Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oh! Canada!

In Canada there is no sport like ice hockey. The intensity of the Canadian sports fan for ice hockey surpasses what we know in American culture regarding football or baseball. So, when the Canadians men's team lost an important preliminary round earlier this week Canadians watched their defeat unfold in greater numbers than ever before. They lost to Team USA.

Before the game, it was apparently well known among ice hockey fans that the woman's final round was
more competitive and rivalry-filled than the men's competition. You don't find that to be true of many sports. Maybe tennis.

So, when the
Canadian woman's team beat the US team to win the gold medal it was an even bigger deal. It was golden to be sure but it also vindicated the country against the men's loss.

The Canadian women's ice hockey team is filled with my kind of athletes. Not only are they attractive, competitive, butt-kicking type of folk, but they know how to party as well. Nothing quite says "gold medal" like publicly enjoying a few cigars while knocking back a few beers and chugging champagne
after the victory. How much more can you possibly savor the moment?

The Toronto Sun published
a great series of photos capturing this "Olympic Moment."

it seems an apology is in order. And I find that quite puzzling. Apologize for what? For not having a lofty Olympic torch stuck up your butt like IOC executive director Gilbert Felli who said: "It is not what we want to see. I don't think it's a good promotion of sport values. If they celebrate in the changing room, that's one thing, but not in public. We will investigate what happened." investigation. Well Gilbert (don't you love his cute, sexy name), let me clue you in on what happened, maybe shorten the investigation a bit. What we had here was a bunch of young women who just finished
beating Team USA, winning a gold medal in a sport that is sacred in their country. They then proceeded to have a good time in front of their countrymen while, in effect, their countrymen proceeded to get properly pissed themselves.

Surely European sentimentality toward the glorification and dignity of Sport is just another form of prejudice. I say party on, let democracy triumph for a moment over aristocratic leanings. I never met a Canadian I didn't like.

I haven't watched as much of the Olypmics this week as I did the first week. I never thought about it but, except for gymnastics in summer, I prefer the winter Olympics. I watched every time Apolo Ohno skated, not just his medal runs. I watched, and enjoyed, most of the women's moguls. I watched the "X-games" influenced half tube snowboarding competition. I watched a Russian take gold in the final round of the 15k biathlon competition on last Sunday afternoon, while the French athlete turned a valiant effort into silver. I learned of the terrific human interest story of Swiss skicross competitor Michael Schmid, who won gold.

But really, for the past week I've been too busy with real life to watch much of the games.

So, Sunday comes around and lo! behold! it's the Canadians against Team USA for the men's gold medal round. The Canadians survived a late scare from a tough Slovakian team to advance to silver with a chance for gold. (Slovakia later lost to Finland in the men's hockey bronze medal round.) Today's final round was considered such a big deal that NBC announced it would uncharacteristically show the whole thing live.

Last night we had my parents over for dinner so I didn't get to watch much. Afterward, I enjoyed some scotch, listened to some music and read. Before all that, I did see Germany's women win an amazingly close gold medal over Japan in pursuit speed skating. This all made possible by a spectacular fall by a German skater in the semi-finals who still managed to get across the finish line quickly despite the mishap.

As far as the overall medal standings were concerned, the men's ice hockey gold medal round didn't make any difference. Germany ended up second in the overall medal competition behind Team USA. Canada surged with the most Gold Medals (which is made incredible when one considers that Canada has never won a gold medal whilst being Olympic Host) was a strong third with traditional winter powerhouse Norway coming in fourth.

50 kilometers is a long way if you want to cover its length very fast and it begins with a "mass start". This afternoon's TV watching began, for me, with that event. It struck me as being kind of the 'nascar event' of the winter Olympics. Norway won in an exciting finish. Norway's skiing is second to none in the world and is largely responsible for their finishing fourth overall in total medals.

By the time the thing finally started, the Canada-US hockey match was fully hyped. I know very little about hockey. This was the first game I've watched in years. But, I'd say this was an exciting game. Team USA tied the game with only seconds remaining to send it into sudden death. Team Canada won the overtime. Canada was ready to party. The country went wild. I watched the whole thing until after the Canadian national anthem was sung (which I've always thought was a great national anthem as those things go). Then I switched off the TV and went of a walk in my woods, watching the sun set on a cool, clear late winter afternoon. The low sun red-shifted everything into an orange hue. I was humming "O Canada."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Crackling high in the sky

Enlarge to see a flock of several hundred large geese headed north yesterday. Taken off my front porch. I'm not sure how far away they are. Maybe a thousand feet, more or less. It was almost completely quiet here. The sun felt nice, high in the low 60's. The sky was clear. Best kind of lazy Saturday you're going to get in February. I could hear just a few of the geese, probably the leaders, calling as they flew. It sounded like a strange, wooden percussion crackling in the air.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Warning: I could be a Republican

David Brooks made an interesting insight last night on the PBS News Hour during a regular Friday segment of the show. Jim Lehrer was guiding him to reveal opinions about he CPAC this week. Watch the whole thing here but this is a transcript of a snippet of the segment he does with Mark Shields. It would seem CPAC has traditionally been a rather fringe group.

JIM LEHRER: David, what is your reading of the importance of this -- the Conservative Political Action Committee having its meeting the last couple of days, that more -- more people have come than ever before, 10,000, the biggest group? And they have had -- they have heard from anybody.


JIM LEHRER: What is going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's in some ways -- in some ways emblematic of what is happening.

On the one hand -- I have gone over the years. I didn't go this year. But they -- they were the fringe, to be honest. They were the fringe of the conservative movement. And when Reagan was in office, I remember when they asked Reagan if he would go, and there were internal debates in the Reagan administration. He didn't really want to go. There were a lot of...

