Happy New Year.
Happy New Year.
The unexpected seems to have occurred. Phoebe, it turns out, is not afraid of people. As mentioned in last week’s Very Special Weekend Hound & Cat Report, Phoebe was a mass of tail-wagging excitement for the road trip, and she seemed to really enjoy the company of all the new bipedal apes she met. By my estimate, she was introduced to fifteen new people over the weekend and wasn’t afraid of any of them. In fact whenever someone would leave and then return a few hours later, she was thrilled to see them again. When we got her, we were told she was a spook, but she seems to have gotten over that and is now a definite fan of the humans.
On Monday, my mother-in-law followed us back to Austin to hang out with my wife and have her own little vacation for a few days. Phoebe was naturally happy to see her, and greeted her with much tail-wagging and barking each morning. Now, whenever someone comes over, if Phoebe has previously met that person, they get the whole canine welcome routine.
Who’d have thought.
I’ve always admired Ansel Adams whose crystalline technique and meditative style capture my imagination, so yesterday we finally made it down to the Harry Ransom Center at UT to have a look at the Ansel Adams exhibit that has been running since August and will end on Sunday.
I’ve read several books and spent a great deal of time studying his work, both formally and on my own, and several years ago I got to see a smaller exhibit of his work at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, but I was rendered speechless (once again) by seeing his work in person. The images jump off the walls; a few appear three-dimensional, and all invite the viewer to step into the American west.
Adams had the uncanny ability to bring the western landscapes to their fullest life in such a way that some of the places he photographed have seemed smaller and more ordinary when I’ve actually visited them. Perhaps the light hasn’t been right for me or the clouds not cooperating. Either way, the captured light on display at the Ransom Center is perfect and provides a wonderful way to visit some of these important American places in a couple of hours.
My favorite stop was Hernandez, New Mexico. I’ve seen (in books and online) and read about “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico” many times, but seeing it in person was staggering. The level of detail that emerges upon close inspection of that particular image is something I’ll never forget. The little graves illuminated by the sun that set behind him just after taking the image stand out so clearly that with my eyes close to the glass, I felt that I was looking at a picture of graves until I remembered to stand back and take in the whole incredible scene.
With over two hundred images on display there are many other memorable stops in the wild and open spaces revealed in some of his most famous work such as the images of Half Dome, the White House Ruins at Canyon de Chelly (which I once foolishly tried to imitate with no success when I was there a few years ago), and the famous aspens that stand out so brightly against the rest of the forest as if spotlit by a focused sun.
One of my favorite things about seeing his work in person is the opportunity to stare into the shadows and see the detail that exists whether it is sediment layers in uplifted rock or leaves in a darkened forest. These kinds of details can’t be reproduced in books; one must see the images in person.
The exhibit lasts until Sunday and it’s free, so if you’re in Austin and haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s well worth the time to travel the west with the master himself.
I’m not an historian so we’re more in brainstorming and questioning mode than anything else here, but some lingering thoughts about The Arrogance of Power (which I posted about yesterday) come to mind. So here we go.
As a proposed solution to the Southeast Asia question, Fulbright advocated a withdrawal from Vietnam that would have allowed the US to better protect its interests elsewhere while demonstrating that it can be magnanimous as only a great nation can be. We’ll never know if his plan for withdrawal from Vietnam would have worked, but it doesn’t seem that cutting our losses in 1966 would have produced a far different outcome.
I’m not convinced that this is the appropriate solution in Iraq, and this is where the Iraq-Vietnam similarities seem to fall apart because to withdraw from Iraq and leave a power vacuum at this point could actually impact our national security in ways that withdrawing from Vietnam in 1966 would not have.
Our conundrum, of course, is that everyone wants Iraq to be free and democratic while Saddam Hussein pays for his hideous crimes. That’s a good thing, but the problem for me is that a nation’s first responsibility ought to be to its own people, so I’m inclined to agree with Fulbright that by ensuring that our own house is in order first, we become a stronger force for peace and change in the world.
