30 April 2008

LAPEL PINS

much has been made in recent days over whether wearing an american flag lapel pin equates with patriotism -- and by extension, whether those who do not wear them, in particular those running for office, may be somehow deficient in feelings for mother country.

i don't happen to be among those whose constricted lives need a constant reminder of which country i live in, any more than i need the annoying insistent thump of drums in a song to remind me of my heartbeat. there are no flags on my clothing, my vehicle, or flying from a pole in my yard. the symbol is not the reality. why is that such a confusing issue? you can burn a thousand american flags, yet the republic endures. you can engage in healthy, vigorous debate over a particular administration's policies, yet the ship of state sails on (probably stronger for having been questioned).

it seems to me that it is incumbent upon each of us to experience as much of the world's diversity as we possibly can during our lives -- and having done so, we will be confident in our own identities as well as respectful toward the identities of others. at this point in our evolution as a species, there is simply not room for all this drama, antagonism, avarice and insecurity. on all sides. there are more important issues at stake, like saving what remains of the garden planet that our grandchildren will inherit.

besides, how many of those flag pins have "made in china" inscribed on the back?

23 April 2008

RACISM

i grew up in a small farming community on the northern montana prairie, a town that was, and remains, just about completely lily-white. i remember only one black classmate in high school, and a few indians. i was friendly toward them, but did not become true friends. even white hutterites http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterites , religious kin to mennonites and the amish, were regarded with suspicion, stereotyped as alien, odd, thievish. they still are seen that way, sad to say.

after i left home, i spent two fairly directionless years in college before dropping out to join the military. it was there that i was thrown into a truly mixed-race setting, from day one. i'm proud to say that i quickly formed friendships with everyone, easily sloughing off my upbringing. once during basic training, i helped defuse a near-riot between black and latino soldiers in my platoon. both sides were facing each other across the squad bay, confrontation and violence crackling in the air. like an idiot (in retrospect), i deliberately walked slowly into the space between them, and sat cross-legged on the floor, asking questions and encouraging them to talk out their beef. somehow it worked, against all odds.

throughout my nearly two years in the army, at radio and radioteletype schools in arizona and georgia, and especially in vietnam, i continued to reach out to blacks and latinos (as well as whites) for friendship, looking for shared understanding. it was a new and rich world to me, this cultural mix, and i wanted to learn as much as i could.

i've never stopped in all the years since. to this day i have latino and black and asian friends around the country. those who say "i'm colorblind, i only see the person" are naive. a person's racial heritage is part of how they grew up, how others treated them, who they've become. but that doesn't mean that skin color has to be the first thing you see, when you get to know someone from a different background. for me, it is a freeing experience to look someone in the eye and think "my friend jabari" or "my friend irene", not "black guy" or "latina woman".

but even with all that liberation, i think that there is no such thing as a white person who is completely free of the effects of racism, any more than is true for people of color. it takes constant, 24/7 awareness and caring to outgrow all that crap, and it is a lifelong process. i feel sorry for those who don't even try. they are missing out on diversity that can only enrich their own lives. i cringe whenever i hear racial epithets, and don't tolerate being around those who use them. if i think the situation calls for it, i'll readily stand up to confront the ignorance. but some battles just aren't worth the trouble.

you doubt that racism is alive and well in america today? two articles in this morning's NYTimes might give you pause for thought. the first article, "american exception" http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/us/23prison.html?ex=1209614400&en=26caf0c15ae6f5a3&ei=5070&emc=eta1 is about the inmate count in u.s. prisons, compared to other countries in the world. we have 5 percent of the world's population, and almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. think about that. and while you're at it, consider that the majority of our prisoners are black, latino, native american. a staggering 25 percent of black males are in jail or prison as i write this. no racism? spare me.

the second article, "the accidental rebel" http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/opinion/23auster.html?ex=1209614400&en=68c1d55cebf9d760&ei=5070&emc=eta1 doesn't focus on racism itself, but talks about events in the seminal year of 1968 (the year i was in vietnam) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968 . it was during the height of the civil rights movement and the birth of the women's movement (second wave). it was the year of the assassination of dr. martin luther king, jr. and bobby kennedy, the year of race riots and ghettos burning. the article's author is 61, as i am. and like me, he fell into relative enlightenment by happenstance rather than design.

from my perspective, the take-home message of both pieces is that not much has changed. one sees less blatent racism than was true back then, but it's still there, just more subtle. i can spot a racist remark a mile away, whether it's about rap music, or recounting a personal memory that (on the surface) is unrelated to race, until you start to question linguistic assumptions.

