Wednesday, May 30, 2007

desert creek

On Monday Kyhl, Marian, and I attempted to climb Middle Sister, the high point of Lyon County and the highest point on the Nevada side of the Sweetwater Range. We started on the California side, driving across some beautiful desert meadows with spectacular views of the Sierra Crest. We passed Lobdell Lake, and I drove the Pathfinder across a creek deep enough that I got splashed through the driver's side window. Unfortunately, the road on our map that's supposed to follow Desert Creek turns into a track that would only be passable on a four-wheeler, so we had to park and try walking the rest of the way.

Desert Creek is a narrow trickle that starts at Lobdell Lake, descends through a wide valley, and flows out into the Nevada desert, where it is first diverted into a maze of irrigation ditches and eventuallly dries up. The lake is reportedly stocked with Arctic grayling, but we didn't see any -- although Kyhl and I did spot a ten-inch brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) that ducked into an undercut bank in the shadows of some cottonwood trees.

We never did make it to the summit, but we did have an enjoyable hike along the creek. After Kyhl and Marian headed upstream to do some fishing, I continued downstream, crossed the creek, and hiked over a small ridge toward Coyote Creek. By the time I turned around, I was probably within two miles of the summit, but I didn't have enough water to keep going. The desert summer is approaching. As it was, I was just about out of water by the time I got back to the car. It's that time of year to start carrying three or four quarts every time I go out. Every few miles I encounter some bleached bones that remind me why.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

inside the park

These are truly halcyon days at Fenway Park. After today's 4-2 win over the Cleveland Indians, the Red Sox hold the best record in the majors, an 11 1/2-game lead in the American League East, and a 14 1/2-game advantage over the last-place New York Yankees. Today's victory marked the triumphant return of Josh Beckett, who had been on the disabled list with an avulsion on the middle finger of his pitching hand. Beckett raised his record to 8-0, tying him with the Angels' John Lackey for the major league lead in victories.

Lately the Red Sox' best hitter has been Kevin Youkilis, who is currently riding a 21-game hitting streak and a nine-game stretch in which he has had at least two hits. (And yes, for you non-baseball fans, that's a very impressive streak; it's the first time a Red Sox player has done that since Jim Rice in 1978.) Youkilis has always been one of my favorite players -- a blue-collar guy who plays solid defense, hustles on every play, and grinds out a tough at-bat every time he comes up. He makes opposing pitchers throw a lot of pitches, and he hits the ball hard. In the minors he acquired the nickname "The Greek God of Walks," a tribute to his willingness to take a lot of pitches and to his less-than-chiseled physique.

In yesterday's game, Youkilis hit a long fly ball to center field that was just long enough to elude the center fielder's grasp. The ball ricocheted off the bullpen wall and toward left field. Because Youkilis ran hard straight out of the batter's box, by the time the Indians' right fielder, Trot Nixon, retrieved the ball, Youkilis was already rounding third and headed for home. It was the first inside-the-park home run by a Red Sox player since 2005. Who hit that one? Why, it was none other than Trot Nixon.

Youkilis deserves a spot on the A.L. All-Star team this year. Although Minnesota's Justin Morneau is the reigning A.L. Most Valuable Player and is having another great season, Youkilis deserves a spot, too. Hopefully there will be room enough for both of them.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

sky blue sky

A few months after the breakup of the great band Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Wilco, made up of several former members of Uncle Tupelo, released their first song on the country compilation Red, Hot + Country. The song was "The T.B. Is Whipping Me," a great revival of a Jimmie Rodgers-style barroom romp. If this is what the rest of their stuff is going to be like, I thought at the time, this could be the start of a great post-Uncle Tupelo career.

I was half right. Wilco has turned out to be one of the great bands of the 1990s and 2000s, but they haven't recorded another song like "The T.B. Is Whipping Me." Their sound has gotten more experimental with each subsequent release, and they've tended toward something more like a Brit Pop sound than the alt-country stylings of Uncle Tupelo. Their last studio album, A Ghost Is Born (2004), was their most experimental set yet, and while I didn't love it, I did think the songs translated well on their subsequent live release, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (2005).

Wilco's new album, Sky Blue Sky, while not a wholesale return to their 1994 sound, is probably their most straightforward release since their debut album, A.M. (1995), although it's not so self-parodying. Jeff Tweedy's vocal delivery still treads the line between adolescent and world-weary, and his songwriting is as strong as ever. I doubt that the critics will love Sky Blue Sky as much as their other recent work, but I'd rank it among their best. Sometimes it's okay to scale back one's ambition and simply do what one does best. That's what Jeff Tweedy and company have done this time, with this collection of straight-ahead country rock, judiciously spiced with Wilco's signature experimentation. The operative word here is restraint.

Friday, May 25, 2007

efficiency and water

I feel grateful that my local Assemblyman, David Bobzien (D-Reno), is a thoughtful, hard-working, and truly progressive representative to the state legislature. David is the only state representative I've ever had who came by my house to introduce himself. That never happened when I lived in Maine, Vermont, New York, Alaska, or North Carolina.

One of the most pressing issues facing Northern Nevada is what to do about water. Senate Bill 487 would have created a Northern Nevada Water Authority, which would likely have the effect of raising water rates (not necessarily a bad thing, if they started metering water). More important, it was designed to make decisions regarding water more "efficient." I agree with Bobzein when he suggests that "efficiency" isn't necessarily the most important goal. Intelligent use of water should be the primary goal, even if it means the relatively inefficient process of soliciting public input, doing water-use surveys, managing growth, etc. Often, when legislators talk about making a decision-making process "efficient," what they really mean is that they're taking decision-making power out of the hands of citizens and giving it to corporations and to government bureaucrats. Thanks in large part to Bobzein's leadership, the NNWA was killed in the assembly yesterday.

The Reno area is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. We've got to be thoughtful about how and where we grow. I don't want to suck the water table dry, and I don't want to see Reno importing massive amounts of water from other places. I don't want to see urban sprawl continue to worsen. Selfishly, I don't want to see the value of my property continue to fall because of thoughtless and poorly managed growth around the outskirts of Reno. I hope that Bobzein and others will make decisions based on what's best for Reno, rather than what's best for developers and water authorities.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

frenchman lake

This morning I returned from a three-day camping trip at Frenchman Lake with Dave, Kyhl, Eric, and Nick. Most of the time we were there, the weather was breezy and chilly -- enough to keep us next to the campfire sipping beer and Yukon Jack, occasionally rising long enough to throw another stick of poplar on the fire or to cook up another sausage. I read two essays by a colleague that I'd been putting off for weeks. A good time.

Yesterday we went for a morning paddle around the lake -- Dave in his inflatable kayak and Kyhl and I in a canoe. It's a beautiful lake, although I'll never quite get used to the fact that most of the "lakes" in this part of the country are reservoirs. Later we went on an epic mountain bike ride, winding up past Mount Adams, through some lovely forest of pine and cedar and aspen, across a muddy creek, down a loose and very technical stretch of old road, around tiny Snow Lake, through some alpine meadows where we saw a coyote, and back down to our campsite.

