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Hi! I'm Paul. This is my blog. It is the best blog.

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Linky Post: Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nothing personal on the menu today, so here’s a dish of links & commentary:

‘Underwear bomber’ was working for the CIA. The Guardian’s headline confused me. Like you, probably, I thought they were talking about the underwear bomber of 2009. This is a new underwear bomber, with exploding BVDs made by the same terrorist who was behind the 2009 attempt. My takeaway is a grim one: they’re still out there, trying to bring down airliners with variations on tactics they used before. Nothing has changed, and we can never let our guard down. Those who dream of a return to pre-9/11 airport security are terminally naive.

Pilot Shortage: Story Time. Air Force pilots have to be the whiniest pack of entitled snots this side of the United States Senate. Back in the 1970s, one of my contemporaries wrote the original “Dear Boss” letter, which became an instant classic. Every generation of USAF pilots since has tried to improve on it, and today’s link is the latest. I quit reading when I came to this paragraph:

Despite having been a mission commander responsible for the success of 80 ship packages encompassing a wide array of mission sets, and being able to effectively and efficiently integrate platforms and effects as a Weapons Officer, you don’t have enough ‘leadership experience’ as those who babysit 10 or so 18 year old airmen.

Babysit airmen? BABYSIT? USAF pilots don’t command officers and enlisted troops until they become lieutenant colonels, and that’s only if they land a coveted squadron commander slot. Meanwhile, their contemporaries in the other military services have been commanding troops since their lieutenant days. To belittle command by calling it “babysitting” is incredibly offensive, not to mention the demeaning message it sends to the enlisted force. Go fly for the fucking airlines, you coddled little shit.

DOJ expanding controversial asset seizures programs. This sure looks like a return to the bad old days of just a few years ago, when police departments in small towns across America financed new patrol cars and fancy equipment through the time-honored practice of highway robbery. Looks like it’s going to be official policy now, thanks to Jeff Sessions. If I read it right though, DOJ may just have given an enterprising New York attorney general legal justification for seizing the assets of a prominent real estate developer who’s under investigation for fraud, money laundering, and espionage. Swords have two edges, no?

Fran Lebowitz on Race and Racism (from Vanity Fair, October 1997):

The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, “What would it be like to be black?” but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.

It is now common—and I use the word “common” in its every sense—to see interviews with up-and-coming young movie stars whose parents or even grandparents were themselves movie stars. And when the interviewer asks, “Did you find it an advantage to be the child of a major motion-picture star?” the answer is invariably “Well, it gets you in the door, but after that you’ve got to perform, you’re on your own.” This is ludicrous. Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game, especially in movie acting, which is, after all, hardly a profession notable for its rigor. That’s how advantageous it is to be white. It’s as though all white people were the children of movie stars. Everyone gets in the door and then all you have to do is perform at this relatively minimal level.

Additionally, children of movie stars, like white people, have at—or actually in—their fingertips an advantage that is genetic. Because they are literally the progeny of movie stars they look specifically like the movie stars who have preceded them, their parents; they don’t have to convince us that they can be movie stars. We take them instantly at face value. Full face value. They look like their parents, whom we already know to be movie stars. White people look like their parents, whom we already know to be in charge. This is what white people look like—other white people. The owners. The people in charge. That’s the advantage of being white. And that’s the game. So by the time the white person sees the black person standing next to him at what he thinks is the starting line, the black person should be exhausted from his long and arduous trek to the beginning.

I don’t think I have anything to add to that.

Donald Trump Jr. is reportedly “miserable” and can’t wait for the next four years to end. Get in line, buddy, get in line.

– Administrivia: I quit coding external links to open on new pages or tabs. Giant pain in the ass. Use the “back” button to return to Paul’s Thing after visiting links.

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Better Get Used to It

When I tagged along with other docents at the air museum, learning the ropes, I picked up an anecdote about Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. One of our display aircraft is an executive jet from the presidential fleet. Not an Air Force One—no president ever flew in it—but definitely a dignitary-hauler, used by vice presidents, cabinet secretaries, other government face cards. The story was that Lady Bird Johnson frequently used it to travel back and forth between Austin and DC, and that LBJ’s nickname for the plane was “Air Force One-Half.”

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Air Force One-Half (photo: Pima Air & Space Museum)

Well, that was worth a chuckle and I told the story to museum visitors for a while, but over time quit. The story’s cute but demeaning, and although visitors always laughed, I’d occasionally see a grimace. Two weeks ago a visitor left a comment card complaining about a joke one of our tram drivers shared, and the museum director told the tram driver his volunteer days were over. I never found out what was said, but it easily could have been the LBJ story.

