Thursday, January 29, 2015

Failure of Washington's Foreign Policy Imagination

Although I genuinely believe that Washington DC has become an Evil Empire, it is probably useless to write about its foreign policy in terms of morality and emotion. Nobody who disagrees with me wants to be told their government is eeevil, since that is like being told that they are evil; nor do they want to see me indulge in moral posturing on the side of the angels.

That is the advantage to seeing an issue in intellectual terms. It is possible for people in different moods to reach some sort of common ground. "Losing or winning" an argument in this way can be a partial thing, not an example of unconditional surrender. Nor is it as offensive as being told your side is eeevil.

Let's look at Washington's current policy in the Ukraine in this manner. Let's see it as a parallel with another historical event: the lead-up to the Great War of 1914.

Recall that in August of 2014 the Media took a break from its usual drivel to mention the centenary of the Great War. I was surprised (and pleased) that the American media noticed it at all. By luck a cyclist in my Yuma snowbird bicycle club gave me an excellent book, "The War to End All Peace," by Margaret MacMillan. It is not as pro-British as one would expect. In the chapter "Dreadnought" she wrote about the building tension on the seas:

Thanks to its geography Britain had generally been able to regard the growth of powerful land forces on the Continent with equanimity. It could never do so on the seas. The British navy was at once its shield, its means of projecting its strength and its lifeline to the wider world. Every schoolchild was taught how the navy had seen off the Spanish Armada...and had helped to bring Napoleon down.

It was a policy supported not just by the ruling elites but by much of the British public. The British across the political and social spectrum took great pride in their navy...

Tirpitz [ed., the top German admiral], [Kaiser] Wilhelm and their fellow enthusiasts for a big German navy which could challenge Britain's never understood how vitally important the Royal Navy was for the British and that failure of imagination was to cost them, and Europe, dearly.

Could Washington be failing to use the imagination needed to see that Russia considers the Ukraine, Crimea, and Black Sea as being too important to allow the intrusion of NATO and the European Union? There must be somebody in Washington's foreign policy establishment who understands the national mythology of Russia. Of course that doesn't mean that they have any influence.

I only understand the basics of Russian mythology. The story starts with the half-legendary trading voyages and depredations of Swedish Vikings, who used the rivers and portages of today's Russia and Ukraine to get from the Baltic Sea to Constantinople. The Kiev Rus was the first Slavic state, and it was formed on one of those rivers of trade. Eastern Christianity got started there. The center of Holy Russia moved from Kiev to Moscow over time, and it came to be seen as the "third Rome."

How much of this is history, how much is myth? What matters is how securely it is attached to a Russian's DNA. Can you intrude on somebody's "founding" myth and expect them to meekly move aside?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Television's Unrealized Potential

Perhaps it is easy to admire someone with a talent that you yourself have no pretensions to. Envy doesn't intrude. And if they live and work far, far away from your own milieu, then the capacity for romanticizing kicks in.

That must explain some of my admiration for a certain stage actor who stars in one of the episodes of Star Trek that I fall asleep to on many a night. He was John Colicos, a Canadian stage actor who also had a Hollywood career. He plays the first Klingon in Star Trek (the first season episode, "Errand of Mercy.")

It is almost a good thing that the story doesn't interest me that much. Nor does the outdoor scenery --  there were no Trona Rocks in this episode; it was shot almost entirely on stage. Nor is there an alien hottie to be romanced by Captain Kirk, as there usually was. No distractions. Nothing but that remarkably nuanced voice of Mr. Colicos. He could have read the telephone white pages and made it sound interesting.

Although his character didn't really say anything profound, he was a charming villain. It really is the villain that makes the story.

Commentary tracks on DVDs are developing as a new medium right in front of our eyes these days. Once I was listening to Sidney Lumet on the commentary track of "Network." He expressed the greatest respect and appreciation for the writer, the late Paddy Chayefsky. 

He also reminisced about the early days of television, which was largely "live" television, produced in New York City. At the time I thought he was just doing an old-man-nostalgia thing, or looking at the issue from the prejudices of a theatre-oriented, New York City local yokel. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe he was right.

