Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Five short poems from "Cold Mountain," by Han-Shan

These classic Chinese poems seem like a suitable way to note our departure for a monthlong trek in the region of Chomolungma (Mt. Everest), Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal:


Clambering up Cold Mountain,
The trail goes on without end.
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, grass blurred in mist.
Slippery moss, though there's been no rain,
The pines sigh, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties and
Sit among the white clouds with me?


I was off to the Eastern Cliff.
Planned that trip for how long?
Dragged myself up by hanging vines,
Stopped halfway, by wind and fog.
Thorn snatched my arm on narrow paths,
Moss so deep it drowned my feet,
So I stopped, under a red pine.
Head among the clouds, I’ll sleep.


A thousand clouds, ten thousand streams,
Here I live, an idle soul,
Roaming snowy peaks by day,
Back to sleep under crags at night.
One by one, springs and autumns go,
Free of heat and dust, my mind.
Sweet to know there's nothing I need,
Silent as the autumn river's flood.


Ridge upon ridge, falls and hills,
Blue-green mist clasped by clouds.
Fog wets my flimsy cap,
Dew soaks my coat of straw.
A pilgrim's sandals on my feet,
An old stick grasped in my hand.
Gazing down towards the land of dust,
What is that world of dreams to me?


Always it's cold on this mountain!
Every year, and not just this.
Dense peaks, thick with snow.
Black pine-trees breathing mist.
It's August before the grass grows,
Not yet autumn when the leaves fall.
Full of illusions, I roam here,
Gaze and gaze, but can't see the sky.

 * * *

Adapted from translations by A. S. Kline (2006) and Gary Snyder.

Kline writes:  "Han-shan, the Master of Cold Mountain, and his friend Shi-te, lived in the late-eighth to early-ninth century AD, in the sacred Tien-tai Mountains of Chekiang Province, south of the bay of Hangchow. The two laughing friends, holding hands, come and go, but mostly go, dashing into the wild, careless of others' reality, secure in their own. As Han-shan himself says, his Zen is not in the poems. Zen is in the mind."

Paintings:  Li-Ch'eng (919-967), "A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks" (top);  Han-Shan and Shih-te (bottom).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A propos...

In the spirit of Monday's posting on the Big Flag, I add the following excerpt from "The Left Hand of Darkness" (1969) by Portland author Ursula K. LeGuin:
"How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That's a good thing, but one musn't make a virtue of it, or a profession. ... Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope."
Note to our vast audience in Finland: there's a Finnish version called Pimeyden vasen käsi.

[With many thanks to Katy for the tip...]

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Big Flag

For decades, our civilized and tolerant small town has enjoyed the distinction of being the home of the world's largest barber pole (left). Not content with its renown in the specialized field of tall poles, the city recently constructed a huge flagpole smack in the center of the main entry to its downtown. It supports one of the most disproportionately massive U.S. flags (30' x 60') ever. The "Big Flag" represents, to me, a kind of superpatriotism run amok — a phenomenon that a psychotherapist might describe as "overcompensated doubt." Further speculation on the topic of pole fixations and outsized flags is best left to professionals.

Proponents of the flag have expressed shock and disgust that the decision was criticized in some quarters, though they haven't yet accused anyone of being a communist — not publicly, at least. Critics joke that the flag is not only visible from a neighboring town, but "possibly from space." (When it's not at half-staff, at least, which in a country waging two wars is much of the time.) It's plainly visible from our house, more than two miles away.

My gifts for satire are way too modest for further exploration of this ripe subject. Let me instead refer the reader to two masters, starting with Stephen Colbert's hilarious riff on Sean Hannity's brand of more-patriotic-than-thou fanaticism. Be sure to watch the last 10 seconds (I tried to embed it but it didn't work).

And second, I offer the following excerpt excerpt from a classic novel that seems forever relevant on just about any level you'd want to consider — from the Big Flag to Iraq to Afghanistan.

And with that, 'nuff said.

"America ," he said, "will lose the war. And Italy will win it." "America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth," Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. "And the American fighting man is second to none".

"Exactly", agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. "Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that's exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while yours is doing so poorly."

