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.