Imagine working in live television in New York City in the early 1950s. Television was unshaped, unrealized. But anyone could see how important it would become: a TV set in every household in America, just the thing that had happened to automobiles, radio, and so many other things. There are always such high hopes when a new and big project is started. (Before reality sinks in.)

New York City had a deep pool of talented theatre actors, directors, set designers, musicians, and writers. Only a few would become stars. The rest waited on tables at restaurants most of the time. Now, suddenly, there was more employment; not a great part on the TV show perhaps, but at least a chance to practice their craft and be exposed to a wider circle of directors and producers.

The world of theatre was available to a few ten-thousands of people living in large cities and with large incomes. Television was reaching the millions. It must have been an exciting time of great optimism. 

Look at the advantages television had over live theatre, with its need to reach the back row, its goofy makeup, the over-acting, and the stentorian vocal delivery. Television had multiple cameras that could zoom in; everybody in the audience had a great view.

Movies tend to be a visual medium. The star is actually the Director, then the beautiful leading actors and actresses, the camera itself, and in modern times, the computer-generated special effects.  But try naming three important scriptwriters in the movies!

On the stage, the playwright is the star. Television lends itself to the same quality. Whether heralded or not, the television writers were the real stars. Usually writers are rather unglorified, but Star Trek credits start off with the writer first and in the biggest letters. Does any reader know whether this was rather unique? Is the emphasis on good scriptwriting the key to its anomalous longevity and success? 

Talented and imaginative writers, great lines, less camera-worship, and actors like John Colicos; and all available virtually for free to the whole world. What television could have been!

And what will the generation-to-come think of those of us who experienced the naive and optimistic salad days of the early internet?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Making Hiking Sexier than Oatmeal

If done thoughtlessly or imitatively, the sport of hiking is about as exciting as a breakfast of store-brand instant oatmeal that is prepared with luke-warm, soft water. Of course oatmeal can be sexed-up with more texture, fruit, nuts, and yogurt. Learning how to do the same to hiking has been a long-term project for me.

One of the tricks of the trade is to take a more "naturalistic" approach. Recently I had an opportunity to do an unusually fine job of that with two boondocking friends, of bus crash fame. We walked toward some jagged Yuma mountains, right from the front door, at sunrise, with tribal "associate members," aka dogs. 

But we weren't on our way to a stereotypical peak-bagging hike on an official list of Top Ten hikes in the area. Rather, we were headed up a large arroyo, delineated by harsh brown mountains. When you look at the area on Google maps, you can't tell ridgelines from declivities. It's as if the land was a piece of crumpled aluminum foil that was illuminated with a flashlight in a dark room. You must move Google's hand icon to the spot and read the altitude.

Let's hope they weren't just doing this hike to humor me.  The scenery turned out surprisingly good. We were also relieved to find/lose/re-find a faint trail (made by whom?) along the arroyo. (There were no signs of course.) This made walking easy, both directions. The mountain walls on both sides were almost canyon-like. The rocks were so sharp to touch that you would have needed gloves. But the rocks in the arroyo were half-rounded and easy on the dogs' paws. 

There was precious little vegetation except along the arroyo, where the trees were surprisingly large. Even though the weather on this winter hike was perfect, the morning sun eventually climbed over the ghastly walls to heat up the trail, enough to imagine the horror of Yuma's summer heat. 

We had already been surprised a couple times, would we be lucky enough to stumble onto a spring or even the tiniest trickle of that magical liquid dribbling out of an untouchably sharp rock? 

Alas, that didn't happen. Nor did we find the fabled Southeast Passage through the mountains, despite some false hope along the way. It didn't really matter. When we had had enough, we sat down and enjoyed a snack in the shade. The descent was pleasant as it always is, in an arroyo.

I am not anti-camera, and in fact, even brought mine along. There would have been a couple opportunities to use it, too. But I didn't. Visual entertainment is not rubbish, but it is irrelevant. The satisfaction to be gotten along the arroyo is an autochthonous one: a Dread of sun and heat and the Ecstasy of water.  


