Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thickets, Screens, Scrims

Proposition: things are located in places, but places are not made of things.

I have been stressing to our juniors: think a little less about looking at things than trying to see through them. At heart this advice gets at questions of place. Places reveal themselves in layers.

Here are three illustrations, all from Cosmopolitan, which create interest through a use of layers. At top, a piece by Robert Weaver depicting a man fleeing through a city park at dusk. (1962.) A row of orange buildings suggests the sunset which must have recently passed. The rising moon is untouched by color, a wink at a third moment in time. The trees in the foreground dominate the picture, even as we look immediately through/past them to gather the information we need to decipher the image. Take the trees out, and the image loses much of its force. Above, a second Weaver (1958). Here he uses a reflection on a storefront window to provide information about what's across the street, even as a shadowy scene takes place behind it at left. The monochrome color provides tonal levels and atmosphere. Finally, below, a Bob Peak image (also 1958) describing a stakeout of some sort. The sense of inside and outside are strongly established through the use of color and value to create transparent scrims.

Valuable examples. Enjoy. (Curated from Leif Peng's amazing Flickr set of mid-20th century illustrators and illustrations.)

Weekend Blog Hop 9/30-10/3

Welcome to my Weekend Blog Hop!

In case I didn't say this before, if you don't have a blog you can link your site, Facebook, etc. Whatever you want, it's all in fun☺

It's simple to participate, here are the rules:
  1. Please place the "Weekend Blog Hop" button in a blog post and/or on your blog somewhere. This lets us all know where to find each other!
  2. Follow my blog.
  3. Visit at least 2 blogs on this list.
  4. Add your name/image to the linky list below so we can visit you back. I will be following everyone who posts.
  5. Comments are optional but always appreciated☺

Please support this blog hop by using your Facebook, Twitter, and forums to advertise. It's great for everyone to discover new friends, followers, and fantastic blogs!
Thanks so much for participating!

I have a migraine!!!

That is all:(

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SGT Mimms and the Midnight at the Oasis

Aina has left her Tylenol lying out and the goats have eaten it.Or at least that's what I have gotten thus far. It is plainly a complex and hilarious tale, to judge by the amount of giggling and arm-waving going on amongst the group in the shadow of the thorn tree by the front gate telling it; Aina herself, her normal attitude of cool competence somewhat askew; her little sister Salaha clearly enjoying both the situation and the opportunity to tease her usually somewhat overbearing big sis; and Solomon, the Artful Dodger of Ain Fortaga, Aina's kid brother, raconteur, adventurer, and genial host to the American soldiers temporarily posted at OP 3-2, just enjoying chaos of any sort.

The three siblings are still chuckling, scuffling and cracking wise in Arabic when I return with the small envelope with the replacement tablets inside and carefully explain to Aina (through Solomon) that the pills are for her, when she works too hard and her muscles or head ache. That they are not good for the goats, who should be discouraged from eating them.

"Pills la kwaiis for goats, afham?" draws a renewed burst of giggles from the girls and a broad grin from Solomon, who is unimpressed by my scowl and earns a repetition of the prescription in English; "She needs to understand that the pills aren't good for the goats, Solomon. They will get sick. And she will have no more medicine until the new medic comes next month."

The boy nods, forwards a burst of Arabic to his sister, who nods in turn and looks at me with her dark, dark eyes, making shooing motions with her hands.

"La anz, la anz!" she replies - "no goats" - and rises, a taller black in the shadow of the thorn tree with her envelope closed within her hand. "Shukran, duktur." she says politely before turning away to go back to work.

"Afwan, Aina." I reply, zipping up my aid bag.Wadi Watir runs 40 miles into the jagged mountains of the desert interior, from the straggling coastal village of Nuweiba almost to the monastery of St. Catherine. It is the widest and longest valley in the mountains of the eastern Sinai and has probably been a well-traveled passage for humans since prehistoric times.

To have a presence in Wadi Watir is to meet, trade, converse, and, if armed, control, the movement of all these people and things that move along this ancient way; it is probably this which drew the Beduin here, hundreds or thousands of years ago, and has drawn us here today: Third Squad of A Company, 2nd Battalion (Light) (Airborne) 325th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, now attached to the Multinational Force and Observers, Sinai.

Their tents hunker under the small copse of trees near the wet place along the valley wall that gives Ain Fortaga its "ain" - the "well" - in its name.

Our metal trailers and hovering plastic water tank kneel on the little shelf just up the wadi, at the foot of the bare reddish rock our maps identify as Gebel Mikemin.For two weeks we have lived here, eleven of us; nine men of Third Squad and their medic, and Sergeant Mimms of the 319th Field Artillery, one of the battalion's forward artillery observers. Weaponless without his cannons, a vestigal appendage of the armed might of the division we have left half a world behind us, a masterless page of the King of Battle he has volunteered to come with us, up the winding cleft of Wadi Watir, to the wet granite gravel, the thorn trees, the trailers, and the tents that are Ain Fortaga.

The locals met us almost before the whining sound of the white deuce-and-a-halves drifted away down the wadi. First Solomon, of course, the son of the house and loud admirer of all things American. Then, more carefully, the two sisters, smiling and quiet. After the kids had vetted us and pronounced us acceptable we; SSG Howard, the squad leader, the two team leaders and I, were invited to the big black tent at the base of the cliff where old Selim the patriarch poured us dark, sweet tea out of his ancient pot and asked us polite questions through his unusually subdued teenage grandson.But most days it was just us, the OP, our rounds of housekeeping chores, and Solomon.