Fulbright quotes John Quincy Adams saying that, “America should be ‘the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all’ but ‘the champion and vindicator only of her own'” and suggests that this kind of policy is the way to avoid the traps that come with the arrogance of power. Cold as it may sound, a nation’s first duty is to its people and our people were not served by invading Iraq or even Vietnam for that matter.
Invariably, the favorite question comes: What about World War II? Should we have stayed on the sidelines while so many suffered? My answer is at first no, but then it seems like a false comparison because in that case the threat to our freedom and security was real, it was not a unilateral intervention, and we came to the aid of our allies who were fighting for their lives in Europe. In the case of the Pacific, we properly responded to a direct attack.
This leads to another question: Did we intervene in World War II to stop the holocaust? I don’t think we did, in which case it seems inappropriate to say we were justified in intervening to end the holocaust unless you accept that the end result justifies the original argument whatever it might have been. A strange assertion since we can’t know how things will end. I do think that it would have been an acceptable reason to intervene, but how many Americans would have signed up for that? Does this mean that any humanitarian intervention will require lies and misdirection to get Americans to go along and give up our comfortable lives?
Naturally another question arises: How do we decide where we intervene? Intervening for humanitarian reasons in some places while looking the other way in others is very problematic for me. It’s like sparing some people on death row but not everyone.
So do we intervene only when the people being oppressed have oil? Do they have to be of a certain religious or ethnic group? Do we only intervene when we think the oppressors are weak? How should this be calculated and what should we sacrifice in terms of creating the best possible life for our own citizens?
I don’t support an isolationist foreign policy, but I can’t for the life of me see why we have to have a finger in every pie either. It feels like we’re caught in a vicious circle whereby we maintain a forceful presence overseas to protect our liberty, safety, and way of life which are threatened by people who are angry that we maintain a forceful presence overseas.
There has to be a place in the middle there somewhere between endless wars fought on the whims of questionable leadership and total disengagement from the world and its concerns.
I’ve just finished reading The Arrogance of Power by Senator J William Fulbright, which is at once both timely and dated. Written in 1966, it is first and foremost a critique of US foreign policy, especially our involvement in Vietnam. In that regard, it’s an interesting look at a variety of “what-might-have-been” options that have since been rendered moot by history.
Where the book is timely is in Fulbright’s treatment of the conflict inherent in the dual nature of the American character. He describes this dualism along the lines of humanitarian vs. puritanical, which lately seems to have been simplified to the level of team colors – blue vs. red – now that radical Islam has replaced communism as the core threat to the nation. Of course the extremity of the 9/11 attacks is vastly different from anything that preceded our involvement in Vietnam, but when one separates (as I think one should) Iraq from 9/11, we can see Iraq as just the sort of Vietnam-style intervention that Fulbright advises against.
The Iraq-Vietnam parallel emerges when we view our involvement in Iraq as a policy based on a reverse domino theory (if Iraq becomes democratic then other middle eastern countries will follow) instigated by the puritanical impulses in our nature, which want to fight evil, spread the word and save the world, by force if necessary. With this in mind, Fulbright’s book becomes an excellent jumping off point for studying a dangerous tendency in our national character that when combined with extreme power creates a self-destructive arrogance that unchecked can lead to ruin.
Fulbright argues that the puritan mindset carries a tendency to allow fear to guide decision-making when dealing with our enemies. This fear, Fulbright argues, is a major factor in our implementation of short-sighted and self-defeating policies such as intervening in foreign nations when our interests might be better served by not intervening, to take my-way-or-the-highway positions, to break our own laws, to violate our standards of conduct, to intimidate our citizens, and refuse to engage in real thought about the roots of the problems we face. In the sixties, it was fear of communism that led to the above problems; today, it is fear of radical Islam. We have much to be afraid of today, but I agree with Fulbright that we should let reason and our laws dictate our policies.
