Friday, December 23, 2011

Operation Faster and Furiouser - Let's facilitate illegal missile shipments?

They're saying this was a mistake - that there is nothing to worry about in the strange case of US Patriot missiles, mysteriously labeled as "fireworks," found on a ship that was bound for China. We can all breathe easily because apparently those missiles were actually headed for South Korea, even though that destination appeared nowhere on the Ship's paperwork. 

And we should not be concerned that the ship was not registered as carrying weapons.

Or that, in addition to the Patriot missiles, the ship carried a cargo of nitroguanidine which, despite the name, does not contain bat guano, but is instead an explosive. 

Despite all my fears being so nicely laid to rest by unnamed experts and anonymous government spokespeople, I still feel a little unsure of the whole thing.  Yes, I realize this is a character flaw; I am sometimes unable to subvert my natural skepticism to my overriding trust in government.  I'm working on that.  But until my lobotomy is administered by my government healthcare provider, I just have to wonder - is this all some kind of Operation Super Fast and Furious? 

I mean, if our government is stupid enough to provide thousands of automatic weapons to murdereous drug cartels, ostensibly so that they could be tracked into a country (unbeknownst to its government) where we have no jurisdiction, why would they not go for broke and try the same thing on a really grand scale?  In for a penny, in for a pound, right?  If it was a great idea to do it with rifles, why not with missiles? 

Why not indeed.  No word so far from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on this topic, but that's hardly surprising, seeing as he took months to respond to questions about Fast and Furious, and that was after Fast and Furious led to the death of one of our federal agents and hundreds of Mexican citizens.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ambitious Rap Partnership Dissolves Amid Personality Conflict

Go-Vez and B-Sane in happier times

The much-anticipated collaboration between rap mastermind Hugo (Go-Vez) Chavez, and Barak (B-Sane) Obama has come to naught. Despite late-night attempts at rapprochement by the entourages of both parties, the vaunted mind-meld rap extravaganza is still-born. 

Citing irreconcilable artistic differences, spokespersons for both artists reluctantly issued statements this morning attesting to the dissolution.   News of the project has had industry insiders and fans of left-wing gangsta-che-rap on pins and needles since December of 2009, when it was discovered that the artists had met at the Copenhagen International Climate Talks.  Go-Vez, Mo-Jad (Mohmud Ahmadinejad) and Robert (Kronic) Mugabe, who together comprise the mega-group Kronic Mo-Go, had chosen the Talks as the scene for the announcement of their newest disk release, and witnesses to the event said that B-Sane was transfixed by their performance.  Ever since that time, teams have been working feverishly to forge an agreement between all four artists, but Kronic and Mo-Jad remained aloof, preferring to work on independent projects. 

Go-Vez during his "Stanky Thang" tour


Our sources tell us that negotiations briefly included rap sensation Kim Jong (Chill'in) Il, but his demanding film career (See article below.) has required him to put his musical aspirations on hold for now.

"Chillin' Il" - No rap for you!

No to be deterred, B-Sane's people began laying the groundwork for a duet disk with Go-Vez.  "This was our intention all along, really," said spokesman Jay Carney, "We felt from the beginning that the real magic would be found in the interplay between North and South America - the feedback between Latin and Chicago rhythms.  Fo' shizzle."

Fans agreed.  Would-be concert-goers braved weeks of freezing weather to occupy the park outside the office of Rod "The Coiff" Blagojevich, when rumors circulated that he would be presiding over early ticket sales.  It wasn't until after more than a dozen cases of frost-bite, and nearly twice as many cases of herpes were reported in the makeshift settlement that disappointed fans eventually decamped.

The Coiff - Hair yes, scalp no.

Not even the lack of ticket sales, though, dampened the hopes of those who awaited the results of Go-Vez, B-Sane fusion.  Internet forums buzzed with discussions of possible themes for the new album, and although thousands of ideas were exchanged, the constant undercurrent remained that heart and soul of both artists' work - the redistribution of wealth.   

B-Sane in his early days, as backup singer for the Bill Ayers Band

Despite the philosophy common to their work though, it seems that neither artist's ego can take a back seat long enough to produce an album together.  Apparently B-Sane, stung by the discovery that Go-Vez and Mo-jad were continuing to pursue ventures jointly without including him, vented some frustration, saying, “It seems to me that the ties between Venezuela’s government and Iran and Cuba have not served the interests of Venezuela and its people.”  Predictably, this did not sit well with Go-Vez who, for all his musical brilliance, has never been known to accept a dressing down from anybody.  Today, as their people were making their sad announcement, Go-Vez, with all the bluster that has made him such a presence on stage (and such a handful offstage, says his business manager) told B-Sane "You are a clown, a clown. Leave us in peace." 

B-Sane, on his way to an urgent meeting in Hawaii, tweeted of his disappointment in the state of affairs.  "Is that all he's got?" he wrote, "It doesn't even rhyme."  




Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Critics Hail Kim Jong Il's Latest Role

Kim Jong Il, universally beloved film and stage actor has once again established himself as the very definintion of avant-garde screen presence.

Hard on the heels of his overwhelming film success "The Greatest Love Story Ever Told - Ever" Kim Jong Il, who includes  among his credits such titles as "Beloved leader," "Great man who descended from Heaven," and my personal favorite, "Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love," has chosen for himself a role that is destined to transcend all others, even that of Jim Stark, (Rebel Without a Causing, 1955)
As Jim Stark, 1955

This latest role, explained his press agent B. bimbop, will redefine forever and in every way, how an actor uses nothing but presence to conduct universes of meaning to his audience.  Under the working title "Room Temperature," the beloved actor has undertaken a rigorous program of his own devising, which will stretch his abilities to convey meaning, emotion, and presence beyond all known human limits.

Surrounded by herbal extracts and dried flowers, and encased in a lucite hyperbaric chamber wherein the oxygen ratio is triple that found in ambient air, Beloved Actor lies absolutely rigid, eschewing motion, facial expression, and other outmoded means of conveying meaning, and seeks instead to find a deeper connection with his audience, an emotional, spiritual bond that will render all other means of acting forever obsolete.  Even at this early stage in his experiments, Emoter of Devine Essence has managed to establish a link with his beloved audience whereby he channels the great depths of his soulful being.

There is no question as to the success of this bold venture; the only issue is whether average mortals can stand being exposed to such profound feeling for any extended period of time. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

OK, now it's done.

I couldn't leave this painting without its border of Moorish tile along the outside of the arch.  I'm glad I added it.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Tonight's Painting

Here's another view of Penha Palace, in Sintra.  This tiny courtyard is tucked away behind the other part of the palace that I painted last time.

Cascais Lighthouse

Not long ago I posted a small study I did of this same location.  Almost as soon as I'd finished it, I started working on this much larger version.  (This one is 12 x 22 inches.) I had to set it aside for a week while I was in Sicily, but I've finally gotten around to getting back to work on it.  Now I'm at the stage where I'll set it aside for a few days, then look at it with fresh eyes, to see if anything's missing.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Now that's a Painting.

www.paintingmania.com

         
Click on over to Si Vis Pacem and have a look at a master's work.  John Singer Sargent has always been a favorite of mine, and I use many of his watercolor paintings to illustrate points in my classes.  Ran has an excellent example of his oil work on display, cleverly juxtaposed with a piece by Diego Velasquez.