Suleiman, to give him his rightful name, was a cheerful little villain, idle in the energetic way of boys everywhere, passing through an unidentifiable adolescence somewhere between a very mature twelve to a thin, underfed sixteen. He had been born in a Sinai occupied by Israelis, whom he disliked ("They mean mothafokas!") but seemed to respect withal, had seen the transfer to the Egyptians he despised (I would put his opinion of his supposed countrymen here but it was not a word or phrase but rather a rude noise and a pumping motion with his fist, which seems to have translated loosely as "What a bunch of jerkoffs") before being galvanized by the arrival of the Americans.Solomon thought that America was stone-cold, flat-out, stomp-down fucking awesome. Americans were the Baddest Dudes on the planet, and America was a place full of cool cars, hot chicks, and all the Stuff in the world. Solomon had learned his English from GIs, as you can probably guess, and had picked up a miscellany of habits, mostly bad ones, from the soldiers who had preceded us. Some vindictive sonofabitch had taught him to sing a craptacular country song which he adored and sang constantly and horribly. It's hard to describe the dissonance you got standing next to an Arab youth whose appearance and attire looked like 12th Century desert chic while he wailed:

"My beeby is American Made,
Born an' bred in da U.S.AAAAAAAAA.
From her sikky (silky) long hair to her sexy long legs
My beeby is American Maaaaaaaade!"

His casual destructiveness, though, was less cultural than universal, the innocent brutality of a young man who lived all his life in a tough way in very rugged place. Other than his family, to be respected, loved, or feared, and his American idols, everything else in the world; animal, vegetable, and mineral, was a toy to be played with roughly and discarded casually when broken.

Even in generosity Solomon was a hard little bastard. One afternoon he turned up at the gate holding a juvenile hawk tied to his arm with a bit of string. He explained that he had "found" the bird and wanted to share him with us. We were bored, and a long way from home, and the hawk was very beautiful in a merciless sort of way. So we brought the two of them into the compound against all MFO regulations and standing orders and spent a half hour gingerly holding the bird and photographing it close up while Solomon sat at the picnic table and enjoyed some bug juice ("So green!" he exclaimed) and a handful of B-ration cookies.Finally the hawk-admiring and hawk-photographing was done, and SGT Turner made to undo the string and let the bird go.

"Stop! Wait!" Solomon yelped as crumbs and cup with the last green lees flew off his lap, "No let him go! I play with him!"

"Solomon, this is a wild hawk," Turner said sternly, "not a toy."

Solomon looked sulky, claiming that he had caught the hawk and he was the one to decide when to let it go. Turner merely tossed the bird into the sky and it rowed into the air, turning up the wadi and powering low over the wire and past the thorn tree down by the latrine. Solomon dashed across the helicopter pad and rounded the wire, legs pistoning and scooping up a handful of rocks which suggested that his "finding" the bird in the first place had involved hitting it with a stone.

The two of them vanished down the canyon but only one returned, a Solomon whose entire afternoon was darkened by an unaccustomed anger at all damned GIs...until SSG Howard made him a kite that banished all care and loss and occupied almost all his waking hours for the next several days.Then there was the time...

But I started out by telling you this story was going to be about SGT Mimms, didn't I?

Well, then.

The story of Leroy Mimms and Jutta began one warm afternoon that was, in respects of scenery, weather, activities, and persons entirely identical to the dozen afternoons before and after that. The guys hung out, made meals, exercised, pulled gate guard or radio watch, slept, or found something to occupy their idle time. For an hour or so Solomon, his sisters, SGT Maxwell and a couple of the guys entertained themselves throwing rocks against the blank lower wall of Gebel Mikemin.SP4 Ahlers, the squad's grenadier, got his thumb stuck in a tin can of olives and had to have it cut off (the can, not the thumb) with a P-38, and a stitch put in.

SGT Mimms was hanging out with the guys at the front gate when Jutta walked up the wadi.

OP 3-2 wasn't Checkpoint 3A, but unlike a lot of the other OPs - especially unlike the well-named Remote Site 3-5 - it entertained a random, slow, but regular drift of people passing by. We had several Egyptian civilians on unstated but unhurried business, and a hiker every other day or so. Typically these were young adult or young-middle-aged Europeans taking a wandering trip through the Levant. Many were German, a handful were French, once a pair of Spanish college women.I still fondly recall an English couple, both Royal Army, retired, handsome in the spare, elegant British upper-class way who stopped by in their dusty Land Rover. They looked and acted briskly capable, as though they were seldom surprised and never at a loss, and were clearly pleased with the world, themselves, and almost everyone they met. They were genuinely good people in a very lonely place, and all the more welcome for it.

The woman who hiked up the wadi that afternoon, however, was not particularly unusual.

She was somewhere between her late twenties and early forties, with that tireless, wind-chapped, weathered look that people who spend a good deal of time outdoors for enjoyment often seem to acquire. Dun-colored blouse and hiking shorts, well-scuffed sturdy sandals, a mane of frizzly hair stuffed under a wide-awake hat were common to the type. The peculiarities that made her Jutta were her remarkable expressive, long fingers slightly yellowed by the cigarettes she smoked aggressively, each motion of the smoking made just a little too decisively, too emphatically for a pastime; the way she tilted her head like a curious blackbird, the impression strengthened by her small, bright, dark eyes; her English, spoken with clipped energy and a rough Mitteleuropa accent.

She stopped by the gate and asked if we could refill her water bottles.We weren't supposed to, of course, being agents of the ponderous majesty of the Camp David peace treaty and all, but I loafed down from the TOC trailer with a jerrycan and filled her bottles up as we always did, politely refused a smoke, and stayed to chat with the guys at the gate while she made small talk with Sergeant Mimms.

It wasn't until later that evening that I looked down to the gate as I passed between the trailers and noticed that although the next guard relief was on the gate, Leroy and the German visitor were still there, talking and sitting in the long shadows by the gate tree. Leroy Mimms, while a nice guy, was usually not the chattiest cathy in the dollhouse. I wondered what the heck this brand-new couple was finding to talk about, so I casually strolled down to the gate as if savoring the Ain Fortaga twilight, cadged a chicklet off of Ahlers, asked about his owie thumb, and carefully listened in to Jutta and Leroy talking.

