Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Watching Dow Theory

Two important Dow Theory events recently serve as a possible harbinger for a near-term resumption in the Bull Market within the on-going Bear Market in stocks. Back on June 7, the Dow Industrials violated the previous most recent lowest low in February by closing at 9816.49. Significantly, however, the Transportation Index never confirmed the action of the Dow. Even though the Dow continued to move lower in June, the Transports never violated their previous February low.

This classic Dow Theory “non-confirmation” often means a reversal of the present trend. In this case, it meant a possible swing back to the upside for the markets. The focus for the theory then shifted to the most recent highest high (also coincidentally in June). If both averages could better their June highs then we would have a classic Dow Theory “confirmation”; in this case, confirmation of the reversal in market forces.

That is what happened yesterday.

Dow Theory confirmations and non-confirmations are always worth noting. But, when a non-confirmation is followed relatively quickly by a confirmation of the reversal it is, perhaps, a more powerful statement. The Bull is now back in the driver’s seat according to Dow Theory.

Probably the worse thing you can do as an investor is to get yourself into a mindset of thinking you know what is actually going to happen and become emotionally attached to the structuring of your portfolio. So, dispassionately, I have to admit that the gloomy prognostication of a double dip in the Great Recession might not come to pass. Although the possibility still lingers, more than likely it will not happen in the near future. This market wants to go up. Well, good for it and for stockholders everywhere. I’m really not the kind of guy that prefers a world of mass misery. I hope we all get wealthier.

Meanwhile, the fear of deflation looms. This means the price of gold is going to take a hit. Today, in fact, it took a big hit. This does not discourage me, however. Again, it is better to keep emotions out of the decision-making process where money matters. Instead, I view this as the set up for an excellent entry point into gold. I am accumulating more as the price drops because, as I have posted before, I still feel that the central banks of the world will do everything in their power to fight deflation. They will open up the money spickets. That should be good for gold.

As for the apparent Bullish nature of the market, I’m not interested. I still think stocks are overvalued in the face of economic conditions. I’ve been cash-heavy for a long time now and I will continue to be. I just don’t trust this market.

The big question in the back of my mind is "why." Why is the market so buoyant and positive? What does it see ahead that leads it to believe that the seeping ocean of debt, the lack of consumer confidence, continuing unemployment, and expansion of public entitlements will somehow all be overcome by an as yet invisible (to me anyway) robust economic strength?

Whatever the answer to "why", the market is being driven by
institutional buying which means the Wall Street experts think things are looking up. That jibes with Treasury Secretary Geithner's most recent comments that the Great Recession is over. This, in turn, has become yet another point of polarization between democrats and republicans in Washington over whether Bush-era tax cuts should be allowed to expire. Perhaps the stock market action has signaled that it approves of an end to these tax cuts in order to help offset the deficit. Or maybe the market approves of the fact that, in not renewing the tax cuts, the democrats may be shooting themselves in the foot.

Who knows what the Bull might have on its mind? All I know is that Dow Theory says the Bull will run for awhile now. Let's see how far and for what reason.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Great Sevenths

By the time you get to Seventh Symphonies several renowned composers turn up missing. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Schumann are among many composers who never scored more the four, five or six numbered symphonies in their lifetime. Beethoven is still around, however.

Beethoven has an honest energy that sounds bright and inspired yet there is a sophisticated technical expertise to his compositions that makes them enjoyable emotionally, intellectually, and artistically. Beethoven is never sappy. He is crisp, wide-ranging, passionate, both serious and light. This is true with his Great Seventh, the best of all symphonies considered in this post.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (1812) is of significant proportions and emotional depth, reminding me of the Eroica. The symphony as a whole is a terrific, rhythmic powerhouse. It builds from movement to movement wonderfully until we reach a kind of frenzied state. It begins with a subtle yet grand opening movement, the string section sometimes reminding you of the influence Beethoven's compositions would have later on other great romantic composers such as Wagner. About four minutes into the movement there is this wonderful shift to a joyful, folk-like dance making use of the entire orchestra. Very effective and entertaining. Violins, oboes and clarinets are all featured.

There is no slow movement really. The symphony never loses rhythm. In this sense Beethoven is relentless. The second movement establishes a primary theme with many variations throughout. Chellos and basses march before the other strings offer a counterpoint. The Presto third movement is once again bright and exciting with many opportunities for a display of technical expertise by all sections of the orchestra. Alternating rhythms, now galloping, now somber make this movement more complex than it seems. The finale is my favorite. Upbeat, complicated, passionate, at times featuring the use of strings that foreshadows the magnificent moments to come in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Beethoven builds to an almost volcanic, expert climax, ending suddenly. Of all the symphonies I’ve posted about so far, this one might come closest to the description of a “thriller”. An extremely entertaining symphonic work.