JIM LEHRER: But he went over 20 times, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: He would go. He would go, but there was...


DAVID BROOKS: It wasn't the core of the Republican Party. And it wasn't the core of the conservative movement.

This was more -- much more conservative, more -- a lot of Chappaquiddick bumper stickers and things like that. And -- but now it has in some ways, judging by today's events, surpassed the old institutions which were the core of the conservative movement.

And it has forced everybody to mimic a lot of the rhetoric that has long been a staple of CPAC. And, so, on the one hand, it shows the tremendous vitality, as more people come in. On the other hand, it does show the movement moving away from some of these old institutions to a more, I don't know, flamboyant or pungent -- pungent movement.

JIM LEHRER: Interesting word.

DAVID BROOKS: The group got -- rose to its loudest applause, apparently, when Vice President -- former Vice President Cheney predicted that Barack Obama is going to be a one-term president.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't think the White House is losing a lot of sleep over Dick Cheney's credentials as a clairvoyant. This is a man who, in 2002, told us the American troops would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, 2005, they were in the last throes of the insurgency.

So, his track record is somewhat flawed.

I think -- I agree with David on his description of CPAC. It used to be a trade show for every conspiracy theory in the world, I mean, including the Flat Earth Society and the John Birches.

And this turnout, Jim, I think, shows the energy. I think it also shows that the Republican Party has become a more homogeneous, conservative party. The fact -- it's almost like the first primary. It's before Iowa and New Hampshire. Presidential candidates who used to debate whether they would even show up there or have a representative now are clamoring to be seen there.

I am libertarian in most of my political beliefs. I think the federal government messes with the economy too much, spends too much, and tends from time to time to try to impose upon the rights of its citizens. Being libertarian is not really about being conservative or liberal. It is a funky hybrid of the two. I support the right to own hand guns, for example. I also support the right to abortion. That's a libertarian mindset. The idea of personal Liberty is held in high esteem.

The closest thing to a
Libertarian Party member in the US government is Ron Paul. I told Jennifer several times in the early and middle portions of the 2008 presidential campaign that Ron Paul was the most interesting of all the politicians. I was more interested to hear from him than I was from Obama. Obama was a huge political phenomenon. Paul was a small one that interested me more because he had no chance but I believed in him. I now wish I had voted for him in the Georgia primary instead of McCain. But I had other priorities then. I wanted McCain to beat Romney in Georgia.

I admire Ron Paul a great deal. The man is bright, passionate, freedom loving, and fiscally minded. He has always opposed the war in Iraq. He recently worked through the House a bill to audit the Federal Reserve Bank, he wants to get rid of the Fed itself, which - as long time readers know - I am totally against America's use of fiat money controlled by this private agency. But, Paul is weighted down with some admittedly extreme ideas. He thinks we should not be a member of the United Nations. He believes we should eliminate the income tax. I'm not sure that one's realistic, but I like his audacity. Talk about change! Obama has never wanted real change the way Ron Paul does.

Still, a plurality of the the most conservative elements of the Republican Party (a.k.a.
CPAC) just chose Paul for president in a straw poll. Paul received 31% of the vote. Paul is not particularly religious, I believe he is christain, but Paul never brings religion into his political message. I respect him for this but this also means that almost one-third of CPAC are probably more libertarian than conservative-christian. That is an important distinction. Republicanism without the religious right is pretty acceptable to me.

Dick Cheney sucks though.

You should check out Ron Paul's speech to CPAC on youtube. It is in three parts. Several things are noteworthy. First of all, the crowd attending the speech (which was not actually given before the convention itself but in some side room somewhere) is primarily young, college age people. After a spirited introduction, Paul took the podium to the sounds of Queen's We Will Rock You. Secondly, he states: "Personal liberty is the purpose of government. To protect liberty not to run your personal lives, not to run the economy, and not to pretend that we can tell the world how they ought to live." He correctly points that "we are now spending $1 trillion a year to manage our world empire." Later: "Our liberties come to us as individuals, they are not collective. Freedom does not come in groups. You don't have freedom because you are a hyphenated American. You have freedom because you are an individual and that should be protected."

Thirdly, "I do like different people coming together because freedom doesn't challenge people's personal values, they don't challenge their religious values, they only say come together on your terms as long as you don't mess around with me. There are two rules I have. One is I want change but I want non-violent change. I am resistance to the current system. But the other thing that I have to keep reminding myself is that in the process of pursuing our goals, that we should remain tolerant. People who disagree with you, or look different, or have different views, we have to allow freedom of expression. That will bring us together."

The speech itself is noteworthy for its old-fashioned idealism and civility, for its utter lack of hubris and polarizing, demonizing politics, that has become so prevalent today - as was featured in the speeches of Cheney and Romney at CPAC.

Ron Paul supports gay marriage and holds many other traditionally non-conservative views. The fact that CPAC had anything to do with him at all is perhaps the biggest story here.

Still, this straw poll represented 69% that voted over a fragmented field for essentially religious right conservatives. Quoting:

As the results were displayed on twin large screens in the ballroom – and even before Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio could announce who won – a cascade of boos came down from a crowd that views Paul and his fervent supporters as an irritant. Paul’s backers responded with cheers, though, when their candidate was then proclaimed by Fabrizio as the winner.

CPAC organizers were plainly embarrassed by the results, which could reduce the perceived impact of a contest that was once thought to offer a window into which White House hopefuls were favored by movement conservatives.