how many black senators, congressmen, major CEOs to we have? are they in the same proportion as the percentage of blacks in our population? no? i wonder why not? and don't trot out that tired old song and dance about blacks (or indians, or latinos, or substitute your own ethnic group of choice) being lazy, or angry, or feeling entitled to unfair advantage. it is precisely unfair DISadvantage that minorities are struggling to overcome. if we whites have to give a little for that to happen, then it long past time we did so.

personally, i will welcome a world where i can work with, work for, be friends with folks from a rich and colorful array of cultures. that's where the most interesting realities often flourish -- in music, in literature, in life experience. (it is no accident, for instance, that most american music during the 20th century had its roots in black culture -- jazz, rock, hip hop. there's always resistance at first among the old guard, but even most of them start to catch the beat over time.)

so to all you overt and closet racists out there, get over yourselves and join the human race. john lennon said it best:

well you may say i'm a dreamer
but i'm not the only one
i hope someday you'll join us
and the world will live as one.

20 April 2008

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?

it is a source of never-ending sorrow for me, when i think back to the astonishing numbers and diversity among animals, plants and ecosystems that thrived when i was growing up half a century ago. vast herds of zebras, wildebeasts, elephants on the african savannah, tigers still extant in south asia, whales in the ocean (which had not yet become a public sewer), howler monkeys and black panthers and caimans in central and south america ... the list goes on and on. yes, human encroachment had already begun, and yes, trophy "hunters" and poachers had started to make inroads into the populations of larger target species. still, there was wilderness, and there was wildlife.

today a species goes extinct every day, an entire ecosystem is lost every week. the human species is a cancer on the planet. our globe could reasonably sustain a maximum of one-tenth the present number of humans, and still have space for the rest of our fellow creatures. one-tenth. that is my own estimate, based on years of thought and a degree in ecology & evolutionary biology. if you want evidence, simply look back in history to when the world population was 600 million, rather than 6 billion. resources were plentiful, there was still danger and adventure in the wild places of this world, and most indigenous peoples knew how to coexist with nature, realizing that practically and morally, we are a part of the whole, not masters of our surroundings. it is the master mentality that has led us to this sorry pass.

none of this is news. it was common knowledge when i was in school, 25 years ago, as were the spectres of global warming, the greenhouse effect, habitat degradation and destruction, and species extinctions on a massive scale. we have entered the homeozoic era (the homeotoxic era?). the planet will survive, though much changed, even if we do not. a few among us, too few, speak out, but it's already too late. my grandchild and his children will witness abominations in the name of continued "progress" that could only exist in my nightmares. all the while we, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, are the worst perpetrators, while other nations are already pursuing more enlightened policies, supporting more comprehensive education and research, talking about the problem and brainstorming solutions.

where, among the presidential debates, are the questions about the environment, about endangered species, about environmental policy reform? i mean, this is only the most important issue of our time, or any other. this is the only planet we have. we inherited a garden, and are turning it into a cesspool. small steps by individuals do help, but not enough. we need a paradigm shift on a global scale.

a footnote: if you read no other book this year, please read fred pearce's With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. if your eyes do not pop open and your hair does not stand up on end, you have no heartbeat.

19 April 2008

SLIPPERY SEASONS

april 19th, and it snowed today in missoula. i wonder whether global warming, global dimming, el nino, la nina, or politicians' hot air is responsible? i feel like i'm in the poppy field in the Wizard of Oz. "unusual weather we're having, ain't it?" only, not so unusual for montana.

by contrast, as i write this, after 8 pm, it is 80 degrees F in tucson, where i lived for twenty years. see the UA webcam: http://www.cs.arizona.edu/camera/ definitely it's spring in south carolina, tennessee, pennsylvania, texas, georgia, washington, among the many places i've lived. (in my adult life i've moved well over thirty times.) of my residential states, the only other one where it's still cool is alaska.

what does a 500 lb. canary say as it walks down a dark alley?

(deep gravelly voice) "here, kitty, kitty."

