "straw purchases" created much panic among gun owners, as they figured it had nothing to do with them.  This is a major concern for suppliers who have gone public like Smith & Wesson, which has seen its stocks plummet.

It seems that the greatest impetus for the spike in gun sales was the election of Obama in 2008.  There was widespread fear that he and a Democratic Congress would initiate sweeping federal gun controls.  That never materialized, but in 2012 the President made a big show of issuing executive orders in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre that had gun enthusiasts cleaning out the shelves of Walmart and other retail shops nationwide.

These executive orders had very little bite, however, and the panic soon subsided.  Nevertheless, several states adopted open carry laws in the aftermath of Obama's executive decision, and some states even sought to nullify federal gun laws, like Missouri, only to be vetoed by the governor in this particular case.

Gun shows are still very popular and guns continue to be distributed second hand, often without any record of purchases, so that the gun only remains registered to the original purchaser.  Some states have sought to record all purchases, the same as you would with cars, but that has met with a lot of resistance from gun advocacy groups, notably the NRA.

So where do gun manufacturers go from here?  I guess they will have to seek markets abroad, presumably third world countries with few regulations, as there isn't a huge demand for guns in Europe or Canada.  Of course, these firearm companies can diversify their interests, as the tobacco companies have done, getting into clothing lines and outdoor gear.  Smith & Wesson currently has a rather sparse selection.  Time to get creative!

United States of America v. Ezra Pound

I was intrigued by the charges of treason brought against Ezra Pound, and found this fascinating article by Robert Wernick that was published in the Smithsonian Magazine in 1995.  Wernick lays out the situation in lively prose, covering the infamous radio broadcasts, the trial and subsequent internment in St. Elizabeth psychiatric hospital for 12 years until finally released in 1957 with his "condition upon discharge: unimproved."

What I found most amusing was that the Library of Congress selection committee decided to award its first Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound in 1949.  This incensed Congress, who couldn't believe that an arm of its government could bestow such a high honor on a man of such unforgivable character.  In its rage, Congress revoked the award and abolished the prize.    However, the controversial prize was subsequently awarded by the Beinnecke Library of Yale University, which kept Pound as the recipient of the first prize.  Pound remained at St. Elizabeth enjoying the comforts of his government-paid confinement.

For most, such internment would gnaw at the soul and leave a shell of a man.  Not for Pound, who found his accommodations amenable, and as Wernick noted, entertained visitors, as many as 15 at at time, on a regular basis.  Pound also made friends with fellow patients and administrative staff alike, leading him to quip, "I can get along with crazy people, it's only the fools I can't stand."

One of them was Franklin Roosevelt, who he referred to as "Stinky Rosenstein" in his broadcasts.  Pound felt FDR was in bed with the Jews.  Pound railed against the capitalist world, which he considered controlled by Jews, referring to them as "the cultural stink [that] betrayed the United States in 1863" by keeping up the Civil War, presumably through the banks, which he loathed above all.  The quote is taken from Non-Jew published in April, 1942, which you can find in this collection of his Italian radio broadcasts.  He would later offer some measure of contriteness to Allen Ginsberg in 1967, saying that he was ashamed of his anti-Semitism, regarding it as a "stupid suburban prejudice."

Many years had passed by this point and Pound was near the end of his very long life.  He had outlived many of the writers he had promoted decades before, among them Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.  While Hemingway and Frost would turn their backs on Pound, others made a point to visit Pound while at St. Elizabeth.  An exasperated Eliot felt his mentor had no intention of leaving the psychiatric hospital, as it was very comfortable for him.

Upon his release,  Pound was forced to confront his wife, his mistresses and his daughter, who apparently fought over him for years before Olga Rudge bore him off to her apartment in Venice, where he spent his last years before being whisked away by a gondola to his deathbed in a hospital, insisting on scaling the stairs himself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A river runs through it

Painting of Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea by N.C. Wyeth, 1940
Idaho was an enclave for the Soshone, Nez Perce and other native tribes until the arrival of Lewis and Clark in 1805.  They more or less stumbled upon Idaho after they came upon the source of the Missouri river in Western Montana.  The explorers were determined to reach the Pacific, portaging their canoes over rugged terrain, crossing the Lemhi Pass into present-day Idaho.  They had been aided by the Shoshone, most famously by Sacajawea, who proved a vital interpreter as they encountered other Numic language speakers in the region, but it was the Nez Perce who would bail them out when they encountered the Bitterroot Mountains in late autumn.

The Nez Perce provided food and shelter, and after the expedition team had recovered, gave them cottonwood canoes which proved much easier to handle in the Clearwater and Snake Rivers before reaching the mighty Columbia River.  I had followed part of the trail when I traveled out West in the late 1980s.  I had come in from Missoula along US Highway 12 and was utterly captivated by the long running canyon through the "smokestack" of the state, which the Clearwater River had carved out.  You can stop at places like Lochsa Historical Ranger Station.  I crossed into Washington at the towns of Lewiston and Clarkston on the opposite banks of the Snake River.

Clearwater River along US Highway 12
These native tribes came to regret the assistance they offered, as it wasn't long before mountain men and fur traders made their way to their wilderness.  Missionaries followed suit, including Henry Harmon Spalding, who was responsible for bringing the potato to the region, which Idaho is now so famous for.  Soon the native tribes felt themselves odd man out, as settlers poured in following the gold rush in 1860.