Nately guffawed with surprise, then blushed apologetically for his impoliteness. "I'm sorry I laughed at you," he said sincerely, and he continued in a tone of respectful condescension. "But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don't call that doing very well, do you?"

"But of course I do," exclaimed the old man cheerfully. "The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that's what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German officers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed."

Nately could scarcely believe his ears. He had never heard such shocking blasphemies before, and he wondered with instinctive logic why the G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. "America is not going to be destroyed!" he shouted passionately.

"Never?" prodded the old man softly.

"Well..." Nately faltered.

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. "Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so."

Nately squirmed uncomfortably. "Well, forever is a long time, I guess."

"A million years?" persisted the old man with keen, sadistic zest. "A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as the... frog?"

Nately wanted to smash his leering face. He looked about imploringly for help in defending his county's future against the obnoxious calumnies of this sly and sinful assailant. He was disappointed. [...]

"How old are you?" Nately asked, growing intrigued and charmed with the old man in spite of himself.

"A hundred and seven." The old man chuckled heartily at Nately's look of chagrin. "I see you don't believe that either."

"I don't believe anything you tell me," Nately replied with a bashful, mitigating smile. "The only thing I do believe is that America is going to win this war."

"You put so much stock in winning wars," the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. "The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we've done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crises. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn't a chance of wining. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we certainly will come up on top again if we succeed in being defeated."

Nately gaped at him in undisguised befuddlement. "Now I really don't understand what you're saying. You talk like a madman."

"But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American. I can assure you, my outraged young friend" - the old man's knowing, disdainful eyes shone even more effervescently as Nately's stuttering dismay increased - "that you and your country will have no more loyal partisan in Italy than me - but only as long as you remain in Italy."

"But," Nately cried out in disbelief, "you're a turncoat! A time-server! A shameful, unscrupulous opportunist!"

"I am a hundred and seven years old," the old man reminded him suavely.

"Don't you have any principles?"

"Of course not."

"No morality?"

"Oh, I am a very moral man," the villainous old man assured him with satiric seriousness [...]

"I can't believe it," Nately remarked grudgingly [...] "I simply can't believe it.

"But it's all perfectly true. When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted 'Heil Hitler' until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way. When the Germans left the city, I rushed out to welcome the Americans with a bottle of excellent brandy and a basket of flowers. The brandy was for myself, of course, and the flowers were to sprinkle upon our liberators. There was a very stiff and stuffy old major riding in the first car, and I hit him squarely in the eye with a red rose. A marvelous shot! You should have seen him wince."

PHOTO: Flickr

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock + 40: Three performances

While I'm reluctant to add to all the hype over Woodstock's 40th anniversary, I remembered (from the movie) this high-energy performance by Sly and the Family Stone one of the highlights of the event.

Then I came across two more that shouldn't be overlooked. So I'm including all three (though many more also deserve another look).

On a personal note, I passed on Woodstock even though I could've easily gotten there. I was living a few hours away in Boston at the time, but I heard that parking was a serious problem. Unwilling to walk five miles, especially in the predicted rain, I passed. Foolishly, as it turns out.

And here's Carlos Santana & Co. with "Soul Sacrifice" (including a fine drum solo by 20-year-old Michael Shrieve starting around 3:15) and some PG-rated footage of the crowd:

Finally, no short collection from Woodstock is complete without Hendrix. While the band really starts cooking at around 6:00, this isn't my favorite version of the classic. But still...

Monday, July 27, 2009

A peak by any other name

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title."

—Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1594)

Researching a possible trek in Nepal this fall, I was reminded that the penultimate point on the planet, rising 8,849 meters or 29,031 feet above sea level, is now known by four different names from four different cultures. (Note: the altitude can vary with the snow depth on the summit ridge.)

The first, and most universal for now, is "Everest." In 1865, it was named, against his wishes, for British mapmaker Sir George Everest (1790-1866), who as Surveyor-General of India directed the Great Trigonometric Survey (GTS) of the Himalayas for the East India Company. The survey took decades, made its officials (including Everest) quite wealthy and measured the altitudes of Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, and many other monster peaks of the Himalayas.

The Survey was amazingly accurate: Everest was assigned an altitude of 29,002 feet in 1856, only 29 feet lower than the current estimate based on advanced technologies. (The Survey actually determined the altitude of Everest to be an even 29,000 feet, but added 2 feet on the theory that such a round number would look too much like an estimate.)