What Jutta and Leroy were talking about was sex.

Not crudely. Not a blatent, obvious, fancy-a-bit-of-the-rumpy-bumpy, "lets get into the bushes and have one off now" sort of conversation. She was asking him about himself, what he did, what he liked, where he lived. But you could hear the invitation in her questions, and the growing eagerness in his replies, that made me kinda skeevy to listen in; it felt like listening to pillow talk.

So I bid the guards good evening, said goodbye to Jutta (assuming she would be gone in the morning as were most of our passersby) and waved to SGT Mimms, who might have been penguin hunting in Antarctica for all I was standing next to him. The man was raptured.

I brushed my teeth, read a few chapters of my paperback novel, and lay down for a nap before my midnight-to-six radio watch thinking nothing more about them.I was shaken awake at quarter of twelve, shuffled into my shower shoes and across the little courtyard between the trailers to relieve SGT Turner, drew a cup of coffee from the Silex and stood in the open door of the trailer to survey my domain, my charge for the next six hours.

The little outpost looked almost lovely in the moonlight; all stark whites and depthless blacks. The sheepish faded daytime cheapness of the trailers, the scruffy gear and the ugly utility of the place were cleaned and sharpened by the monochrome of night. The coffee tasted rich and earthy, the night silent and chill; I felt calm, alert but calm. I felt like I could make myself so motionless and still that I could actually feel the stars wheeling overhead, cold pricks of light in the dark sky, feel the earth turning under me, feel the weight of space and time both pressing down and lifting me up. I felt like I was on the verge of knowing some great thing.

And just then Jutta's high, clear voice floated down from the night sky, down from the palm grove just up the wadi, down in crystal-hard clarity.

"Ach, mein Leroy!" she insisted, "Reit me, mein Leroy, reit me so like a desert stallion!"

The impossibly clear desert air carried along with her voice the sounds of a scuffle, a muffled flurry, like a clumsy work crew trying to stuff a small but vigorous animal into a gunnysack and beat it to death with their hands.

"Ja! Ja! Mein tiger! Mein general!" continued Jutta remorselessly, "Plunder me! Oh, ja, das ist unglaublich! Das ist unmoglich!

When the keening began I honestly wasn't sure who was wailing and whether it was joy, or agony, or both.

I went inside the TOC trailer, closed the door, and turned up the shortwave. It was Warsaw Pact pop music night on Radio Moscow and you haven't heard rock until you've heard Lithuanian Young Pioneer rock.

Everything was quiet when I turned in at dawn, and although I mentioned to several of my cronies that they might let SGT Mimms sleep in that morning since his new girlfriend had kept him up pretty much all night no one thought much of it until Jutta turned up at the gate at midmorning and Leroy Mimms did not.

When I awoke around noon Jutta was still there, squatting under the gate thorn tree smoking irritably. SGT Mimms was still not visible, although someone said they thought he might have gone to the latrine before dawn but not returned. I followed the whitewashed-cobble pathway down to the jakes and, on a hunch, ducked into the sandbagged bunker that overwatched the up-wadi approach and surprised a crouched, Caliban-like Mimms shoving a C-Rat cracker into his cakehole.

"So, good afternoon, oh mighty lover of women." I smiled, "How come your girlfriend is all alone out front?"

Mimms jumped like a man goosed with a cattle prod, one hand going protectively towards his crotch.

"She still there? Oh, fuck me. I'm starved, I ain't got no crackers left, and she get me if I come out before she gone."

This was a development, and I leaned against the opening of the bunker and eyed the cowering artilleryman carefully. He did have a twitchy sort of expression and a hunted look which didn't seem to fit with the passionate cries of the night before.

"Are you joking, man? You managed to get laid, here, in the fucking womanless Sinai, here where there is a woman behind every tree and there are eight fucking trees in the entire goddam peninsula? You may well be the only GI to EVER get laid at OP 3-fucking-2, the only line dog to bury his boner in the history of the OP, and you're hiding in a damn bunker? Think of the history you two made last night! Think of the humanity! Think of getting some more! Where's your pride, man?"

Mimms seemed to shrink a little.

"You don't know, doc," he whimpered, "Jutta, she crazy. She bite me, she tug my stuff, she don't never let me sleep or leave me alone. She want to just keep doin' it, doin' it, all the time, and she hit me when I try to stop. She say if I don't keep going she bite it off. I was afraid to sleep with her."

"Sounded to me like you already did that, sergeant."

"No, doc, I mean sleep-sleep. I came back here when she gave up last night 'cause with her jumpin' on me, pokin' me, lickin' me I was wore out. Fuck me, doc, I feel like a used otter pop."

I thought about this for a minute.

"Well, I feel like a traitor to my gender, but hows about I try to get her to move on, hey?"

"Oh, man, you a pal, doc."

So I loped over the little compound and found the Teutonic Titwillow still squatting in the shade. She was inclined to be brusque, and was plainly frustrated at being denied her new paramour, but eventually rose, butted her smoke and shouldered her backpack.

"You say gootbye to the sergeant, yes? You tell him I be back three, four days, we meet here, I show him good hike in wadi, ja?"

I agreed to carry the message, she nodded sharply and moved off up the wadi but moving with something missing in her step, her usual jerky energy muted as if by some vague but lingering regret.

Sergeant Mimms took his meals in the trailer for the next week, emerging only for brief, furtive dashes to the latrine or the shower. Even the squad hard men complained that his paranoia was making everyone goofy, and we were all relieved when a passerby from battalion (since the story was too good to withhold, both Jutta and her stallion were unit-wide celebrities for the next couple of weeks or so) reported seeing her hitchhiking north on the MSR just outside Taba, looking irked.

