Thursday, February 26, 2009


Usually I refrain from talking about the South Carolina Gamecocks on this blog. I love all the teams wearing the garnet and black. My boys would tell you how irritated I can get watching them play, especially football. But last night I enjoyed what I think was the greatest game (not in terms of close endings or such) the basketball team has played here (that I have watched). . . beating Kentucky in a display of concentrated effort. Yes, there have been other big games and exciting last-second wins, but in this one they played like I can't remember seeing them do before (against a quality opponent); the defensive effort of our frontcourt was awesome. They seemed to block, or at least challenge, almost every shot. And Devon Downey was a whirling dervish. . .exciting even in a couple of plays that he didn't finish with a basket. They all seemed to be juiced. I just can't imagine what Darrin Horn said to those guys before the game and during the halftime, because they were all blazing. You had to give some credit to that Patterson kid for Kentucky. . .he played hard all the way to the end, but he also had to be mightily frustrated by our big men. For once, there just didn't seem to be any letdown, rare for a Gamecock squad. I hope they play with that level of intensity for the rest of the season. Even more, I hope someone bottles it and sneaks it into the water during the football season.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Like a witty, smart-alecky history teacher (the kind I adored in school) trying to engage her classroom, Sarah Vowell takes her charges headlong into the confusing, yet in many ways entertaining, world of the founders of New England in The Wordy Shipmates. She appears to have done her research well and is quite good at telling her story; she boils down the religious story better than almost anyone I have read. Her primary focus is on John Winthrop, though many other interesting characters from this period get their time on the stage (Williams, Hutchinson, Vane). Less the travalogue-personal memoir-with-history-thrown-in type of excursion (such as in her excellent Assassination Vacation), this book offers a refreshing take on the Puritans and this squabbling, obsessed group of brethren and patriarchs. And as she explains their many foibles and viewpoints, as well as their horrifying brutality, she takes stabs at modern politicians (such as Bush) and America's insistence on trying to force the world to always see things our way, or else, dammit!

I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow account of her take on colonial history, but will record here some passages that I especially liked. I enjoyed the beginning and end of the book the most; it dragged a tad in the middle. I loved her take on the witchcraft trials and our modern legal system: "Check out those barbarian idiots with their cocamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all than nonsense long ago." She pokes wickedly at the Bush administation when she writes: "The Bible is a big long book and lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending 'enhanced investigation technique' is not a synonym for torture." She often wears her heart on her sleeve. When writing about U.S. world leadership (while explaining the vision Winthrop and his cohorts had for Boston), she writes" The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it's still shining---because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That's how we carry out the sleep deprivation." Abu Ghraib will haunt this nation for a long time. I loved when she called the New England version of a duel a "pamphlet fight."

I like her forays into personal history too. Her Cherokee and evangelical roots clearly tint her take on the founders. She is a person I would love to take a road trip with.


I have been on a bit of a fantasy/humor kick lately in my reading choices. In addition to reading Moore's Coyote Blue (reviewed earlier), I picked up one of his earlier novels, Practical Demonkeeping. Although it had some rough edges, I enjoyed it nonetheless. I also have been reading some of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.

Practical Demonkeeping is a tale of a young seminary student who accidentally brings forth a man-eating, wise-cracking, demon named Catch. Protected from death by virtue of having this scaly, huge monster (when he is in his eating form) as his sidekick, Travis is forced to live a long life of steering the demon to human victims whose disappearance at least rids communities of drug pushers and pimps (although the occasional bum is also taken), as he tries to figure a way to send his guest back to the netherworld. A sort of convergence occurs as a number of interesting and engaging characters gather for a showdown in a small California coastal town of Pine Cove. The books is a delightful romp. Although not nearly as polished as Lamb, this book is a worthy view into Moore's early writing. I guess I have to consider myself a fan, since I plan to read more of his novels.

Friday, February 20, 2009


The Koger Center was really rocking last night. I took the boys to see the USC concert. Well, dragged would be more like it. . .but they got into it once they were there. The concert was put on in honor of the high school honors weekend of band instruction the University puts on. It was kind of strange being trapped in a huge room with probably four hundred teenagers. The boys got a free Chinese dinner out of the bargain, and got to stay up a little later than they normally do, so they were pleased about that. And while waiting for the show to begin, they got their nightly reading done, so poppa was happy.

The USC Jazz Ensemble, Left Bank Big Band, was pretty good, especially the sax solos. There obviously was a lot of inside joking going on. I can't say that I was bowled over by the selections, but it was enjoyable. Next the USC Percussion Ensemble did John Cage's Third Construction, which I thought was interesting. Joey really liked it. How did they slip the conch shell into it, though?