We camped near a woman named Carol Jean Case. The reason I know she was Carol Jean Case is because she frequently yelled things like, "Carol Jean Case, clean up this fucking mess!" and "Carol Jean Case, make me some goddamn breakfast!" And no, in case you were wondering, no one was actually with Carol Jean Case. I'm no psychiatrist, but it was a pretty clear "case" of multiple personality disorder, replete with the voice changes, the abrupt personality swings, the whole nine yards. At one point, on her way back to her campsite after fishing, Carol Jean Case paused about thirty yards from our site, staring at us menacingly like the Annie Wilkes character in Misery. We stayed near the fire, kept each other freaked out with occasional Stephen King references, and somehow survived the night. As I drove out of the campground this morning, Carol Jean Case was chopping firewood with an axe -- doing so with a fury that could only be described as demented.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

on climate

Over the past several years -- and especially in the last year -- I've been doing a ton of reading about anthropogenic climate change. I am impressed by the wealth of information out there, and I'm even impressed (if that's the right word) by the amount of disinformation available. I've done my best to educate myself on the issue, and that means reading much of the sludge out there from the so-called skeptics, as well as articles from science journals. There's stuff coming out on this subject all the time, so it takes effort to stay current.

First, I'd like to say that the debate about climate change is not about Al Gore. I don't think there's any such thing as an ideal spokesperson for issues related to climate science, and if there were, it wouldn't be Gore. I do appreciate Gore's attempts to bring public attention to the issue, though, and I do appreciate his film, An Inconvenient Truth, for trying to put the science into layman's terms, never an easy feat. For those inclined to dismiss Gore's film as propaganda, I recommend reading this article, and then having a look at the science yourself. (And watch the film, if you haven't already.)

The most important work on climate change is being done by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 3500 leading scientists studying the issue. Their latest (2007) report can be found here. Their work has been rigorously peer-reviewed; both the National Academy of Sciences and the joint science academies from the G8 nations have reviewed the IPCC's reports, summaries, and methodologies, and concurred with their findings. So when people talk about "consensus" in the scientific community, this is what they're talking about. Science doesn't work by consensus, so using that term is technically inaccurate -- there are always scientists who challenge the existing science, and this is a normal and healthy part of the process. What is important to note, though, is that according to the joint science academies' report, "a lack of full scientific certainty about some aspects of climate change is not a reason for delaying an immediate response that will, at a reasonable cost, prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." That's important to remember as you wade through the various critiques by industry-funded skeptics.

A 2004 study by Naomi Oreskes looked at all 928 articles published in science journals between 1993 and 2003 that deal with climate change. Oreskes found that not one of these peer-reviewed articles challenged the notion that the global climate is warming, and not one challenged the notion that humans are a significant cause. The fact that she focused only on peer-reviewed journals is important, as it is the peer review process, rather than some sort of contrived "consensus," that defines the way science is done. You'll see articles by global warming skeptics in The Wall Street Journal and Canadian Free Press, and you'll see them highlighted in the mainstream media, but you won't find them in refereed science journals.

This post could get really long, so I'll say that the consequences of global climate change, if we do nothing about it, will probably be severe. This will be especially true for poor, low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, which will be flooded by rising seas. If we begin dealing with the problem now, we can still maintain a stable economy while addressing the problem effectively. The longer we wait, the more difficult and more expensive it will be. In this post I suggest some ways for people to help. There are many other ways. I'm doing my part, but I can always do better. I'd be interested in your ideas, as well.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

far left loons

I'd like to comment on a recent exchange I had with a conservative blogger with whom I've had occasional dialogue over the past few months. I should begin by saying this person is someone with whom I agree on some political issues (environmental sustainability) and not on others (Iraq, terrorism), but whom I basically respect as open-minded and fair. This person and her husband have repeatedly offered to share a pot of green chile stew if I'm ever in New Mexico, which I consider an unusually kind thing to do for a stranger. Perhaps one day I'll take her up on this generous offer. I've extended the offer in the other direction if she's ever in Nevada.

In a recent post, she described this article as "insightful" and "excellent." Now, I realize that the original article is intended to be satire and therefore not to be taken literally. I also realize that it self-consciously uses exaggeration. I do, however, think it's revealing in several ways.

The post reveals, I think, what some conservatives honestly believe Democrats are like. It argues that liberals hate Christians, don't care about terrorism, believe in 9-11 conspiracy theories, mindlessly follow public opinion like sheep, expect the federal government to take care of them, want to make guns illegal, detest rich people, are unwilling to work for a living, blame George W. Bush for "everything," and talk incessantly about sex. (The latter, actually, might be true.) When I pressed my conservative friend, she acknowledged that not all Democrats are like this, but insisted that it does accurately portray "the far left" (a favorite phrase of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and all the rest). She cited Daily Kos and Move On as examples of this extreme viewpoint. This is, of course, the way Daily Kos and Move On are represented in the popular media, as well.

Let's see what this nefarious "far left" looks like, starting with Daily Kos. Here are the posts on today's Daily Kos: (1) a critique of misinformation campaigns designed to attack science; (2) a post about eight soldiers killed in Iraq today; (3) a criticism of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's blind loyalty to George W. Bush; (4) a post about Washington City Paper's hit piece on reporter Murray Waas; (5) a report on the Department of Health and Human Services's campaign for pandemic preparedness; (6) a short post on Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA); (7) a brief critique of The Politico's biased political coverage; (8) a link to Greg Sargent's post encouraging Congressional Democrats to stand firm in support of a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq; (9) some commentary on a letter to Bush written by Congressional Democrats; and (10) a call for the impeachment of Gonzales.

OK. What about Move On? Move On isn't a blog like Daily Kos, but on their front page they have the following items: (1) a criticism of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) for voting against a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq; (2) a call for CBS to re-hire former General John Batiste, who was fired for political reasons; (3) a positive piece about the passage of a bill banning paperless voting machines; (4) an ad from Video Vets, encouraging the Bush administration to bring U.S. troops home; (5) an action alert for net neutrality; (6) a campaign to motivate voters to go to the polls in 2008 and vote Democratic; and (7) some "success stories" and links to books you can buy.

Bringing the troops home? Supporting the independence and integrity of the Justice Department, the scientific community, and the media? Opposing government corruption and cronyism? Fair elections? If that's what the extreme "far left" looks like, then sign me up. The thing is, I don't think these values are extreme at all. I think they're mainstream. Or at least, they ought to be.

I think we are ill-served when we caricature other people's positions. This prevents us from working together on issues we agree on, and it prevents us from developing understanding and empathy when we disagree. I think that accurately representing opposing viewpoints is a key aspect of honest debate.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

why i won't support america's mayor

This evening the Republican presidential candidates held their second televised debate. I suppose I should acknowledge that although I haven't settled on a candidate myself (I like to give them all a chance to persuade me), I'm highly unlikely to vote Republican. There are things about each of the ten Republican contenders that give me pause, although Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) probably is the least offensive. Of course, he has no chance of winning the primary.

A development that has surprised me has been the extent to which Rudy Giuliani, perhaps more than any of the other Republican candidates, worries me. He worries me in part because I think he can win the election. Even more so, he worries me because he shows so little regard for the rule of law. Before this campaign, my understanding of Giuliani was that he was, by Republican standards, a moderate -- someone who would have appeal to some conservative-leaning Democrats. And maybe that's true; he does (sort of) support a woman's right to an abortion, for example.

Giuliani said something in tonight's debate that troubles me. I don't remember exactly what Brit Hume's question was -- it was a clownishly absurd question, because it asked the candidates to imagine a scenario that would almost certainly never occur -- but he asked Giuliani if he would support waterboarding and other "interrogation" techniques that the Justice Department defines as torture. Giuliani's response: "I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they can think of." Presumably, "every method they can think of" would include waterboarding and other forms of torture. This, of course, would be a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and, consequently, of U.S. law.

This isn't the first time Giuliani has endorsed going outside the law in the name of national security. He has said he would support suspending habeas corpus -- a Constitutionally guaranteed right -- for U.S. citizens in the so-called war on terrorism, but promised to do this sparingly. So, he promises to break the law only occasionally. Do you trust him to define "sparingly" in whatever way he wants? I don't. That's why we have laws, and that's why we require the President (in theory) to abide by those laws. Richard Nixon's famous defense -- "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal" -- doesn't fly with me.

