Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bhutto and the Tiger

Three years ago, we were transfixed by the epochal tragedy of the great Boxing Day tsunami. This year, it is Bhutto, and Tatiana the tiger that could and did and paid for it. Tragedies both, but these victims unlike the innocents on the beach of three years ago, paid for playing. My point here is not to judge the fairness of any of this, but to look at the role of accident in history a bit.

Assassinations are quite common in history, tsunamis are very rare, and zoo-based tiger predation of visitors almost unheard-of. Almost. That's the key word ... almost. One in a million is not zero. So when the strangely unrattled parents stated that things like this never happened to people, they forgot that one .... one in a million.

Let's start with Bhutto. It seems odd to me that it took her enemies so long to get her. She's been back in Pakistan for a couple of months, after all, and this is a place where political murder has been a commonplace at all levels of society. It looked like a well thought out operation at first, but then we find out that there was essentially no security and that it is at least possible that she was killed by banging her head. Even if a bullet did kill her, scoring a hit even at short range would be a crap shoot considering the pressing mob surrounding her vehicle. If she's inside the vehicle, the suicide bomb doesn't get her. So my skepticism ... reeking, to use the phrase of a former colleague in the "movement", of coffee and upholstery ... enjoys the notion that she cracked her skull on an armored SUV sunroof knob. I do not enjoy the fact that she has been killed because in the darkness that is the Pakistani future, she was at least a 5-watt bulb of hope for some sort of ephemeral moment of stasis or quietude.

But the fact is that her assassination is an accident. It might not have occurred. If she hadn't cracked her head, maybe she could have shamed Musharraf into providing some security. Maybe she might have bought herself a pope-mobile. This is not a one in a million accident ... more like a one in a hundred, or in fifty.

There are definable, albeit highly volatile, forces at work in Pakistan. But the accident of this assassination is a wild card, and a deterministic view of history can't predict either the fact of accident or the effects. After the fact, we can point to the dominant factors. Before the denouement ... whenever that might be ... we can speculate based on the factors. But we can't account for the accident, and accidents do occur.

The press, and especially the droning reciters on television, provide no context and merely look about nervously to see if they can repeat what someone has said while appearing original at least to themselves. I have yet to hear anyone talk about the ethnic issues ... Bhutto is an aristocratic Sindhi, christian- and western-educated, and I recall that she is Shia but I can't confirm that. Musharraf is an Indian-born Mohajir, the first mohajir Pakistani head-of-state. Nawaz Sharif is a Punjabi. Punjabis plus Sindhis plus Mohajirs equal about 70% of the population; the tribal areas have about 15%, considerably less than 15% of the economy, and even less of the army which is what counts.

All that said, it is not clear who follows Bhutto. An accident trumps it all, at least until the accident becomes a stable part of the equation in the course of time's inexorable march. And that is part of the problem with understanding accident in history ... the accidents of yeteryear come to feel like they had to have been. Not so. Maybe it all would have turned out the same, but we don't, and can't, know that.

So to the tiger ... from tragedy to farce, as it were. I am convinced that the three little shits who paid with their bodies for the tiger's rage had goaded it into coming after them. The evidence seems to go there. The tiger was loose for 19 minutes, and only went after three people. The tiger grotto is 40 years old and no tiger has escaped before. Sundry projectiles are found in the moat ... by the way, is a moat still a moat without water in it? I think it's a ditch.

Even so, this is a one in a million accident. Little shits torment zoo animals all the time. I remember watching little Indonesian shits throwing lit cigarets at an orangutan who was mired on a treeless island surrounded by a watery moat. The orangutan ate the cigarettes. What sort of creep torments a zoo animal? How low can someone sink? Well, it turns out that the surviving Dhaliwal brothers are local tyrants who get drunk and act up and terrorize their neighbors. They have sundry drunk-and-disorderly type charges pending. Notwithstanding the valueless pronouncements of San Francisco's poster-girl police chief, this was a crime scene, and the tiger was the hapless victim.

Still ... one in a million. Sousa ... the dead one ... gets a Darwin award, but his elimination form the gene pool was not a result solely of stupidity ... stupidity has never been a bar to reproduction, alas ... but the result of dumb bad luck. Again, the coffee and upholstery skeptic in me wonders why a tiger with 19 minutes on his hands couldn't have saved the neighbors any further trouble with the Dhaliwal boys, but that too is accident.

You can't predict these things. The results will be reams of ink, as they say in the news biz, and at least three lawsuits. It will cost San Francisco and the nominally independent zoo a pot of money. And there will be breast beating about tigers in capitivity, and less attention to the fact that there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild.

All the result of an accident.

And then those poor sods washed out too sea three years ago ... I still think that the Indonesian death count is radically low. I have never seen a proper estimate of the number of people living on the northwest shore of Sumatra before the waves, or a reliable count of the survivors. I think ... again, coffee and upholstery ... that the Indonesian count is more like 300,000 than the official 170,000. To the victims, it was a bizarre accident, literally out of the blue. Maybe mother earth knows when massive earthquakes occur, but in history they come out of the blue even if we know that they must come sooner or later. That epochal accident cleared out the poor for Thai tourism developers, and it provided the basis for a settlement of the Acehnese war that has raged off and on for 150 years. It also gave a boost to the religious police who now wander about with whips and sticks to stick and whip insufficiently shrowded women and young folks sitting about and talking unchaperoned.

Out of the blue, one in a million. An accident. Never underestimate the accidents of history.

Photo by Arod: Street art at 14th and Valencia in San Francisco.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Christmas Hat

One should not cheat at Christmas, but I did ... I backdated this post to December 25 at 11:11 p.m. to disguise the fact that I was so utterly exhausted by my part in consuming the groaning board of seasonal delights at the Coleman's that I in fact went to bed with a post in my mind but not on the net. But I did think about this post last night, and so I employ the tiny vanity of prolonging Christmas by a few hours so I can post within its confines.

So in that spirit, I refer you to Maureen Dowd's compelling Boxing Day post on her Christmas love of Trigger the hobby horse. Dowd is by turns enthralling and annoying ... and in that she has succeeded in something to which other lesser lights, myself included, aspire. She concludes with this:

In a piece reprinted in the Kennedy anthology, Henry van Dyke writes: “Are you willing ... to own, that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness ... to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings ...? Then you can keep Christmas.”

I remember Christmas as a time of plenty in our family. My Dad's business through much of my childhood always did very well in December, and I long suspected that my parents took advantage of the windfall to buy us clothing and sundries that would last a year. Christmas morning was an avalanche of stuff in a life where we were taught not to ask for things for ourselves. I remember the year I got a bike ... I was 10, and the rule was that you got your first bike at 10. I remember the year that I asked for a fort for my imaginary kingdom, Animelia, and its china King Elfie. That wooden fort, minus its draw bridge, is sitting on a chest a few feet from me as I write this, now a part of my annual ludicrously over-the-top Christmas decorating madness.

On Christmas morning, we would wake the parents vastly earlier than they would have preferred, and finally Father would descend the steps to turn on the Christmas tree. Every year he would call up, "You might as well go back to bed, the old bugger didn't come this year." The old bugger was Santa Claus, of course, and he had come, no doubt. We descended into this glittering excitement in reverse order of age, so I, as the oldest, was always last. No matter. There in front of the tree were Santa's gifts. It was the one day in the year on which we could safely think of ourselves first.

I had a "tradition" of not eating any meal on Christmas except Christmas dinner. This was a successful ploy to skip the porridge which was our every morning lot. I ate candy instead, and focused on playing with my new toys.

The toys are fewer now, and the gifts are mostly books. I buy my own toys, which is what adulthood is about. I suppose I am an old grump, but I feel sorry for children who buy their own and get what they want whenever they want. It must make the magic of Christmas so pedestrian for them. Christmas was then only one day as it still is, but it was the peak of the year, the highest joy, the reward for a year of obeying and striving and doing your part. It was a day apart from others, and that gave life some contours which still abide in me today.

Yesterday ... ooops, I suppose I should say this morning, given my conceit that I am writing this on Christmas Day ... I went on a two-hour walk with Loki, my dog. Christmas back then always had Laddie, our dog, who was invited into the living room only on that one day. Otherwise, dogs stayed in the hallway. I am sure we have a photo of him somewhere in the living room. I remember that he was very sheepish about it, but obviously aware too that this was a day unlike other days.