John Singer Sargent
One of his many paintings of Venice.  Not what anyone would consider a normal composition; light is the feature here, and the architectural details, which one might mistakenly think are the subject of this painting, are just props for hanging light and shadows.

AG Eric Holder - "Nobody at DoJ has lied."

Today, at least.

And in the past - they just issued "inaccurate information."

That's a relief.  No go on back to your business, Mr. and Mrs. America.  Nothing to see here...

Viewing Caravaggio's "Burial of St Lucy"



Last week the conference I attended in Syracusa, Sicily, was very close to the Church of Santa Lucìa alla Badìa, where Caravaggio's "Burial of St Lucy" hangs. Caravaggio was a troubled soul. He fled Malta after killing a man, and seemed to spend the rest of his life painting commissions for anyone who could help him stay out of jail. He died at 38, and some theorize that lead poisoning could have sped his demise, and perhaps contributed to his erratic lifestyle. (Note to self - When working with multiple paintbrushes, do not hold spares between teeth.)


This painting is notable for a number of things. First, at about 18 feet tall, it's enormous, but he finished it in less than a year. The lack of background detail certainly played a role in making that possible, but I don't get the sense that he sacrificed background for the sake of speed. Instead, this reads to me as if he never intended to draw our attention away with superfluous information. I find it interesting, also, that St Lucy is more or less central to the painting, but not really to the narrative of the painting. It's almost as if she's a bit player in her own burial. The gravediggers are much more important to Caravaggio, for some reason, and even the priest who's administering the rites has a more central position and is rendered in greater detail than Lucy herself. Contrasted with other painters' portraits of saints, one has to wonder if Caravaggio was questioning the relevance of saints compared to regular, everyday people like the gravediggers.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Syracusa

I've been in Syracusa, Italy for a conference all week.  The conference was awful, but wow, what a lovely place.
I ran about 4 miles a day on my off-time, but I don't think I got any decent training in, because every 20 or 30 feet I stopped to take a photo.  I managed to squeeze in three quick paintings while the light was good.  I'd love to come back here for about a month and paint non-stop.
I'm always intrigued by views of narrow alleys with balconies and clotheslines.  There's no shortage of views like that here.
Peaceful, isn't it?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Not Everyone Would Have Been McQueary

A few days ago David Brooks’ New York Times column (I’ll give you two reasons why I’m not going to link it – David Brooks, and New York Times.) tried to make the case that the consistent and widespread acceptance of child rape by Penn State insiders was really not such a strange thing. As Mark Steyn put it, Brooks and others are quick to claim that, “nobody knows,” what they would do if, like Mike McQueary, they were to happen upon Sandusky in the process of raping a ten year-old boy. Brooks’ is not the only article I’ve read recently that suggests that it’s normal – and thus somehow, acceptable – to walk away when confronted with something so clearly abhorrent, because the human mind somehow cannot accept what it has seen, and so chooses to ignore it.


Maybe that’s the way it works in New York high society, but in the world I inhabit, it’s considered neither normal, nor acceptable to ignore an abomination. I don’t know how they rear their young in the big city, but where I grew up, we learned from an early age that we are accountable for our actions, and that, simply by virtue of drawing breath, we incur a responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves. We learn it early, and we put it into practice: When you see someone being abused, you do what you can to stop it. In the school-yard, on the playground, in the neighborhood – it’s what you do, even if the odds are against you, and even if doing it gets you knocked around a bit.

You start young, because it’s the kind of thing that goes against the grain. It’s a behavior that has to be learned, and it has to be instituted by practice, so that, by the time you are 28 years old, 200 and-some pounds, and 6-something feet tall, like McQueary, you know that the reason God made you big and strong has nothing to do with football, and everything to do with protecting a ten year-old who’s being brutalized. You don’t run away and call your daddy like McQueary did. You pick up the nearest blunt object, and you brain the man who’s raping the child. I know it’s not a sophisticated world view, and it’s not very nuanced, but I like to think it’s acting in a tradition that is very much worth preserving.

Brooks must get some kind of perverse satisfaction from suggesting that none of us is better than those facilitators of rape at Penn State. Maybe it helps him sleep to think that most people are like him, and need a map to tell right from wrong. I know better though, and I have no interest in preserving his illusions. He is a member of a pathetic minority. Incapable of action on their own, they derive their sense of value from smugness, and they contrive to make themselves superior to the very people to whom they would apply for aid, were they to find themselves in the position of that ten year-old boy.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Today's Painting

I can see the beacon from this lighthouse from my living room window at night, and I've wanted to paint it ever since I got here.  Unlike every other lighthouse I've seen, this one is completely covered in ceramic tiles, which sometimes makes it gleam in the sunlight.

The lighthouse occupies a point next to a narrow inlet, which is spanned by a small stone bridge.  Sometimes, when the tide is high, kids jump from the bridge into the water below.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Forte de Sao Juliao da Barra

I finished this painting a couple months ago, but never got around to photographing it until tonight.  It's a larger painting, as watercolors go, at 8 by 28 inches.

This is the view of the fort from the hill where I work.  It's a tough subject to paint, because of its very irregular shape, which only begins to make sense to the eye when viewed from above.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday Night Paintings

This is a little painting of the 25 April Bridge, which spans the Tagus River between Lisbon, and the Setubal Peninsula.  In this view, we're looking northwest, toward Lisbon.
Lisbon was built on seven hills.  On the easternmost of those, you'll find what remains of Saint George's Castle, which is worth a visit in and of itself.  Of greater interest to me, though, are the narrow alleys just outside the castle wall.  Here houses, built more to conform the contours of the land than to satisfy any sense of squareness, run together at odd angles, and throw peculiar shadows everywhere.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Honor

It's an honor to be named the source of The Camp Of The Saints "Spot-on Quote of The Week" for my comment that,
Gun Walker does prove the need for gun control – applied to the government, not to private citizens.
I don't mention Bob Belvedere and the good work he does at TCOTS nearly often enough, so please help me atone for my shortcomings by visiting his site and availing yourself of his insightful commentary.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Here's Something You Don't See Every Day

This was sent to me by a friend in the States, but the song is Portuguese (Don't ask me to translate.) as is info on their website, so I suspect they're from somewhere around here.  Either the cat or the owl could kill the other easily, so it's amazing to see them play like this.

For Want of a Nail - The Collapse of Law and Order

Back in March I wrote about the importance of taking care of the little things, and allowing the big things to take care of themselves. I was talking about law enforcement, and the emerging scandal now widely known as Operation Fast and Furious, or, less commonly but more accurately, The US Government Assistance Program to Mexican Drug Cartels.


My point was that law enforcement does its job - keeping people and their property safe – best by doing the small, unglamorous tasks like ensuring people stop at stop signs and drive at speeds that do not endanger their neighbors. Doing these thankless little things makes their jurisdictions less comfortable for criminals, who seek greener pastures elsewhere. It also makes those areas better places to live for law-abiding citizens.

As I mentioned in that post though, the trend in law enforcement seems to be away from those mundane tasks, and toward more exciting missions to nab higher-profile criminals – to worry less about the small, simple stuff, and to focus more on complex operations that require special tactics and training. Door-breaking is spectacular, you know, while walking a beat is not.

