Could the Resistance Era be Redeemed?

Is there a writer out there who can do for the Sequel Trilogy what Dave Filoni did for the Prequels?

                Watching what Dave Filoni has done for the Clone Wars, I have to ask myself, could anyone perform the same miracle for the Resistance Era? Is the setting of the Sequel Trilogy redeemable? The issues are nearly opposite. The prequels had an excellent setting, an era with a distinctive look, new ships, new characters, and therefore a much more interesting playground for the imagination. The movies failed because they lacked character, story, and heart. These problems were so completely solved in the cartoon series that it is almost impossible to remember how little I once cared about the fates of Anakin and Padme. A good writer came in and told compelling stories, breathing life into a setting that George Lucas deserves credit for creating but failed to utilize.

                It took me a minute to get around to finishing The Clone Wars. To be honest, there are too many episodes. The whole story about Ahsoka running around in the underworld of Coruscant went nowhere. Filoni isn’t perfect. But once I’d watched The Mandalorian, I was inspired to go back. The episodes where Ahsoka participates in the siege of Mandalore, gets her lightsabers, faces Darth Maul, and then survives Order 66 were some of the best Star Wars there is, animated or otherwise. I began to wonder, were the prequel movies better than I remembered? A quick perusal of some Revenge of the Sith clips on YouTube reminded me that no, they were just as bad as I thought. The acting is flat, the characters unmotivated and uninteresting. Villains like General Grievous and Count Dooku were dull and unused, nothing like the fleshed-out, fully breathing personalities of the cartoon. The actors all look they are waiting to get paid so they can go home, only slightly more lifelike than Boris Karloff in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Filoni’s work had been alchemical, taking George Lucas’ leaden world and spinning it into gold.

                As I said, the sequels had a completely different problem. The movies, even the worst ones, were fun and funny. You were made to feel something for the characters in a way that never happened in the prequels. For myself, it was only after thinking about the movies afterwards that I realized what a mess they were. The story and setting were at best knockoffs of the Original Trilogy and at worst completely unintelligible. Just as a trivial example, why were Han and Rey able to see the Starkiller’s beam from another planet? What the hell was supposed to be going on there? Why were characters like Finn, Rose, and Poe, even in the story? What idiot came up with the Palpatine storyline from Episode IX? I’ve talked about these problems before, but the real problem for any redemption is the setting. You can retcon technological issues and flesh out dull characters to make them more sympathetic. You can take a dumb idea and repurpose it. If The Mandalorian can refer to Midichlorians without provoking a gag response, anything can happen with bad ideas. But what can a writer do with a dull setting?

                The place to start when rebuilding is to ask what was good. For example, a strength of the prequel era is the existence of the Jedi in full flower. The exploration of a world with many Jedi is a major part of the Clone Wars. The rubber masked knights of the prequels have no more story impact than the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina. In the cartoon, Plo Koon, Ki Adi Mundi, and Luminara Unduli get whole episodes and backstories. There is one part of Revenge of the Sith that works better now. Now that I know who these Jedi are, their deaths hit harder when Order 66 comes down. It’s as if you watched Avengers: Endgame, then watched all the individual films to get context. You’d be left saying, wow, this could have been great!

                So, what is worth saving from the Resistance Era? I think one critical thing to remember (and this was only vaguely stated in the films) is that whole conflict between the First Order and the Resistance takes place in a small corner of the galaxy. The Empire isn’t resurgent everywhere in at least Episode VII. There is a New Republic ruling from somewhere called Hosnian Prime, but they aren’t involved in the Resistance. So, one thing to note about the galaxy in the Resistance is that it is fractured, with probably more centers of power than just the New Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order. That could be interesting. Maybe the Hutts are resurgent, maybe the Chiss, who knows? There’s a lot to work with. Inevitably, this would lead to conflict and disorder. It would be easy to paint imperial sympathizers as sympathetic in this situation. There would be espionage everywhere, arms races, and potentially a multipolar version of our world’s cold war. One element of the setting that is effective is the ubiquitous wreckage of the Galactic Civil War. Timothy Zahn had some good ideas along these lines as well, with familiar vehicles repurposed into interesting new combinations like Lando’s mobile mining facility attached to the back of AT-AT walkers.

                The Mandalorian shows some signs of existing in this world, that the writers are fumbling toward a more intriguing version of the post-Endor galaxy. The imperials have changed. They are simultaneously more fanatical, more flawed, and more diverse. Will we see aliens among their ranks at some point or will Thrawn remain one lone non-human? The chaotic galaxy I envision would certainly drive more than just humans into the ranks of an entity devoted to order, but will they be welcome? Perhaps there are more than one imperial remnant, perhaps one faction of imperials has different views on aliens than the others. The more I think about the task of building something out of the wreckage of episodes VII-IX the less unenviable I think it is. I think I could have fun with it.

Organ Peak Trail

A deep plunge into the Organ Mountains.

All my life I have wanted to live near a national park, to be close enough to look at the map and not have to prioritize, to just say, “I am going to walk every inch of every trail, visit in every season, and glimpse every creature.” In Las Cruces I am blessed to have that kind of access to Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks National Monument. No, it isn’t a full-fledged park, but in my humble opinion it is more deserving than the recently upgraded White Sands. White Sands is starting to feel like the “To Fly” of southern New Mexico. The first visit was wonderful, but now it’s just a thing to get through when people come to visit. There isn’t terribly much to do there. I will never get tired of the Organs.

So when I have a day, I load up my camel pack and head east. It was a productive week, other than the fact that my revised first chapter got deleted, so I thought I’d earned it. Winter is the perfect time for hiking in New Mexico. You can hike in the summer if you wake up before dawn and hit the trail at first light, but I am psychologically and constitutionally uninterested in that. Winter is the time to linger over breakfast and hit the trailhead at about noon, just as the midday sun warms things to the sixties, perfect hiking weather.

