100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon

Anti-Government Protestors Occupy National Wildlife Refuge In Oregon

There’s been a lot in the news lately: a record blizzard in the eastern U.S.; President Obama’s controversial executive action on guns; Vladimir Putin’s reputed involvement in the assassination of a former Russian spy; the Middle East; the death of David Bowie; and the whacked 2016 presidential horserace, which the U.S. news continually obsesses over.

But there’s also an ongoing, “B-grade” story playing out in rural eastern Oregon at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Like a shy prairie dog, the story keeps poking its head out of its hole. On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that significant (thus far, nobody’s been killed). But it’s a tinderbox loaded with the stuff that makes many Americans salivate: domestic terrorism, the potential for violence, land rights, and (supposedly) the U.S. Constitution.

First, some background:

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Teddy Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Did he violate the U.S. Constitution?

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a 293 square mile area located in Harney Basin in southeastern Oregon. It was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. For thousands of years, the land had been occupied by Northern Paiute Indians.

White settlers began farming and ranching this land in the late 19th century. In 1872, President Grant issued a presidential order that all Paiutes in southeastern Oregon be herded onto a reservation there. But the farmers and ranchers insisted the reservation boundaries be shrunk, and after the Bannock War of 1878, most Paiute were exiled to land in Washington State.

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built roads and buildings on the refuge. Over time, federal purchases increased the size of the refuge. Since 1935, cattle grazing has been allowed on portions of the land. But such grazing has potential for doing harm to sensitive wildlife, and for decades a low-grade tension has existed between cattle ranchers and wildlife managers.

In addition to providing a haven for 320 species of birds and 58 species of mammals, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge also encompasses volcanic fields and geologic strata containing Pleistocene-era fossils.

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The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: a diverse habitat (photo courtesy Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives).

In 2013, a compromise was reached between the cattle ranchers and refuge managers, where limited grazing is allowed in certain areas that do not threaten wildlife.

Then came Ammon Bundy and a group of armed militants. On January 2, they seized the refuge headquarters at Burns, Oregon, to protest the sentences of two ranchers who were convicted of arson on public property in an attempt to hide their poaching activities. But Bundy and his sycophants have a higher calling:

We warn federal agencies, federal judges and all government officials that follow federal oppressive examples that the people are in unrest because of these types of actions.

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Franklin Roosevelt established the CCC, which created jobs at the refuge. Did he violate the Constitution?

Bundy obviously likes – or doesn’t like – the word “federal.” He’s also used the word “Constitution” a number of times. But it’s unclear to what part of the Constitution he’s referring to at any given moment.

Bundy is the son of 67-year-old Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who made news in 2014 when he took up arms against the U.S. government over $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy Sr. became a hero to conservatives who are opposed to what they perceive as federal overreach (though, like frightened rabbits, many quickly scurried after he made a remark that “the Negro” may have been “better off as slaves, picking cotton…”).

Ammon Bundy is a Mormon, and occasionally invokes his religion to defend his militant actions: “I ask you now to come participate in this wonderful thing in Harney County that the Lord is about to accomplish.”

If the Lord is supposed to accomplish “this wonderful thing,” why do Bundy and his bunch feel the need to wrap themselves in artillery? Bundy’s Lord evidently approves of armed insurrection.

The Bundy occupation began three weeks ago and is ongoing. The initial protesters have been joined by other militant groups who are drawn to the spectacle like wolves tearing into red meat. The FBI has been reluctant to use force on the several dozen still remaining because it understandably doesn’t want outright violence, like that which occurred at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993). But Oregon Governor Kate Brown, after initially keeping mum at the FBI’s behest, finally went public with a plea for an end to the occupation:

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Have gun, will travel.

“The very fabric of the Burns community is being ripped apart by this occupation…the situation is absolutely intolerable.” Brown also plans to demand that feds reimburse the state of Oregon for the costs being incurred, which currently hover around a half million dollars.