Major geographic features have often been named after famous westerners, including Alaska's McKinley, the highest summit in North America, named in honor of one of the most contemptible U.S. presidents. This selection was a
purely political maneuver by a prominent gold miner who supported McKinley's drive to retain the gold standard in the face of a serious challenge by rival William Jennings Bryan.

Nowadays, most climbers, and many Alaskans, prefer the original Athabaskan name: Denali, or "the great one." It's only a matter of time before Congress approves a bill formally renaming the massive peak, which from base to summit (altitude 6,194 meters or 20,320 feet) qualifies as the world's tallest mountain.

"Everest" seems unassailable for now despite the far more imaginative names given to the peak by the Nepalis and Tibetans, the actual inhabitants of the region whose countries share the summit:
  • To Nepalis, Everest is Sagarmatha, which has been gloriously translated as either the "Forehead of the Sky" or (based on the Sanskrit root) the "Churning Stick of the Ocean of Existence." [Chew on that for a while, Sir George.]
  • To Tibetans, Everest is Chomolungma, "Goddess of the Wind" (sometimes translated as "Goddess Mother of the World"). [1]
  • Qomolangma, while very similar to the Tibetan name, is the transliteration preferred by the Chinese rulers of Tibet. The Chinese version of the name can be traced back to Chinese imperial surveys of the region beginning in 1717.
Sagarmatha National Park includes the whole Khumbu region of Nepal and now appears on maps everywhere, so perhaps that venerable name will eventually be accepted more widely. The park still offers the most accessible routes to the mountain for trekkers and climbers.

The Tibetan Chomolungma is equally entitled to recognition. It has ancient origins and the Tibetan approach is of great importance in the history of Himalayan mountaineering. The first major attempts on the peak were mounted from the north via the Rongbuk glacier and North Ridge. This route frustrated all attempts [2] until a Chinese expedition reached the summit, without using bottled oxygen, in 1960 — seven years after the first ascent up the somewhat less difficult South Col route from Nepal by Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have been aggressively demanding the formal adoption of
Qomolangma since 2002: "Until today the world is still persistently humiliating Mt. Qomolangma with English-language hegemonism." The Chinese position completely overlooks the Nepali claim and insists on the Chinese transliteration for a landform that has a (presumably) much older Tibetan spelling. "Hegemonism," indeed.

The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to these conflicts, as evidenced by the fact that not a single major stratovolcano retains the name it was given by the indigenous people of the region. All these great summits
Rainier, Shasta, Adams, Hood, Baker, St. Helens, Glacier, Jefferson, the Three Sisters, McLoughlin, Lassen retain the names given them by European explorers and settlers.

While I don't have any particular grudge against John Adams (whose name is shared by seven other mountains in the U.S.), either Klickitat or Pahto seems like a more suitable name for the third highest mountain in the Cascades.

So what'll it be? Everest, Sagarmatha, Chomolungma or Qomolangma?

As often happens, the naming of geographic features has become hopelessly entangled with politics, national pride and the history of imperialism. These delicate questions will have to be resolved at a later date by, ironically enough, legislators and mapmakers like Sir George Everest.


[1] Trekking in Nepal by Stephen Bezruchka (2000).

[2] Recent investigations failed to determine whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, members of a British expedition in 1924, reached the summit before disappearing. Mallory's body was recovered high on the mountain (at
8,159 meters or 26,768 ft) in 1999.

PHOTO: The "Mountain Formerly Known As Everest?" A view from
Kala Pattar showing the summit from the west, the South Col (the high pass on the right horizon), the Khumbu glacier icefall (lower left) and the west flank (right) of Nuptse. [Wikimedia Commons]

AFTERTHOUGHT: Many major peaks retain aboriginal names even in countries that were European colonies. In fairness, I'll list a few: Kilimanjaro (Kenya/Tanzania), Aconcagua (Chile/Argentina), Kanchenjunga (India/Nepal), Popocatapetl (Mexico), Fuji (Japan, never a colony). K2 is in such a remote corner of the Karakoram (thus the "K") Himalaya that it may not have had a local name. Finally, it should be noted that the GTS had a policy flexible, as it turned out in the case of Sagarmathato use local geographic names wherever possible. Most Himalayan place names follow suit, with relatively few exceptions.

