Friday, January 9, 2009

The Pilgrim's War on Terror

I have been reading Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick and have been struck by deja vu. The book is about the Plymouth Colony and its encounters and relationships with the native Americans in the new world. The second half of the book concerns King Phillip's War. King Phillip was the son and heir of Massasoit, the sachem from a local Wampanoags tribe that initially befriended the Pilgrims and helped them survive their fearful first years in America. For a time the relationship between colonist and native American was mutually beneficial, but by the 1670s the native New England tribes were increasingly impoverished and the whites increasingly covetous of native land.

King Phillip's War was a small local dispute that got out of hand and exploded into a regional war with devastating consequences to natives and colonists. The blunders and misunderstandings that caused this bear an eerie resemblance to the modern day "War on Terror". I don't know if there is a tragic defect in the American psyche, but the story seems uniquely American, and there from the start.

King Phillips bears some resemblance to Osama bin Laden. More a financier and facilitator of the war than a participant. King Phillips provoked the war initially by a series of terror attacks on outlying colonial towns. Rather than just dealing with the one unhappy group either militarily or by negotiation, the colonists responded by attacking neutral tribes, bringing them all into the war. To me, there seems to be a obstinate refusal to understand the differences among native American tribes and the political interrelationships that closely resembles the modern American, seemingly willful blindness to tribal, ethnic, and sectarian differences among the peoples of the Middle East. The colonist's response was a traditional military response involving massive displays of power. These strategies seemed over and over to lead them into ambush. Soon all of New England was embroiled in the conflict. All native Americans were treated with suspicion, whether they were hostile or manifestly friendly.

The colonists personalized the conflict. Whenever and where ever the natives attacked European settlements, the colonists were sure that Phillip was there. In reality, King Phillip, like bin Laden, avoided direct conflict. He spent most of the war hiding out in caves in the borderlands between Massachusetts and Vermont.

King Phillip's War even had its own General Petreus figure in the person of Benjamin Church. Church realized the colonists could only prevail by understanding the native American style of warfare. He abandoned set piece battles. He showed a willingness to work with friendly natives and to work to turn unfriendly natives to his side. His approach turned the tide of the war.

By the end of the war a huge proportion of the native population of New England was either dead or had been shipped off the the Caribbean as slaves. The colonists, too, were impoverished, and newly dependent on the English crown for protection. Soon, the Plymouth Bay Colony could no longer sustain itself and was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

All wars, of course, have elements of this same plot, of course, but it seems to me that the extent to which Americans personalize our enemies and the tendency of Americans to pull bystanders into the conflict are, sadly, characteristic of our approach to the world. It started with the Puritans.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Notes on "Breach"

The movie, Breach, is based on the Robert Hanssen spy case. Robert Hanssen was a top FBI agent. In the early years of this millennium he was uncovered as a Soviet spy. The story is told from the point of view of an aspiring FBI agent who was a planted as his assistant and played a significant role in breaking the case. The film spends a good deal of time on Hanssen's attempts to convert the assistant to Opus Dei (the real Hanssen was an Opus Dei member along with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and, according to rumor, FBI head of the time, Louis Freeh.) Curiously, it only mentions the cult by name one time late in the film. The film is structured as a thriller, but the plot is so understated that it comes across as more a psychological character drama.

- J

Notes on "The Gold Coast" by Elmore Leonard

The Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard is a novel set in Florida involving the widow of a Detroit mobster. This is the second Elmore Leonard novel I have read. The other was Cuba Libre, in which an American cowboy gets swept up in the Spanish American War. Elmore Leonard is known for his dialog, and stories tend to be dialog driven. In this he was a good student of Hemingway. From a sample of two I can say that his heroes tend to be blank slates, there is a distinctly sadistic tendency in the villians, and the love interest tend to have duplicitous interests. Fun reads, though.

- J

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Notes on "Pericles"

We saw the California Shakespeare Company production of Pericles. Scholars are uncertain to what extent Shakespeare contributed to the authorship of this play. The language of the play did not have the richness, density, or playfulness I would have expected, so I would side with scholars that do not believe he contributed much. The character of Gower, the narrator, had all the poetry.