My first plan was to hit Achenbach Canyon and the high dale my son and I call Juniper Valley. I love to clamber over the tuff boulders there and explore their crags.

Instead, I opted for a hike I’ve started and abandoned at least twice, both times for fear I wouldn’t get back before sunset. Above Fillmore Canyon and the old Modoc Mine, a narrow trail wends into the rhyolite peaks, overshadowed by the massive spire of The Organ Needles. I followed that trail. The first approach was steep, but still I was surprised by how hard I was breathing. I considered old age, lack of fitness, and Covid before I realized my problem. I had decided to start a Jolly Rancher and couldn’t take big breaths around it.

As in Juniper Valley, the most impressive features along Fillmore Canyon are tuff, a volcanic deposit that is so light that it readily erodes into castles, parapets, and caves. New Mexico is dotted with tuff because if its violent trip through the Cenozoic. Here in the Organs, a massive supervolcano (like the one in Yellowstone) erupted three times creating massive calderas and leaving a complicated series of igneous rocks that I can’t quite understand. What I do understand is that you wouldn’t have wanted to be in Doña Ana County 36 million years ago.

Of course it would have been fascinating to visit anywhere in North America at that time. The dates vary, but by any geologist’s watch that was the end of the Eocene epoch, a time when the global climate was transitioning from an all time Thermal Maximum to the cooler climate of today. From the jungle landscape I remember in the Smithsonian Eocene mural, the world changed. Antarctica developed its ice caps (a sad story where a whole unique continental fauna slowly froze to death) and the global temperature dropped as much as six degrees. My vote for favorite mammal of the time is Megalagus because I translate it as “big bunny”, but I would love to see a Hyaenodon (from far away) or a Mesohippus, the poor, forgotten middle child from those textbook progressions of horse evolution.

I imagined being stalked by a prehistoric creodont as I moved on past the section of the trail I’d hiked before. High grasses and bracken of some kind surrounded me on all sides, redolent of the scene in Jurassic Park 2 and the pack of hunting raptors.

The trail led through a winding arroyo as I climbed. Not I was glad to have my bear spray when I spotted mountain lion scat on the trail. It’s not a great weapon for cougars considering that by the time you know your being attacked you have fangs lodged in your skull, but it felt better than having nothing. I watched a video where a hiker startled a mother with two cubs and I bet he would have liked some spray. There was snow at that altitude, only in a few shady places, but it was there.

Just as the trail began to peter out and I started thinking about turning back, an older couple came down the trail. There were the only people I’d seen in hours so I said hello and asked how far I had to go. The woman assured me it would only be 45 minutes. Surprisingly, that would turn out to be accurate, which is very contrary to my experience of getting trail advice. I pushed on into an extremely steep stretch, climbing dry waterfalls and eventually just putting one foot in front of the other for 300 nearly vertical feet.

But I got to the top. The views were spectacular. I could see down past El Paso into Chihuahua, west to Cookes Peak, east to White Sands and Alamogordo, and far enough north I couldn’t name the mountains. I climbed along the ridge toward the named peak, surprised to be clambering over limestone that had somehow been lifted up here. But it was too late to make the climb at a safe speed, so I settled for the saddle. Just as I was about to head down, I spotted a landmark I’d forgotten about. A few hundred yards down the ridge was the dome of an abandoned observatory. According to what I could find, the observatory dates back to the sixties. Next time I do this hike I’ll definitely explore it.

But I only had ninety minutes until sunset and four miles of rough terrain to cover, so I gingerly made my way down the slope, as fearful of damaging my forty year old knees as I was of falling. I marched at a good clip and only stopped long enough to get pictures of a supposed plane wreck I passed. A bit of internet research turned up B-25 crash fifty years ago near here, so that could be it, but who knows. I rolled on and made it back to my car just as dark was falling. Luckily sunset comes slower on the western slopes. In the parking lot I found rangers looking over several remaining cars. All I could tell them was that nobody was on the Organ Peak Trail. I hadn’t seen a soul.

The US Capitol riot: shocking event number 11

                Looks like I wrote my last article a bit too soon. In listing the most shocking events of my life I missed one: the storming of the US Capitol. “Storm” is not a verb you get to use very often in American political discourse, but there it was. Insurrection is another one we don’t get to bandy about on a regular basis. I was texting with friends while the thing was unfolding and fielding comments about how singular this event was. There was a lot of hyperbole along the lines of claiming that this was unprecedented and that there had never been violence attached to American transitions of power.

First off, the fact that we once had a Civil War during a transition of power is the obvious answer. Although, in that situation it wasn’t as if James Buchanan (our only gay… I mean bachelor president) was attempting to hold on to power. It was just that a large portion of the country couldn’t accept the election of Abraham Lincoln. He hadn’t said he was going to do anything about slavery, and I for one am not sure he was going to, but they couldn’t tolerate someone who didn’t like it, so they seceded. It’s a bit like what happened with people stocking up on guns and ammo when Obama was elected. He never said he was doing anything about guns and never did anything about guns, but people thought he would so there it was.

Aside from the Civil War, there was lots of violence in Congress leading up to the Civil War. The exact facts of the storming of the Capitol were new, but only in a trivial sense. Generally speaking, there has been lots of political violence in America: assassinations of four presidents, the wounding of several more, attempts on others (did you know Puerto Rican separatists once tried to kill Eisenhower?), innumerable acts of terrorism and political violence against African-Americans in the south, and of course the original act of political violence, the American Revolution.

