Money to Stop the Shutdown?

How Would Contributing More Money to the Democrats Affect the Shutdown?

How Would Contributing More Money to the Democrats Affect the Shutdown?

My e-mails this morning were full of requests for money by various Democratic organizations to stop the shutdown. How, pray tell, would that happen? Now I would not mind contributing my hard-earned money to have John Boehner hog-tied and dragged through the streets of Washington, or to have Eric Cantor split down the middle by a chainsaw, or Paul Ryan molested by 150 rabid Catholic priests.

But that’s not what the money is going toward. Is it to bring a frown to Boehner’s face? That sad alcoholic wouldn’t even notice the difference.

No, it’s just that the Democrats want more money to eventually throw at television stations. There’s nothing they could do with the money now to avert the shutdown other than staging a mass annihilation of the House of Representatives (not a bad idea at that!), but they wouldn’t have the guts….

In consequence, I will ignore these importunate e-mails while shaking my head at the gullibility of my fellow man. Oh, well, a fool and his money are soon parted.



Spiritual Testing

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country (a French newspaper acquires incalculable value. And those evenings when, in cafés, you try to get close to other men just to touch them with your elbow.) We are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. That is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by culture the exercise of our most intimate sense—that of eternity—then we travel for culture. Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves.—Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942

El Tren de la Sierra

It All Began in 1980...

It All Began in 1980…

My interest in visiting South America first began when I read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas back around 1980. Even earlier, my interest had been whetted by reading the stories, essays, and poems of Jorge Luis Borges—though the South America of Borges was more nonspecific, almost mythical.

Theroux, on the other hand, was an intelligent and highly snarky American who decided in the 1970s to travel by train—insofar as it was possible—from Boston to Patagonia in Argentina. One of the routes he took, El Tren de la Sierra ran from Lima’s Desamparados (“forsaken”) station to Huancayo high in the Andes. It is one of two Peruvian rail routes that claims to be the second highest in the world; the highest is the recently opened rail route connecting Xining, Golmud, and Lhasa in Tibet. According to Wikipedia’s list of the Highest Railways in the World, the high point of the route is at Ticlio, altitude 4,829 meters (15,843 feet). The Tibet run is a scant 800 feet higher at Tangguia.

I am thinking of taking the same route as Theroux if and when I go to Peru. His goal was to go by train to Huancayo and take land transportation to Cuzco, from whence he would visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. The problem is, it is faster and far more convenient to go back to Lima and take the bus to Cuzco: Travel along the ridge line of the Andes is sometimes possible, but mostly not. Rains, snows, mud, and avalanches take their toll, especially between Ayacucho and Cuzco. Based on the map on the endpapers of my copy of The Old Patagonian Express, it looks as if Theroux flew from Huancayo to Cuzco, though I am not sure that is possible.

On his trip, Theroux ran into problems with altitude sickness, the dread soroche. To help combat the headaches and nausea, railroad employees handed out plastic balloons filled with oxygen, which afforded him some relief. There are some medications that are said to help, including Diamox, which has some gnarly after-effects, and a local preparation called Sorojchi. The locals also chew coca leaves with lime or drink a tea made with coca leaves called mate de coca. If I go, I’ll have to be prepared.  Here is Theroux’s description of his symptoms:

It begins as dizziness and a slight headache. I had been standing by the door inhaling the cool air of these shady ledges. Feeling wobbly, I sat down  and if the train had not been full I would have lain across the seat. After an hour I was perspiring and, although I had not stirred from my seat, I was short of breath. The evaporation of this sweat in the dry air gave me a sickening chill. The other passengers were limp, their heads bobbed, no one spoke, no one ate. I dug some aspirin out of my suitcase and chewed them, but only felt queasier; and my headache did not abate. The worst thing about feeling so ill in transit is that you know if something goes wrong with the train—a derailment or a crash—you will be too weak to save yourself. I had a more horrible thought: we were perhaps a third of the way to Huancayo, but Huancayo was higher than this. I dreaded to think what I would feel like at that altitude.

Theroux didn’t think much of Peru: He thought the whole place rather ramshackle. But then, that’s what Martine thought of Buenos Aires, which I love.