So, this wasn't a victory for Ron Paul so much as it was an indication of how badly organized the religious right is. The vote was a disaster for a politician I can't stand, Mitt Romney. While I admire Ron Paul's politics, I'm not sure this necon gathering really has the heart of the libertarianism I support. Or perhaps the libertarian fringe of this country is growing at a healthy rate, embued like late-liberalism in the 1960's by the power of youth.

I should note I disagree with Ron Paul on the United Nations. Personally, I see little advantage in not having and participating in such a world body. But, I'm sure Paul would be OK with me having that view, he would respect me, as I do him.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Great Seconds

Note: This is the second in what will be a monthly series this year on great symphonies. See my January 2, 2010 post for Great Firsts.

When considering Second symphonies, I once again give the nod to Gustav Mahler as the greatest of them all. Mahler composed his number two over six years and it was his most famous work during his lifetime. It was the only one of his symphonies that he himself published with an official title. He envisioned the work as an extension of his First Symphony and gave it the name “Resurrection.” The symphony is much more ambitious than Mahler’s First, being some 25 minutes longer.

It begins with a long first movement that lasts over 20 minutes. Heavy basses and cellos supported by tense, constant violins and violas. A sense of weightiness not present in his first symphony is at the core of the movement’s development. An issue is being wrestled with, seemingly overcome only to appear again. Almost six minutes in a passage of exquisite delicacy gives way to a pastoral setting. The Wagnerian influences are obvious. Eventually, the movement becomes a conquering march that is met with an obviously powerful adversary. By movement’s end both the heroic and the challenge are equally presented. The next movement is slow but more purposeful than lyrical. This movement is nicely balanced between strings, brass, and winds. The third movement begins with percussion only followed by a sting section supported by clarinets and flutes. The entire orchestra is eventually used building to a climax followed by an idyllic interlude that returns to a gigantic sound which falls off into a quiet string moment where the basic theme is carried with certainty. The fourth movement is perhaps the most famous in the symphony’s construct. It is entitled Urlicht (Primeval Light). For first time we experience the human voice in my blog’s consideration of the symphonic form. The soprano voice is solidly but tenderly supported by a wonderful brass section. The voice carries the emergence of the entire symphony giving way this time to an oboe before the movement magically shifts time, offering some folk melodies along with classically romantic moments. It is a beautiful piece of music, one of Mahler’s shortest movements. The theme here is more clearly identified by the words being sung, which read in part, “I am from God and want to return to God! The loving God will give me a little light, which will light me into that eternal blissful life!” The symphony is, among other things, about life’s struggle to the end, and the spiritual rewards of a life well lived.

The fifth and final movement carries this idea to fruition. It begins with a huge bang and clash, a return to struggle. This movement weighs at 34 minutes, longer than many other entire symphonic works. Naturally, something of this length is complex, rich with musical ideas. Of the many highlights in this expert composition is the use of trumpets throughout the course of the movement recalling the basic, heroic theme of the first movement. In due course, the entire orchestra examines this, at times quietly giving way to at about 8 minutes to a surge by the horns marking conquest or at least success. Then the movement returns to near silence, percussion builds, and the horns take on a melodramatic appeal. Strings racing. At 15 minutes we are in a gentle period again, like the lazy flow of a river. This gradually returns to near silence again. The theme is vaguely present, faintly presented. I should note that, during more tranquil moments throughout the symphony, Mahler makes use of certain aspects of the orchestra located offstage. Horns and other instruments are composed into the symphony with specific instructions to be spatially separated from the orchestra, played out of the sight of the audience and the conductor. The subtlety midway through the finale surpasses anything Mahler had previously composed. At times a single flute is supported with underlying percussion, faint (offstage) trumpets.

A little over 20 minutes in a female chorus of human voices softly takes the theme into its own. A strong contralto performance leads the voices back to the repeat of the theme by French horns and trumpets. Then a chorus emerges, beautifully featured with solo trumpet that evolves into a special sweetness that only Mahler, because of his graveness and sincerity, can pull off without it sounding kitsch. This lasts about 5-6 minutes before a solo voice is supported by the entire orchestra. The final six minutes of the symphony brings forth the male voices of the chorus and the symphony concludes on a high note by combining and juxtaposing full chorus and orchestration to maximum intensity and fullness that surpasses even George Frideric Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Chorus” and includes the ringing of bells. The chorus sings: “Rise again, yes, rise again, Will you, my heart, in an instant! That for which you suffered, To God will it lead you!” A magnificent composition, filled with touching moments amidst great turmoil and, in the end, spiritual triumph.

Though not of the same metaphysical plateau, the four movements of Jean Sibelius’ Second actually fit together in some respects better than the Resurrection. They offer that rich Scandinavian texture of openness that equals Mahler and yet are distinctively brighter, not brooding at all. Sibelius opens his Second with a solid melody expressed at one point or another by each section of the orchestra, always returning to a lavish harmony. The second movement begins with just cellos and basses in short, sharp notes. This builds with old instruments moving off into other themes as new ones gather keeping the short, sharpness as an undercurrent as the orchestra builds to a splendid passage about 8 minutes into the movement. Then fading away to silence. Sibelius had a genius for silence throughout his body of work. The silence always gives way to a return to the original melody to be built again in variation. The movement becomes heavy near its end. Silence again. Then rich strings to a conclusion supported by horns and flutes. The next movement is very fast and rhythmic, the orchestra at time swarming, at times silent. Then a bass drum introduces a bassoon supported with other winds in a beautifully touching passage before giving way to an uplifting of the entire orchestra into a richly satisfying melody that seamlessly begins the fourth movement. It is one of the great moments in the late-Romantic repertoire. The movement meanders wonderfully through multiple layers of sound, resting on softly repetitive cellos and winds again, which builds into an almost slow, grotesque melodic variation that is ultimately mastered powerfully by the horns. The end is strident and strong.