Docents don’t talk politics, sex, or religion with museum visitors. Yesterday, before the morning tours began, I sat with three other docents at a table on the patio by the museum restaurant. We thought we had the patio to ourselves; none of us saw the solitary visitor in a Harley T-shirt three tables away. We were bullshitting about this and that when one of the docents asked, “So what do you think of Trump’s son?” Before anyone could answer, the visitor announced his presence by standing up and informing us, in a loud voice, that Trump is president whether we like it or not and we’d better get used to it. We clammed up, of course, but oh my god did I want to say, “Yeah and I bet you said the same thing when Obama was president.” Damn near bit my tongue off keeping it in.


I’m going to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned in a couple of hours. I don’t want to get wrapped up in a long blog post because it’ll eat into the time I’ve set aside for showering and flossing, so I’ll keep this one short.

I’m following this story because I’ve always wondered what we as a society would do when the police start murdering white people for no reason. I’m not expecting much, honestly … so many red lines have been crossed we’ve become inured to it.

Here’s another in a long list of reasons why liberals don’t shop at WalMart.

Twitter users are on the fainting couch, fanning themselves over Steve Bannon’s reported description of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan as “a limp-dick motherfucker who was born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.” Look, I agree Bannon is an evil man, but it’s impossible to disagree with his take on Ryan, and anyway, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use similar language on a daily basis. Just not in front of museum visitors, okay?

And shouldn’t Petri be capitalized?

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Paul’s Book Reviews: Historical Fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Thrillers, Classics

“I can hear the cries of the Costers upon Wall Street, below; and the calling of the Hour; and lately, now the Day darkens, a Dialogue between two waiting Chair-Men, upon the Chances of a Horse they favour to run at Flushing, named Royal Roger. Merriment, and bawdy Jests on the Subject of this Name.”
—Francis Spufford, Golden Hill


golden hillGolden Hill
by Francis Spufford
5_0

I don’t throw stars around. When I give a book five of ’em, you can be assured I’m in love with it.

Francis Spufford’s brilliant first novel “Golden Hill” has everything: fascinating historical detail, adventures high and low, social commentary, romance (also high and low), double- and triple-dealing, fascinating twists, squalor, riches, even a duel. It excites from the first page to the last. My emotions ran the gamut while reading it, ending on a happy, satisfied plateau. What more can you ask of a novel?

1746, and a young man steps off the brig Henrietta in the city of New-York, freshly arrived from London. He makes a beeline for a counting-house, where he presents a note for a thousand pounds, refusing to state his business in the new world, thus becoming the most spoken- and whispered-about stranger in town.

The mysterious Richard Smith is closely observed, up close and from a distance, by everyone from the governor to the butcher to the slaves toiling in the homes of the wealthy. In the home of the merchant banker who now holds his note, he meets the Lovell family, striking up an almost immediate love-hate relationship with Tabitha Lovell. In a premonitory way, he notices (and is noticed by) the Lovell’s slave Zephyra.

The setting is pre-revolutionary New-York, a small city of just over 7,000 inhabitants, half Dutch, half British, both languages still in force though English is in its ascendency, with its Broad Way, its green common, its tall Amsterdam-style houses next to lower London-style structures. It is the New-York of Golden Hill, the Bouwerij, the British fort, Trinity church, and, a day’s ride away, Rutger’s Farm.

Taking breakfast at The Merchants, he is sought out by Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor and master of the slave Achilles, characters who play increasingly-important roles as the story develops. The city and the characters come to life, contemporary and immediate. I felt I could step right into New-York with Richard Smith.

I love historical detail, especially when it is presented as fact, without unnecessary explanation. Here, for example, is Mr. Lovell, making change for Richard Smith, who needs spending money but does not yet understand the odd mixture of currencies and paper notes used in the colonies:

“A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Five sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New-York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.”

Which is almost immediately stolen, setting in train a series of complications and blunders imperiling Richard Smith’s secret mission, a mission which remains secret until the final pages.

The secrecy is no cheap trick on Spufford’s part; it’s necessary and the reader will understand when the twist occurs, a twist that is at once revelatory and inspiring, the novel’s penultimate reward to the reader (the ultimate reward being the coda, written after the revolution by an older and wiser Tabitha).

God, this was a great read. I haven’t been this happy with a novel in years.


boy on bridgeThe Boy on the Bridge (The Girl With All The Gifts #2)
by M.R. Carey
4_0

From my earlier review of “The Girl with All the Gifts“:

“The only time I was tempted to say “Oh, come on!” was when the intrepid band of humans (and one zombie) find the safe haven of an unmolested armored research vehicle in the heart of an abandoned and looted London, but I forgave the author that small deus ex machina.”