Bruckner’s Great Seventh (revised 1885) is a marvel to behold for different reasons. Its first two movements are massive (well over 20 minutes each), methodical, and bold. The opening movement establishes a theme largely using strings, supported with woodwinds, building to a resounding climax. At the same time, oboes and clarinets are used to give strong melody. Bruckner contrasts nicely between idyllic passages and the sheer boisterous force of the orchestra. The second movement is one of Bruckner’s greatest pieces of music. He uses the string dominated orchestra to create a hymn-like exploration, stately throughout, and majestic. This is a pristine, visceral music.

Bruckner’s third movement is a scherzo filled with dance and drama. A wonderful listening experience that is highly rhythmic, with great depth and range of intensity and subtlety. It marches along, sometimes skipping, sometimes quiet and sweet, sometimes wrapped in raw power. The finale is grand. After a rather soft, easy opening, about 3 minutes in the whole orchestra conveys a vast heroic struggle before returning to a more contemplative tone. The struggle returns twice before being resolved in the swirling force of composition led by robust horns and triumphant trumpets.

I consider Mahler’s Great Seventh (1905) to be his most “modern” sounding symphony. It is also a return to optimism for him, and possibilities. The symphony explores mysterious, magical moments. It is also reflective, fantastic, and still romantic despite its prominent, modern tones. He names the second and fourth movements “Night Music”. It is a five-movement work once more scored for a hardy collection of orchestral assets, this time including cowbells.

The first movement is dominated by horns and trumpets and is the most solemn portion of the work. At one point it almost sounds like the Star Trek theme, just for a few notes. The second movement (the first ‘night music' movement) is also horn prominent, sometimes with a slow melody. It creates a pastoral feeling, accentuated by the aforementioned cowbells…just…dangling. The third movement is a scherzo with several contrasting sections. The fourth movement (the second 'night music' serenade section) returns to the primary theme. There is a nice mandolin and guitar section during this movement that is wonderful and noteworthy. The finale begins like a conquest, overpowering and confident expressed in bold tones, horns leading the way throughout. The movement sweeps along through several transformations before concluding with a lively brass chorale.

The Great Seventh (1925) of Sibelius was his last symphony. It is preformed in a single movement of about 22 and a half minutes. In fact, the movement is divided into four parts beginning with two Adagios, followed by an Allegro and an exciting Vivace. The symphony begins with a slow tempo that generates a sense of mystery. Ultimately, this gives way to pristine, hymn-like anthem about 5 and a half minutes in. Sweeping strings are answered by a bold solo trombone which I personally find to be moving every time I listen to it. Certainly the highlight of the symphony for me. The tempo sprightly quickens. The symphony goes through a series of variations in pace and mood accentuated by moments of grandeur and a monumental pinnacles. Near the end the unaccompanied strings deliver rich emotional depth. At opposite ends together, so to speak, a flute and a bassoon express a heartrending moment. The symphony finishes with dramatic force, though a bit muted compared with previous moments of culmination. Sibelius’ use of horns matched by rising strings is marvelous throughout the work.

Near the end he also uses a couple of short moments of silence only as Sibelius can. Mahler would fill his symphonies with quiet moments of near silence where a single instrument would offer the softest possible notes, barely audible. But Sibelius would plant punctuated moments of complete silence in some of his symphonies. Complex mingling by the various sections of the orchestra in richly textured style, its economy of composition filled with meaningful and moving passages makes this Great Seventh a high-note for Sibelius at the end of his renowned career.

Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony (1942) was composed during the Siege of Leningrad. The composer was serving at the time as a volunteer fireman within the bombed and shelled city. He completed the first three movements while encircled by the Nazis before the Soviet government insisted that he fly out and serve the propaganda efforts against Hitler’s forces. This Great Seventh premiered in a city to the east beyond the war zone in March 1942 before coming a few weeks later to Moscow when the war itself had been pushed away from the city. The first Moscow performance used a modest all-Leningrad musician orchestra that the Soviets had managed to rescue from the still encircled and starving city in the north. It was widely performed across the Allied world during the Second World War and was seen as a gesture of patriotism against fascism.

A massive first movement (over 28 minutes) sounds brave but intimately tragic. It features an extended, Bolero-like build up. A march followed by the struggling main theme. There are also moments of tenderness, usually by winds. The second movement (over 10 minutes) is methodical, string-heavy, almost a slow dance. The third movement, an Adagio, (over 19 minutes) is more brooding, with beautiful passages, perhaps my favorite of the symphony. The finale (over 18 minutes) restates the struggle, finds its desperate heart, then uses horns prominently to end on a note of victory, though at the time Shostakovich wrote this work victory was anything but certain. So, it is a profoundly hopeful symphony in addition to a testament of the intensity of the Russian will against an almost overwhelming enemy.