Solomon dutifully reported his observations to me that Saturday evening as we hung out by the wire and I waited for my radio shift.

"Sarn't Mimms, he went with that lady into the bushes but then she no can find him, she looked everywhere, asked me if I seen him, she got real mad! That some crazy shit, hunh, doc!"

"Yeah, Solomon, well, you know how people like to do crazy stuff, hunh."

"That no shit, Doc."

I finished the sweet tea old Selim had poured for me a little earlier. Solomon drifted away to play frisbee with Ahlers. SGT Turner and SSG Howard were lifting weights. SGT Mimms loitered outside the TOC trailer, looking relieved and just a tiny bit dissatisfied.

"Mein tiger..." I murmured.

It was time for my shift, I had a fresh pot of coffee, and it was Arabic pop music night on Radio Moscow and you haven't heard bubblegum pop until you've heard Lebanese Druze bubblegum pop.And the sun went down behind the mountains to the west.

When Mascots Attack

I knew there was a reason that I've pretty much given up on football. The mascots, man...they're just fucking SCARY.And no sensible footy fan would dress up in a huge furry costume like some idio...



But surely, soccer is a cruel game, a game that mirrors the brutal reality of life, a game that exists to remind us that the sun shines briefly before the night falls, that there will always be more failures than successes, that glory is fleeting.

Surely the goofy mascot craze has all but passed the Beautiful game by, surely there can't be more than one or two.....or three or eleven or...Oh, the hell with it. They're everywhere.

Summer's End

The cool mornings and slanting light of evening are reminding me that our summer is drawing to a close.

Unlike the East Coast, this year Portland's summer has been brief, cool, and drizzly. We've had almost no hundred degree days, few of the brutal dog-mouth days that make you want to set in the shade and do nothing.Now the nights will draw out, and clouds lour in, and the cold rains of autumn begin.

"For summer there, bear in mind, is a loitering gossip, that only begins to talk of leaving when September rises to go."

- George Washington Cable

On the Scene; Points of View

Two images from the airport in Islip, New York, to which we fled some months back when the metropolitan NYC airports shut down. A nor'easter had put the region out of commission. Since the system has so many fewer flights in it these days, if you miss your flight you're often out of luck, because following flights are already full. Trying to get back to St. Louis took an additional day, and a late night trek 90 miles east across Long Island in sheets of rain.

The juniors are at work on a reportage project. This time out we are perhaps less invested in pithy summaries of the local than 1) a serious investigation of media and 2) the presentation of varied pictorial spaces. These pencils report visual phenomena without much adjustment, save for subtraction; the man waiting at the gate (will our plane ever come?) overlaps the tailfin which rises over the tarmac outside, because he blocked my view of it. But nothing would have prevented me from manipulating the space to tip it up, ever flatter, so the man would appear at the bottom of the image, and the fin at the top.

Such spatial maneuvers are common in modernist painting. Observe: two German Expressionists take a whack at tipped-up ground planes. The first, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, View from a Window (1914) profits from the altitude afforded by his perch. But care is taken to push the plane down in front, to heighten the effect–both literally and figuratively. A more radical approach is apparent in Erick Heckel's Bathers (1912-13) which combines a topographic p.o.v. with a theatrical presentation of many figures in profile. The two views–aerial and intimate–are presented with total aplomb, becoming one in the process.

Both of these paintings are in the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, which as it happens is brimming with Germans, including the enigmatic Herr Beckmann, whose roomful of paintings justify a visit to the place all by itself.

I have written about spatial plasticity before, particularly in the context of learned behavior in beginning drawing courses. It can be difficult to give oneself permission to treat space like taffy, but there are good reasons for doing so from time to time. And here, an essay on pictorial display for narrative and informational purposes.

Finally, to follow up our discussion of photography as a tool, here is a reflection on same and the sketchbook painting below. (More aviation!)

Students, follow the links for additional material.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Modest Proposal

Since U.S. politics appears to have become completely unstuck, with the Democrats fearful of doing anything that will make Glenn Beck sweat and the GOP locked into bull-goose-crazier-than-a-shithouse-rat-looney mode, it is clearly incumbent on the ordinary citizen to suggest a way out of some of our current troubles.Ahem.

So, allow me to suggest a couple of quick ideas for the U.S. to consider.

Clear the hell out of central Asia, and that includes the Middle East. Honestly, other than petroleum and fanatics, what the hell is there for us? The fanatics we do perfectly fine right here, and the petroleum...well, I'll talk about that in a moment. But the bottom line is that sending maneuver units to wander around occupying and fighting factional wars in the taint of Afrieurasia is like wearing candy pants to Parents Night at the Oregon State Correctional Institution for Men. You just invite everything from insult to felony and the chances of emerging with anything like dignity are extremely poor.We cannot solve the problems of central Asia and the Middle East (poverty, the resource trap, bad government left over from a legacy of bad history and poor choices, a preference for theologic claptrap over secular logic); only Middle Easterners and central Asians can solve those problems. We can, however, act like a large neocolonial lump of idiocy perfectly placed to be blamed for everything that goes wrong including everything that happens hundreds of miles from the nearest GI.

What the taint of Afrieurasia - from the Horn of Africa to the Paimirs, from the Bosphorus to the shore of Coromandel - needs is an Enlightenment. We cannot give them that, either. But we can retard it by giving them a Western invader to go all crusade-y on.

It's no surprise that the original Crusades helped pull the broken Islamic Caliphate together and produce the Ottoman Empire.

No, we need to let them figure this out for themselves. We can send out our spies (hopefully smarter spies than the ones we seem to be stocking lately) and our diplomats, both the helpful, open, friendly kind that talk to you over innumerable cups of strong coffee or sweet tea as well as the nasty backstairs kind that show up at your home late at night to remind you that one thing that stupid and intransigent gets you is dead. We can trade goods with them. We can bribe, suborn, threaten, cajole, bullshit, and palaver with them.

