Saturday, June 30, 2007

Impeach Earl Warren

Most people won't remember the billboards that went up in the states of the old Confederacy and some plains states as well after Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Furguson and outlawed segregation in America. Those billboards exhorted people to get behind a movement to impeach the new U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren. Warren had led the court to a unanimous decision that when our Constitution proclaimed equal rights to all men, it meant it regardless of minor distinctions like skin color, ethnicity, and the like. But that upset a lot of people, rich and poor, who thought that equality was fine for those who were most like themselves and inappropriate for those they preferred to hate.

A decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision one of the things at stake in the 1964 presidential election was implementation of that decision. Senators like James O. Eastland, John Stennis, Richard Russell and Strom Thurmond couldn't hold back the 1964 Voting Rights Act but they could nullify it if right-wing fanatics took the White House. They didn't get their wish then.

When they did finally elect a neo-fascist in 1968 the majority of Americans' popular perception was that all men and women were indeed created equal. Richard Nixon rode into the White House on the disarray of the Democrats following Robert Kennedy's murder and an effective campaign to blame peaceful protesters in Chicago for the police riot that victimized them. But Nixon also rode into office on his "Southern Strategy". That strategy involved pandering to the racists, segregationists, states-rights proponents, Klansmen and the like who'd been loyal Democrats since 1865. Suddenly the scum of American politics were following Strom Thurmond into the Republican Party that had been anathema to them since Abraham Lincoln's first campaign.

Truth to tell, the populist Democrats from the South in the 1920s and 1930s such as Hugo Black, Claude Pepper, Sam Rayburn and others were less concerned about race than they were about economic standing. That concern allowed them to come to an uneasy accommodation with Northern Democrats, whose more liberal views on race were out of sync with that of their Southern constituents, focused on moving America out of the Great Depression. The understanding that the chains that weighted people down had more to do with class than color opened those populist leaders to change. The casually Democratic and casually bigoted voter did not share that openness and were ripe for picking by Republicans cynically eager to heave Lincoln overboard for racist votes.

But Nixon couldn't manage to shove onto the Supreme Court the candidates of his racist backers, the Klan tainted Clement F. Haynesworth and G. Harold Carswell. He did get the Arizona racist, William Rhenquist, onto the court but Southern racists simply couldn't pass muster. The Haynesworth and Carswell fiascoes taught the Republicans that they needed to reframe their arguments and concentrate on subtlety.

They propagandized their position as opposition to "activist judges" and a focus on "the original intent of the framers of the Constitution". In fact, those catch phrases have always been an Orwellian smoke screen for promoting right-wing extremists who would take us back, not just to the Vinson Court of 1952 but to the Taney Court of 1852. Right-wing fanatics like Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia and Scalia's puppet, Clarence Thomas, have no more respect for or knowledge of the "original intent" that they trumpet than they have for the rights of individuals against corporations. They are exactly what they profess to oppose: activist judges, though they are themselves activists for neo-fascism.

The next attempt to neutralize the Supreme Court during the Reagan Presidency narrowly avoided afflicting the nation with Robert Bork. We despised Bork for firing Archibald Cox in 1973 but the reason for keeping him off the Supreme Court was his neo-fascist extremist vision of the Constitution. No one questions the contradiction inherent in the belief that Bork, Scalia and their ilk can use some bizarre telepathy to mystically understand the "original intent of the founders" even as they insist that the Constitution is ossified and unchanging, that things not specifically delineated in it do not exist. There is no right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution because "the founders" (sounds awfully like Star Trek: Deep Space 9, doesn't it?) never heard of personal privacy and were utterly unaware of the concept when they drafted the 3rd and 4th Amendments in the Bill of Rights.

But persistence counts for something. Having packed the court at last with reliably neo-fascist jurists 53 years later, the Supreme Court that couldn't be rid of desegregation by impeaching Earl Warren has now achieved a reinstatement of Plessy v. Ferguson in the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al. It is an uneasy reversal given that Justice Anthony Kennedy who swallows a great deal of rancid neo-fascist tripe choked on some of the reasoning and consequences that his even more extremist colleagues served up.

As many of us believed when Roberts went before the Senate Judiciary Committee all but wearing a t-shirt that read, "I (heart) Stare Decisis," the new Chief Justice has no compunctions for dragging us back to the 1850s. And that return to segregation if not to slavery is cynically couched in the rhetoric of being "color blind". The irrational explanation for that catch phrase is that if race should not be an occasion for discrimination then ignoring race will magically make racism disappear. One of the requirements for being a right-winger is voluntary an selective disassociation from reality and a kind of magical thinking in which idiocy like closing ones eyes and ears makes bad things go away. The 5-member Supreme Court majority has stuck its collective fingers in its collective ears and intoned "La-la-la-la-la! I can't hear racism!" As if that would make it go away.

Segregation in America was the next best thing to having "happy darky slaves" picking in the "ole cotton fields back home." Had the South been able to completely undo the Civil War it would have done so. The violent opposition to the Civil Rights Movement that culminated in the 1960s proved that. The graves of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo, Martin Luther King, Jr. prove that. The more recent murder of James Byrd proves that the agenda has not changed. At long last Scalia, Kennedy, Roberts, Alito and their houseboy, Thomas, can effectuate that agenda. How they are going to negate the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments remains to be seen but we can have confidence those who'd sacrifice a mother to save a deformed and non-viable fetus will find a way.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fruits de Mer II: A bounder speaks of shad

Yes, indeed. Shad.

Out here in Bellingham, Washington shad is pretty much ignored except, perhaps, by a few very old people and some younger ones who've come across the word "shad" as an archaic epithet.

It is the largest herring species, a migratory fish that, like the salmon, swims upriver to spawning grounds each year. In the Connecticut River that "run" comes in late April and early May.

Shad is an bony fish with pale whitish-brown flesh and a broad dark stripe that runs from gills to tail along the spine. It is a bit oily when cooked with the skin, but delicious. The most famous part is the delicacy known as shad roe, so famous, indeed that it makes an appearance in Cole Porter's Let's Do It. The roe is the egg case of the female who is ready to spawn. Dredged in flour containing a little salt and pepper, sautéed in butter and served with a wedge or two of lemon, the reason for its fame becomes absolutely clear. But, to my mind, the real prize is the fish itself.

The the Algonquin story of how shad came to be is really delightful.

Once, a very long time ago, when the world was much, much younger than it is now there lived a porcupine. This porcupine wanted friends. He tried to make friends but as soon as he got near the other animals he'd poke them with his quills no matter how careful he tried to be. The badger, the squirrel, the mole indeed all the animals avoided him. They stayed away from the poor porcupine and left it very lonely.

