Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Paean to Arizona Seasons

My previous post about spring in the Northwest may have unfairly slighted my former home state, so I need to set the record straight. Arizona’s seasons are second to none that I have experienced. True, seasonal changes in Arizona are not always apparent from the middle of the Large Amorphous Urban Area where I lived but I was fortunate enough to spend enough time in Arizona’s back country to appreciate the differences.

Spring is perhaps the most dramatic season in the Sonoran Desert, a riot of wildflowers and blossoms that is stunning. Yeah, you get flowers and blossoms everywhere else in the spring but the stark beauty of the desert combined with a lascivious display of color is as dramatic as Virginia’s riot of color in the fall. Before I moved to Arizona, I thought desert meant desolate. Many years walking in the Sonoran Desert taught me how wrong I was. I was fortunate to arrive in Arizona in the spring and see this dazzling profusion of life. It was almost as if my new home was putting on its best display as a welcome.

Then comes summer and how can one possibly find solace and beauty in the intense heat that drives even lizards into the shade? My approach was to appreciate the cool mornings when he day is still gentle and the light soft. In those early summer morning hours, I found gentleness and wonder. At that time of day, I would see coyotes and great horned owls even in the middle of the city. In the back country those early hours offered the opportunity for pleasant walking. Later in the day, summer thunderstorms swept across the desert, darkening the sky before pelting the earth with rain, thunderr and lightning. Arizona summers may be difficult but they do not lack either tenderness or drama. For those who just can’t get up early enough to enjoy the mornings or are afraid of the thunder and lightning, Arizona’s high country offers some relief from the heat.

Fall is either the shortest or longest season, depending on how you want to look at it. It seems short in the city because the heat lingers well into October, sometimes even later. At my house, fall showed up in December when the ash tree in my yard turned color and dropped its leaves. Not far away in the Superstition Mountains, though, cottonwoods, sycamores and oak trees began turning color in September. The following month finds aspen trees in the high country turning bright yellow. Even as late as November cottonwoods are still turning color. I still have the memory of a 1983 early November trip to Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation where the cottonwoods seemed to glow with color even after dark.

Winter in Arizona is what you make of it. While most people think of Arizona as a place to escape winter, Arizona offers as much winter as anyone could want: everything from deep snow and freezing temperatures in the high country to mild weather in the desert areas. Desert hiking in winter offers some of the best star gazing I’ve ever experienced, especially on nights sleeping without a tent. On those nights I felt like I was wrapped in the Universe, not just a sleeping bag. On other trips, we plowed through snow. The climate zones in the state are that varied.

Ever since I’ve been blogging I’ve been pretty snarky about Arizona. Probably because by the time I started my blog, I had decided I didn’t want to live in a metropolitan area filled with four million people (and probably an equal number of motor vehicles) that has totally divorced itself from its environment. My dislike of Phoenix is my aversion to the crowds, the traffic and cancerous growth that has displaced so much of its natural beauty with concrete, steel and red-roofed stucco houses. That is wholly different from my love of the land, its unique life forms and seasons and the many interesting attractions that are readily available in a large city. Phoenix is also home to many fine people whom I am privileged to call friends.

Arizona is second to no place else when it comes to beauty. I just want to make that clear even as a celebrate my escape.


What little experience (mainly freeway driving) I’ve had with Seattle has left me with an aversion to a city that I once longed for. I suspect that it has many of the same drawbacks as any large urban area. I think I will be a small town boy for the rest of my life.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Another Date Worth Noting

Spring officially arrived yesterday, meaning that I survived my first dark, wet northwest winter, albeit with a month in the Large Amorphous Central Arizona Urban Area that I cannot quite fully escape. The winter was not as oppressive as I feared--I actually enjoy winter's long, dark days and it's brilliant night skies. Yeah, the cloud cover limits sky watching but I had plenty of opportunity to see the moon, planets and stars during the breaks in the weather. The other night, I had a grand view of the moon, the star Regulus and Saturn, all lined up in a tight little formation in the eastern sky. We seem to have had plenty of sunny days this past winter; when the sun is out this place sparkles, especially the views of Mt. Ranier and the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic Mountains to the northwest. Now that the days are longer, I've been able to get out on my bicycle, a perspective that is so different from inside a vehicle or even walking. Olympia is definitely a bicycle friendly town. Riding here in traffic is a piece of cake compared to Phoenix and I don't have to outrun dog packs the way I did in on the rez.