In this regard, I think Fulbright’s book provides contemporary readers with a useful tool for analyzing the mindset that led to our invasion of Iraq, which I think Fulbright would say was a direct result of the arrogance of power that plants “delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and otherwise sensible nations,” causing them to engage in policies where more is bitten off than can be chewed, followed by an unwillingness to recognize mistakes.
Unfortunately, the answer to the Iraq question will not be found in a forty-year-old book. It will require much debate including questions about why we went in; however, the arrogance of our current leadership has led us to a place where debate has been reduced to with-us or against-us divisions in which a significant number of Americans have bought the line – the myth – that might makes right and that dissent is somehow unpatriotic when in fact it is, as Fulbright correctly asserts, the highest patriotism.
As Fulbright tried to remind Americans in 1966, we can change polices and directions but only if we see clearly the ways in which flawed polices contribute to and exacerbate our problems. Unfortunately too many of us, so hurt by 9/11 and carrying a hope that our service men and women will not have died in vain, are unwilling even to consider the possibility that we aren’t always right in our actions, that sometimes a great nation such as ours can make terrible errors in judgment and do unspeakable damage when driven by fear rather than reason.
Sometimes a great nation must admit and face its errors and then work realistically to correct them rather than continue them. That ability to see reality for what it is rather than what we want it to be is one of the few things that can save a nation from its own sense of greatness, allowing its people to understand that they can live peacefully and play a part in lifting up mankind by not trying to forcefully remake the world in their image. This would take great humility of the kind that Fulbright advocates and that George Bush promised back in 2000 but never delivered.
Perhaps, Fulbright suggests to those readers of the mid-60s, it is time to listen to the humanitarian side of the American character and vigorously question the ideas and policies advocated by our puritanical half. In this regard, I think he is still correct and The Arrogance of Power still very timely.
On the way back from Orange today, traffic stopped on US 290 outside Elgin so that the fire department could put out a grass fire that was burning on both sides of the road. I could see the smoke for several miles as I approached and traffic seemed to be moving through it, but then it stopped. The firefighters must have arrived just as I did because there were only a few vehicles between the fire crews and me so I watched them work the fire and was impressed by how quickly they had the blaze under control.
The thing that got me was that while we were sitting there, I watched the moron in front of me flick two cigarette butts out onto the highway while the firefighters were working. I noticed she was reading a newspaper and perhaps didn’t notice the flashing lights, smoke whipping across the highway, and firefighters hosing down the results of some other fool’s inability to use an ashtry. Maybe she didn’t realize why we were all stopped when she casually flicked not one but two butts out her window. I watched them roll around and smoulder on the asphalt. Fortunately they died before the wind caught them and blew them into the dry grass.
When traffic started up again, I passed her. She was smoking, probably looking for a clean stretch of highway to torch.
The suspense is over. Here’s the tree that we haven’t put up since 1997:
Much has changed since then. It’s a different world, and yet the same old tree with some of the same ornaments that Zephyr once chewed up. I was upset when she did it, but now that she’s gone, it makes me smile to see her teeth marks on them. It’s added a whole layer of happy memories that dangle from the tree along with the ornaments.
And so amongst decorations, with music playing, food digesting, and A Christmas Story repeating endlessly on the tube, I find myself caught up in the bottom-line (no not that bottom line) magic of this time of year that when stripped of its commercialism, its overindulgence, its manufactured angst and hurry, comes to mean, for me anyway, the acting out of a desire for nothing more than simple peace and happiness, which I think is probably what most people really want. Let it be so.
I’m not sure it’s that special, but I always wanted to do a Very Special something along the lines of all the Very Special episodes that certain TV shows run this time of year. I also like the fact that the title of this post double categorizes itself. Is this a Days till Christmas post? Is it a Weekend Hound & Cat Report? Is it just a post with an overlong title involving too many colons? Am I rambling too much on this? Probably, so here it is with, oh what the hell, a colon:
Because there was no room at the inn kennel and not a single shepard watching his flock by night person we know who felt comfortable giving Morrison his insulin injections, he accompanied us on our journey to visit my wife’s family in east Texas. He travels pretty well in the car, and considering there were two large greyhounds and one cat, the trip went uneventfully.