But standing around fighting with them is like wrestling with pigs for slops. The reward is negligible, the effort exhausting, the position ridiculous, and the pig enjoys it way more than you do.

Oh. And the time has come to cut loose from Israel, too. That goes with the "clear out" territory.

It's time to accept that Israel and its neighbors will always be like one of those toxic couples that just want to make each other suffer but won't divorce. They will never really get along, they will always try and drag you into the argument on their side, and always blame you for anything you do for the other no matter now insignificant. Not to mention that Israel is the most geopolitically worthless "ally" in history. A mouthy little sectarian state squatting on land they took by force, an eternal irritant to most of the neighbors, a 21st Century Principality of Odessa? Who the hell needs that?

Nope, it's time to accept that we fucked up in 1948, that if we wanted to offer some craptacular piece-of-shit desert real estate to Jews because we were feeling all guilty about the whole not-saving-you-from-the-death-camp thing that we had Utah and Nevada just sitting there and we missed that opportunity like a blind man bouncing on a trampoline.

We could have let Ben Gurion and Meir go all UFC on the Mormon Church and see who were the baddest ass conquerors. We could have a whole southwestern desert full of wicked glossy sabra girls and kibbutzniks growing oranges. But, no. We had to take part of the uber-fucked Ottoman Empire and make sure it was double plus ungood fucked up until the tenth of whenever and then promise to bankroll the damn stramash.

Sometimes you have just got to stop digging.

Have an adult talk about finances. For thirty years we've been running on smoke, mirrors, laughing gas, fumes, and self delusion. We've gotten to the point where we want to have everything but don't want to pay for it. The wealthy are getting over like they haven't since before the Great Depression and yet all they want to do is whine about paying taxes. Everybody wants medicine for Grandma, bullets for bin Laden, tanks for the Army, ships for the Navy, American Patrol but fuck all figuring out what we need rather than what we want and double fuck all actually accepting that taxes are the price of all this civilization.

The Unites States is still a crazy rich country. We're still sucking up a massive portion of the world's wealth, resources, and human capital. But we're not as rich as we were, and we're starting to show some real signs of sickness.

Although we still make a lot of the world's stuff, we make less of it per person than we did, and we're rapidly shedding jobs that build and make things not intended for immediate consumption. The U.S. you and I grew up with was largely built on a broad prosperity that resulted from being the last economy standing after WW2 and a massive investment in physical and human resources - from freeways to the G.I. Bill - between 1945 and 1965. That U.S. is badly frayed. Real wages have stagnated, and the only way people kept spending in the Nineties and Oughts was putting the country on their charge card and taking out mortgages to pay for trips to Disneyworld. We're seeing a fairly impressive concentration of wealth and power, and I needn't remind you that heritable wealth is as crucial to republican governance as bicycles are to fish. No, more like rotonone is to fish - a toxin that helps deaden the brain stem and allow the few to reap the corpses of the many.

Many of our citizens are plainly too fucking poorly educated and defiantly ignorant to figure this out. But we're going to have to, and soon, before we find ourselves busted and surrounded by other people who have worked harder and smarter than we have.

We need to get our education shit together. We need to get our jobs and employment shit together. We need to get our tax shit together. We especially need to find a way to find more people decent work, work that pays a living wage, work and wages that will build a solid bourgeoise, a sensible, independent middle class, a 21st Century equivalent of the self-reliant farmers, shopowners, and small businessmen the Founders considered indispensable to republican government.

One thing we're going to have to do to do this is figure out a way to control our southern borders, because the downward pressure on wages that results from a constant influx of desperately poor noncitizens isn't healthy or supportable in the long run. And its a symptom of some very sick polities to the south, whose sneezing may well catch us cold in the future if we're not careful. Which leads me to my third suggestion,

We need to take a hard look around and realize that we cannot be destroyed from without, only from within. And this means every aspect of our nation. Right now our foreign and military policy seems way too wrapped up in worrying about a bunch of raggedy-ass theocrats living in caves in West Buttfuckistan. We're in a swivet about implausible terrorist and Iranian nuclear fantasies. We're goldplating everything in the defense budget to fight an opponent we can't even define. While a footstep away Mexico shares an utterly indefensible border with us - short of Hadrian's Fucking Wall - and is at forseeable risk of state failure or at least significant internal breakdown.

And that goes for our "security state" as well. We seem to want to be terrorized about every damn thing but don't seem to have the time to think about genuinely threatening problems. Why are we wetting our pants about "terrorists"? We're the baddest nation on the planet. What the hell are we so afraid of? Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, people!And, finally, Get serious about figuring out the next internal combustion engine. This may be more important than anything else I've suggested here. I'm not kidding. Really.

Our entire civilization is designed - not just socially and economically but physically, where we live and what it looks like - on the premise of cheap, quickly convertable, easily portable energy. The internal combustion engine (and I include in that aviation turbine engines as well) has completely transformed our world.

I get up and drink coffee grown in Columbia, get into a car made in Japan, and drive over a bridge made from steel made in China, eating a pastry made from sugar grown in Florida and berries grown in Chile as I drive past the offices, strip malls, porn shops and pawn shops and nail salons where people used to grow the food they needed to survive here in the Pacific Northwest.

Everything; our clothes, our diets, our work, our entertainment, our schools, depend on being able to put people and things in small moving vehicles - cars, buses, trucks, and airplanes - and move them quickly and cheaply over long distances by burning fossil hydrocarbons.

And that is going to change, and fairly soon.

Because we're running through our petroleum.

No, it won't be tomorrow. Or next week. I'm not worried about "peak oil" turning the lights out five years from now.