The best part of the night was the performace by the Palmetto Pans. The guy who was leading the show was quite energetic. The crowd tried a few waves, and some of the kids danced in the aisles. "Take Me On," "Cheeseburger in Paradise," and "Beat It" were popular selections with the audience. I liked Bert Ligon's funky "Carry On" the best though. I love taking the boys to these events, broadening their world.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Last night my eldest son Joey, who is ten, was asked to be in a photo shoot for his ballet company, Columbia Classical. I bought him new black tights so that he would look trim. After the shoot the director invited him to stay and attend a master class with some of the professional and older dancers, and he was so excited. I heard that he did very well, even eliciting a chorus of applause when he mastered some move. I seldom get to watch him dance, and I peeked in to see him doing some step-over move, and I just about started to cry. I am so proud of him. Just before he went to bed I pulled him aside and told him just how I felt. He is not the most demonstrative kid, but he did smile and I got a nice hug. I don't really care if he stays in ballet or makes it a lifetime activity, but as long as he feels drawn to it I will support him to the best of my ability. He will be dancing in THE WIZARD OF OZ next weekend. Yes, the children's roles are usually small, and little more than filler and an excuse to subsidize the senior troupe, but I will be there to enjoy it.

Friday, February 13, 2009


I fell down a rabbit-hole on the literary continuum, somewhere between those currently being used by Sherman Alexie and Neil Gaiman! And what a wonderful ride it was. Reading Christopher Moore’s Coyote Blue was an enjoyable experience. Moore is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. I absolutely loved Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

The story itself is rather simple: it is about redemption and respect for heritage, myth and love, wrapped up in fantasy and humor. A young Crow boy, Samson Hunts Alone (Sam Hunt), escapes from his reservation world and creates a new persona, only to have his orderly life decades later thrown into chaos with the arrival of Coyote, a shape-shifting horny trickster Crow (and maybe more) God (who also speaks to Sam's clan uncle, Pokey), who is supposedly his spirit guide (whom he had met in the guise of a traveling vacuum salesman, during a religious retreat when he was about nine). Sam meets a special woman, a free-spirit---almost innocent being, Calliope. I loved the line: "She wondered what she had done to manifest the curse of a nice guy." From that point onward (and I don’t want to ruin the story) they are all off on an adventure that pulls in wild and fantastical characters, and sends them on a quest to Vegas and his tribal home. Just like Gaiman, Moore reaches into myth and blends it with the modern. Moore seems to thrive on writing stories about good-hearted, though flawed, individuals who need a raucous (and naughty) partner to confuse and engage them, to wile and push them, to get them in trouble but provide an avenue for redemption. Moore also has a wonderful ability to poke fun at commonplace things. . .salesmen, garage sales, sex, etc. I enjoyed the portion of the story dedicated to the garage-sale enthusiasts trying to locate a mis-advertised sale. Priceless. Now, I don’t know how the Crow people would react to some of the story, but I think they would laugh, just as most sane Christians would find the humor and humanity in Lamb. Now I am looking forward to reading about Moore's vampires, demons, and lizards.

Monday, February 9, 2009


How much should one care about the plight of men who sell their martial expertise to nearly illegitimate "security agencies" that have discovered, and seek to exploit, a loophole in wartime (manufactured by an invading army seeking to avoid reporting death tolls to its citizenry) and who pay the ultimate price for their individual decisions? And so what if innocent citizens are murdered----shit happens during war, right? How would it look if American soldiers died protecting the free flow of frappachino? Now, if you paid civilians to do it. . . Perhaps that is the stand Bush, Cheney, and their cohorts took: they took the money, so there was no need to care. So much about Iraq was subterfuge---the construction of facades to obscure the true nature of the conflict, as well as the pain, piss-poor planning, and punishment. Who was actually doing the fighting and was anybody really in control? How many Americans (and non-Americans) perished? Although some journalists started asking questions, only a few are now publishing their findings and observations. One such report, part memoir and investigative journalism, is award-winning reporter Steve Fainaru's Big Boy Rules. He provides an insightful, often infuriating, look into mercenary activities in Iraq. And if one doesn't understand a little of why average Iraqis have no love for Americans, just come along for the ride (or should I say, convoy duty).

Early in the war, I incredulously asked my father, a military man, why the U.S. government was employing so many private contractors (at enormous cost) to provide security, infrastructure, and a host of other roles that one would think the military should be providing for itself, at a much lower price and with proper chains of command. His reply: so that the highest number of soldiers could be placed into the field. But in the convoluted battlefield that was Iraq, everyone serving the national goal (even contractors) of invading Iraq was at risk. There were no front lines, and some of the most dangerous areas were along the supply routes, beset by nationalists, terrorists, and regular criminals.