Stormy Petrel

Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Probably the ultimate bad ass of the Civil War was Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, commander of Confederate cavalry forces operating primarily in Mississippi and his native state of Tennessee. Just to give you an idea of how divisive a figure he has come to be, the above image was hijacked from the website of the Ku Klux Klan, of which Forrest was first Grand Wizard.

I have just finished reading Jack Hurst’s Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. What is it that interests me about this man? First of all, the late Civil War historian and novelist Shelby Foote referred to him as being one of the two authentic geniuses produced by the conflict. The other was Abraham Lincoln. As William Tecumseh Sherman wrote, he was “the most remarkable man [the war produced, with] a genius for strategy which was original and … to me incomprehensible… He seemed always to know what I was doing or intended to do, while I … could never … form any satisfactory idea of what he was trying to accomplish.”

Forrest used cavalry in a manner that dumfounded his enemy. Instead of attacking on horseback, he used the horses to move his men to battle, whereupon he had them fight on foot as if they were infantry. Once, when attacked on two sides by Union forces, he divided his forces in two and had them attack in both directions. At the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, which he won against insuperable odds, he made one maneuver which I simply cannot wrap my head around: He attacked with artillery.

One result of his unconventional methods was that he didn’t get along with higher ranking generals with whom he was supposed to cooperate. At one point, he threatened Braxton Bragg to his face. There were numerous other Confederate generals with whom he refused to fight, with the result that, most of the time, he was on his own in territory that he knew well from his childhood.

In the north, he is most famous for the massacre of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, which was mostly manned by black Union forces. When he felt that the negotiations for a truce were being conducted with bad faith (as, indeed, he had some reason to believe), he ordered his men to “kill every God damned one of them.” When he saw the results of his orders, he relented; but not before hundreds of black and white Union soldiers were killed rather than captured. The taint of this action was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Although he did not found the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest was its first Grand Wizard. After a couple of years, however, he saw where the organization was headed and decided to repudiate it. Instead, he went in for building a railroad between Memphis and Selma, Alabama. The reputation as the perpetrator of the Fort Pillow massacre and his association with the KKK continued to follow him. As he began to suffer bad health, Forrest tried to become a force for good in the South and even became supportive of the African-Americans with whom he dealt, to the extent that hundreds honored him at his funeral when he died of advanced diabetes in 1877.

When it became clear to him that the Southern cause in the Civil War was lost, he addressed his troops:

Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and, as far as in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings toward those with whom we have so long contended…. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect even of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to the government, to society, or to individuals, meet them like men.

… I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.

Today, when the stormy petrel figure of Nathan Bedford Forrest is still being used to divide Americans, it is interesting to see in him a person who changed during his lifetime from a slave dealer in Memphis to a powerful guerrilla fighter to a Klansman and finally to the much-loved warden of a prison farm on an island in the Mississippi where most of his charges were black.

What to Do With Congress

I’ve Had It With These Clowns

I’ve Had It With These Clowns

There are several ways to approach dealing with the U.S. House of Representatives. One could arrest about half of them for high treason and have them drawn and quartered the way our British cousins were accustomed to doing. But that would cost too much money. Perhaps it would be better to just waterproof the chamber and flood it to the rafters with polluted water—but only if there were a quorum present.

I think turning the room into an aquarium would be the only effective means of dealing with the Republicans, even if we lost a few cowardly Democrats in the process.

Any other ideas out there? (Please note: I am not interested in hearing from Republicans. I’ve heard far too much from them already.)

“The Divine Felicity of His Style”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

When I was a boy, I was fonder of Seneca than of Cicero, and till I was twenty years old could not bear to spend any time in reading him; while all the other writers of antiquity generally pleased me. Whether my judgment be improved by age, I know not; but am certain, that Cicero never pleased me so much when I was fond of those juvenile studies as he does now when I am grown old; not only for the divine felicity of his style, but the sanctity of his heart and morals: in short, he has inspired my soul, and made me feel myself a better man. I make no scruple, therefore, to exhort our youth to spend their hours in reading and getting his books by heart, rather than in the vexatious squabbles and peevish controversies with which the world abounds. For my own part, though I am now in the decline of life, yet as soon as I have finished what I have in hand, I shall think it no reproach to me to seek a reconciliation with my Cicero, and renew an old acquaintance with him, which for many years has been unhappily intermitted.—Erasmus, Letter #499 to Johannes Ulattenus

I Am a Jonah

No, It’s Not Me ... But It Could Be!