The vehicle is back. The Rosalind Franklin is sent out from the besieged human enclave of Beacon on a research mission through England and Scotland, manned by military personnel and a scientific team. The scientists’ mission is to collect tissue samples from Hungries, tissue that may help humans find a cure or at least a vaccine to prevent infection. The story centers around one member of the scientific team, the autistic teenaged boy of the title, who makes an amazing discovery.

“The Boy on the Bridge” is set in the world of “The Girl with All the Gifts,” a world devastated by a fast-acting fungal disease that turns humans into “hungries,” zombie-like creatures that exist only to eat flesh, human or animal. Think of the British zombie movies “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” (I actually checked to see if M.R. Carey had a hand in writing those screenplays–to my surprise he didn’t, although he did work on the movie adaptation of “The Girl with All the Gifts”).

The story laid out in this novel takes place prior to the story of “The Girl with All the Gifts,” but the two novels tie together, and the Girl herself makes an appearance at the end of Boy. That’s not meant to be a spoiler–it’s meant to entice you to read this one if you loved the first one as much as I did.

M.R. Carey is a gifted storyteller. As with Girl, I was completely taken in by the plot and characters, on the edge of my seat from the first page to the last.


afterlifeAfterlife
by Marcus Sakey
3_5

First things first: I was offered a free download for a review.

I’m surprised to see so many readers describe “Afterlife” as science fiction. From the blurb sent me by the publicist, it was clear to me I was being asked to read & review a fantasy book. Fantasy is not my thing. Books about afterlives and the supernatural leave me cold. I almost said no, and then I had a thought: afterlives=fantasy/supernatural; alternate worlds=science fiction. Something in the blurb told me this book would apply a science fiction interpretation to the afterlife, and I said okay, hit me.

Marcus Sakey’s “Afterlife” is equal parts thriller, alternate world-building exercise, and what-happens-after-we-die speculation. It has good old-fashioned heroes and villains, romance, and (at least when it comes to the two protagonists, Will and Claire) good character development. Sakey succeeds in making the supernatural palatable to to readers like me.

That’s not to say there isn’t an abundance of woo, particularly when it comes to the super-predators of the afterlife. I could handle the eaters when they were individuals gone over to the dark side of what is already the dark side (read and you will see), but the real monsters, explain them as hard as Sakey tries to do, remain incomprehensibly evil, and in the final chapters fantasy overwhelms science fiction. By then, though, I was hooked.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but the afterlives of “Afterlife” are my idea of the levels of hell. I don’t say that to put off potential readers. “Afterlife” is a gripping, interesting book, and I’m sure most readers will like it and want to read more. And all but the most hard-hearted readers will love the sweet place Sakey puts Will and Claire at the end. I know I did.


without failWithout Fail (Jack Reacher #6)
by Lee Child
3_5

I’ve been working my way through the Jack Reacher thrillers in order. I loved the first two, was lukewarm about the third, and was disappointed in the next two. Jack Reacher the character is back in form in this, the sixth installment, though the scenario is so far-fetched as to be unbelievable.

As other reviewers have pointed out, the Secret Service is here depicted as an organization of bumbling halfwits; ditto the FBI. The villains start off Jackal-like, infallible and unstoppable, yet at the climax are revealed as hicks, running on luck.

These inconsistencies are to be expected, I have learned, in a Jack Reacher novel. As long as Jack plays the taciturn man of action, as he does here (and as he most emphatically did not in the fourth & fifth novels), the books are unputdownable. On the strength of this one I will put the seventh novel on order.


shifting sandsShifting Sands: Tradecraft: Phase One
by Michael Shusko
3_0

Disclosure: I was offered a free download for a review.

This is a fast read, a military/political thriller with a straightforward plot and two colons in the title. A physicist at a secret Iranian nuclear facility has been leaking intelligence to the UN through an underground network of Turkish smugglers. Israel is about to start WWIII in the Middle East over Iranian nuclear weapons development. An American special ops team is sent to bring the physicist out. The information she will be able to reveal may be enough to persuade Russian and China not to veto a UN resolution imposing restrictions on Iran, thus calming down the Israelis. It’s a believable, contemporary scenario.

The characters are also believable, but the author stretches to bring them all together at the center of the action. I balked at the notion of the Marine Corps allowing three brothers–their parents’ only children–to go into combat together. I balked at the contrived way all three brothers become key players in the extraction of the physicist. I balked at what I considered a bit of a fairytale ending.

The writing is occasionally clunky. Shusko uses the omniscient narrator format to squeeze a lot of background information into some of his scenes: not enough action, too much explication. Occasionally character dialog is unrealistic, because even here Shusko packs in more background information.