Pretty much everyone is now aware of the enormous profits realized by Cheney's former business colleagues, as well as other companies with ties to the Bush administration, but as a result of widespread lawlessness (caused largely by extremely ill-advised decisions made by Bremer and associates) an opportunity arose for a plethora of small "security" companies, newly formed, to hire men (and women) trained in warfare and to induce them to trade their skills in order to reap almost fantastical salaries to protect individuals and (profitable) supplies that poured into Iraq. The problem was that they were given almost free rein to kill and wound with impunity, to hire individuals the services spurned because of criminal or psychological problems, to brutalize and intimidate a populace whose hearts and minds the administration claimed to be hoping to win, to develop an unfair caste system of rewards based on nationality, to simply grab the money and run. And, as is usually the case, the individuals at the bottom of the pecking order paid the highest price.

Fainaru offers more than just a critique of the mercenary world, as a large portion of his story is about his own family problems and the personal attachments he developed with some of the men he followed while they worked in Iraq. He repeatedly visited the country, traveled alongside convoys, and spent time with the operators. He queried government officials. And he witnessed or heard many sordid stories (probably only the tip of the iceberg). While clearly he admired some soldiers and mercs, especially ones who followed proper rules of engagement and acted as if Iraq was a sovereign nation, he was sharply critical of "cowboy" outfits that allowed their employees to terrorize innocent Iraqis and then cover up their misdeeds. And even though some men have recently been charged with criminal deeds in the war zone, most have escaped prosecution (and probably will never be punished).

One of the interesting aspects of Fainaru's reporting is his insights into why people went back to Iraq, beyond the obvious monetary incentive. The war had created a whole phalanx of excitement junkies, for one thing, who found life back at home far less rewarding. The capture, torture, and execution of a small group of operators (several of whom had developed friendships with the author), and the fight to uncover the truth of what happened and recover their remains, forms the backbone of the story. What Fainaru discovers is a world in which many companies were ill-equipped, badly managed, put their employees at unacceptable risk in order to reap healthy profits, ignored what little regulation the authorities offered, and basically operated by the seat of their pants. Although the military experienced problems providing adequate equipment and sometimes failed to properly police their soldiers, they had in place a system of control and chain of command that could (and often was) put into play to correct misdeeds and inefficiencies. Not so with the private contractors. One cannot excoriate every company (Fainaru properly shows that some maintained high standards of behavior), but far too many exposed their employees and the citizenry to unacceptable risks. And others allowed sociopaths loose in a lawless arena with extreme (and often illegal) firepower.

This is a troubling book. There will be those who immediately jump to the defense of private security companies, pointing out that there were only a few miscreants, but in reality there was a dangerous subculture, unfettered and unregulated. It will take a long time to sort out (if ever) many of the true stories, from all sides. But what is certain is that far too many people, on both sides, died than was necessary. And another thought kept jumping into my mind: what would Fred Burton, the author of Ghost, have thought about the privatization of security, especially for State officials?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I didn’t tell either of the boys what adventure awaited them, but they knew something was up. When I picked them up on Thursday and rushed home to grab two bags and turn off the electricity, they knew we were going on a trip, but they thought it was to be local. I told them we were going to my workplace to wait there to catch a ride. Things started off weirdly however, when a pizza-delivery man saw us walking and tried to give me $40! I declined, of course, and had to explain that we were not homeless, but that it was very nice of him to offer. Joey, however, said "I'll take it." I shooed him away, but in the process I spilled the beans about the trip and real destination. Then later, when I took the boys to McDonald’s for dinner, we saw a shooting star streaking through the sky, and I took it for a good omen. I told the boys to make wishes, but to keep them to themselves.

The Amtrak train didn’t leave Columbia for New London until 4 am. We got to the station about 1:00 am, and we watched tv (Conan; some poker show---why do people watch that crap?). Chimo fell asleep on the benches (and provided much entertainment, as he slept in a variety of unusual poses and talked in his sleep). Our train was on time; the south-bound passengers had to wait a couple of hours because a car had blocked the rails. It was roomy and pretty comfortable, but the trip it would constitute the second half of forty-eight hours of no sleep for me, because I am a worry-wort and I just can’t sleep well when I am watching the boys. It is also rather uncomfortable to recline in the seats when you are as long as I am. I will one day, hopefully, get to experience a sleeper car. The boys were quite excited; they explored a little, but mostly sat quietly looking out the window or playing video games. We ate in the dining car the next morning and for lunch as well. In the snack car they played cards and games with some other boys after lunch; I sat and worked on the NYT crossword and read a little of Burke's Last Car to Elysian Fields. I would have tried the dining car, but the food was way too expensive for what you got. We just had hotdogs, instead, supplimented by goodies and drinks I had brought along.