So the walk with Loki ... I wore my Christmas hat. (The photo above is of me and my Christmas hat in 2005 ... I look about the same now except without the long locks.) I inherited the Christmas hat from my friend Kurt who reintroduced me to the joy and uniqueness of Christmas. Kurt died in 1992, and he left me all his Christmas things. The party every year is for Kurt. And when I walk about in his hat ... my hat now ... I try to beam Christmas for him and for me. One gets a lot of looks, and I turn each of those looks into a jolly Merry Christmas. Perhaps one in three folks have the good manners to beam back "Merry Christmas", and I feel sorry for the rest who have lost that public sense of joy, not able to "make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings". Perhaps I am being self-righteous ... perhaps the quiet ones think I am a madman trying to interpelate myself into their private lives. No matter. Nothing for me is so joyous as the Christmas Day walk in the Christmas hat wishing the passing celebrants a Merry Christmas.

Two Merry Christmas's I remember in particular. A few years back, walking home at night through the Haight from Kerry's Christmas Eve party, I saw a young thuggish looking guy sitting on the steps of a church at Page and Masonic ... glowering, tough ... I briefly feared he might steal my hat. As I passed, I said Merry Christmas, and his face transformed, beamed, as he cried back to me, Merry Christmas to you. Yesterday, I passed a homeless man with an angry look and disheveled dress, and he too beamed with delight and returned my Merry Christmas in a sonorous southern accent.

And so to anyone reading this at any time of the year ... Merry Christmas to you and to those you love.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Light in the Darkness

Barely keeping my eyes open, but filled with the spirit of Christmas. I am listening to some St. Olaf's Choir in Norway singing in a catheral. I just dozed through Renee Fleming's angelic voice. Earlier this evening, enjoying Andrew's gourmet take on sundry Chrstmas delights, we listened to Sufyan Stevens' Christmas carols.

The myth of the boy king and his mother and the sheep and the Zarathustran visitors is lovely and everything ... but it does not touch on what touches me about Christmas. I am ineluctably northern, and Christmas is the festival of the deepest moment of the northern soul when light and warmth are at their least. And so the festival of that moment is filled with celebration of light and warmth ... the lights, the candles, the hearth, the roasted food, the libations. When life is at its ebb, we fill it with gifts and song and fellowship.

How terrible a world it is that this elemental return is hijacked by religion and commerce and their associated venalities. But Christmas is nevertheless a stepping aside from the venalities and an association again with what brung us. The song, the lights, the fellowship are of one piece with the huddled warmth of a burning log in a Celtic hut, with warming one's hands round an Anglo-Saxon fire, with peasants eating the one goose that they have laid aside.

Christmas is deep and old and the possession of all and of no one. Eternal and ephemeral. One day of sublime thought, hankered after, touched, remembered, gone.

And to all a good night.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Christmas Party

We had a joyful gathering of 60 or so on Sunday night at our annual Christmas Party. The house was brimming with Christmas, more Santa's scattered about than I could possibly count. A dozen or so folks from work came, and that was a special joy. But no more of a joy than the old friends, some of whom we see only once a year at this party.

The 19th anniversary Christmas Party ... it started out as "A Victorian Christmas Party in 1989" when Kurt and Tom and I decided to throw a bash for everyone we knew in Kurt's home on Page Street. It was a wild night, probably 200 people over the course of eight hours. We did it again in 1990 and 1991, and even in that last year, Kurt was still vital and in charge. But AIDS took him only six months later. So this party has always been about memory as well as a joy. Tom lasted another year. So many of the men in my life from those days are gone. But the party lives on.

Gawd, I did not intend to be maudlin. But Kurt is always at the party. When we sang Silent Night, I asked everyone to think of those no longer with us ... and when I said Kurt's name, June and Dave and Kerry and I, the last of the originals as it were, all nodded and smiled.

We drank and ate ... two turkeys and a ham ... we talked, and said Merry Christmas as often as we could find an excuse. Christmas is about joy and friendship and taking stock at the darkest time of the year. It is about fellowship and giving. And it is about remembering.

More than anything, though, it is about Santa Claus. Let's leave it at that.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What Christmas Means to Me

I have been laboring away this week on the big Christmas Party ... the 19th anniversary of the first one that Kurt and Tom and I first held in another time. I have not had the time or energy to blog, so here is an essay on Santa Claus that I wrote in 1999.

What Christmas Means to Me

Christmas for me is Santa Claus! Equal parts fantasy, joy, giving, magic, and mystery, Santa Claus entranced me when I was a boy. It certainly had a lot to do with the fact of all the presents. But Santa's presents were always sheer whimsy ... no socks or pants, but instead a toy fortress for my imaginary kingdom, a bicycle of my own, and always piles of books about long ago times and faraway places.

But now that I am an adult, Santa teaches me more about fantasy and mystery. Here is a most eccentric man who has created a magical kingdom far from the humdrum lives of all the other folks. He lives in a strange, limitless house where he labors with his elvish helpers day and night, all year round, to create whimsy by the bushelful for the children whom he teaches to believe in whimsy. His life is the polar opposite of any that has ever been lived elsewhere. Yet it is still a life which he created for himself by means of his own imagination.

Santa Claus is the greatest wizard that ever existed. His magic brings only joy and good. His being shines light into the darkest recesses of our souls.

But no magical being is single-sided. Santa carries a stick also. This side of the Santa myth doesn't sit well with thoroughly-modern-parenting, so we hear little about it. But Santa knows that some boys need a warm posterior more than they need a new truck ... and he knows that the warm posterior is itself part of the mystery, an irreducible moment of the magic. Because the naughty among us need to learn that the joy and the good demand a commitment not only to receiving, but to giving as well.

Christmas is the age-old season of the winter solstice where northern folks shiver in the cold and long for the relaxation of warmth and sun that summer will bring. The twinkling lights, the songs and good cheer, and the mountain of gifts invoke both the memory of what will come and the remembrance of who we are and what our life means. Christmas is the time of year to pause to reflect about what blessings we have received, and what good we can do for others to make the world which we share a warmer place irrespective of the dark and blustery world outside our hearth.

In this sense, again, Santa shows us a way out of the darkness of daily existence into the light of joy and good cheer. How fat and happy is Santa Claus, because his entire year has been spent in preparing for this one day in which he will spread love and joy to innocents everywhere. His prosperity and happiness derive from his giving, and so might ours if we construct for ourselves a life based both upon our labors and upon our hopes, our joy, and our own special magic and mystery.

For at Christmastime, the fantasy is reality.

And so, from me to you,
in the spirit of Santa Claus ...

Merry Christmas to all,
and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Tacky Sappy Corny

So we are listening to Mario Lanza belt out a martial "O Holy Night"and I just plain love it. Corny, but Christmas is nothing if it is not corny. RL thinks it is tacky, but the line between tacky and corny is gossamer thin. I don't think that this one will make the cut for our December 16 party medley ... but it is stirring and sappy, all at the same time.

I just plain love Christmas.

RL and I just chatted a little about the peculiarities of the corny-sappy-tacky that one prefers. If you like some corny-tacky-sappy thing, there is no explaining it, and if you don;e like it, you have nothing but scorn for its defenders. No explaining taste, but in particular there is no explaining the little excursions into bad taste in which one indulges.

Christmas is carte blanche to explore one's indefensible taste for the sappy-tacky-corny.

I managed to get the hallway garlands up, and then once done, one stretch of twinkle lights went out. Ouch. This will be a job for the sainted-ex, RB or Iao, as he prefers to be known. He is a lighting guy and electrician. When we broke up, I told him he could leave me, but he still had to do my electricity. Once you have lived with an electrician for a decade, there is no going back. I also managed to get a bunch of other garlands up ... RB comes by and "foofs" them so that they look spectacular. I sometimes wonder if I'm really gay because I just plain can't "foof"anything to save my life. I can nail a garland to the relevant arch, but I rely on my sainted ex to make it look like it belongs in the faggiest house in the Castro.

Okay, walking with the dog ... that'll be walking with Loki ... what is it about the scattered but ubiquitous clumps of people performing Tai Chi in the park that they have not learned that one can purchase for less than 50 dollars a sound system better than anything available at any price 20 years ago? What is it about Tai Chi that makes people broadcast tacky Chinese music at top volume on sound systems with more static than music?

Again with the "tacky" ... one's man's tacky is a nother man's screech. I like tacky Chinese music, but get real ... let's purchase an appropriate iPod-related sound system.