But I haven’t lived through almost any of it, so I’ll admit this was shocking. I remember Reagan being shot but that wasn’t politically motivated. The biggest act of political violence of my lifetime was the Oklahoma City Bombing. That had a lot of similarities to what happened here but was staggeringly more lethal. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t crazy, at least not in the clinical sense, he just bought into a slew of awful ideology and baseless conspiracy theories. He was a part of a network of right-wing “thinkers” who managed to convey their garbage theories before mass access to the internet. They were much more virulent than today’s extremists, and much more violent. The reason we’re more aware of today’s nutjobs is that they can get together on the internet. Who would care how many back woods bars were buzzing with talk of QAnon (I don’t even know how to spell it)? The problem is that the hardcore crazies can get online and recruit our dopey aunts and uncles.

There was angry talk about wanting the police to shoot more of the protestors. I admit I had this impulse. I mean seriously, what did they think would happen to people who broke into Congress? I have no sympathy for anyone killed trying to do that. But we don’t want to make martyrs out of people. The calls I heard from my friends for the army to get involved seemed needless. I figured it would just take a short time for the police to restore order, far less time than it would take for the military to arrive. I was right about that. This is not a movement that has any traction among the population of DC. Don’t let any buses from Iowa across the Potomac and you’re good. Incidentally, that was one major reason why the Founding Fathers wanted to have a national capital that wasn’t in one of the big cities. You don’t want a mob having any ability to influence national politics through violence.

But I admit, the dark angel of my nature really wanted to see hoses turned on the people who lingered about after the storming. They knew what they were doing. It’s January and it would have been fun to see them waddle away trying to look tough through chattering teeth. Which brings up one of my favorite bits of the riot, the moron who tased himself in the balls and then died. Look up his hilarious pictures threatening BLM protestors with guns if you want a laugh. Not exactly the vanguard of the Aryan Nation.

This was shocking event, but I saw a Tweet that this day had changed America more than 9/11. One curse of knowing a lot of history is having to weather such blinkered statements as that. I’m guessing he means that people have turned on Trump. They have, but mostly only the rational people who already hated him. I’ve said this many times before. No one who is persuadable got to the point of voting for Trump in 2016 much less made it through these last insane four years without changing their minds. This event changed none of his supporters’ minds. They sat through the months of claiming the election would be rigged then had no alarm bells go off when he actually claimed it had been rigged. This despite the fact that Trump actually outperformed the polls. So, both the election and the polls were rigged without leaving any evidence that they were. That is to say rigged effectively enough to produce gigantic margins in multiple states, again without leaving any evidence aside from Trump’s word. If that convinces you, there isn’t any help for you. The riot at the Capitol isn’t going to persuade you, nothing is.

P.S. Now, I’ve been pretty forceful here, so I’ll just add a few words to maintain a little balance. I understand there is a difference between a Trump supporter and a Trump voter. Many people whose opinion I respect ended up voting for Trump. Some thought he would bring a faster end to Covid restrictions, and some just think the Democrats are a more destructive force for America. They’re not voting Blue no matter what. I’m sympathetic to that view. I voted wholeheartedly for Biden, but with the knowledge that I am letting people into power who may do damage to America. Not Trump-level damage, but long term economic and social damage that may be harder to gauge. I was deeply disappointed that the Democrats gained control of the Senate despite feeling that the Republicans do need to be rebuked for allowing Trump to happen. I like Biden, but I don’t think much of his party.

The Ten Biggest, Most Shocking Moments of My Life (Public Edition)

The vaccine is a big moment. If it is true that its methods will make future viruses easier to fight, this global response to Covid is a true moonshot, a massive effort that will change the world. Somehow though, I don’t remember the exact moment when I heard about it. Good news just doesn’t hit the same way that bad news does, though now that I think about it, have we ever had a massive, global, piece of good news? I can think of a few personal and local examples. I remember where I was when my wife called to say she was having our first baby, for each Nationals’ no-hitter, when they won the World Series, and when the Caps won the Stanley Cup. On a global but trivial level, I also distinctly remember where I was when I heard that Disney would be taking over Star Wars and making new films. That turned out to be mixed news, but at the time I considered it a positive development. I suppose in the post-Mandalorian world it still is.

Covid doesn’t have any one big moment. I remember hearing about the first American cases. Specifically, I recall sitting at a coffee shop across the street from George Mason University and learning that one of those cases was self-isolating on the campus. I also remember the governor of New Mexico’s first imposition of a lockdown. But otherwise, it’s been one long, continuous string of news and an overall grim tone to the year. I imagine it’s somewhat like living through a major war, not World War II, and nothing like the Revolution of the Civil War, but instead much like the American experience of the First World War. The United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917 and fought until the Armistice of November 11, 1918, 19 months later.

I date the pandemic, at least for Americans, to approximately March 15, which is when things began to get more serious for us than past epidemics restricted to Asia. As of January 1, 2021 Covid rages on. So, that’s already almost nine months. As I said, that is considerably less then the 19 months the US was involved in World War One. However, our troops didn’t really get into the fighting until the spring of 1918. So, in a way, we were only major combatants for about seven months. The pandemic has already been affecting us longer than that and I don’t see it ending for quite some time to come. On a dark note, we have already lost six times as many Americans to Covid as we lost in the First World War.

It may seem strange that I am not talking about the Spanish Flu, but I think it’s clear that experience must have been worse. Nearly twice as many people died in a much smaller population (103 million) and those who died were of all ages. The one thing I have continually been grateful for in this pandemic is that it isn’t targeting children. That would be a nightmare. In my opinion that pandemic would have been much more like the Second World War in its intensity if not its duration.

I’m not even sure a big, shared moment was possible in that time. There’s a technological requirement for instantaneous information that transforms everyone’s lives in a few seconds. My grandparents told me about Pearl Harbor. On one side of the family, they were together in a movie theater and my grandfather decided in that moment to both marry my grandmother and join the army. On the other, my grandfather vividly described hearing he news on the radio in a Phoenix ice cream parlor. With widespread radio communication the news must have been nearly instant.