The porcupine found his loneliness so intolerable that he prayed to the Great Spirit for help. He cursed the Great Spirit for making him so spiny and lonely. And alternately begging and cursing, he continued his prayers incessantly. Above all he prayed to be something, anything other than what he was. So long and so hard did the porcupine importune the Great Spirit that he finally grew weary and not a little short-tempered. In the end, the Great Spirit reached down, picked up the porcupine, reached into his mouth, turned the porcupine inside out and tossed him into the river. The porcupine, now become the first shad, swam away and soon had plenty of friends that schooled with him solving his problem, though not, I would think, exactly as he'd envisioned.

I have known shad as a rite of spring since I was not quite a year old. For me shad came from the Connecticut River and one got Connecticut River shad at Spenser's Haddam Shad Shack. Getting shad involved a picnic and a pilgrimage. We would pack up a picnic basket, climb into my Uncle George's 1949 Packard sedan (then new) and drive east through Meriden to Middletown. We would then pick up what is now Connecticut Route 154 but which then was Route 9. We would then head south along the Connecticut River through a string of riverside villages that are the visual essence of New England. There is a whitewashed, steepled church on the crest of each hill and a cluster of houses most of which date back to the early 19th Century or earlier.

The trip always happened in early May when the dogwood was in bloom, much of the forsythia was still yellow and spring flower abounded. The beauty through which we made the trip is incomparable. The landscape and the west bank river towns were serene and stable guardians on the hills above the river. The river itself was the broad, blue mirror to a quiet, changeless world. It was time travel of a sort, a journey over the rainbow. Our Oz was the string of river towns from Middletown south to Chester and Deep River presided over, on the east bank, by William Gillette's great fieldstone castle on its beetling bluff, a presence that only heightened the magical quality of the journey.

Spenser's was still there the last time I got a chance to look. It sits on Route 154, the Saybrook Road, just south of the centre of Haddam and backed up against a railroad embankment. It is a small, square shack though today it has been brought up to state and local standards.

Fifty years ago some fishermen brought in the shad to the Shad Shack. At a shelf than running under the windows around the front half of Spenser's sat a group of women wearing white aprons bespattered with shad blood and shad guts.They each had 3 buckets and a bowl. In one bucket were whole shad straight from the river. The second bucket was for the innards, heads and other leavings. The bowl was for any roe that they found. The third bucket was for fillets. These women - I remember at least 4 - also had a compliment of filleting knives. A woman, barely looking away from the shelf, would reach down and extract a whole shad from the first bucket. Then, magically to a young boy, the knives would flash, a roe might go into the bowl, 2 fillets would go in the third bucket and the mass of guts, bones and head would end up in the second bucket all in an instant before the next shad came to the filleting station. It was fascinating, horrifying work and equally amazing when one considers how fast they worked and how bony shad is. In all the fillets of their creation that I ate seldom did I find a bone.

To me, Spencer's is the one and only place to get proper Connecticut River shad.

We'd stop for lunch at Seven Falls State Park, usually after our visit to Spenser's with the shad and roe safely stowed in the ice chest we'd brought for the purpose. Once the sandwiches were eaten the juice drunk and the leftovers packed away we would head home. The unspoken contract required that we would eat shad that night.

My mother baked shad fillets. She made a bread stuffing with Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix heavily seasoned with Bell's Poultry Seasoning with which to stuff the fillets. Atop the central mound of stuffing she laid 3 or 4 short strips of bacon diagonally. Then in the oven it went. While waiting for the shad to cook, I was going to digress on Bell's Seasoning but it is so special in itself that I think I'll leave it for another entry. In about half an hour the shad would be done. We'd have the fish, probably creamy mashed potatoes and a spring vegetable. I would like to say that we had asparagus or fiddleheads with Hollandaise sauce but I introduced that pairing as an adult, baking shad from Spenser's in my own kitchen. It was a great meal, a great joy and the whole meaning of spring on a plate.

I understand that the Columbia River has a shad run. I must find out more about it because I miss that drive along the Connecticut River. The mnemonic shad will transport me there again, I know.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Fruits de Mer I: The incredible edible clam...fried ones in particular

One of the remarkable things about this part of the Northwest is the fish and other seafood. The salmon is incredible. It is some of the most delicious fish I've ever eaten, as much because it is so fresh as for any other quality - and there are many other fine qualities.

We have oysters the size of baby shoes that are luscious and briny and a delight raw or cooked. The mussels need some help from garlic, wine and spices to bring out their flavor, but that's true of mussels anywhere. And shrimp (mostly called "prawns" in deference to the Britishism migrating down from Canada) are not local but are ubiquitous and good for all that.

The halibut from Alaskan waters is definitely as wonderful as the salmon. And Dungeness Bay with its deservedly famous crabs lies just southwest of here.

But the Northwest doesn't know clams. There are clams here but they are a misunderstood and underrated mollusk indeed. Most appalling to a New Englander is that there is not a decent fried clam to be had. Sad to say the pallid, homogenized, characterless version of fried clams available here is (I am ashamed even that I must mention it!) clam strips. It's as if the whole Northwest were one, huge Howard Johnson's. For those of you who don't know from such things, clam strips are to clams what Velveeta is to cheese. The one is derived from the other, thinks of itself as like the other but has been so processed and degraded as to be a sad parody of the real thing.

Clam strips are, at best, the "foot" muscle of a large clam of the sort we New Englanders refer to as quahogs. We refer to them by that term because it's the term that the Algonquian nations of native peoples taught my starving, pilgrim ancestors to use as they smashed the shells on rocks and dug out the meat rather than collapse from malnutrition. It may not have originally referred to the clam at all but could mean something on the order of "dumb-ass foreigner whom I probably should let starve".

I am not sure but I would not be surprised to find that, much like the ubiquitous and worthless chicken nugget, clam strips are probably pounded and ground and shredded and reconstituted into a pasteurized, processed clam-food that is then coated with an obscuring coating of flour and breadcrumbs then foisted off on a public unaware of the real thing.

I am a confirmed atheist. I neither need nor want a big, imaginary friend in the sky as George Carlin so aptly puts it. But if I were looking for one palpable and irrefutable argument for the existence of a good and benevolent god who wishes his human children well, I would cite the clam. It is delicious, sweet, edible in just about any form (except clam strips) and there for a bit of digging just below the tide line. If I were a god who looked out for his creatures, I'd certainly give them clams.