Whoops ... dinner is almost ready ... a long weekend of putting up Christmas grinds to a halt. I face work tomorrow that portends kudos on having been praised for my efforts as far as the Provost. I am happy. But all I can think about is the Christmas Party and the magic of those six hours on December 16.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I broke the seal last night ... I put a dozen ornaments on the tree which fabled and darling ex and I put up over the long weekend. Then tonight I put up another 50 or so.

This is all in aid of our Christmas Party on December 16. It will be the 17th time in 19 years. I'll try to write a little about the history of the party as I put it up. Suffice to say now that three weeks of effort, including a week off from work, is barely enough to cram all the Christmas I have into the house.

The centerpiece is the Christmas Tree ... over 500 glass ornaments on a now two-decade old tree, obviously artificial. The photo above is the tree last year. I hav a couple of theories about the tree. Firstly, to make it magical, it requires ornaments everywhere, including deep inside its branches, and all the way around the back even where few people go. Filling every nook and cranny creates a depth not otherwise possible. So half the ornaments only ever get seen by me as I hang them. That is a sublime pleasure ... handling all this tender glass twice a year ... once to mount and once to put away. They are like old friends at this point.

My other notion is that every ornament must hang free in order to create that shimmering and twinklying that makes a lit tree so magical. even one ornament that sticks on a branch can create a dark spot. Of course, that is a little obsessive, but what better project for obsession than an annual Christmas extravaganza?

Photos by Arod. The tree is from 2006; the lower photo is from my bedroom, also 2006.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Blown Pixel

My relatively new MacBook ... the purchase of which is the proximate cause of this blog ... has a single blown pixel ... upper right hand corner, one pixel is red all the time. Yech. I asked about whether AppleCare covers that, and they told me that Apple defines a problem as 5 blown pixels in one square inch. That's cold. 5 blown pixels on the entire screen would make it useless. I plan to write some notes and what not and see what happens, but looks like I have to live with a blown pixel. I changed my desktop to red so at least I can't see it in the Finder.

Oh the pains of consumerism.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sabean ...

Brian Sabean: don't trade Lincecum, or Cain, or even Zito for that matter, for anybody, especially Miguel Cabrera. If we're going to be a great team, we need to build it around ptiching in our pitching park. If we are just looking to make the baseball groupies happy by hitting home runs, we will never be a great team, just a smug team. We've done the smug thing ...what have we got for it?

Don't trade starting pitchers. I don't even think that you should trade Jonathan Sanchez or Kevin Correia. Maybe Noah Lowry because there are a few questions, or Brad Hennessey because he hasn't got it done.

But get the idea that you would trade Lincecum out of everybody's mind.

Lincecum above, Correia below.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


So, happy Thanksgiving!

This is not a holiday that means much to me ... even the four day weekend, no matter how welcome, has always seemed a bit prosaic. During the longue durée of my student life it meant fevered paper writing. Now it means kicking off the mad dash to get all of Christmas up in time for the big party this year on the 16th. "All of Christmas" refers to the gargantuan mass of decorations that I scatter meaninfully around the house.

Canadians celebrate a less meaningful Thanksgiving in October. Every year, the papers note that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in Canada. Not sure to what degree that is true, especially given the mythology surrounding the American version, but it fits the national myth.

American Thanksgiving, evidently, is the consummate family holiday, and Christmas apears to suffer by reason of it. In noting this, I take the stance of being on an extended anthropological expedition here ... I have come to know the natives well, I like them, and they seem to treat me as one of their own .... but some of their habits still appear befuddling.
The mythos of Thanksgiving is all about the Pilgrims, as we know, and much is made nowadays about the native people whose land they took. So Thanksgiving is as close as we get to celebrating migration. It doesn't take a lot of history reading to come to understand that migration is at the core of the human experience. In our mythologies, it is both celebrated and reviled. I am not going to such a Polyanna as to decide in one sentence whether its a goodie or a baddie ... migration's effects depend upon where you sit. But, as with war, there is no human civilization without it, no matter how tortured are those who find themselves at the receiving end of migration.

When I was in Prague, I ws struck at the otherworldy beauty of the angry young faces. There was something decidely Asiatic about them. You're not allowed to say that now, of course, because it is an impression piled on a trope. I speculated that there was a little Hun or Mongol there, and that a population relatively genomically isolated for a millennium or so betrayed its past in its faces. I think that we know little about the particulars of the migrations of the Slavs after the fall of Rome (I mean the western version), but migrate they did. And somebody was there, and somebody had to move on or perish. We still fight about these things in the 21st century, not to mention the rather notable wars of the 20th century that stirred up mythologized memories of long past migrations.

The U.S. is mired in Central Asian ... never fight a land war in Asia! The Arabs in Iraq stem historically from the migrations after the Arab conquest of the 7th century, and they were migrated over by Turks and Mongols and Tatars. The Persians like to think that they have been there since ancient times, but they too have been migrated over successively. The Afghans are a boiling cauldron of the peoples who washed over their land, and the Pakistanis sport a new ethnic group of migrants who tell us more about the foundations of ethnicity than almost any people around ... the Mohajirs are just those who came from India at Partition. But in due course they had to assume the characteristics of an ethnic group in order to compete in the hellish politics of the islamic-ideology state.

If they had Thanksgiving in Pakistan, who would celebrate it, and on what day? Would it be about harvest in a new land, or would it be about real estate in Karachi? If they had Thanksgiving in Baghdad, would they celebrate the arrival of the Abbasid Mansur in 762 ... remember that the Abbasid revolution essentially started in what is now Afghanistan and swept the Ummayads off the face of the earth ... well a few of them managed to get to Spain where they founded a glorious dynasty whose tale is too little told. Why? Because that civilization was itself swept aside by a bunch of migrants ... not so much the conquerors of the Reconquista, as by the peasants who followed in their tracks and reseeded the lands with Catholicism late filled with Islam. If they had a Thanksgiving in Spain, would they mournfully celebrate the Moors who surrendered their civilization to make way for the Inquisition? Or would they celebrate the first burnings once the conquest was complete in 1492.

So Thanksgiving always rings a little hollow to me, and even the anti-Thanksgiving traditions do as well. But Christmas ... now there is a great holiday. Pure myth at its root, with another pure myth plastered on top of it, with a solstice underneath everything, and glittering lights illuminating its ancientness. By that, I mean, its pre-Christian roots along with the fairy tale of the birth of the boy king, all celebrated on the darkest day of the year with lights that remind us that spring is on the way.

Photos by Arod. Top photo: a student project at the major research university (MRU) where I work. Lower photo: commercial street art, Oak and Buchanan, San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Not sure why these pauses in blogging occur. During the day, I think about what it is that I am thinking bout that I ought to blog about ... and then in the evening I manage to find some other thing to do, and finally postpone blogging to tomorrow. Gotta find a way out of that because I want to blog nightly ... certainly I am opinioned enough!

So a few things on life's way. I keep aquariums ... aquaria is the spelling I prefer. A year ago, I had a failed experience with keeping some Oscars in a 60-gallon tank, and I have just let the tank run empty every since hoping that the ammonia problem would eventually self-correct. Well it did, but I waited a while to make sure. Last week I put 10 tetras of some strip in there, and they are thriving. I am happy. I think it will be a while before I return to the Oscar attempt. But at least I have life in that aquarium.

That is the more satisfyaing becuae we are approaching Christmas ... say what ... because we are approaching the 17th annual (actually 19 years minus two missed years) gala Christmas party. In July, I wrote about how my life is tent-poled around two great events, the second of which is the Christmas party. I had hoped to hold it this year on the 23rd, but it turns out that faithfulness to a number of friends demands that we hold it on the 16th.

So this is going to be a little placeholder post that announces that I am going to blog Christmas ... setting it up as I have done for 17 of that last 19 years ... the first three of which were at my friend Kurt's house, but I will explain all that.

I'll put a Christmassy photo up on this post tomorrow since we get off work at noon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


I'm watching the fourth quarter of the Cal-USC game. Not really much of a football fan, but being a spurts junkie means watching women's bowling if there's nothing else on when you need a fix. Certainly college football is a damned sight better than any form of bowling ... and when the noble California Golden Bears have a shot at crushing the profoundly evil USC Parthians or Persians or some ancient non-Greeks ... can't remember which ones just now ... well, just gotta watch. Of course, I have three degrees from Cal. Currently tied 17-17 with ten and a half to go in the fourth quarter.