The fact that the occupiers – and let’s be honest, they are domestic terrorists – have been allowed to come and go as they please, including making uninvited and unconcealed-carry appearances at a town meeting at the high school gymnasium… well, it’s surreal to the point of nausea. Kind of like “Twin Peaks”  meets “A Clockwork Orange.”

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Many Burns residents agree with the terrorists’ anti-government politics, if not their tactics. But they now want the feds to intervene and kick them out.

The confrontation in Oregon is an example of right-wing extremism gone awry. Angry, under-educated white males who are caught in the crevasses of a changing American demographic and its values, and who stubbornly cling to a warped idea of what constitutes “individual freedom” and invoke the Constitution (and sometimes God) to defend their often violent actions.

At its ugliest, it’s Timothy McVeigh. At its more genteel, it’s opportunistic politicians like Matt Shea (R-Wash), who sympathize with the militants and, over objections from local officials, actually meet with them.

Maybe we should just turn Harney Basin back over to the people who knew best how to manage it, and who did so for thousands of years without either wrecking the environment or once uttering the word “Constitution”: the Paiute Indians.

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American avocet and chicks at the refuge (photo courtesy Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives).

One Year Since Sandy Hook

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A year ago, on the heels of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I posted an essay entitled America and Guns. I wanted to express my outrage at how our country was doing little or nothing about its exorbitant gun fatalities.  A year later and – believe it or not – I’m even more outraged.

On December 10, Mother Jones Magazine reported that 194 kids have been shot to death since Newtown.  Of these 194, the vast majority – 127 – were killed at home due to unsecured guns (this despite the National Rifle Association’s claim that more guns in the hands of adults will protect children).

On December 11, NBC News Investigations reported on December 11 that a total of 173 children under 12 years old had been killed by guns in 2013.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports that the gun death rate for children in the U.S. is 4 times higher than Canada (the next highest rate) and 65 times greater than Germany or Britain.

There are more statistics, some of them much higher than those I’ve cited.  Although not many.  Why not?  Because the NRA and its allies in Congress have pushed for legislation making it harder for the federal government to collect data.

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After the Newtown horror, there was a lot of talk about having a “national conversation.”  President Obama called for a number of legislative measures, including a ban on military-style assault weapons, a limitation of 10 rounds on magazines, enhanced background checks, and the closing of loopholes in gun trafficking.

All of his measures were defeated in the Senate in April by a majority of Republicans and a handful of red-state Democrats.

After Newtown, the gun lobby tried to divert the issue away from guns, and pointed to mental health as the culprit.  Inadequate mental health resources may certainly be part of the problem – at least with regard to mass murders and murder-suicides.  But what have we accomplished this past year with legislation supporting mental health initiatives?

In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Sita Diehl, director of state policy and advocacy at the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), noted that 36 states increased their funding for mental health in 2013.  But she says this was “a drop in the bucket” after four years of radical cuts to mental health during a recession.  She said most of the funding in 2013 was through state bills being considered even before the Newtown shootings.  Diehl gives the feds “a C-minus, maybe a D.”  She said there’s been “lots of talk, no action.”

“After these sorts of shootings, there’s a lot of talk, and a lot of policymakers saying we need to do something about the mental health system,  But then, when push comes to shove and the budget debates occur, mental health seems to lose out.”

So here we are, a year later, with yet another school shooting in the news – Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado.

Maybe it’s time we had another “national conversation.”

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Spaghetti Western Feast

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Who likes Spaghetti Westerns?  I love Spaghetti Westerns.  And the more pasta, the better.  “What’s he talking about?” some of you are thinking.  “What does John Wayne have to do with marinara sauce??”  Well, this essay will explain.  I’ll also give a short list of my top five “Spags” – in case anyone would like to sample the cuisine.

Here’s the Spaghetti Western Database definition of a Spaghetti Western (this assumes most of you already know what a “Western” is):

The spaghetti western was born in the first half of the sixties and lasted until the second half of the seventies. It got its name from the fact that most of them were directed and produced by Italians, often in collaboration with other European countries, especially Spain and Germany. The name ‘spaghetti western’ originally was a depreciative term, given by foreign critics to these films because they thought they were inferior to American westerns. Most of the films were made with low budgets, but several still managed to be innovative and artistic, although at the time they didn’t get much recognition, even in Europe. In the eighties the reputation of the genre grew and today the term is no longer used disparagingly, although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style). In Japan they are called Macaroni westerns, in Germany Italowestern.

