Monday, December 31, 2012

Monday's Poetry: "If Tomorrow I Have to Die"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

The is New Year's Eve 2012.  A year ago as the world was preparing to enter the front end of 2012, I found myself ushering in the New Year at a street party in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam.  It was a fun evening, even for someone of my quickly advancing years, and I knew at the time that the evening would undoubtedly be one of the more interesting and memorable New Year's celebrations that I would be likely to experience in my lifetime.

Today's poetry selection was written by Nguyen Chi Thien, a Vietnamese "dissident" poet who was born in Hanoi and grew up around the seaport city of Haiphong.  Mr. Thien, a Vietnamese national treasure, died this year in California at the age of seventy-three.  He spent over twenty-seven of his seventy-three years in Vietnamese prisons and "re-education" centers where he composed hundreds of poems, without the aid of pen and paper, and committed them to memory.  Each time he had a brief release from incarceration, he would quickly transcribe his accumulated poetry from memory and send the work to publishers outside of Vietnam.

Mr. Thien's first trip to prison came about in 1960 when he bucked the Communist Party line and told his students that Japan was defeated in World War II, not by the Russians, as the Party wanted people to believe, but rather by the Americans when they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was the same year that the following poem, "If Tomorrow I Have to Die," was written.

At another time the poet was jailed for writing "politically irreverent" poems.

Quite a bit of my trip to Vietnam was focused on the country's cultural history.  I like the following poem because it has numerous references to that cultural history, a nostalgic look at Vietnam as it was before the malignant impact of the war.

If Tomorrow I Have to Die
by Nguyen Chi Thien

If tomorrow I have to die
I still would not regret my springtime
Life no doubt is lovely, inestimable
But suffering has taken its toll – gone is the best part
In the deserted night I look at the distant stars
And let my soul drift into the past
For a minute I am oblivious to the cruel reality
And forget all about hunger, cold & bitterness…
History takes me back in time
To that golden age of sumptuous pavilions & palaces
To scenes of success at the imperial exams with
long chaise and parasols
To scenes of poor scholars reading through the night
Once again, I find Confucians of integrity
Who choose poverty and stay away from the cities
Then I see virginal and virtuous country lasses
Weaving silk on their looms near a pool with water jets
In dream I witness joyous festivals
And paddy threshing on golden moonlit nights
Images I tenderly nurture in my heart
Where there still lingers the echo of immense river calls
And the smooth clip of a shuttle going back & forth
I love the forests dense and dark
Full of dangers and secrets, exuding with life
I love also and miss the gongs that give the alarm
Sinister-looking thieves’ dens & the path thereto
Scenes of war with horses neighing & troops clamoring
Also fascinate me, bewitch my soul!
Why I do so, I know full well
That in old days there were emperors & mandarins
That life was riddled with injustice
Why is it that I dream only of the better facets,
That only glories of the past seep through to my poetry?
That I am forgetting the seamier side?
Can it be that life today
Is filled with poison in its very innards
Whereas the old society’s defects were mere pimples?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Too Many Trips Around the Sun!

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Every now and then I have one of those eye-opening experiences that let me know just how old I have become.  Today, as an example, I was at the local Best Buy picking up a printer-cartridge when I sidled up to the music section and started going through the CD's.   Not being overly knowledgeable in modern music, I soon found myself digging through the music of the older artists - those of my generation - and, as luck would have it, most of those CD's are in the bargain racks.

Some of what I found there was not surprising.  Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits at just $4.99 - great music, but poor Patsy has been operating out of the discount bins since I was in college.   The Best of Liza Minnelli, still great music, was also no surprise at $4.99, nor was the other senior diva, Cher, whose collection was priced a bit higher at $6.99.  The Four Tops had a nice collection on sale for $4.99, and The Mamas and the Papas also had a CD of songs that everybody knows priced at $6.99.

And none of those things surprised me, but when I came to Simon and Garfunkel's wonderful album, Bookends, for just $4.99 I was scandalized.  Don't these cretins know anything about music, I wondered.  One of the best albums in the history of modern music literally being given away while collections of young tattooed artists yelling bad poetry go for three times that amount.  Civilization, I realized, was dying!

I stood there for a few minutes giving my blood pressure time to settle back down - and then moved on.  My next discovery was a live performance of the Moody Blues at the Royal Albert Hall with the World Festival Orchestra.  Again, $4.99!

Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, I already had most of the music that I sorted through today - bought in a different time for considerably more money.  I did walk out with the Moody Blues live album, but am somewhat resentful that I got it on the cheap.

Time marches on, I suppose - but I plan to kick back with my iPod and ignore this rush into the future as best I can.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


by Pa Rock
Waster of Time

I moved into my small military house four-and-a-half months ago and have been living without television until today - when I finally gave in and acquired a dish satellite service.  So today I have obviously wasted a great deal of time surfing and trying to discover all that I have been missing since July of 2010 when I last had American television service.

I did quite a bit of careful research in selecting my provider and finally settled on Direct TV.  The only cable provider in the Valley of Hell is Cox, and they are politically too right-wing for my liking.  Direct TV had a bit more selection than Dish Network, so I wound up going with them.

It was nice to find that the television that I shipped back from Japan works just fine.

Today I had the USA Network on for background noise while I did my many Saturday chores.  They are having an NCIS marathon, and it is hard to beat Jethro Gibbs for sheer entertainment value!  Tonight I am settling down to watch the best Christmas movie ever made:  Denis Leary in The Ref.  It will be entertaining to view that old chestnut - and to finally have some variety in my evenings.

I feel so bourgeois!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Another Deranged Arizona School-Safety Plan

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Everybody in Arizona knows the best way to protect school children…just ask them.  State Attorney General Tom Horne wants to train and arm one teacher per school.  He would really like to have a cop in every school, but that would cost money and Tom, being a good Republican, has serious issues with spending money on public schools.  Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu wants to arm willing principals.  And now the Big Kahuna himself, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has checked in with his hairball of a plan.

Old Joe, America’s dumbest and meanest sheriff, has a shameless group of uniformed cop-wannabes  whom he calls his “posse.”   They reportedly augment county policing functions without pay and armed with their own weapons.    The publicity-hog sheriff said that he plans to start patrols outside of Maricopa County schools with members of his posse.  Joe, being Joe, isn’t “proposing” this plan or asking anyone’s permission.  He’s Joe Arpaio, so by God he’s just gonna do it!

It sounds like a plan George Zimmerman would love.

It also sounds like a recipe for disaster.

What’s next Arizona?  How long before Governor Brewer issues “The Jan Plan” and proposes arming school bus monitors and crossing guards?  Or lunch room supervisors?  Or playground monitors?  Or custodians?  Or school nurses?  The possibilities are almost endless.

Turning schools into armed camps is nuts.    Arizona has practically no restrictions on who can own guns or where they may be carried.  That is the problem that our esteemed politicians need to be addressing.  We need to be moving forward into a brighter, saner future - not backward into the bloody muck of the OK Corral.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Last Great Picture Show: So Good It was Banned in Phoenix!

by Pa Rock
Film Fan

This past Christmas Day I gave myself a treat – I sat down and watched a truly classic film:  The Last Picture Show.  It is one of those rare movies that just gets better and better with age.  The 1971 movie was directed by a very young Peter Bogdanovich and had an ensemble cast of some of Hollywood’s finest, several of whom were also very young.

The movie was based on a 1966 novel by Larry McMurtry, himself an American treasure.  McMurtry and Bogdanovich collaborated on the screen play, and the director handled most of the casting himself.

The true star of the movie was the small, desolate Texas town that served as the backdrop for all of the action.  The fictional Anarene (McMurtry called it Thalia in the book) was actually Archer City, Texas, the hometown of McMurtry.    The movie was shot in black-and-white which added to the desolate feel of the town and the movie, and that lonesome Texas wind forever whined in the background.  The town was a bleak shell of buildings which all looked to be bound together by desperation, with only the movie theatre, The Royal, adding a glimmer of something bright and exciting to the bleak setting.  The traffic was almost non-existent, leaving one mentally challenged young man basically free to walk about the streets unhindered with his broom, sweeping through the blowing Texas dust and tumbleweeds.

Bogdanovich had the unerringly good instinct to film the movie in the actual town of Archer City.

Larry McMurtry, who graduated from Archer City High School at about the time the Korean War was starting, focused his story on a group of students who were also graduating from the small town high school just as the Korean War was starting.  The two lead characters, Sonny and Duane, had just finished a losing football season and were focused on other manly arts, primarily scoring with the ladies and partying, for the remainder of their senior year.