Michael Desfeyes, in his interesting compilation on the origin of mountain names, doesn't bother to include "patronymic names like Mt. Hood, McKinley, Everest, etc."

UPDATE (9/5/09): The editors of EverestNews.com, a comprehensive blog about Himalayan mountaineering, have put together a convincing and well-researched theory that George Mallory succeeded in reaching the summit of Mt. Everest in 1924 and died during the descent. Sandy Irvine, his climbing partner, also died during the descent but his body has never been found. According to this hypothesis, Mallory and Irvine agreed to separate so that Mallory could push on to the summit alone. This theory may never be proven (or disproven), but Mallory and Irvine at least came very close to the top of Everest 29 years before the first documented ascent.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Zakir Hussain: tabla meets taiko

Zakir Hussain again demonstrates his interest in musical collaboration across cultures, this time with an unidentified taiko performer. After a meditative start, things really get rolling at about 2:20. Zakir's fingers and hands are capable of registering 20 distinct beats per second.

This short YouTube video was featured on "Runes" a couple years ago, but it mysteriously disappeared. I'm pleased to offer it again.

"Zakir and His Friends," the outstanding 1998 world tour of percussion musicians, isn't available online, on DVD or in most video stores — but it should be.

If you've got the time (an hour and 40 minutes), I also recommend the excellent Millennium Concert Gateway video of a 2000 performance in Mumbai with more of Zakir and an outstanding ensemble of Indian percussionists and other musicians. If you don't have time for anything else, be sure to skip ahead (to 1:04:48) for a dazzling six-minute ghattam (clay pot) solo by U. Selvaganesh. The last 10 minutes of "dialog" among the performers, building to a final crescendo, are also worth a listen. These are world-class musicians who obviously enjoy performing together.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Endeavor launch at Cape Canaveral

A very fine, high-resolution video of today's launch of the Endeavor space shuttle, with a crew of seven, at Cape Canaveral. After Friday's docking with the International Space Station, there will be a total of 13 astronauts on board. Endeavor is carrying materials to construct a platform for Japanese science experiments.

At 1:59, you can glimpse a couple pieces of debris falling off Endeavor. NASA will check for any damage before the shuttle's scheduled return on July 31st.

UPDATE (July 17th): NASA's examination of the Shuttle revealed no damage from the debris shown in the video.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Morphing on: a note to readers

Entries on Runes this year have morphed from the mostly political into the exclusively cultural, with an emphasis on literature, blues and, lately, African and Indian music.

This shift is partly due to the fact that a major focus in the past, the torture regime under the Bush/Cheney administration, has finally emerged as a national controversy that might yet lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor and eventual legal action. Various bloggers and columnists have pursued this goal for years without getting much attention, but the recent Red Cross Torture Report and a related article (and here) by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books helped to belatedly expand public awareness of the issue.

While I'm certainly not saying that work by progressives in this area has been completed, the issue has developed a momentum of its own — for now. The tension between the ethical obligation to prosecute war crimes and the desire to move on might yet be resolved in favor of the latter. The scope of the planned investigation already seems too narrow, since it seems to accept as legitimate any "interrogation techniques" condoned by the torture memos of Jay Bybee, John Yoo and the White House Office of Legal Counsel.

Meanwhile, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings, one of my favorite bloggers, is retiring. As she explains it:
"The main reason I started blogging, besides the fact that I thought it would be fun, was that starting sometime in 2002, I thought that my country had gone insane. It wasn't just the insane policies, although that was part of it. It was the sheer level of invective: the way that people who held what seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable views, e.g. that invading Iraq might not be such a smart move, were routinely being described as al Qaeda sympathizers who hated America and all it stood for and wanted us all to die.

"I thought: we've gone mad. And I have to do something -- not because I thought that I personally could have any appreciable effect on this, but because it felt like what Katherine called an all hands on deck moment."
All this rings true for me, too. Hilzoy will be missed, though I'm not quite ready to follow her (and Sarah Palin's) lead by shutting down this forum. In keeping with the eclectic nature of Runes, more entries on political topics seem inevitable. For now, though, it's great fun sifting through my bookshelves, photo collection and YouTube for items that might otherwise be overlooked. If nothing else, Runes can always function as a kind of personal archive, journal and storage locker.