Still, after some draggy setup scenes in early chapters, once the action starts it’s hard to put the book down. Overall? Not bad.


frankensteinFrankenstein
by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
2_0

I started trying to read Mary Shelley’s classic science fiction/horror story with a poorly-scanned Kindle edition from Amazon. That proving unreadable, I downloaded a free public domain copy from Project Gutenberg, which was generally free of errors.

Midway through, I wrote this progress report on my blog:

“I’m reading Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ a classic published in 1818. Thought I’d read it as a kid, but I was wrong: it’s all new to me. Frankly, it’s a struggle. An Arctic explorer named Walton leads off with a long and repetitious narrative, expressed in lofty words and phrases disconnected from such concerns of daily life as making money, thinking of the opposite sex in any terms other than spiritual, eating, shitting, and such. He rescues a young man from an ice floe. That man is Victor Frankenstein, who starts in a long and repetitious narrative of his own, also lofty and disconnected, interrupting himself halfway though to repeat, verbatim, the long, repetitious, lofty and disconnected narrative told him by his creation, the monster.

“It’s also racist and classist as fuck. Like everything written back then.

“There’s no science in this early work of science fiction: through vague and allusive hints one gathers that Frankenstein assembled a body of gigantic stature from limbs and bones (no mention of unseemly parts like organs and guts) in the attic of an apartment house he shares with other university students. Surprisingly, no one complains about the stink or blood dripping from the rafters. The ‘animating principle,’ young Victor’s great discovery, is a mystery: one night during a thunderstorm the creature opens its eyes and buggers off. What consumed 90% of the 1930s screenplay is a single sentence in the original novel.

“I’m only halfway though but will persevere. Somehow or other, the slog will be its own reward.”

Well, I slogged. Was the effort its own reward? Honestly, “Frankenstein” doesn’t pick up toward the end, which consists of a yet another treacly speech, this one delivered by the monster himself at his creator’s deathbed, just before he leaps through a porthole and vanishes in the ice and fog.

Actually the most interesting thing about the book is the physical setting of Walton and Frankenstein’s tedious narratives. Walton, you see, is on a self-financed voyage of exploration to find a navigable passage across the northern pole, and incidentally to explore a temperate land rumored to lie there, a sort of Atlantis. Along the way he finds Frankenstein on an ice floe, pursuing the monster in order to kill it (apparently by arguing it to death). Strange ideas about unknown lands abounded in Mary Shelley’s day, along with a belief in a northern passage to Asia. But this is merely of historical interest, and it amounts to two or three pages at most.

You may ask where I get off being so critical of a classic novel, and you will have a point. But I am reviewing “Frankenstein” from the perspective of a reader ignorant of its honored place in the history of the English novel. What will such a reader encounter here? White people of a self-perceived refined & elevated caste mooning over mortality, expressing spiritual longings, scoffing at the depraved nature of lesser folk, occasionally swooning.

You could say, “It was an more poetic age.” I would respond, “I’d far rather read the poetry of the age, because at least the poems contain declarative sentences, and five pages of action don’t slop over to 272.”

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Air-Minded: PASM Photoblog VIII

I try to stay out of the restoration volunteers’ way at Pima Air & Space Museum, but curiosity overcame me yesterday, so I borrowed a golf cart and drove through the fence like I owned the place, armed with a selfie stick and my trusty iPhone.

A few months ago a fleet of flat-bed semis delivered gigantic Erector Set-style metal structures to the restoration yard. Over the following weeks workers began putting them together. As it took shape, I thought at first it was some sort of truss, meant to hold the wings of large aircraft in place while they were being worked on. Our old NB-52A had been on the restoration pad earlier, so my theory made sense … to me, anyway.

Eventually I did what I should have done in the beginning: I asked a restoration volunteer what it was they were building. It’s a shade structure, or at least that’s what they call it. “Planeport” would be a better name, if it didn’t sound so awkward and geeky, so I’ve been calling it “the carport.”

IMG_3699

Now that’s a carport!

The carport covers the concrete pad in front of the restoration hangar and will enable volunteers to work on aircraft outdoors during the summer heat, while also protecting restoration projects from the elements. Yesterday was the first time I saw an aircraft underneath it, and that’s what prompted me to check it out in person.

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Selfie with the EC-121

The aircraft is an old USAF EC-121, used for command & control and to track friendly and enemy aircraft during the Vietnam War, a precursor to the AWACS aircraft we fly today. It had been inside the restoration hangar until this week, when they towed it outside. The next step is new paint and markings, and it should soon go on display.