I feel kind of guilty about my Pakistan post ... how can I say that any nation is "worst". Plenty of folks around the world would quickly chime in that the good ole U.S. of A. is the worst for various reasons. What I mean by worst is that a place is horrible to live in, contributing essentially nothing, and causing or at least threatening tremendous harm.

USC just had a big pass play wiped out by a holding penalty. Such is the lot of those in league with the devil. I smile. Some people take the devil seriously, and I daresay there are plenty of the religious in Pakistan who count themselves among that number. I consider the notion of the devil as a longstanding and hilarious, albeit rather cruel, joke. It is a notion that readily serves as handbag for assorted complaints and fears and disappointments and hurts ... like this one ... USC, in league with the devil, scores a touchdown after a 95+ yard drive.

So back to Pakistan. It was founded on an idea, or at least it had ideology at the forefront of a founding that certainly had plenty of other interests at work. I decided I should review Pakistan's history given my post and shortly I shall re-read Owen Bennett Jones' comprehensive survey of Pakistan's history, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm ... sort of a drag, because I have been enjoying a fabulous tour of the middle period of the middle part of Asia ... the Turkic, Mongol, Tatar invasions and conquests. But there is a relationship between those middle-middle-middle events, and the historical impasse in which middle-middle-middle Asia finds iitself.

Put briefly, I refer to the notion of the third rule of history ... that any force given long enough turns into its opposite. (You can see my three rules of history at the top of this blog.) Modern Western historians like to emphasize how backward Europe was in the middle periods of human history, and how advanced and spectacular and populated were China and the Middle East and the vast stretch of steppe between them. But in those long millennia where the nomads on horseback repeatedly beat back civilization either capturing it or destroying, they bequeathed historical predilections that continue to haunt that vast middle even when the power of horsemen is now confined to that most backward corner of human life, the Sudan.

In other words, the successes of Genghis Khan and Tamurlane and the Seljuk and late Ottoman Turks and the Mamluks had the effect of freezing political and social innovation. How that worked I do not yet have words to describe ... but it is that which motivates me in my current re-reading of middle-middle-middle Asian history. And I write out this predilection here to challenge myself to come up with some of those words.

[Nate Longshore, Cal QB, just threw another fourth-quarter interception, and the game is essentially gone. Cal's failure this year has hung on his bad right ankle, but you have to begin to wonder if he is the guy who can take us there. He is still a junior, but we have a keeper in young Kevin Riley ... we just might have to go with him next year.]

So the "worstness" of Pakistan the nation, as I see it, along with the seemingly permanent fracturing of Afghanistan not so much as a nation as in terms of its being a cultural zone, is the playing out of historical dymanics that are several millennia old combined with the peculiar horrors of 20th-century ideology. To counter the straw-man notion raised above that the U.S. is the "worst" nation, we have only to point to the fact that its dynamics are of much more recent genesis, and so the possibility of re-working them seems closer to the surface. And we can consider that the basic ideas of American democracy are 18th- and 19th-century, where the driving ideas of the founding of Pakistan are a hellish brew that conflates the superstitions of the 7th century with the worst megalomanias of the 20th.

USC just made a first down with a minute to go. We're dead. Woe.

No first downs in Pakistan. It has been fourth and long since 1947.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


At the risk of inviting a little opprobrium, I have to confess that I have long held that Pakistan is the "worst" country. That is not to say that the people are any worse than others, or in any way inferior. But it is to say that the sum total of what constitutes Pakistan the nation makes it a combination of being among the worst places to live, with the most deadly possibilities for a future and the least hope for some sort of progress, defined any way you want to look at it. It is not that Pakistan is worst in everything, but just that it is bad in most everything, and truly awful in some critical matters, and you put it all together, and there just does not seem to be much redeeming in its nationhood. Lovely people, of course, but what a country. Besotted by religion, infested by an army that is vastly too large and corporate and unchecked by other forces, ringed by tribes who have not emerged from the devastation of centuries of brutal warfare, awash in utterly insane ethnic conflicts, and, worst of all, possessed of nuclear weapons. It does have a middle class, apparently growing, but also largely trapped up in ethnicity and lineage and all the attendant insanity.

So, if I were cynical, which I am not, I would just have to say this ... so Pakistan is having another crisis ... imagine that.

The key to understanding the current crisis, I believe, is that Musharraf is attacking this middle class, not the Islamists who are not really a threat to him. I think he has fundamentally misread the situation, and that his apparently immeasurable hubris has swamped a mind that seemed to be working reasonably well for the first part of his rule. But that is neither here nor there. It seems remarkable to me that he could not bring himself to give up his position as head of the army ... but perhaps he knows that once he has shed that direct lever of control, he is simply twisting in the wind. So what ... he is twisting in the wind right now, waiting upon some other power base within the army to put him out of his misery.

As an aside, why do the plainclothes cops have to gratuitously punch and kick the black-and-white-clad lawyers as they load them up into paddy wagons? This is from the endlessly repeated CNN footage. The photographers seem to outnumber the lawyers, and they are allowed without interference to photograph every last little blow. So you have to assume that the regime has decided that it wants these images propagated, and that a few kicks and clubbings will demonstrate to the comfortable middle classes that this is what awaits protesters ... a rough handling and few nights in jail away from their estates and their armies of cowering servants fresh off the farm, as it were. Just as the blows are feeble, if real, so the regime shows itself as feeble, waiting for some force whose brutality is more visceral to come along and sweep it away.

It turns out that I am reading about Tamerlane, more appropriately Temur or Timur, the great and brutal Turco-Mongol who conquered Central Asia in the 14th century. I have a long fascination with horses and peoples, and my reading keeps returning to the early and middle periods of Islamic history. Tamerlane (I prefer the English versions of names because it is English I speak and because every language naturally domesticates the names of places and peoples it considers important) was a monster who, notwithstanding his intellectual, architectural, and literary fascinations, had the effect like Genghis Khan before him of destroying great cities and cultures so thoroughly that they have not recovered to this day. Witness Afghanistan. But that is the way it is with nomads when they overwhelm the urbane.

When Tamerlane conquered a resistant city, or especially a rebellious city, he committed horrible slaughters, none worse that when he piled 2,000 living sentient human beings into a tower and bricked them in to die and rot as a memorial to those who opposed him. The point of this was to warn others that submission was the only rationale option. Dictators still think that way. But when their exemplary violence is as flabby and unconvincing as Musharraf's latest round-ups, you have to wonder ... who is weaker, Musharraf or his lawyeristic opponents? We can be assured that the Islamist madmen who are the ostensible and requisite villains inn the piece would not stop at a few kicks. (Compare it, by the way, to the murderous brutality of the petty thugs who run Burma.)

I do not believe that the islamists have the power to come to power in Pakistan, and none of the analysis seems to deal with this. They cannot defeat the army, and they cannot capture it. So they can cause destruction and chaos here and there, but they cannot seize the state. I think that the Islamists are an important part of Musharraf's power ... without them, his only excuse for rule is that Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were corrupt. Big woop ... who isn't corrupt in power in a third world hellhole? But the possibility of an Iranian style state takeover? Not very bloody likely.

The tribal islamists serve another purpose as well that does not dovetail with Bushie 9/11-ism. Pakistan has essentially four borders, five if you count China. We hear little about the Iran border and I doubt it is troublesome. The India border is big power stuff, puffing and huffing and occasionally getting into a disastrous war. Kashmir is a bleeding sore that keeps some of the Islamists busy and provdes the army with a valuable raison d'être for its overweening control. Afghanistan is an open door to chaos. Pakistan wants a weak, troubled Afghanistan, and it wants its islamists to be more concerned with their criminal activites on that border than with bringing their premodern version of enlightenment to Pakistan's tumultuous cities. So the army needs the Islamists, and the Islamists need the army, and neither of them cares a whit about Bushite 9/11-ism except insofar as it feathers their beds (army) or provides a requisite great Satan figure (islamists.)

I think Musharraf suffers a coup from within the army within a month or two. Then fevered negotiations ... Condi's last gasp ... and semi-brokered elections presumably some time before November 2008 for another brief stab at democracy before the army takes over again in the face of another wave of arrogant civilian corruption and exemplary religious violence. Those elections in the good ole U.S. are easily as important to Pakistan as any legislative elections at home. That marks the level of desperation in this worst of nations.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Delicious ...

Delicious comment in this story about how tightening legal drinking limits in Ireland might adversely affect priests. One Rev. Brian D'Arcy, a priest from Enniskillen, told the Irish Times, "I don't like to use the word wine, as it is Christ's blood in the Eucharist -- but it still has all the characteristics of wine when in the blood stream."