No, It’s Not Me … But It Could Be!

I usually take lunch by myself at 11:45 am, just before the rush begins. I like to find myself virtually alone in a restaurant, deeply buried in my copy of The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books, with a glass of plain, unsweetened iced tea in front of me. Sometimes, I think that I am something of a Jonah to the dining establishments I frequent: Not for me the gay, bubbling crowds. I like it quiet so that I can read. What restaurant can long survive an influx of diners such as me?

Today, I read reviews of books about Hugh Trevor-Roper and Simon Leys, wondering to myself whether I could craft a blog out of these articles. Not without difficulty, because I have read nothing by the former and only one novel by the latter. I thought instead I would write about my lone wolf lunches during the work week. They give me a chance to catch up on the two magazines that mean the most to me, and they preserve my freedom of choice to eat at a place which would not send my glucose reading soaring skyward. ( Anyway the rest of the staff usually takes lunch about an hour after I do.)

Because I am a sort of back-room character at the accounting firm where I work, I rarely have “business lunches,” which is fine with me. I don’t like having to explain a diabetic meal regimen to strangers if I can help it.

Diabetes really doesn’t have much to do with it. Even forty years ago, I liked to lunch alone. It was around then that I discovered The New York Review of Books, which was on sale at the drugstore next to Marshall’s Coffee Shop at the corner of Olympic and Barrington. That building has since collapsed in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. It was mostly a medical building. I remember reading in the L.A. Times that the doctors were unable to evacuate their medical records because the building was likely to pancake without notice. I wonder what happened to those records….

When it comes time for me to retire, I will probably eat almost all of my lunches with Martine, as I do now with my suppers. That would be fine with me: The quiet reading time won’t be necessary for me then as it is now in the crazed atmosphere of a Westwood accounting firm.



And Now the Lawsuits!

It Was Bound to Happen!

It Was Bound to Happen!

There have been some new developments since the quasi-filibuster of Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate, which ended up proving nothing more than the man has no excretory functions:

  • White Castle has decided to declare a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. “I had no idea,” said CEO E. W. Ingram III, “that we were so downmarket.”
  • The Moon has decided to seek a more appreciative planet as a satellite. It is now somewhere between Venus and Mercury.
  • The two or three Democrats who spent the night listening to the Cruz-o-Matic Rant were dismayed to have no access to duct tape.
  • Ashton Kutcher hanged himself from a Baltimore lamp post with an extension cord,
  • Ted Cruz is now the answer to twelve questions in the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit, all of which include the word “moronic” in them.
  • The Estate of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) is suing Cruz for misappropriating Green Eggs and Ham.
  • The World Wrestling Federation has released a white paper explaining that their matches are less rigged than Tea Party candidate elections.

If you don’t understand all the above references, you might want to see this slideshow.

No Atheists in the Foxholes

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.—David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water”


Cruz (Unguided) Missile

Why Do I Suddenly Feel This Is the Weimar Republic?

Why Do I Suddenly Feel This Is the Weimar Republic?

Who is this man and where did he come from? Oh, yeah. Texas. Well, I should have known.

One interesting phenomenon about all these Tea Party darlings, from Michele Bachmann to Sarah Palin to Rand Paul to (now) Ted Cruz, is that they rise up suddenly from the backwoods and hit the news media with a sudden and glittering éclat before they sink into the malodorous miasma of bad reputations.

I suppose there are people who subscribe to the Tea Party principles of “That government governs best which doesn’t exist.” If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the last year or so, you know I don’t hold with that brand of anarchism. The sad thing is that many adherents of those beliefs are dependent on the same government programs that they oppose on quasi-ideological grounds. It wouldn’t be the first time that large masses of people shot themselves in the foot.

In the end, I think that Ted Cruz will be one of the people responsible for the latest demolition of the Republican Party. In the past, the GOP has come back Phoenix-like from its previous devastations—only to blunder into even more destructive ones. What can one do with a party that is paid for by uncaring CEOs for the sole purpose of lightening their own personal tax loads and that of their business enterprises? The Tea Partyers are merely low speed bumps on the road to where the 1% wants to go.