“The Little Russian” is the title for Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Second. It begins with a brief flair followed by several solo wind sections with little string support until the whole symphony slowly emerges with horns pulling everything upward to a deeper bass line. This entire movement is a series of bravely grand sweeping moments and soft ones flavored with soft solitudes. Ending with a wonderful horn and bassoon piece. The second movement begins with a slow bas drum keeping time. The tone is light and alert throughout as Tchaikovsky mixes in all sections of the orchestra equally. The third movement is comparatively fast, requiring expert dexterity and finesse. Lots of flute action. The strings dominate near the end and drive the pace to conclusion. The fourth movement begins as if it were a Franz Joseph Haydn symphony or even Modest Mussorgsky. Yet, as it develops, it becomes an example of how a large late-romantic orchestra can fill the space with music and sound unlike any previous orchestration. It ends in a spectacular fashion that is inspired and impossible to appreciate without feeling amazed at the height to which it leaves us. The symphony was highly successful in its day (1872) but, despite this, Tchaikovsky revised it in 1880.

Antonin Dvorak composed his Second in 1865 at age 24. Adding this symphony over some other Seconds to my list of Greats would be questionable to some. Dvorak’s Second has little information on it on the internet. You can’t even find a video of any part of it on youtube. Still, this is my list. The opening is almost Wagnerian in its softness then sudden emotional power. There is an excellent interplay between strings and winds/horns throughout the first movement, with a swirling undercurrent mixed with spritely moments. The second movement has a sweet melody throughout, but often played in deeper notes. Dvorak shows a gentle touch at times, with quiet parts similar to Mahler’s but never as extended before returning on a brisk dance cadence. There is an excellent clarinet solo that comes toward the end of each variation on the melody which holds the movement together in a delightful tone. The finale is at moments lush with late-romantic sound, dominated by layered strings and solid support from the horns and winds. Occasionally, turmoil and struggle break through, pitting sections of the orchestra against itself then abruptly giving way to a slower-pace with a balance between the winds and strings floating. The movement examines this pace with interesting variations for several minutes before once again giving way to a large full-orchestral sound. After another classic late-romantic sweetness the symphony concludes with on confident, triumphant note. It is interesting to note that this symphony was Dvorak’s Opus 4. Only his fourth composition. That makes the work even more amazing and revealing of his genius.

Serge Prokofiev’s Second is probably my most controversial selection. It is a two movement masterpiece, by far the most “modern” of these other symphonies (composed in 1924-25). The first movement is heavy with horns and percussion commanding over the strings. The movement expresses much passion and desperation tinged with discord. The extended second movement features “Themes and Variations.” It begins quietly with low strings and bassoons unfolding into a beautiful slow melody. Over the course of the next 23 minutes, this movement wanders and explores the possibilities of this melody in complimentary and contrasting modes. At times the strings finally express their complete energy giving way again to powerful percussion, then swirls of flutes, clarinets and strings. The symphony evolves with frequent mutations each building on the one before it. Walls of sound giving way to a spectacular, slow climax around the 20 minute mark, at which time the symphony returns to its quiet beginning. Immensely satisfying.

When compared with serious contenders like the Seconds of Robert Schumann or Johannes Brahms, it is rather bold to hold the Prokofiev (and Dvorak) above them. But, this Russian symphony is much more complex, more deeply textured, and uses the full body of the orchestra more so than the string-heavy other Seconds mentioned. This makes Prokofiev more equal and comparable to the other composers in this post. A superbly worthy Great Second.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pics of Yesterday's Snow

Charlie moving quickly through the snow. Photo by my daughter.

It snowed yesterday afternoon over two inches here. Biggest snow in a long time. Much more than that fell south of us. I left work an hour early. This morning the roads were very slick in places until near noon. A little tricky getting around areas that had not been treated and were shaded by today's bright, clear sun.

The snow fell heavy for a few hours, the sky was burdened with grey. Still, everyone here was excited. Two inches of snow turns us all into a bunch of silly kids.

My backyard facing southeast.

Behind my house looking almost directly west. The view is open to the west, which is where our house faces.

This morning, same view. We are fortunate to have about 150 acres directly across from us and it only contains one house. The rest is small fields, woods, and pasture.

View off my front porch facing northwest.

My reading bench in our woods.

Front porch view. Only our neighbor's barn shows up over about an open 50 acre view. Facing west.

A cedar we planted many years ago on the back line of our property. Standing in the upper field facing southeast.

Near the upper field facing southwest.

My daughter took this pic of the road leading to our house. Facing almost directly south. Parks was found in the corner of the field immediately off-camera to the right. (see previous post)

This morning in my backyard facing northwest.

Jennifer and my daughter went over to my parents' farm as I was getting off work. My daughter took this nice shot of an old pond on my family's land. I can remember playing around this pond as a child, often alone or with a dog. I can even remember swimming in it a couple of times. I was not yet 10. And it was summer then.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Expecting to Fly

Eventually, despite our best intentions and near superhuman tolerance for increasingly persistent and numerous digestive problems and troublingly frequent, sometimes passive-aggressive, displays of incontinence, it is time to say “enough.”

Jennifer had had enough. Parks had been sick lately. He was throwing-up and defecating everywhere. Even leaving him outside more was little reprise. He threw-up on his bed outside. It had to be cleaned. The dog wasn’t really suffering much, but Jennifer was suffering beyond compassion.