As a group, these Great Sevenths are definitely the most upbeat and hopeful of all the groupings posted thus far in this series. Each of them ends on a resounding note of confidence and enthusiasm. This, of course, is merely coincidental.

Note: I have been doing these classical essays on a monthly basis throughout 2010. I am going to take some time off before continuing onward with the Great Eighths. I don’t have the luxury of mindspace to properly listen to classical music right now due to other demands and interests. I have several more essays in this series planned, however, and will get to them. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why I Voted for Obama

I knew when I cast my vote in November 2008 for Barack Obama that he would make every effort to grow government, raise the national debt, and would most likely not be able to do anything of substance to slay the bear market and ease the Great Recession. Presidents get far too much credit when the economy is going well and far too much blame for when it isn’t.

The truth is, regardless of the power of the Federal Government, no government can control economic forces. The truth is the economy will do whatever it is going to do through the natural ebb and flow of bulls and bears. Government tampering with the economy only makes things worse in the long run. I suppose from that perspective the more a president attempts to stem the tide of recession or to encourage recovery the more they should be held accountable for making things worse. So that blame is justified.

At any rate, it would not matter much if John McCain had been elected president in 2008. We would still be in a stalled economy on the verge of massive deflation. Politics doesn’t count for much in that regard. The only thing I could say is that under McCain we probably wouldn’t have amassed quite as much debt as we have under Obama. But, the difference is only a few hundred billion dollars. Pocket change in our fiat currency sea of liability. Under McCain our debt would have risen significantly anyway because of pre-existing obligations to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the prime culprits of our national bankruptcy.

My vote for Obama had nothing to do with the economy, stupid. My vote had to do with the Supreme Court. I could not justify allowing a conservative president to tilt the imbalance of the court further to the political right. Currently, the court is as polarized as the rest of the country, with the neocons enjoying a slim 5-4 majority.

As I have posted before, I believe in a liberal court. I think the constitution deserves the broadest possible interpretation when it comes to individual rights. When it comes to those liberties about the only one conservatives support is the right to bear arms (which I support). Abortion rights, gay rights, or any other social rights (all of which I also support) are almost universally abhorred by the conservative mind. Their wish is for a myopic America, a limited America, a constrained America that largely favors freedom of enterprise (think corporate funding of politics as freedom of speech) over the freedom of self.

Under a liberal court we are more likely to get a balance between the two, or at least more protection of individual liberties.

The now inevitable confirmation of Elena Kagan to the court pleases me. During her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee she displayed not only a superior grasp of the constitution and the court’s role with regard to the constitution, she displayed incredible intellect, wit, and finesse in dealing with criticism and opposition. She proved herself to be great communicator and an effective navigator of conflict resolution.

With regard to intelligence and the ability to engage with others she is a far more impressive choice than Obama’s selection last year of Sotomayor who struck me as qualified but bland. Since the contentious proceedings of Robert Bork ages ago we have unfortunately entered an era where our justices are chosen based upon their ease of confirmation rather than upon their actual credentials.

So, while the liberal minority is being preserved I must confess that the glory days of a bright and astute court are probably long-gone. Every nominee since Bork, both liberal and conservative, has struck me as rather mediocre. The court today is not the shining force of legal and ethical insight of old. Like the rest of our consumer culture it is slowly being dumbed down. No president is willing to spend the political capital necessary to get a truly outstanding justice appointed. There are always more pressing political issues, apparently.

At any rate, Kagan strikes me as perhaps the best choice made by any president in the post-Bork era. The only point of concern for me is that she carries forward the all-Catholic/Jewish, all-Harvard/Yale character of the court. That shouldn’t matter. These justices should be more objective than that. But, it still makes me slightly uncomfortable for some reason. The court is accountable to all Americans - or should be. Perhaps it should also be composed of a broader range of our society. Then again, usually democratic representation only leads to greater levels of mediocrity. So perhaps elitism is our salvation after all.

Kagan will likely preserve the ratio of the court’s fragile liberal minority. For that I am grateful. This fulfills what I had hoped for when I voted for President Obama to begin with. Though his re-election is far from certain given the blame he will take for our economic woes, if he somehow manages to remain as president through 2016 we might just end up with a liberal majority. And a young one at that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Postmodern Hitchcock

Note: This review contains very minor spoilers, but major story elements are not revealed about the film.

Yesterday afternoon Jeffery and I drove down near Atlanta to meet Mark and catch a matinee of Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Inception. As I have posted before, Nolan is my favorite living director. The reviews were largely positive even though most everyone agrees the film is somewhat of a challenge to follow. “Cerebral” was a word the critics were throwing around a lot. Along with “mind-blowing.” I had very high expectations that it would be a great in-theater experience, which is the primary reason I saw it in IMAX.

It was all worth it. Nolan did not disappoint in this cleverly constructed labyrinth that races along relentlessly building, transforming into ever greater depth and complexity, filled with great action, effects, sophisticated characters, and a plot that twists back on itself in typical Nolan style.