Sonny Crawford, portrayed by Timothy Bottoms, broke up with his dull high school girlfriend early in the film and then fell into an affair with an older woman, Cloris Leachman who played Ruth Popper, the coach’s wife.  Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges), Sonny’s best friend, was dating the beautiful and rich Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), who was led astray by Lester Marlow (Randy Quaid).    Lester enticed Jacy to come with him to Wichita Falls where they joined a group of young people at a skinny-dipping party.  Jacy met a boy with more promise than Duane at the party, but he wasn’t interested in her as long as she maintained her virginity. 

But poor Jacy was not the only virgin in Anarene.  Billy (Sam Bottoms), the young mentally-challenged street sweeper, was thrown into the backseat of a car with the local whore who had orders to deflower him for the bargain price of a buck-fifty.  She failed, Billy was traumatized, and his adult protector was enraged at his teen tormentors and barred them from his several town businesses.

Oh, the small town drama, the angst!

And that was just the young folks.

The older generation was focused on Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) who, in addition to being Billy’s protector, owned the local café, pool hall, and the Royal Theater.   Sam had been around, in every sense of the word, and was once the love interest of Jacy’s mother, Lois (Ellen Burstyn).    Meanwhile Lois was involved in an extra-marital affair with Abilene (Clu Gulager) who also managed to have a quick encounter with Jacy on a pool table.  Eileen Brennan gave a stellar performance as Genevieve, the waitress and cook at the local café who was quick to befriend the local kids, especially Sonny.

And while it all sounds like a tawdry soap opera, the movie tells a coming-of-age tale that feels surprisingly real.   As the film ages and the stars become older, its authenticity seems destined to keep increasing.   Watching a young, oh-so-young, Jeff Bridges play his way through team sports and love while knowing that this mere sprout of a boy will someday morph into “The Dude” and Rooster Cogburn, makes viewers feel as though they are truly looking through a magic mirror into their own deep past.

The Last Picture Show was deemed so immoral by the city fathers of Phoenix, Arizona (probably due to the skinny-dipping scene), that they banned it from their community.  The roots of stupidity and hypocrisy in the desert run deep and true!

Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson each won best-supporting actor Oscars for their work in this movie.  Both were amazing and earned those statuettes!  The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

(Note:  Prolific author and screenwriter Larry McCurtry currently lives in Archer City, Texas, with his bride, Faye (Ken Kesey’s widow) where they own and operate one of his several bookstores.   He continues to enthrall America by writing that of which he knows.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Tom Horne Plan: One Designated Shooter Per School

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Arizona's attorney general, Tom Horne, was a political climber who had dreams of becoming governor until a story broke in the desert press involving Horne, a lady friend, and him driving away from the scene of an accident.  Today he announced his plan today for making Arizona's schools safer.  Horne, who is also the most recent state superintendent of public instruction, doesn't want to put a cop in every school because that would be too expensive, but, being a good Republican, he does get a bit moist thinking about the glory of having an armed response to an armed intruder down at the local pre-school.

Tom Horne is recommending that each school have a designated shooter, a faculty member with a gun - and training in how to use it.  He is opposed to having multiple teachers armed in each school, and if a school already has its own assigned policeman, then there would not be a need for a faculty shooter at all.

So Mr. Horne is sort of genuflecting to the National Rifle Association, a move that would probably insure some NRA cash if he ultimately decides that Arizonans have the memory span of gnats and a gubernatorial run appears possible in 2014.

When asked about practical things like limiting the size of ammunition clips, he clammed up tighter than Mitt Romney on tax day - choosing only to say that things like that were under the purview of the legislature.  Well, Tom, so is placing a teacher-shooter in every school, but you felt obliged to rattle your gums when you were in agreement with an NRA position.  How very tactful (and political) of you.

All of our politicians need to man up and state their positions on automatic weapons and monster clips.

If guns make us safer, logic should dictate that the more guns we have, the safer we will be.  But before we pack the schools with good-intentioned, gun-toting adults, let's try that theory out on airplanes.   Surely a hundred armed passengers could keep them evil terrorists under control!

Okay, arming airplane passengers is dangerous nonsense - much like the Horne and NRA plans for schools.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two Tales of Woe

by Pa Rock

I have recently finished reading two books, both of which have the word "woe" in the title.  And while these two works of fiction are by widely divergent authors who bear no outward resemblance to one another in writing style or the types of stories they convey, both authors are true masters of their craft.