On Mad Men, the depiction of the Kennedy assassination, of phones simultaneously ringing in every office brought to mind my own generation’s great moment, the morning of September 11th. I’m sure the show creators read firsthand accounts, but they also must have been remembering that day as a parallel. Strangely, and I’m sure this will beggar belief, I was sitting around the dinner table a few nights before 9/11 talking with my dad and my girlfriend and brought up the subject. I asked them whether our generation had experienced a moment where everyone remembered where they were. My only example was the explosion of the Challenger. While that was terrible, I was aware that it had neither the universal impact nor the deep emotional impact of the Kennedy assassination. When 9/11 happened, I asked my grandfather what was a bigger shock, that day or Pearl Harbor, and without thinking too long, he replied that it was definitely 9/11. He said that at least with Pearl Harbor they knew exactly who had done it, and exactly what they were going to do about it. That would have changed things I agreed.

So, thinking about the subject, I compiled a short list of the big, shocking events of my life and tried to rank them. Originally, I included personal events like the deaths of stepfather and mother, but no one wants to hear about that, right? So, the following list is just general events.

  1. September 11th(9/11/2001, takes the cake here as being both instantaneous and universal, watching the whole thing unfold and the whole world stopping to watch with me is a hard thing to forget. I remember the entire day in detail and have thought about it many times since.)
  2. Hurricane Katrina (8/29/2005, this unfolded over several days, but since I lived in New Orleans at the time, it is one of the biggest external events of my life)
  3. 14th street bridge crash (1/13/1982, I don’t know if many people outside the DC area will remember this, but as my dad was delayed in getting home from work and was crossing the bridge just after the crash, it left a big impression on me. I was four.)
  4. Challenger explosion (1/28/1986, this hit me particularly hard as we had been reading about Christa McAuliffe for weeks before the launch, reading through the Wikipedia article right now hit me hard again. So much so that I considered moving it up the list further.)
  5. Operation Desert Storm (1/17/1991, there was a slow build-up here and a deadline that made the actual attack less surprising, but it was still a big dramatic event, and the first big war of my lifetime.)
  6. Election of George W. Bush (11/7/2000, in hindsight this wouldn’t be the most upsetting election result of my lifetime, but at the time I was young and naïve and became disillusioned that people would vote for a clearly inferior candidate for partisan reasons. I’m not sure my opinion of humanity ever recovered.)
  7. Election of Donald Trump (11/8/2016, well, this will hopefully be the lowest my countrymen will ever sink. It’s still hard to even say his name.)
  8. The Death of Princess Diana (8/31/1997, shocking enough that I remember I was sitting at the bar at the Outback Steakhouse when it happened. After reading the Wikipedia entry just now I’m even further shocked at how preventable the whole thing seems.)
  9. Kurt Cobain (4/8/1994, though he died a few days before, this was when I heard about it. The strange thing is that there was a sense that something like this was coming in the Grunge scene. A few weeks before, Eddie Vedder had gone missing and we all thought he was dead. Anyway, it felt like a real loss because I was expecting more form Nirvana.)
  10. Chadwick Boseman (8/28/20, this one came out of nowhere. We loved him in 42 and Black Panther. It just seemed so unfair for kids to lose this guy. I couldn’t believe it.)

My hot take on all these events is that it definitely seems like events that come early in life hit harder, and negative seems to greatly overshadow positive. Let me know if there is anything I forgot. This was a far from systematic brain-storming of events.

Was the short 2020 season a better prediction of playoff success?

                2020 was a strange season of baseball. I was glad we had a season at all, but the short schedule was enough to take me out of it to a large extent. I swear it had nothing to do with the fact that the Nationals played terribly all season. Actually… it was entirely due to that. When the playoffs came around, I got back into it. With the exception of having more teams and more games, the playoffs felt like real baseball again. But when I saw that the Dodgers and Rays, the teams with the best records in the regular season, had made the World Series, I was reminded of the anomaly of baseball in the time of Covid.

                I began to wonder, had the two teams with the best records made it because it was a short season? How often had the best two teams made it to the Series? The second question was easily answered. In the wild card era (since 2012), it had only happened once when the Red Sox and Cardinals met in the 2013 Championship. Those teams had identical 97-65 records and played a competitive six game series. But otherwise, the World Series has been consistently a mix-up of teams from farther down the pegging. Had 2020’s matchup occurred because the season was shorter? Was a sample of sixty games a superior predictor of playoff success than a full 162?

                That question was a bit harder to answer. To repeat, my hypothesis was because the last sixty games was the whole season, that the way the team played in those games would be better reflected in the way they performed in the playoffs. Perhaps this would be because rosters would be closer to opening day rosters. Injuries would be less likely to create a dramatic difference. Maybe there is a “momentum” to a team. I know that is a concept that has been statistically discredited, but as a fan it’s hard to shake the belief in a team getting on a roll or firing on all cylinders. Anyone who watched the 2014 Royals barely make the wild card, get behind in the one game playoff, then completely turn around and look invincible would be persuaded.

But that is anecdote, so I turned to the numbers. My plan was to consider that records for every playoff team since the 2012 season opened up the field to two wild cards. I thought that considering anything before that era would muddy the waters. So, I totaled up the overall record and the record in each team’s last sixty games. Then for fun, I threw in their record in the last thirty games. If my hypothesis held for sixty, perhaps it would hold even stronger for thirty.

It took time, but I went on Baseball Reference and scanned through each team’s season to get my numbers. Time consuming, but simple. Now I had a chart of the 64 teams who made the playoffs from 2012-2019 and their records in three samples. But in order to get a correlation, I needed to quantize success somehow. My solution was to assign one point for each postseason win. I skipped the wild card game because I thought granting a bonus point to every team that won that game would skew the results. This meant a maximum 11 points to a team that had won the World Series and a minimum of zero for a team knocked out in a Division Series sweep. I thought it was fair to credit a losing team with a few points because in my mind a team that drives the series to a final game is better than a team that gets swept.