I had promised my friends that rains were soft at this time of year, the secondary rainy season in the Southwest, and that they should camp right down in the arroyo, on the nice rounded cobble. A couple nights later they claimed to hear a foot of water flowing over the nice rounded cobble. (It was the middle of the night, and I suspect they were dreaming.) What could be more wonderful than to wake up to water flowing over your campsite? Shame on them for not appreciating that. Still they won quite a few brownie points for their camping and hiking skills over their two week stint. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

An After-Ride "Drug" Trip?

(Yuma.) It is never hard to think of something that I feel like writing about, but there are topics that seem "inappropriate," if you can stomach the word. For instance, is it right and proper to write about how the world looks after a bicycle ride, or is that like somebody writing after getting drunk?

It is odd how little I have learned about exercise physiology and psychology. Despite hundreds of experiences of feeling calm euphoria after a ride, I have never seriously studied endorphines, dopamines, and receptors in the brain. Was I afraid that it would turn out to be mere pop science?

But there I was again, finishing another fast 50 mile ride with 70 year olds, when I rounded the last corner before getting home, and saw a Red Flyer wagon at the end of a driveway. It was decorated in bright colors and was laden with Girl Scout cookies. I was hungry, so I did a quick loop-around to the wagon, operated by a Little Darlin' and supervised by an attractive mother. The Little Darlin' (age 5 or 6) gave me the standard sales pitch. It was pretty long -- long enough that it was all she could do to memorize it. After she said something about military discounts, I asked her about discounts for bicycle club members. I was surprised that she said yes, but don't worry, I didn't hold her to it.

One box would have been enough, but the Little Darlin' shook me down for a couple boxes. How do you say 'no' to such a creature? Ahh well, she might as well learn who rules the world, and Why.

On one level, there is nothing special about this experience at this time of year. Little shakedown artists are loose all over the country. It surprises me that they don't need an expensive license from a newly-created federal regulatory agency. 

What made it special was how it pierced me, and it really shouldn't have. I was aware of it at the time, and felt awed by the effect she had. Let's give the little girl her fair share of credit, but the "mood preparation" from aerobic exercise clinched it.

So that's where I sit: wondering whether subjective experiences like this are worth writing about. Obviously I finally decided that anything this fine, is worth it.

This example might be useful to people who are in the mood to stop thinking of aerobic exercise as a dreary grind that you do only because it is 'good for you.'  It would be useful to them to understand how calm euphoria from aerobic exercise intensifies the enjoyment of so many things, sleep, music, water, food, or just about anything!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Part II, Ascetics as Athletes of the Will

It is rare for me to enjoy a biography. That is one reason why I am bothering to write about Ramachandra Guha's "Gandhi Before India." Last post I credited it with being a non-hagiography.

Over the course of the book I came to the same conclusion as the author at the close of his book (page 546/672):
But let us not win the argument ... through hindsight, but rather try and see Gandhi's own experiments as he saw them, as steps to a purer, more meaningful life. To simplify his diet, to reduce his dependence on medicines and doctors, to embrace brahmacharya, were all for him ways of strengthening his will and his resolve. By conquering the need to be stimulated by sex and rich food -- the 'basal passions' according to his teacher Tolstoy -- Gandhi was preparing himself for a life lived for other people and for higher values.

If he ate little, and that merely fruits and vegetables, without salt, sugar and spices, if he didn't care how often (or if at all) he had sex with his wife; if he dressed simply and didn't own property or jewelry, he could more easily embrace the rigours of prison life...
Gandhi's asceticism was a daily regimen of "muscle building" which could be applied to his overall battle. It takes guts to go to prison. It takes guts to spend your time in a political struggle while neglecting your legal practice and source of income. His worries were intensified by being a husband and father. We have been so warped by the "Mahatma" nickname that we take Gandhi's courage for granted. He didn't just magically become brave, he made himself a little braver each day by gradually becoming independent of the things that enslave a person to the "System." He became an athlete of the will.

I went from a mild dislike of Gandhi to admiration when I abandoned seeing him as a "moral athlete," and starting seeing him as an athlete-of-the-will.