What is typical Nolan style? Non-linear story telling. Picking previous images or images you haven’t seen yet and ideas from various scenes both established and yet to be shown, and placing them and rearranging them like pieces of a puzzle yet to be connected, as an artist trying to fit the images, feelings, and – yes – ideas (see below) together in unique, increasingly relevant ways. Important details hinted at but revealed fully at unexpected times, sometimes non-sequentially. Powerful music score. Interesting, even captivating, visuals. Ambiguity in virtually all aspects of the story. Intriguing twists. Genuine characters you can empathize with though you wonder sometimes why.

Nolan is not just “cerebral” though Inception is certainly that. In almost all of his films, Nolan affects the viewer not just rationally but emotionally. His films have an unconscious effect in the act of viewing them that lingers as you leave the theater and for days afterwards.

I am that way today in writing this post.

Nolan first caught my eye with the brilliant film Memento. Then came Insomnia, Batman Begins, and The Prestige. His breakthrough in terms of becoming a financial behemoth of a director came in the summer of 2008 with The Dark Knight. Each of these films contain the general elements I outlined above. But, in terms of sheer originality, nothing approached Memento.

Until yesterday.

Inception pounds your brain with a multitude of concepts and intertwined plot elements set at a rigorous pace. Nolan has crafted a film that hits you (if you not only seek to understand the film but also to observe the effect it attempts to project) at a deeply visceral level. There is a sense of anxiety, love, loss, courage, more tense than suspenseful, a sense of being affected by the film that cannot be neatly rationalized. Nolan does this with his images and an awesome musical score.

While many parts of the film are indeed “thrilling”, Inception becomes a fog in your brain. Your close attention is rewarded with an understanding of just about everything that is happening because Nolan’s script (he wrote the film as well as directed and co-produced it) explains almost everything, but usually only once. Miss it and comprehending the action becomes tougher.

The film moves very quickly at an accelerating pace of images and ideas. The effect of this is to be kind of foggy on your brain, like having a dream yourself. As the images and sounds continue over the course of the almost 2 and ½ hour film they get scrambled due to Nolan’s commitment to beautiful, fragile ambiguity. Like a dream.

That becomes obvious the minute you attempt to explain the film to someone who hasn’t seen it. Or, even better, when you attempt to talk about the film, as Jeffery and I did on the drive back afterwards, and you can’t remember a name or how a certain situation manifested itself. The film’s initial effect is to leave your brain churning through Nolan’s complex puzzles, but on a deeper level, you realize only later that how you have to frame the film in order to discuss it is exactly like trying to share a dream.

That’s fitting because Inception is a about “shared dreaming”, a mild sci-fi concept that is not really explained much outside of how it is experienced. As a viewer you are suddenly, unexpectedly thrust into shared dreaming. You only see its technology later. You just accept that the technology (some kind of apparatus in a metal brief case that is connected to the dreamer by wires that apparently make no incision when pressed into your arm) works. You never really know how. It doesn’t matter.

Unexpectedly exposing the viewer to dreaming in this social manner makes how it happens somewhat irrelevant, freeing Inception from the way most sci-fi type movies might have to explain things. All great sci-fi does not attempt to explain the technology in anything other than a most general sense. Instead, it attempts to narrate how characters act within the reality that the technology supports.

That leaves plenty of time for Nolan to construct what ultimately becomes a contemporary noir-style story about creating dreams within dreams (at least three simultaneously in this case) in order to implant what the film proclaims (in a rare moment of generosity by Nolan, twice) is the most insidious thing to the human person. Not a parasite or a virus or a bacteria but an idea.

Once an idea enters your mind it remains there forever, somewhere. This is Nolan’s metaphysical contention and, in some ways, it is the heart of each of his films.

“James Bond Meets the Matrix” was one critic’s comment. The studio’s marketing tagline was “The Mind is the Scene of the Crime.” I think that the reviewer should have led the marketing effort, though both mantras are equally valid descriptions of the film.

The IMAX sound and screen was definitely worth the extra bucks to see it that way. Hans Zimmer’s musical score should be heard on a 12,000 watt IMAX sound system. Music is the most emotional art and Nolan uses the score to match his sometimes amazing imagery. Cities folding back on themselves. Slow motion gunfight scenes with lots of debris flying in the direction opposite the actor’s projected energy in the shot. Chase sequences through snowy, alpine terrain. The hallway and elevator shaft of a five-star Parisian hotel turn in every direction, the actors often floating through it or fighting on the walls.

In that last sense the film is like The Matrix. But, Inception is very different from the other film and I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the Wachowski brothers influenced Inception, though some of their ground-breaking special effects technology has been used in many films since, including Nolan’s here.