A real fried clam starts out as a soft-shell clam, a variety that is oval and has, as the name implies, a thin shell. These clams don't have as thick a membrane as do quahogs and similar hard shell clams. The consequence is that they seem "open" or stringy in appearance (not in texture). Like virtually all commercially sold clams either hard or soft shelled, they are dug from the tidal flats on the ocean verge and then placed in holding tanks. In those tanks they are covered in filtered seawater and fed a diet of cornmeal before being sold whole or shelled. The prime feature is that they are the whole clam and include the "bellies". Though it sounds rather on the unappetizing side, the "belly" is the alimentary tract which, in these clams, is now full of cornmeal. They are sweet and delicious in a way that the pasteurized, processed clam strip can never be. And before you get all perturbed about this part of the clam, remember that if you eat whole oysters or mussels, you are eating the same parts though those parts are concealed.

So a fair question to ask would be if I have access to such wonderful native seafood, what do I want with clams that would have to be shipped 3,600 miles?

The answer is complicated. Most of the time I don't pine for real fried clams. Even when I do I won't waste my money on trying to substitute the entirely unsatisfactory clam strips. I try to drown my craving in some of the local seafood distractions. But then the desire occasionally overwhelms. It spurs me rather in the manner of something else for which I occasionally get a craving.

My paternal grandmother made her own kielbasa. It was fresh, not smoked, and wonderful, full of garlic, mustard seeds that got caught in your teeth and delicious beyond description. She also made potato kielbasa, of which most commercial kishka is a distant cousin, and, above all, potato pancakes. Around Easter Steve's Quality Market in downtown Salem, Massachusetts had fresh kielbasa that came very close to Babci's but I make my own potato pancakes, always seeking and never finding the elusive affirmation from my memory that I've duplicated her unrecorded recipe exactly. My Babci has been gone for 20 years but her kielbasa and potato pancakes are both comfort food and a way of connecting with my memories of her. Fried clams have a rather similar effect. They connect me to an essential part of my former home. They have a quality of memory, of longing for an idealized past and warm, embracing nostalgia that few other things recall.

Real friend clams carry the baggage of the summer of 1959 on Cape Cod, summer nights at Jimmie's of Savin Rock in West Haven, Connecticut both before and after the old amusement park was gone, of meals on whitewashed picnic tables beside roadside stands, of the Frankie's drive-in at the corner of Watertown Avenue and Aurora Street in Waterbury, Connecticut and Kelley's on Revere Beach, of an evening meal with two college friends, one now gone, at Doane's in Swampscott, also in Massachusetts. They taste of watching Fourth of July fireworks from the parking lot of Farnham's in Essex, Massachusetts with 3 of the friends I love most in all the world and a bit of comfort on an icy day at Woodman's, just a little closer to the centre of Essex, after laying a stone on the grave of another person I loved dearly and deeply. For better or worse no other seafood, regardless of how fresh, how plentiful or how good will ever carry the freight and savor of all those memories. The best of the oysters, salmon and crab found here, wonderful as it is, cannot match the wonder of a plate of real fried clams.

But then there's also Connecticut River Shad, but that's another entry.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Executive Privilege: A marriage of convenience

Now let me get this straight...

Dick Cheney's buddy-buddy consultations with oil companies over what sort of national energy policy would be best for them cannot be made public because he has a special privilege for the advice he receives as a member of the Executive Branch of our government. He had Executive Privilege that enables him to keep the advice he receives secret.

Dick Cheney's office does not have to turn documents and other information over to the National Archives as required by law and ordered by an Executive Order from his ostensible superior, President(*) George W. Bush, because he is a member of the Legislative Branch of government and, therefore, is not subject to Executive Orders.

Pardon me, but is that not the very paradigm of having one's cake and eating it too?

We know that "Republican" is a synonym for "hypocrite" (also for "criminal" and "war criminal") but this seems to rise to a new level. It is a level that even Alberto Gonzales' situational Alzheimer's Disease doesn't quite reach. The level of cynicism required to make that argument with a straight face is utterly incomprehensible to most people who are not or haven't been Fox News employees.

One could, I suppose, make the case that the Dubya Bush Administration has been the most ironic in American History given the consistent and complete disconnect between its statements and its actions, but I think that we've gone far afield from irony. An American Administration that blathers about "spreading democracy" at every turn but works vigorously to undermine democracy in America cannot be described as ironic any longer. Something far more vile and sinister is involved here.

The Republican Party and its leaders long ago (in the 1870s) decided that most people's acquaintance with democracy was purely as a word or an oddity. Most people understand that democracy exists in the same sense that they understand that those weird, luminescent fish that live in the dark ocean depths exist. They have the sense that it is a good thing, something that they even are supposed to venerate. Still, in the minds of the true Republican, people have no concept of what real democracy is. The vague understanding that it is a good word is sufficient. Even if people should connect it to the line in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (entirely unknown in the old Confederacy) about "government of the people, by the people and for the people" there's still next to no concept of the meaning. Popularly, if we get to vote every so often and then go home, shut up and accept whatever lies out leaders deign to spout, that's democracy. Democracy is, therefore, an advertising slogan like "Fahrvegnugen" and about as intelligible to the average American in the thinking of most Republicans.

For that minority that does have some deeper understanding of genuine democracy, the Republicans effectively neutralize them by deriding them as "ACLU-types", "effete Liberals" and by questioning their patriotism. That is, of course, supremely ironic and surpassingly cynical to have those who despise the founding principles of America questioning the patriotism of those who most honor it. But let me return to the specific case of the current Vice-president, the Galactic Emperor.

The concept most basic to democracy is an educated and informed public governing itself. That's not some opinion I've just cobbled up. It was the opinion of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and most of the men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write our Constitution. A public without information is, by definition, deprived of information necessary to making informed decisions about its governance. Depriving citizens of that information also deprives them of the basics of democracy. The secrecy in which Cheney envelopes himself is utterly anti-democratic. It most resembles the kind of government from which the Continental Congress rebelled in 1775 or the governments which we fought from 1941 through 1945. It in no way resembles American representative democracy.

Some apologists for neo-fascism make the case that our government must have some secrets lest we surrender the means of our defeat to our enemies. Taken on its face and unquestioningly that statement is certainly true. But who is the "enemy" from whom we must withhold the consultations over the Dubya Administration's energy policy? Is there some evil power that can attack America with the information on how we support or don't support ethanol production? Is some terrorist group going to use information on tax breaks for oil companies to poison our water supply? Of course not. The "enemy" from which Cheney withheld information about his consultations with oil companies is the American people. Were we to have been informed of the graft, quid pro quos and general malfeasance that went into creation of the Dubya Administration's energy policy, the 2004 election would not even have been close, a Democrat would now be president and Cheney and his cohorts would now be fighting indictments in court.