This should be an obvious point, but based on the applause Giuliani's comment generated at the debate, I don't think it is: the President of the United States should obey the laws of this country. We are a nation of laws, as the cliche goes. In this election cycle, I will support a candidate who pledges to defend our nation's Constitution, especially after eight years of Bush administration attacks on this founding document. The U.S. Constitution should not be treated by the President as some sort of inconvenient hindrance to our security or to his own political agenda; rather, it should be seen as the very basis of what makes this country free and secure. So, attention candidates: if you want my vote, convince me that you'll defend the Constitution. All of it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

knuckle sandwich

Today Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield had another great outing, pitching seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out five. The Red Sox went on to beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-0, improving their record to 23-10, best in the American League and seven games ahead of the hated New York Yankees.

This season Wakefield has a 4-3 record and a league-best 1.79 earned run average. So far this season he has been -- dare I say it? -- dominant, though he's still considered the #4 starter in the Red Sox rotation. Wakefield's performance today started me thinking. Assuming he remains healthy -- and the way Wakefield takes care of himself, there's no reason to think he won't -- he could pitch in the majors for another seven or eight years. He's 40 years old now, and being a knuckleballer, he could probably pitch until he's 47 or 48. Right now he's got 155 career wins. What if he averages 14 wins a season for the next eight seasons? That would give him 267 career wins. I'm sure no one has ever thought of Wakefield as one of the game's premier pitchers (he's never been an All-Star), but wouldn't a guy with 267 career victories have to get some Hall of Fame consideration? Since 1900, the only pitchers who've won that many games and aren't in the Hall of Fame are Tommy John, Bert Blyleven, and Jim Kaat.

Whatever you think of Wakefield or the knuckleball, he's been a great investment for the Red Sox. A few years back, he signed a $4 million, one-year contract with the Red Sox that is renewable every year. Basically, the team can re-sign him every year for $4 million a year, until they no longer feel like doing so. If I were Red Sox management, I'd just keep on doing it every year until the guy needs a walker to get to the mound, and pencil him in as the #4 or #5 starter. The dude is the best bargain in baseball.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

incidents in the life of a slave girl

I just finished a major research paper on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), probably the best-written and most interesting, from a literary standpoint, of all the nineteenth-century slave narratives. It's the story of Linda Brent, who most scholars believe to be a pseudonym for Jacobs herself, an enslaved woman who escapes to the North in order to avoid sexual harassment by her master, Dr. Flint. Her final escape is delayed, however, and she ends up spending seven years in an attic over her grandmother's shed. The roof is leaky, and Jacobs suffers permanent physical debilitation from living in a cramped space for such a long time. She does make it to Philadelphia eventually, and she is reunited with her children. She meets Lydia Maria Child, who agrees to edit her book and write an introduction for it.

My project studies the way that Jacobs represents nature, and tries to place this representation within a historical context. For Jacobs the natural world is a terrifying place, nearly as frightening as the "howling wilderness" was for the Puritans. It is a place where one is liable to be sexually assaulted by a white slave owner, lost in a fetid swamp, or bitten by a copperhead. What was most striking for me was the rhetorical function of this vision of nature. Less than a decade after Henry David Thoreau published Walden, Jacobs reminds us that while white men in Massachusetts contemplated their bean fields from the relative comfort of their front porches, black women in North Carolina lived in a state of constant fear. The profound injustice of the system of slavery is never so clear as it is in Jacobs's narrative.

After being largely ignored for over a century since its publication, I think there will be -- and to an extent, there already is -- a resurgence in interest in this book. It's a powerful story about a women whose courage and perseverance are truly inspirational.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

the white boy shuffle

Paul Beatty's novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996) is an outrageously funny, thoroughly unsentimental portrait of life in inner-city America. It follows the life of Gunnar Kaufman, an African-American poet and basketball player who is raised in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood before moving to inner-city Los Angeles. Initially out of his element in "the 'hood," Gunnar eventually becomes a community leader of sorts, organizing weekly events at which even drug dealers and gang leaders are compelled to give testimonials and confessions.

What is most wonderful about this book is its unflinching and merciless treatment of racial stereotypes. Beatty leaves no stereotype unexamined -- from gang bangers to white liberal poetry aficionados to Japanese mail-order brides -- and the result is always funny and unpredictable. Most of my students, I think, enjoyed it as much as I did.

One student remarked that although she thought the book was funny, and although she thought it was an appropriate book for the course (which was a bit of a relief to me, as some of the language and subject matter are pretty risqué, even by today's standards), she didn't like it because she "couldn't relate to it." I pressed her to explain what she meant, but she couldn't. She gave her criticism in a polite and measured tone; nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering if she only wants to read books about conservative white girls from Nevada. What a boring, boring world it would be if we only opened our hearts to the experiences of people just like ourselves.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

ségo et sarko

Unless something dramatically unforeseen occurs in the next 24 hours, it appears that Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate for the center-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, tomorrow will become the next president of France. Sarkozy is a combative, authoritarian demagogue who favors trading civil liberties for political gain and reducing the separation between church and state. While he's not exactly a fringe far-right candidate like George W. Bush (he opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, for example), I think that he will lead France in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, his main competitor, Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, never mounted a serious challenge to Sarkozy. Although Royal has a certain charisma and a populist message, she never demonstrated enough familiarity with the issues to attract voters beyond her Socialist base. She rarely offered specific proposals to go along with her more general message of participatory democracy, and is therefore seen as stronger on rhetoric than policy. She never, for example, articulated a clear position on Turkey's accession to the European Union -- a key issue in this year's election.

It's too bad. France might be well situated to strike off on a path toward a pro-education, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-family future. I think that Royal would defend the sane working week (35 hours) that helps to make France such a special place to live. Instead, France will undoubtedly move toward an American-style economic system -- lower taxes, yes, but also longer hours, lower wages, privatized health care, a smaller safety net for the poor, every man for himself. Haven't the French seen the way Americans live? Don't they know how good they've got it? Of course, maybe this is easy for me to say, since I'm not French -- and maybe I'd be something of a Luddite even by French standards -- but it seems to me that France is a pretty wonderful place, not only to visit, but to live. Why are the French willing to trade their quality of life for what might be termed American-style quantity of life?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

moss in the house

As a New England Patriots fan, I suppose I'm required to have some sort of opinion about the Patriots' trade of a fourth-round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for troubled wide receiver Randy Moss.

Moss has openly admitted that he only plays hard when he feels like it. He once pretended to moon the fans in Green Bay after scoring a touchdown for the Minnesota Vikings and then wiped his ass on the goal post. And while playing for the Raiders, he walked off the field while the team was lining up for a crucial two-point conversion. He's clearly a selfish and immature player.

There's also no doubt that Moss is one of the league's most talented players. In 2003, while playing for the Vikings, he caught 111 passes for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns, which ranks as one of the greatest seasons ever for a receiver. He's played in five Pro Bowls. He's one of the league's fastest players, and he has spectacular leaping ability. Most people agree that Moss instantly makes the Patriots favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Although some have criticized the Patriots for breaking with their team philosophy of acquiring only players with great character, and although I agree that the trade for Moss is indeed a break from this philosophy, I can't fault them for doing it. Trading for Moss involved virtually no risk to the team. They only gave up a fourth-round draft pick for him, and if he turns out to be an asshole, they can cut him. They have eight other receivers on the roster (nine if you include Troy Brown, who may be brought back this season if he's healthy enough to play). They don't need Moss. Really, it's an ideal situation. If Moss wants to win as badly as he says he does, he'll behave. If not, Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, and Bob Kraft will send him packing. I have a feeling he'll find a way to fit in.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

petersen mountain

Yesterday Mike, Kyhl, Megan, Alisha, Steven, Ann, Lois, and I hiked Petersen Mountain (7850 feet), a somewhat nondescript peak along the Nevada-California state line north of Reno. It's not particularly high, and it looks from the base like a long ridge resembling any number of other Great Basin mountain ranges. We started near Summit Spring and followed a good trail past Horse Spring to the ridge crest. We probably got within 100 vertical feet of the summit, although we didn't bother climbing to the true summit.