                As I filled in the table, I got excited seeing cases that confirmed my hypothesis, the 2012 Giants, the 2019 Nationals for example, both wild card teams that had been much better in the second half of the season. But that was confirmation bias, and I could feel it as I saw counterexamples that made me wince like the 2018 Red Sox, a team that slumped in August and September only to roar to a resounding win in the postseason. We need numbers to tell the truth, gut instinct is no substitute. There was a great deal of noise in the tables, more than an intuitive glance could filter.

                When I put the win percentages in a column, and the win points in another, I ran a correlation. The results were disappointing to my hypothesis. I had very little invested in proving it right and I still felt a pang. I can only imagine how a researcher who spends months or years on a project feels. It is no wonder that there is so little published work that proves a hypothesis wrong. It’s easy for a lazy reader to dismiss a disproved hypothesis as foolish with 20/20 hindsight. Once the results are in, it’s easy to say they were always obvious. In this case though, I think it’s good to have numbers to disprove an intuitive guess. It turns out that the overall record has a .305 correlation to playoff wins. The sixty-game record drops down to a .111 correlation and the thirty-game record is nearly neutral at .073. It turns out the 162-game schedule is a much better predictor of playoff success than how hot a team is going in. Who knew?

Well, I suppose baseball knew.

Covid comes to Tatooine

                So, this is entirely anecdotal, but it seems to me like it’s getting real with Covid lately. I know it has been intense in many parts of the country over the last six months, but it seems a bit more unavoidable lately. We’ve been treating it as a clear and present danger in New Mexico, but a part of me kept thinking like Luke Skywalker. It’s all such a long way from here.

                I had guilty thoughts about Covid in those first months. I was treating it like it was real, but I kept thinking, did I actually know anyone who had been sick? Did I know anyone who had even tested positive? I certainly didn’t know anyone who had died. Then this last month, we had a nurse come by to do assessments for life insurance. No, we aren’t worried about dying from Covid. The only correlation to the pandemic was that I finally had time to make the arrangements. Over the conversation, the nurse told me her mother had died due to Covid. I realized that was the first even second-degree connection I had found with a Covid death.

                But in the last three weeks, it has hit home a bit more. Our babysitter tested positive, and we were lucky not to have anyone else in the family get it. Once we heard she had been exposed, we immediately told her to stay out, got ourselves tested and warned the kids’ school. As a precaution, she had been wearing a mask when driving, and I’d like to think that was the deciding factor in protecting the kids. It gives some illusion of control.

                What we couldn’t control was the fallout. We had to tell the school of course, so that meant a two-week quarantine order for our family. This was when I was just getting over the months of quarantine dating back to March. I love my little monkeys to death but being stuck in the house for even longer was not productive or enjoyable for anyone. Day care was not an option if there was even a chance they might have been exposed to the virus. We went into emergency planning mode. I considered just knocking off and taking them to visit grandma until the start of the next school session in late October. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and just have them at home.

                It wasn’t that bad of course. Once I settled down and became a rational being once again, I realized we only had eight school days to get through. I resisted thinking of it in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds. We watched TV, zoomed with friends, and generally recapitulated those halcyon days of absolute quarantine from the spring.

                But when the day came to go back, it wasn’t over. We got an email the night before they were to return saying that a teacher had been exposed. I could only send back one of my kids. Then another email came the next day saying that we couldn’t even do that. School would be closed until the fall session. We were planning a trip to see grandma (in a green zone by New Mexico law), so I thought I would change our flights to a bit earlier. United supposedly has a no-change-fee policy. When I tried to invoke it, they happily informed me that I would only be on the hook for a four-hundred dollar per person fare difference. Thanks, United!

                I decided to stay and weather the storm at home. There are only five more school days until our trip. I can do it. I won’t say my mental state has been top shelf, but I’m getting through the final stretch. The last straw in Covid seeming manifest has been the revelation that Donald Trump has it. My first thought was to remember the scene in The Stand where even the president gets the Superflu. If we can’t protect the chief executive, who can we protect, right?

                But the guy wasn’t doing anything to protect himself or anyone around him. He created a culture of going without masks and even went so far as to make fun of Joe Biden for his distancing measures. Like a lot of things with the administration, the positive policy has been less dangerous than the example set. Millions of Americans are exposing themselves by not wearing masks because of a culture that only lib-tards wear them. I’ve been continuing to live my life during the pandemic, but wearing a mask seems like a bare minimum, with very little cost. When we were driving through Wyoming this summer, we got dirty looks from people because of our masks. Why? Who does it hurt?

                Anyway, regardless of how little the president has done to avoid the virus, it still marks a saturation point to me that he caught it, that my babysitter caught it, that teachers at my children’s school got it. For months, our actions have just been precaution, or solidarity with more heavily hit areas. Now that has changed. Even out here in the Outer Rim Territories Covid has become a manifest reality.

Civil War Two?

                So I really hate to get political, or rather I hate to give the impression that I may be getting partisan, but I was a little alarmed when I saw Trump’s comments this week on whether he would “commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election”. I watched it several times to make sure I was hearing it right, and as I always do, I tried to see both sides of this conversation. Honestly, the most generous reading I could come up with was that the president simply didn’t understand the phrase “peaceful transfer of power”. Considering that this is a man whose entire career has been one long act of false bravado, I could imagine that he was perhaps just refusing to even countenance the idea of losing the election.

                But what came out of his mouth was a refusal to abide by the most basic principle of American governance. The long history of peaceful relinquishment of power is one of the only tenable arguments for American exceptionalism. It is ironic that a president who claims to think America is great would refuse to abide by one tradition that actually does make us great. The idea of a president refusing to leave office is mostly silly, but I began to imagine what would happen.