But the geologic process that takes biological hydrocarbons and turns it to keratin and then to petroleum takes a minimum of several thousand years, and some pretty specialized conditions. And to locate, prove, extract, refine, and consume the product takes tens of years at most. So we're going to collide with the mathematical certainty of two orders of magnitude; ten to the first or the second at worst to consume it, ten to the third or even the fourth to produce it.

Big power - fixed generators, oceangoing vessels, railroad engines - can run on a number of renewable or alternate fuels such as wood or coal for steam. But the automobile and the internal combustion engine is so critical, so essential, to the way we live, to the design of our cities, to what we eat...if we had to spend a couple of decades reconfiguring to use some different means of transportation...

It'd be very ugly.

The other thing to consider ties back to item one. A lot of the places where petroleum is found aren't places we should want to depend on for our economic well being. Many of them are owned, or run, by people who either have good reasons for wishing us ill or whose only interest in us is agricultural. We are the animals from which they can extract money instead of meat or milk. And in either case our weakness is a feature of our inability to depend on this resource.

So if I were the Magic King of America one of the first things I'd do is sit the petroleum people, the automakers, the military and the policymakers down alongside as many crackpots and visionaries and inventors as I could find and tell them; Give me a workable path to an alternative compact mobile fuel source and an engine to use it.

Give me fucking "Mr. Fusion", dammit.Or as close as you can get.

If it means steam engines, let's start working on it now. If it means redesigning American communities to become more internally sufficient to reduce the need to bring in food, let's start figuring out how to make that happen. Hell, if it means conquering the Arctic Circle...we should have some idea of where we can and will go when we arrive at $10.00 a gallon fuel rather than get there with nothing else to turn to.

Just a thought.

So it's late and I'm out of ideas. But how about you? Any notions for what we could, should, or ought to do to try and find a brighter tomorrow? Or thoughts on my proposals? Blow, wind, crack your cheeks and let fly in the comments section!

Just tell them that Steiner will show up any day now.

“You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
GEN Petraeus, in Robert Woodward's "Obama's Wars"

What the...the fu'...WHAT??

THIS is the best the theatre commander can do? This from the Warrior-Sage of Mosul, the savior of the Long War? That's IT? A multigenerational, unwinnable clusterfucking landwar in Asia? That's the advice you're giving the Leader?

Christ, I used to get military advice that good from SP4 Denny after a half rack of Natty Lite and a basket of salty chicken wings on any Friday night down at the Yadkin Road Hooters. It came a lot cheaper. And Georgie would even do the "Barbie Girl Dance" after he'd had some Jim Beam, too.

Fuck me runnin'. Does anybody here know how to play this game?

Magic in the Backyard

Alice stepped in a rabbit hole and fell into Wonderland. A twister whisked Dorothy away to Oz. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy opened a wardrobe door and found the land of Narnia. Even Harry Potter discovered a magical world lurking just beyond the edges of the everyday. The parallel worlds that exist in fiction are by turns fantastic, quirky, dark, and dangerous. The books in this list prove that there’s magic right and left and in our very own backyards—if we know where to look.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 2009, Viking Press (Literary Fiction/ Fantasy)

Nerdy high school genius Quentin Coldwater spends most of his time wishing he were in Fillory, the fictional magic land featured in the children’s books that Quentin never outgrew. The Fillory series guarantees adventure and enchantment when the real world fails to live up to expectation—which, for Quentin, it frequently does. He’s too smart to be interested in school, he’s in unrequited love with his best friend’s girl, and happiness seems perpetually just out of reach. Even when Quentin discovers that magic is real, it’s a bit of a letdown. Admitted to an exclusive college of sorcery, Quentin is thrilled to finally belong—and then exhausted when the study of magic turns out to be just as grueling as the study of anything else. Quentin becomes a skilled magician with a close and catty group of friends, but the sense of completion that he expected magic to fulfill is still painfully absent. It’ll take something major to halt Quentin’s downward spiral into disillusionment—something like the revelation that Fillory is real and reachable. Fillory is a real place, but it’s not all happy adventures and talking bunny rabbits. It’s a dangerous place teeming with its own histories, politics, and enemies, and Quentin will have to face all his demons in order to survive. The Magicians is, at first glance, like a grown-up Harry Potter venturing into The Chronicles of Narnia, complete with the sex, drugs, and alcohol-fueled lifestyle of the modern party-school undergrad. But there’s a great deal of mystery, intrigue, and complexity behind the scenes as author Lev Grossman balances the power of fantasy with the harshness of reality. Every bit as satisfying as the fantasies of our youth, The Magicians is not to be missed—nor is the sequel, The Magician King, due out in 2011.

P.S. Fans of The Magicians have had a whale of a time creating plots and histories for the Fillory and Further books and their fictional author Christopher Plover. Check out these websites—and the “official” site for the Brakebills Academy of Magic.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, 2003, Harper Perennial, originally published 1996 (Fantasy)

Richard Mayhew lives in London. He has a job. He has an apartment. He has a fiancé. He has a regular everyday sort of life. All that is about to change. Richard, bumbling and late to dinner, stops to help a dirty, bleeding young woman lying on the sidewalk. Much to fiancé’s chagrin, Richard scoops her up and takes her home to recuperate. The waiflike girl is named Door and there’s something very odd about her. Sure, she refuses to go to the hospital or call the police, and yes, she heals rather quickly and hides rather too well when a pair of ominous men in black come looking for her, but it’s more than that. When Door thanks Richard and leaves again, it seems the brief adventure is over. But then Richard begins to change. His friends don’t recognize him, his fiancé barely notices him, and strangers can’t even see he’s there. Knowing Door can answer his questions, Richard picks up on the few hints she dropped and plunges into London Below, a weird and wild world than exists under the sidewalks and subway tunnels of London proper and is inhabited by those who “fell between the cracks”—people who live in the sewers, people who talk to rats, people who can do magic. Soon Richard is one of Door’s companions on a dangerous quest through this bizarre subterranean land. If Richard wants to get back to his blissfully humdrum life, he’s got to prove his worth against all manner of assassins, monsters, and mayhem. Always inventive author Neil Gaiman is at his best here as he skillfully weaves myths and legends together with bits and pieces of the familiar to create a magical world that is entirely original. Witty and wickedly inventive, Neverwhere is fantasy at its finest.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by David McKean, 2002, Harper Collins (Fantasy/ Teen Fantasy/ Children’s Fantasy)