What makes Petersen Mountain special is that there's a hidden alpine valley splitting the two main summit ridges. This valley offers some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, some unusual rock outcrops, and some of the best pronghorn habitat in Nevada.

We did see one pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) on our way up to Horse Spring. It watched us for a time, retreating periodically, and eventually bounded off. Pronghorns are the second-fastest land mammals in the world (only cheetahs are faster -- indeed, pronghorns evolved to outrun American cheetahs, which became extinct around ten thousand years ago). This one, though, was obviously pregnant, so it moved somewhat heavily for a pronghorn. Still, when it finally decided to leave the area, it wasted no time.

Anyone who thinks Nevada is a wasteland needs to spend some time on Petersen Mountain. It's a beautiful, ecologically rich place. We saw some early balsamwood, some budding desert peonies, and carpets of phlox. Desert mahogany, Utah juniper, white fir, and aspen. A large herd (maybe 25-30) of mule deer. A covey of California quail. Lake Spring, our destination and turn-around point, is one of the loveliest camping spots I've seen. No wasteland here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

buying the war

Bill Moyers is one of the few television journalists I respect. I respect him because he does actual investigative journalism, rather than just commentary. He gives people a chance to tell their side of the story, but he doesn't mindlessly or uncritically parrot what they say. He fact-checks to find out whether or not what they've said is true. If only the rest of the mainstream media took their jobs as seriously as Moyers does.

Moyers's latest report, "Buying the War," is one of the best pieces of television journalism in many years. It explains clearly and cogently how the news media, both television and print, abandoned their duties as journalists in the wake of 9/11, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and continuing to this day. He interviews -- or attempts to interview -- many of the important media figures who led the drumbeat for war, as well as those who failed to ask the tough questions that might have kept our country out of the Iraq war. I can't recommend this report highly enough.

The crucial point Moyers makes is that although the fraud that was manufactured by our government officials and endorsed by our media establishment is one of the great crimes of the last several decades, those who are responsible for it have not been held even vaguely accountable. Quite the contrary: their media prominence has only increased, as propagandists and warmongers such as Charles Krauthammer (now of Time and The Washington Post), Bill Kristol (now of Time), Jonah Goldberg (now of The Los Angeles Times), Peter Beinert (now of Time and The Washington Post), and Thomas Friedman (revered by media stars everywhere) have all seen their profiles enhanced over the past five years, which is precisely the opposite of what should have happened. I see these people interviewed as "experts" in matters of foreign policy every time I turn on the television.

Wouldn't it make sense to start treating as "experts" the people who were right about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, about the nonexistent ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and about the consequences of invading the country, rather than conferring the status of "expert" on the people who gave us this disastrous war, who were wrong on every single issue concerning Iraq? Why aren't the people who were right -- Hans Blix, Howard Dean, Glenn Greenwald, Robert Collier, Paul Starr, Ramesh Thakur, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and others -- taken seriously by the mainstream media?

Sunday, April 22, 2007


With Cassadaga, released earlier this month, Conor Oberst -- the creative force behind Bright Eyes -- has released his most fully realized work to date. Personal and political, Bright Eyes's sixth album tackles big issues with a compassion and empathy that never once resorts to the grating hectoring and empty posturing that has characterized some of his earlier releases, particularly the annoying Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005). Despite its ambitious post-9/11 themes, Cassadaga is a collection of songs that draws in even the most casual of listeners rather than alienating them. It's by far Oberst's most mature work yet.

"Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" damns the war in Iraq, while "Four Winds" defiantly attacks the organized religion ("The Bible is blind / The Torah is deaf / The Qur'an is mute") that's caused so much mayhem in the Middle East. But what prevents these songs from drowning in a sea of despair is Oberst's ability to negotiate and reconcile these topics with accessible folk stylings that are as simple as they are poetic.

Oberst summarily trashes the music industry on "Soul Singer in a Session Band," as "plastic piranhas in the city of salt" plan the Next Big Thing, while he predicts the consequences of political silence in "No One Would Riot for Less." And yet even here Oberst finds a fragment of optimism as he sings, "I'm leaving this place but there is nothing / I'm planning to take / Just you." Heartfelt, honest and compelling, Cassadaga is garnished with melodies so lush that Bright Eyes's ascent to the next level of mainstream recognition seems certain.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

a nation on edge

On Thursday evening I was working out at the gym on campus when a student worker informed me that the building was being evacuated. No one had any information about what was going on, nor did anyone tell me where I should go. I collected my belongings from the locker room, walked down to my building to pick up my bike, and rode home.

I found out later that a fellow named Michael James Sheriff, a former UNR student and an Iraq War veteran, had sent a text message to his family saying that "the Korean" at Virginia Tech was his "hero," and that he was planning a "mission" that was going to keep him away for a few days. His family contacted the police, and the university canceled classes that evening and sent everyone home. (This was clearly the right decision, by the way, although no one specifically instructed me to leave campus -- only to evacuate the gym.) He was picked up a few hours later after trying to buy ammunition in Carson City.

Sheriff has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness since returning from the war. Earlier on Thursday, I had been discussing with my students the effects of PTSD on veterans returning home from the war in Iraq. We were reading this excellent article by Sara Corbett in The New York Times Magazine, which deals specifically with the problems faced by female soldiers fighting in Iraq, and what happens to them when they return home. Many suffer from PTSD, and many have been sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted. I was reminded of the importance of caring for these people when they return to the States, and of providing services for them -- especially women, who may be having problems that the military never had to face when it was exclusively the domain of men. I highly recommend Corbett's article.

I also think it's important to remember that Sheriff's mental illness is a direct consequence of war. When our country makes the decision to send young people into battle -- and I do believe that sometimes it's necessary to do so -- we must never make the decision lightly, or for political purposes, or on the basis of bad information. At the same time that we should elect leaders whom we trust to make these decisions well, we also must take it upon ourselves as citizens to educate ourselves, to understand the full consequences of war, and to demand the same of our leaders.

Update: please watch this ABC News report about a soldier who hanged himself at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital. It's upsetting, but everyone should know about it. The U.S. Army's neglect of this soldier is deeply disturbing, and the only way things will change will be for citizens to demand it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

how to exploit a tragedy

I heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech University yesterday on my way home from my allergy doctor's office. Some days I like to torture myself by listening to right-wing talk radio, and this time it was Bill Manders, the local right-wing blowhard on KOH (780 AM).

At the time that I heard Manders's show, it was only a few hours after the shootings, and already Manders was exploiting the deaths of 33 Virginia Tech students for cheap talking points. His tortured logic was that the tragedy at Virginia Tech was the fault of liberals -- because if every student and faculty member at Virginia Tech were allowed to carry a concealed weapon on campus, it never would have happened. In other words, more guns equals fewer deaths. Caller after caller dialed in to agree with Manders, to take gratuitous potshots at Ted Kennedy, and to lay the blame at the feet of "the left." Not one person made anything more than a cursory gesture at respect for the dead before launching into a crazy, ill-informed, and hateful rant against liberals. Not one person pointed out the utter lack of evidence to support the claim that more guns leads to less violence. Not one person reminded Manders that it was in incredibly poor taste to score political points while the bodies in Blacksburg were still warm. It was disgusting and horrifying.