Now then, can I apply this lesson to my own blog about RV camping and independent living? I know that life can be far zestier and more satisfying after abandoning the suburban cocoon of RV parks, and adopting a lifestyle that is closer to nature. This includes:

1. Purely sensual and physiological pleasures. Pretty scenery is a small part of that, of course. Heat and shade, fresh air 24 hours a day, a navy shower after bicycling, sleeping in cold weather, getting the trailer door into the sunrise or the afternoon north, a nap-like sag after lunch or bicycle ride while listening to music, etc.

2. Primal (anthropological) satisfactions: friends around a campfire, an arroyo-hike with a dog, nailing wildlife, building a customized "man cave", hunting for a new campsite on public lands, getting lost on a hike and then "unlost," etc.

3. The philosophical satisfaction of making sense of the world and of your own life.

But instead of that message coming through, the readers may see a moral posturer who is always scolding conventional RVers.  Possibly I need to emphasize the positive more, but not to the point of coming off as one of those pep-talking charlatans of the motivational speaker ilk. The human mind is best when it operates like a pair of scissors: two blades must work in opposition to get positive work done. 

After finishing this biography I want to apply its message by presenting myself more as an "athlete of the X", but I'm not sure what word to use for X.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Admiring Ascetics as Athletes of the Will

It is so easy to poke fun at ascetics -- or moral posturers of any type -- that I usually give in to the temptation. Their philosophy does not agree with the Prime Directive of this blog: living at the point of diminishing returns.

I have no interest in renouncing the Prime Directive since I am thoroughly convinced that it is sane, prudent, rational, and adult. If I were acting as if I were going to renounce it, the readers should be suspicious of an April Fool's joke. That sort of thing does not appeal to me.

Rather than renounce a good principle, it is better to think of 'exceptions that prove the rule.'  Any essay on asceticism fits in with the tradition of New Year's resolutions. It also coincides with the biography I have just finished, "Gandhi Before India," by Ramachandra Guha.

Before talking about asceticism I would like to praise biographies of a certain type. This biography was about a man, not a "Mahatma." Those of you who have seen the well-known movie by director Richard Attenborough, "Gandhi," might remember how interesting the main character was at the beginning of his career, in South Africa, and how uninteresting and unsympathetic the "Mahatma" was in India. Why, he was virtually a "moral terrorist," with his hunger strikes and endless moral posing. If he tried that on me, I would have let him starve to death.

This may well be the case with biographies of many of the great men of history. I once read a non-hagiography of Robert E. Lee, and liked it for the same reason as this non-hagiography of Gandhi. Men are boring when they become "the great man on horseback," immortalized in a bronze or marble statue. As a reader, I want to be a pigeon who poops on the statue.

In a non-hagiography we get to speculate about how the man got started down a certain track. What was he visualizing? How did he overcome the fear of failure or recover from setbacks? How did he manage the competing pressures of being a husband and father? How important was sheer luck? Who were the unsung heroes along the way?

Good grief I haven't even said anything about asceticism yet. Let it wait until next time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Another Helpful Idea for Large Boondocking Rigs

From time to time, readers want me to try harder to write about "practical" issues faced by RV boondockers. Very well then, today I nobly set aside my usual arguments about the self-defeating nature of "practical" blogs and the stultifying prose of phony pragmatism.

In return I ask the reader to go along with the idea that clear thinking and clear expression are more practical than flailing away at -- and drowning in -- fractured shards of picayune details.

For instance, when people complain that their rigs are too big, too wide, or have low ground clearance, and therefore "can't boondock very well,''  let's rephrase that to what they really mean: there are zillions of good camping sites that would accommodate their behemoths. The trouble is in getting to those campsites, rather than what happens when you get there. 

Some recent operations on my rental lot in Yuma might provide some inspiration and guidance. You see, my landlord is in the construction business. He is currently downsizing his detritus in order to sell the lot. 

The big show started at sunrise. As with any major operation, including romance and love scenes in a movie, setting-up is most of the time and work. The actual deed is a bit of an anti-climax.

All the old boys in the neighborhood were gathering for the big show, and to provide supervision and advice. But my landlord looked like he had done this a few times.
Finally all the fussing around is over and it is time for the big lift.