PHOTO: From a men's room at Goldman Sachs, which just reported record profits of $3.44 billion. GS is the largest remaining investment bank on Wall Street.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Three jugalbandhis from India

Rahul Sharma is joined by his father, Shivkumar Sharma, in an intricate santoor jugalbandhi (or duet), with Anindo Chatterjee on the tabla and an unidentified accompanist (Paris, 2001). The closest western equivalent to the santoor (originally an Iranian instrument) is probably the hammer dulcimer. They perform a vachaspati, or raga, in the Carnatic scale of southern Indian classical music.

In the following clip, two western instruments are seamlessly adapted to Indian classical styles: the incredible Uppalapu Srinivas performs on the mandolin and the equally masterful D. Bhattacharya on guitar, with B. Harikumar on the mridangam (drum). The tabla player isn't identified. They performed in Paris in May 2007. Unfortunately, the music is interrupted twice by interviews which, though interesting in themselves, should've been grouped together so that the music could be continuous. (You can easily skip ahead to the next musical segment. The interaction between the musicians in the last minute is both amazing and amusing.)

Finally, here's a keervani raga with Srinivas on mandolin, the phenomenal Zakir Hussain on tabla and Sultan Khan on the sarangi (Indian violin). The sound reproduction and video quality aren't exactly optimal, but it's still worth a listen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

ReJoyce on Bloomsday

"The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works." —James Joyce
This slideshow, accompanied by Toumani Diabaté on the solo kora, is Runes' tribute to James Joyce on the 105th anniversary of Bloomsday.

Observed annually on June 16th in Dublin and elsewhere, Bloomsday celebrates the life of the Irish writer and his novel Ulysses, whose events occurred over a single day and night in Dublin in 1904. The name derives from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist (some would say "antihero") of Ulysses. The same day in 1904 was also the occasion of Joyce's first romantic encounter with his future spouse, Nora Barnacle, on the beach near the village of Ringsend, outside Dublin.

"Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives." —James Joyce

The following excerpt, from Finnegans Wake, is recited by the master himself:

[Slideshow produced by M.J. O'Brien, 2009.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day - Aldo Leopold

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
--Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), A Sand County Almanac (1949)

: Northern Pickets from Hannagan Peak, North Cascades National Park, Washington State (by M.J. O'Brien). An hour after this picture was taken it was raining — hard.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Blues Break: Two versions of "Mockingbird"

Aretha Franklin is joined by Roy Johnson in a rollicking version of "Mockingbird" back in the sixties on an unidentified TV show. (Aretha finally can't stay in her seat any longer at around 1:10.)

And here's a another version, with lyrics that are very much her own, by Regina Spektor. Her cover of "Little Boxes," written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, is the perfect introduction to various episodes of Showtime's "Weed" series.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Quotes of the week: Anthony Lewis and Samuel Beckett

On the issue of tort "reform" and high litigation rates in the U.S., Anthony Lewis writes in the April 9th issue of the New York Review of Books:
"This country is notoriously lacking in safety nets that are taken for granted in other advanced societies. Medical care is guaranteed by the state, by one method or another, in Canada and all European countries; in the United States upward of 40 million people have no medical insurance. Around 46 percent of employed Americans get not even one day of paid sick leave—which is guaranteed by law in 145 other countries. Lawsuits are often a substitute for safety nets."
The latest volume of Samuel Beckett's vast correspondence is creating a lot of buzz (and here), apparently for good reason. On more than one occasion, Beckett was ready to abandon writing altogether. As he wrote in 1936:
"I hope I am not too old to take [flying] up seriously, nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot. I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read. It is not as though I wanted to write them."
PHOTO: Samuel Beckett by Louis le Brocquy, 1979 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quote of the day: Orhan Pamuk - "Snow"

Just finished Snow (2001), by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, and it's a suitable read for our gloomy winter nights here in Oregon in fact, very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky at his darkest and most philosophical. In one chapter, set in the remote border town of Kars, the narrator invites a group of young people to give Westerners a message. One of them responds:
"Mankind's greatest error," continued the young Kurd, "the biggest deception in the past thousand years is this: to confuse poverty with stupidity...People might feel sorry for a man who's fallen on hard times, but when the entire nation is poor, the rest of the world assumes all of its people must be brainless, lazy, dirty, clumsy fools. Instead of pity, the people provoke laughter. It's all a joke: their culture, their customs, their practices."