This requires no further comment other than ... jeez, give me a break.

Tiny Minds ...

Tiny minds make tiny cities, and the pencil sharpener Supervisor Bevan Dufty who personally killed Halloween is just the sort of civic midget that would turn San Francisco into a day care center for lobotomized adults. We had a little correspondence. I wrote him a note in much the same terms as my post on Halloween. He replied:

Thank you for your message. To me it's not cowardice to protect the public safety of the neighborhood. It's what I was elected to do.

I’m relieved that we saw a safe event last night. That said, I was saddened to take steps that were dramatic but necessary.

We certainly want to create an Office of Special Events and involve people in planning for 2008. I am all too aware that a non-event strategy will not be workable with Halloween on a Friday next year. We have much to do for next year, but I feel we've turned a corner and have some good things to build upon.

I wrote back to him:

Thank you for your note. I wrote a post on my blog here:

The problem is that you did NOT have an event, so to claim you had a SAFE event is an oxymoron. I spent the most formative decade of my life in the gay liberation movement in the 70s, and what guaranteed our impact was that we did not run from a challenge. You did. In doing so, you committed a terrible affront to gay people, our history, and our creativity. I still believe that it is shameful, and when compared to the risks to our lives that we took in creating a gay movement, it is cowardice. If New York can run Times Square on New Year's Eve, not to mention Halloween in the Village, then we can run a costume party
on Halloween just has we have done for decades.

If you believe that you deserve electoral support from gay people, you can undo the damage by guaranteeing a Castro event next year. Frankly, it's like the old adage ... if you don't the heat, vacate the kitchen.

The two things that really boil me about his reply are the "safe event" piffle and the Office of Special Events.

Safe, safe, safe. Safety is the rage ... Detroit sells SUVs because they are safe, notwithstanding that they are not safe, that they induce people into an orgy of bad driving, that they are deadly for the entire planet. But they're big and mean and heavy and ugly, so they must be safe. Soap sellers fool people into buying anti-bacterial soap because it is safe ... but it is not safe, it is dangerous, and it fools people into thinking that killing everything will make us safer. Politicians sells us "safety" in the form of "tough" prison sentences, but we are less safe because we have created monster criminals out of petty thugs, and we have created a prison gang culture that kills relentlessly far beyond prison walls, and we have created a reward system for rogue prosecutors to punish everyone, innocent or guilty, with a metaphorical death penalty. And of course poor dumb dubya sells us safety from terrorism, but he has made the world infinitely more dangerous, painstakingly built a platform upon which terrorism is thriving, and driven the reputation of this country lower than at any point since Vietnam.

Dufty is just one more in that long line of fear-mongering snake oil salesmen who promise that his special balm alone will guarantee your safety. But it won't ... it just creates ignorance and fear and makes our lives less colorful.

Now the Office of Special Events. By the time that Kublai Khan had completed the conquest of Song China in 1276, he had made sure to establish a Ministry of Rites to oversee public ritual. He patronized the arts, especially drama. In this, he was in line with previous Mongol conquering practice that had collected artisans from the far-flung corners of their new realms. Kublai Khan understood the role of ritual and celebration in the lives of a people. (The careful reader of my screeds will note that I have moved on in my reading from Genghis to Kublai; I am nearly finished John Man's rollicking if not precisely scholarly Kublai Khan: The Mongol King Who Remade China.) He also understood the need for a monarch to control both the people and his bureaucracy. Notwithstanding the monarchical reign of Mayor Gavin Newsom who will be acclaimed rather than re-elected a few days hence, we do not have the pleasures and agonies of a Kublai Khan. We have to rely on re-cycled accountants like the plain gray dank Dufty.

Mongol warrior or pencil sharpener, an official should be able to create an "Office" when he sets out to do so, or he should "vacate the kitchen". Dufty failed. He does not have the clout, what the Chinese might have called the mandate of heaven. In this case, it is the mandate of the merchants' associations or the homeowners' grousing clubs. So, having failed in stitching together yet another bevy of mournful civic hand-wringers, Dufty kills the "special event." Tiny minded ... and cowardly.

Now they like to proclaim that they ... the "they" here are the hand-wringers and their pencil-sharpening goatherds (refuse to fear the mixed metaphor) ... can start with a clean slate. Nonsense. The Halloween celebration in the Castro grew from history and struggle and pride and art. I promise you, they will try to bring children into this thing, they'll do anything to relocate it, they'll fulminate and mealy-mouth all year long, and they still will not be any closer to where they should have started in the first place: provide the services, police the perimeters, engage the celebrants.

And don't turn into a squawking, the sky-is-falling, prancing chicken in the face of one small episode.

Tiny minds make tiny cities. If we are to be remade as a city filled with Bevan Dufty's, then let us call things by their real names and change our name from San Francisco to Smallville.

Previous post on Halloween Shame in the Castro here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Shame in the Castro

So the grey-complected bureaucrats, shivering in their dank shuttered offices in self-righteous fear of the lusty and boisterous city they haunt, have managed to do what homophobes and the cops of earlier eras never could ... they killed Halloween in the Castro. Shame on them. Shame especially on Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a gay man, who does the work of the homophobes.

As I write only a few blocks from the darkened streets of the historical core of the gay revolution, they have closed public transit and strong-armed merchants and bar-owners into closing early. They have barricaded the sidewalks so revelers cannot take the streets. They have banned parking not to make room for merriment or celebration, but to make room for their own police-state tactics. They did this in the name of "safety" because of a few fringe bad episodes in an otherwise exuberant celebration of hundreds of thousands of people.

It is not coincidental that this occurs a few day safter the New York Times features a story that does not lament the decline of gay neighborhoods ... are they passé, it asks. It's ostensibly about social change, but actually about obscene real estate prices. I believe that the moral force behind killing Halloween here is a combination of grumpy old gay property owners who begrudge to current youth the fun they had in their own youths, along with the new smiling straight property owners who pat themselves ceaselessly on the back for finding a neighborhood where they can be cool. Neither group wants our history except, perhaps, in a tasteful library display.

We need our history because it is a visceral reminder of the fact that we have had to fight with our bodies and our lives for the freedom we have. We conducted that fight in living memory. Stonewall happened when I was 16. When I was 10 in 1963, on the day of Halloween, the reactionary San Francisco city authorities revoked the license of the epochal Black Cat, a well-known gay hangout. The "nelly queens" celebrated one last time that Halloween, drinking non-alcoholic beverages, and the place closed forever.

Halloween in the Castro, 1997

Gay people celebrate Halloween, the great gay holiday, because it is a festival of difference ... it is visceral play of the dialectic between appearance and reality. Look at it ... night plus costumes plus play plus blasphemy ... what is not gay about that? Many groups may claim Halloween, and so be it, but Halloween is ours. It is celebration of transgression, and our lives through no fault of our own have been transgressive since the dawn of christianity. The bastards cannot take it from us ... but the bureaucrats did. They stripped it from our heartland. How heartless.

Halloween in the Castro, 2006

Guys spend all year creating magnificent costumes. This has been a decades long focal point of creativity and expressiveness that allows our deeply creative community to strut its stuff, to show the world that we may be out there, but being out there is a great way to live. But such considerations of expression and creation are too much for the tiny minded civic school-marms. A pox on you, Dufty. Shame on you

Before gay liberation, the drag queens of Toronto used to march back and forth between the Parkside Bar and St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street to the jeers and pelting of a mob ... the pelting lasted until 1980, but the Halloween party goes on. I am reliably informed that similar parades of drag queens occurred in many cities but I do not have a reference at this point. But we had the guts to do it, and we had the guts to suffer the taunts and the attacks until we could mount a movement to secure our liberty.

Halloween in the 70s and 80s in the Castro often featured violence much worse than the couple of incidents that form the "casus belli" against gay Halloween for our grey bureaucrats. CUAV, Community United Against Violence, was founded in 1979 to fight back against gay bashing, and it actively patrolled the neighborhood. The police in those days were of precious little help. As the celebration grew and grew, the police came to play a better role. Now they have been enlisted to kill the fun.

This city likes to pretend that it is the "city that knows how." No way, now. This is a city that cannot run a transit system, that cannot pave its streets, that cannot clean up its garbage, that cannot help its homeless, that cannot provide affordable housing, that can no longer serve the artists and misfits and refugees who make it what it is. Tourists come to San Francisco because it is different. But it is less and less different every passing hour as we are invaded by smug suburbanites and SUVs and nervous lookie-loos with no more creativity than the blister packs of the consumerism that is their only joy.