18 April 2008

DEVIL CATS

i have two cats, brother and sister, part siamese. the male, chiaro, is white with a black tail, black warpaint streaking up one eye, and a few black spots the size of a silver dollar on his body. the female, mao, is variegated like a margay with calico colors. though littermates, chiaro outweighs mao by two lb., yet when they wrestle she is fearless, pouncing and chasing him as much as he does her.

they become wildly playful after their evening meal -- careening around the apartment like a couple of tornados. thankfully, since i raised them from kittens, they respond well to a word from me, especially a word containing, shall we say, emphasis. it pains me that they must be indoor cats, but where i live there is too much danger from traffic. besides, studies have shown that indoor cats live much longer, healthier lives than those allowed outdoors. the flip side is, i've had outdoor cats in the past, and their essential felinity seemed to be more fully expressed by being able to laze in the sun, climb trees, and hunt. 'course, they also were exposed to fleas, ticks, skunks, snakes, and predation by raptors and wild canines. being a selfish sort, i've come to prefer that my animal friends be in my life for as long as possible, as healthily as possible. they seem to find ways to sublimate their wild urges, cats being much more creative and intelligent and self-sufficient than mere dogs.

whoa, did he really say that? yup, he did, and didn't blink an eyelash in the telling. cats rule, dogs drool.

17 April 2008

HYPOCRISY

there's a video on youtube that shows how completely hillary clinton has become a full-fledged member of the good ol' boys club in washington. i really want a woman in the white house. just not her. nancy pelosi in 2016? for now, obama is the clear choice. check out the video -- http://www.thenation.com:80/blogs/campaignmatters?bid=45&pid=311245 .

16 April 2008

THE SKY ABOVE US

this is too stunning not to share. each day i check one of NASA's websites for their astronomy picture of the day. today's image featured a nighttime shot of lenticular clouds shrouding the san francisco peaks north of flagstaff, arizona, with an unimaginably rich and detailed milky way as backdrop. http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ (to find this particular image, click on "calendar" at the page bottom, then on today's date, april 16, 2008.)

when i grew up in north central montana in the 50s and 60s, such skies were the norm. there was no such thing as light pollution back then, at least not out on the prairie. i have vivid memories of looking up and seeing tens of thousands of stars, both clustered in the milky way and scattered across the rest of the sky. not to mention the northern lights!

this website includes images from space, as well as those taken on earth. i encourage everyone to send the URL to your desktop, and check each new day's image for a moment of beauty and inspiration. you can browse as far back as june 1995.

NASA maintains a number of excellent websites, including satellite tracking http://science.nasa.gov/realtime/ , solar images http://soho.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/ , and many others found on their home page http://www.nasa.gov/ . in my never-to-be-humble opinion, NASA has done wonders with their meager budget, which ought to be a hundred times its current allocation. as should be the budgets for NEA, the national endowment for the arts, public radio and television, education and health care. and yes, i'm a stark raving liberal, and proud of it. it's past time that we drag ourselves out of the primordial ooze of conservative nonthink, and join other developed nations in the 21st century.

15 April 2008

DIVERSITY

when i was growing up in a small montana prairie town, my two favorite places to visit were the movie theater and the public library. at both, one could simply open one's eyes and feast on exotic places, people, times. windows onto the world. these places seemed to be imbued with a special kind of magic, able to transport me to places i'd only imagined -- and some i'd never suspected existed.

my family didn't own a tv until i was about 10. so i was no stranger to entertaining myself by the frequent and elaborate application of imagination -- creating games, reading books from an early age, and being entertained by the golden age of radio. television was something of a revelation, even if only in black and white, but it couldn't hold a candle to the big screen of a movie theater. and in many ways, neither could measure up to the incomparable pleasure of curling up with a good book. i've read literally thousands of books during my sixty-odd years on this planet. it would be impossible to distill them down to my favorite ten, or even a hundred. similarly, on a somewhat smaller scale, with movies.

someday, when i strike the lottery or write the great american novel (though i believe mark twain and herman melville already have some claim to that laurel), among my pet projects will be an endowment to my home town's library, to the movie theater, and scholarships to high school graduates whose college majors will be in music or biology or art or math or astronomy or .... see? too many valid and valuable fields to narrow it down. anything but political science, economics or theology. the world already has too many of those, to little good effect.

yup, i'm prejudiced. but hey, it's my fantasy, so i'm allowed.