In general, the production was good. The set was interesting and versatile. The actors performed with energy and enthusiasm. It was well passed. But then there were the accents. The director chose to give the population of each locale of the play a different accent. I suppose this was to help the audience keep track of where we are (we travel all over the Eastern Mediterranean), but for this to work the accents need to be consistent and instantly recognizable. In this case, they were just confusing and made the language of the play more difficult to understand. Lose the accents and one would have a fine and worthy evening out.

- J

Notes on "Mississippi Masala"

In the seventies, Idi Amin expelled from Uganda people of Indian descent. Many had been in Uganda for generations. Mississippi Masala is the story of one such expelled family who ended up in Mississippi. The daughter falls in love with a black man. It is a story about race and racism, but not the traditional story. It is about how suspicions and mistrust can grow between two oppressed minorities. It is a very interesting movie, but a little emotionally flat.

- J

Notes on "The Mountains of California"

The Mountains of California by John Muir is a natural history of, mainly, the Sierra Nevada range. It is that and much more. It covers all that is expected of a natural history: the geological history, the geographical features, the flora, the fauna, and seasonal change, much of this discovered by the author. But it is also a paean to the mountains and the freedom they afford. It is an adventure book, recounting Muir's need to get to the tops of things to have a look around: previously unclimbed peaks, trees in the middle of a windstorm, or Yosemite Falls in January. It is also a polemic for preservation. Muir devotes a chapter to the bee pastures. He never says it, but it is clear that he wants people to believe there is money to be made by leaving things as they are.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Notes on "Romance and Cigarettes"

The movie Romance and Cigarettes, directed by John Turturro, is about a working class couple in Jersey with marital problems. Done as a musical. James Gandolfini is kicked out of his home for infidelities. He begins to sing. Pretty soon he is dancing in the street with the garbage men. Depressing topic. Fun movie.

- J

Monday, May 26, 2008

Washing the Car

I washed the car this afternoon, which I rarely do. I wash the car when it needs it, when the accumulation of crud and debris threatens its aerodynamic characteristics. I sometimes joke that I wash it every year, "whether it needs it or not." This is a true description of frequency, but not motive. If it didn't need it, I wouldn't wash it.

While I was engaged in this work it occurred to me that it is quite possible that, since we are in a drought year, someone could be driving by might become indignant about my wasting of water. They might make the assumption that I do this every weekend, as some do. They might wag a finger of approbation.

The thing I was thinking about as I scraped a years worth of bugs from the front grill is that this hypothetical finger wagger is right in the general case. I would agree with him or her. One should not waste water if you live in the semi-desert that is California. You should not do so, especially in a drought year. Its socially irresponsible. Its bad for the environment. Washing cars is one of the ways people waste water. Its just that the wagger's finger might be misdirected in my case.

People make errors of particularization all the time, of course. It probably happens more these days. Our technology permits more and more context free encounters. George W. S. Trow wrote about it in the sixties in Within the Context of No Context. We curse each other on the freeway because of a too sudden stop or a missing signal. This is an example of a great sin: people don't signal as they should. We shake our fist because we have found a sinner. The sinner. But we have never met the person in this car in front of. We don't know what kind of day they are having. We don't know if failure to signal is a chronic problem or an aberration. We have a moral makeup meant to protect the cohesiveness of a tribal village. It loses its bearings in the anonymity of modern life.

- J

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Notes on "The Kite Runner"

The movie, The Kite Runner, is true to the book upon which it is based. Plot details are followed in sequence, more so than in most movies. It is perhaps too true. Cinematically, it feels a little flat, at least by modern expectations. On the other hand, the story has a lot of authenticity. I think this is what attracted people to the book. It would be difficult to make the story more cinematic without losing the authenticity.

- J

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Notes on "Very Annie Mary"

The film Very Annie Mary is a wonderful movie. It heartwarming piece of surrealism starring Rachel Griffiths. It takes place in a rural valley in Wales and is about a woman's efforts to find her way out from under her father's all consuming shadow. It borrows from the surreal Australian films of Griffiths's earlier career and the English underdog from the midland's makes good. Every plot twist is contrary to the conventions of modern films, yet entirely predictable and consistent with the characters involved. Rent it.