Once they finish work on the EC-121, I imagine the next plane they’ll tow into the shade will be the NB-52A I mentioned earlier. They stripped the paint and markings off it last winter, then parked it in the yard while the carport was being built. This old Buff, the third and last B-52A model built, spent its career in the flight test program at Edwards AFB. Its serial number is 52-0003, so they call it “Balls Three,” but it’s official name is “The High and Mighty One.” It carried and air-launched X-15 rocket planes on 93 of the program’s 199 flights. You can see the X-15 cradle in this photo, mounted under the right wing between the fuselage and inboard engines:

IMG_3698

Balls Three, stripped and ready for new paint

So what else is in the restoration yard at the moment? A number of new intakes awaiting restoration, along with some long-term projects that have been sitting in the desert sun for years. I’ll turn you plane-spotters loose on these photos (click the thumbnails to view the full-sized originals on Flickr, which will allow you to see a lot of additional detail):

IMG_3692 IMG_3694
IMG_3695 IMG_3697
IMG_3693 IMG_3696


I have an interesting tidbit to share on the Boeing 727: per PASM’s website, it is the fifth one built and the first delivered to a customer (United Airlines in October 1963). it was the first 727 to make a commercial flight (March 28, 1964). United donated it to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 1991. In February 2011 NASM donated it to our museum.

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You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

“Parthenon” made of banned books built at site of Nazi book burning:

parthenon

The Parthenon was created by Argentinian artist Marta Minujin, who in 2011 built the “Tower of Babel” in Buenos Aires, a monument made of books in all languages, including many banned by Argentina’s government.

YCRT! News

In 2012 YCRT! featured a story about the banning of books by the Tucson Unified School District, an infamous incident that exposed Arizona to national and international ridicule. Would you believe those books are still banned? The Arizona Supreme Court is hearing the case now. Meanwhile, here’s a look at ten outlawed books Tucson high school students aren’t allowed to read or study in school.

Some of those banned books, racist Arizona officials claimed, might incite students to overthrow the government. Those same fears seem to be behind protests over Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar, which, according to Fox News, “appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.”

In related circle-the-wagons-around-the-unelected-president news, a New Jersey high school teacher has been suspended for photoshopping out Trump T-shirt logos in yearbook photos. Warning: obnoxiously loud auto-play video at the link.

University of Wisconsin student sues her professor for a higher grade, claiming the poetry course she failed focused on “lesbians, illicit sexual relationships, incest and frequent swearing” while ignoring “the importance and the validity of the mainstream student population.”

When I hear people accusing writers of cultural appropriation, I hear an insidious argument for racial and cultural segregation. As this New York Times op/ed author says, “Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.”

Always fun: ‘Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!’: when movie censorship goes wrong.

Misinformed Americans think it’s illegal to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance or refuse to stand during the singing of the national anthem. After NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police shootings of African-Americans, incidents of forced patriotism are on the rise. The latest case involves a first-grader in Terre Haute, Indiana.

I’m going to guess the Alabama high school teacher who sent out this summer reading list would take a dim view of students refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 8.38.20 AM

The National Coalition Against Censorship weighs in against a California school district’s plan to remove Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from its ninth-grade curriculum.

Thanks to censorship imposed by the Comics Code Authority in 1954, comic books today are one of the last holdouts of white patriarchy. It wasn’t always that way.

The TSA is testing new requirements that passengers remove books and other paper goods from their carry-on baggage when going through airline security. No, this isn’t alarming at all. Move on, people, nothing to see here.

When I watched the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures,” I was moved by the scene in which a black mother and her children were escorted out of a public library. Largely forgotten now, a sit-in protest at the segregated Jackson, Mississippi public library was an important part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Teen Vogue is woke! Their latest: New Florida Law Lets ANYONE Challenge What Schools Teach (even if they don’t know anyone attending).

YCRT! Banned Book Review

Since the lead item in this YCRT! column is the ongoing story of banned books in Tucson high schools, I’m reprinting an earlier review of one of those outlawed books, originally published here in May 2013.

bless me ultimaBless Me, Ultima
by Rudolfo Anyana

This is a hard review to write. I read “Bless Me, Ultima” because it is frequently challenged, often banned, sometimes even burned. I read it because it has been banished from Tucson classrooms and school libraries. I read it because I live in a majority Mexican-American community in a part of Arizona that until relatively recently was still part of the state of Sonora, Mexico. And I read it because many readers have praised it.

Anaya wrote his novel in 1972. Copies were confiscated and burned at a New Mexico school less than a year later. Burning, it turned out, was not to be a one-time aberration: “Bless Me, Ultima” has fed the flames again and again: the most recent incident happened in Norwood, Colorado, in 2005.

