Darwin’s `Voyage’ the best of a modest 2010 reading list

In late spring, I plucked from my library a paperback copy of Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle,” a book I started long ago and put down for some reason or another.  In no time, I was wrapped up in it.  And, as it turned out, `Voyage’ was the most enjoyable of 10 books I completed reading this year.

Darwin was only 22 when he set off from England on the HMS Beagle, in 1831, as a naturalist on a scientific expedition that would take him around the world over the next five years.   His observations would be incorporated years later into two giant books on evolution,  “On The Origin of The Species” and “The Descent of Man.”   Some have called Darwin’s trip “the voyage that shook the world.”

Beyond the science, “Voyage” is a grand adventure story and travelogue.  As I read, I began to draw maps and make notes.  It soon becomes clear Darwin is an exceptional young man.  He is focused, industrious, a tireless and adventurous hiker, well read and a keen observer.  For me, the best parts were his visits to Tierra del Fuego and up the coast of Chile where he survived the great earthquake of 1835 while staying in Concepcion.   He can even be funny.  “I doubt if six uglier little men ever got into a boat together,” he wrote.  Among other places Darwin took in were treks across the Andes, and to Brazil, Argentina, the Falklands, the Galapagos Islands, a mountain hike in Tahiti, a journey into the Blue Mountains of Australia, even a brief stop on Saint Helena, the Atlantic island that was home to Napoleon’s last exile. 

Current events also led me back to “Voyage.”   As news of the trapped 33 Chilean miners unfolded, I rushed  back to Darwin’s travels in the area, in 1835, wondering if he had visited the San Jose Mine.  But, no, he had only reached Copiapo, a city not far south of the mine accident.  Darwin visited other mines, though, and wrote an account of some amazing mine workers, the apires.

And Chile, in a round-about way, supplied the best fiction I read.  The late Roberto Bolano, a Santiago-born writer and poet, was my kind of artist.  Poor, serious and striving to be relevant with making money far down among his priorities.  Translations of his “Savage Detectives” and “By Night in Chile”  were the best of the six books of fiction I finished. 

“Detectives” describes three “visceral poets” in Mexico searching for the genre’s so-called founder, Cesarea Tinajero, and finding her in Sonora.  The story winds its way through the seamy world of Mexico City artiests and intellectuals, a landscape dominated by illegal drugs, poverty, prostitution and general thievery.   In the end the book, foreshadows Bolano’s last work, “2666,” which I hope to read in 2011.

In the short, pithy “By Night,” Bolano condemns  the Chilean clergy, intellectuals and literati for the rise and abuses of the Pinochet regime for more than 15 years beginning in 1973.  The priest, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, is particularly disgusting as he loses sight of his vows in pursuit of fame, money and respect from others in his close-knit circle. 

I did read, “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” by Twain, after hearing Michael Savage’s critical reference to “Puddn’head Obama.”  Savage,  the ultra right-wing talk show host, portrayed Wilson as an outsider and intellectual who wrongly tried to tell locals how to live their lives.  But Savage got it wrong.  Wilson, contrary to Savage’s propaganda, is really the hero of the short novel, a progressive lawyer who brought justice to a repressive, slave-holding town, using the then-new science of finger-printing.

Ernle Bradford’s “Ulysses Found” sought to identify the real locations of incidents in Homer’s “Odyssey.”  Like his hero, Ulysses, the author is a sailor, and searches the Mediterranean by boat, following the route he suspects followed by the Troan War hero on his wayward return home to Ithaca.  One of the surprises to me was that Bradford believes the the one-eyed giant, Polyhemus, lived on the west side of Sicily.  Not atop Mount Etna on the east.  

I found Noam Chomsky’s “9-11” less than what I expected.  I believe the government played a knowing role in the tragedy.  And though Chomsky criticizes the government, he does not take the giant leap in assumptions that I do.  To his credit, perhaps.