Now the city meekly claims it cannot manage a large, popular, recurring event. New Orleans can manage Mardi Gras, but San Francisco can't handle Halloween. New York can manage Halloween in the Village not to mention Times Square on New Year's Eve, but San Francisco can't bring itself to do the same. The city that mourns its lost bids for the Olympics whines and snivels that it can't handle happy people in costumes on the streets. For crying out loud, Pamplona can handle mad bulls rushing through the streets clogged with human beings, but San Francisco, o poor San Francisco, can't manage a street fair. Shame on the bureaucrats. Shame especially on Dufty, who would know better if he had an ounce of sense of who we really are or where we came from or what we have done. It is especially disheartening that Mayor Newsom, who has fought the good fight for gay marriage, does not understand what a kick in the nuts this is. Think big, Gavin. Don't be a grey-complected bureaucrat like teeny weeny Dufty whose political career is over and who will go nowhere. We need the bold, not the meek, in office.

In the background, I have just watched a 1997 History Channel documentary narrated by Harry Smith, called A Haunted History of Halloween, that doesn't bother to mention gay people at all, even as they show pictures of the celebration in Greenwich Village. Our history is perpetually silenced. It is one of the chief methods of eliminating us. When the City of San Francisco silences our annual celebration of ourselves, it is complicit in that strategy. Closing the Castro Halloween Celebration is homophobic, and it is a stain on the careers of those politicians who established the policy, and on the city where we have fought for our liberation for a century. Shame on San Francisco. Shame.

More ranting on this subject here!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

World Series: Another Fox Sham

Here we are in the 8th inning of a what looks like a four-game sweep of the christian Rockies by the ill-shaven Red Sox. And what is the worst baseball announcer in the world, Joe Buck, talking about? Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees! The man is congenitally incapable of excitement. He NEVER calls a pitch. He barely pays attention to the game. He has openly stated that he prefers football. He's so bad that he makes Tim McCarver look good ... and that is a stretch. What a sham! Fox calls baseball the way it calls politics ... strictly thinking of themselves and their own prejudices, and screw everybody else.

They have a delay on the video so that you can't "simulcast" the incomparable Jon Miller who's on the radio. We're stuck with Buck ... how nauseating.

I thought that the Commissioner ... the most spineless boss in sports ... stated that there should be no major non-World Series news during the Series. Do you suppose he would have the cojones to fine Rodriguez, or his agent the reptilian Scott Boras, or, gawd forbid, Fox Sports?

At least the Rockies are losing, and we won't have to listen to a bunch of Christ-in-baseball talk for the next four months.

(Is this a good time to mention that A-rod stole my name which I have borne since 1953, and that I want the Giants to sign him ... or would that goad the Commish into fining me?)

Blogging Vancouver: Vacation's Over

Counting down the hours to returning to work ... always a bit of a nightmare. At least I return to a madhouse of activity ... a huge deliverable with a hard deadline of Tuesday at 5.

A few miscellaneous notes:

During my stay, there was a nasty drug-related mass murder in Surrey, just outside Vancouver and easily a universe away. Two of the six were innocent bystanders. I was a little surprised not to see this all over the U.S. papers... Canadians like to laugh that the only Canadian news that drifts below the border is a good mass murder, and this one was ugly. For me, it points up another problem with the insane American war on drugs whereby lax enforcement of easy-going pot on one side of a border creates an osmotic nightmare that fuels gang crime. This is the same situation that has essentailly destabilized every country bordering the Caribbean. The madness of the American hang-'em-high attitude hurts universally.

I reverted to reading the paper newspaper, The Globe and Mail. It's actually getting better, frankly. Canada is a shocking wasteland where newspapers are concerned. The Ottawa Citizen should be a national bellwether, but is little more than a small collection of other people's articles with the odd local feature. And many of the newspapers appear to be linked to some web thang called ... which means you appear to have to pay to read almost anything. Ridiculous. Shooting themselve sin the foot. I thought I might subscribe to the online Globe now that the NY Times is finally free ... but they want $14.95 per month just to be able to read their columnists. They must think they are very special. Frobisher, by the way, recommends Walrus Magazine, and I think I will subscribe ... although they, like the New York Review of Books, appear not to have an electronic only subscription. I don't want paper. Why do I have to get paper.

Another journalistic note: Vancouver's Xtra! West, a local gay paper, had an article by Gerald Hannon about Roy McMurtry. Gerald Hannon was one of the main impresario's of the epochal Canadain 70s gay newspaper, the Body Politic, and Roy McMurtry was the Tory provincial attorney general who brought obscenity charges against Hannon and Ken Poppert and Ed Jackson, all from the Body Politic. It was a major turning point in the gay liberation movement in Canada. They beat the charges twice, but even then MCMurtry was prepared to appeal the aquittal (double jeopardy being less of a concern, as it were, at that point in Canada ... I am not sure if the subsequent constitution banned it). There is a timeline at the bottom of Hannon article.

Well, it turns out that McMurtry eventaully became a member of the Ontario Court of Appeal and was responsible for the ruling that led to legal gay marriage across Canada. Very strange turn of events ... one does, however, have to account for and accept evolution. Fascinating article ... well worth reading.

Thinking about Xtra! West makes me think about Davie Street. It is definitely still old Vancouver with barely any aspect of spaceship Vancouver touching it. It still feels very much like it did when I first arrived. My first apartment was a cheap place (I think I remember $60 a month) on Thurlow at Davie. I tried to get a job at a very cool cafe on Davie, but they turned me down because they said that they didn't like gay waiters because too many of their friends hung around. I was a gay libber, but I didn't want a hassle in my new life on the coast, so I shut up about it, and felt guilty for years. Never went into the place a second time. It's long gone. I used to show up every Sunday at an eatery called Bino's ... I think the allotted time was 11 a.m. ... and anyone who wanted to show up was welcome and we'd eat blueberry pancakes. If no one showed up, I'd read.

This time, I had a coffee at a Starbuck's, and on another occasion at a Canadian knock-off coffee place called Blenz Coffee. But the highlight of hanging on Davie Street was a light breakfast at Hamburger Mary's at Davie and Bute. I say highlight because I love greasy spoon breakfasts ... my favorite type of meal-out. I was reading a book about Kublai Khan, having finished with Genghis Khan a few days back, and the drag queenish woman/man who served me let me hang and read and suck down too much coffee as it drizzled outside. That is a part of me that has not changed in three decades ... I still love a greasy-spoon breakfast. That may be genetic ... my sainted father, whose mobility is not considerably circumscribed by a stroke, loved to get up before everyone, find a greasy-spoon breaskfast, and then head home before anyone else had stirred from slumber. Like father, like son.

So I leave my vacation with that memory ... wet, black coffee, ham and eggs, Kublai Khan.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Blogging Vancouver: Heading Home

Funny thing ... so melancholy this morning as I saddled up and wandered over to Sophie's Cosmic Cafe for a last massive breakfast. I forgot to order the happy eggs ... free range. Melancholy as Frobisher and I drove by a circuitous route through the luminescent autumnal colors to the airport. Then the business-like part of getting through customs, stripping down for the ludicrous security initiation, and murderously banging out the rest of an old post and all of a new one in an open Starbucks in Vancouver's spectacular airport.

But now that I am on board, the nostalgia dissipates, the memories go back to the shelf, ready-to-hand but not active. I look forward to being home, to getting on with it.

Vancouver, alas, was probably a bad choice as a first trip to blog. I am too attched to the stirrings of my youth spent here, now there as we fly away ... not so much youth, really, as formative young adulthood. So these posts have been excessively sentimental. Still, travel should always shake you up, make you different than when you left. Travel, especially for those of us for whom travel must by necessity be a strong drink sipped only occasionally.

I think that this was only my sixth trip to Vancouver ... perhaps seventh ... in the nearly 27 years since I foresook it for San Francisco. But now I know that eventually I could happily come back if it came to that, that there is a sufficient underlayer of the old Vancouver for me in an old age that I crave but seek to delay as long as possible. What would happen if something suddenly opened up such that I could move back sooner than retirement? That would be a dilemma now, unlike at any time before now. When I first moved to the States, I had a recurring nightmare that I had returned to Canada, and I was trapped and could not get back to San Francisco. I no longer have that dream; I am secure in my new home, and the old one no longers threatens.