My interest in what’s sometimes called Chicano pride literature began in January 2012, when Tucson Unified School District administrators cancelled Mexican-American Studies classes in mid-session, pulling novels and textbooks from students’ and teachers’ hands and packing them in boxes labeled “banned books,” a story that resulted in international outrage and made Arizona a laughingstock. “Bless Me, Ultima” was one of TUSD’s targets.

Why do non-hispanics hate this novel? The most-often cited reason is that it contains profanity, violence, and sexuality. It is true that the novel contains two instances of the word “fuck.” More if you translate the word “chingada,” which appears so many times that if you were to eliminate all the other words, you’d still have 20 pages of chingada. Also, the kids in the story call each other “cabrón” a lot. And there is violence. If there’s any sex, though, I must have missed it.

Other challenges spell out what I consider to be more likely objections: the story is irreverent toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, full of pagan mysticism, and frankly pro-magic (in that Ultima is a practicing medicine woman who uses her arts to stymie and even kill witches). Which is all true, but neither here nor there in a society that respects the separation of church and state (don’t we all wish).

Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne dared speak what I believe to be the real reasons behind racist white antipathy toward “Bless Me, Ultima”: in interviews leading up to the TUSD book bannings he characterized Mexican-American studies and the books used in those classes as “civilizational war” and stated that in his view the histories of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus not part of Western civilization. Oh, yes, he really did say that.

So there you have the reasons Anaya’s novel generates so much hate. Now I come to the hard part, explaining why I didn’t get much out of reading it. I’ll refer back to the 20 pages of “chingadas” and “cabróns,” and a host of other Spanish and Indian words sprinkled throughout the narrative: yes, it’s worth it to note that Mexican-Americans living near the US/Mexico border use many Spanish and Indian words in everyday speech, but after a while I began to feel somewhat put upon by all this multiculturalism.

Antonio keeps telling us Ultima is not a witch, but she has an owl as a familiar and she casts counter-spells against three known brujas (witches), killing two of them before she herself is killed … not directly, but by the father of the witches, who kills the owl and thus Ultima. So she’s a witch. C’mon.

Apart from Antonio and Ultima, the other characters are paper cutouts, acting and speaking in predictable ways. It was interesting to see Antonio begin to question the teachings of the church and to embrace the paganism of Ultima and the mysterious golden carp, but that was all the excitement the novel offered, and Antonio’s doubts grew tiresome after much repetition.

It’s an okay story. I question how relevant it is to today’s readers, but as a cornerstone of Mexican-American literature it is undoubtedly important. I’m glad I read it, but having read it, I remain far more interested in the reasons racist whites hate it than I am in the novel itself.

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Fiddling in the Kitchen While Rome Burns

We’re having friends over for dinner tonight, my excuse to make braised beef short ribs, which we haven’t had in literally years. I don’t know about where you live, but here we rarely find beef short ribs in the grocery store or base commissary. We get ours at the local butcher shop, where they cut them to the right length for us.

My recipe involves cooking them for 11 hours at a very low temperature, 200°F. Since that means they’ll be in the oven all day today, I did the prep work yesterday, browning the ribs and making the wine & beef stock sauce to braise them with. I got up at oh-dark-thirty this morning to pour the sauce over the ribs and get them in the oven at 6 AM. They’ll be done at 5 PM, about an hour before our friends arrive. Donna’s going to make a nice salad to start us off, and I plan to serve the ribs with fingerling potatoes and green beans.

That’s not all: Donna made flan, part of which she prepared last night after dinner, then got up at 3 AM to finish and put in the fridge to chill. Nothing’s too good for our friends!

That huge heat wave we had several days ago? It broke for like two days, dropping from daytime highs of 118°F to 105°F (never thought I’d wish for 105°, but you can really tell the difference), then came right back. Today’s high will be 110°. Our dining room’s at the hot end of the house, and I think I might have to go to the corner Ace Hardware for one of those tower fans.

And of course there’s the house to clean, so we won’t shower up until that’s done. After tonight’s dinner our social obligation card is blank and we can slob out for the rest of the summer, which is all anyone wants to do when it’s this hot.

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The Burro Fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains a couple of miles from our home has spread to over 26,000 acres and is less than 20% contained. The graphic shows what it looked like from the north a few days ago; it’s bigger now, although still confined to the north side of the mountains. We live at the foot of the south side. I’m surprised we don’t see more smoke: we did at first, along with a red glow at night, but now there’s just a gray haze. Firefighters are using Sabino High School, a mile up the road, as a base camp.

The 2003 Aspen Fire covered much of the same ground and destroyed a lot of cabins and businesses in Summerhaven, the ski village on Mount Lemmon. During that one hot ashes landed on our roof and in our yard. Bears and mountain lions came down from the hills and wandered around the hood for a few days (we saw a mountain lion cross our yard, but had to take our neighbors’ word on the bears). I don’t think it’ll get that bad this time, but what do I know? We’re told it may rain tomorrow. Even odds on whether that’s a legitimate forecast or preventive panic control on the part of local TV weathermen.