I suspect that a large part of this is due, not to shortcomings on the part of police, but to political pressure from politicians. It's easy for politicians to hassle cops, and they generally get a free ride for doing it. When some city councilman accuses the PD of being too hard on vagrants, for example, he comes out smelling like a rose because he's standing up for the little guy. Nobody cares much what happens to the cop, and people care even less for the person whose porch or garage the homeless person was camping in. It's a small price for that property owner to pay, after all, as long as it’s not you or me - even if that vagrant was using said private property as a combination urinal, opium den, and brothel.

Now, however, we are beginning to see the longer-term effects of this trend. The Occupy Whatever crowd has exploited the law and order gap. Cities in which politicians have made it difficult for cops to enforce vagrancy and loitering laws that they themselves voted into effect, are seeing some very ugly chickens coming home to roost in their parks and on their street corners. What used to be a handful of homeless people here and there has now, with the help of some radical organizers, devolved into the howling mobs that shut down the Port of Oakland, block traffic in DC, and fling blood and feces at businesspeople who refuse to give them free food.

At some point, the people who work and pay taxes will make it known to the politicians that this is not satisfactory, and those politicians will turn to the very police whose jobs they made so difficult, and insist that they reestablish order.

The response will play right into the hands of the radicals, who will drive the situation to violence. Shields and helmets, teargas, and truncheons will be the order of the day, and the leftists will be sure to make the most of it. Every instance of physical force, no matter the necessity, and no matter the prelude, will be presented to the public as an example of police brutality. The images will be shown over and over by mainstream media, grateful for any evidence, no matter how artificial, that enforces their agenda.

The pity is that this was all preventable. It started small, and that’s when it should have been addressed. Those little laws directed at minor infractions like vagrancy, loitering, and blocking public by-ways exist for a very important reason – to protect the safety of individuals and to provide for the security of their property. When police don’t enforce them – either by choice, or because politicians make it impossible to do so, the consequences are disproportionately large.

Unfortunately, the lesson likely to be taken from this mess is that police forces need more specialized training and more paramilitary equipment or, worse yet, more intervention by federal agencies. This is the opposite of what should happen. Law enforcement must, instead, be allowed to return to what it should always be in a republic – small, local, and focused on the little things. Then the big things will take care of themselves.

Ahmadinejad Leads the Way

Mahmoud (Mo Jad) Ahmadinejad, rapper extraordinaire and part-time President of Iran, has announced his support for the controversial law mandating conservative underwear for the women of his country.


Last month, street protests greeted the announcement of the mandate by religious authorities, and even ultra conservative Shi’ite leaders questioned the wisdom of the law, asking how it could be enforced.

MoJad though, who has always infused his rap videos with the latest technology (Almost all of his videos this year were shot in color, and industry leaders say there is a rumor of an upcoming 3-D video for the title track of his much anticipated album, “Imam of Slam.”) has advanced the idea of the ban, insisting that the law can be enforced, not only at the point of sales, but also by patrols equipped with special “X-ray Spectacles,” which he ordered from the back pages of a western magazine he acquired during his latest concert tour.

The trend-setting leader even volunteered to lead the first patrol, which he referred to as a “panty posse,” graciously donating his precious time to stamping out vice, and defending the world-famous virtue of Iranian women.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Done.


Here's my finished painting of Penha Palace.  Incidentally, one of the reasons they built this palace in Sintra, which is usually about ten degrees cooler than Lisbon in the summer, is to avoid the plague, which often became a problem in the warmer months.
I'm happy with the way the details worked out.  The window in the top left corner presented an entirely different set of challenges than the stonework in the bottom right.

Keith Miller - My Friend

I'd like to direct your attention to the shiny new gizmo on the right-hand side of my blog.  I'm exceptionally proud of it, not because it took me forever to figure out how to get it there (which it did) but because it allows me the privilege of showcasing the work of my great friend Keith Miller.

Keith and I first met in '95 or '96 (we were both in our early teens, I think...) when we were both second lieutenants.  (Ok, so we weren't in our teens.)  We hit it off pretty much immediately, despite the fact that Keith is reserved, even downright quiet while I - well, I guess I'm not.  Or at least I wasn't in those days.  We were both teaching for the Air Force at one of the smaller bases, a place called Goodfellow, in San Angelo, Texas.  Our working conditions weren't great, aside from the fact that we were entrusted with teaching fellow Air Force officers, which in and of itself made up for a lot.  We both derived a lot of satisfaction from what we did, and I think the way we got along enabled each of us to get pretty good at it.

We were a good combination because I was headstrong and a little rash, prone to launch right into things, and Keith, as I said, wasn't.  He had a way of quietly assessing a situation before he dived into it that I came to admire and tried to emulate.  For my part, I think I dragged him into a few controversies he might have missed out on, were he not my friend, so maybe I helped make his duty day a little more interesting.  Maybe not.

Either way, what I do know is that Keith has always been the kind of friend that I could rely on, and that puts him in a very small group of people.  When some of my stories were published in 2006, Keith let me stay at his place in D.C. and came along with me to the book-signing at the Library of Congress.  

Keith retired from the Air Force and, while he's always been an extraordinary guitarist (No, really - when some of the true greats are in town, they call Keith to play with them.) he's only gotten better, now that he's not moving every 2 or 3 years.  I don't keep up with him as well as I should, but when I check in on him he's always working on something new, and getting ready to record it.  As a matter of fact, he's got a new CD in the works at the moment, and he's collaborating on another project with people like Muriel Anderson, Phil Keaggy, and Keegan McClellan on a project called "For Pete's Sake," which you can read about here.

So I'm proud of this new widget-thingy on my blog, because I'm proud of Keith, and I'm glad to be able to share his music with you.  Have a listen, and if you like what you hear, drop him a line on Facebook. He'll be glad to hear from you.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

DoJ Imposes Damages for Being Insufficiently Accomodating to Islam

I first wrote about this when Ms Khan initially brought suit against her employer, a school district that balked at releasing her  for 3 weeks so that she could make her pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Ms Khan had taught at the Berkeley Illinois School District for only about a year, and even her union contract denied the leave she requested.  Despite this, and despite the fact that she could have made the pilgrimage at a time that did not interfere with the school year (and not to mention the fact that she asked for just about twice as much time off as the pilgrimage would have required) the Department of Justice sued on her behalf, saying that the school district should have accomodated her religious requirements, even though she was the only math lab teacher, and she was asking to be gone for 21 days prior to student exams.

The district, finding itself beseiged not only by its unreasonable employee, but also by the power of the federal government, settled, and has agreed to pay $75,000 and establish a "religious accommodation training program."

The Department of Justice - remind me again why we call them that?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Score

Yesterday I liberated these five leather suitcases from a rainy trash pile in my neighborhood.  Four of them were made by Ambercrombie and Fitch.  The second smallest was made by Lido of New York.  They all seem to be circa 1930-1940.  The two large ones were encased in zippered canvas covers with leather corner protectors, but I took them off to dry them out.  All the hardware is brass and the leather is in great condition.  Hard to believe someone threw them away, but I'm glad they did.  Along with them, I found a beautiful old leather shotgun case (unfortunately, no shotgun inside) with a red velvet interior, and shipping tags on the outside identifying the owner and his Lisbon address.