Inception might be Nolan’s best film. I don’t know yet. I am posting this the day after my first viewing. I will have to see it again. For me, great films deserve multiple viewings to fully appreciate. I saw Jaws, Apocalypse Now, Amadeus, Titanic, Memento, Capote among some others 3-6 times over the course of a few weeks when they were first introduced to my life.

It has been years since that has happened so I really welcome Nolan’s film.

Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job in this film. It has been a good year for DiCaprio having performed well in Nolan’s film and in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. In fact, it is an interesting comparison between the two roles. The situations are in some important respects the same for the character in each film but the characters are very different. You get a nice feeling for DiCaprio’s range in the two films. I think he is becoming his generation’s Jack Nicholson.

Whether that is true or not, Nolan is definitely the 21st Century’s Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is one of my top-five favorite directors. His success in film can hardly be disputed. The string of cinematic achievement with Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds (mixed in with some other good films) in the mere span of a decade might not have any equal except for maybe Steven Spielberg.

Nolan hasn’t put a string of films like that together yet, though following The Dark Knight with Inception is certainly a good start. But Nolan is still young and Hitchcock was in his fifties and sixties when he did those films. If Nolan remains productive with a film every year or two he might equal Hitchcock in that regard.

Hitchcock was great with puzzling suspenseful, sometimes frightening films. Nolan’s are equally puzzling but with a more tense and anxious flavor. This is certainly true of Inception. For Nolan, there is always an element of salvation or hope in the protagonist’s quest. Nolan always encases the realization of hope with ambiguity. That’s one thing that makes him fundamentally postmodern.

I won’t attempt to explain Inception, that is really pointless if you haven’t seen it. Though I’m sure it fits tightly together as a rational construct, perhaps a bit flawed I’m not sure yet, what surprised me most was how I responded to the film on an irrational level. It made me uneasy, slightly disoriented while keeping my mind fully engaged and entertained. I felt anxious yet somewhat awe-struck. What better way to define our waking life experience in today’s world? Truly impressive.

I give Inception a 9 on the first viewing. I don’t think I’ll revise the film downward on my second viewing. Is it a 10? I gave Memento a 10 when I first saw it. The Dark Knight got a 9. Both scores held up. Maybe Nolan gets a perfect score from me again. That will depend on subsequent viewings to reenter that which lingers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

So Far Away: Swan 2010

A view from atop one of the fields near Swan Cabin. Looking east.

For many years now the Cumberland Island Armadillos scurry as far north as they usually dare to tread together and experience high summer at Swan Cabin. The annual affair (there is no other word for it) takes place usually around July Fourth (see July 4, 2009 post) thanks to precision ‘Dillo planning and superior coordination just after new year’s day.

The 2010 version was, for me, a four-day, three-night experience. Three hours drive away. Close to a mile high. Traditionally, ‘Dillos day hike to Bob Bald to get a vista view of one of the last high ridges in the great Appalachian Mountain chain reaching to the east and south. But, all of the rest of the time is spent on the Swan Cabin grounds enjoying many acres of beautiful open mountain meadows alive with wildflowers and cool, summer breezes.

We pitch tents under a 500 year old oak. One of two that used to grow there, twin elders. For five centuries they great together until one summer 5-6 years ago one fell, apparently in a storm. The ‘Dillos pitched their tents all around the fallen giant that year.

My daughter and her friend climbed and played all over the still leaf-filled tree. When it fell it had opened up the sky and made what we call Swan Beach possible. The perfect global warming getaway. A 120 year-old mountain cabin with no water or electricity nestled in a small grassy commons in the sun, etched in by an old-style wooden fence situated in the tree line.

So, I feel special about this place, personally. I was there just after the first great tree fell. I hear a “trilly” bird in the woods way up there. I’ve never heard that bird anywhere else. We get into semi-intellectual discussions over what the difference is between rhododendron and mountain laurel. Both are beautiful.

Jennifer and I were in a funk. We thought about not even going Thursday and didn’t bother to pack anything Wednesday night. We just had a couple of beers and kicked back. After coffee on Thursday it was obvious we had to go and we packed rather expertly in just a few hours. We went up there leaving domestic instructions for our daughter left behind to save her from boredom.

The heat index was well over 100 degrees on the day of our drive up. But, we made good time on the late workday morning. It was 94 when we stopped in Tellico Plains. Most other ‘Dillos come through Robbinsville. By the time we climbed the Cherohala Skyway to the turn-off near the very top there was almost a 3000 foot rise in altitude and an 18 degree difference in temperature.

Clint had already been at the cabin alone when we got there. It was a sunny, clean and bright summer day at the cabin. We decided not to unload the SUV. We only brought down our tent and general belongings. The coolers, most of Jennifer’s and all of my clothes were left in the car. We decided to use it as a storage area. But, we did help a few later arriving ‘Dillos bring stuff down to the cabin.