14 April 2008

WE DO NOT TAKE TRIPS SO MUCH AS THEY TAKE US

everyone is on the road, it seems. someone from bozeman just returned from seattle, someone from missoula is still in new york city, someone from menominee is headed for who-knows-where. travel. we all say we love it, and i guess we do. for me, it depends on the ride. air? horseback? rail? motorcycle? kayak? you bet. bus or car? hmm. it also depends a lot on the company.

journeys of the heart, journeys of the mind, journeys across geography. they call out to us, entice us with promises of exotic change or even riches, as with edgar allen poe's mythic knight in Eldorado -- http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/7828/ . we seek romance, new landscapes, any number of things which are somehow missing from our lives.

i've heard it said that there is no destination, there is only the journey. we may find romance, new landscapes, illumination as we travel. if so, golden. so much depends on mindset. i'm reminded of an earlier entry in which i noted how my son and a dear friend independently brought to my attention how readily i habitually fall into a narrow focus when i travel, failing to open myself up to the beauty i'm passing through. i'm persuaded that destination and journey are important. balance.

balance.

13 April 2008

THE WARRIOR-POET OF FILM

in today's NYTimes, there was a comprehensive update on the health and activities of film critic legend roger ebert http://www.nytimes.com:80/2008/04/13/movies/13scot.html?th&emc=th . nearly two years ago, cancer of the salivary gland left roger unable to speak, and now, 41 years after the birth of "sneak previews" on PBS with his co-critic gene siskel (who died in 1999), a show which later metamorphosed into "at the movies" on ABC, roger has announced that he is leaving his broadcast critic's seat, and will devote his considerable intellect, wit and monumental knowledge of film history to the print media, the chicago sun-times http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/ , leaving the television critic balcony chairs to be filled by richard roeper and michael phillips (a more amiable team, but i'll miss the fireworks that gene and roger so often set off when debating the merits of a movie, even when they agreed whether it was worth seeing.) it is the passing of an era, but thankfully not the passing of roger ebert from the world of cinema. i for one will continue to seek out his thoughts, opinions and ideas online. they matter. ebert is an artistic original.

12 April 2008

GOIN' DOWN THAT LONG, LONESOME HIGHWAY

if you are into motorcycles, and also were around for 69-70 tv, you may remember a show called "then came bronson", with michael parks. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Then_Came_Bronson at the time, the notion of becoming a nomadic loner on a motorcycle was greatly appealing to me. these days i haven't lost the lust for bikes, but would be more inclined to want to travel with a few companions, as in robert persig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or as in an article in today's Missoulian about several bikers who trekked through canada to alaska. alaska!!

i know i risk incurring the wrath of all you flag-waving harley fanatics out there, but my choice for a touring bike wouldn't be a sportster, sorry. it would probably be a bmw k 1200 lt http://www.bmwmotorcycles.com/bikes/bike.jsp?b=k1200lt , or possibly a honda gold wing http://powersports.honda.com/Motorcycles/Touring_Sport_Touring/model.asp?ModelName=Gold%20Wing%20Audio/Comfort/Navi/ABS&ModelYear=2008&ModelId=GL18HPNA8&w=829&h=634 . each is a lot of bike, and for a fraction of the asking price, i could get my long-coveted private pilot's license AND put down a down payment on one of my dream planes, a DA40 diamond star http://www.diamondair.com/ . it's the story of my life -- expensive fantasies. motorcycles, flying, scuba, travel, and now thanks to someone who definitely wants to corrupt me, skiing. what's a poor boy to do? get rich, i guess.

which prompts me to announce the native son memorial fantasy fund. all donations will be acknowledged with a hand-written letter of thanks (making it illegible, but still a collectible). donations above $500,000 will also receive a free flight to the destination of your choice, piloted by moi. any risk-takers out there? no?

ah well, back to the drawing board. don't believe in the lottey's odds, am too old and sweet to rob a bank. hmm.

10 April 2008

CAUTION, HUMILITY, PATIENCE

once again, in my never-ending quest to explore waters beyond my depth, i managed to create a computer glitch which required spending well over an hour on the phone with two different tech support units to fix. when will i learn to ask questions first before experimenting?

i began to fool around with settings for my non-existent LAN (local area network), which somehow reset the configurations for accessing internet websites as well as downloading email from my ISP. after floundering around a bit, i swallowed my pride and called tech support. i'm actually quite proud of myself for maintaining my cool, first with a voice-recognition menu, then with someone at a call center in asia whose accent and script and rapid delivery had me pleading over and over to please repeat the question, the instruction, the explanation.

it turned out to be a simple fix (as i suspected it would), and a lesson painfully relearned: don't screw around with stuff unless you're fairly certain you know what the ripples of consequence will be. on the other hand, if i were always that cautious, i wouldn't have had half as much fun as i've had in life. so what's the answer? take baby steps? never learn to fly? naw.