I always have been a champion to let Parks live. He is fortunately unaware of the numerous near-death conversations we have had about him. But, each time the bottom line was that he was not suffering, had some measure of contentment in his doggie life, and my wife would feel guilty if we put him down.

But this time it was different. I could see my wife’s sad suffering and smoldering anger at the dog. It was time to finally put him down.

Only that didn’t happen. We got up the next morning and the vet was sick with a cold. The vet was going to close the clinic early. Parks was wagging his tail that morning. It felt good to rub his soft hair. He liked the attention, looking at us through cloudy eyes that could barely see. He wasn’t throwing up on anything.

So, despite all this, he lives. Banished outdoors except at night, but alive and as demanding and animated as ever a couple of hours before meal time. He works on you in high spirits to be fed. He’ll even gallop toward you. I figure as long as he keeps that up, he’ll live.

Long-time readers will recall that Parks is our sheltie-mixed mutt. He has terminal cancer. It was diagnosed late in 2008. He was only given a few months to live. His lymph glands are the size of ping pong balls. But he shows few outward signs of dying.

I thought Parks had died back in September when I pulled into our home after work one afternoon to find him in the middle of our yard, front paws awkwardly sprayed from his sides, his nose buried heavily in the grass, apparently motionless. He was completely unresponsive, as if he had fallen out of the sky.

That was because he had been suffering from acute pain in his shoulder. He couldn’t make it up and down the steps outside anymore. So, the vet gave him some pain killer meds. She told us to give him up to a half pill twice a day to keep the pain away. We did as instructed. Knocked his ass flat out.

Jennifer wanted to take him off the medication entirely. After all, what good is a comatose dog? He was sleeping a lot already. He’s old. I figured he simply had to “adjust” to the medication. But, this was beyond mere adjustment on his part. He had the awareness of a foot rest, always totally crashed somewhere in our yard.

So, we took him down to just half a pill once a day. Still, too much. He was staggering around, barely eating. Maybe this was the end. Then down to a quarter of a pill. That was the ticket. He became his old (old) self again. No more splats in the yard. Barking. Moving. Consciousness again. Basically, we were giving him about 8 times the medication he needed. Poor guy.

As has been the case over the last year, Parks lived. Feeling better, he began to roam over to the neighbor’s house again. Looking for tasty scraps to scavenge again. Only he got stuck in the rather deep ravine between our house and theirs. I was at work at the time, Jennifer couldn’t find him but heard him barking out an SOS. Our English setter mutt Charlie found him and Jennifer, who has back issues of her own and can’t really pick up the overweight football of a dog, had to push his fat butt up the side of the ditch, plowing through plentiful falling leaves. He lived.

Still, about a week after that we dug a grave for him in our modest pet cemetery. Always be prepared.

Nala, our border collie mutt, has an abnormally large pelvis. For that reason I give her pain medication in the winter (straight glucosamine works fine the rest of the year). I place the medication in a hot dog which she eagerly scarfs down in as a treat.

On day Parks, anxious as ever at the site of food, was prancing and twirling around with the spirit of a puppy when I went out on our front porch to feed Nala. Parks had already eaten, but does that have to do with anything? He was looking straight up. Not at me but at the hot dog in my hand. Nothing in the universe existed but that hot dog.

I leaned over the front of the porch just a bit to call to Nala (whose hay bed is tucked under our porch out of the reach of wind and rain) when Parks raced forward, eyes locked above, and tumbled off the porch into the top of a shrub bush. His hind legs flew around and landed pointing away from the porch while his head swung beneath his plump body and ended up toward the porch. There he was below my feet in the middle of that shrub, lying on his back – the result of a single, perfect, half-flip he did inadvertently somersaulting off the porch – his robust, packed white belly staring back at me with his paws flailing in all directions. Before I could assist he rather spryly flipped himself upright, wading slowly out of the low-growth shrub, leaving the damage from his fall as if a boulder had landed in the top of the shrub. Several stems were broken and there was an indentation.

But, Parks lived. The prospect of the hot dog still fresh in his mind, he now properly pain medicated body leaped back up the porch steps and started barking at me. But, by now Nala had arrived and gobbled up the hot dog before Parks’ disbelieving eyes.

A few weeks later, Parks had what we call in the south an “attack.” He wasn’t eating. He started breathing heavily. I picked him and placed him on some sheets on our sofa. Suddenly, a small splattering of blood came out his right nostril. I thought this might be the end. His body stiffened for extended periods. Then relaxed. Then stiffened again. I put him in our laundry room where he now sleeps at night. He lay there a long time. Breathing sporadically. We left him overnight. But, the next day he was fine. Well, fine for him. No pain, mobile, barking, wagging his tale nearer to mealtime. The old Parks. I don't know what all that was about.

Parks doesn’t move as fast now. He moves even slow by his own standards. Five steps and stop. Stare. Five steps and stop. Stare. Repeat ad nauseum. He can’t stay inside immediately after eating or in the mornings and afternoons because he will simply relieve himself anywhere in the house without notice. And waiting for him to get to the front door to go outside takes seemingly forever. So now, if we want him out, or on the sofa, or in the laundry room, I will pick him up and carry him. After that he’s on his own.

At first, Parks didn’t like me picking him up. He and I have never had the special bond that he enjoys with Jennifer and my daughter. But, now he likes it. First of all, he knows I’m not going to hurt him. Secondly, he knows by allowing me to pick him up he is teleported to wherever he needs to go. Effortlessly. So, he’s part bird now. He can fly. And he really likes it. He might even be walking 3 or 4 steps instead of his usual 5 in expectation of taking flight.