US Justice: Security Less Important than Pleasing Islamic Organizations

This is just great.  Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole just announced that all training materials used by law enforcement and national security agencies are being recalled so that censors can remove any references that might be offensive to Muslims.  Who gets to decide what may or may not be offensive to Muslims?  The Council on American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and others - all of which are tied to the Muslim Brotherhood according to documents that came to light at the Holyland Foundation terrorist fundraising trial. 

The decision is apparently due, at least in part, to a threat by MPAC president, Salam al-Marayati, who warned that, unless the US government revised its materials, there would be a disintegration of "the crucial partnership between the Muslim American community and law enforcement..."   One has to wonder how that would differ from what we have today.  Sharia law forbids Muslims from turning each other over to un-Islamic authorities, even if they are guilty of a crime.  This goes a long way toward explaining why there has never been any such thing as US Muslim cooperation with law enforcement, and why there never can be.  Actual investigators and street-level law enforcement agents I've spoken to know this to be the case, despite the laughable claim cited by al-Marayati that, "Nearly 40% of Al Qaeda-related plots threatening the American homeland since 9/11 have been foiled thanks to tips from Muslims."

While professional grievance mongers like al-Maryati insist that the materials in question are insulting to Muslims and infringe on their religious freedoms, they ignore the fact that those materials go out of their way to differentiate between Islam and Islamists, and to mark the distinctions between the religion of Islam, which is a matter of personal rights, and the legal, social, political system of Islam, which is an entirely different matter.  In allowing those distinctions to be ignored, the Justice Department smears the designers of those materials and handicaps the people who put their lives on the line to provide for domestic security. 

Short of actually placing weapons in the hands of criminals (That's a different Justice Department program.) it's hard to imagine a more effective way of undermining our national security.

Feds can Smuggle Guns. NYPD Can't.

According to the AP five New York Policemen are under arrest for their part in a twelve-person ring that made money by, among other things, smuggling guns.

The policemen were stung by an combined NYPD Internal Affairs/FBI operation that was initiated when an FBI informant told his handler that he knew of a New York policeman who was willing to make money by transporting stolen goods.

Without condoning the actions of these twisted cops, can we still appreciate the irony of the FBI helping bust policemen for running guns while it was helping the Justice Department cover up Operation Fast and Furious? 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Progress

My painting of Penha Palace is coming along nicely.  The composition seemed kind of risky - at least in the planning stages - but I think it's working out fine.  What do you think?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Painting Penha Palace


Penha Palace is one of those places that, even if you painted it perfectly, your painting would still be unbelievable.  The palace is such an incredible mix of color and architectural features that it's very hard to get a handle on it.  No single scene is a fair representative of the whole, and because of the way it flings itself across the highest peak above Sintra, no one view of it allows you to see more than a perplexing fraction of the entire structure.

Nevertheless, I find myself compelled to try to paint it.  As is often the case with paintings that get under my skin, I dreamed about this piece last night.  I'd been thinking about the importance of shadows in this image, and worrying that I wouldn't be able to depict them the way I wanted, but I dreamed what I think is the solution.  Time will tell.  Meanwhile, here's an early look.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Climbing Above Sintra

video
Zach is making a video of the torturous climb that leads from Sintra to the ruins of the Moorish castle high above.  It's one of my favorite rides to do around here, because it's spectacularly beautiful, and because it's constant climbing pretty much from the moment I leave my driveway.  Here's a segment of video that wound up on the cutting room floor.

A Painting for Tonight

I can think of nothing clever or uplifting to say tonight, so I'll just post this little painting instead.  It's a view of one of the many narrow alleys that twist their ways through the village of Sintra.

Calderon Blames the US.

Speaking in Mexico City, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said that crime in Mexican border towns is due in part, to US "dumping" of Mexican criminals there, instead of prosecuting them in the U.S.

There are many factors in the violence that is being experienced in some Mexican border cities, but one of those is that the American authorities have gotten into the habit of simply deporting 60 (thousand) or 70,000 migrants per year to cities like Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana," Calderon told an immigration conference.

The horror - to think that Americans are so inconsiderate that we drop criminals at the border, instead of giving them bus tickets all the way home.  I suppose these would be perfectly peaceful, law-abiding citizens had they not been cruelly dropped off in their own country.  Clearly Calderon is right: US deportations turn normal, peace-loving Mexicans into the drug-crazed killers and kidnappers that have made life all but impossible in northern Mexico. 

If it were the case that deportations lead to crime, it would be a fairly simple matter for the Mexican government to provide their returning citizens with some sort of repatriation aid, but the fact of the matter is, they're not interested.  The Mexican government helps people sneak into the US illegally; they're not so concerned about what happens next, as long as most of them mail home lots of cash.

Operation Fast and Furious has certainly facilitated violence in Mexico, but it's ridiculous for Calderon to blame Mexico's enormous crime problem on the US policy of deporting Mexicans.  Admittedly, convicted Mexican criminals are sent home after they serve their sentences (What else would we do with them?  Send them to Congress?) but it's not our fault that Mexico exerts no control over them when they return.

The truth of the matter is that the failed Mexican government sets its own citizens on the path to criminalization when it encourages them to violate US sovereignty. Calderon and his administration compromise the safety of Mexicans and breed contempt for the law by turning a blind eye to coyotes who smuggle human beings, sometimes turning them over to the equivalent of a slave trade, sometimes deserting them in the desert to die.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"The Hill" Headlines with a Lie.

The unfortunately (but accurately) named Justin Stink had an article in yesterday's "The Hill" the headline of which proclaims, "Santorum calls SNL sketch 'bullying'."

My immediate response, and that of many others, judging by the comments after the article, was that the former senator from Pennsylvania needs to pull up his big-boy pants and get rid of the pacifier.  When I read the article though, it became clear that the person in need of maturation is Mr. Stink. 


Santorum said he never saw the sketch, which I find believable, seeing as SNL hasn't been funny in years, and he didn't comment on it.  He did say that the left resorts to bullying more often than the right, but never equated the sketch to bullying. That statement exists soley in the mind of the author, and now in the minds of his misinformed readers.

Doesn't "The Hill" have any journalistic standards?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Global Warmingists - Species Shrinking as Earth Warms!

Another reason to be very afraid of Global Warming - from the team of crack journalists (I'll leave it to you to determine the manner in which I intend the word "crack" to define "journalists.") at Huffington Post, experts tell us that there is a wide-spread trend of shrinking among species in the animal kingdom.  This trend, they say, is attributable to Global Warming.  They liken it, believe it or not, to "wool sweaters that shrink when washed in hot water."


38 out of 85 species, apparently, have diminished in size over the previous decades, including a variety of "Scottish sheep that is 5 percent smaller than in 1985."
 
The frightening trend appears to apply also to some plant species, with certain types of cotton, corn, and strawberries growing smaller as well.
 
Of special interest to Monty Python fans, the weight of the average house sparrow dropped by one seventh, from 1950 to 1990, (The effect on its unladen airspeed is yet to be determined.) and the poster child of Global Warming, the ever-cuddly polar bear, also appears to be growing smaller, which might actually be pretty good news for the Eskimos.  (Imagine how much easier life on the ice flows will be when polar bears are all miniaturized.  Maybe they can even be domesticated.  If they can be housebroken, they would make lovely pets.)
 
