Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shooter’s Gallery

The movie, “American Sniper,” has certainly stirred up a whole lot of voices. That's good.  And, like most of America, the opinions being expressed are both polarized and all over the map.  But two general themes keep turning up:  Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and an Iraq War sniper portrayed in the film, was a " hero" or a "villain," a brave soldier or a cowardly sciopathic killer.  And the movie was a pro-war Hoo-rah! screed or a powerful anti-war film.

These simple black and white designations always diminish and disguise the complicated reality of soldering and war.  The propensity of calling anyone who did their duty a “hero” seems to be a recent outcome of a culture that gives out gold stars and trophies to kids who just showed up so as to not wound their tender sense of self-esteem. 

And calling a soldier a villain blames the instrument for the policy and neatly sidesteps responsibility.  If you hate the war and blame the soldier, that conveniently avoids the unpleasant truth that in a democracy the creator of the war, the architect of the policy, will be found smack dab in the middle of a mirror.

And calling a sniper or a combat soldier a sociopathic killer gravely misses one of the terrible truths about war.  And that’s actor George C. Scott's "Patton-ish"speech from the movie, "Patton," the bitterly funny  line, "I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.  He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."

That awful truth is what made Michael Moore’s comment about snipers in general being viewed as  “cowardly” so fatuous.  In combat, while taking care to stay within the rules of engagement, how your enemy dies is immaterial.   Sniper’s bullet, face-to-face firefights,  rocket strikes, bombs, or a knife in the gut is immaterial.  Dead is dead and a soldier’s job is to create sufficient dead enemy so that they stop shooting and quit the field of battle. Do that enough times and if you’re lucky, the war may end and you'll get to go home. Alive.

All of which gets very, very complicated in wars where the enemy is not in uniform all neatly turned out into organized battalions lined up on an open plain, flags flying.  Asymetrical  warfare, guerilla warfare, civilian combatants are ugly, nightmare complications that put extraordinary demands on soldiers.  Misread a situation and in a split second a soldier can be dead, or headed for a court martial. And even if all goes well, bloody combat, by its very nature, is too often soul-wounding and puts hard baggage on the survivors. "After such knowledge," observed T.S. Elliot, "what forgiveness?"  

In addition, our modern wars  conducted by a small cadre of chronically overburdened professional soldiers puts extraordinary demands on those men and women and their families.  Too often, we have carelessly and recklessly given them an impossible mission and when the mission fails, we turn our backs and walk away.  Or call them cowards or heroes so we don’t have to look more deeply at the complexities behind those words.

“American Sniper” has started a “conversation,” which is good.  I can only hope that that “conversation” yields some positive results, a better understanding, more honest evaluations and wiser choices going forward.

Before America slips into its typical default mode:  The Great Forgetting.

Monday, January 26, 2015


"Foxcatcher" is a tragic creepshow, a sorrowful horror movie, a sad, scary suspense thriller that grimly unwinds with increasing fateful urgency towards its unstoppable, heartbreaking end. 

Steve Carell, who usually plays sad-sack comic roles, plays John E. ("Eagle") DuPont, one of the richest men in the world, scion of the DuPont family, a sad, damaged man-child with Mommy issues, too much money, a social awkwardness that is heartbreaking, self esteem that's delusional, and a mind that's unsettled and unraveling.  Carell's performance is astonishing, his face nearly unrecognizable under a new nose and teeth.  But it's his performance that keeps the viewer riveted by the man at the awful center of this sad drama -- a clumsy, cringe-worthy, socially disconnected, decidedly odd man, his body movements slack and  disorganized, his flat, affectless face and inappropriate conversation inept and disconcerting. For the viewer, Carell's behavior becomes increasingly alarming since anyone familiar with the story knows that this is a tale that is fated to end badly.  But because nobody in the theatre knows just exactly when that will be, the suspense builds to an unnerving level.

The other two players in this tragic troika, are Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo respectively.  As presented, they too are damaged, trouble souls whose ambitions and dreams and emotional needs were ripe for DuPont's picking.  Initially Mark, a needy man resentful being in the shadow of his older brother, is lured to Foxcatcher Farms, the DuPont estate, by DuPont, who fashions himself a coach and "leader of men," and who's built an elaborate wrestling training camp, created "Team Foxcatcher," and wants to become the premier center for all US wrestling teams.