Actually, the first author, Roberto Bolano,  was a master writer.  The Chilean born Bolano, a novelist and poet, lived throughout much of Latin America and died at the age of fifty in 2003 while still writing - in Spain.  The novel of his that I just finished, Woes of the True Policeman, was a largely finished effort that his children put together and published after his death.  The storyline had an aggravated sense of unity that might have been better achieved if the author had lived longer, but it followed on the heels of Bolano's award-winning opus, 2666, and contained characters and elements from that novel that provided some appreciated clarification to the earlier work.

If someone is preparing to read Roberto Bolano for the first time, I would recommend beginning with The Savage Detectives - a tale of writers living and working in Argentina, and a crazy quest and road trip through the state of Sonora, Mexico.  Mastering The Savage Detectives will lead into a fuller understanding of the second recommendation, 2666, which again focuses on Latin American writers, particularly poets, and the serial murders of the women working in the American factories of Juarez, Mexico.    (In 2666, the hundreds of murdered women are depicted as living in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Theresa.)   That book also features quite a bit of travel through the cities and villages of Sonora.    After finishing those two novels, Woes of the True Policeman will fit itself nicely into the landscape of the other two and fill in some pesky gaps in the storyline.

Roberto Bolano was in the process of making Santa Theresa a very believable community, though not necessarily a desirable place to live, at the time of his death.  It was a place where his tales all had room to flourish and grow.

The second tale of woe that has been occupying my evenings is Woe to Live On, a fictionalized historical account of the lawless fringes of the American Civil War as it played out on the Kansas and Missouri border.   Author Daniel Woodrell is a highly skilled novelist who lives and writes full time in the Missouri Ozarks.  He has a growing reputation and significant resume of highly-praised published works, but is best known for writing the novel, Winter's Bone, which has been made into a motion picture.

Missouri, being a border state, saw more than its fair share of violence during the Civil War.  Mr. Woodrell explores that bloody vengeance by following a group of bushwhackers who were sympathetic to the South.  These men created their own system of justice and dealt it out without remorse as they wreaked havoc and revenge along the border.  Their  counterparts were the Jayhawkers, a northern group that plied their equally severe system of justice in the border towns of Kansas and Missouri.

This novel was easy for me to get into because I have spent time in almost every community that Woodrell mentions.  Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kansas, was especially intriguing - leaving me to wonder at the ability of a hundred-and-thirty men on horseback to travel forty miles from Missouri to Lawrence, mostly at night, through Union-occupied territory, and arrive at daybreak in the town completely unexpected.  There, amongst the blood and flames, one of their primary objectives that morning was finding breakfast.

Daniel Woodrell depicts the Civil War, and especially the action along the Kansas-Missouri border in a brutal and highly realistic fashion.  His characters lived hard and often died ugly.    Death was usually seen as a mercy, and in that regard, the title made a great deal of sense.

Roberto Bolano and Daniel Woodrell are are two of the finest wordsmiths of this century.  Woe unto readers who fail to make their acquaintance.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday's Poetry: "Goodnight Saigon"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

One year ago today my good friend, Daniel Murphy, and I flew into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which is still more commonly known by its historic name of Saigon.  It was Christmas Eve, and we had no idea what to expect in the way of holiday trappings in what was at least nominally a socialist  country.  What we found as we strolled the streets of Saigon that first night was a bustling city awash in commerce and millions of honking motor scooters.  Santa Claus was out on the streets weaving his way among the holiday shoppers as they bustled to-and-fro among the high-end department stores.  There was nothing apparent on Saigon's busy streets to harken back to the ravages of war from forty years before.

The heady display of capitalism made it hard to comprehend that we had actually lost the war.

To commemorate that trip, I have selected Billy Joel's Vietnam War anthem, Goodnight Saigon, as this week's poetry selection.  It is a lyrical roar of Marine camaraderie.

Goodnight Saigon
by Billy Joel

We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives

We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses
And we learned fast
To travel light
Our arms were heavy
But our bellies were tight

We had no home front
We had no soft soap
They sent us Playboy
They gave us Bob Hope
We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might

We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we'd write
And we would all go down together
We said we'd all go down together
Yes we would all go down together

Remember Charlie
Remember Baker
They left their childhood
On every acre
And who was wrong?
And who was right?
It didn't matter in the thick of the fight

We held the day
In the palm
Of our hand
They ruled the night
And the night
Seemed to last as long as six weeks
On Parris Island

We held the coastline
They held the highlands
And they were sharp
As sharp as knives
They heard the hum of our motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive
And we would all go down together
We said we'd all go down together
Yes we would all go down together