Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why I'm not Watching the World Series, Game 1

Well, for one thing, I give myself a deadline for finishing a new post of Wednesday midnight every week, which I've only missed once--last week. The time is now 9:58. So I have some work to do in the next two hours. I may turn on i-Tunes and listen to some 15th- or 16th c. music, but the World Series would definitely hijack my attention at worst, or dilute it at best. Why are they cheering? What did A-Drug do now?

That last epithet may sound mean-spirited, and one really can't gainsay that charge very well. And yet my use of it speaks to another reason I have the television off this evening, as most evenings lately. I'll tell you the one program I do watch in a moment. You may have guessed by the time we reach the moment of revelation, but perhaps not. How else to create suspense?

The World Series for me involves memory, a rather profound cluster of memories. I have, for some reason, a very clear memory of the Pirates and the Yankees, Yogi Berra and Bill Mazerowski. I had the tv to myself and found it very exciting, this in the days before I had learned to hate the Yankees. Even this does not explain my not having the World Series on tonight.

The cluster of memories involves the summer 0f 1967 (by which time I did hate the Yankees). Some of those memories, most of them, in fact, took place far from Fenway Park; I don't even remember the game I saw there that summer (or was it the next?) Some of the fondest involve not a tv but any of a number of radios. One of my most important took place on a beach where we went on Cape Cod every summer. My father brought a transistor down to the beach to listen while the Red Sox played an afternoon game at Fenway, an hour-and-a-half away by car. The Sox were in a wild four-way pennant race, and had shown signs of fading. Lately, though, they had, as my father would say, "started playing some baseball."

I don't remember what they did that day, but I remember a tremendous sense of sharing with my parents, sitting on the sand gathered around the radio, my father fiddling with reception every now and again, losing it altogether once and getting it back a few minutes later. I remember my sister getting interested as the season wore on, she realized Jim Lonborg, their ace, was really cute, and that they had a legitimate but fragile shot at the pennant. I do know Tony Conigliaro's career effectively ended with a fastball too far up and way too inside while we were at the beach. Mr. Mooney, a high school principal I thought of virtually as a grandfather and who rented a cottage a couple of blocks from ours, attended that game with his real grandson. He told us of the sickening sound. Conigliaro's demise had a great deal to do with the imposition of the batting helmet.

I remember squeezing in a trip to get cider with my sister and then watching the "impossible dream," as the announcer Ken coleman dubbed it, play out the last day of the season. They had to win the last two games against Harmon Killebrew and the front-running Twins, and then wait for the White Sox, I think, and the Tigers to lose. Lonborg was brilliant, one domino fell, then the Angels of all teams--still a new and not very good franchise--beat the Tigers in Detroit as early evening set in on the East Coast. The Red Sox had made it to the World Series.

Then came the awful realization that they would play the St. Louis Cardinals. Not awful because of the Cardinals' prodigious talent. The Red Sox took them to seven games, and had the home field. Awful because my favorite team had to face my favorite National League team. My favorite group of players had to play my single favorite player in baseball, the tenacious right-hander Bob Gibson. That same Bob Gibson whose inspirational autobiography I'd read. He who took possession of the record number of strikeouts in a World Series game against my Red Sox, as my seventh-grade music class, pre-empted for once, watched in deepening horror. Gibson allowed two runs in game seven, on a quirky inside-the-park only-in-Fenway home run by George Scott, a beloved, porcine first baseman who would never make it in this steroid world.

I had no idea adults considered Gibson all-but-too aggressive as a pitcher. I heard the accolades; the criticisms remained too subtle to overcome hero-worship. We considered Ken Harrelson "colorful" then; I wonder what writers would do to him now. Which brings us back to A-Drug. No doubt kids in New York, New Jersey, northeastern Pennsylvania--where there are very few Phillies fans--and southwestern Connecticut find his talent mesmerizing, his accomplishments galvanizing, and his timing breathtaking at times. Let them have that; let them have Jeter's brilliance and neither know nor care about the off-field stuff. They deserve those memories, high-fiving their mom after a particularly timely home run. They'll have those moments for as long as they have a memory.

None of that can have the same charge for me anymore. Sure, Curt Schilling's bleeding tendon impressed me, but I know too much about his politics. Besides, once they ceased to rely entirely on their farm system they ceased to be the old Red Sox, Tom Yawkey's Red Sox, and became Theo Epstein's Red Sox, a not altogether different thing than George Steinbrenner's Yankees. Pardon my Anglo-Saxon, but yuck.