Of local interest, I galloped through “The Arizona Project.”  Written by Michael Wendland, one of the investigative reporters who descended on Phoenix after the car-bombing death of the Arizona Republic‘s Don Bolles in 1976, the book portrays Phoenix and Tucson as an underworld of corruption and crime.  The journalists targeted mobsters and their connections to the high and mighty of yesteryear.   “Powers that be” like power-broker Harry Rosenzweig, Senator Barry Goldwater, judge Walter Craig.  The stories were printed in numerous newspapers throughout the U.S. but strangely never saw daylight in Bolles’s paper, The Republic.

The investigative project was deeply flawed to begin with.  I believe as the convicted Bolles killer, John Harvey Adamson, did, that the team of reporters were “in the right church but the wrong pew.”  Instead of starting with the Bolles murder and working outward, the reporters started at points removed from the case, hoping I suppose to work inward to the incident.   It was an interesting read, but nothing substantial ever came of the reporter’s work.  Many believe it’s business as usual in the Grand Canyon State.  

The best of the escape fiction I read was Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”   Brown’s plots are unbelievable and his dialogue awful.  Still his research into Masonic “symbols,” in our nation’s capital, carried me past the flaws. 

Then of course there are the numerous books I started and didn’t finish. 

Of those,  Paul Hendrickson’s “Sons of Mississippi,” is the most likely to be completed, a history of the James Meredity integration issue at Ole Miss as seen through the lives of the six sheriffs portrayed in a famous Life photograph.     

Another book almost certain to appear on my 2011 list is Dorothy Wordsworth’s difficult “The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals.”   Dorothy is the sister of the famed poet William Wordsworth.  

And then there are books too numerous to name that are likely destined for the eternally unread.

Sick of those sappy film classics at Christmas? Try the dark side

Every Christmas I say, I can’t take it anymore.  Almost every film you can find on TV during the Holidays is the same old worn-out stuff, fairy tales for the silly.  It drives me, well, inane.

Like on Christmas Eve we ventured over to one of Nebra’s sisters for supper, and what’s on the tube?  It’s A Wonderful Life, that’s what,  that sob-story with Jimmy Stewart that’s supposed to make you believe, really believe, the world would’ve been a far worse place without you.  What swill!  And people actually watch this film over and over. 

With the bone-deep belief that we all should have a healthy dose of realism and darkness at Christmas in addition to all the nonsense, I’ve come up with a dandy list of dark films. 

Two very good films guaranteed to bring you down, slap you back into the real world for a change are Sylvia and The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Sylvia was such a downer that even I didn’t think early on that I could watch it all.   It is the story of the depressed genius of a poet, Sylvia Plath, and her marriage to the far-more recognized poet, the Brit Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig).

It is a slowly darkening love story doomed by the obsession of the suspicious Plath, played superbly by Gwenth Paltrow, and the womanizing of Hughes.  Her growing insanity drives the poetry and gives it power.  The film focuses primarily on Plath as her personality disintegrates and her inevitable fate looms.  It is filmed darkly and at times the sounds of a moaning wind reach the ear.   Sylvia is only hobbled by the ending.   At some point director Christine Jeffs decided to pull her punches, perhaps realizing a completely gloomy movie is dead box office.  Soaring music replaces the moaning wind and the kind of horrific ending the viewer expects is taken away.  As if we were children and could not bear it, ha.  In that way, I guess, it is much like Christmas classics.  Ah, Sylvia, at last will have eternal peace.

If there is any sense of caring for Plath, you will feel none for Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn) in Assassination.   He is despicable, and suffering from acute persecution complex.  He lies, mopes about and his visions of grandeur lead to false hope.  As his life as a furniture salesman wobbles, his marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts) crumbles and his get-rich scheme of a portable-tire truck operation grinds to and end, Sam begins to blame President Nixon for all his woes.  The fixation drives him toward a horrible action.  If nothing else, Assassination is worth seeing for great acting.  It is Sean Penn at his best.  And he is so good, the film is painful to watch. 