I should end this little huzzah by embracing again my home of three decades, lest it think me unworthy of continuing occupation. Here's to San Francisco, the Vancouver of California.

Blogging Vancouver: Lunch by the Gandydancer

Wednesday started rainy, but accuweather promised it would clear by noon, so I put on my nice pants rather than my jeans and risked becoming a sponge. It worked out well. And it is nicer to look nice when meeting IB, the fabulous 87-year-old mother of my first lover, the sainted Gary Gaetano, and his now 32-year-old daughter, DB. Not that I ever really dress "nice" just "nicer" ... and the effort must substitute for success.

So in keeping with the persistently nostalgic undertone of this trip, I took the bus to Davie Street, had a light breakfast as Hamburger Mary's and a coffee in some coffee shop across the street at Bute and Davie, and then wandered down Davie Street and back up through the West End looking at various buildings in which, shall we say, I untidied the sheets back in the good ole 70s. I contrived to arrive at IB's at the dot of 12:30, and in that I was successful.

DB, whom I have only met once or twice as an adult, and briefly at that, mostly lives in my memory as a child who was tossed around a little more than is advisable for children, the result of a short marriage among two fine people vastly too young to have made a child. But she weathered the storm and has evidently turned into a fine, beautifful, composed, and intelligent young woman. She just became a nurse and plans to head into pschiatric care ... a grwoth industry, as I noted to her chuckle. IB is obviously proud of her, and the two displayed a mutual affection that warmed me. Gary and I broke up in 1985, but we remained friends. His terrible unfair death in 1993 brought me back in touch with IB and now DB ... and I feel loyal to them like family.

IB in the course of her many travels and postings amassed an amazingly and markedly eclectic collection of objects that she displays with curatorial prowess. I could spend a few days alone in her apartment just marvelling at the objects. But none of the collection can match her wit and charm. When I first met her, she was a little more formidable and fear-inspiring. There was no particular joy at that point in sweet handsome Gary presenting "da Baptist", as he called me, as the follow-on to DB's mother. We were wary of each other in the first several meetings ... but people grow, and she did and I did, and now we memorialize only the familial warmth of the past, and nothing more.

We headed out to lunch looking for any place down Hamilton Street. We found a Thai place that turned out to be directly across the street from the old Gandydancer (click here for another take). That was a nostalgic moment for certain because I spent countless hours dancing in the Gandy ... weeknights, weekends, work or not the next day, and most especially after the innumerable gay liberation meetings and demos. (As I sit here in the airpot, I realize that I photographed the wrong location, 1226, when in fact it is 1222 which is s still a bar, and in which I could have ordered a Horse's Neck, one or RL's favorite rye creations. Missed my shot, so I guess I will just have to come back sooner than I might have thought. BTW, the Extra piece says it was a preppie crowd, but that is feel-good-about-yoursefl-after-the-fact-gay-male-homophobia ... the Gandy was all of us. I do not have a preppy bone in my body, nor my friends, and we flocked there. I hate the re-writing of 70s gay male history to conform to the any notion that diminshes the fact that it was gay men who made gay liberation. We did it, and we should be credited ... gets my dander up!)

Lunch was nice but really filling, and IB and DB took home enough Pad Thai for two or three meals each. The conversation focused on the past and trying to put dates and places and events together. But the flavor of the event had become the Gandydancer for me. Gary and I went there together and we went separately. On a given night, in those days before the uninterrupted contact of cell-phone-itis, Gary and I often figured the other was there, and we'd just bump into ech other, dance and drink, and then back across the West End to our famous digs.

Gotta catch my flight. Here's to IB and DB, and to Gary, and to the Gandydancer. And to Vancouver, a fabulous city, still what it was and now moreover something more.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Blogging Vancouver: Art School Cool, or the Vicarious School of Art

I am a little behind ... the consequence of staying with friends who entertain and talk instead of leaving the lonely traveler to his musings. All for the better, of course. Frobisher and I just returned from a couple of plates of raw fish. As is often the case, we enjoyed the more standard, less cool place than the chi-chi place we dined at the first night I was here. There are three sushi places in a row on Yew Street at Cornwall, right across the street from Kits Beach which is one of the finest uban beaches I have ever encountered.

The main event today was lunch with Gary's mother, IB, and his daughter, DB. I am going to write about that later, but it was a fine affair. Rather longer than I expected, so I had to skip the Vancouver Art Gallery and the current Georgia O'Keefe show ... but the fine company made up for that.

I want to talk about Art School cool. AW showed me around the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design where he is a fourth year student in the Industrial Design program. AW has that sort of crossdisciplinary plastic talent that awes those of us who have trouble with re-uniting a shirt with its lost button. Everything he touches turns into design. I cannot say why he chose to go to school, but I can say that it has had the effect of organizing and coralling his talent. No doubt it has grown as well.

That is what school should do, and especially art school. I was impressed by the physical plant because it appeared to emphasize collaboration and exchange. Emily Carr in on Granville Island (which is not discernably an island) under the scary and starkly pre-postmodern Granville Bridge. (I walked over the bridge today on the way home from lunch with Gary's folks, and my tendency to a little acrophobia certainly asserted itself, especially when I took a few pix at the apex. The hutling traffic no more than 3 or 4 feet away did not help any fleeting feelings of security.) They have recently completed a new building largely dedicated to Communication Design and Industrial Design. AW complains that the Communication Design people get pots of money while Industrial Design lags ... if MRU is any guide, the key to money is rich alums, and Industrial Design should produce a few of those.

It is a postpostmodern structure of concrete and steel and glass, but there is a lot of natural light. It was sunny the day I was there, but no doubt on the more numerous gloomy days, the light and the concrete merge to produce a visceral spaceship Vancouver. Little art things all over the palce of course, but I was chary of photograhing people's work in progress. I stole a couple of shots, and took photos when AW directed me.

O, to have been an art student ... notwithstanding my complete lack of talent. It got me thinking, then, and later, and especially on Wednesday as I was tooling around the West End in the diminishing drizzle, that creating is about making objects. Writing only makes an object when someone else can look at it. There is more writing going on now, I would assert, than at any time in human history. So making writing into an object is cheper and more vain, in both senses, than every before. I have felt for a while that I have to make some larger writing object ... that is why I started writing this blog, to get in practice as it were. I've written one book ... the hallowed dissertation ... but it is essentially a private book, and it would take little effort to start floggin it ... not to underestimate the slim likelihood that it would ever see print.

So wandering around Emily Carr with AW made me think about making another bigger writing object. I have an idea for it, and I will track it here.

Back to the tour. We wandered through the painting studio where people seemed aloof and didn't look at us ... AW told me that he never goes there, and would have been uneasy doing so today had he not had a visitor to show around. Is this the ystique of painters, do they seek to keep their corner isolated for the purpose of burrowing into their work? AW pointed out a graffitto, and I shot it at his instruction. I missed the perfect framing because I was nervous that the little stud painter around the corner would see me and shoot me a withering eye.

As we left the new building, we stopped by the library that had a bunch of discards for sale at fifty cents each ... cool ... I got three books for less than a twoney, if I am using and spelling the colloquialism correctly.

The other building, the main and original building from when the former Vancouver School of Art moved here in the late 70s, felt more like a school ... lockers, a cafeteria, people bustling about. AW gave me a long tour of the ceramics department where he hopes to spend two years in post-graduate study. They are a much friednlier lot in there, and the vistas of the old building were grittier and more inviting, if just as concrete steel glass. We ended up in a brief tour of the gallery which I promised to re-visit after lunch ... but that was not to be as we headed off cmapus and out to West Broadway to a Singpaore Noodle House hole-in-the-wall which provided a great mid-afternoon Malay treat.

I took a bunch of photos of Granville Island, and I will try to mount a post about them at some point. I want to leave this one about Art School ... maybe the best deal would be just to pretend in the evening that I am an Art School students, and make silly stuff and wonder what imaginary classmates will think of it. At this point in life, that is the most efficacious way to imbibe the joy of creating without pressure ... call it the Vicarious School of Art.