But let me give Cheney the benefit of the doubt. Let's pretend for a moment that every act of the Office of the Vice-president has met the highest moral and ethical standards. Let's pretend that Scooter Libby's unquestionable obstruction of justice was a total aberration or vicious persecution by an overzealous, out-of-control prosecutor. What is the point of hiding the information about the consultations for an energy policy? What is the point of refusing to archive documents that will not be made available to the general public while one is in office?

I think that the inescapable answer is that the point is that Cheney and his staff need to hide unethical and even criminal behavior from a public to which the criminality of that behavior would be so thoroughly obvious that the Vice-president could not remain in office for more than a few hours after the release of that information.

Some neo-fascist apologist, probable P. J. O'Rourke or Bill O'Reilly, will object that it's the principle of the thing. They will try to obfuscate by claiming that were the Vice-president to release the discussions in his energy policy deliberations or archive his records would require that the Vice-president to publicly reveal sensitive information that would harm our national security (another phrase of which few know the meaning). Again, that is utter nonsense. It supposes that the judiciary generally is out to undermine the security of our nation, a premise that is ridiculous on its face. The judges to which the Executive Branch could appeal are officials of this nation just as much as are Dubya and Cheney themselves. We know from an unbroken chain of precedent and experience over more than 200 years that judges are reliably circumspect when it comes to maintaining national security.

The only principle which Cheney, evidently with Dubya's support, defends is one of imperial immunity from examination by the citizenry. And that is neither American nor democratic not Constitutional.

The president and vice-president take an oath to defend the Constitution "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." I would suggest to you that they are in violation of that oath because they themselves are the domestic enemies of our Constitution. The terror that they have visited on America since January 20, 2001 has done more damage to this nation than Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atta and his fanatic gang. It is also worth remembering that, for his attack on this nation, we executed Timothy McVeigh.


(*) We know that Dubya has never won a free and fair election and could not do so without the neo-fascist coup in 2000 and the vote fraud by Diebold and others in 2004.)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

War and Music

And now for something completely different...

Every war has had its music. Soldiers have taken their popular tunes to war with them as long as there have been popular tunes. The American Southerners who first fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861 and later forgot that inconvenient fact by labeling our Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression" carried with them minstrel show tunes like Dixie and The Yellow Rose of Texas. The Northerners who fought to put down the rebellion brought with them songs like Lubly Fan (which we know better as Buffalo Gals) and The Year of Jubilo. Indeed, America's national anthem derives from a popular song of 200 years ago. Its tune is that of the English drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven. Francis Scott Key substituted "the land of the free and the home of the brave" for "the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine" and thereby opened every baseball game in history.

Certainly there was martial music. One can't set out to massacre one's fellow men without a good marching song, now can one? But there's yet another sort of music, more in the popular vein, that fairly bleeds of wartime. It is the sentimental song of love and home. Though I may sound casually sarcastic as is my wont, these songs are often achingly beautiful and unquestionably moving when thought of in context.

What brings this to my mind is that as I write I am listening to a mix of news headlined by the senseless deaths in Iraq of more young Americans, sacrificed on the alter of neo-con ideology and Dubya's ego. In between news reports is a jazz program that has drawn heavily on the music of World War II. It strikes me that it is impossible to listen to a song like Sentimental Journey or Moonlight in Vermont without seeing the young men, two of whom were my father and Uncle Eddie, on the fields of Northern Europe or the islands of the Pacific. Nor is it possible to hear them without seeing the families and lovers waiting for their soldiers and sailors to make that sentimental journey home.

Perhaps the most sweetly sad of all Christmas songs is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas written in 1943-4. Not even White Christmas captures the yearning in every syllable of Hugh Martin's lyric:
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow.
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Martin's original lyrics were far more bitter and cynical, so much so that Judy Garland refused to sing them in Meet Me in St. Louis. The compromise above is still ineffably sad.

Those songs carry on a tradition from Civil War songs like Just Before the Battle, Mother and Aura Lea and include a hit on both sides of the European "Theatre" lines in both World Wars, Lili Marlene.

Vor der Kaserne, Vor dem großen Tor
Stand eine Laterne, Und steht sie noch davor
So woll'n wir uns da wieder seh'n
Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh'n
Wie einst Lili Marleen.
Wie einst Lili Marleen.

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate
Darling I remember the way you used to wait
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly
That you loved me, You'd always be
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marlene.

The English lyrics are more like a love song that retains something of both the meaning and spirit while, in German, there is the sadness of hoping in vain caught in that refrain that more exactly translates "As once, Lili Marlene."

Romantic songs continued to appear during the war in Korea but since then we have had unreal, even surreal wars that inspired protests more than songs of longing and derived their music from the hard, urban beats of rock and roll during Vietnam and Hip-Hop and Techno during our 2 more recent oil wars.

Was there an analog for I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time from Vietnam or either Gulf War? I don't think so. I could be missing something though I doubt it.

Certainly there are lovers parted from the men and women now serving in Iraq. Certainly they pine for their lover to come home. Certainly they are in a constant state of fear and worry that the one they love may be in the way of the next explosion on the next roadside. Yet the popular songs expressing their longing and anxiety seem absent. And I wonder why.

I want to offer one possibility. Perhaps those songs are absent because neither in Vietnam nor either Gulf War are we convinced that we actually are at war. Perhaps we view the absence of loved ones as an excessively long vacation in a dangerous land.

I think that for 40 years and more we have expected that those loved ones will come home physically whole rather than dead or maimed. We have had wars in which we have been insulated from the consequences and that insulation obviates the need for the songs of longing for home or for someone's homecoming.

If we do not accept that wars have consequences for us I think that makes it easier for a group of power-mad ideologues to fantasize that they can march into a country as occupiers amid showers of flowers and the cheers of the conquered people. I don't know if I'm correct in this but, should I be, we are in a frightening time indeed. If we have disjointed war from its inevitable consequences we are more likely to go to war more often with dire results for all concerned.

I think we will be better off when we start hearing a contemporary equivalent of I'll Be Seeing You.

A Tale of a Single Cell: Losing brains and cells

While I'm on the subject of cell phones I should relate a story of my most extensive experience with these instruments of satan.

A couple of years ago the wonderful and dear friend in whose house I formerly lived bought a prepaid cell phone. I vaguely recall that she got it before taking a road trip out to South Dakota to visit her oldest son despite what she tells me is the vast "no signal" zone in Montana in which a breakdown would make it most useful. I might be wrong about the purpose or that trip's date. In any case, she bought a prepaid cell.