Thankfully, for those who would like to preserve some respect for scientists, there are those who say the claims "seem kind of far-fetched." That's readily apparent to anyone who thinks about the question for a minute.  After all, sheep, cotton, corn, and strawberries are all subject to generation upon generation of selective breeding, the goal of which is always directed toward developing the attribute that makes a species marketable.  In the case of sheep, this would most likely be the quality and quantity of the wool.  In cotton, breeding will likely focus on attempts to increase the density of fibers in each bole.  In corn and strawberries, strains might be prized for the quickness with which they ripen, resistance to drought and disease, and so on. Any one of these desired attributes could be developed at the cost of overall size of the plant, which is irrelevant to the ultimate marketability of the end product.  To assume that these heavily manipulated species and varieties are fluctuating in size becuase of Global Warming is quite a stretch - and that's assuming that Global Warming even exists, which is proving to be more of an assumption and less of a fact all the time.
 
Then again, if Global Warming were proven, it would make no sense at all to suggest that a warming environment decreases the size of species.  Anyone familiar with Seinfeld knows it's cold that causes shrinkage.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Curious Parallels Between the Iranian Assassination Attempt and Fast and Furious

The US administration has adopted an interesting stance regarding Iran’s attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Washington. "We believe that even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity," President Obama said.
This seems reasonable to me. After all, if Iranian leadership did indeed plan an operation in flagrant violation of international law, it only makes sense that they should be held accountable. And given the likely results of that operation – the death of the Saudi ambassador and/or his entourage and/or innocent bystanders, with all the related effects upon the relations of involved nations, it beggars belief to claim that it could have been planned without clearance from Tehran.

Contrast this, though, with Washington’s position regarding the infamous “Operation Fast and Furious,” in which we are expected to believe that low to mid-level operatives in the U.S. government decided for themselves to allow thousands of weapons to be sold and delivered to a murderous organization bent on the destabilization of the Mexican government. It is no more reasonable for us to believe that Fast and Furious happened without high level consent, than it is for us to believe that the Iranian assassination attempt happened without permission from above.

But while the Iranian operation ended without loss of life, Fast and Furious resulted in multiple deaths in Mexico and the United States, and inestimable damage to relations between our countries. It represents a far more serious transgression than Iran’s bungled assassination attempt. It was a betrayal of the American people – a steadfast refusal to enforce laws, which resulted in the endangerment of the citizens those laws are designed to protect. It also provided material aid to a brutal gang, and facilitated its countless acts of torture, murder, and intimidation. The Iranian operation was conducted by a nation known to be hostile to the US, but Fast and Furious was a stab in the back of a government with which we are supposed to be on friendly terms.

In his demand for accountability, President Obama referred to the Iranian operation as “dangerous and reckless behavior.” I agree wholeheartedly, but this description could apply just as well to Operation Fast and Furious. When will Washington meet the standard of accountability it’s trying to apply to Tehran?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Moh'jad "US be Trippin."

Gangsta rap sensation and part-time leader of Iran, Mahmoud "Moh'jad" Ahmadinejad, today denounced US accusations of his involvement in an attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US.

Freshly returned from a wildly successful tour promoting his latest album, and a speech to the UN in New York City, Moh'jad paused to explain that US accusations of an Iranian plot were nothing more than attempts by the Obama administration to divert attention away from a collasping US economy and disastrous foreign policy decisions by the President and his Secretary of State. 

He ended his statement with a riff that was trademark Moh'jad, backed up by an impressive beatbox laid down by al Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassim "Sly" Suleimani, and a spontaneous display of the Islamo-hip-hop breakdancing that heralded his introduction to the world stage all those years ago. 

"Dem Zionists, Dey be da lyinists.  Dey layin' blame, but I ain't play dat game.  I ain't no fluke.  I buildin' nukes.  You raise my ire, I rain down fire.  I call my man, the 12th Imam, he don' play aroun.  He lay you down.   Boyy."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the administration would provide a response, as soon as the presidential teleprompter had been programmed to run at hip-hop speed.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sao Pedro do Estoril, Before the Bakery Opens

I like to be out and about in the morning, before the streets get crowded.  The village next to mine looks charmingly innocent at that time.  The streets are still covered in long shadows, but at their lower end, the sea is already bathed in morning light.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Today's Painting

This is a view of the lighthouse at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

New Idea for Paintings


A few weeks ago, I drove past an old house where they were putting in new windows.  Along the street in front of the house were lined up all the old ones.  It seemed to me that some of the small ones would make interesting picture frames, so I grabbed them.

I haven't had much time to paint since then, so it took me weeks to finish a painting to test my idea.  Since the window is separated into four panes, I wanted a subject that was simple and bold, so it would hold its own against the distraction of the window construction.  I came up with the above painting, which is of a common sight here - a corner lookout post on a coastal fort.  Here's how it looks framed in the window:

I work in a windowless under ground facility.  I'm going to take this to work and hang it on my wall, so I'll be the only person in the building whose office has a sea view.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Editing: a Lost Art

A story in today's USA Today has this clinker for a lead sentence:
WASHINGTON – Pakistan is the source of explosives in the vast majority of makeshift bombs insurgents in Afghanistan planted this summer to attack U.S. troops, according to U.S. military commanders.


Not one of my high school English teachers would have accepted that abomination of a sentence in their students' work.  Why is it acceptable in a news item?  I would say that you can read the rest of the article here, but when the piece starts off that badly, why would you?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Justice Is Blind.

Now that convicted murderer, escaped prisoner, and airliner hijacker George Wright has been captured in the nearby village of Sintra, those who knew him as Jorge Santos are beginning to ask people to write character references for him, in the hopes of winning some kind of leniency in US courts.

First of all, I'm not sure that exchanging his guns (That's what he used to murder gas station owner Walter Patterson after a series of armed robberies in 1962, and to hijack an airliner with 86 passengers aboard in 1972.) for the less confrontational manner of a con man, demonstrates the kind of character that deserves to be spoken for in a letter.  One would think that someone truly rehabilitated would have a little more to show for 41 years of borrowed freedom.  Even if one did, however - even if our fugitive had donated organs to fatherless children and volunteered to work in a leper colony - I don't see how acknowledging that in a letter is a worthwhile effort. His debt remains unpaid, and any efforts to repay it in a currency more convenient than that of the legal tender - in this case his incarceration - are wasted.

This should be obvious, but it is not.  People have forgotten that the personification of justice is a woman, blindfolded, holding a set of scales.  That blindfold is significant.  It represents the fact that justice is, and must be, independent of emotion.  Justice transcends flimsy constructs like the "empathy standard" devised by Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor. It exacts its own penalties, irrespective of circumstances.  Those scales weigh guilt and innocence. They are mechanical, impartial.

It was not so long ago that people appreciated this innately.  There was an understanding that civil society depended upon the impartiality of justice.  Yes, God may forgive; he has that power and that right, but the courts of men do not - not, at least, if they wish to remain courts of law, instead of courts of opinion.  This is what Herman Melville wrote of in Billy Budd, the story of a sailor who unintentionally strikes and kills an officer on his ship.  No one was more worthy of character references than Billy, but he hanged for his crime, just the same.  His captain and the rest of the crew knew that his crime was unintentional, but they also knew that failing to serve justice would jeopardize the entire ship.  A civil society is no different from that ship.  Justice - cold, impartial, transcendent - must be served.  A life for a life is not some primitive custom we have outgrown. It is the way things are, and the way things will always be, as long as we inhabit this imperfect world.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Al-Awlaki Killed. Again.