                First off, we may be saved from this scenario by a landslide Democratic victory. I’m generally not a fan of huge mandates for either party, because I am committed to a principled neutrality. I think that handing the keys to either of these ships of fools would be the worst thing for our country. Gridlock is the only way to keep them all in check and let America get on with business. But if one of the parties is threatening some low-grade civil war if they lose, I suppose I would have to hold my nose and pull for a big blue win.

                That doesn’t look terribly likely though. What feels most likely is a narrow Biden margin. In this case, we’d be looking at Mr. Syracuse sulking in the White House for several months. Hopefully, that would give enough time for the Supreme Court to make a Bush v. Gore decision on the election. I know people are bent out of shape about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the possible appointment of another conservative justice, but I really do think the court will decide by conscience not party. These are professional attorneys who understand the law and they serve for life, so they have little incentive to curry favorites. I’m not a psephologist of any kind, but I don’t put much stock in the conspiracy theories about voting. I think the court would decide in favor of Biden.

                Now our scenarios get really wild. Trump doesn’t strike me as a physically courageous man, but what would happen if he refused to leave? Would a standoff occur? Would it be in DC? New York? Or would Trump attempt to rule as some anti-pope from Mar-A-Lago? In DC, the population would clearly be hostile to Trump. I don’t think the capital would be a good place for him to stay, but if he did, we would have 27 different law enforcement agencies who would potentially be called upon to remove him. I don’t know whose responsibility it would be, probably because no American president has ever been irresponsible enough to talk this way. I’m not sure anyone knowns. Would it be up to the Secret Service to defect? Would you have multiple agencies making different decisions and possibly coming to blows between themselves? Lincoln had to depend on the services of the Pinkerton Agency to ensure his personal security during the first days of the Civil War. I’m not sure the lines are drawn any more firmly today. Would Trump need to rely on private security forces? Would they back him?

                I’d like to take it for granted that the military would follow the law in deciding whether or not to support a rogue president. I suppose I do in my heart of hearts. But in these days, it seems at least remotely possible that the question could be up in the air. To reference the events of 1861 again and the war I hope we can continue to refer to as the first and only American Civil War, each branch of the military made its own decisions. The Navy went overwhelmingly with the Union and the Army, especially the officers went south. I think this is how it would go again. Politically, the Navy and Air Force are less conservative, and geographically there would be very little ability for the red states to support much of a navy. But the Army at the officer level is dominated by right-leaning, white, and mostly evangelical people. That isn’t as true at the rank and file level, but most of the expertise would go red, I think.

                So, if Trump could manage to survive in the short term. I think the Army would back him. That would be the most likely way for him to succeed. In the highly unlikely event of a long-term war, the higher population of the blue states, the fact that the Army enlisted population is much more diverse, and the fact that the blue states would control nearly the entire American coastline would prove decisive.

                But like most fantasy scenarios of modern war, this leaves out the truly decisive factor of geopolitics in the last century. What would happen to the nuclear arsenal? The world has never seen, aside from some low-grade regional insurgencies in India, a civil war in a nuclear armed country. Even when the Soviet Union fell, nations like Ukraine relinquished their weapons (much to their later chagrin). In the United States, the Navy would control the submarine fleet, while the Air Force would control the bombers and the missile silos. But if quick-thinking and politically right-leaning members of the Army moved to seize either the bombers or land-based missiles, we could quickly have a standoff where conventional might would be nearly meaningless. So, this is the truly frightening scenario, where nuclear blackmail could be used to keep an electorally neutered president in office. It seems too dark to even contemplate a president holding the country hostage this way. Thank goodness Trump has shown such restraint throughout his presidential term.

Orlando: a Biography- Virginia Woolf

It occurs to me that it’s a little strange for a man to write about Virginia Woolf in general, and Orlando specifically. Not for any good reason, but it’s an oddity. Why should a book that is a reflection on gender roles and identity be the sole province of women? Well, I picked it up because I have a lifelong goal of trying to read every book in my house and I needed a fiction book in my queue. Overall, I have a fondness for writing in this era, the early twentieth century. (Is it called modernism, or Edwardian? Someone please enlighten me.) I enjoyed Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, and the British war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I’m also partial to historical fiction, so this seemed like a good fit.

                Orlando turns out not to be a terrific work of historical fiction. It drifts through eras and setting without the benefit of the kind of research one expects from authors like Gore Vidal or Kenneth Roberts. But that isn’t the point of the book. Woolf paints an impressionistic picture of these time periods with just enough detail to set a scene as Orlando lives through the Elizabethan, Georgian, Industrial Revolution, and Modern eras. Specific historical events are painted over and skipped, most notably the First World War. That said, the images of the frozen river and London in the time of Shakespeare are powerful. The imagery of the English countryside and seasons are evocative, and the vocabulary is a treasure trove throughout the book, but it just isn’t a proper historical fiction.

The film does a better job with historical setting, both because it is a visual medium where changes of clothing can serve to set a historical scene, and because there are so many conventions to draw on in film making for different eras. It occurs to me that this may be true for the writing in the book as well. Orlando is considered a satire on periods of English literature and that may be apparent in the language throughout the book. If that is the case it would be a cool technique, but I missed it dolt that I am.

                Why did I watch the film? Well, for one, the edition of the book that I have is a huge advertisement for the movie. The cover is Tilda Swinton in Elizabethan male costume. Stills from the film abound on the back cover. For another reason, I often gain a great deal from watching a film adaptation of a book. As long as it hews fairly closely to the book that is. I have a bad habit of drifting off mentally during a book, distracted by worldly concerns or prompted to tangential thought by something I read. Sometimes that leaves me missing vital points in the plot. I read and enjoyed The Hunt for Red October for instance, but completely lost the thread in certain places. Watching the movie cleared up quite a bit for me, especially the sub-plot about the radiation badges and the fake nuclear reactor incident. In Orlando, I somehow trailed off and missed what is probably the most important scene in the book. After surviving a revolt or coup in Turkey, the protagonist goes into a death-like trance and wakes up as a woman. Several pages had gone by before I realized what had happened, and I didn’t understand why it had.