And off she goes: a 20 foot long sea container at the back of the lot. The reader is supposed to visualize their "poor boondocking" RV in its place.

Now it is time for the mighty crane to swing its load over the tall brick wall, and set up to drop it onto a flat bed trailer in the (nice) neighbor's driveway.

Here the frustrated boondocker is supposed to visualize his rig being lifted over any number of topographic obstacles in order for the RV to reach home.

Well there it is, my attempt at providing practical encouragement to people who say their rigs aren't good at boondocking. Of course one of these cranes is rather expensive to own. It would be more practical if RV brand-affinity-groups would buy one and rent it out to members. Just imagine the discussion forums that would grow out of this experience. And it would lead to some healthy competition between the upscale brands.

If you don't care for this attempt, there is always my earlier try, Boondocking with Big Butts. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Uses for a Cold Day in a Yuma Igloo

Was it a waste of time to read some of the non-famous-novels of Tolstoy and a biography of Gandhi, "Gandhi Before India." by Ramachandra Guha? Today most people see the "prophet" Tolstoy as a prudish, anti-sex crusader and a romanticizer of Russian peasants. Gandhi was obsessed with diet and holiness even back in his student days in London.

Perhaps, instead, I should read about their actions and ideas that make them remembered as great men, rather than as oddballs and cranks. But maybe it is not that simple. Recall that Isaac Newton wrote more theology than mathematical physics. Was he not earnest in both endeavours? How could the same mind and personality be brilliant in one field and a forgettable crank in the other?

Perhaps we fail to read between the lines in their crank endeavors. More imagination might be needed to spot the great man in the fields where they did not shine.

At any rate I usually mock asceticism until it gets cold. Then I start acting like a holy monk. Yes, this is certainly inconsistent, but is also earnest. I have yet to use any supplemental heat this winter. Last night the inside of my trailer fell into the upper thirties (F). I was ready for it after retrieving my heaviest sleeping bag from the van.

I become furious at any weakness about the cold. It is best to get out of bed when it is still dark. Ahh, how nice it is to turn on the stove and heat up the water for coffee. Then a warm breakfast. When the sun finally pops over the local mountains, and pushes through the only window on that side of my trailer. It makes a square foot of bright rectangle appear on the opposite wall.

I am pleased with this photograph, but not because it is "beautiful," but rather, because it might be a non-verbal path to ideas. I hope it causes the viewer to start building a little essay in his mind.

The condensation on the metal screws is due to them connecting to the steel rafters of the wall and the exterior aluminum skin on my converted cargo trailer. 

Since I had to get hands-on involved with my window, it is a pleasant memory and an experience to me, not just a mass-produced good from a factory. I had to buy the right one and hope that it fit between the wall rafters. And where should I put it? Finally it came down to 'now or never', as I got out the drill and saber saw. My palms did sweat a bit, but it turned out easier than I thought. 

I did some reading on building igloos. They poke holes every so often for ventilation. During the polar winter/night, they sometimes put a window (about half the size of mine) in the direction that points to the brightest (and sunless) spot in the sky. Where that would be, I wonder? Three-dimensional, celestial maps are hard to imagine without a globe, a flashlight, and a dark room. 

Every "unit" of dreadfulness or discomfort suffered at night or in the morning darkness is paid back in double portions of pleasure and satisfaction, soon after sunrise. An hour after sunrise the warm sunny rectangle moves to the spot on the bed where my dog snoozes after her morning frolic in the desert. 

There is something about just having one window that focuses the imagination, which then intensifies my appreciation. It is almost a religious reverence: the rectangular spot is like the light pouring through the stained glass windows at the front of the church, and suffusing the altar with benevolence and hope. 

And yet there are comfort-worshiping, bourgeois sybarites in RVing that praise many windows and large windows in an RV. What soul-less philistines they are! (We needn't mention the cult-brand of RV.)

In the future I will see my little white cargo trailer with its lone window as an igloo all alone in the Canadian arctic, suffocating under 24 hours of darkness, but with a chink in its wall, focused on the brightest cluster of bulbs in the Milky Way.