The territory became sharply divided between the southern Mormon half and the northern anti-Mormon half, each trying to push the other out.  It was against the backdrop of this bitter rivalry that Idaho gained statehood in 1890, with the anti-Mormon faction winning out, much to the chagrin of Utah, which still found itself excluded.

Funny enough, Ezra Pound was born in Hailey before Idaho became a state, but didn't stay there long.  His mother had enough of the hardscrabble state and packed up her toddler Ezra with her to New York.  Her husband followed suit a couple years later.  Pound is not a person present-day Idahoans would embrace given his open admiration of Mussolini's regime during WWII and the treason trial that followed suit.  Yet, you can visit his childhood home near Boise in the central part of the state.

Idahoans feel more comfortable with Ernest Hemingway, who was attracted to the state in 1939.  He made his home in Ketchum, where he lived off and on until ending his life in 1961.  Sadly, Hemingway didn't have very kind words for Pound after the poet "ran off the rails" during WWII, especially when you consider that Pound gave Hemingway entry into the literary world, as he had done others, and would give his shirt off his back to defend these budding writers.  Pound would find some measure of redemption in the Beats, who would embrace him the 60s, and in his many cats.

Idaho still feels like a pretty remote place, attracting survivalist groups and other right-wing wackos, determined to survive the "Apocalypse."  One group has even planned a 7000-person walled Citadel, seemingly modeled upon early Christian lines, to ward off all evil, a throwback to the 19th century pioneer days of the state.

Fortunately, much of Idaho is under the Bureau of Land Management, allowing free access for all outdoor enthusiasts.

Will stamps become a thing of the past?

A little bit of philatelic history this morning.  The first US commemorative stamps were issued for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  It was an impressive set of stamps for an impressive World's Fair, but the combined value ($16.34 or about $400 adjusted for inflation) of the commemorative set was too much for the average American.  Of course, if you looked at it as an investment, the full set is worth about $18,000 today in mint condition.  You can still find lower denomination stamps like the one above for reasonable prices.  The 2-cent "Landing of Columbus" goes for about $30.

Stamps have become an indelible part of our history.  I've often thought that a fun way to teach history would be through stamps, but in this day and age most kids wouldn't have any idea what stamps are for. The US Postal Service has experimented with electronic stamping, however there isn't really any need for it, at least not yet.  Who knows with net neutrality currently under debate in Congress, we could soon see higher rates for Internet usage?  Our e-mails aren't safe from prying eyes, as it is.  Maybe with e-stamps there would be greater privacy in correspondence, at least that was the USPS selling pitch at one point.

Since the Penny Black, first issued by Great Britain in 1840, stamps have been a form of assurance that your mail will be delivered untouched to your chosen address, and for the most part postal services have delivered on this promise world wide.  I've come to greatly appreciate that living overseas.  It wasn't long after, 1847, that stamps were first used in America, which fittingly honored Benjamin Franklin, who had been the first US Postmaster General before the advent of stamps in 1775.

Perhaps the most famous postal carriers were the Pony Express, spurred by the threat of Civil War in 1860 to provide fast reliable service to the Western territories.  The route stretched from St. Louis, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, covering a distance of roughly 2000 miles in an astonishing 9-11 days, eastbound being a little slower than westbound.  However, it was an expensive service, charging $5 per half-ounce in 1860.  The price came down to $1 by 1861, but it was no competition for the telegraph, which brought an end to this rapid service only 19 months later.  It was the Internet of its day, although it didn't stop "snail mail" all together.

Unfortunately, the meter has replaced stamps for the most part, and with the US Post Office once again in serious financial trouble you can expect to see e-postage become the norm for metered mail.  It is a pre-paid service where you print out the postage yourself, rather than go to the post office.  But, you can still buy commemorative stamps, although they no longer carry a denomination, simply marked "forever."  It would be nice to think so.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Lonesome Rhodes rides again

Labor Day weekend has traditionally been a time to enjoy public lands, taking advantage of the three-day weekend to spend some time outdoors at the end of summer.  However, Ted Cruz has introduced a radical amendment to the Sportsman's Act of 2014 which would have the federal government divest in a significant portion of public land in the West, either passing the land directly off to the states or auctioning it off to the highest bidder in a public sale.

It doesn't matter that many states are already having a difficult time managing their state parks in the wake of the massive budget cuts pushed through by Republican state legislatures since 2010, or that sportsmen groups, for whom this bill was initially intended, want the land to remain a federal public domain.  Ted seems to think the federal government simply has too much land, making it difficult for poor ranchers like Cliven Bundy, who Cruz infamously supported in his standoff with the BLM earlier this year.

The federal government already offers very low leases.  Bundy just refused to pay for 20+ years, so it added up to a considerable sum in delinquent fees, interest and fines.  When the BLM seized his cattle after multiple court orders to pay, Bundy called in his Oathkeepers to get his cattle back.  Since then any number of persons have jumped on the bandwagon, and have become Bundy's Buddies, supporting this divestment in federal land, which Cruz put forward in his amendment, scuttling a bill that had passed the Senate by a vote of 82-12.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's going on here.  A relative handful of Republicans want to free up more land for grazing, logging, oil, gas and mineral rights, undermining the Sportsmen's Act in the name of big business.  No doubt, the Koch Bros. and other syndicates are behind this initiative, who it seems these "maverick" Republicans answer to these days, while pretending to be representatives of the people.