Links to news I’m following:

Well, our unelected president has finished his sit-down with Putin. According to Secretary of State Tillerson, who was in the room, Trump did at least bring up the issue of Russian interference in the election. More to come, I’m sure.

Rachel Maddow had some interesting things to say last night: apparently someone’s trying to do to her what others did to Dan Rather years ago, when they tricked him into basing an exposé on (supposedly) faked documents, thus destroying his credibility and career. We need Rachel’s voice more than ever; while others breathlessly report on the naked emperor’s tweets, she digs out the details on Russia’s role in the stolen election and Putin’s power over Trump. May her spidey sense never fail her.

I love it that France is going to ban sales of gas- and diesel-fueled cars by 2040, and that Volvo will switch to producing only hybrid and electric-powered cars by 2019. Oh, and that Tesla’s coming out with an electric-powered tractor-trailer truck this September. Waiting now to see what California, a major economic power in the USA and the world, will do next on the automotive & transportation front.

Just do it, responsible adults leading the way despite the best efforts of right-wing denialists trying to stop you. Just do it. We’ll adjust to electric-powered vehicles and the infrastructure that will come with them. We’ll adapt … we always do.

So, is that fucking Delaware-sized ice shelf ever going to break off? Shades of waiting for Alice the giraffe to give birth, already!

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Over a Barrel

North Korea really is an impossible problem, isn’t it? I’m as opposed to war as anyone, but as a military man I’m not afraid of exercising the military option when it’s the only option available. Can we allow North Korea to have nuclear-tipped ICBMs? I don’t think any sane person would say yes. How can we stop them? As horrible an option as it is, the military option might be the only one that’ll work.

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Gentlemen, if you want me to stop, you’re going to have to pay me … ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

Diplomacy of course comes first. Historically, we’ve negotiated with the Norks through a third party, China. From all I can see, China’s been unable or unwilling to put pressure on North Korea, and that diplomatic avenue has turned out to be a dead end.

How about direct government-to-government talks with North Korea? We haven’t tried that yet. South Korea would have to lead, and we’d have to be invited by both nations. South Korea hasn’t had such talks apart from a few goodwill efforts in the 1990s, and it’s unlikely the Norks would respond to a new invitation. Nothing the Kim regime has ever done suggests it would be willing to negotiate its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile capability away, or even to sit down at the same table to talk about something as non-threatening as opening the border to family visits.

What else is there? Sanctions to cut the flow of cash and materials into North Korea, so as to impair their ability to build nuclear weapons and ICBMs? We’ve been doing that for decades now, in concert with South Korea, China, and other Asian nations … and yet somehow the impoverished Kim regime keeps building weapons and missiles.

Look, I don’t see many options left. Either we stand by and allow North Korea to build more and better nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them, or we stop them before they get there.

Standing by and letting it happen is in fact an option. It’s the option we and the South Koreans have chosen over the decades, and if we could trust the North Koreans never to use their nukes, it would be the sane and responsible choice. But it’s clear we can’t trust them. Or rather, we can … we can trust them to use those weapons against South Korea, Japan, and potentially the USA some day.

Meanwhile, NK crosses red line after red line, and we and the South Koreans do nothing. Well, getting back to what I said at the top, South Korea has to lead on whatever action we take, whether it’s direct talks, additional sanctions, or military strikes. Why? Because they will be the first to suffer North Korean retaliation … and they will suffer horribly, even though their military and ours will prevail in the end (and while South Korea’s government and military may be taking North Korea’s nuclear missile threat seriously, the population of South Korea is said to be happy with the status quo).

I fear, though, the window for any kind of limited pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability has closed. Why? Lack of American leadership and will. We no longer have an intelligent, responsible president and commander-in-chief. As with our NATO partners, South Korea may think it no longer has a reliable ally and protector. In addition to the near void at the top of our government, we barely have a State Department. I don’t know what state the US military command structure is in, but I do know there are a lot of vacant posts in the Pentagon. So while we don’t know what the current administration might do, it’s likely it’ll fuck everything up.

Which brings us back to the stand-by-and-twiddle-our-thumbs option, at least until 2020 or potentially 2024. By then, North Korea will have progressed far enough that our only military option will be a pre-emptive nuclear attack, an option so hellish it’s effectively off the table. Like I said, an impossible problem. And it’s our move.

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You’ll Put Your Eye Out with That Thing!