                As far as I know, the book never answers or seeks to answer the question of why Orlando lives for centuries, or why he/she undergoes a spontaneous sex change. The film hints that the Highlander-like immortality is a kind of glamer laid by Quentin Crisp’s androgynous Queen Elizabeth. If this happened in the book, I must have been wool-gathering again. As to the sex change, as far as I can tell it is a deux ex machina in book and film alike. Overall, the movie makes a lot of changes to the story, especially to the ending. In the book, Orlando doesn’t lose her home, which I thought was strange when reading. The whole legal controversy that ensures when a landowner magically transitions to a woman was rather glossed over. In the film, this point marks a complete change to the storyline where Orlando ends up a single, dispossessed mother on a motorcycle. The movie ends in what appear to be 1993 which I thought was an appropriate change. The book ends on its own date of publication.

                The film had a few fun quirks. I enjoyed the absence of subtitles. There is even a good joke told entirely in French that must have been lost on nearly everyone who watched it, at least in America. Orlando tells his paramour Sasha (not a woman’s name by the way) that the English only speak English. Sasha asks how they talk to foreigners and Orlando answers that they speak English louder. It’s a solid burn on English speakers and it gives the art house crowd a quick thrill of feeling superior. Tilda Swinton is great in this movie and as far as I know she was relatively unknown at the time. When the movie breaks the fourth wall, I had flashbacks of something else. It took me a minute to realize that it was to Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge must have been channeling this movie on some level. Even the tones of Waller’s perfectly posh accent are a dead-on match for Swinton.

                I don’t want to delve far into the feminism of this book. I saw nothing particularly controversial to a modern reader. I agree that women should be allowed to own property and pursue careers and it seems obvious. But I’m sure that’s only on the surface. I hinted before that I felt like a stranger in a strange land with such subjects and it’s true. I’m aware how well-trodden this book is in such circles. I might as well try to pontificate to Richard Feynman on quantum theory. But I would like to make an open request that there be more guys like me thinking and talking about gender. The only time I’ve ever seen anything like that was in Fight Club. That was the only discussion of male gender I’ve ever seen that wasn’t directly related to war. Not that it said anything terribly smart or correct about masculinity, but it was talking about it, which was a change. Men tend not to think about being men the way that fish don’t spend a lot of time thinking about water. I guess I’m saying that there should be an Orlando for boys.

The Dalton Highway: Part One

                I don’t know what Fairbanks, Alaska is like when there isn’t a pandemic going on, but it didn’t put its best foot forward on my visit. That was disappointing, because at first glance, downtown was promising. The Chena River flows right through with a handful of pedestrian bridges crossing. There are nice little parks along the river, and the kind of density in building stock that usually means a downtown will be full explore. In practice, the parks were made a bit less welcoming by packs of aggressive and intoxicated homeless people and all the buildings were boarded up. There were exactly two restaurants in the area, and one had gone out of business to turn into a bar. I had planned a bit of a visit, but after an hour of walking, we were done.

                So, first thing in the morning we jumped in the car and set off on the craziest part of our Alaska trip. The eight-hundred-forty-mile, gravel road odyssey called the Dalton Highway. Originally, I had intended to make an open-ended trip up the Highway with no deadline to get back. But when we tried to go to Denali National Park, we found that because of Covid restrictions on daily visitors, we could only get tickets for the shuttle bus on one day. So now, we were headed into the Alaskan wild needing to be back in three days. Not ideal, but I was not willing to miss Denali, so there it was.

                The Dalton Highway essentially exists to get oil trucks between Fairbanks and the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. It only opened to private vehicles in the nineties. As soon as I saw it on the map, I knew we were going to drive it. Even to get to the Dalton, you have to drive more than a hundred miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway. While I was anxious about the quality of the gravel road, it turned out that the paved miles of the Elliott were worse. Something about the geology or climate this far north creates buckles in the asphalt deep enough to create violently jolt any vehicle moving more than forty miles an hour. I learned this the hard way and we heard our gear slam into the ceiling of the truck more than once.

                The landscape along the Elliott Highway is filled with beautiful and green mountains. In summer, it is hard to imagine why there aren’t people living all over the Alaskan countryside. It seems empty and enticing. But I haven’t seen winter here. It would have been interesting to explore the area, but with 828 miles of gravel driving in three days, I decided to save our stops for the Dalton. The night before, I had found an excellent PDF with mileage and some suggested highlights along the way. So, there was going to be a lot of stopping.  I also took a thirty-second video of the road through my bug-splattered window every ten miles.

                Following my checklist, we stopped at the first mile of the highway, a high view of a lonely, possibly bear-infested creek, and at a strange tundra geological feature called a pingo. These features only happen in permafrost environments and are essentially like an ice pimple or even an ice volcano, that pop up and create weird cones in an otherwise flat landscape. The pingo itself wasn’t much to look at it, but it was an introduction to the power of subterranean ice, a concept that is entirely foreign to me. Yet another way of reminding us of how strange and exotic Alaska is.

Our constant companion on our route was the Alyeska Pipeline. Occasionally, it would dip below ground to get through some obstacle, but it would appear again, snaking its way through the forest and over the mountains. We followed it as we drove north. About twenty miles from the pingo, we came to the dramatic crossing of the Yukon River. The south bank is on a high cliff and the highway crosses at a downward angle. The bridge is at least a hundred feet above the river and is surfaced with wooden planking. It looked rickety but obviously was capable of supporting massive oil rigs in all weather. As I crept along, filming every foot, the huge river, white with glacial runoff ran fast under our tires. Nearly 2,000 miles long and thus one of the longest rivers in North America, the Yukon is only crossed by four bridges. That fact was yet another reminder of how harsh and remote this region is. Under me was a river that looked as big as the Mississippi, but we were two hundred miles from the nearest decent-sized settlement. The fifth longest river on the continent toils in obscurity. We stopped at the north bank of the Yukon for pictures and to read some historical markers. They told us about the river’s use as a highway in winter. Far back into prehistory people have used its frozen surface to haul goods. I want to come back with skates and do a long skate/hike. Do people do that?