So, Parks lives, still. Parks the Perpetual. But, he still occasionally forgets where he lives. Every few months, apparently from a form of doggie dementia, he simply wanders off from the house. Recently, our neighbor found him in the corner of their pasture over a half mile from our house. He never goes down there. I figure he just got pointed the wrong way, repeated his series of taking five steps and stopping to stare about a thousand times, and ended up lost again.

But, that is a rare event, so far. He still can twirl around youthfully when you wave his food above him. He’s half-blind, almost totally deaf, and picky about taking his medication. Most of the time we have to disguise it more cleverly than simply putting in a hot dog. Otherwise, he’ll eat around the pill, swallow the treat and spit the medicine right back out. It is frustrating.

Otherwise, however, he is more the Parks we know than this horrible aberration of death and suffering that he sometimes transforms in to. He will take walks in the woods with me. Though his slower pace means he only makes it about halfway until I meet him coming back toward the house with a running Charlie and an ambling Nala.

He loves to eat, of course. He often takes about five minutes to finish drinking water. He still looks up at you with his dark, cloudy eyes sort of like a baby seal. His look is full of life, however. Hoping for something more to eat. Hoping you will pet him. Wagging his tail ready to fly.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Coldest Winter

David Halberstam's wonderful book The Coldest Winter is about the Korean War, but it not a history of the war itself. It is, rather, an excellent analysis of the geopolitical climate in which the war took place, but in the United States and Korea and, of particular importance, in China.

But there is also plenty of analysis of specific battles. Several chapters are devoted to the troops in the trenches so to speak. For that reason, this is truly history as it should be written - a mix of the strategic, operational, and tactical considerations of the war.

Critics have noted that the work is not really about the war so much as it is about the strategic thinking (and failings) of General Douglas MacArthur and the aspects of the war dealing with China. This criticism is correct but really misses the mark. The book doesn't pretend to be more than a summary of most of the war. Its primary focus is on the US (under the guise of the United Nations) battling a surprise, massive Chinese invasion of 300,000 troops that almost broke the back of the largely American forces.

The Korean War is known as "the forgotten war" because it is so often overlooked in US military history. In a nutshell, North Korean troops invaded South Korea after receiving assurances of Soviet support (most of which never materialized). The North Koreans almost swept the Korean Peninsula clean, forcing weak South Korean and American troops into a pocket around the southern port of Pusan.

MacArthur then surprised the North Koreans with an invasion at Inchon that led to retaking all the ground originally lost. Then MacArthur drove north, capturing the North Korean capital and beyond into the mountainous regions near the Chinese border. At this point, unknown to UN strategists, China decided to enter the war.

The Chinese offensives (there were several of them) initially decimated the chiefly US forces, retook Seoul, and drove south again. But, due to logistical problems on the part of Chinese, to clever adaption by the US field commanders (General Matt Ridgeway among others) in learning how to fight this fierce new opponent, and to overwhelming US air and artillery support, the South Korean capital was retaken and matters resulted in a stalemate of trench warfare until a ceasefire was signed, ending the military fighting in 1953.

Most Americans do not realize we had a war with China in the early 1950's.

As a result of the Chinese counteroffensive, US President Harry Truman dismissed General MacArthur. The Coldest Winter deals a lot with the political aspects of this as well as the political reasons for China entering the war. Halberstam is highly critical of General MacArthur as a bold but out-of-touch commander that did not understand the Chinese and placed US forces in a precarious position which resulted in some of the worst military defeats in our nation's history.

Some highlights from The Coldest Winter to give you some idea of the flavor of the book...

“In those early days, Korea remained very much a Soviet satellite, with the Russians making a deliberate effort to minimize the influence of the Chinese. Kim’s top advisors as D-day approached were all Russian generals, and they gradually took over the war planning. They considered Kim’s early plans for the invasion amateurish, and the plans were redrawn to specifications.” (page 51)

“But the (Truman) administration’s political opponents…saw the beginning of the Korean War as a way of striking against the president and his secretary of state, and of tying Korea to an issue on which they were already attacking Truman, the loss of China.” (page 97)

“The United States would go to war totally unprepared. The first American units thrown into battle were poorly armed, in terrible shape physically, and, more often than not, poorly led. The mighty army that had stood victorious in two great theaters of war, Europe and Asia, just five years earlier was a mere shell of itself. Militarily, America was a country trying to get by on the cheap, and in Korea it showed immediately.” (page 138) According to Halberstam, Truman and the Democrat contolled congress were mostly responsible for sweeping military cutbacks trying to pay off the debt from World War Two. Douglas MacArthur was also partly at fault for an inadequate training program.

China becoming communist was a major American political issue. Truman was accused of being too soft on communism. Their was a polarizing debate in US foreign policy. “As the Truman administration sent troops to Korea, there was always a vast dark unanswered question haunting them, which was the threat of the entry of Chinese Communists into the war, something the president and most of the men around him greatly feared, and that the general commanding in the field and some of his supporters seemed on occasion ready to welcome.” (page 214)

“The ability of the Eighth Army to hold on in the previous two months represented an immense personal achievement for Johnnie Walker. Disrespected by both Tokyo and Washington…in those six or seven weeks from the end of July to the middle of September he was nothing less than a remarkable, fearless commander, doing almost everything right. If American military history has shortchanged any of this country’s wars in the past century, it is Korea, and…if any one commander has not been given the credit he deserves, it is surely Walton Walker in those battles.” (pp. 254-255)