09 April 2008

THE ISLAND OF LOST MAPS

substitute your favorite addiction or indulgence (be creative) in the following, taken from The Island of Lost Maps, by miles harvey:

WARNING
OLD MAP POX
Highly contagious!
There is no known cure!
Infection is characterized by dizziness and sweaty palms
when reading old map catalogues.
This is often accompanied by apnea and lust.
Additional pathognomonic signs are:
loss of free wall space and a self-induced poverty.
When infected, do not see your doctor, but
seek aid from an antiquarian map dealer who,
while unable to effect a cure,
can provide symptomatic relief.

08 April 2008

INEVITABLE SURPRISES

life is rich. so many books to read, friends to meet, birds to watch, new trails to explore, activities to discover. i tend to develop tunnel vision, focusing linearly on the task at hand, forgetting to pause and open up my senses to the beauty around me. thanks to ian and to jackie, for reminding me of the value (the necessity) for doing just that.

spring is here!

02 April 2008

PTSD

it is early morning, on my day off. i cannot sleep. a few minutes ago, i slowly, achingly surfaced from a nightmare, crying and bereft.

in the dream it was over a quarter century ago. my son was about eight, and he had been reported as kidnapped. unlike most of my dreams, which metamorphose fairly readily into something else, this one lingered on and on, long enough that i endured at least three days' of increasing torture, uncertainty, grief, and sometimes violent hysteria, the very progression that any devoted parent goes through. hindered by lack of a ransom note or access to new information, by police stonewalling, by utter helplessness, as time passed i knew with cold, fearful certainty that when a kidnapping goes unsolved for more than a day, the odds increase geometrically that the child is already dead.

the internal battle between unreasoning hope, and dread certainty, shredded me. the detective assigned to watch over me was useless, uninformed, attentive only to eating and watching sports on tv. i was single (as i was in real life back then), with no mate to hold and be held by, just my own thoughts and fears and memories of my sweet son, whom i loved (in the dream and in reality) more than anything else on earth. at one point i even knew that if the worst happened and he were found dead, i would move heaven and earth to find and kill his tormentors, no matter what the cost to me.

how could such a horrible dream mirror reality? because back then, i was systematically being kept from my son by his selfish and vindictive mother (i'd left the marriage, but not my son), and by his redneck patriarchal alcoholic texas cowboy stepfather. their interference led me to seek a legal change from our previous joint custody agreement, to sole custody. in conservative arizona, i didn't have a chance. sole custody went to my ex. my son, caught between adults in conflict, did what he had to do to maintain his sanity -- he aligned himself with the ones with whom he lived. my visits with him diminished, then vanished for five endless years. he'd literally been taken from me. but i persisted in letting him know with regular letters and phone calls (in the face of much resistence and abuse) that i loved him, and that my door was always, always open to him.

later, as he grew into adolescence and assertiveness, he spent two summer vacations with me, and even came to live with me for a couple of years. it was a mixed blessing, because now i had to try to undo and heal all the neglect and abuse he'd endured in his mother's home, with him often resisting the limits and boundaries that should have been there all along. but the teaching took hold, and today he is himself a devoted husband and father. i am more proud of him than words can express. his courage, persistence, and essential goodness helped him to not only survive, but thrive.

but the other part of today's reality is this: he lives far away, and i only hear from him by phone two or three times a year: our birthday (he was born on my 30th), father's day, christmas. no photos, no personal news in letters or cards or emails. i can't change it -- he is an adult, making his own choices. pyschologically, i'm certain that there must be understandable reasons for his distance. but it still hurts.

so in a way the uncertainty and fear of that terrible cauldron of time in the past, live on. and i dream.

01 April 2008

RUMORS

today's phone-in road report listed a number of oddities, including massive street closures due to construction, traffic delays caused by whiteout conditions and by ice floes damaging the bridges over the clark fork river, and some re-routing into the tunnel between missoula and butte. do ya think that someone might have been getting a little creative with the april fool mindset? that, or monday night at sean kelly's (a local irish pub) was particularly rousing. or both.

it's a bit shocking how easily people will swallow a rumor, embellish it, and pass it along. as a metaphor, try sitting in a circle with a group of people, in which one person whispers a phrase or sentence into the ear of whoever is seated to his/her left, and the process is repeated until it comes back to the original whisperer. the contorted end result can be hilarious.

and just so you can say you know, here is a link to a NYTimes article from today's emailing, explaining the purpose of pranks: http://www.nytimes.com:80/2008/04/01/health/01mind.html?ex=1207713600&en=f4bde962911eb645&ei=5070&emc=eta1

es todo, por ahora.