She'd had it a while, tucked into the glove compartment in the car, when we set out to visit some friends who then lived in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington. We stopped to do some shopping along the way south. Once we were ready to continue on to Kent, Anna asked that I call Bill and Mary to let them know that we'd be at their house in about a half hour. She was driving, please note.

I managed to figure out how to use the demon device, placed the call, relayed the message and shut the phone off. Anna had extracted it from her purse so I sat with the thing in my hand during the rest of the drive. When we arrived I set the cell phone on the car's dashboard and made to exit the car. Anna said, "Don't put it there! Someone's likely to steal it." Given the upscale, neighborhood of condominiums and tract homes we were in the likelihood of a break-in to steal her cell phone was almost as likely as Dick Cheney being honest or Alberto Gonzales being competent, but she seized it from the dashboard and the cell phone disappeared I knew not where.

We had a nice visit with our friends, went home later that evening and life went on.

A couple of days later Anna asked me pointedly, "Do you remember what you did with the cell phone?" I related that I'd seen it last when I put it on the dashboard.

"Well, it's not there."

"No. You took it. I don't know what happened to it after that."

"I don't either. I don't have it."

"Did you check in the car?"

"Yes."

"Is it in your purse?"

"No. I looked."

"You're sure."

"Yes! I took my purse apart. It's not there."

A bit later I went up to the car and searched under seats and in all the recesses I could find. There was no cell phone. I reported that my search was fruitless.

"Well, there goes $60. I don't know what you did with it."

Even I, undiplomatic as I am, knew enough not to answer that one. I had lost the cell phone. I was an irresponsible turd and suitable punishments would be meted out at a time to be named later. They came. Have no doubt about that.

Months pass. Seasons change. Life goes on until one day Anna spontaneously says, "I was out at the doctor's today and was looking for something in my purse. I couldn't find the thing I was looking for but while I was searching I felt something hard in my purse. It was in a separate pocket attached to the bag near the strap. I opened up the pocket and what do you think was there?"

"The cell phone, right."

"Yes. The cell phone was there all along." She was exceptionally pleased that it had reappeared. I, on the other hand, thought it was the funniest thing I'd heard in days and promised that it would be a story I'd not soon forget, more because it's funny rather than that I deserved a bit of revenge for the crap I'd taken as the one who lost the cell phone that was only used once!

Stories like this don't really have a convenient end like some literary product. They are real life stories and, as such, they just peter out as we turn our attention to the next thing that real life has to throw at us. It's not even a story specific to Anna because nearly everyone of us has "lost" something that we really had all along. As we get older, Poe's tale of The Purloined Letter turns into The Senior Moment Letter with increasing frequency. And I can't even turn this into some lesson to prove in some new and additional way that cell phones are hell spawn. No, it's just a tale that couples, friends, relatives live out every day. But it does have the salutary effect of allowing me, whenever Anna began tooting her own horn especially loudly, of injecting a note of humility by turning to her with a short and simple question: "Remember the cell phone?"

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Street Signs III: They belong in a cell

Ah, yes! Cell phones!

Let me say up-front that I hate them. In Africa, India, the Himalayas, the Gobi and Sahara Deserts, the jungles of the Amazon and Orinoco basins and the steppes of Asia, even in the Arctic and Antarctic there is some justification for cell phones. In Boston, in Bellingham, in cars there is no justification whatever!

There is a retail chain for which I see ads on television called Car Toys. I believe that the owners, directors and executives of that chain should be jailed and fined a bazillion dollars each just for naming their chain Car Toys. Please let me explain.

Yes, I freely admit that I am a Luddite. I didn't own a PC until 2001. For the most part I avoid instant messaging. I have e-mailed but I have never "texted" a message and hope that, if I ever do, someone will be kind enough to put me out of my misery immediately. Just the usage of "text" as a verb makes my skin crawl. It's as disgusting and awful as "orientate" and "mischievous" when it's mispronounced "mis-CHEE-VEE-us". Just for the record one writes. One does not "text". To give something an orientation one orients it. And the adjective form of "mischief" is correctly pronounced "mis-CHIF-us". Those other usages and pronounciations are as grating as fingernails on a blackboard or, worse, some dunce sitting nearby and talking on a cell phone about something utterly banal and annoying.

I haven't owned an automobile since 1982. In the Boston area it was largely an unnecessary expense. I could get just about anywhere I needed to go on the bus-subway-commuter rail system known as "The T" as short for the MBTA or Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority. While riding "The T" into the age of the cell phone I was forced to listen to the private conversations of private people delivered at a volume that would make Pavarotti envious. On one notable occasion I was stuck on a train out of North Station in Boston seated next to a Yuppie hot-shot who was decked out in the appropriate style complete with cell phone and laptop. He had his laptop open and had brought up some site or other having to do with finance. He called someone ostensibly at a financial organization and was looking for information on his account. He proceeded to speak at full voice, "Hello, Darlene. This is Studley Everprep and I want to talk to you about my investment account. The account number is 'S' as in 'Sam', 'E' as in 'Echo', 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. I need to make a trade on that account. Can you help me with that? Fine! Yes, I'd like to sell 30 shares of Amalgamated Upscale and buy 80 shares of YupCo Industries. Correct! Yes. Thank you. You can deposit the balance to my account at Usurer's North American Trust. Do you have the account number on file? Yes. Yes, that's correct. Yes, it's 4-3-2-1-9-8-7-6-5. Super, Darlene! Thank you." He then proceeded to call a second broker or whoever and complete a similar transaction. He was about to dial a third time when I turned to him and said, "Do you really want everyone on this train to know that you're Studley Everprep whose investment acount number is SE123456789 and whose bank account number at Usurer's North American Trust is 432198765? Is it really a good idea to give anyone listening the information with which to clean out your bank accounts?"

The initial look of annoyance and exasperation on his face quickly changed to one of paniced horror. He was blessedly quiet for the rest of the time I was on the train though he did cast alarmed glances at me and some of the others around us now and again. He may have had no accounts anywhere and could simply have been faking the call in order to impress some object of his lust sitting nearby but his cowering fear after I interrupted him tend to make me believe that the calls were genuine and any attempt to seduce with money and status was secondary.

The fact is that cell phone users either delude themselves into believing that they are alone or they aren't entirely convinced that the satellite will bounce their call electronically so they are trying to bounce their voice off that geosynchronous relay as a safety measure. They do not seem to care that no one else within earshot, or at least anyone who wishes them well, could not care less that they will be home in 20 minutes, that they are on the bus or that their boy/girlfriend is (choose all that apply):

a) cute
b) sweet
c) hot
d) rockin'
e) a shit
f) sleeping with (make your own list here)
g) going to find out that he/she's got an STD
f) etc.