“Inchon was to be Douglas MacArthur’s last great success, and his alone. It was a brilliant, daring gamble. It surely saved thousands of American lives just as he predicted. He fought for it almost alone against the doubts of the principle Navy planners and very much against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs. Inchon was Douglas MacArthur at his best: audacious, original, unpredictable, thinking outside the conventional mode, and of course, it would turn out, very lucky as well.” (page 293)

“The Chinese decided to send their troops into Korea because Mao believed it was good for the new China and necessary for the future of the revolution, both domestically and internationally. He also feared what a failure to intervene would mean – that his China, for all its rhetoric, was not that different from the old China, a powerless giant when facing what was in their eyes the armies of the Western oppressors. Therefore, almost from the moment it became clear that Kim’s offensive was doomed, Mao had begun the planning that would end with the use of Chinese troops in Korea.” (page 338)

MacArthur had the North Koreans on the run. He drove the UN forces deep into the Korean mountains in the north, desiring to overrun the entire country. "Of all the many professional sins of which Douglas MacArthur was guilty in that moment, including hubris and vanity, none was greater than his complete underestimation of the enemy. The China he thought he knew - despite all his time in Asia, he had spent almost no time there - was part of the nineteenth-century world. As Bruce Cummings, a historian on the Korean War, noted, Asians in MacArthur's mind were 'obedient, dutiful, childlike, and quick to follow resolute leadership.' In the late 1940's, that was certainly true of Japan, because the Japanese, having disastrously lost the war, were looking for lessons from the victors. But much of the rest of the region was caught up in nascent revolution. What had happened in the Chinese civil war as much as anything else reflected those changes, something MacArthur never chose to understand." (page 370)

The Chinese struck and mauled the overextended American forces. “It had been on of the worst days in the history of the American Army, surely the worst week in the history of the Second Infantry Division. The numbers were heartbreaking. In those final days of November, the Ninth Regiment had lost an estimated 1,474 men (including non-battle casualties, which usually meant frostbite); the Thirty-eighth Regiment, 1,178; and the Twenty-third, 545. The Second Engineers had lost 561 men to battle casualties. Any infantry regiment had an authorized strength of about 3,800 men; when it was time to regroup, the Ninth had only about 1,400 men left; the Thirty-eighth, 1,700; and the Twenty-third, 2,200.” (page 467)

Elsewhere, however, American Marines acquitted themselves well. “Had (the Chinese) communications been more modern, as Colonel Alpha Bowser later said, the First Marine Division would never have made it back from the Chosin Reservoir. Their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir is one of the classic moments in their own exceptional history, a masterpiece of leadership on the part of their officers and of simple, relentless, abiding courage on the part of the ordinary fighting men – fighting a vastly larger force in the worst kind of mountainous terrain and unbearable cold that sometimes reached down to minus forty.” (page 468)

As I mentioned, Halberstam liberally spices his history with the stories of individual soldiers fighting in these situations which I do not go into here.

As the Chinese advanced, Mao became s overly confident as MacArthur had been before Mao struck. In Mao’s mind, however, the Americans had behaved as he had predicted, as capitalist pawns pressed reluctantly into an unwanted war. There were times now, as the Chinese moved south and Mao pressed for a more aggressive strategy, that (General) Peng (Dehuai) would shake his head, turn to his aide, and complain about Mao becoming drunk with success.” (page 506) Peng was very concerned about logistics (food and ammo), or lack thereof, and of American control of the skies. To help compensate the Chinese almost always maneuvered and attacked at night.

Ultimately, it wasn’t MacArthur but another American general that stabilized the situation. “Chipyongni turned out to be the battle Matt Ridgeway had wanted from the moment he arrived in country. It was one of the most decisive battles of the war, because it was where the American forces finally learned to fight the Chinese. When Chipyongni was over, there was a new sense, not just among the commanders but among the fighting men themselves, that if they held the right positions with the right fields of fire and had the right leadership, the burden of battle would be on the less heavily armed Chinese. Equally important, when it was over, the Chinese knew it too.” (page 541)

The Americans learned to tenaciously defend against Chinese attacks, inflicting heavy losses. If that position fell then the Chinese troops were fixed into the position and they were decimated. “Not only did the Americans have the capacity to hammer a given target with endless artillery rounds, but they had now added a new weapon that the Chinese quickly came to fear, a jellied death that American planes could spread from the air and that had the capacity to burn out entire units in fiery communal deaths. It was called napalm.” (page 582)

Truman and McArthur had their infamous political battle which is a story in and of itself. MacArthur was dismissed but Truman was badly damaged by the war. “If some of its policies had been exonerated, the administration itself had ended up severely, perhaps terminally, wounded by all these events, most particularly the entrance of the Chinese into the war. The defeat along the Yalu. Dean Acheson wrote to Harry Truman five years later, ‘destroyed the Truman Administration.’” (page 617)

Significantly, Halberstam points out that the post-war success by the US and allied countries in the new South Korea ranked: “...even above the success of the Marshall Plan….Korea, by contrast, had little in the way of a democratic past and little in the way of a middle-class life or an industrial base. What was created after the war was politically, economically, and in many ways socially strikingly new.” (page 641) Yet, democracy and industry thrived as this people, for the first time, were allowed to develop without being dominated by a foreign power.

Ultimately, that has to be the final justification for the war itself.

Tragically, David Halberstam died in a vehicle accident just as the latest work of his distinguished career was being released. He was certainly one of the leading historians of the twentieth century. The Coldest Winter is a fitting testament to his professional life, offering splendid insights into "the forgotten war" in a balanced account of human bravery under fire, human mistakes of leadership, and how the US military managed to acquit itself solidly (though certainly not decisively) from some of the heaviest fighting to which the US army has ever been subjected.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Get ready, Get set, Get Lost!