PHOTO: Orhan Pamuk (Wikipedia Commons)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Blues Break: Cohen & Robinson - "Boogie Street"

Boogie Street - Lyrics

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we'd meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it's done:
I'm back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it's time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I'm wanted at the traffic-jam.
They're saving me a seat.
I'm what I am, and what I am,
Is back on Boogie Street.

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I'd kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One...

So come, my friends, be not afraid.
We are so lightly here.
It is in love that we are made;
In love we disappear.
Tho' all the maps of blood and flesh
Are posted on the door,
There's no one who has told us yet
What Boogie Street is for.

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we'd meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it's done:
I'm back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it's time to go . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

An animation backs up this fine performance of "Boogie Street" by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote the lyrics.

"Boogie Street" was composed for the "Ten New Songs" album, released in 2001. Another song from the album, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," picks up the Boogie Street motif.

"Ten New Songs" contains some of Cohen's best work and reflects his emergence from a deep depression. For years he lived in a zen monastery with Roshi, his master, on Mt. Baldy in California. During that time his business manager embezzled nearly all his savings . The whole sad story is revealed in interviews with Cohen in the 2006 film "I'm Your Man" (which includes a musical tribute performed in Australia by Nick Cave, U2 and various other musicians). He admits, at one point, that all those years in a zen monastery contributed little to his mental health. He says that other people commented on how calm and "centered" he seemed, yet it was all a facade devised to conceal a prolonged rage that he couldn't escape.

Even though he's now 74, Cohen has been touring in Europe, North America and Australia so he can recover his financial footing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

2,192 days later

On the sad occasion of the 6th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, this observation by Fareed Zacharia in Newsweek is worth repeating:
"The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own—Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world."
To date, at least 4,260 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, and another 31,103 wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties vary wildly, from a conservative estimate of 44,645 deaths to the high six figures. (The meticulous compilers of this data at icasualties.org note the following: "This is simply a compilation of deaths reported by news agencies. Actual totals for Iraqi deaths are much higher than the numbers recorded on this site.") An estimated 8,958 members of the Iraqi security forces have also been killed since the beginning of the Bush/Cheney war of aggression.

The situation for most Iraqis remains appalling despite recent improvements in security. AFP reports:
"Millions of civilians are still facing hardship every day," ICRC [Red Cross] president Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement after a five-day visit to the country.

"Indiscriminate attacks continue to leave dozens of people killed or injured on a daily basis despite improvements in the security situation in many parts of Iraq."

In 2007, 17,430 Iraqis died in violence. In 2008, 6,772 people were killed and the first two months of 2009 saw 449 die, the lowest official death toll since the invasion on March 20, 2003.

Basic services like public water supplies are still deficient, as described by Matthew Schofield of McClatchy Newspapers:
The stench of human waste is enough to tell Falah abu Hasan that his drinking water is bad. His infant daughter Fatma's continuous illnesses and his own constant nausea confirm it.

"We are the poor. No one cares if we get sick and die," he said. "But someone should do something about the water. It is dirty. It brings disease."

Everybody complains about the water in Baghdad , and few are willing to risk drinking it from the tap. Six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq , 36 percent of Baghdad's drinking water is unsafe, according to the Iraqi Environment Ministry — in a good month. In a bad month, it's 90 percent. Cholera broke out last summer, and officials fear another outbreak this year.

"Even if the water is good today, no one would trust it," grocer Hussein Jawad said. He said that about 40 percent of his business was selling bottled drinking water, crates of which he's stacked 7 feet high on the sidewalk. "We've learned to be afraid."

The irony of bad water is lost on few here. When the city was founded 1,200 years ago, it was named Baghdad al Zawhaa, " Baghdad the Garden," because water was plentiful. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers formed the boundaries of Mesopotamia and fed the fields in the cradle of civilization.