Initially, the relationship between Mark, DuPont and the formation of the "Team Foxcatcher" goes well, with Mark winning at the World events and everyone working towards the 1988 Olympics.  Eventually, Mark's older brother is lured to join the enterprise.  He uproots his family and moves them to Foxcatcher Farms to join his brother and the team as a coach. It is a deadly Fata Morgana for both of them.

"Foxcatcher" is one of those films that's difficult to watch because the viewer is as helplessly trapped in its relentless narrative as are the characters -- no way out, this tragedy must play out to the end.  But Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo's  amazing performances makes the horrifying trip well worth it. It won't be a surprise if there isn't  Oscar gold here for  these remarkable performances and for Director Bennett Miller for creating such a powerful, haunting, well made film.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Tipsy Great Vine Gets Righted

The Roger’s Red Great Grape Vine was getting so big and the fence posts so rotten, that it was threatening to tip the whole fence over.  So, the vine was pruned back rather severely.


My friend and neighbor, Phil, who knows how to fix things properly, arrives.


The fence is braced and the post holes are dug.


The tall metal new posts are inserted and pounded into place. When the lattice or the fence itself needs replacing, the poles will still serve as a quasi arbor to support the vine’s arms.


And braced with metal straps.


The concrete is mixed and dumped.


Below is a shot of the highly skilled expertise and critical technical assistance I brought to this whole project.



VOI LA!  Now I wait for rain and soon The Great Vine will awaken and spread her glorious leaves all over a sturdy , upright  fence. And I will dream of savoring sips of fierce, intense, ruby-red grape juice come summer.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Los Osos Woof-Woof?

LOCAC's Thursday night meeting had an update on the "Dog Park."  If you've driven by the property at Pine and LOVR you'll have seen a large sign, "Future Home of Dog Park," or some such.  Dog park for Los Osos?  Really?

Well, maybe.  The property's representatives (actually a group of investors) wish to develop the property and build 11 homes.  As you know, developing anything in this neck of the woods requires a laundry list of hoops to jump through and, being Los Osos, two of the biggest are: 1) water and 2) "mitigation." (That darned pesky Dune Snail, among other critters.)

In short, the deal for developers is to give up A in order to get B.  You turn 5 acres over to "the public" and we'll let you develop Y acres. Hence the dog park.

However, being Los Osos, there's one more hook in the equation:  Water.  In this case, the developers must find X number of water offsets/credits to equal water use by the 11 new homes they want to build in the PZ. That means retrofitting X number of homes and counting the gallons saved and buying water rights/credits from, say, unbuildable property or doing whatever gets them that guestimated average household water use number. 

Hard to do in regular, normal times, but in a drought, in a town with serious overdraft issues?  And a drought that might be heading towards a ban on all outdoor watering if we don't get enough rains by April? 

Which is why the Dog Park has been in a Sit/Stay for several years now. 

On the bright side, the LOCAC Board was enthusiastic about the project, with new CSD Boardmember Lou Tornatsky declaring that the whole project could be a happy public effort that would bring the community together. 

Having been a part of creating the first dog park in the county (El Chorro Dog Park) some twenty-four years ago, I know enough to temper that presumed "volunteer enthusiasm" with knowledge of just how hard a lift such a project can be.  How it will require a small dedicated band of people willing to take on the huge amount of work involved since "enthusiastic volunteers" have a predictable habit of being "busy" when the time comes to actually show up and do the work.  Plus, the real work begins after the park is built, since dog parks require constant maintenance and that requires hard work by an organized group willing to carry the park, often single-handedly.

Which is why I asked Supervisor Bruce Gibson whether SLO County Parks (now with a new director and now a new "stand-alone" department) could take the "donated" property ASAP, let the dog park building commence via volunteer, private effots, then Parks could develop the rest of the acreage later.  The answer was NO. County Parks is on such a tight budget and stretched so thin that they cannot accept any "free" land since they don't have the money to manage it.  Which is a profound tragedy for this County since I'm sure there have been other opportunities to acquire free gifts of land for parks and they've had to be turned down for lack of the parks budget.  Which begged the (unasked) question of Supervisor Gibson:  So why doesn't the BOS vote to increase the Park's budget? 

For now, there the Dog Park for Los Osos sits.  In limbo.  If the developers' offset plans don't pencil out, that may well be the end of the whole idea.  So, if you're part of a local group interested in helping to create an off-leash dog park, I'd suggest praying for rain, praying the developers can find those water credits/offsets and in the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to actually get formally organized and start making plans so if things suddenly pan out, you'll be ready.