The local paper says the weather is cooler than normal for this time of year but that does not seem to bother the local flora, which are beginning to show their blossoms and shoots. Daffodils are in bloom, as are various other plants that I cannot identify. (For someone who spends so much time outdoors, I have a shameful lack of knowledge of botany which, fortunately, does not limit my enjoyment.) Trees are beginning to sprout their first buds; soon my view of the state capitol dome will disappear behind a green canopy for the next six months. The climate here is much like the one I left behind 26 years ago when I moved to Arizona. Imagine, four distinct seasons.

In this time of endless war, I find solace in the timeless cycles of nature.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the Fifth Anniversary of the Iraq Invasion

The Iraq occupation has been so much on my mind in the past five years, I suppose I should offer some thought on this day.



The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! *

As a kid in the 1950's I was terrified of the Russians. Everything I knew about them was scary: they were evil Communists, a “Soviet” government controlled all aspects of their lives. Children spied and reported on parents; secret police detained all manner of people, especially Catholics (the nuns who taught me were most emphatic on this point), who disappeared into prisons and labor camps. The Russians had nuclear weapons and were going to take over the US. Hell, my hometown was even captured by “totalitarian” forces for a day before being “liberated” by the 82nd Airborne Division in a pretty big deal (parachutes and armor!) exercise. During the exercise the local paper printed a front page as it would be under occupation, complete with a picture of the “prison camp” for town officials and an announcement that the school day would last from 7:30 to 5:30 six days a week (we’re talking serious scary here). It was a tough time to be a kid, not knowing if my future would be nuclear war or subjugation by the Russians. As I grew older, I began to see much of this for the alarmist hype that it was, although the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years later vividly reminded me that it wasn’t all hype.

America survived the Russian menace, albeit with some close calls, dumb mistakes and a continuing level of alarm and hype. The Russian Communists are no longer a threat but the Russians are certainly still around and operating in much the same way they have for centuries. Their history is grimly cyclic: autocracy versus some form of liberalism. I use the latter term because Russian liberalism, by which I mean open, democratic, humane society, has never really had a chance to flourish. Between Czarist absolutism, economic collapse, revolution and civil awr, Stalinist terror and Communist bureaucracy, liberal thought never had much opening in Russia. Whatever opening followed the collapse of the Soviet Union was soon overtaken with a new round of economic chaos and immiseration.

What frightens me these days about Russia is the return to autocracy. I see that clearly in Anna Politkovskaya’s A Russian Diary. Not so much a memoir but an account of the slow strangling of political space and expression in Russia under Vladimir Putin, which is also evident if you follow events in Russia. She describes abductions, assassinations and criminal gangs within the security services. The truth of her stories lies in her clear observations and understanding of post-Soviet Russia. Her truth is also apparent in her fate–shot dead in the elevator lobby of her apartment building, a crime so far unsolved. Her diary records the developing cult of Putin, an autocracy with a slight veneer of democracy that gives it some little distinction from the Communist oligarchy it has replicated. The recent parliamentary and presidential elections confirmed the new oligarchy’s dominance, something already apparent to Politikovskaya in the years before her murder.

Putin’s Russia is a “capitalist” variant of the Soviet Union, the only real difference being that the Soviets shared at least some of the wealth with the citizenry whereas the new autocracy is more than willing to hoard wealth in the manner of the Romanovs or the Exxons. Russia’s post-Communist journey to freedom seems to have been side tracked; what modernization and change have occurred has simply replicated an all too familiar leadership style and cult of personality in Russia that places the leader above and beyond the control of mere mortals. In Politikovskaya’s Russia, the elections are rigged, the courts are controlled and violence against citizens is common, a state of affairs that is little different from life under the Communists or the Czars.

What also frightens me is that all of this reads like an extreme but possible future America following the logic of CheneyBush unitary executive theory and his rendition of Constitutional government and rule of law as “quaint”. In CheneyBush’s America elections are rigged by the two party monopoly, corporate cash and the odd ballot discrepancy. Courts are bypassed by executive fiat and terror law. Our police are becoming less protectors than a paramilitary force to be used against citizens. I am uneasy reading this book because I see too much of America in the events Politikovskaya describes. I would like to think that our two centuries of somewhat democratic, open government would keep us from devolving into such lawlessness and criminality. I would like to think that but I find it difficult to look past a president who claims unlimited authority and a Congress too timid to challenge that president.