But the issue that really puts this into the realm of a diatribe entitled "Street Signs" is the issue of DWP, driving while phoning. It needs to be a crime and I mean that in all seriousness. I am not joking or being hyperbolic in the least. Using a cell phone for anything while driving a motor vehicle should be a crime with punishments at least as severe as driving while intoxicated.

In December, 2005 I'd agreed to help a friend of a friend by dressing as Santa Claus and trying to recruit customers to her business. In that capacity, in full Santa costume, I was standing on North State Street in Bellingham waving to passing cars. I hadn't been out on the sidewalk very long when a car came speeding down the street. The woman in the car was talking on a cell phone that she held to her left ear with her left hand. She saw me and waved to me with her right hand as she passed. Now, forgive me for not believing that she was a 3-armed mutant or possessed with prehensile nipples but who in hell was driving that car? Not only was she not driving and not driving safely but she probably should not have been driving at all.

Since then I have nearly been run down by a driver running a red light while pedestrians, including me, were in the crosswalk. She too was talking energetically on a cell phone. I am sure that she was focused completely on the personal issue under discussion but she nearly killed 3 people because she was not focused on controlling a ton or two of speeding metal and glass.

More than a decade ago I heard a report on the radio from a person at some electronics show in Tokyo. The reporter mentioned an object the size of a ballpoint pen. When the button on the top of the device was pressed it jammed all cell phone transmissions and reception within a 3-meter radius. As it happens, owning and using those devices are illegal in the United States. Now I am usually a law-abiding sort but that is one law I would eagerly break daily. I don't just want one of those jamming devices. I need one. A simple, unobtrusive gesture hidden in an inside pocket would free me and all within about 10 feet of me from the obnoxiousness of cell phone users.

It wouldn't make the streets any safer but it would remove some of the annoyance. What we need badly before the death toll mounts is legislation that makes it a criminal felony punishable by jail time and loss of a driver's license to use a cell phone for any purpose other than a paperweight while driving any kind of motor vehicle.

O.k. I'm done now. At least until until the next near miss by a driver with a cell phone to his or her ear.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Street Signs II: Roundabout the rotary club

In Connecticut, where I learned to drive, there are intersections. The intersections have stop signs, traffic lights or some other means of indicating a need for caution by those proceeding through the space. Intersections are pretty straight-forward. You enter one and either turn or don't. It's natural in a sense because you handle them in an automobile just as you would if you were on foot except that you have to be extra cautious because, while some bruiser might jostle you when on foot, it's far less serious than being run into by a ton or two of steel, fiberglass and plastic. In any case, from early childhood we understand intersections.

That, of course, is not to say that intersections don't present some confusion. Even in very ancient times our ancestors recognized that intersections were someplace else. Hangings were customarily carried out at intersections such as crossroads and public squares. Truly scary people such as witches and those likely to become ghouls or vampires were buried at intersections. The object of those uses of intersections was confusion, specifically for the angry ghost or revenant. Those who carried out the hanging didn't want the ghost to have an easy time of finding them. Similarly, the ghoul or vampire might choose the wrong road out of the intersection and end up feeding on the bodies or blood of some folks utterly innocent of the offense that drove the revenant. That's Schadenfreude of a very special level. Also, intersections were seen as someplace else in the sense that they were not entirely one place or entirely another. They were not rightly a part of any place or world or even time. Which puts a rather large exclamation point to the fact that intersections are inherently confusing but still on a level that is familiar and minimally distressing.

In Massachusetts one commonly runs into an exponentially higher degree of confusion because Massachusetts roads frequently substitute a rotary (otherwise known by the Britishism, "roundabout") for the rather straight-forward intersection. In the still rather unhurried times of early car-culture, from the 1920s into the 1950s, rotaries probably made some sense, especially in intersections where more than 2 roads cross. In those days, rotaries had rules just as intersections do. Actually, rotaries still have rules but we seem to be hardwired with the knowledge that they are someplace else and not entirely of this world so, once in one, people drive like homicidal maniacs to whom no rules apply.

When entering a rotary one is supposed to yield to traffic that is already in the rotary. It sounds like a perfectly logical rule until you have to give it a practical application. Let me cite the example of the rotary at the south end of the Lynn Marsh Road in Revere, Massachsetts. It is the intersection of Routes 60 and 107. The rotary probably covers more that an acre and, seen from the point of view of a map, it looks pretty straight-forward: a north-south road in and an east-west road out. Nothing complicated. Except... Not included in that simplified version are the 3 gas stations, 2 restaurants and a motorcycle sales shop that have their access off the rotary. Also not included is the fact that one of those gas stations is also an auto body shop with its own small junk yard (i.e. an automotive recycling facility if you listen to Car Talk on NPR) and that from its parking lot runs a road that ostensibly accesses a couple of houses built on the verge of the marsh but is the primary access for Revere-based mobsters to one of their body dump sites.

Also, the rotary has at least 2 concentric lanes. I say "at least" because the lane dividing lines have long been obliterated. Clearly no highway crew is insane enough to enter that rotary and attempt to repaint the lines. Also, the number of lanes depends on the size and number of cars attempting to assert a right to a lane. I've seen a couple of 1970's Lincoln Continentals and a Datsun (Nissan for you young 'uns) nervously pretending that the rotary contains 3 lanes. Oh, and did I mention that Routes 107 and 60 are truck routes or that there is a large shopping centre less than a mile to the west along Route 60 or that a little farther west Route 60 is the access to Route 1/I-95 going north-south?

Should you have the luck to find an opening in traffic that allows you into this rotary, say from American Legion Highway to the southeast, and wish to proceed across the rotary along Route 60 you might think that simply staying in the outer lane would allow you to negotiate the maneuver easily. You would be completely wrong, but you might assume that if you'd never been there before. So now, with that false assumption planted firmly in some presumedly rational part of your brain you proceed to try it. But you've barely gotten into the intersection when some lunatic pulls out of the gas station/auto body shop on your right almost destroying the passenger side of your car. While you're still flustered from that near-collision a semi, barreling down from the General Electric plant in Lynn just a few miles to the north, not only cuts you off at the merge with Route 107 but forces you into the inner lane. Since the turn out for Route 60 west comes up before the trailer on this truck is fully into the rotary, you're forced to make another circuit. If the rational part of your brain is still even partly functional you probably figure that it's a waste of gas, but not a big deal. Again, that comforting thought is simply wrong, but hold to it because your rationality is going to abandon you very soon and retaining some semblance of rationality for as long as you can is probably good for your long-term survival.