I wish that we could mourn this tragedy together as human beings, to allow some sort of grace period, before resuming the hateful rhetoric that dominates our public discourse. And I wish that we could have rational, problem-solving dialogue about what might be done to address acts of violence such as this. I am a resolute supporter of the Second Amendment (just as I believe in defending the rest of the Constitution), but I don't see any convincing evidence that this tragedy could have been prevented by relaxing our gun laws. "Ted Kennedy's car has killed more people than my gun" is not a logical argument.

The last time I was at Virginia Tech was in 1995. I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a couple of Virginia Tech students I met on the trail, Jim and Chris, offered me a beer, a meal, and a couch to sleep on. There was nothing whatsoever in it for them; it was an act of pure generosity. Those two guys probably graduated ten years ago, but they're probably not so different from the people who died at Virginia Tech yesterday. Let's discuss solutions -- and let's assign blame, if appropriate -- but let's show enough respect to wait until after the bodies are in the ground.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Yesterday afternoon I drove two weeks' worth of recycling to the recycling center downtown. For some reason, the city of Reno picks up only glass, plastic, aluminum, and newspapers -- so if you've got cardboard or mixed paper, you've got to take it downtown. Forget about recycling motor oil or batteries. Oddly, the recycling center in Eustis, Maine (population 800), is far better than the one in Reno (population 200,000). Go figure.

As I was dumping empties of various microbrews into the glass dumpster, I noticed that the only bottles already in there were empty bottles of Yoohoo. Hundreds of them. I can only assume that they all came from a single source. Was this a single individual drinking all that Yoohoo? A family? How must it feel to subsist entirely on Yoohoo? Ingredients: water, dairy whey, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, cocoa (processed wtih potassium carbonate), partially hydrogenated soybean oil, sodium caseinate, salt, tricalcium phosphate, dipotassium phosphate, xanthum gum, guar gum, monoglycerides and diglycerides, vanillin, soy lechitin, calcium ascorbate, "natural flavor" (whatever that means), vitamin A palmiate, niacinamide, and riboflavin. I can only imagine the bloated, slightly euphoric, mostly nauseous feeling of an all-Yoohoo diet. Blech.

I was going to post today about World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, who arranged for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, a staffer at the World Bank, to receive an annual salary of over $193,590 a year, tax-free, making her the highest-paid employee at the State Department (more than Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice). But then I thought that pointing out the brazen corruption of yet another Bush administration senior official seemed kind of gratuitous. And really, it's the Yoohoo questions that are most present in my mind.

Friday, April 13, 2007

the closer

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when Red Sox manager Terry Francona announced his decision to move Jonathan Papelbon back to the closer's role in which he pitched so admirably last season (4-2, 0.92 ERA, 35 saves). Papelbon is one of the game's best young pitchers, and I'd love to see what he could do in a full season as a starter. I'd rather see him pitch 200 innings in a season than the 60 or so that he's likely to pitch as a closer. And a starting rotation of Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Papelbon, and Tim Wakefield would be truly formidable. Having Papelbon in the rotation would also keep the team's token lunatic, Julian Tavarez (who was shelled in his first start), out of the rotation.

But it's been impressive to watch Papelbon as a closer so far this season. He's struck out six of the first ten batters he's faced, and he hasn't yet allowed a baserunner. He entered tonight's game against the Los Angeles Angels in the eighth inning with one out and runners on first and third, and he completely overpowered star right fielder Vladimir Guerrero with fastballs for a strikeout before getting Garret Anderson to line out to Manny Ramirez in left field. The Red Sox piled on six runs in the bottom of the inning, meaning that Papelbon didn't need to come out for the ninth; Mike Timlin mopped up the 10-1 victory. So far, I can't really question Francona's judgment.

Papelbon has the quintessential closer's mentality. He sprints in from the bullpen, and when he gets to the mound, he stares down the hitter with the nastiest baby-faced glare you ever saw. He throws 97-miles-per-hour heat. He's our closer. No doubt about it any more.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Kurt Vonnegut, one of the great American writers of the twentieth century, died yesterday of brain injuries sustained when he took a fall a couple of weeks ago. Best known for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), inspired by his own experiences as a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden near the end of World War II, Vonnegut was one of the major figures of the counterculture movement of the 1960's and 70's. He was a great writer, a great humanist, and a great patriot.

My favorite of his books is Galápagos (1985), the story of a small band of mismatched humans who get shipwrecked on the fictional island of Santa Rosalía in the Galápagos Islands after a global financial crisis has crippled the world's economy. Shortly thereafter, a disease renders all humans on earth infertile, with the exception of the people on Santa Rosalía, making them the last specimens of mankind. They eventually evolve into a species resembling seals: though possibly still able to walk upright (it is not explicitly mentioned, but it is stated that they occasionally catch land animals), they have a snout with teeth adapted for catching fish, a streamlined skull and flipper-like hands with rudimentary fingers. Like all of Vonnegut's books, it reminds us not to take ourselves -- and our species -- too seriously.

Vonnegut was harshly critical of the Bush administration, whom he called "upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography," and he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq. He never lost his edge, even as his health deteriorated in his later years. While he was frequently disappointed by human greed and foolishness, he continued to press for a more humane America, one true to the principles outlined in our Constitution. We'll continue to carry the torch for you, Mr. Vonnegut, even those of us whose skills will never match yours. Thanks for making us laugh, and thanks for reminding us of what America could be, if only we could muster the will.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

pelosi's حجاب

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad has sent the Bush administration and its media allies into a frenzy over the past week or so. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino called Pelosi's visit "a really bad idea," while the Wall Street Journal's editorial page hints that Pelosi may have violated the Logan Act (which she didn't). CNN's Suzanne Malveaux accuses Pelosi of giving "a big wet kiss to President Al-Assad." Others, predictably, are accusing Pelosi of treason and of being a "1960’s radical anarchist communist," whatever that is. (I always thought communism and anarchism were opposing philosophies.)

Conveniently ignored amid these attacks on Pelosi is the fact that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) has visited Syria 14 times in the past ten years, including a visit last year. Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) was a member of Pelosi's delegation last week and publicly praised Pelosi's conduct upon his return. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) went separately earlier this month. According to Pitts's chief of staff, the Republican delegation's trip "was done in cooperation with the administration." So, when Republicans go to Syria, they can do it in cooperation with the administration; when Democrats go, they're accused of treason. While this is consistent with the administration's relentlessly partisan style, it's dishonest. And it's irresponsible of the mainstream media to fail to note the hypocrisy.

There are lots of good reasons for members of Congress to visit Syria, especially if no one in the Bush administration will. Syria is not our enemy, and they too have a stake in trying to stabilize the Middle East. Stability in Iraq, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon is in Syria's interest at least as much as it is in ours. While it's true that Assad is a dictator who has worked tirelessly to build his own power and influence, and while it's true that he has been implicated in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it's counterproductive to simply refuse to talk with him. Specter says that Assad can be negotiated with, and I think he's probably right. I support Pelosi, Specter, and the other members of Congress for traveling to Syria, and for discussing matters that affect our national security and our standing in the world. In particular, I applaud them for confronting Syria about suicide bombers crossing the border from Syria into Iraq to kill American troops and Iraqi civilians.