US Defense officials have confirmed that Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born al Qaeda dirtbag, has been killed in Yemen.  The confirmation sets this particular instance of his death apart from others.   On previous occasions, the administration of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has claimed to have killed Awlaki in order to look like they were actually doing something to earn the millions the US has given them for counter terror, but he has always somehow managed to resurrect himself.  Apparently, this time he is really dead, and is discovering that the whole 72-virgins-in-exchange-for-death-in-jihad thing was just a horrible misunderstanding. 

UN Gives Itself A Big Raise

I read today that, while everyone else is cutting back, the UN is reducing its staff by only .4 percent,  and offsetting that reduction with an increase of .3 billion dollars to its already bloated budget.  Among other things, that increase raises the salary of the average UN worker (those not among the 44 whose jobs have been cut) to $119,000. 

The US administration has called for “a comprehensive, department-by-department, line-by-line review of this budget,” but since our own government seems incapable of accomplishing that for itself, it's hardly likely that the UN ever will. 

As one who, in my own small way, contributes to those UN salaries, (According to the article, "The U.S. pays 22 percent of the UN’s regular operating budget and is assessed 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget.") I'd like to make a small suggestion. 

Undoubtably, one justification for the high salaries of UN workers is the high cost of living in New York City, where the UN his headquartered.  I propose that from now on, the UN locate itself in the capital city of the member state with the lowest standard of living.  This would not only reduce significantly the cost of living for UN workers, but it would also provide an opportunity for the UN to demonstrate in a very real way, its committment to bettering the conditions in the poorest of countries. 

It's a win-win, right?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chapter Three – the Trek to Baharia

I mentioned in my previous chapter that the route from Siwa to Baharia would carry me over 400 miles of sand dunes, but this ended up being an optimistic projection. After an arduous afternoon on my first day, I would not have believed that there could be any surface more difficult to ride across than sand, but on the following day I would discover to my disappointment that I was wrong.

I finished my first day’s travel as the sun was sinking low. The small handlebar device I’d bought to track my mileage had quit working sometime earlier that day, so I wasn’t sure how far I’d traveled, but I knew it wasn’t far enough to make Baharia within the eight days of food and water I was carrying. I resolved to get a good night’s sleep and make up for lost time on the next day.

That night though, the wind dedicated itself to prying at the corners of my tent, and lifting all but the part directly beneath my body from the ground. The flapping of the material was almost deafening, but not quite loud enough to drown out the ghostly singing of the tent shrouds as they vibrated in the gale. I was grateful that I had buried the tent pegs deeply; I am certain that was the only reason the tent did not collapse around my ears. Such was the din and the cold that I was certain to have had no sleep, were it not for a parting gift from my friend the Berber linguist. As we parted, he pressed three airline bottles of bourbon into my hands as a farewell gesture. With one of them warming me from the inside, I still shivered violently in my sleeping bag, but I did eventually drift off into a restless sleep.

The next morning I crawled achingly from my tent and unwrapped the bicycle from its tarp. Whether or not the cover served any purpose was open to debate; it might have kept the blowing sand from blasting the paint off the frame, but it did nothing to keep it from drifting into my chain and gears, which had been my primary concern. I spent at least an hour getting the grit out of the moving parts and then had a bit of breakfast, which consisted of some oranges, some bread and cheese, and a can of tuna fish. By the time I was packed and ready to resume my trip, the sun had doubled its diameter above the horizon, and shadows were beginning to shorten.

It took a few miles for me to warm up, and while the bourbon might have helped me sleep, I don’t think it did me any favors on that morning ride. I felt like the bike was not the only thing with sand in its moving parts, and my head hurt. I rode for about two hours and drank a couple bottles of water before I began feeling like myself again. That was about the point at which I crested a small rise, and saw the field of rocks.

The field stretched out before me as far as I could see. For some reason, I recalled that the formula for calculating the distance to the visible horizon is roughly 1.17 times the square root of one’s eye height, which meant that, for at least the next three nautical miles, I would be traversing a surface comprised of rounded rocks, roughly the size of loaves of bread – too large and uneven to ride over with a heavily laden bike, and no picnic to push the bike over, either.

I hoped that just beyond my line of sight, the field would end, and I could get back to riding on sand. It didn’t.

The bicycle is the most efficient means ever devised for transporting oneself from place to place. All those efficiencies disappear, however, if you’re pushing the thing, instead of riding it, and the worst thing about pushing the bike over those miserable rocks was that I couldn’t get into a rhythm. Every rock was just large enough or small enough or at a just different-enough angle that it comprised its own independent challenge. I wasn’t crossing a field, so much as climbing thousands of tiny obstacles, one at a time. My neck ached from bending forward. My feet hurt from the uneven surface of the rocks. My shoulders ached from pushing. I was glad that the weight of my food, water, tent, clothing, and sleeping bag was rolling on wheels, instead of strapped to my back, but I hated the contorted position I had to assume in order to keep those wheels turning.

I kept them turning for two hours before I looked behind me. The sun was high overhead now, and hot. The tops of the rocks burned dull ochre, lighter on the tops where they had been burnished by blowing sand. I saw nothing behind me but rocks. Before me, I saw nothing but rocks. I lowered the bike gently onto its side and drank deeply of my warm water. I looked behind me again. I thought about the futility of trying to sleep on this unforgiving surface. I wondered how far ahead of me the rocks continued, and I briefly considered the possibility that, if I pushed hard enough, I could turn around and make it back to the sand before the sun went down. I hated the thought of turning back though, even more than the thought of going forward into uncertainty, so I picked the bike back up and slogged ahead.

The sun was on the horizon by the time I followed a gravelly wash up out of the rocks and back into the sand. I wrapped up the bicycle, set up the tent, and climbed inside to eat. I was far too tired to brush my teeth or even enjoy an almost windless night. I lay in my tent, thinking for a moment about going outside to look at the sky, but before I could even decide not to, I had fallen asleep.

I awoke abruptly at about three in the morning because something had crawled into my right ear. It was a spider, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that something was moving in my ear canal, and the sensation of those eight hairy legs making their way deeper into my head made me instantaneously dizzy and sick to my stomach. Then I did something stupid. I stuck my little finger in my ear, as if anything good could possibly come from that. Nothing good did. The unknown creature burrowed even deeper, and for the only time in my life, I knew what complete, absolute panic felt like. I knelt on the floor of my tent, trying desperately not to vomit, and trying even harder to cling to my sanity. I wanted to run screaming into the desert. I wanted to find something long and sharp and stick it in my ear. I wanted to be home, wherever that was.

I did none of those things, although I came perilously close to the screaming in the desert thing. Instead, I knelt there jerking my head violently to the side, as if I were a swimmer, trying to dislodge a drop of water. This yielded only limited success. The offending critter slid downward encouragingly every time I lurched, but then, as I straightened back up, it ran back up my ear canal, with an excruciating, infuriating scratching and prickling that I heard/felt throughout my entire head. Every time I moved, it moved correspondingly, doing its utmost to stake a permanent claim to the snug, warm tunnel it had found.