After being threatened by something as trivial as the State of the Union address the only prime time TV show I watch religiously returns tonight for its sixth and final season. Jennifer, my daughter and I got all caught up and finished watching the rest of season five on DVD over the weekend. We’re psyched.

As long-time readers know, I believe Lost is a unique television series. No TV program has ever given us so much character depth on such a large array of primary characters. New major characters have been added as the story has unfolded and they, too, have been given terrific treatment by the writers. This is all woven into an increasingly complex plot that has by now been transformed to the very edge of comprehensibility. No show is more challenging to figure out than Lost.

The first two seasons were heavily weighted toward character development with just enough action sequences, plot twists, and mysteries established to hook millions of viewers. As the seasons have progressed, the character development has slowly taken more of a back-seat to the plot to the point that now, as the final season begins, we’re pretty much all about plot baby.

Frankly, however, as the plot has taken over more of the show the viewership has declined. At its peak, Lost was averaging almost 15 million viewers in the US. At the end of last season that had declined to a little over 9 million, the overseas market actually growing in size for Lost. It is truly a worldwide television hit. The reason the decline in the US? The plot has become – well – rather bizarre and even the most devoted fans have no clue what is happening or why it is happening half the time. (It should be noted that Lost remains highly rated among the - financially - critical 18-49 age demographic - guess I'm young at heart.)

My family doesn’t care. For us, it has become this thrill-ride, mind-twisting puzzle. The millions of viewers that have hung in there are being rewarded with the most complex television storyline ever presented on mainstream television. That doesn’t spell “entertainment” for most TV couch potato Americans. In places like Europe and India, though, Lost is a growing force.

For me personally, there is a metaphorical element to Lost that is worth pondering. It is not as simple as good vs. evil, or fate vs. free will, or any similar dialectic. As best I can tell, there are at least three different levels of “competitors” in Lost, all fighting for something. One of those levels seems to be outside the traditional boundaries of Time, going back to at least Egyptian spirituality. Sometimes the goals of one competing force overlap with another, but more often than not, they don’t intersect nor are they even aware of one another’s existence (except for the competitors outside Time, who apparently know way more than any of the rest of us). I don’t know what the metaphorical message(s) is(are) yet. I must stay tuned for more information.

The producers of the show have assured fans that there will be explanations for most of the conflicts and unresolved tensions in the show by the conclusion of this season. Most, but not all. And that is the way it should be. The task of the producers is gargantuan because of the ever-increasing complexity of the interwoven plot elements. It won’t be easy to pull off a satisfying resolution. There is the danger of everything devolving into confusion and shallowness. This is what ultimately happened to another great, innovative TV series, The X-Files. Unlike The X-Files, however, the producers of Lost have enough sense not to keep the show going on past its prime. This season will be its last, despite its decent US ratings and enormous oversees market loyalty. The X-Files went through nine seasons, the last three being of decreasingly satisfying quality.

I’m hopeful. The very fact they chose to end the series while it is still in its prime shows an uncharacteristic degree of creative dignity and lack of simple greed.

First and foremost Lost is about Time. The Island skips through Time and everyone on it skips right along. Flash. It’s 1954. Flash it’s 2004. Flash, it’s sometime in the 1800’s. Flash it is 1977. Half our major characters are stuck in 1977. The rest are in 2007. The two groups are desperately seeking to find each other on the same island. I know it sounds stupid put so simplistically. But, this is what is happening and the writers have crafted this absurd situation so delicately over years through so many complicated character interactions that it is totally acceptable, not absurd at all.

In Season Five Lost shifted gears just like it has every season. No two seasons of Lost are really the same, the show evolves fast and on multiple levels. But in Season Five something really different happens. New viewers might think it is just very poor continuity. But it is something more. There are many critical scenes that are replayed over the course of several episodes, scenes where several major characters all converge. Each time these scenes are replayed it is in an episode where the subplot features the back-story (or future-story) of a different major character. When each scene recurs it happens more or less the same way…but not exactly the same way.

Dialog is spoken which means basically the same thing, but it is not the same lines. Example: "If I see either of you again it will be unpleasant for all of us" vs. "If I see you again it will be unpleasant for the both of us." Actions are taken, but they are slightly different actions. Where an injured character lies docile and hurting in one scene, in the retelling that character pulls out a knife for protection. He didn't do that the first go-round. Where a stewardess passes a passenger two little bottles of in-flight vodka, in the retelling it is only one such bottle. Someone is shot seemingly in the heart, but in the next retelling the wound is in the chest but not the heart. The number of little differences is seemingly countless.

This is far too pervasive to be continuity errors. This is intentional. The debate within the Lost community is about what this could mean. The majority opinion is that this is simple “perspectivism.” Events appear differently to different people. Under ordinary circumstances I would agree with this theory. But, this show is now about Time itself. Loops in Time. My own guess, is that we are watching events occurring over and over again within Time and that each time they occur things are generally the same but not precisely the same. And these little changes in the way things happen can add up to completely different possibilities in Time.

Hey, I’m probably wrong but there’s no point in trying to follow this stuff unless you want to play the game of possibilities.

I predict this final season the producers of Lost will pull out all the stops. There is no need to build more audience share. The show is ending. This is it. Why not take even more chances? Why care if everyone can follow it? Go ahead, jerk not just the rug but the entire floor out from under us. We’re your helpless, submissive victims. Take us where you will. Just make sure in the end we end up as surprised and fascinated as we have been ever moment over the last five years. Only then will the end be as completely worthy and satisfying as the journey itself.