If you want to think about Christmas in a meaningful way, that is without Santy Claus and angels, then Agnes of God should fit the bill.  Agnes (Meg Tilly)  is a cloistered nun in a convent in an isolated area of Quebec, pure as driven snow used to be.  Somehow, Agnes becomes pregnant and strangles her new-born.  She is charged with murder, and a shrink, Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) is assigned by the court to see if the Sister Agnes should stand trial.  What Dr. Livingston finds is a mystery of the highest order.  Who is the father?   And more, the viewer is made to take sides in the ultimate question.  Could it have been an immaculate conception?  Would anyone on this cynical planet really believe if a Second Coming fell in front of them?  The film is loaded with symbolism (try the ever-present cigarette on for size) and will captivate the puzzle-lover, no matter whether you’re a True Believer. 

But if you must sob and can hold back tears for a while, there is the darkly-filmed Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, a hit-man for the mob in and around Chicago in the 1930s.  When young Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) accidentally witnesses a mob killing involving his father, the family’s world spins into tragedy.  Mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman in his last screen appearance) sics his crazed and inept son Connor to do in young Michael.  Connor botches the deal and kills the mother and another of the Sullivan children.  The rest of Perdition involves Michael Sr. attempting revenge and at the same time trying to protect his surviving son.  The clever and poetic ending is a cinch to make eyes well up with tears.  And if there be a smidgen of the artiste in you, the cinematography by Conrad Hall will dazzle.

So there is a nice list of dark films to sink fangs into.    Dark, yes, but of top quality. 

At least this year, I didn’t have to put up with Miracle on 34th Street.

An astonishing victory with nothing good to come of it

Just as the Cardinals scored their second of two touchdowns on intercepted in the first minutes of the Christmas night game at home against the Dallas Cowboys, I wanted to rant:  “The Bidwills are who we thought they were, and the Cowboys let them off the hook.”

The Bidwills, for the uninitiated, are the tight-fisted family that owns the Cardinals.   Now, with the lucky 27-26 victory of Dallas in the record books, the Bidwills will be even more encouraged to slam the check book shut for much-need player and coaching talent.  That ownership did not choose to spend money to attract even the bare essentials for the 2010 season:  A top-quality quarterback and a high-dollar coordinator for the offense.  Those two deficiences alone led the Cardinals into the pits of a 5-10 record with one game remaining.

The observor will be hard-pressed to find one good thing this victory means to the franchise’s future, a future that seems headed back to the days of yore, known locally as “the same ol’ Cardinals.” 

For one, another meaningless victory will only push them down a notch or two in the pecking order for the top picks in the next draft. 

Now, a cinch to win two of its last four games, the Bidwills can crow that little breaks here and there would have sent the team back to the playoffs in January.

And victory has tken pressure off the coach, Ken Whisenhunt, who can crow his team never gave up on him.  And will that translate to another year without an offensive coordinator?  There are some seasons, playing a veteran, top of his game quarterback like Kurt Warner or Peyton Manning, an NFL team may not need a coordinator to work out the fine points in practices and call the game.  But with new quarterbacks, even had they kept Matt Leinart, the Whiz did not have time to spend on teaching during the week.  If he did, then some other area was lacking. 

And though the Cardinals “third-string quarterback,” John Skelton, was outplayed by the Cowboys third-stringer, Stephen McGee, the Bidwills can say, looking through those Cardinal-rosed glasses, we’ve found our quarterback of the future.  

It is true that Skelton did a remarkable job down the stretch to set up Jay Feely’s winning field goal in the final seconds.  But his final stats were far from glowing and the offense’s inability to move the chains ultimately destroyed the cushion of a 21-3 second-quarter lead.

Skelton threw only 11 completions for the night, paltry 44 percent accuracy, and take away the long TD pass on a broken defensive play by Dallas, and he was 10 for 24 for 104 yards for the night.  Those figures and a sorrowful 2 of 11 conversions on third down yielded a possession time of only 22 minutes for the Cardinals to 38 minutes for Dallas.

It is frightening to think that the Cardinals, behind Skelton’s late game heroics, are now so enamored with a cheap quarterback for 2011 that they will have an excuse to bypass a costly quarterback in the draft.