Meanwhile, George Bush, during a speaking engagement in Calgary, is already plugging his memoirs, tentatively entitled "Decision Points." On CNN, Dick Cheney declares that "stuff happens" — and we "ended up" with two of the longest wars in U.S. history. For Cheney, it's as if the illegal invasion of Iraq was the result of irresistible natural forces rather than a deliberate policy choice. So far there are no indications that either Bush or Cheney will ever be held accountable for that choice, except by historians.

PHOTO: Antiwar demonstrator in Portland, Oregon - March 19, 2006 [M.J. O'Brien]

[H/T to Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings.]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Werewolves and zombies

The AIG fiasco leads to a few unavoidable conclusions:

1) Tim Geithner and Larry Summers need to join the growing ranks of the unemployed, who already number 10.8% of the workforce here in Oregon. Joblessness would only be temporary for them, no doubt. They're old-school crony capitalists who fundamentally don't get it because they're too embedded in the culture of Wall Street. They should be replaced by advisors who aren't totally clueless — people like Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, for example.

2) The behavior of the werewolves who occupy the AIG corporate leadership may be politically tone-deaf, but it was absolutely predictable. The rage is more suitably directed at politicians: the very people who either saw this coming and accepted it, or should've seen it coming and acted to prevent it. The feigned naïveté of politicians who are "shocked" by the AIG bonuses is a nauseating sight to behold.

3) If U.S. taxpayers own AIG (nearly 80%) and the zombie banks, they should exercise a proportionate amount of control over their management.

4) Legal platitudes about the sanctity of contracts were notably absent when the Big Three abrogated agreements with the United Auto Workers and other unions. Worst case: unilaterally rescind the contracts and let the executives make their arguments to a jury.

5) Scary as it sounds, bankruptcy is a better alternative for AIG and the zombie banks than endless bailouts with no transparency. For one thing, Chapter 11 filings would allow these corporations to avoid pre-existing contractual obligations to provide bonuses and golden parachutes. It would also allow them to dump their most toxic assets.

6) Barack Obama's adaptive skills are impressive enough that he can quickly clean house, learn the necessary lessons and move on to a more populist model for economic recovery (with a little help from Reich and Krugman, among many others).

And not least:

7) The whole cultural obsession with short-term gain needs to be examined at the deepest levels, from politics (with its focus on "short-term outcomes dictated by the electoral cycle") to the economy. Short-term gain often produces long-term pain, as the AIG fiasco again demonstrates. [To start, here's a minor suggestion: amend the Constitution to allow for 4-year terms in the House of Representatives to promote long-term thinking and reduce nonstop campaigning and fundraising.]

GRAPHIC: The werewolves at AIG (Wikimedia).

[Note: versions of this entry were cross-posted at Obsidian Wings and Lawyers, Guns and Money.]

Saturday, March 07, 2009

One planet. One people.

As a compulsive collector of quotations, I hereby add the following to the bulging shelves of my archives:
All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this is the current glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories are flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes), along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Ken­ya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.

—Pico Iyer (from a review of Yiyun Li's The Vagrants in the March 6th edition of the New York Times Book Review)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Disobeying a traffic control device, Oregon-style

Deschutes National Forest - Oregon Cascades
[Photo by M.J. O'Brien, 2002]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rachel Maddow interviews Michael Isikoff on the torture lawyers

Rachel interviews Michael Isikoff at the end of this segment (February 16th) on the latest revelations about the Bush Justice Department. Isikoff makes a compelling, if somewhat obvious, argument:

1) IF the Yoo/Bybee memo was intended to gave Bush officials legal cover for waterboarding and other forms of torture, AND
2) Those same officials pressured Bybee, Yoo and or AG Gonzales to produce exactly that justification, THEN
3) The whole legal cover evaporates, taking with it the "good faith" defense.

"Good faith reliance" on a legal opinion still has some political credence as a barrier to prosecutions, as Barack Obama himself has declared. But, legally speaking, acting in "good faith" is not, and has never been, a defense to a federal torture charge.