I guess I’m still scared of the Russians but these days it seems as if we are our own Russians.

* Also the title of a very funny movie.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Winter Soldier: First Thoughts

Three days of Winter Soldier was an awful lot to experience but I caught most of it on the web and am still pretty blown away by it. Way too many thoughts swirling around in my head to keep it all straight but the main message came through loud and clear: War Sucks. Especially if you are in the middle of it. War sucks for an Iraqi trying to make it home alive from a buying groceries. War sucks if you are a soldier just trying to live another day. Perhaps the most moving statement I heard was something like “all you want to do is stay alive and get home and nothing you do will get you out sooner.” Another veteran said that he would do whatever it takes so that “...I don’t have to stand in formation one more time and hear ‘Amazing Grace’ played on the bagpipes...” for yet another soldier.

I heard a lot of frustration and disappointment from the veterans, many of whom joined right out of high school to serve their country and earn their way to a better life. So many were young men and women who joined after 9-11 to protect America from further attack. Instead, they got the Iraq occupation that does not serve Iraq, America or the soldiers’s own honor. Time and again, I heard earnest young men and women who volunteered to serve only to see their service wasted and dishonored by the acts they carried out.

What struck me were the stories of soldiers’ own actions, the brutality and force used willfully and indiscriminately against civilians and civilian infrastructure. My own shocking realization that war is fought in someone’s home was clearly present in the stories. The amazing awareness that the “enemy” is no different from oneself is the one seed of hope in all of war’s devastation. That the seed is so slow to take root is a collective failure that makes me question human wisdom.

The session on race and gender was particularly telling. Unlike the previous day’s testimony, which focused largely on the Things That Happened in Iraq, this panel presented examples of what happens to individuals, particularly women and gays, in the military and how those events contribute to the dehumanization so necessary to war. One woman described the ultimate insult as calling someone a woman. “If my mother only knew that I would stand in formation and hear a drill sergeant yell at the man next to me ‘Does your P-word (sic) hurt? Do you need a tampon?’ If my mother only knew....” Several other women described how the chain of command tolerates sexual harassment. A Gay Marine who joined after 9-11 told about the impossibility of being anything but honest when sharing a foxhole with another Marine, each of whom depends on the other for his life.

Protesters outside of the event claimed the testimony to be slanderous lies and wholly unrepresentative of the American military. One demanded names, dates, places and events under oath before a tribunal. Only then would he accept the testimony as credible. Several veterans asked to be given the opportunity to testify under oath before Congress. And most did, in fact report on specific events in which they took part and often identified senior officers involved, some by name, others by position. The testimony was credible to me; it reflected my own experience in a similar environment and the typically mindless inertia of a large, hierarchic bureaucracy operating in a chaotic environment.

Some bloggers take exception to Winter Soldier, veterans offering alternative contexts for some of the testimony. A couple of dissenting blogs are here and here. For the most part, these critics, including some liveblogging from the scene, either attack the credibility of the individuals and testimony or dismiss the entire affair as a bunch of poseurs and Walter Mitty’s who just cant handle war. Like the protesters outside, these bloggers focus on specifics and individuals but ignore the broader context of death, destruction, dehumanization militarization. It’s up to those of us who believe that militarization and war are not acceptable policies in the 21st century to make our case, to nurture that seed of hope, in this corporate-military society.

Winter Soldier is an important step in that direction. The facts and stories are out there; I suspect we will hear many more. I plan to take that message to as many people as I can. Winter Soldier is also an important step toward personal reconciliation. These veterans are speaking out as patriots, redeeming their service from a government that has dishonored and wasted it; they are directing their dedication and experience to changing the military mindset that led America into an illegal war. They know they are responsible for their own actions under truly difficult conditions but they have also come to realize that their nation is equally responsible for putting them into that illegal war. They know, too, that their service will have meaning only to the extent that they use their experience to educate their nation.

Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen. I’m with you all the way.


My reward for spending all that time with Winter Soldier was an evening at the Olympia Symphony program, "War and Hope" featuring Beethoven's 4th Symphony and Hayden's Lord Nelson's Mass, the latter with four solo singers and an 89 member chorus. I thought the title appropriately ironic after the weekend's events but the music did indeed speak of war and hope. I'd not been to a symphony in a while and greatly enjoyed seeing all these musicians and singers working so intently and harmoniously to create such grand sounds.

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