Photos by Arod.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Blogging Vancouver: Dining at Vij's

I am feeble of body by way of fine food and ample drink and another day of walking and seeing and taking it all in. The fine food was courtesy of Vij's Restaurant on 11th by Granville and which the New York Times calls "easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world". Notwithstanding my slender credentials as an epicure, I can certainly agree. I particularly enjoyed the jackfruit in black cardamon and cumin masala. Two and a half hours of gustatory sensation. We dined with Frosbisher and AW's friend Tim who works for Google ... fine conversation to no particular end, and a grreat Australian Syrah at a staggering price that was, in the practiced words of the sommelier, big but not flabby, complex and jammy. I enjoyed his word burst as much as the wine. If you are in Vancouver and have a little cash to burn, do not miss this place.

Blogging Vancovuer: Loop redux

Pender Street

As I write this, I am sitting in a cafe at Yew and 4th that used to be a convenience store in the 70s. I came here a lot in the middle of the night to grab something to eat on a break from my piecework job off the alley behind here where I wound jute off big bundles into 8 ounce skeins for dieing ... I kid you not ... I am a former jute winder. One time, sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning, the door to my little concrete box flew open ... I had the radio blaring ... and in marched a bunch of large Vancouver cops with straining dogs on their leads ... they were inches away in a split second. The convenience store where I now sit had been robbed; they heard the music and charged in. I convinced them quickly enough. I suppose that my hair and clothes being coated with jute dust had the effect of bolstering my story. Every time I come to Vancouver, I walk past that warehouse on the alley, and this time I took a photo.

Back to yesterday grand loop. I should add about skid row that it is not one jot less filthy now than it was then. There was then and there is now a place called Pigeon Park ... the photo above is of the only mural there that has, in my 'umble view, any redeeming value. I took the photo, and a technical panorama as quickly as I could lest the denizens set upon me and relieve me of my expensive electronics.

When I wander about, I try to look to the degree possible as an unappealing target. Middle-aged white guys often disappear from view, and I rely on that. I don't over-dress ... I am incapable of that, at any rate ... and I try to fix a low-bore scowl on my face that is, by parts, angry, pissy, frustrated, purposive, uninterested. It's a look that one should cultivate to throw observers off from the fact that I am trying to observe carefully everything around me. I look fore and aft, up and down, side to side, and then back again. Somehow, you have to act awake and pretend to be asleep if vaguely threatening and certainly not possessed of anything worth the risk of stealing. It helps in environs such as the unrequited skid row of Vancouver. I have manged to wander around the not-quite-but-nearly-worst parts of cities my entire life with precious few untoward incidents.

But this painting on the wall points our another fact of Vancouver life that is, perhaps, a little counter-intuitive. There is so much less street art here than in San Francisco, and what there is tends to be goofy or government sponsored. I think street art by its nature is entrepreneurial, or at least transgressive. As such, a good effusion of street art requires a population of pissed off artists who don't care what you think. Such an attitude here would tend to be a pose rather than a fact, and the result is less and not so good. Vancouver must settle for other charms.

So after Chinatown, which I briefly described yesterday, I headed to the SkyTrain ... let's go to Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. There was no SkyTrain when I lived here, and a trip to SFU was a sequence of interminable bus rides. Gary, my lover of the time, was a student there and spent a lot of his life going to and fro. But SkyTrain now seems a great service ... fast and efficient. If you live within walking distance of it, there is no reason you could not work at SFU. It is also a service that is decidedly part of East Vancouver. The western enclaves are well-to-do, insular, cool, even smug. East Vancouver is the local expression of the roiling reality of Canadian life of the masses today ... multiethnic, working class, fevered, but still involved step-by-step with government and being governed.

Simon Fraser itself is another Arthur Erickson creation, one that set everyone to talking, as I remember, in the 60s when it was built. It feels like a concrete and structural steel retake on Italian fascist architecture, but its setting in the mists and rain and brush of the top of a flat mountain softens the only apparent ideology. But inside, it has begun to feel a lot like a community college ... the architecture is too thematic for a great university, too integrated. I wnated out, but when I went out, I tended to be shunted aside. Once you are out of the main embracing core, there does not seem to be a way back in. To torture a metaphor I have used too much on this trip, you are either in the spaceship or you are in outer space.

One other curiosity ... the library had several large rooms of public access computers that were full of students ... does no one have a laptop here? Canada seems to ahve less of a commitment to University-level education ... and a larger commitment to trade education ... than the U.S. does, but that is an impression. I'd love to see a study. In the present context, these computer banks make me wonder whether the average Canadian student is less likely to have a computer than in the U.S. On the other hand, perhaps seeing the privileged students of MRU (where I work) blinds me to a larger reality south of the border. I wandered around, checked out the bookstore, had a coffee, waited in a line to take the second bus back to the SkyTrain where ...

New Westminster

... I took the wrong train on what is a large loop. So, without warning, there I was in New Westminster where I have not set foot in three decades. I got out, walked around real quick, and got back on. New West seems to have changed least of all. It is famously the home of B.C.'s oldest penitentiary, and it a working class town that rises quickly out of the Fraser River. It is old and dumpy. The great tidal wave of urban development that transformed Vancouver never made it here.

New Westminster

Photos by Arod.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Blogging Vancouver: A Long Loop

In Gastown.

So this was the route today ... and having listed the facts, I will try to write less sequentially and more experientially ... from Sophie's for breakfast on 4th Avenue to Seymour and Hastings downtown, walk through Gastown, skirting skid row, all the way up and back in Chinatown, then down Pender to the Skytrain which I took to Simon Fraser University, after which I returned via a brief stop in New Westminster, got off the the train at Broadway and Commercial, took the bus until I got sick of it and then walked back to Kits via Broadway and then 4th. If you know Vancouver, you will realize that this is quite a haul, a giant loop.

Frobisher said at dinner tonight ... which we had in a Chinese noodle shop on Broadway near Ash where the noodles are handmade as you watch ... that Vancouver was re-invented as a city pretty much overnight sometime in 1983 ... I paraphrase. This relates to what I have called the old Vancouver and the new, spaceship Vancouver. Most of where I went today was viscerally like it was when I lived here in the 70s, albeit surrounded by the looming towers of spaceship Vancouver. (I am not against spaceship Vancouver ... I think it would be hard to find a city that has done the spaceship trip as successfully as Vancouver ... but it not what a nostalgic returnee focuses on.) Gastown is like it used to be ... always dressing for dinner, never quite making it to the table. The Europe Hotel still seems to be a down and out place ... it is an Ironstone-type building at the head of Gastown. In ca 1975, my friend Robin took the topd (sixth) floor room at the prow of the building, and he painted it and made it elegant notwithstanding that he had to carry the new paint in over the recumbent bodies of various passed out drunks.

The steam clock still steams, and the statue of Gassy Jack still presides. The Mews are under construction again, and there is no shortage of predictable Canada souvenirs or vastly overpriced native crafts ... I suppose the artists don't think that they are overpriced, but they'd sell 5 times as many if they halved the cost. I don't even go in to those places at this point because there is nothing but shopper sadness. I prefer to look at the good stuff in museums where it is not for sale.

The boundary between Gastown and skid row is as fine as ever. Ghoulish street people travel by twos and threes ... vaguely threatening. Lots and lots of native people, and lots of native references in signage and institutions. I know of no enclave of successful native people, but which I mean that the successful are dispersed while the unsuccessful are concentrated. It seems very sad. Vancouver's skid row has long been a trope in Canadian life, and the trope still matches the reality. Remember, this is the place where the pig farmer preyed upon and murdered dozens of prostitutes for years and nobody wanted to notice ... serial killing seems so bloody American.

Chinatown by my inexpert observation seems less integrated into the supervening locality than its match in San Francisco. I hear virtually no English spoken by apparently Chinese people as I wandered about. I also noted my almost total invisibility ... it is a mark of the non-acculturated Chinese immigrants that they can completely ignore anyone non-Chinese ... my friend and host AW, of Chinese background, affirms my observation. I remember shopping in Chinatown in the 70s ... it seems so unchanged.

I spent a few moments and a double espresso in what used to be the Vancouver Vocational Institute, now Vancouver Community College ... I hold a certificate in Graphic Arts from there. The interior is unrecognizable. I thought of my dear Dodge who is out of town ... we spent two fun filled years in the basement of this place learning the printing trade. Dodge ... I dont even think they have a printing program any more. We should mount an outraged alum protest ... Bring back the dying trades NOW!

And then a half an hour in MacLeod's Books, one of my favorite bookstores then, and now again now.

MacLeod's Books

I gotta bag it ... just exhausted ... have a lunch at noon at the Emily Carr School of Fine Arts, so I think I have a little time in the morning to finish this.

Photos by Arod.