Monthly Archives: May 2007

Poet Laureate of Decomposition

Happy birthday to the only poet (I’m confident) to have a garden fertilizer named after him. Yes, it’s Walt Whitman‘s day; born 1819; and some time long after, honored by a former UC Berkeley English lit student who started a designer dirt business called American Soil Products (now located up the road in Richmond). One of the company’s offerings is Walt Whitman Compost. Years ago, when I had occasion to write a Sunday business feature on American Soil for the late, lamented (by me) Hearst Examiner, I asked the owner how the compost got its name. Simple. A poem from “Leaves of Grass” called “This Compost.” Whitman contemplates how the earth has disposed of the dead, all “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations; Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” Then he continues:

“Behold this compost! behold it well!

Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!

The grass of spring covers the prairies,

The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,

The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,

The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,

The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,

The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,

The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,

The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,

The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,

Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,

Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;

The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.”

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Bridge

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In our brief trip out to the Oregon coast the other day, we stopped in the town of Florence. It’s the closest shore point to Eugene, 60 miles, and there are big sand dunes and wide beaches nearby. Also: clam chowder. There’s a touristy restaurant called Mo’s, part of a five-establishment chain that legend (and the company website) says started as a family operation in Newport, north of Florence, during World War II.

After having our chowder and fish sandwiches, we walked around a little in the boutiquey downtown area, a few blocks of shops between U.S. 101 and the Siuslaw River. There’s a gem of a bridge that carries 101 across the Siuslaw (SIGH-you-slaw): a complex of arches and a lift bridge dressed up with Art Deco details.

Leaving town, we stopped at the south end of the bridge so I could walk across, get a closer look, and take some pictures. There’s a plaque on the south anchorage that says it was completed in 1936, a project (No. 982) of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, an agency that was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal plan to get people back to work by investing in public infrastructure. The plaque lists a contractor, the Mercer-Fraser Company (of Eureka, California), but not a designer.

The Siuslaw River Bridge is exquisitely detailed and just a little odd. The concrete railings running its 1,586-foot length use a sort of Gothic — almost Moorish — arch-window motif. A collection of spires and towers begin at the bridge anchorages and build to a sort of climax with four massive reinforced concrete constructions guarding either side of the lifting section in the middle. Those central structures, which I’ve read were entrances to bridgetenders’ quarters, resemble giant bishops’ hats with Prussian spikes at the top; they’d look at home as an architectural detail in a Fritz Lang movie or in that dark opening Xanadu sequence in “Citizen Kane.” My artistically/architecturally/historically illiterate descriptions aside, it’s clear that whoever designed the structure was thinking about the aesthetic impact of his work as well as its function.

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When I got back to a computer, I looked up the bridge. No surprise: It’s a well-known landmark, the work of Conde B. McCullough, Oregon’s chief bridge engineer from 1919 to 1946. He had a hand in designing hundreds of bridges across the state, but his signature work was the series of spans, about 160 in all, he designed for Oregon’s Coast Highway. McCullough (born in South Dakota, educated at Iowa State) is a cult figure among bridge buffs. The Oregon Department of Transportation has a nice brochure on him and his coast bridges (it’s a PDF file), “Conde McCullough, Oregon’s Master Bridge Builder.” The Iowa State alumni magazine published a tribute to his work a few years ago (including a stunning photo gallery). And Oregon State University in 2001 published a McCullough biography, “Elegant Arches, Soaring Spans” (available new from OSU for $24.95 or from Amazon for $18.96).

Most of what you read about McCullough focuses on his abilities as an engineer and how innovative he was using techniques and materials to overcome challenges at each bridge site. Looking at this one bridge, though, and seeing pictures of the others, I’m just as interested in what formed his aesthetic imagination, the element that transformed these structures into objects that compel you to stop and examine them.

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Guest Observation

“… The U.S. military announced that a total of 10 American soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash on Memorial Day, making May [with 116 troops dead] the third deadliest month of the war [for the United States].” An Associated Press Iraq war roundup



“… Patroclus fought like dreaming:

His head thrown back, his mouth–wide as a shrieking mask–

Sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind

And seemed to draw the Trojans onto him,

To lock them round his waist, red water, washed against his chest,

To lay their tired necks against his sword like birds.

–Is it a god? Divine? Needing no tenderness?–

Yet instantly they touch, he butts them,

Cuts them back:

–Kill them!

My sweet Patroclus,

–Kill them!

As many as you can,

For

Coming behind you through the dust you felt

–What was it?–felt creation part, and then

APOLLO!

Who had been patient with you

Struck.

His hand came from the east,

And in his wrist lay all eternity;

And every atom of his mythic weight

Was poised between his fist and bent left leg.