I’ll add that most casual Western fans in America associate Spags with four films produced and directed by Sergio Leone, three of which starred a young Clint Eastwood (before he started talking to empty chairs): A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (the fourth is Leone’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST).  Although these are the most well-made and popular, there are hundreds of lesser-known Spags, some of them quite interesting.  Many have outrageous titles like GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T and LIGHT THE FUSE…SARTANA IS COMING!  Many also feature the alternately weird and majestic musical scores of Ennio Morricone.  Stylistic trademarks include sparse, dubbed-in dialogue, lingering close-ups, desolate landscapes – and often the lack of coherent plot (forget substance, Spags are all about atmosphere).

Spaghetti Westerns are also very violent.  Quentin Tarantino’s recent DJANGO UNCHAINED is a modern-day nod to Spags.  I’ve been critical of overt violence in cinema, but I do think there’s a difference between the almost cartoonish violence in movies about the Old West and the more realistic violence of today.  Anyway, that’s my lame excuse.

So here are my Top 5 Spaghetti Westerns:

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY: The most popular Spag, it’s also one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  Eastwood perfected his cool “Man with No Name” persona here.  He gets great support in bad Lee Van Cleef, a mainstay of the Spag genre, as Col. Douglas Mortimer (aka “Angel Eyes”); and ugly Eli Wallach, who provided a crude but lovable character as Mexican bandit Tuco and lifted this film to another level.  This is a long trail-ride of a movie about a search for buried gold, and it has dozens of great moments.  My favorite is a scene with a drunken Union general (a parody of U.S. Grant). Also the climactic three-way cemetery shootout.  And Morricone’s sweeping music is instantly recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Spaghetti Westerns.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Another Leone flick, this movie is a bittersweet depiction of what happened when civilization intruded upon the Wild West, changing it forever.  Henry Fonda, usually a good guy, played the blue-eyed killer, Frank, one of the coldest villains in film history.  The hanging scene at the end is a classic.  Also stars Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson as…wait for it…“Harmonica.”

THE GREAT SILENCE: This Spag is unusual because the entire movie takes place in the snow.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and it showcases creepy, maniacal actor Klaus Kinski as a soulless bounty hunter.  It also has a highly erotic, interracial love scene.  Director Sergio Corbucci loved downbeat endings, and this movie is no exception (though the DVD adds an alternate, more upbeat ending).

COMPAÑEROS: Starring charismatic Franco Nero, a big star in Europe, along with the entertaining Tomas Milian.  The movie has plot holes large enough to drive a wagon train through, but it’s a rollicking good time and, like a lot of Spags, it centers on an unstable partnership between two antiheroes.  It also has great comic elements, plus the added attraction of beautiful German actress Iris Berben. 

THEY CALL ME TRINITY: In the early ‘70s, a series of lighthearted Spaghetti Western parodies came out starring Terence Hill.  Many Spag fans don’t like the Trinity films, but I say “Hey, it’s all in good fun.”  Some prefer MY NAME IS NOBODY, with Fonda as an aging gunfighter worshipped by Hill, but I prefer this one, the first in the series, because it’s less goofy than the others.  Watch this one after you’ve seen a few of the more “straight” Spags.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tribute to Spaghetti Westerns.  If you do choose to sample this pasta – gringo – may I recommend complementing your meal with our house tequila, followed by a skinny cigar?  No?  Maybe some sarsaparilla and refried beans?

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America and Guns

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It’s been almost a week since the horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Unless one is a parent of a child who was killed there, no one can fathom the hell they’ve undergone.  But because this was such a brutal act, and the victims were innocent children, the entire nation feels a deep, deep wound.  Just last night I found my wife in tears.  When I asked her why she was crying, she told me she just saw a photo of one of the kids.