For a “lost-in-a-magical-realm” story, author Neil Gaiman is, hands down, the go-to guy. The more he writes, the more fantastic his fantasy worlds get. In Coraline, for example, a bored little girl wiles away the rainy day exploring the rambling house she’s just moved into with her preoccupied parents. One intriguing door opens onto a brick wall—a division built when the big house was converted into units. But one night, in true Chronicles of Narnia fashion, Coraline turns the knob and walks into a parallel world where everything in her dull life is mirrored with fantastic effect. The toys are better, the scrawny black cat that hangs around outside can talk, and Coraline’s “other” parents are kind and attentive and loving—even if their sewn-on black button eyes are decidedly creepy. Coraline chooses to go back to her own world, but in doing so she sets off a chain of events with dangerous consequences. Her real parents have disappeared, and only another venture into the not-quite-right realm of the “other mother” can bring them back. A distinct air of menace pervades this suspenseful children’s story, harking back to ghost stories and grim fairy tales of yore. Tapping into age-old fears and complimented by the dark, scratchy illustrations of David McKean, Coraline’s chills have thrilled readers of all ages. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards, the book has also been adapted into a sophisticated graphic novel (illustrated by P. Craig Russell) and a whimsical animated movie.

InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, 2007, HarperCollins (Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Teen Fantasy)

Fifteen-year-old Joey Harker has a gift for getting lost. So lost, in fact, that one day he wanders right out of our world and smack into another. This is Joey’s real gift—he’s a Walker, able to move effortlessly between countless parallel worlds. Joey’s new ability is also a dangerous one. Almost before he can blink, he’s being hunted by not one but two evil forces who seek to harness his world-walking power—the Binary, fierce members of a scientific world from one end of the spectrum, and the HEX, cruel citizens of a magical land from the other extreme. Joey’s only refuge is the InterWorld, an in-between place of balance populated by lots of other Joey Harkers from lots of other alternate Earths. These Joeys are anything but identical. There’s werewolf-ish Jakon Haarkanen from an Earth where evolution took a twist and humans descended from wolves, and J/O HrKr, part boy, part computer, from a scientifically advanced futuristic world, to name just a few. Joey must prove himself to these alternate selves as they all learn to wield their power to Walk—because Joey is about to cause several worlds’ worth of trouble. Fast-paced and action-packed, InterWorld is an adventure story that expects its readers to be familiar with science fiction standards like parallel universes and alternate timelines, and then expects readers to put everything they know on hold and just go along for the wild ride. Fantasy favorite Neil Gaiman is (no surprise) one of the inventive minds behind InterWorld. The other collaborator is Michael Reaves, television writer for such sci-fi gems as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Together, Gaiman’s and Reaves’ genius for inventing new worlds rises to new heights of creativity and daring. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from.

Malice by Chris Wooding, 2009, Scholastic Press (Teen Fantasy/ Horror/ Graphic Novel)

Everyone knows about the underground comic book Malice. Supposedly it doesn’t even exist, but if you get your hands on a copy, mix a few ingredients, and chant “Tall Jake, take me away,” you’ll find yourself yanked into the pages of the comic’s sinister world. Of course, that’s just an urban legend. It’s a coincidence that the kids in the comic look like missing children. Those kids must be runaways, and the artist just uses their photos for inspiration…right? Wrong, and teenagers Seth and Kady are about to find out the hard way. When their friend Luke disappears, danger-loving Seth and curious Kady are immediately suspicious. When they find a blank comic book emblazoned with a big red M in Luke’s room, they begin to suspect that there’s more to Malice than mere rumor. Seth, bored of everyday hum-drum living, is eager to call Tall Jake and jump into the comic. But when the chant works, Seth is overwhelmed by a menacing world filled with clockwork monsters and mechanical mayhem. Not one to take any sort of adventure lying down, Seth joins forces with a rag-tag group of teens who have managed to defy Tall Jake and survive. Back in the real world, Kady is hot on the trail of Malice’s unknown creators—who turn out to be every bit as dangerous as the chaotic alternate world they’ve created. Toying with the conventions of horror movies, urban legends, and comic books, author Chris Wooding has crafted a heart-pounding, nail-biting tale of suspense. The packaging is part of the fun of Malice, with its three-dimension cover and interspersed sections of eye-catching comic book artwork. The cliffhanger ending will leave you holding your breath for the sequel, Havoc, due in October 2010.

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, 2001, Orb Books, originally published 1987 (Fantasy)

Eddi McCandry is having a bad night. She broke up with her boyfriend, quit her band, and is being chased through downtown Minneapolis by a man in black and a very big dog. Cornered at last, Eddi is stunned to discover that the man and the dog are one and the same. The fellow is a phouka, a shape-shifting magical being, and he has just drafted Eddi into an age-old war between two dueling branches of faerie folk. The Seelie Court needs Eddi, a mortal, to bring balance to their battle with the dark Unseelie Court. Feisty and fiercely independent, Eddi has zero interest in being some pixie’s pawn, but she doesn’t have a choice—now that she’s been singled out by one faerie court, the sinister fey of the other will be after her in full force. The phouka—an infuriating, dashing trickster—is appointed Eddi’s guardian and guide through the magical realm now open to her. Overwhelmed, Eddi grounds herself in her passion for music. She starts another band and to her surprise, her recently acquired affinity for magic produces the best sound she’s ever played—with a bit of help from her new bandmates. The fey have been infiltrating the human world for ages, and boy, can they play some mean rock and roll. The band (with the grinning phouka as roadie) begins to garner some serious hype, but there’s still a battle between the forces of good and evil to win, and Eddi is about to become the center of some very dangerous attention. Grounded in the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities and brimming with as much rock and roll as magic, War for the Oaks is an urban fantasy cult classic that still packs a punch more than twenty years after its original publication.