And doesn't Pelosi look fetching in a hijab? The right-wing smear merchants love this photo. If you'd like to see Laura Bush in one, go here. She doesn't look quite as good as Pelosi, which I'm sure is the reason why right-wing bloggers haven't obsessed over Laura Bush's photo.

Saturday, April 7, 2007


In his 1925 poem, "Heritage," Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen asks,
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
And it's a question not only for Cullen (who was 22 when he wrote the poem) and for other African-Americans, but for me. I've been doing a lot of my research lately on African-American writers. I've never been to Africa; the closest I've ever been is Spain. One of my students this semester is an Ethiopian immigrant, and she expressed exasperation with some of the sentiments expressed in the poem, which seemed to her naive. (I think Cullen would agree.)

What is Africa to me? Despite all that I think I know, Africa is still the Dark Continent. Africa is where you go to get malaria, diarrhea, and the worst canker sores you've ever had. It's where you have terrifying encounters with water buffaloes. It's where 500,000 people were murdered with machetes. It's the place of the Sphinx, the pyramids, and wildebeests. Africa is my former flatmate Brenda, a white Zimbabwean whose cultural attitudes, while not overtly racist, seemed to me hopelessly colonial. Africa is where the Clinton administration inadvertently bombed an aspirin factory. Africa is Kilimanjaro, Ouagadougou, Timbuktu, and Zanzibar. The rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the zebra. Africa is "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." It is a legacy of colonialism and slavery. It is the very definition of continuing on. I would like very much to see Africa; I would like to learn to be less afraid of it. I wonder if it's possible to see Africa as a tourist -- to take photographs, to buy trinkets, to walk African streets -- without feeling as if I have stolen.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

reservation blues

Sherman Alexie's novel Reservation Blues (1995) tells the story of Coyote Springs, an all-Indian rock band made of of members of the Spokane and Flathead tribes in eastern Washington. Their adventure begins when the protagonist, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, meets blues guitar legend Robert Johnson, who gives his guitar to the band. Coyote Springs enjoys a brief period of minor notoriety before their career dead-ends in a failed attempt to record an album in New York City.

Alexie blends bitter humor, magical realism, and a nonlinear sense of time in telling this story. Much of the novel reads like this passage:
Just then, Big Mom played the loneliest chord that the band had ever heard. It drifted out of her bedroom, floated across the room, and landed at the feet of Coyote Springs. It crawled up their clothes and into their ears. Junior fainted.

"What in the hell was that?" Victor asked.

Bib Mom walked out of the bedroom carrying a guitar made of a 1965 Malibu and the blood of a child killed at Wounded Knee in 1890. (206)
The effect of Alexie's seemingly indiscriminate mixing of pop-culture references, traditional Spokane culture, and the history of white-Indian relations is bizarre and disorienting. Pepsi, spam, and bologna become artifacts of Indian culture. It is a story that renders the experience of cultural assimilation and resistance palpably unsettling for the reader. An excellent novel, one that deserves its recognition as one of the great American novels of the late twentieth century.

Friday, March 30, 2007

bread givers

Anzia Yezierska's autobiographical novel Bread Givers (1925) is the story of Sara Smolinsky, a young Polish Jew whose family immigrates to America and settles in the Hester Street district of New York City. Sara's father, Reb, is a deeply religious, patriarchal, and despotic man who tears his family apart through a series of disastrous arranged marriages and shoddy business deals. Sara resists her father's authority, works at a laundromat to pay her way through college, and eventually becomes a schoolteacher. Despite her troubles, Sara finds America to be a place of opportunity, and through great determination and perseverence, she succeeds.

I see this spirit of determination in the immigrants I know here in Reno. There's Francisco, the custodian in my building, who is always here when I come at odd hours to work in my office or pick up a book I've forgotten. He never fails to smile and ask me how I am. There's Delmi in the cafeteria, who cheerfully runs the cash register while her co-workers stand aside and gossip. There's Daniel in the foreign languages department, who has been extremely generous with his time in suggesting books for my research.

All these people are first-generation Mexican immigrants. Every time I hear some right-wing radio host, or some television pundit, going on about how lazy Mexicans are, or how they refuse to speak English, or how they don't want to assimilate, or how they reject American values, I want to scream. The immigrants I know don't fit these stereotypes at all; they love America more than many white Americans do. They understand the American Dream. They work hard. They value American ideals of liberty, justice, and equal rights under the law. So foolish, to imagine that we ought to build a 2000-mile wall to keep them out.

Monday, March 26, 2007

gonzales must go

Having watched the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys over the past few weeks, I believe that at an absolute minimum, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should be removed (assuming George W. Bush refuses -- as he has so far -- to fire him). I also think that the U.S. Senate should continue to investigate the matter to find out what others in the administration knew about the dismissals.

Why is this such a big deal? Doesn't the President have the right to appoint attorneys who will carry out his law-enforcement agenda? Yes, and in fact, when Bush replaced 88 of the 93 U.S. attorneys at the start of his first term, this was not seen as a major event.

The reason the recent firings matter is because the Bush administration and their Republican allies expected these attorneys to wield their power to indict as a political weapon. Senator Pete Dominici (R-NM) called U.S. attorney David Iglesias at home to pressure Iglesias to indict Democrats in Washington state in an effort to influence a tight gubernatorial race, which Iglesias refused to do. Another attorney, Carol Lam, led the federal corruption investigation against former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA). So they were fired. In other words, the Bush administration wants U.S. attorneys who will bring baseless corruption charges against Democrats and who will ignore allegations against Republicans. Using law enforcement in this way is unethical and damaging to democracy.

To make matters worse, Gonzales has repeatedly lied about his role in this matter. First he said that he knew nothing about the firings, reversing this stance only when memos revealing his involvement began to surface. Then he claimed that the firings were performance-related, which was contradicted by the performance evaluations of the eight attorneys. So the only way to get to the bottom of what really happened is to subpoena all the related documents and to have Gonzales testify publicly, under oath. Karl Rove should also be forced to testify, since he too has been implicated in this scandal.

The one positive development in all this is that the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially the committee chair, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), have taken their oversight responsibilities seriously (so far). Using law enforcement for partisan political purposes is a very serious matter, and although I have little confidence that the media will treat the issue seriously, I hope that the Senate will. The handling of this case will be a strong indicator of whether or not Democrats will have the stomach to confront the administration. It's not that this case is unusual for the Bush administration; the difference is that this time, hopefully, the Congress won't rubber-stamp the administration's blatant corruption.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

bunker hill

Yesterday Kyhl, Marian, and I hiked to the summit of Bunker Hill, at 11,473 feet the high point of Lander County. Our day got off to an inauspicious start in Kingston Canyon, where I tried to cross an iced-over creek in the Pathfinder and got stuck. Fortunately, before we even had time to begin digging it out, a mountain lion hunter in a custom rig pulled up, lent us a shovel, and helped push us out. We were on the trail within a few minutes.

I was grateful for the help, of course, so I had brains enough not to openly question the ethics of his hunting mountain lions. But I do have problems with it. It's exclusively a sport hunting activity -- the meat is unappealing even to the least discriminating of eaters. Unlike other game animals such as deer and elk, the mountain lion population, even in Nevada, isn't high enough to justify legal hunting. I suspect that the main reason why people hunt mountain lions is because they perceive them as worthless varmints, and they cite the occasional mountain lion attack on humans or livestock to support these claims (go to any hunting outfitter's website, and you'll see what I mean). The other problem I had with this fellow is that he used radio-collared dogs. The dogs seemed to be in good health, which contrasts with some of my experiences with bear hunters in North Carolina and Tennessee, but I think that hunting with dogs is something less than sporting.