After the tent was setup Clint played some great music on his battery powered boom box and we enjoyed some good beer on the porch of the cabin as the afternoon went by, sunny and cool. Clint always has great micro-brews in his ice box and this time he pulled out one called Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre. Any beer named that deserves a good, long gulp to experience. One of the ingredients right there on the label plain as day is “a sense of purpose.” Give me some of that.

The taste, largely due, I think, to the use of green raisins is distinctive. I’m not going to say it’s the best new beer I’ve tried in recent years but it is unique and very nice for a summer day. Jennifer thought it was too heavy and bitter.

Mark and Eileen arrived. We listened to Ripple a second time in honor of Mark, Clint having previously played it for Jennifer and me. There was a lot of Grateful Dead played this year throughout the affair. Some nice King Crimson was mixed in there with other stuff. Some great Jonn Serrie at one point.

Mark focused on unpacking and putting their tent up. He took a break (while popping open his second beer) to talk about the Braves with me for awhile. He mentioned good seats were still available for Bobby Cox’s last regular season game as a manager (hopefully with some post-season action to follow). Eileen and Jennifer both wanted to go so we made sketchy plans for a distant Sunday afternoon in early October.

Dogs were in abundance. Clint brought Lilly, we brought Charlie (his first camping trip), Mark and Eileen brought the rat dogs, Pitsy, Ginger, and young Rusty. Charlie enjoyed playing with the other dogs though some of them did not enjoy Charlie so much.

The grass in the open meadow at the cabin where we make our tents had not been cut in at least a month. So it was tall. If you walked through it in sandals then bits of grass seed and stems would stick between your toes.

We enjoyed a quiet sunset, then the planets and first stars as the camp fire flamed again after we had cooked directly on it with Clint’s grill. The meal was great, the beer was cold, the stars were bright, the music was nice. The dogs bedded down and so did Jennifer and me maybe an hour after dark. Charlie laid on top of my sleeping bag at my feet. My mind listened to the nothing of the woods. No katydids and other creatures like at our house. There were even no fireflies this year. Sleep came through the quiet.

The next day after a late breakfast everyone but Eileen and Pitsy went to a four mile round-trip hike to Bob Bald. In the last four or so years I have passed on the hike but this year I decided to go at the last minute. The hike was rougher than I remembered.

Near the top we had to basically bushwhack our way through grass and briars that stood as tall as me. You had to watch closely to stay on the trail. The thickness of the vegetation was ridiculous and I laughed. Not the best terrain for hiking in shorts as the bug bites and glancing scratches indicated on my legs afterwards. (See pic at right of Mark with Ginger and Rusty at his feet in the midst of all that jungle-like growth near the top of the bald.)

The trail changes elevation rather dramatically over a span of about half a mile and then follows the ridgeline to the bald spot at the top of the ridge. We had lunch there and enjoyed being in the open space over a mile high. It got cloudy, obscuring the sun. It was very comfortable in the breeze.

Jennifer and Charlie hike an easy stretch of trail along Bob Bald.

On the hike back down it started thundering. Jennifer and Charlie just made it back to the SUV just as a light rain started. We drove 10 minutes back to camp in varying degrees of light rain. Luckily, it waited until we got back to the cabin and double checked everything before the bottom fell out. We waited it out on the cabin porch with heavy hors d'oeuvre. Extra tarps kept the tents all dry.

Jeffery arrived on the scene about five minutes after we left for our hike. He came up towing a small trailer loaded with extra firewood and his smoker. He was relaxing and eating hard shell peanuts when we greeted each other. He waited on the porch with us as we watched the steady rain. The temperature became cooler, but it wasn’t an angry, blowing rain. The thunder stayed far away.

Then it magically stopped and we cooked our meal over an open fire again. There were no stars that night, however. The sky was thick with clouds, rain dripped from the trees. After Clint got yet another fire going in spite of all the rain, we stared a bit before I slept soundly. I did awaken one time during the night long enough to hear the sound of rain falling strong against the tarp covering our tent.

That rain must have come after midnight because Brian and Diane came up about that time from Atlanta. I was asleep. They slept in the cabin for the night with their two dogs, Star and Hope. I didn’t hear them come in. The next day Diane brought me the welcome news that the Braves beat the Mets 4-2 in New York.

Brian gets up early and cooks these magnificent breakfasts. The camp wakes up around him, having coffee, talking, working the New York Times crossword as a group, there are some bloody Marys usually floating around. Brian has two or three cook stoves going. Once all the girls are up the conversation becomes much livelier.

It took most of the next morning for the clouds to go away and for us to get enough sun to dry out the dampness from the long night’s restful rain. But, by the time we finished brunch the sun had burst through and the humidity had broken in the high mountain breeze.