Memory may deceive, but its value lies in its very purity, even if the things remembered lack such purity. I didn't see the viciousness in Bob Gibson, just the speed, the grace, the efficiency, the intensity. It didn't matter that George Scott weighed too much, he was a gentle soul from Alabama who knew how to reach the Green Monster, the famed left-field wall. Memory certainly has access to pain, and a great deal of it, but athletics offer those of us brought up on them a refuge for sharing. The griefs take on a particular pain over time, or they blur willfully; the joys take on a particular shine, exaggerated or no does not matter.

My favorite tv show? A combination of grittiness, violence, humanity, even eccentricity, brilliance, and passion organized around a complicated but decent man dedicated to the simple but difficult principle of the Marines, "Semper Fi." If you need me to tell you the name of the show--N.C.I.S. (Naval Criminal Investigation Service)--you watch less tv than I do.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Knowing Something about Your Enemy--and your Friends

A recent acquaintance who knows of my fascination with the Afghan conflict--really the Afghan-Pakistani conflict, for several reasons not entirely relevant here--has begun emailing me articles on the subject from The New York Times. He sent me a disturbing one yesterday. A delegation of U.S. diplomats headed by Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently visited Pakistan, ostensibly to discuss trade. Holbrooke spoke as encouragingly as he could, while trying to say as little as possible. The reason: Congress may make the kind of exchange he wants to encourage so difficult as to become meaningless.

Meantime, a State Dept. official had an even more disturbing conversation, this one with a journalist known to oppose Pakistan's alliance with the U.S., its tolerance of Predator, C.I.A., and Special Forces operations in their country, and our war on al Qaeda and the Taliban. His general characterization of his frame of mind regarding us and of people who agree with him: "We hate you."

His view may represent the thinking (or feeling) of well less than half of Pakistanis. Still, it struck me as disturbing that we have even among the educated classes and the mainstream press such visceral enemies. This led me to pose a question. In formulating a military strategy and designing tactics to achieve its goals, one basic teaching applies to any and every combat theater: know your enemy. Intelligence estimates, the reading of history and memoirs or textbooks (Patton's reading of Rommel comes to mind), all serve this end. It reassures me, for one, that Gen. Stanley McChrystal devours not only intelligence reports but also history.

So, my question (and if it seems a bit pedantic, I taught for eleven years plus two in graduate school, so get over it): how much do Americans know about not so much our enemy, not to mention our friends, but something more basic than that--where we're fighting, and where our fight goes on quietly or by proxy? A very rough and entirely unrepresentative sample of my fellow workers today revealed a disturbing answer: not much, nor did it seem particularly to disturb them.

So, for what it's worth, I offer you a pop quiz on Afghanistan and Pakistan, based on my own reading over the last couple of months. This will not reflect expert knowledge, merely what an admittedly obsessive general reader has picked up from non-scholarly memoirs and journalistic writing, plus more than a little studying of maps. It is entirely possible (in fact likely) that an error or more will creep in unintentionally. Feel encouraged to find any such, and even correct them. Final hint: feel entirely free to cheat without shame. This quiz, if it accomplishes nothing else, will hopefully teach you a little bit of what you don't know about these two countries at the intersection of central and south Asia--which suggests as good a place to start as any.

1. Name the countries that bound Afghanistan and Pakistan (hint: two countries share a border with each of them).

2. Name four important cities in each country ("important" having a slightly different connotation than "major," and "cities" used somewhat loosely).

3. Name the conflicting religious groups in each country ("Moslem" will not do as an answer).

4. Name four provinces (Afghanistan) or states or territories (Pakistan) in each country.

5. Name the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

6. Name the two major languages in Afghanistan and the principal language of Pakistan.

7. Name our three major military opponents in Afghanistan (confession: the Pakistani Taliban insurgency remains a bit beyond my range).

8. Name the major mountain ranges in Afghanistan and Pakistan (extra points for one that defines part of Afghanistan's northeastern border; points deducted for "Himalayas," even though the major range in northern Pakistan forms their western reaches).

9. Name the principal ethnic groups of the countries (bragging rights if you can name impoverished and neglected ethnic minorities).

10. Name the book that has taught you the most about each country (even if you've only read one book, as is more or less the case with me for Pakistan, though many books on Afghanistan have necessary interludes or starting-points there).

My uncribbed answers, for what they're worth:

1. Afghanistan: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan; Pakistan: Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India.

2. Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat (also Jalalabad); Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore (also Quetta, important by location rather than size--probably more important than Lahore right now, certainly strategically).

3. Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi; largely Sunnis among themselves, including the Wahhabism imported by "the Arabs," i.e. bin Laden, et al. in al Qaeda, and their financial backers in Saudi Arabia responsible for the building boom of fundamentalist madrassas in Pakistan that has benefitted the Taliban; Shi'a in northwest.

4. Kandahar, Arghand, Hazarajat, Kunar; North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Beluchistan, Northwest Frontier.

5. Hamid Karzai (pending election runoff with Abdullah Abdullah); Ali al Anzari (not confident here--the widower of Benazir Bhutto).

6. Pashto and Farsi (Persian spoken in two strains in the west and the northeast); Urdu (also remote areas such as Baltistan harbor obscure languages such as Balti--my Greg Mortenson is showing).

7. Mullah Omar; Commandhan Dostum (still alive?); Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (perhaps the most violent and extreme of the three, for all our focus on Omar and his Taliban).

8. Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram.

9. Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek; Punjabi, Sindhi (from Sindh, Bhutto's home and base in south--shaky answer)

10. Tie, partly because one author goes south and the other straight through the middle: Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue, and Rory Stewart, The Places in Between; Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, probably the one book on this region that people have read who have read no others.

Grade: who cares? We're all more aware of what we know and don't know. The issue I still haven't sorted out: what exactly we do about it, except keep reading. In my case, that means a so far wonderful book by Christina Lamb, The Sewing Circles of Herat, available in the Chapel Hill, NC library as soon as I finish it and a few other titles.

Finding Our Souls in Our Selves

The soul: picturing it as a swaddled newborn doesn't quite work for us as it did for el Greco. We've mapped a great deal if not all of the brain and have yet to find it. We cannot confirm that it consists of anything material, and have no scientifically verifiable means of explaining how we come to have one. Some would insist that we don't, that what we call "soul," to the extent we perceive one in ourselves, merely stands in for vain hopes of immortality or our most fundamental sense of our humanity.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mountains: They Are, Indeed, There

Way back in the 1920s, some uninspired British journalist asked George Mallory probably the most pedestrian question one could put to a mountaineer. Why did he want to climb a massive piece of rock in the Sagarmatha Zone along the Tibetan-Nepalese border in the eastern Himalayas we know as Mt. Everest (phrasing mine, thanks to Wikipedia)? "Because it's there," Mallory allegedly replied, in one of the most famous ask-a-stupid question-get-a-disingenuous-answer exchanges in the history of mountaineering.

And yet the fact that he--or a journalist putting words in his mouth--could give that response speaks to something that we know for a certainty about Mallory when he gave that answer. We have somewhat less certainty now. Conrad Anker's 1999 discovery of Mallory's remains at about 27,000 feet on the Tibetan route to the summit underscores the evidence of failure on a third try, at least failure to get down the mountain. Though he may have climbed the mountain on that final atempt, he never came down to the people who live in its ever-present shadow, having done something they never in their wildest dreams aspired to do. They go as high as the ibex, one of their major sources of protein, and no higher--unless paid to do so by climbing expeditions. Some of them fear dishonoring the mountain. Hold that thought.

Mallory died in 1924. He had tried previously in two expeditions in the early 1920s. A photo exists of his final expedition gathered in camp looking like a slightly ratty version of an Edwardian men's club. Mallory wields a pipe, just the thing for one's lungs at extreme altitude. They might as well be in the Alps for all their awareness of the meaning of those mountains to the Tibetans and the Sherpas, a Tibetan people who live on the Nepalese side of the mountain.

In 1953 two men finally attained the summit of Chomolungma, the Tibetan word for Everest (an English surveyor's choice). The bee-keeper Edmund Hillary of New Zealand did his best to make sure that his Nepalese climbing partner Tenzing Norgay Sherpa got the credit he deserved. He also decided he would work to improve the lives of the Sherpa people in the Khumbu district around the base of Everest and its several impressive neighbors.

He has built schools, medical clinics, and two airstrips for emergency evacuations. He reckons it more important than the climb. Some mountaineers have followed him in this vocation; many have not. Some go back repeatedly to reclimb Everest for various reasons, financial among them; Hillary came back for other, more substantial reasons, dispensing what money could buy for a people he'd come to love.

Fast forward. The book "Three Cups of Tea" has achieved a lot more attention than one would expect for a book about a climber who failed in his one shot at K2 (the second mountain surveyed in the Karakoram in Pakistan's North-West Territories by the British and the most technical climb among the 8,000 meter peaks of the Himalayas). Nursed back to health by people into whose lives he literally wandered, Greg Mortenson came back to help the people who helped him, building schools and at least one bridge.