As you complete the circuit of the rotary you may try to get into the outside lane in preparation for getting out onto Route 60 west the next time it comes up. You probably will get out to the right as you pass the southerly entrance to Route 107 but you're likely to be cut off again by drivers who've never gotten over the mania induced in previous encounters with this rotary and who are coming in from the east or north or one of the 2 gas stations. If you do get into the right lane you might notice an AMC Gremlin to your left. It's a beater, a clunker. The paint is largely gone. It's turned a rust-red color. It burns oil. The driver has long, wild, greying hair and a bushy, unkempt beard. If he turns toward you, you might see the wild yet vacant stare and look of terror and madness in his eyes. This isn't a hippie. He's a formerly clean-cut kid who bought the Gremlin, new, decades ago as his first car. Two weeks later he headed for the Revere Drive-in (long gone years ago), got stuck in the rotary and has been there ever since. he is what you might become if your rational brain continues to function.

About your second or third circuit of the rotary, depending on how even-tempered you are by nature, your rational mind will turn off completely. You will become a feral driver for whom there are no traffic laws, for whom no maneuver is too dangerous not even the ones that you know end badly in Steven Segal or Bruce Willis movies. You have become the homicidal maniac I write of. You will force other drivers into guardrails without any pangs of conscience, cut others off in an irrational fury and only thereby will you ever get out of the rotary to the relative calm and safety of Route 60 west. Once there your rational brain may resume functioning but the trauma of the rotary will remain.

All it takes is one such homicidal maniac to infect all who enter the rotary. The first demon-possessed driver in the rotary behaves so badly that all the rest of those in the rotary, regardless of the wisdom and unflappability of the angels that usually guard them, instantly behave like homicidal maniacs too as a means of self-preservation. The rotary thus becomes the homicidal maniac's version of a merry-go-round.

Bellingham, Washington decided that it should have rotaries a couple of years back. Who exactly came up with this plan, I don't know, but obviously there is a homicidal maniac loose in the traffic department. Before you dismiss that suggestion as hyperbole, consider the Bellingham parking division. From all accounts there must have been a secret program that relocated some of the most vicious Nazis to Bellingham after World War II where they found employment in the parking division, an agency in which they have maintained hereditary positions ever since. There is ample though anecdotal proof of that Nazi-relocation program. No, the presence of a homicidal maniac in traffic planning isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.

For the last couple of years Bellingham has taken huge heaps of taxpayers' money, dug holes in Cordata Parkway and dumped it in. They have the paved the location of those monetary sinkholes over in the form of a rotary. Currently there are 2 rotaries, one each at the intersections of Cordata Parkway and Kellogg Road and Westerly Road. Currently they are relatively sedate affairs but a huge subdivision is nearly finished at the north end of Cordata Parkway and every field along the road is either available for or under development. And besides the rotary at Kellogg and Cordata is right next to Whatcom Community College. All the ingredients for a west coast version of the Revere rotary are in place or will be within a few years. All it needs is the yeast of time.

Had the maniac in the Bellingham traffic department troubled to do some research he or she (I'm just being egalitarian and polite. We all know that only a "guy" would think that something as unmitigatedly dumb as a rotary would be a good idea.) would have discovered that Massachusetts has been actively removing rotaries throughout the state since the late 1960s. Rotaries are magnets for collisions and auto fatalities to the extent that there is no question that the rotary is the cause of those problems rather than just the locus. I know that it's really the drivers who cause the accidents but the rotary affords those bad drivers more opportunities for destruction, mayhem and murder. And all this was true in in a world that did not have cell phones to increase the horror geometrically.

The end of this is that in a decade or so Bellingham will have to appropriate more taxpayer money to remove the rotaries that it has installed at great expense. Perhaps this is an intentional plan to provide income to various contributers to some city or county officials, but I prefer to apply Occam's Razor: Do not ascribe to conspiracy what can adequately be explained by simple stupidity...or, in this case a homicidal maniac.

More about cell phones later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nomenclature: And so was the turnpike from S'tockb-ridge to Bahstan

A word if I might about my name.

Bahstan is small republic in the distant east in which I spent many years. From 1990 through 2006 it was ruled by a succession of petty despots from an hereditary oligarchy most of whom came from neighboring republics. They obtained control through traitorous bargains that secured the collusion of an indigenous warlord of the region of Ma t'pan, T'omassa fin' Iran. At the beginning of 2007 democracy returned to Bahstan but the looting conducted during the 16 years of despotic rule have left the country poor and in serious difficulties when it comes to redressing the many grievances that the oligarchs have left behind.

In fact, the last Bahstan oligarch, the particularly slippery chameleon, M' tromnie bin Ute, is now attempting to take power in the wider region though the dangerous cult from which he draws his influence may drag him down more than support him. We can only hope. The popular credit of the party of the oligarchic plutocracy in the land is at historic lows because its outrageous excesses have brought that party into well deserved ill repute. That disgrace may protect the broader society from bin Ute and the horde of power-mad fellow despots and petty warlords vying with him for supremacy. We can take little comfort, however, in the fact that bin Ute is second to the even more odious Giul 'yani, former ruler of an especially violent and criminal police state.

In any case, you now have a primer on the origins of my name. I bear it proudly in the hope that the return of democracy can return Bahstan to its former glory that even the unintelligible local satrap, Me-nino, cannot dim.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Street Signs I: Some of the differences in getting around.

Boston is known for crazy traffic and crazy drivers but some of that is a function of the way that Boston particularly and Massachusetts more broadly deal with traffic controls. Famously Massachusetts is the state in which Stop signs and Red Lights are optional, so they say. No one who's driven there and survived will contradict that statement either.

I first moved to Massachusetts from Connecticut in June, 1978. Connecticut had had a "right turn on red" law for several years at that point. I moved to Lynn, Massachusetts and assumed that Massachusetts was similarly enlightened. From the behavior of my fellow drivers, I saw nothing to challenge my assumption. In fact, I might have been persuaded that Massachusetts had gone one better and instituted a "left turn on red law". However, in September, 1978 I read newspaper accounts of how Massachusetts needed to pass a "right turn on red" law or lose a lot of Federal Transportation Funds. The Great and General Court (i.e. Legislature) duly passed such a law so that the Commonwealth could receive its share of Federal Funds. But the story didn't end there.