Saturday, my third afternoon there, some of us went for a hike through the wildflower meadows near the cabin. There are about 30 acres of tall grass and flowers that come with the cabin, just as remote and isolated as it is. Except for a few people coming down the road now and then to see the cabin we had the whole place to ourselves. That is part of the wonder of it.

This year they didn’t mow any path through the fields and the grass was almost as tall as me in several places. Still, the open space, the quiet breezes, the bright sun and comparatively low humidity made for a wonderful walk. Charlie did great on both the field hike and the hike to Bob Bald. He showed promise the whole trip of being a great hiking and camping companion.

More food and drinks awaited our return to Swan Beach proper. Diane was the life of the party with her vibrant personality (and a little vodka). The other ‘Dillos were playing Scrabble on the picnic table in the sun. Jeffery and I fought each other to a draw in a game of chess. The first time either of us had played since last year’s trip to the cabin.

Then Jeffery fired up his smoker. More music and drinks and conversation, jokes and silliness. Diane and Clint got into a fairly heavy conversation about meditation and Buddhism. Eileen practiced her violin, which made several of the dogs howl to begin with. It was nothing personal.

Jennifer and others took “showers” using the various solar showers we brought (‘Dillos love camping gadgets) warmed by the sun. I preferred to bathe in the creek that flows through the woods nearby. The icy cold water combined with Dr. Bronner’s all-purpose cleaning liquid invigorated me.

Eventually, there was another feeding frenzy before dusk followed by a quick clean-up, another camp fire build up, the forming of a circle of chairs with some of us briefly routed from time to time by the smoke from the fire. Clint made s'mores for those who wanted them. Fig bars were passed around. The conversation rambled from work-related topics to remembrances of past trips up to the cabin to assorted random topics of all kinds.

We picked out Mars, Saturn, and Venus in the night sky. Jeffery and I talked about his new telescope. It was a bright, clear night and you could already tell our last morning would be the coolest, though we had seen much cooler weather up there in years past. Several satellites passed overhead.

On Sunday Jennifer and I experienced the opposite inertia of the prior Wednesday. This time we didn’t want to pack to leave. But, it is usually that way after an extended stay up there. We took our time, had another outstanding late brunch. Diane, having partied a bit hardier than most of us the night before, was the last to arise.

We sat around and enjoyed the last of the coffee or Mountain Dew or whatever the morning jolt of choice might be. The conversation was lite. By this time, most of us were just staring at the leaves in the trees, lost in thought or thoughtlessness, depending on the private mood.

The drive back was uneventful. It usually takes Jennifer and I several days to get all our stuff fully unpacked and washed or aired out and stowed away again. But, we are not in any hurry really, though the house looks messy. We ignore it, more or less, in our residual Swan Cabin Mind. It makes getting back to work kind of a drag though.

Jennifer says it was the best trip ever. I don’t know about that but it definitely was one to remember and cherish, along with all the others from past years, in that special place where ‘Dillos venture in the heat of summer. You have to go at least that far to really get “away”.

Monday, July 5, 2010

My Jesus Sandals

For my birthday before I went to India in 1985 my parents gave me a pair of custom sandals, handmade by a real tanner. Actually, I found the style of the sandals in a leather shop in downtown Athens, had the owner (who made saddles, belts, and all kinds of leather-goods), measure my feet and make me a pair. My parents mailed me a check inside a birthday card. At the time I was making little money, still living like a college student even though I had already graduated a couple of years back.

But, I was going to India and I wanted to wear these sandals. Very romantic of me actually. I admit I have a definable romantic streak at times.

Even though the sandals were very well made, they hurt my feet for about the first month or so until I had them properly broken in. Solid leather soles with a slight rubber heel cushion. They fit tight and I walked dozens of miles in India in them. They were my primary footwear there.

For years they were left in the closet after my return. I got them out now and then. Once, when we were living in the basement of Jennifer’s parents’ home, they got slightly moldy, so I cleaned them and wore them for a couple of days. Then back to the closet for many years.

The past two summers I have gotten them out and worn them a lot in hotter weather. They still feel nice and tight. Maybe a bit more give in them than from when I was in India but otherwise a very comfortable feel. Not cushy though.

The shock of your foot hitting the ground, absorbed with the running shoes I normally wear to work, moves directly into your foot and up to your ankle. So, you don’t want to go around banging your feet on the ground in them. You walk a bit lighter, more on the ball of your foot than the heel, to reduce the banging.

I wear them a lot to the grocery store. My daughter thinks I am so uncool in them. In fact, I am grotesque to her, judging by the looks she gives me. I did manage to talk her into making the pics for this post, however.

I was wearing these sandals the day I met Jennifer. It was, coincidentally, my birthday in 1987. Clint was there too, for the first time. Jennifer complimented me on the how my sandals looked. I explained a bit about my recent trip to India. A conversation started. It is still going on, only in a far more complex form after all these years of marriage.