I still hear my mother saying that, all these years later. I’m sure my friend Ed remembers his mother saying the same thing.

Over the past 23 years, my friend and motorcycle maintenance guru Ed has missed Daytona Bike Week only twice. On different motorcycles he’s owned, he’s made the trek from Tucson to Daytona and back 21 times. In early March, accompanied by our mutual friend Paul, he embarked on another pilgrimage to the Mecca of American motorcycling.

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Ed and Paul

They rode east through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, then across the Florida Panhandle and down to Daytona. Bike Week was a blast, the weather uncharacteristically gorgeous. They followed it with a ride down the Atlantic Coast to West Palm Beach and Miami, then took the Overseas Highway for a short stay in Key West before starting home: up the Gulf Coast to Tampa and Port Richie, then Tallahassee, and—such was the plan—back west to Tucson.

Somewhere on the way from Key West to Port Richie, Ed began to see floaters in his right eye. These weren’t the kind you can blink away; they were big and getting bigger. Hitting Highway 19 north after overnighting in Port Richie, Ed began to lose vision. At a rest stop he described it to Paul as a curtain of blindness in his right eye: he could see straight ahead and up but everything below was black, and the curtain was gradually rising. Foolishly or not, Ed and Paul pressed on.

Eventually Ed pulled into a rest area to Google his symptoms. What he learned wasn’t encouraging: the symptoms suggested a detached retina. They rode on, but when they got to the small town of Marianna near Tallahassee, Ed had to stop. In the 300 miles they’d ridden that day, the loss of vision in his right eye had progressed from 25% to almost 100%. Ed called his doctor in Tucson, who said to stop riding and find an eye doctor. Like now. The first two clinics Ed called were closing for the day, but the optometrist who answered the third call said come on over, I’ll wait for you.

The Marianna optometrist examined Ed and quickly confirmed his self-diagnosis: the retina in the right eye was detaching from the top (which is why, if you remember those diagrams of how light refracts through a lens, to Ed the blindness was rising from the bottom to the top). He contacted an area opthamologist to set up corrective surgery the next morning, and offered to keep Ed’s Goldwing in his garage until Ed could make arrangements to ship it back to Tucson (because after eye surgery Ed wouldn’t be riding for a couple of months).

After talking it over with Paul and his own doctor in Tucson, Ed decided to get home as quickly as possible and have the surgery done there. Riding and flying were out, so Paul went into town and rented a truck to transport Ed and both motorcycles home to Tucson. The first truck he tried came with such a narrow ramp Paul couldn’t put his feet down while riding the first bike up it, and not only that, once one Goldwing was in it was obvious the second one wouldn’t fit. When Paul realized he’d have to get a bigger truck, he had to back the Wing down the narrow ramp, a harrowing experience he says took ten years off his life.

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Loading the bikes in the second truck

Every motorcyclist has stories of helping and being helped while on the road, but what happened with Ed and Paul during this medical emergency was memorable. Ed’s doctor in Tucson called an opthamologist colleague in Mobile, Alabama, who opened a surgery slot there in case Ed changed his mind after starting the homeward journey. Bikers and bystanders came to Paul’s assistance when he had to back the Goldwing down the narrow ramp from the first rental truck. When Ed and Paul went to a hardware store to buy tie-down straps for the second rental truck, the store owner suggested they rent a car instead and offered to lock both bikes in a storage shed for as long as it might take them to come back to Florida to get them.

Technology was a big help, too. How much harder would all this have been to deal with in the days before the internet, Google, and cell phones?

In the end, Paul drove Ed home to Tucson with both bikes in the back of a rental truck, 30 hours straight through. Ed had surgery to reattach the retina the next day.

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Ed recovering from surgery

After all that, you probably want to know how he’s doing. The retinal tears were worse than first thought. It’s been four months now and Ed is still recovering. The optimologist in Florida has called a couple of times to see how he’s doing, ditto the opthamologist in Mobile. Ed’s eye surgeon in Tucson watching him closely. Until he recovers, Ed can’t drive a car, ride his Goldwing, or fly. He has to say below 4,000 feet in elevation, so no weekend drives with his wife up Mount Lemon to escape the heat. When he does recover, he won’t have distance vision in his right eye and will have to wear corrective glasses.

Looks like Mom was right. Moms always are.

Note: I wasn’t with Ed and Paul on this ride, but I once helped them out of a tight spot they’d gotten into on another ride, and during the Florida adventure and subsequent truck trip home, Ed sent me messages and photos in real time. He’s a good friend, as is Paul (who is also my barber), and I’ve been following his recovery closely. Ed and Paul told me the story in detail and asked me to write an account of it to submit to a motorcycle magazine. This is a condensed version of the story I sent in.

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