You see, the primary reason that Massachusetts hadn't a "right turn on red" law was that the Registrar of Motor Vehicles was then a Reserve General, Richard E. McLaughlin. He insisted on being referred to as "General" in his civilian capacity and, as happens fairly often in Massachusetts and probably elsewhere, he'd built up a little fiefdom at the Registry along with some personal power and influence. The General did not like "right turn on red" laws. General McLaughlin was a "conservative" in the sense that term applies to the current Administration and the U.S. Republican Party which is to say, neo-fascist. He was not going to let so petty a thing as a law, even when backed by empirical evidence that the situation mandated in the law was a major improvement on the status quo in every measurable way, get in the way of something that he knew. Thus, having procured the additional Federal Transportation Funds, the General put a sizeable chunk of that money to use by making and posting at literally every intersection in Massachusetts signs that read, "NO TURN ON RED". Law and science were discarded for General McLaughlin's faith.

So what has that got to do with Bellingham? Specifically, nothing at all. In spirit though it has a great deal to do with my new home.

One of the reasons that driving in Massachusetts and especially in Boston is so dangerous is that, unless you know where you're going, you can't get there. Yes, I know that's sort of an old New England joke, but in the Boston area, it's literally true. Things may be changing in this day of On-Star and other GPS direction systems but I rather doubt it. You see, Massachusetts does not believe in street signs much. It is possible to drive for quite a way through Boston and its suburbs, to get quite far west, south or north and out of those suburbs altogether without seeing a street sign.

No, that's an exaggeration. You will see street signs that tell you over and over the name of the street you're on but if you're looking for an address on a side street with only street names to guide you, don't even leave you home. You can't get there from wherever your starting point may be. Vainly you will search for an indication of the name of the side street. There just isn't a sign and that despite long-standing legislation that such signs must be posted. Or, in the rare event that you should find a sign identifying the name of a side street, you may still be lost. I vividly remember standing at a bus stop on Blue Hill Avenue opposite Franklin Park and noticing the street sign for the side street next to my bus stop. The sign was 2-sided with the street name on black on a white background on each side. The street name was spelled differently on each side.

In Bellingham things are far more civilized. The streets, main and side, are clearly marked. The names appear on large, visible and legible signs placed for optimum notice by drivers. The street names are spelled correctly too. But this coast has its own insanities. In Bellingham it involves street names. Takes James Street for example. It leaves downtown Bellingham running roughly parallel to and just west of Interstate Route 5 until it intersects with Sunset Drive. At the intersection with James if you make a right onto Sunset you're heading toward the Sunset Shopping Centre. You cross over I-5 and if you turn left at the second light you are entering the shopping centre parking lot. But, if you make another left just before entering the parking area in front of the Round Table Pizza chain store you are now on a street parallel to Sunset driving back in the direction you just came from. You are also on James Street again. To be fair, James does curve to the right and resume being a north-south street on the west side of the shopping centre though on the east side of I-5 now, but the point is that the street is not contiguous at all.

As I've said before, Bellingham's official history isn't anywhere near as long as that of Boston or Salem, Massachusetts but it must have had someone at some point in its past who deserved to have a street named for him or her. Or perhaps there was a large farm in one family for generations that could have given its name to that northerly portion of James Street after the shopping centre.

I have some friends here in Bellingham whose official address is on East Maryland Street despite the fact that there is no East Maryland Street where they live and never has been. Even odder, the street onto which their driveway opens does not have a name. Even if it did, that name would not be East Maryland Street because were East Maryland Street to suddenly return from the parallel dimension in which it may currently exist, it would be on the opposite side of their house.

When the county Transportation Authority here tests prospective bus drivers it gives them a series of street addresses to find in a street map book. The trick question involves an address on a major street but on a section of that street that is separated from the main course of that street by 2 or 3 miles. On the whole, many streets here are not a lot easier to find than those on the Massachusetts less-than-magical mystery tour.

Or take Bellevue, Washington, an eastern suburb of Seattle. A friend of a friend lives there and we used to visit every few months in 2003-2004. He lives in a hillside subdivision. To get to a house there you might travel up Southeast 46th Street and turn onto Southeast 46th Street Way off of which is Southeast 46th Street Court which branches into Southeast 46th Street Court Way (and parallels Southeast 46th Street Court Drive) to get to Southeast 46th Street Court Lane. For a part of the country noted for invention and innovation those qualities are notably lacking in city planners.

On the other hand if some sane person in government were to legislate an end to such madness by requiring some logic to street names and names to change when the streets are not contiguous, there would undoubtedly be an initiative petition and a hue and cry over traditions and rights that could bring down governments because the attitude both here and in Massachusetts is that what we do may be insane but that's how we do it and we're damned well going to do it that way regardless of how little sense it makes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Way Out West: Initial Observations

The first thing that's apparent is that the water is on the wrong side. I'm a New Englander. Boy, am I a New Englander! Some of my maternal ancestors came over on the Mayflower in 1620. They spread out to Maine and later to Connecticut where I was born, but for nearly 500 years we've been New Englanders. That's why the ocean here is in the wrong place. In the natural order of things west is inland and east is toward the ocean if not in it already. Yet, though I've lived in Bellingham, Washington for 4 years now, the ocean is still, definitely on the wrong side.

Also, in New England there are no active volcanoes. Here I live in the shadow of Mt. Baker. It's beautiful. It's impressive. It could erupt and wipe out this city and everyone in it, kind of like Pompeii. That's different too.

Before moving here I spent most of the last 25 years in Salem, Massachusetts. Yes, it's the Salem of the 1691 Witch Trials and home to quite a number of firsts in this country. On my way to the train that took me to work in Boston I regularly passed a half dozen or more houses built before 1700. You don't hardly find that here. To be sure, the Native American history of Bellingham extends back centuries before my illegal immigrant ancestors came ashore at the place on the Massachusetts coast they called Plymouth. But a lot of that history has been obliterated by later in-migration and the rest tends to be guarded as the proprietary information of the present tribes. That heritage is certainly the property of the peoples whose ancestors lived it. Sharing some of it more freely would help promote more general understanding, I think. Yet I understand the need to horde resources toward rebuilding a culture that my ancestors spent nearly 500 years trying to obliterate.

The history of European settlement does get back into the 18th Century but the parts that are that old tend to be shrouded in mystery for the average person. The official memory here extends back about 125 years. In 2004 the City of Bellingham celebrated its 100th Anniversary. Salem was 100 years old when George Washington was having his 4th birthday. That's different too.

Apart from the historical and geographical differences I have to say that this is unquestionably the most beautiful place in which I've ever lived. The beauty of the natural setting is just breathtaking. I've long believed that poetry only happens near the sea or in mountains. With both in close proximity there is no end to the poetry of and inspired by this place.

That's enough for now. I'll write more about the contrasts later.