                A swarm of bugs drove us back into the car and we continued north. We crested several massive hills along the way. Each one has a name like Sand Hill, Roller Coaster, Beaver Slide, and Oh Shit Corner given to them by the ice road truckers. We had fun coasting down Roller Coaster, but I had to imagine how terrifying it would be in an eighteen-wheeler in January. The highway began to climb as we approached the foothills of the Brooks Range. Suddenly we were high up on treeless plains. I imagined we were getting a first taste of the tundra. As it turned out, that wasn’t far off the mark from a visual perspective. But when we got out to take a short hike, we were able to hop from rock to rock, avoiding the squishy terrain in a way that would prove impossible north of the Brooks. I was constantly grateful that we didn’t need to worry about snakes. The kind of broken ground we crossed would be perfect habitat in New Mexico. We picked our way across the treacherous pits and were able to reach a landmark called Finger Rock, which really does look like an index finger of granite pointing at the sky. A few pictures, a bit of scrambling on the boulders, and we were on our way again.

To be Continued…

The Anthropology of War

The Anthropology of War– Keith F. Otterbein

                While I was studying at George Washington University’s Elliott School, I had a penchant for buying books on military history. I’ve always had a problem with purchasing books and studying a field with so many great books was the perfect excuse. It seemed like I was acquiring knowledge when I bought a book, never mind the fact that there are only so many hours in the day. Occasionally I would add up all the pages and compare them to the number of minutes in my life. Each year more and more books hit my shelves, always just a bit more than I can actually read. The math was easy. I was going to die with a pile of unread books by my bedside. That would be true even if I wasn’t constantly acquiring more books, which I am.

                Regardless of that dismal calculus, I sometimes try to chip away at the glacier of tomes in my house. So, I picked up a slim volume called The Anthropology of War by Keith Otterbein. The origin and nature of human warfare is a topic that has always fascinated me. There are certain “facts” floating around about violence in the world of hunter gatherers and other societies. One of my favorites is the statistic that the death rates from homicide in these groups is higher than the global rate throughout the twentieth century. That includes the world wars and all the other conflicts that devastated the modern world. It doesn’t take many ambushes that kill twenty people before the proportional death rates skyrocket in a society of only two hundred people. It reminds me of the Stephen King and Peter Straub book The Talisman, where a small conflict in a less populated parallel universe leads to the Second World War in our own.

                If Otterbein makes one good point throughout this book, it is that these facts may just be, as Stephen Colbert would put it, truthy. They feel right, and seem to provide ammunition for a worldview that I hold, so I accept them without a thorough level of criticism. Now I’m not saying that primitive societies don’t have higher homicide rates than modern ones, they almost certainly do. I’m just saying that this is a very difficult thing to quantify.

                I want to make a quick point about using the term primitive here. Yes, it’s incendiary, and yes it carries a lot of baggage. I don’t mean it to put down these societies. There’s nothing wrong with being primitive in my mind. The word just means that these groups live in ways that would have been familiar throughout ninety-nine percent of the human experience. Perhaps there is a better word to encapsulate all these different groups. If there is, I don’t know it, but something links societies like the Yanomamo, Dani, and Ilongot. Someone please enlighten me. Primarily, I use the word to mean a lower level of technology. I believe that smaller societies, tribes, chiefdoms etc. lack the technology to organize at greater levels. So, in that sense only they are primitive. Otterbein talks about monotheism for instance as an idea that allows greater societal control and thus larger societies. I agree with that. Things like monotheism are superior organizational technologies. Societies with them are larger and more powerful than ones without them, not morally or qualitatively superior.

                Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. The main point I wanted to make about this book is that it reminded me of a problem with every general theory of military history that I read while writing my thesis. Sadly, it afflicted my own work as well. I was responding to Victor Davis Hanson’s famous book The Western Way of War. The thesis is basically that we have a particular way of war in the west that is inherited from Ancient Greece. Some of that argument is concise and based on particular facts about Greece and the Mediterranean lifestyle, but much of the book wanders off into vague generalities. This is especially true when Hanson talks about other parts of the world, areas that he is not a specialist in.

                Broad theories of history are dear to my heart. I love reading all kinds of history and pulling facts from all over that reading to create theories. It’s the antiquarian in me. But a lovely historical diversion doesn’t make for powerful analysis. It’s almost a form of brainstorming that asks other people to do the hard work. That is a strength of this sort of generalist thinking.  A weakness, and a terrible temptation, is the ability to cherry pick historical details to make one’s point. Otterbein meanders between a tight, scientific anthropological analysis that attempts to classify societies by war-making culture and a slapdash description of historical incidents. Frankly, he is weakest when he moves beyond the level of simple chiefdoms. This isn’t surprising. You can’t really spend ninety percent of a book talking about line battles and ambush, then jump into a mention of Hiroshima. Those are vastly different situations.

                This book would have benefited either from sticking to the strengths of anthropology, or from blowing up the sections on more technologically advanced societies into a much longer book. Darwin’s Origin of Species* is one of the most successful books to ever put forth a broad, inductively based theory. It is successful because it is exhaustive, literally. If a reader can suffer through all the details of finches and barnacles, it is hard not to be convinced of the overall theory. Darwin’s book was only the starting point for two centuries of evolutionary theory, but its broad thesis is incontrovertible. Otterbein’s field of the anthropology of war needs such a thorough treatment, and this short book isn’t up to the job.

*I always think of Darwin’s book as “Oranges and Peaches” thanks to the movie Party Girl. Anyone else?