Our route took us up Basin Canyon along an old road, which eventually deteriorated into a faint stock trail that switched back up to the ridge. We had to posthole through some thigh-deep snow, but we made good time and reached the summit with plenty of daylight for getting back down. The last few hundred feet to the summit were along a knife-edge ridge rimmed by dangerous cornices, so we had to watch our footing. I never felt unsafe, but looking over the edge gave me some intense vertigo. It was the highest I'd ever been in Nevada. Looking forward to going higher.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her --
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.
Appropriately, I've been thinking today about Mary Oliver's poem, "Spring," here on this first full day of spring, the day after the vernal equinox. While I'm not sure about Oliver's suggestion that a bear loves the world any more perfectly than I do, I think Oliver is probably correct to say that "how to love this world" is the one question that matters most. For those of us who doubt that there will be other lives after this one, and who question the existence of worlds beyond this one, it matters a great deal that we learn to love this one. And in a world where we have such an abundance of senseless wars, fear, hatred, anguish, pollution, poisonous language, and mindless nationalistic propaganda, there is reason to be cynical. But I take Oliver's side. We must find a way to love this world. It is the only one we can be sure of.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the case for diplomacy

The latest move in the game of cat-and-mouse between the Iranian government and the Bush administration is Tehran's warning that they will pursue nuclear activities outside international regulations if the U.N. Security Council insists it stop uranium enrichment and uses tough sanctions to enforce these regulations. Russia has already said that it won't support what it calls "excessive" sanctions against Iran, and South Africa is proposing an amendment to soften the current (U.S.-backed) proposal before the U.N. Security Council.

I do think that the Iranian government is a belligerent one; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denying conference last year was an offensive and antagonistic act. The Iranian government stifles dissent and has little respect for women's rights. It has one of the worst human rights records in the world today.

That said, I think that the Bush administration's posture toward Iran (#2 on his idiotic "axis of evil" list) has been -- and is -- incredibly foolish. The decision to try to isolate the Iranians by refusing to talk with them or negotiate with them has been a spectacular failure, forcing Iran to scramble to acquire nuclear weapons, thus further destabilizing the Middle East. When confronted with a potentially hostile situation, Bush has predictably chosen the same approach again and again: to puff out his chest in defiance, to make thinly veiled threats, and to refuse any sort of discussion. He follows this procedure with domestic "enemies" as well as with foreign ones. The only time Bush's foreign policy has been effective has been the rare moment when he has followed the same strategy of engagement and negotiation that the Clinton administration used (as in the case of Libya): the strategy he calls "appeasement" when others suggest it. The U.S. should be engaging with all the nations in the world, whether we like them or not. Diplomacy -- even when countries don't see eye-to-eye -- is almost always better than war. We should never assume that our military might is an adequate substitute for effective diplomacy. This assumption has been proven wrong time and time again (Vietnam and Iraq in particular come to mind).

One of my current students is from Iran, although she refers to herself as "Persian" to clarify that although she considers herself loyal to her homeland and its people, she does not necessarily support the Iranian government. I suspect that there are many such young people in Iran (or Persia, if you prefer). The people of Iran have seen what happens when the United States comes to "liberate" people in the Middle East, and they do not want the situation in Iraq to be repeated in Iran. Moderates in Iran want the support of the United States as they push for more freedoms, more tolerance, and more engagement with the rest of the world. We should be doing all we can to help them.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

star peak

Today I hiked to the summit of Star Peak (9836 feet), the high point of Pershing County and of the Humboldt Range northeast of Lovelock. It was my fourth attempt on the peak; the first two times I was turned back by impending darkness and the last time by excessive snow. This time was relatively easy; I drove my Nissan Pathfinder into El Dorado Canyon, followed the road past the abandoned Blackjack Mine, and bumped and banged my way up to about 7000 feet. I probably could have gone higher in the Pathfinder -- but I had only a single, marginally inflated spare tire, so I decided not to risk it. As it was, I had a relatively straightforward route to the summit, hiking through only a few small patches of snow along the way.

On the way back down, I spotted a huge yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) watching me through the sage brush along the edge of the canyon. We shared a moment before it scurried to a perch on top of a rock to watch me from a safer vantage point. I was struck by how fat the marmot was at this early time in the season, although I imagine this winter hasn't been particularly severe.

The juniper trees are thick with berries, and I saw several different species of butterflies and some swarming bunches of ladybugs. I also flushed a pair of sage grouse on my way up the mountain. A warm, sunny day, with a wintry breeze at the summit. A splendid day for a hike.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

thanks, number 80

The New England Patriots' offseason acquisitions of wide receivers Wes Welker, Donté Stallworth, and Kelley Washington almost certainly spell the end of Troy Brown's career with the Patriots. The Patriots now have nine wide receivers (Stallworth, Washington, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, Welker, Chad Jackson, Jonathon Smith, Bam Childress, and Kelvin Kight) on their roster, and their trade with the Miami Dolphins for Welker is especially significant for Brown because Welker is a similar sort of player: not a spectacular athlete, but he can return kicks, play out of the slot, and make key third-down catches.

Troy Brown is my all-time favorite Patriot. He is the team's career leader with 557 receptions, all with the Patriots, for 6366 yards and 31 touchdowns. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2001, when he caught 101 passes for 1199 yards and five touchdowns. He won three Super Bowls with the Patriots. All this after being an eighth-round draft pick (the NFL draft now has only seven rounds, so today he would be an undrafted free agent) and being cut twice.

In 2004 he agreed to line up at nickel back in the Patriots' depleted defensive secondary, severely limiting his offensive potential (he only caught 17 passes that year). He became a key contributor on defense, intercepting three passes during the regular season and shutting down receiver Brandon Stokely in a playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts. During the 2006 preseason he lined up as an emergency quarterback; when questioned about this move, Patriots coach Bill Belichick joked that he had lined Brown up at quarterback "to develop his legend."

I think Brown's greatest -- and most telling -- performance came in the AFC divisional playoff game this year against the San Diego Chargers. With five minutes left in the game, the Patriots were down 21-13 and facing 4th and 5. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady uncharacteristically threw a crucial interception to the Chargers' Marlon McCree. Brown, making what teammate Tedy Bruschi described as a "quick mental switch" from offensive to defensive player, instinctively ripped the ball out of McCree's grasp. The fumble was recovered by Reche Caldwell, giving the Patriots a fresh set of downs. New England went on to tie the score with a touchdown and a two point conversion, and then won the game on a late field goal. As teammate Richard Seymour said after the game, "He wasn't just a receiver on that play; he was a football player. Troy always comes up with plays like that. If there's one guy I look up to, it's Troy Brown."

Hear, hear. I'll miss you, number 80. If it were up to me, there would be a place for you in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Instead, you'll probably have to settle for a spot on the all-American Tool team.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

must replace the tube in my front tire

According to a leaked report that will be given by scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change at a meeting next month in Belgium, "hundreds of millions of Africans and tens of millions of Latin Americans who now have water will be short of it in less than 20 years. By 2050, more than a billion people in Asia could face water shortages" as a result of anthropogenic global climate change.

The report predicts that polar bears will be extirpated in the wild by 2050, and that half of Europe's plant species could be threatened, endangered, or extinct by 2100.

The toll on the human population is likely to be severe. Conditions such as malnutrition and diarrhea are likely to be greatly worsened. Hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires will ratchet up the economic cost. The poor, especially in coastal areas, will --as always -- be the hardest hit.

Although it's clear that some negative effects of global warming are already occurring and that more are inevitable because the effect of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is delayed by years or even decades, I still hold out some hope.

