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.