Morally speaking, we can hope that a person instructed to waterboard a detainee would hesitate and refuse — even if a "legal opinion" said it was okay.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Slapping a few wrists

In the February 14th issue of Newsweek, Michael Isikoff writes:
"An internal Justice Department report on the conduct of senior lawyers who approved waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics is causing anxiety among former Bush administration officials. H. Marshall Jarrett, chief of the department's ethics watchdog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), confirmed last year he was investigating whether the legal advice in crucial interrogation memos "was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys."


"If [Attorney General] Holder accepts the OPR findings, the report could be forwarded to state bar associations for possible disciplinary action."
Jay Bybee and John Yoo, authors of the infamous torture memo, must be quaking in horror at the prospect of disciplinary action that could range from a reprimand to suspension to disbarment.

As a practical matter, any disciplinary proceedings against Yoo would have little effect since he teaches law as a tenured member of the faculty at Berkeley. Jay Bybee sits on the 9th Circuit, and it's no small matter to discipline or remove a sitting federal judge. However, it seems highly unlikely that either Yoo or Bybee would face grave sanctions for "'deeply flawed' and 'sloppily reasoned' legal analysis." If they had been in the private sector when their opinions had been offered, a lawsuit for malpractice might prove more productive.

While professional discipline wouldn't be much of a sanction, given the war crimes these officials directly facilitated, at least it would be a start.

Under the Nuremberg principles, there's ample ground to launch a criminal investigation of Bybee and Yoo, along with former AG Alberto Gonzales. The true purpose of their "advice" was to give legal cover to practices that were blatantly in violation of U.S. and international laws prohibiting torture. Reliance on that advice is no excuse whatsoever. This hasn't been a gray area of the law for at least 63 years.

Nazi lawyers and judges were successfully prosecuted at Nuremberg
by U.S. prosecutors for making the kinds of technical, bureaucratic arguments that Bybee, Yoo and Gonzales devised.

Obama needs to reconsider his apparent reluctance to investigate the Bush years and his inexplicable statement that officials who relied on legal opinions shouldn't be prosecuted.
As a lawyer who has taught constitutional law, he surely realizes that there's no "good faith" defense to torture, and any reliance on legal opinions must be "reasonable." Moreover, the "good faith" argument is all too evocative of the discredited Nuremberg Defense ("I was only following orders").

Disciplinary proceedings would send a "signal," but not a very strong one unless they provide a legal and political foundation for actual prosecutions of Bybee, Yoo and the rest of the Bush/Cheney cabal. A stronger move would be the creation of a "truth and reconciliation commission" along the lines proposed last week by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

Unfortunately, Leahy qualified his proposal by stating that "he was only
offering the idea to see how much support it had:"

"We need to see whether the American people are ready to take this path," he said, adding that he did not have anyone in particular in mind to lead the commission, but wanted "people with real credibility."

Why should the "level of support" really matter if war crimes were committed? (No doubt there was little support for the Nuremberg prosecutions in Germany in 1945 [1].) As Obama stated last week:
"Nobody's above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back," said Obama. "I will take a look at Senator Leahy's proposal but my general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward."
In the face of such headwinds, it will require someone with raw political courage to pursue this issue, and that's traditionally been a scarce commodity in Washington (with some notable exceptions). But without an investigation, there's simply no way to evaluate whether any "wrongdoing" has occurred.

Finally, the least serious crimes committed by the Bush/Cheney administration are the ones that seem to be getting the most attention: torture and "abusive interrogations," detentions without due process, warrantless wiretaps, improper hirings and firings in the Justice Department. Sadly, the most serious offenses get little attention: crimes against peace, including such crimes against humanity as waging an aggressive war in Iraq and "the wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity" [Nuremberg Principle VI (b)].

Unless these questions are thoroughly addressed by an investigation, we
— like the rest of the world — will be left to wonder what kind of people we are.


[1] This is not meant to suggest that the war crimes of the Bush administration are comparable, qualitatively or quantitatively, to those of the Nazis. But some of the same legal considerations apply to prosecutions under the Nuremberg principles and other provisions of international law. This topic has gotten a lot of attention on these pages, including (most recently) here and here.

PHOTO: Speaking of political courage, where's the great Telford Taylor (1908-98), a chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, when we really need him? [Wikimedia Commons]

[H/T to Lawyers, Guns and Money and Obsidian Wings, where
versions of the above were cross-posted as comments.]