Your eyes lurched out. Achilles’ helmet rang

Far and away beneath the cannon-bones of Trojan horses,

And you were footless … staggering … amazed …

Between the clumps of dying, dying yourself,

Dazed by the brilliance in your eyes,

The noise–like weirs heard far away–

Dabbling your astounded fingers

In the vomit on your chest.

And all the Trojans lay and stared at you;

Propped themselves up and stared at you;

Feeling themselves as blest as you felt cursed. …”

–From “War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s Iliad

By Christopher Logue, Copyright 1981

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‘Is It Nothing to You?’

N.Y. Times: Silence Speaks Volumes at Intersection of Views on Iraq War

“LEWES, Del. — No one talks, but a lot is said at the intersection of Savannah Road and Kings Highway. Peace demonstrators hung strips of cloth bearing the names of soldiers killed in Iraq as part of their demonstration. Small cities and towns, like Lewes, Del., left, are suffering a large portion of the deaths in the fighting in Iraq. …”

Salon.com: Memorial Day

“For me, like most other Americans, Memorial Day is a time for barbecuing, playing Frisbee, loading up coolers with iced beer, and getting out of town. I usually don’t think about America’s war dead on the last weekend of May any more than I think about our nation’s independence on the Fourth of July, or about the birth of Jesus on Christmas.

“No, my memorial days are scattered and irregular. It is monuments that have most often triggered reveries about fallen soldiers. The words ‘Is it nothing to you?’ inscribed on the great gray World War I obelisk in downtown Vancouver, Canada, stopped me in my tracks late on a summer afternoon many years ago. I had not known this biblical phrase from Lamentations, never seen it on a war memorial before. Maybe it’s a British thing. But for whatever reason, it arrested me, and those long-vanished men who died in fields in France or Germany suddenly appeared, a ghostly company waiting for the simple tribute of memory. …”

Chicago Tribune: Lessons from the Great War

“Frank Buckles, 106, lied about his age to get into the Army when he was 16. He served in England and France, but he never was close to the fighting in World War I. He lives on a 330-acre cattle farm in West Virginia.”

[Later: The full King James Version of the Lamentations verse cited above is: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”

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Dunes

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Thom, airborne near Florence, Oregon. Kate and The Dog and I drove up to Eugene for the weekend, and with Thom we drove out to the coast — 60 miles from Eugene to Florence — for the afternoon. We wound up out at Heceta Beach, just north of Florence.

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Your Tax Dollars at Work

The PBS NewsHour aired a nicely done report yesterday on the much publicized estimate by two noted economists that the Iraq war may ultimately cost the United States up to $2 trillion. The segment did a good job breaking down and explaining the estimate, published by Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes in 2005 and 2006. Where the report was lacking, perhaps, is discussing what the cost might mean down the road, though it did point out that the money we’ve spent already on Iraq, nearly $430 billion as of this moment, would have paid several times over for rebuilding every school in the United States or would have made a nice down payment on the “unsolvable” problems with the Social Security system.

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Surrender Date

Opponents of the congressional effort to attach an operational timetable to new funding for our Iraq War and World Improvement Project (IWWIP — trademark pending) have long since adopted a catchy label for the proposed troop withdrawal schedule. Led by the likes of John McCain, the critics condemn timetables as setting a “surrender date” in the war.

McCain and the critics have one thing right: It’s messy for Congress to step into managing the war this way. But there’s nothing unconstitutional or unprecedented about it — in fact, the Constitution gives Congress the power and responsibility, by way of its control of funding, to participate in warmaking decisions on the people’s behalf. The “no surrender” types apparently would continue to cede their power and responsibility to an executive who has proven careless and arrogant in its exercise. The timetable critics’ alternative — to continue writing blank checks and waiting for the executive’s current plan, or the next, or the one after that, to work — is an extension of the same plan that’s killed thousands of U.S. troops, tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and laid waste to a place that was supposed to turn into the Eden of Mideast democracy.

The “no surrender” types speak of the awful consequences of leaving Iraq “before our work is done.” What I’d like to hear someone in Congress talk about is the awful consequences of surrendering again and again to a president who ignores both the lessons of experience and the clear voice of his people.

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What Kind of Democracy?

On NPR this morning, a brief feature on the family of Andrew Bacevich, a young Boston University graduate and U.S. Army lieutenant killed last week in Iraq. His death drew special attention because his father, also Andrew Bacevich, a former Army officer and military and diplomatic historian at Boston University, is both conservative and a penetrating critic of the Iraq war.

The elder Bacevich published a book a couple years ago called “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.” Among other things, it’s a critique of the rise of an “imperial” military culture in the wake of Vietnam, the military’s elevation to a superior moral status, especially in the wake of 9/11, and the current Bush’s attempt to adopt the military as a special constituency. (Here’s an excerpt.)

In the NPR story, Bacevich reflected briefly on his son and his own role as a citizen:

” ‘One of the things that I’ve been really struggling with over the last several days is to understand my own responsibility for my son’s death,” Bacevich said.