We arrived in Washington at about 3:30 pm. Right away I knew we were not in Dixie any more (although technically I guess Washington is still in the South), because I ended paying $40 to check my bags! What a rip. We walked over and caught about an hour and a half of exhibits at the National Museum of American History. We saw the flag that inspired the "Star Spangled Banner"; visited an exhibit dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, that included such things as his top hat and death masks; viewed Judy’s ruby slippers; saw the original Kermit the Frog and Oscar the Grouch; walked around an exhibit focusing on Americans at war. Once Chimo went into a room that had mannequins only, and he was trying to touch one, and I asked, "What are you doing?" And he said "Checking for sentient beings." I just smiled. [If you wonder about that statement, you obviously don’t watch Star Trek.] At the portion focusing on Lexington & Concord, a blown-up portion of a newspaper listed killed and wounded. I pointed out the name "John Tidd," and Chimo says, "Dad, I never knew someone in our family was historical."

As we toured the Washington mall, I could not but help notice how many really pretty women were walking about, as well as the diversity. We trudged over to the Washington Monument, the grounds slick with ice and leftover snow, then past the WWII memorial, and checked out the Lincoln Memorial. It is awe-inspiring to stand there looking up into Lincoln's glowing white marble face. It is beautiful. The weather was bitterly cold and the wind was really biting. Both boys whined a lot, which surprised me, since they wanted to get to snow. Joey asserted that it was the wind that bothered him: "and the wind doesn't blow in Connecticut." Hmmmmm. . .he must have been there in a previous life. We caught a cab (driven by an engaging Ethiopian man) back to Union Station, where we had (expensive) pizza and Haagen Dazs ice cream and looked at the shops. Chimo insisted that we repeatedly ride the long escalators. I'm sure the mall police were getting tired of seeing us make our circuits. We watched the Galludent University students (many of them bedecked with wildly colored hair) speak with their hands, as well as took in some other colorful characters (such as a guy sitting with a gold-painted oriental-looking hat). We eventually got tired of walking about and decided to stay in the boarding area. Then it was time to reboard. We left Washington at about 10pm and arrived in New London at about 5:40 the next morning.

Patty, my sis-in-law, put us up. They have a really nice place in Quaker Hill; their backyard is basically a hill that towers over the house. She let me lay down to get some sleep, while the boys got outside and played in the snow. It was their first time in snow that was deeper than about an inch. They threw snowballs, shoveled, and slid down the hill. The ice was really treacherous. Mostly I relaxed and recuperated on their couch after I managed to raise myself from the dead. The boys and Patty went shopping and brought back pizza. We thought about visiting a casino (which I had never done), but no one was feeling up to it, so we aborted that notion. Didn’t get to spend hardly any time with Paul’s kids in the end. They were in and out of their rooms or off with their friends. Chatted sports with Andrew for a little. Tat & Iliana were in & out, and didn’t even come back to see us off (while sleeping over at their friends' houses). I glimpsed Elijah a few times. Mostly I played with the motley collection of international dogs (one from Puerto Rico [Red], another from Greece [Baby Girl], and the newest member of the group, a small cocker), and camped out on the couch. and then after the boys went to bed, Patty and I watched Die Hard, with a Vengeance and chatted into the night. The next morning the boys surprised me with some really nice birthday presents. Then we went and toured the Submariner’s Museum next to the base and walked through the USS Nautilus, the atomic-powered submarine that first went under the polar ice cap. My dad had served on subs and had ridden aboard the Seawolf while he was a cadet. Then Patty gave me the truck they are lending me (a really nice thing for them to do), and we were off.

Somehow I got screwed up coming into New York; I couldn’t see the signs because of glare, and we ended up driving on 278 instead of 95. New York drivers are scary. But the boys got a couple of glimpses at the Statue of Liberty. I ended up paying $15 in tolls just to escape New York. Then we had to go down through New Jersey, suffering additional tolls, and you don't really get to see anything either. Food was way too expensive. We made it down to Richmond before stopping at around 10 to stay at a hotel. We were up at 8 the next morning and on our way, pulling into Columbia at about 5 pm. The boys insisted on stopping at least once at a McDonald's playground, though in this case they discovered these free video games and spent most of their time on those. And we had one of my trip traditions. . .a stop at Kentucky Fried. Overall a nice trip, though would have liked to stay up there for a few more days. And I wish Paul had been there.