Greywalker by Kat Richardson, 2006, Roc Books (Fantasy/ Mystery) 

Greywalker begins with Seattle-based private detective Harper Blaine getting the beating of a lifetime when a routine investigation leads to an unexpectedly bad end. Then, she dies—for two minutes. Resuscitated and recovering in the hospital, Harper is eager to put this incident behind her and get back to work. That, of course, is easier said than done. Because Harper begins experiencing strange phenomena—a foggy grey mist on the edges of her vision, ghostly shapes moving around her, snarling shadows that dodge and lunge. When she meets a married couple who have experience investigating the paranormal, Harper finally gets some answers. Her temporary death and her return to life have made her a Greywalker—someone able to move between the everyday world and the Grey, a shadowy realm halfway between life and death inhabited by ghosts, vampires, necromancers, and monsters. Harper is anything but thrilled by this startling revelation, but the Grey isn’t going away and soon her normal cases—finding a missing college student, tracking down a family heirloom—begin to show disturbing and dangerous signs of the paranormal. Harper is going to have to push her natural skepticism aside and accept her new abilities if she wants to solve her cases—and stay alive. Populated by intriguing characters both human and supernatural and led by a gutsy, sarcastic, wholly likeable heroine, Greywalker is a fantasy on par with Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries starring Sookie Stackhouse and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files featuring wizard-detective Harry Dresden. With Greywalker, author Kat Richardson pulls all the stops and pens a fast-paced, monster-packed novel (the first in a series) that is an exciting blend of hard-boiled detective mystery and gritty urban fantasy.

The Greywalker Series by Kat Richardson
1. Greywalker
2. Poltergeist
3. Underground
4. Vanished

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue, 2006, Doubleday Books (Fiction/ Fantasy)

In the woods behind seven-year-old Henry Day’s house, there is another world. Hobgoblins, or changelings, inhabit the country wilderness; they are fairy-like sprites that kidnap children and leave one of their own behind. This is destined to be Henry’s fate. Nabbed from his hiding spot in the forest one day, the boy Henry is transformed into a fairy and renamed Aniday. Forever trapped in a child’s body, Aniday learns the woodsy brand of stealthy magic that ensures the survival of the wild little band. The changeling who takes his place becomes human and lives out his life as Henry Day, identical in every way to the original boy save for a new prodigious talent at the piano. As the now-human Henry and the new hobgoblin Aniday mature, they are both haunted by the past. Bookish Aniday, using stolen scraps of paper and found pencil stubs, keeps track of his new life amongst the changelings and clings to fading memories of his first family. Henry settles into the grooves of modern American life in the 1960s, but he is plagued by recollections even more distant—his own original human life, from way back before his wild fairy days, back when he was a human boy who was replaced by a changeling and became one himself in turn. As the lives of Henry Day and Aniday separate and twist and turn to collide once more, author Keith Donohue relates the cycle of human to changeling and back again with an eerie precision that is anchored in everyday details. Haunting and strange, The Stolen Child will make readers firmly believe in the ageless children of the woods—and maybe even question their own true identities and histories.

Little, Big by John Crowley, 2006, Harper Perennial, originally published 1981 (Literary Fiction/ Fantasy)

When anonymous Midwestern city boy Smoky Barnable locks eyes with long tall Daily Alice Drinkwater, it is love at first sight. Following a strange but quaint set of instructions (eat food that is made not bought; pack a suit that is old not new), Smoky walks to Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Alice, live in the rambling Drinkwater house that is built in every style, and become part of this singular family’s history. The house was designed by great-grandfather John Drinkwater, an eccentric architect and author with a theory about concentric worlds within worlds. Daily Alice and her sister Sophie spent their childhood frolicking with Uncle Auberon, a man who devoted his life to capturing photographic evidence of the elusive “they” who dwell in the wilderness that surrounds the family home. Two of the Drinkwater children, Alice’s son and Sophie’s daughter, leave the ancestral home to embark on big, strange, wondrous adventures in the big city and in the wild wild wood. And enigmatic Aunt Cloud endlessly consults her much-sought-after deck of cards and traces the Drinkwaters’ progress through the unending story of life. The Drinkwaters are without doubt a magical family, and Little, Big is without doubt a fantasy novel of unparalleled beauty and style. Author John Crowley writes a lyrical prose as he tells the fanciful, whimsical saga of this almost mythical family and the various magical boundaries, fairy realms, and other-worlds that its members encounter and inhabit. Full of moments of wonder, clarity, and mystery, Little, Big is a fine, graceful, wandering fantasy story that you’ll want to read again and again and linger over and make last as long as you possibly can.

Note: Other previously reviewed books that feature ordinary people tumbling into extraordinary magical realms include Philip Pullman’s utterly fantastic and all-absorbing His Dark Materials trilogy; Summerland, Michael Chabon’s adventure-filled tribute to magic, mythology, and the great game of baseball; yet another Neil Gaiman story, Stardust, with a fairy tale twist; The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, an eerie fantasy about a young boy lost in a strange land; and that timeless classic The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

Mid Week Mingle is here!

Welcome to the Mid Week Mingle Blog Hop!

This hop is featured on both of my blogs so now you can meet even more friends!

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