This obviously wasn’t going to work. Worse yet, with its every movement over the sensitive surface of my inner ear, the invader was driving me closer to madness. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it’s absolutely true. I had to marshal every shred of self control in order to force myself to remain calm. I stopped the water-drop routine and crouched there, forcing myself to think. There had to be a way to remedy this situation, preferably one that did not involve a serious risk of self lobotomization. Thankfully, as long as I kept my head from moving, the spider remained still, and I was able to think. I carefully reached for a water bottle, fighting the inclination to tilt my head, or turn it toward that corner of the tent. My trembling fingers closed around the bottle. I opened the nozzle and directed a cold blast of water into my ear. The shock of the cold, thankfully, overwhelmed the sensation of the moving spider as I tilted my head to the side to hold the water in. Almost immediately, I felt the creature crawling across my outer ear, then, across my face. I nearly brained myself, clubbing it with my water bottle, but I didn’t care. It was dead, and I was free.

There was no chance of sleeping after that. I tried tearing a page out of my journal and stuffing my ears with writing paper, but it was uncomfortable and noisy. I opened my second bottle of bourbon and dabbed it into the entrances of my ears with a fingertip, hoping it would keep out unwelcome tenants, but even so, I was done sleeping for the night. I climbed out of the tent and sat on a sand dune. Above me, the sky was brilliant with stars – so many stars I found it difficult to find familiar constellations. They wheeled above me in silent majesty, and I felt very much alone.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Michael Kiefer - one of 2,996

On 11 September, 2001 I was in Amman, Jordan. I was the senior member of a small American military detachment getting a refresher course in Arabic at the Royal Jordanian Military Language Institute. At the time of the attacks, I was just signing onto my email account at an internet cafe in central Amman. I saw a news banner announcing that two planes had crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, and I was certain that I was looking at an advertisement for a movie. Within two minutes, my embassy cell phone rang. "Get all your people to the embassy right away." I was told. That's when I knew it was no movie ad.

As I was scrambling to get my colleagues together, 26 year-old Michael Kiefer was breathing his last in New York City. Michael was one of the 2,996 innocents who lost their lives in Al Qaeda's most successful attack on our nation. Maybe you remember it? In case you've forgotten, let me remind you by telling you about Michael, because Michael Kiefer is a shining example of what our nation lost in that attack.

To say Michael was a fireman does not do justice to the drive and the passion he brought to his work. Some people have a job they do and others have jobs that they are; by all accounts, Michael was one of the latter. From his early years he knew that he wanted to be a fireman. Childhood photos show him wearing a fireman costume, and people tell of how, as a boy, he was so accomplished at mimicking the sound of a siren that he once convinced his school bus driver to pull aside for a firetruck that wasn't there.

Michael bought a scanner that he used to listen for fire alarms, and would ride his bicycle to watch the firemen work. Sometimes he rode so far from his neighborhood that he was brought back home by police escort. Michael earned perfect scores on his fire academy physical and written entrance exams, and began training in October, 2000. He graduated in December of the same year. He drew one of the busiest assignments, engine Company 280/ladder Company 132 Firehouse of Crown Heights Brooklyn. In achieving his lifelong dream, we could say that Michael Kiefer accomplished more in his short life than will many men who live to see a century, but that would be only half his story.

In addition to being a fireman, Michael was a committed Christian, beloved son to Pat and Bud, and older brother to Kerri and Lauren. He was saving his money to buy a ring for his girlfriend, Jamie Huggler. Son, brother, boyfriend. He was the kind of guy who dedicated himself to a job that would put his life at risk in order to save others. He was just one of 2,996, who died at the World Trade Center,10 years ago today, but in him was a reflection of all the strength, the selflessness, the goodness, that we love about America. On this anniversary of our nation's loss, take a moment to remember Michael. Say a prayer for the peace of mind of those he left behind, and give thanks that our nation can still be the home of men like him.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Some Paintings

I've been wanting to experiment with night-time paintings for a while now.  It's not easy painting a night sky with watercolor.  This particular attempt took eight washes to get the sky uniform and dark enough for me. 

Zoe asked me if we could paint together today.  Since it'll probably be only a matter of days until she wants nothing to do with me until it's time to buy a wedding dress, I agreed happily.  I did this little sketch of the bougainvillea in the courtyard, and Zoe practiced painting cherry blossoms on rice paper.

Hardware Upgrade

I've been riding a bike that was too small for the last 10 years or so.  I finally wore it out, but when I started looking at new ones, I couldn't believe how expensive they'd become, especially here in Portugal, where the Value Added Tax pretty much doubles the price.  (There's a lesson in there somewhere, I think...)

My good friend Lee, proprietor of World Cup Ski and Cycle, Mechanicsburg, PA came to the rescue and sold me this brand new 2009 Cannondale CAAD 9 at a once-in-a-lifetime price.  I can't tell you what a difference it makes riding a bike that fits.  Whether I'm climbing, descending, or sprinting, the bike is rock solid.  It's a pleasure to ride again.

Lee has been not only a dear friend for more than 20 years, but also a patient supplier of bikes, parts, and advice to me no matter how far from his shop I've been.  Thanks to him, I've gotten to ride parts of South Carolina, West Texas, Mexico, Korea, Alabama, Georgia, California, Saudi Arabia, and Portugal.   

Thanks Lee!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In Which We Resume Our Tale

I spent two weeks in Siwa Oasis, and whenever I wasn’t exploring the Mountains of the Dead, crunching my way along the salt-encrusted verges of the western lake, or roaming the narrow alleys of the village, I was made welcome by the elderly linguist. Although I was not allowed to attend the poetic recitations, he very kindly took me with him all around the village where he made an incongruous picture, dressed in his jacket and tie, towing a retinue of 20 or 30 Siwan urchins in his wake. Everywhere we went, the Siwans waved and called him by name.

Although there were still things to see in Siwa, the desert stretched away before me, promising deeper mysteries and greater excitement, and as I was still young enough to believe those sorts of promises, I repacked my belongings and planned the next leg of my journey. Planning so far had been easy. Using a map, I had estimated the distance between Marsah Matruh and Siwa at 180 miles. Sixty miles seemed a reasonable daily goal, so I bought breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days, and then I doubled that amount of food. For water, I estimated my daily requirement, and then I tripled it. Back in 1988, nobody worried a whole lot about dehydration; certainly, nobody walked around their office building clutching a water bottle all day long, so in those dark ages, a triple ration of three days’ worth of water was not a huge amount, even though, at eight pounds to the gallon, I definitely felt the weight.

The system worked fine on the ride to Siwa, although that leg of the trip had not been without its hardships. I had heard that nights in the desert were cold – as cold as the days were hot – but it is a strange characteristic of Cretan summers, the third of which I had just spent happily, that they are so warm and pleasant that they render one incapable of believing that Cretan winters can be miserable, cold, and wet. Thus, I am ashamed to admit, I was completely unprepared for the knifelike wind that rose every evening as soon as the sun had dropped below the horizon, and the bitter cold it carried into the pitiful shelter of my tent.

The wind was punishing in two ways. Not only did it convey the cold straight to the marrow of my bones, despite the fact that they were encased in every stitch of clothing that I owned and swaddled in a sleeping bag, but it also rattled my tent unceasingly, with a loud and urgent shaking that prevented me from sleeping and which, I was certain, masked the approach of Ali Babba and all his 40 thieves, no matter how noisily they crept up on me. This took a fair amount of getting used to.