Daphne hid under a pile of blankets. Morrison slept mostly in his cat carrier. Phoebe seemed to have had a good time on the road. This was the first time she’d gone farther than the vet, and she was excited about this opportunity to slay the dragon, destroy the One Ring, learn the ways of The Force, and sit in a car for six hours. The excitement lasted about half-way to Houston and then she just curled up and slept through the rest of the drive.
As we progressed down I-10 and into the Golden Triangle, it was nice to see Christmas lights and other decorations on so many buildings and homes despite the FEMA tarps that still cover most of the roofs. East Texas still looks “all tore up” but not as bad as the last time we were here, though, I couldn’t believe some of the damage in Port Arthur that we hadn’t seen last month since we didn’t go that way. Port Arthur was the town where Morrison decided the trip was over and began meowing and singing his Blues of the Lonesome Road. Fortunately, by that point we were almost there.
When we arrived, Phoebe was introduced to this side of the family and they all seem to like her, and more importantly she isn’t afraid of them. She’s exploring, Daphne is hiding, and Morrison is following my father-in-law around. Hopefully they’ll all enjoy tolerate the drive home as well as they did the drive here.
Until then, stop off at Ironicus Maximus to find out if greyhounds really are dogs.
One of my favorite holiday things is Celestial Seasonings seasonal Gingerbread Spice tea. I always forget about it and then Lo! there it appears like angels on high, stacked neatly on supermarket shelves every year around this time. I’m more a coffee drinker than a tea drinker, but I always expand my hot beverage consumption to include this.
The food that for me most signifies Christmas is Mexican food. This comes from my dad’s side of the family, which was based Arizona. The tradition was that when it was your birthday, you got to pick dinner. My aunt was born on Christmas Eve, and apparently she always wanted tacos. Therefore, tacos on Christmas Eve became a Brush family tradition carried on by my dad to his own family, and it’s one I aim to keep. So for me, the traditional food of Christmas is tacos, tamales, enchiladas, quesadillas, chile rellenos, and salsa, a menu I find more exciting than the standard turkey, potatoes and stuffing that I do enjoy (immensely) the next day.
Tamales were added to the menu after we moved to Austin (where Tex-Mex on Christmas Eve isn’t that uncommon), and are usually supplied by Curra’s or (this year) Rosie’s where Willie Nelson gets his tamales. Sadly, the Balderas Tamale Factory in Round Rock is no more. They made the best hot pork tamales and often commented on how surprising it was to see “a white boy ordering hot pork.”
Well, so far we’ve covered food & drink, movies & TV, music, and decorations. Next up, that holiday tradition: travel.
The first time I saw A Christmas Story was during the summer after my senior year of high school. It was one of those few films that made me laugh until I was crying and gasping for air. This one works whether it’s Christmas or not because it deals with such a timeless theme: kids want stuff.
I still laugh every time I watch it and since it’s in constant rotation around this time of year, it’s hard not to miss. Sometimes I try to just catch the best parts, but that’s like trying to assemble a best of CD by the Beatles. Can’t be done. Although, I think the whole episode concerning Ralphie’s use of the F-word around his dad (“a master who worked in profanity the way other artists might work in clay”) is a priceless bit as is the image of Ralphie sitting there with a bar of soap in his mouth while he hears his buddy take a beating for his crime over the phone. So I watch it every year. Several times.
The other ones I never miss are How the Grinch Stole Christmas because, let’s face it, the Grinch is cool. And of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas because we all need to be reminded from time to time about the importance of selecting the ugly tree. Besides, the scene in which Linus explains to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about is just fine filmmaking.