Monday, January 19, 2015

American Sniper

Director  Clint Eastwood's new movie, "American Sniper," is not for the faint of heart.  It's a powerful, moving, taught, unflinching film, with battle sequences as tense as any in "The Hurt Locker." And Bradley Cooper, as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, will break your heart.

The movie is based on a memoir by Kyle, with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice.  And while the book focused more on the training and technicalities of being a sniper, Eastwood is after far bigger game with this film and has returned to the themes he dealt with in his earlier masterpiece, "Unforgiven."

In that film, Eastwood played a man forced out of his self-imposed pacifism by his search for justice.  And in one famous scene,  a young gunsel, whining about a pointless, undignified killing, concludes, "Well, I guess he had it coming."  To which Eastwood unflinchingly replies, "We all have it coming, kid."

And with that same unblinking eye, Eastwood takes an unsparing look at the business of killing, the business of war, whether it's a silent sniper's bullet coming out of nowhere, or the random, indifferent bullet flying down a dirty street in a fire fight to kill for no reason but dumb, blind bad luck.  A roulette wheel of death with everyone in the killing zone caught in the cross-hairs.

And at the end, Eastwood leaves it to the viewer to ponder the terrible cost paid by even the most lauded and celebrated of killers. And the pointless irony of Kyle's death--killed at a shooting range by a troubled Iraq veteran  he was trying to help -- the kind of cheap karmic ending that Eastwood wisely doesn't explore.  Instead he ends the film with a brief informative coda and real-life footage of Kyle's massive and well attended memorial service, and lets the audience make of it what they will.

While Eastwood's overall theme is men at war, the power of the film comes from the close focus on Kyle.  He is portrayed as a man raised with a strong code to be not a sheep or a wolf but a sheepdog, a  dog who stands up to protect and guard.  As a SEAL, he finds his true home in a profession that fits his core.  But, like so many others who followed his path, he was unprepared for the cost he would pay for that choice.  Since the audience can see this journey through his eyes, it is in  Chris Cooper's splendid performance that the film finds it's heart. And because Eastwood refuses all sentimentality and cheap drama, Kris's life and sad death resonates outward to include all soldiers who serve and suffer.    


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What's In A Name?

Well, good for President Obama.  Fox Noise and some Republicans are having a carefully-staged cow (Are the microphones on, Mr. DeMille?) over his using the term "radical terrorists," "violent extremists," etc. rather than "Islamic terrorists." I say the guy's just being more precise. 

Wahabism, one of the most powerful drivers of all kinds of mischief, is a minor sect of fundamentalists who follow the 18th century prophet, Muhammad ibn Wahab.  Like all  fundamentalists, they're thirsting for some mostly made up "purism" and are hell bent in taking their followers back to the 9th century.  They are a very small minority of Muslims.  They have had a powerful and too often negative effect for their numbers because they're supported, funded and helped to flourish with pots of nice Saudi oil money.  Oil money that finances madrassas world-wide that catch poor young kids at an early age and teach them all sorts of rubbish. To describe Wahabism as "Islamic" is really an insult to Islam. 

I mean, if there was a small break-away sect of Minnesota Lutheran fundamentalists who put their women back into corsets, long dresses and bonnets, forbade them from voting, or holding jobs outside the home, started teaching their children that "outsiders" who disagreed with their particular beliefs were Devils who God commanded them to kill, and then started flogging bloggers, chopping hands off all journalists, shooting Unitarians, beheading Rotarians, and dynamiting Baptist churches, would we refer to them as "Christian terrorists?"

I think not.  "Christians" wouldn't want to have anything to do with these nuts.  Even the Lutherans would be horrified and declare loudly that blowing up Baptists is NOT a Lutheran thing.

So, good for Obama.  Maybe more precise words will lead us to more precise thinking.  Like not being blinded to the fact that "religion" has little to do with so much of what's going on in the Middle East. For Isis, The Prophet is simply a convenient cover for sociopathic murderers.  Under the fake, blinding veneer of "Islam" are the real issues of greed,  power, politics, economic disparities, displaced people, and whole countries and cultures struggling to get out from under the dire legacies of colonialism, despotism and oil politics that's mired them in the past, trapped them in the present, and stolen their future. 

Monday, January 12, 2015


Don't be reluctant to go see the new film, Selma, because you're afraid it's going to be on of those serious, historical (boring) biopic movies that's "good for you," like broccoli.  Selma isn't broccoli, it's a full feast. Rich, interesting, exciting, dramatic, suspenseful, heartbreaking, powerful and quite splendid.