“Bacevich says he thought his responsibility as a citizen was to give voice to his concerns about the war. His loss, he says, has made him question the lasting value of his criticism.

” ‘What kind of democracy is this when the people do speak, and the people’s voice is unambiguous, but nothing happens?’ ”

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Baghdad Traffic and Weather on the 8s

Salon has a sort of interesting piece today on documents from the Coalition Provisional Authority (our original occupation government in Iraq, starring L. Paul “Jerry, here’s your Medal of Freedom” Bremer). A Case Western Reserve political scientist discovered some weekly reports from 2004 that still contain all the official edits and deletions. The Salon story cites one remarkable passage: in retrospect, an extended piece of wishful thinking about the insurgency cooling off in al Anbar Province. The CPA appears to have deleted the rosy speculation immediately after insurgents, mobs, or whoever it was killed four U.S. paramilitary contractors in Fallujah, an event that signaled the fact the province was entirely out of government control.

Reading about Iraq in the good old days made me curious about what the current voice of the United States in Baghdad — our embassy — has to say about the state of the nation. Its site includes a link for U.S. Citizen Services, which in turn contains a link labeled Iraq Travel Warning. There’s been a lot of talk coming out of the president’s bunker lately about how the media is exaggerating how bad things are in Iraq and that the good news stories aren’t adequately told. Interesting to read what his people on the ground, the people who actually have to wear flak jackets when they’re in the “Green Zone” and deal with fellow citizens who might wander into trouble, have to say about the situation:

“The Department of State continues to strongly warn U.S. citizens against travel to Iraq, which remains very dangerous. Remnants of the former Ba’ath regime, transnational terrorists, criminal elements and numerous insurgent groups remain active. Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or “Green”) Zone. Targets include convoys en-route to venues, hotels, restaurants, police stations, checkpoints, foreign diplomatic missions, international organizations and other locations with expatriate personnel. These attacks have resulted in deaths and injuries of American citizens, including those doing humanitarian work. In addition, there have been planned and random killings, as well as extortions and kidnappings. U.S. citizens have been kidnapped and several were subsequently murdered by terrorists in Iraq. U.S. citizens and other foreigners continue to be targeted by insurgent groups and opportunistic criminals for kidnapping and murder. Military operations continue. There are daily attacks against Multinational Forces – Iraq (MNF-I), Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Police throughout the country.The Department of State continues to strongly warn U.S. citizens against travel to Iraq, which remains very dangerous. Remnants of the former Ba’ath regime, transnational terrorists, criminal elements and numerous insurgent groups remain active. Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or “Green”) Zone. Targets include convoys en-route to venues, hotels, restaurants, police stations, checkpoints, foreign diplomatic missions, international organizations and other locations with expatriate personnel. These attacks have resulted in deaths and injuries of American citizens, including those doing humanitarian work. In addition, there have been planned and random killings, as well as extortions and kidnappings. U.S. citizens have been kidnapped and several were subsequently murdered by terrorists in Iraq. U.S. citizens and other foreigners continue to be targeted by insurgent groups and opportunistic criminals for kidnapping and murder. Military operations continue. There are daily attacks against Multinational Forces – Iraq (MNF-I), Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Police throughout the country.”

Of course, the embassy might be ignoring all the good news, too.

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Integrity: Our Most Important Product

Here’s an item I like: Three teachers in Oakland have been forced to resign over “clarifying” a question for a student taking California’s high school exit exam. For now, let’s not get into the subject of the testing mania that has taken root in public education as a method of leaving no child behind and holding teachers and schools accountable for making sure kids are learning what they need to learn. Instead, just consider the nature of the incident: A school administrator witnessed the “clarification” and ratted the three teachers out. No details are forthcoming yet about what the student asked that prompted the “clarification” or what help the teachers offered in response; all that’s known is that the teachers will lose their jobs and the test results for the students involved may be invalidated.

Crikey. We’ve got an attorney general who won’t accept responsibility for anything happening on his watch and who would probably tell you he can’t remember if you ask whether he’s wearing underwear or not. He’s just the latest line in a long series of lying, bumbling Bush higher-ups who have disgraced their offices, screwed up the jobs they were given, and won the undying gratitude of their boss. On occasion, they have blundered so badly that the president has had to send them out the door with a handshake and a Medal of Freedom. Not to worry — they all come back with books telling us what great jobs they did, what a refined sense of duty they share, how clear their consciences are, and how everyone else let them and us down.

Somehow that’s all tolerable, judging by the fact the rascals are conducting business pretty much as usual and the torch-carrying mobs you’d expect on the streets have yet to appear.

But teachers who might have helped out a kid on a state test? They’ve got to go. We can’t let anything interfere with the integrity of a system set up to provide a fig leaf for the criminal lack of concern for what happens to kids in the worst schools or for why those schools are so bad in the first place.

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