The days were more pleasant. As I was riding in the fall, temperatures were not as punishing as they might have been at the height of summer. I had no way of measuring, but I doubt that it was ever hotter than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, I was riding a newly paved road, and it was easy to make good time, even on a bicycle that bore the weight of all my earthly possessions. I made my 60 miles a day without difficulty, which allowed me plenty of time to make camp before night fell and the wind began.

Leaving Siwa, though, there was no road. Actually, there was a stubby beginning of a road, which extended about half a mile beyond the perimeter of the oasis, upon which labored in a desultory manner, eight or ten Egyptians, who seemed, if they were in any way descended from the builders of the Pyramids, to embody convincing arguments against the theory of evolution. They barred my path with threatening gestures and indicated that, until I took their photograph, they would not let me pass. I owned two cameras at that time, a magnificent 1960’s era Contaflex 35mm SLR, with a bewildering assortment of lenses, and simple point-and-shoot, in which, for circumstances such as these, I never kept any film. I arrayed the dusty road workers before their decrepit Mercedes truck in order of their height and took their picture. I reversed their order and photographed them again. Then I posed them in order of age and snapped another frame. I had them mount the truck and wave at me from the cab, after which I shot them all standing on the bed of the truck. I was working up to some nice semi-nude shots when they finally got tired of the whole business and let me go.

While that unpleasant image lingers in you imaginations, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my friend Ben, who presented me with the Contaflex and a quick lesson on photography prior to my first visit to Egypt, in 1987. That camera and all its lenses served me without fail, until my reluctant surrender to digital photography many years later.

As the highway men resumed their tasks, I resumed mine, setting my sights southeast, toward the 400 mile-distant oasis of Baharia, the path toward which, while it was not paved, was still discernible, and when unclear, was at least marked by telephone poles, many of which tilted drunkenly in the undulating dunes. This was my first look at real desert, as I had expected it to look. The 180 miles from the coast to Siwa was certainly desert, but it was alternately scrubby and rocky, and seemed more like Arizona than Sahara. This though – the endless waves of sand that stretched before me – this was real desert, and it was an awesome, frightening sight.

It was also a difficult surface to ride on. It was usually solid enough that my tires didn’t sink in, but once in a while, and without any warning, I would roll into a soft spot, my front wheel would bog down, and the bike would try to pitch me over the handlebars. I did not enjoy that. I already had as much weight as possible over the rear wheels, with light stuff like clothes, tent, and sleeping bag in the front panniers. It finally occurred to me to lower my tire pressure enough to broaden the contact patch with the sand, and that constituted a significant improvement. Sometimes the sand make a disconcerting, almost musical sound, as it compacted beneath my tires.

More soon.

Grey Death

It's been a busy week for Kiki the grim reaper.  In the last nine days, she's dispatched two small rats, a dove, a pidgeon, and this mouse, all of which she very kindly brought home to show us.  The two small rats were still alive, and she had a great time chasing them up and down the hall before I finished them off.  This mouse was already dead, but she still played with it for quite a while.  I took it away when she started eating it.  The crunching sound kind of creeped me out.  She made it clear she was unhappy with me, but I think she'll get over it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

My Travels in Arabia Desertia (How I Was Saved by Berber Nomads)

Pajamas Media has an interesting article on the role of Berbers in the battle for Libya.  Berbers, an ethnic minority that preceeded the Arabs in North Africa, have been of interest to me since they saved my life in the eastern Sahara in 1988.

Having finished an enlistment in the Air Force, I was shocked to find that, four years after my first attempt at college, I was no better prepared for a second try.  (It pains me to admit this now, but I spent those years industriously applying myself to the hard work of not growing up.)  What does one do when one's military obligation has ended but one has made no plans for the future?  One takes to the road.

I had been stationed on the island of Crete when I left the Air Force, and it was from there - the port of Iraklion - that I caught a ferry to Alexandria, having sold everything I owned aside from a mountain bike, some spare parts, and some camping equipment.  From Alexandria, I made my way west, following the paths of Rommel and Montgomery, past al Alamein to Marsa Matruh, where I registered with the Egyptian Military Police for permission to enter the desert.  (The Libyan Frontier is a "controlled" area.) 

I spent an hour in that sweltering office, drinking tea and watching a gecko make his precarious way across the ceiling in search of flies.  It was apparent from the one-sided phone conversation I was hearing that, a. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for my presence in the desert and, b. Everyone concerned was in complete agreement that I was Megnoon (crazy).

Maybe because I was considered crazy, the prospect of arguing with me seemed even more odious than that of searching for my dessicated remains at some undetermined point in the future, so I was presented with my Tusrih (permit) and sent on my way.

My first exposure to the Berbers was in Siwa oasis, which I reached after three days of riding due south.  After days of various earth tones, the green of the oasis is a shock.  It is probably a good thing that, as the road winds and descends past tall sandstone formations, one catches only glimpses of that fertile ground.  By the time I had wended my way to the bottom of the depression, I'd had the chance to adjust to seeing plants and life again.

Siwa is bordered by a freshwater lake in the East, and a highly saline lake in the West.  All available space in between the two is crowded with date palms, olive trees, and, if I recall correctly, grape vines.  A tiny island in the center of the salt lake is graced by a hot spring.  The spring feeds a bath, the stones of which were laid to accomodate Cleopatra, who came to visit the oracle for whom the oasis was known.  I spent some very pleasant hours lazing in the bath, dappled by the shade of palm trees, soaking away the desert dust.

One afternoon, I was walking through the village at the center of the oasis, a village referred to by Alexander the Great as ancient.  The villagers, at least when I visited, were still living in some of the same buildings that had impressed Alexander with their age, although some of them had been damaged by the area's only recorded rainfall, which was in 1956.  As I turned the corner of one of those buildings, I ran smack into a little grey-haired man, who was dressed very smartly in a tweed sportcoat, grey slacks, and a tie.  It had been so long since I'd seen anyone so attired that, had I not knocked him down, I would have though he was a mirage. 

Far from being a mirage, he was a Berber language expert from Switzerland, who had developed an alphabet for the local dialect, and had spent a large part of his career in Siwa, learning the language and, when I was there, sitting with the last living Berber poets, and capturing their epic recitations in letters.  When I met him, (His name was something like Visicheylle, but I haven't been able to find him online yet.) he was on his way to the little store, to buy a couple of Cokes.  Apparently, the World's Oldest Berber Poet liked to drink Coke while he recited.

I'm out of time for writing now, but I'll complete the story of how I was saved by Berber Nomads as soon as I can.  I'll also see if I can dig up some of my old photos and maybe even find the correct spelling of the name of the linguist I knocked over.

Studies have shown a direct correlation between the speed with which I return and the number of comments I receive on my blog, so if the suspense is killing you...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Somebody Tell Mugabe

to do something about that skid mark under his nose.  I mean, really.  That caterpillar makes Hitler's soup strainer look downright luxurious.  That's the thing about dictators of crappy third-world cesspools - nobody is going to stand up and say, "Hey, Robert, that thing makes you look like you've got a sinus infection.  Here's five bucks for some disposable razors."

Which explains, I guess, this whole deal:
By the way, Col. Qaddafi -



Maxine Waters would like her clothes back.