How charming or even quixotic this seemed outside the climbing community, but not within it. And how ironic that the project, which has persisted, takes on an iconic significance now as we fight the products of radical Islamic madrassas--schools--in Pakistan and Afghanistan, precisely where Greg Mortenson builds his schools. Unlike the madrassas, most of Mortenson's schools are for girls. So deeply has Mortenson assimilated himself to the cultures of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush that his book has become required reading for the U.S. Army forces and officers engaged in the Afghan conflict.

As for honoring and/or dishonoring mountains, it matters a great deal that we understand such notions. And it particularly matters that we avoid patronizing cultures in which mountains receive veneration either as gods or as the haunts of gods. For one thing, in doing so we would patronize our own cultural roots. Think of Olympus or Sinai. As a professor I taught for in graduate school would say, think of all the mountains on or near which western civilizations have built. And think of all the buildings designed as mountains, beginning with the Pyramids and continuing through Gothic Cathedrals and the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Dubai.

We worship height. It challenges our puniness, so why should we not? And why should we not both envy and help those who live in permanent proximity to its greatest natural manifestation? Why should we think we can drop in and out every now and then at our whim, and leave the people living there, who understand the place better than we ever will, to their own materially impoverished but culturally rich devices?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Language as Culture as Power

I have discovered facebook. This does not make me feel like Columbus or, more legendarily, St. Brendan the Navigator; alas, more like Johnny-come-lately. Every now and then one of my correspondents will make clear that my approach to the language of the medium suggests my failure to understand how it's done these days. Split infinitives, for instance. Yes, the Oxford English Dictionary now accepts them as proper English, but I don't have to split them myself. And if I prefer to use grammatically correct if somewhat old-fashioned word order, nothing prevents me from doing so, not even the squawking of a friend who worries himself about such things.

This sort of rhetorical dissonance pales, however, compared to some of the more serious aspects of language that arise on facebook. An episode that occurred this afternoon on a thread that includes a multi-national group of participants interested in Iran, the treatment of women, Obama's health care proposal--whatever pops off youtube or CNN that generates a discussion--offers a case in point. The Onion ran a piece today that hilariously satirized the "death panels" attack of the right wing on President Obama's health care proposal--hilariously if, and only if, one understood it as satire, in the first place, and recognized the references to the recent remarks of Sarah Palin and others. If not, "I don't get it," very understandably (but not understandingly) wrote an Iranian expatriate who for security purposes prefers to reveal where she lives only to her facebook friends, not to people who pop up randomly in threads.

This may not seem serious. I wrote a post to explain the piece, and all seems well. I find another phenomenon more disturbing. facebook has proved a tremendous source of both information--sometimes--and useful opinion on events in Iran. Mousavi's organization, and his wife's, have gotten fairly good about translating their posts. Others have not always had the resources to do so. And once a thread develops off a given post, anyone who doesn't read Farsi, transliterated or no, runs into a brick wall. Automated translation exists, of course, and has more or less success navigating the quicksands of idiomatic usage, depending on whose account one reads. Not everyone has access to it, and certainly not for the real-time fluency of a facebook thread.

The very fact that facebook--twitter appeals far less to me-- has shrunk the world to the degree it has, of course, counts for a great deal in itself. One could accuse those of us who want to understand everyone they encounter in cyberspace of pickiness in the extreme. And yet, when a thread consists of bilingual Iranians and those who speak English but not Farsi, the possibility exists of a learning experience. As soon as the Iranians turn inward among themselves to Farsi, even if for good reasons, they've separated themselves from us and us from them. At times it feels like a power move. Of course, one could argue from their perspective that we assert our power in our ability to expect that as many people speak English as a second or third language as do, allowing us to get away with not speaking other languages. I am not monolinguistic, but the conversations that interest me on the web right now are in Persian, not Italian; at some point soon I'll start trying to find threads on Afghanistan, where the problem will show up all over again in Dari (the Afghan dialect of Farsi), Pashto and Urdu.

Some problems have reasonably easy solutions. This one doesn't, for the time being. But I hope discussing it as something more than a commonplace annoyance highlights the importance of breaking through the ways in which we rely on culture, language among them, to assert power, whether of the present or of a distant but psychologically present past. I have learned so much from my Iranian and Persophile friends on facebook--that the memory of the Mongol invasion informs Ahmadinejad's approach to Obama, for starters--that I want to eliminate anything that prevents me from learning and communicating more--for instance, that their paranoia about Obama misses the fact that we tend to see Ahmadinejad as a Hitler figure. I'm getting a Koran and a Persian textbook, but don't want to miss anything while I master them.