Having lived through those terrible times, I remember well the compelling press photos and TV coverage of the Civil Rights era  -- the attack dogs, the fire hoses, Bull Conner, the pinched, mean faces of Southern racists in a fury that their Jim Crow world was being changed before their eyes by astoundingly brave black citizens who, in the face of often lethal retributions, had, one by one, stood up.

Selma  focuses in a the few days around a planned protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights for black Americans.  Dr. King (brilliantly played by the British actor, David Oyelowo) had brought his organization to Selma to join with the SNCC and SCLC groups that had been organizing there.  The movie does a particularly good job at portraying the various political strategies and choices that were needed to accomplish King's goal, including using the terrible events -- those awful images of black citizens being brutalized by state troopers -- to awaken the conscience of white America and to put further political pressure on President Johnson to push voting rights further up on his civil rights agenda. 

The film is also particularly powerful at humanizing King.  Instead of the usual cardboard cut-out biopic hero, this King is fully realized:  powerful, faltering, agonizing over what his dream was costing his followers, but relentless in moving forward.  The issue of King's unfaithfulness in his marriage was so subtle, quiet and masterfully done; no getting getting bogged down in salacious details, which made the betrayal between King and Coretta that much more powerful.

Director Ava DuVernay also assisted with the script, written by Paul Webb.  The production was  forbidden from using any of King's real speeches (copyright issues with the King estate) but instead of being a handicap, it was a saving grace.  DuVernay had to write new versions of King's speeches, and that prevented the often deadening effect most biopics run into when the movie stops cold and actors and audience alike all inhale and start to lip-sync The Famous Speech. Here, King's most noteworthy and oft-repeated famous phrases were interwoven throughout as regular dialogue (a nice touch) and the one big official speech at the end was brand new to the audience and so allowed them to actually listen to what was being said.

I can only hope this film will be widely seen.  First, because so much of the history that the film portrays seems to have been forgotten by a white smiley-faced America that blithely thinks we now live in a post-racial world.  Recent events involving black communities and police remind us that ghosts from our past are not yet past.  And that we forget our history at our own peril.

And second, this film should be widely seen simply because it's so good.

For a great overview of the march, see the link below.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The SLOTown Mowers

Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Private Holiday Wedding

Henrietta & Mortimer, happy at last.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year

My New Year's Resolutions:

1.  I'd like to say I resolve to lose weight but the awful cold I had over Christmas took care of that.  Inadvertently being on the "14-Day Snotty Nose Diet" took away any sense of "resolution."  It was done and done with no resolve on my part. So, that's out. 
2.  So, I'll resolve to get more exercise, but the Dogs have taken any  "choice" out of that idea as well.  There's no arguing with them.  A walk is a walk.  End of discussion.
3.  I could give up smoking and drinking, but I did that years ago and anyway, isn't that supposed to be something you do for Lent?
4. Maybe I  could resolve to set enough time aside to read the stack of books that's piling up by my chair.  But before that happens, I've got to get through my Honey-Do list and right now that List is growing larger than the stack of books.  And since that involves repairing stuff, that will have to take precedence. Maybe next year.
5. I know, I will resolve to save more money.  No, wait.  This last windstorm resulted in a downdraft vortex that ripped whole swaths of shingles off the roof so a resolution to "save" money has now been transformed into, Pay for a New Roof, so that takes care of "saving" more money.  Can't get blood from turnips.
6.  Speaking of which, I will resolve not to plant any more turnips this year.  They're easy to grow but who eats the darned things?  Zucchini's bad enough, but at least you can make a very good curried soup with them, but turnips?  Any turnip soup always seems to include potatoes so you end up with a potato soup that tastes weirdly like broccoli.  Who needs that?
7.  I might be able to resolve to xerescape my non-existent lawn, but I started on that years ago and will continue, so I don't think "continuing" something can be considered a "resolution."
8. Or I could resolve to work on my memory.  I had a great article on how to improve one's memory but I can't seem to find it.  Where the heck did I put that thing?  Do any of you know?
9. And I can resolve to spend more time to smell the roses, but I've only got the one rose bush and it sorta takes care of itself so I end up spending my rose-smelling time trying to figure out what to do with the great Roger's Red Grapevine that's getting so big it's threatening to topple the fence and by the time I figure that out there's no time left to smell anything.
10.  So, I guess there's only one resolution left:  Go watch the extravagantly  improbable Rose Parade to see how the good people of Pasadena survived camping out on the streets overnight in record-setting freezing weather.

Hope you'll all have a Happy Day.