America was born out of violence.  If our colonist forefathers hadn’t said “Enough is enough” and shouldered their muskets to throw off their tyrannical governors, we would still be British subjects.  Since then we’ve employed violence for good and ill: to maintain a union of states; to free the slaves; to wrench land away from Native Americans and Mexicans; to topple fascism; to try to prevent the spread of ideologies we don’t like; to avenge ourselves against terrorism.

Hunting game is one of the most popular pastimes in America and a tradition that’s passed down from parent to child.  Our favorite sport, football, requires the athletes to practically dress in suits of armor to prevent serious injury (and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see a link between football and brain trauma).  Most evening television dramas feature a large dose of crime and violence, and it proliferates in Hollywood movies, video games, and many of the most popular types of music, particularly with young people.  One could almost argue that violence is in America’s DNA.

But there comes a point – and the slaughter at Sandy Hook may finally be that tipping point – when one has to emulate the forefathers, and say “Enough is enough.”  There’s something wrong when an entertainment industry and their Washington watchdogs deem it unacceptable to show two people making love, but it’s perfectly fine to show a man sticking a gun barrel in his mouth.  And there’s something wrong when it’s illegal to grow or smoke a plant that makes your head a little fuzzy, but it’s ok to go out and buy a weapon with a high-capacity magazine, whose sole purpose is to mow down masses of humans.

We’ll probably hear a lot of talk in the next few months about who is to blame: liberals or conservatives, parents or teachers, gun makers or Hollywood, the NRA or CBS.  Most of the talk now is about having a “national conversation.”  I’m not sure yet what’s meant by “conversation” and why it wasn’t held a long time ago, before Sandy Hook, Portland, Aurora, Tucson, Red Lake, Paducah, Columbine, etc. etc.  For me it’s pretty evident what needs to be done, at least with regard to guns.  We need far stricter gun laws at the federal level, beginning with an absolute ban on sale AND ownership of any type of weapon or ammunition (assault, high-capacity, whatever) that isn’t considered a handgun for self-protection, or a rifle for hunting or target shooting.  We also need to close the so-called “loophole” that exists to enable criminals, juveniles, and those with a history of mental illness to purchase guns at unregulated gun shows.  We also need background checks and licensing and registration of any and all firearms, similar to the licensing and registration requirements for operating automobiles.

Of course, arguments for the above legislation have in the past met with head-on opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the oldest and most powerful lobby in America.  The NRA – or at least the leaders and most members – believes that any attempt to regulate the sale and possession of firearms is a violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution – the right for a country to maintain a “well regulated Militia,” which guarantees that the right “to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It’s cloaked itself in the Second Amendment to time and again stonewall legislation that would address the hundreds of gun deaths that occur every day in America, not to mention the new American ritual of mass murder in public places.

And this is what lawmakers will be up against when they try to toughen America’s gun laws.  How should we interpret the Second Amendment, which was worded in 1791 in such a vague manner that multiple interpretations have been argued for decades?  Should we continue to adhere to a strict interpretation, as the NRA argues?  Or agree that gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership are permitted in America, but with sensible regulation and restriction?

It seems to me the Second Amendment has increasingly become a noose, and one that is getting ever-tighter around our neck.  For too long our politicians have cowered under the laser gaze of gun manufacturers and a powerful lobby’s “scorecard.”  But who elects these politicians?  In truth, there’s a lot of blame to go around: parents who won’t take time with their kids; an entertainment industry whose motto is “give the people what they want;” a gun lobby that has fought common-sense gun legislation at every turn; and voters who continue to vote for politicians who are bought and sold by special interests.

We’ll never totally eradicate gun deaths and events like what recently occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Portland, Oregon.  But we can at least try to minimize them.  It’s time to show the rest of the world that America has civilized a little since the days of the Old West, and violence is not in our DNA.  We owe it to the memory of 6-year-olds Jack Pinto and Noah Pozner, who were buried Monday in Newtown, Connecticut.  And to all the victims, at Sandy Hook and elsewhere, whose senseless deaths by firearms could have been prevented.