I call them my Jesus Sandals because many people told me they looked "Jesus-like" when they first saw me wearing them. The nickname stuck in my mind. They are 25 years old this summer. They literally connect me back to the ground I walked in India. I am changed in many ways from who I was at that time. But in some ways I am the same. India was a spiritual quest and that quest continues albeit transformed by time into other expressions.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Statesman

We live in a time of few great leaders. Instead we have actors, practitioners of rhetoric and hyperbole, buzz words and sound bites. Leadership is about how you look, how you sound, how you behave, passing various litmus tests, and translating the latest polling data into acceptable speeches designed to garnish the most popularity.

Leadership is not about vision anymore. Vision requires specifics and even our most eloquent and charismatic politicians (
President Obama being the master of charisma, for example) are vague on specifics within the glorified grandiose.

Statesmanship is in critical condition in our political process. It may very well have died with
Senator Robert Byrd.

Byrd was an interesting political phenomenon. He certainly was not above playing the political game. Part of Statesmanship is knowing that game and playing it to your advantage, but with tangible substance. He literally
fiddled his way into the Senate. He reflected the prejudices of his constituency. But, he also transcended those prejudices and lead West Virginia in a time of dramatic cultural change.

In our more recent times of political polarization, Byrd conducted himself in an unfashionably civil manner, respecting the nature of the Senate as an almost sacred trust. For his civility, his
incisive understanding of the US Constitution, and his intelligent craftsmanship of legislation Robert Byrd was respected by both sides of the isle, most notably by his opponents, something very few other serving Senators can claim.

To that extent,
Robert Byrd is the last of a by-gone era in American politics. An era when differences of policy and opinion were not sufficient reasons for aggressive discourteousness. Robert Byrd never yelled “You lie” when he did not have the podium in a public proceeding. He waited his turn. Then he used a civil tone and an educated, rational, point-by-point analysis to show how a lie was a lie without ever calling anyone a “liar.”

That requires a measure of restraint inherent to civil public debate and policy formation. That requires

There was never a better example of this than in a couple of speeches given by Byrd on the eve of Bush’s ill-conceived Second Iraq War. They are the finest political speeches I have had the honor to hear in the last decade of tumultuous politics.

Not many speeches are printed in the mainstream press in full anymore. His
February 12, 2003 speech was. In a rare display, Byrd was critical of the Senate itself. He chastised his fellow Senators, civilly, on the lack of serious debate about the impending of war. There was no examination of the impending act of aggression, of pre-emption. This, at a time when the country was ready for war, ready to kick Saddam Hussein’s ass. This, even though the majority of his constituency supported the impending war, believed the lies about weapons of mass destruction and Hussein’s involvement with Al Qaeda.

Robert Byrd might have believed these to be lies (at the time no one knew for sure) but he did not call them such. He did not call Bush a “liar.” Instead, he expressed his doubts with dignity, respect, factually, calmly. He stated his concern for going to war for the wrong reasons and, more importantly, for the lack of engagement of the US Senate itself in the act of allowing the president to bring forth a war upon our American people, wanted or not, without questioning, without consideration in the public sphere which was, he believed, to be its most important duty. He pointed out the failure of the Senate to itself. And his colleagues on both sides of the isle still respected him for it afterwards.

The debate Byrd chastised the Senate for not having finally occurred about one month later – almost too late. In his second anti-war speech
Byrd took the podium on March 19, 2003. Byrd waited for order. He requested order. He waited again. Then he began. He proceeded to lay out his case against the war methodically. Once more without making the issue personal nor partisan. Without praising one party over the other. Without a hint of self-righteousness so prevalent in today’s divisive Senate speeches. It was a well-mannered rebuttal of readily accepted miscalculations.

He was right, of course, in both speeches. History has proven his reasoned approach to have been the path we should have chosen. But being right wasn’t the point today. This nation didn’t honor Robert Byrd today because he was right any more than it would dishonor him today because he was
once a fierce segregationist.

This nation honored him today – or should have honored him today – because he was the last of his kind. He was the final bastion of a by-gone era when our political process was about policy and not popularity, when it was about following the constitution rather trying to reshape or reinterpret it, and when leaders did not necessarily follow the whims of the pollsters. They led.

buried him today, only the second Senator to lie in repose in the Senate chambers during my lifetime. The last Statesman of American politics. It is all “Hollywood” now.

Late Note: As of this post, the link to Byrd's February 2003 speech has received less than 300 views. The March speech has about 39,000 views. But, his catchy use of the term "
white nigger" during a television interview has been seen over 1.1 million times. This overwhelming preference of the youtube viewership substantiates the American public's fascination with the catchy sound bite over substantive discourse. We get what we want as a people. And what we want is to hear our would-be statesmen make sensational quips rather than listen to the very reasoning they might offer on occasion for the construction or deconstruction of public policy. Not a strong sign of a vital democracy.