Based on what I understand of global climate change, its effects can be halted -- or at least slowed down. This could make all the difference. Things everybody can do: buy energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, lower your thermostat (and use clock thermostats), increase the insulation in your house, get window and door quilts, recycle, buy a hybrid car (if you can), ride your bicycle (or walk), use mass transit when possible, call your power company and ask them to use renewable energy, vote for leaders who take the issue seriously, write your congressman, plant lots of trees, call radio shows, write letters to the editor, insist that the U.S. freeze its carbon dioxide emissions and join international efforts to reduce global warming, insist that the U.S. reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, insist on raising fuel efficiency standards, and educate yourself and others about the crisis.

I've done the ones I can afford, although I need to start riding my bike to work more often, now that I'm over my month-long sickness and the weather has begun to improve. What are your plans for reducing your carbon footprint?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

speaking power

Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women's Narratives of Slavery (2006), the first monograph by Arizona State University professor DoVeanna S. Fulton, analyzes the use of oral traditions as a rhetorical strategy in the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Louisa Picquet, and others. She argues that, while scholars have tended to value written texts and literacy over oral narratives -- hence the privileged position of Frederick Douglass's narrative as the most canonized of all black slave narratives -- the oral tradition of black women in the nineteenth century provides a site for the empowerment of black women and the subversion of dominant ideas about storytelling and memory. It's a compelling and useful study.

I keep thinking about one of Fulton's techniques. At several points in the book, Fulton presents her own African-American heritage as a source of authority. This approach offers some interesting moments, such as her story about a white professor who, upon learning the names of his new students, commented enthusiastically when students had European names: "Kalinski, that's Polish[,] right? I love Polish foods" (xi). When his black students spoke, on the other hand, he moved on without comment.

Initially I wondered if Fulton's strategy somehow excludes me -- as a white male -- from the authority I would need to fully participate in the scholarly conversation she has initiated. Upon reflection, I think not. In my own home field of ecocriticism, there has been a movement toward so-called autobiographical criticism, or narrative scholarship. Fulton seems to be participating in a recent trend toward acknowledging and valuing the subject position of the researcher -- and this ought to be seen as a strength. It's interesting that many white scholars studying African-American history and literature tend to keep their white identities invisible in their scholarly work. Perhaps, as we come to recognize that white history and black history are really one and the same, this will come to be seen as unnecessary.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

the republican cult of manliness

As comically absurd as the above image may be, it was -- and is -- a hot item for followers of George W. Bush, particularly the people who attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Their ridiculous hyper-masculine fantasy about Bush helps to explain Ann Coulter's speech at this year's event, during which she called Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot." As Glenn Greenwald suggests in this excellent post, Coulter's comment, while obviously offensive, makes a lot more sense if you understand that many conservatives love her precisely because uses this sort of hateful and vitriolic rhetoric, almost all of which is expressly designed to emasculate Democratic men.

I'm not going to rehash Greenwald's entire post. Please read it; it is excellent. But I do want to add a few comments.

The media narrative in the 2008 Presidential campaign will be largely founded on gender stereotypes. How do I know this? Because both the 2000 and 2004 campaigns were gender-based. In 2000, we had to listen to the media's endless fawning over Bush's alleged manliness, while Al Gore endured taunts from the likes of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who said Gore "is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he's practically lactating." In 2004, the attacks continued against John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran whose masculine credentials were successfully tarnished by smears from the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and incessant jabs from the media about Kerry's supposed "Frenchiness." (And we all know, presumably, how effeminate the French are.)

This time around, the narrative will be similar: the leading Republican candidates (John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney) will be cast as real men. According to Rowena Wall, McCain's "male energy -- his masculinity" makes it "clear that he wouldn't back down from a good fight." Giuliani talked tough after 9/11 (though it's a little unclear to me exactly what he did, other than piss off a lot of New York City firefighters). And according to Chris Matthews, Romney has a "great chin."

The Democrats, meanwhile, are girls -- or worse. Edwards is a "faggot"; Rush Limbaugh calls him "the Breck girl." Barack Obama's approach, according to Dowd, is "downright feminine when compared with the Bushies." And Hillary Clinton? Well, she's supposed to be a woman, but really she's not. She's actually a man. She's "ruthless," "calculating," "ambitious" -- all those things women aren't supposed to be. If this were the nineteenth century.

Expect to see much, much more of this storyline: Republicans are real men; Democrats are girlie boys, faggots, and ruthless bitches who don't know their place. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Friday, March 9, 2007

giving fox the boot

While I have not yet selected a Presidential candidate to support in the 2008 Democratic primary, I have to say that I am pleased with John Edwards's recent leadership on the debate that was to be held here in Reno in August. Inexplicably, the Nevada Democratic Party leadership made a unilateral decision to allow Fox News Channel to televise the event -- meaning that after the candidates were done speaking, they would be summarily torn apart by conservative commentators Brit Hume, Mort Kondrake, Fred Barnes, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, John Gibson, and Neil Cavuto. And in the process, the Democratic Party would be lending credence to the false notion that Fox News is a legitimate news channel. It would have been a win for Fox and a crushing loss for Democrats, no matter how the candidates performed.

On Wednesday, Edwards became the first candidate to say he would boycott the debate. He explained that Fox News Channel is a mouthpiece for the Republican Party and therefore an inappropriate host for the event. Progressive activists, myself included, have been contacting the Nevada Democratic Party to complain for the past few weeks, and finally, as of this afternoon, the event has been canceled. After Edwards's announcement, Fox News chief Roger Ailes -- after making several really bad jokes about Bill Clinton's marital infidelity and Barack Obama's name -- threatened, "Any candidate for high office of either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake." So, Mr. Ailes, does this mean that your network is going to smear and attack every single Democratic Presidential candidate? Oh, yeah. I forgot. Your network would have done that anyway, and is already doing it.

While it's a shame that the debate here in Reno had to be scrapped, I'm hopeful that other such events can be scheduled, and that the organizers will find a legitimate news outlet to host them. Thank you, John Edwards, for your leadership. And boo to Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM), the only other candidate to respond formally to the invitation, who had planned to attend and bailed out only after Edwards had taken a stand.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

neon bible

Neon Bible, Arcade Fire's follow-up to their outstanding full-length debut, Funeral (2004), came out this week. I've only listened to it all the way through a couple of times, but it seems clear that the band has moved past the misfortunes that provided much of the grist for the barking art-indie-punk tracks that made Funeral so memorable. This album broadens its scope to include the state of the world at large, meditating on religion, war, evildoers, paranoia, and the media -- and the relationships between all of these. While not a concept album in the tradition of Radiohead's OK Computer (1997), the subject matter and emotional impact are similarly bleak.

There's a desperate earnestness to the lyrics ("Workin' for the church while your family dies" on the majesterial "Intervention") that might be embarrassing if not for the vulnerability behind Win Butler's delivery; each soaring chorus sounds as if he's choking back tears. From the hard-driving first single, "Keep the Car Running":
Every night my dream’s the same
Same old city with a different name
Men are coming to take me away
I don’t know why but I know I can’t stay
Keep the car running
The band has seemingly used every instrument but the washboard on this recording, and their sound especially benefits from the monster pipe organ the band members found in their church-house recording facility just outside Montreal. The band also utilize a stand-up bass, keyboards, mandolin, violins, horns, and a harmonium, in addition to their standard guitar-bass-drums lineup. The production, by the band members themselves, is meticulous but not slick. What Neon Bible lacks in the explosive energy of Funeral, it manages to compensate for with great hooks, surprising instrumentation, and expansive bombast. I don't know if I'll ever love it as much as I love Funeral, but this is a very strong sophomore release, and it's certain to show up in a lot of end-of-the-year top ten lists. Believe the inevitable hype.