- J

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The old preacher

On my morning walk today I saw a male great blue heron in full matrimonial regalia. Great blues grow amazing long feathers down their backs during the mating season. He looked like an elderly preacher in a worn old shawl. Imagine a species for which looking like an elderly preacher is sexy.

It was a beautiful clear morning. In addition to my old preacher, I saw a night heron, many smaller egrets, some excited mergansers(not common around here), and, still, the school of salmon or steelhead.

- J

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


My workplace in San Mateo is near a small neighborhood of Eichler homes (the 19th Avenue Development). Eichler was a builder of ultra-modern homes in California in the 1950's. They are also known as flattops and are quite distinctive in their street appearance. In the 90's in Palo Alto Eichlers became rather fashionable and sold in the million dollar range. These are definitely not fashionable, though some have been well cared for have settled into a comfortable middle age.

I often walk in the Eichler neighborhood and began to notice something that strangely I never noticed about Eichlers before: they have no visible front doors. The entrances to the houses are almost always on the side, and frequently concealed. There will be a gate that matches the house siding.

I don't know why this is. Eichler interiors are known for their openness, but their exteriors typically reveal nothing. Was it a sign of the times? This was the era of back yard bomb shelters. Did home buyers of that era just want to barricade themselves from the dangers of the world?

Since I noticed this, I have been attentive to doors as I walk around Niles. There do seem to be periods when doors were deemphasized or concealed and periods where doors are prominent features and stand boldly in the middle of the frame. I wonder if these correspond to periods of national insecurity and of national confidence.

- J

Monday, May 19, 2008

Niles Wildflower Festival

Yesterday was the Wildflower Festival in Niles. The main fund raiser for this event is a Garden Tour of neighborhood gardens. Over the years, my wife and I have acquired a strong aversion to designer gardens in garden shows. Although these may be creative and may have interesting botanical specimens, the gardens don't feel inhabited. We tend to prefer the slightly scruffy (or very scruffy) evolving gardens of old Niles. Usually we just walk or drive on by the designer gardens. This year, though, we visited a couple of gardens that obviously had been designer gardens, but had been lived in enough years that the edge had worn off and were beginning to have a personality.

On Linda Drive we visited an entry with a lovely rose garden on the side of the house and a large vegetable garden and orchard in back. A lot of love has been poured into that space.

- J

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Notes on "Sweeney Todd"

The recent movie Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp, is more theatrical than cinematic. The interest is more in the grace and flair the actors demonstrate in their roles than in the characters in their world. Special effects are used a great deal to conceal this, but mainly it is talented actors hamming it up. In this it is not unlike The Pirates of the Caribbean series, in which Johnny Depp also stars.

- J

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More on the Fire

There are some pretty good pictures of last night's fire at the Henkel factory here.

- J

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


At about six tonight my wife spotted black smoke billowing over the trees. Something was on fire. The smoke was too dark to be a brush fire. There was too much to be a house fire. From the direction location it must have been the old factory at the end of Niles Blvd most recently owned by the Swiss knife maker, home and beauty products maker, Henkel. At one time agent orange was allegedly made there. The building has been neglected recently, although the owner had spent some money to have the warehouse behind torn down. There had been a plan to turn the lot into condos but that died (we hear it is a super-fund site.)

I watched the smoke from our back door. The sirens blared and then grew quiet. The smoke turned from deep black to white. Probably steam from the water they were pouring on the flames. At our distance the billowing smoke was still formidable, but we could not hear the any of the crackling of the flame or the clamor and yelling. We could just hear the evening bird song away in the trees.

- J

Monday, May 12, 2008

Notes on "Pan's Labyrinth"

The Spanish movie Pan's Labyrinth takes place in Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. It concerns a bookish and imaginative girl who's mother, a widow, has married a cruel captain in the Franco's army. He is engaged in mopping up remaining republicans in a small village. There are two stories that run in parallel: the story of the small band of rebels and their struggles with the cruel captain, and the story of the girl's inner life of fantasy. As the barbaric world comes closer to the girl, so the inner fantasies become more intense and dangerous.

For me, the "real world" story was not very real. It was as much a product of the CGI shop as the fantasy story, only with an element of sado-masochism. The "real world" story was as much a fantasy.

The movie felt to me a lot like the Matrix series. For all their mythologizing, it felt like there were no humans involved in the filmmaking.

- J