So in the end, while it was a feel-good night for the Cardinals and their distraught followers, nothing really good can come of the Cowboys victory.  A victory gift-wrapped by the two early interceptions just as Santa was peeling off for a post-rute back to the Pole.  And a ho, ho, ho, to you, Cardinals. 

And, to be less harsh, perhaps the Bidwills in a business sense were wise to pull in their horns this year and wait to see what happens in the collective bargaining agreement talks next year.  There is little to recommend paying this year’s high-dollar prices when you may be able to acquire the same talent for less money in 2011 or 2012.  Such is what happens in a small market like Phoenix.  You have to watch those nickels and dimes.

Winter Solstice in Phoenix, 2010

It is 4:38 p.m., Mountain Standard Time, the precise moment of the Winter Solstice here in the arid lands of Arizona.  The skies are overcast and the temperature is 63 F, sinking from the day’s high of 65 at my house in central Phoenix.  The wind is calm.  A small amount of rain fell within the last 2 1/2 hours, enough anyway to dampen the sidewalks yet not enough to find its way into the rain gauge on the backyard fence.   

The 2009 Solstice also occurred on the 21st but about six hours earlier, at 10:47 a.m.  Weather conditions then were pretty much the same:  Partly cloudy skies, 61 F, with a slight easterly breeze.   

Unlike last year, we went through a warm first half of the month, a period in which official record heat occurred on the 13th and 14th, at 79 and 82 degrees.  It also hit 80 on the 8th. 

I’m disappointed the Winter Solstice is not cause for a huge celebration in the U.S.  Although the Solstice stamps the start of what is a brutal winter in many places, it also marks the beginning of the light’s journey northward, back to us across the equator in March and high above us in June, a symbol of life’s long chain of rejuvenation.  It is a time of hope.

Sign of the times: An Arizona newspaper’s pension fund

I listened to the actor Ben Afleck talk on PBS this morning, nodding in agreement.  He was describing how America has more and more the feel of a country in decline.   I did not hear the whole interview but he remarked that we, including corporations, may do what is legal but we do not always do what is right.

It reminded me of a conversation I had yesterday with a retired employee of The Arizona Republic, the largest newspaper in the state.  Glen, I will call him, receives a small pension each month from the newspaper.  He said that at one time, there was a boat-load of money in the pension fund, enough anyway that would raise the amount of monthly payments to retirees.  But of course there has been no increase.  Why? 

Hopes for pension raises ended when in 2000 the mega-newspaper corporation Gannett acquired the Republic from the Pulliam family.  One of the first actions taken by Gannett, Glen said, was to raid the pension fund of its surplus.  While the information I received from Glen is hearsay, it has a strong ring of truth.   Gannett in this case did what was legal.  But was it right?

The pension program is dead at Gannett, now replaced by the 401k retirement savings plans.  I suspect the raided pension fund was incorporated into Gannett’s contributions to 401k for newer employees.  In essence, former employees of the Pulliam era have been robbed to pay for the retirements of the Gannett-era employees at the same paper.   And Gannett has a nicer look to its earnings reports to present to  Wall Street.

Corporations have raped this country and continue to do so.  Their greed knows no bounds.  Government regulation has been weak.  Corporate lobbyists run Congress with payoffs and other perks.  Both parties, but especially the Republicans, are mere lapdogs to these rapacious businesses, businesses who do not care one iota about America.  That is if you still think of America as comprised of individuals, not conglomerates.

Even sadder is this.   Many Americans have chosen the corporate-way to deal with their personal lives.  Cut throat, cold.  No sharing OUR money with anyone.  Yes, we are street-legal.   But as Ben Afleck said it doesn’t feel right.  Until we reset our moral compasses and become less acquisitive, this country as a whole will not prosper, even if corporations like Gannett do.  Worse, for most of us the nation will continue to feel like its going to the pits.

The 4 millionth step

At 1:41 on this cool, rainy afternoon, I took my 4 millionth step of 2010, as measured by a digital pedometer.  It is a goal I’ve had in my gunsight since at least mid-summer.  

The original goal was 3.65 million steps.  That’s 10,000 a day, roughly five miles.  But I like round figures.  Four million rang a bell.  Anyway I believe most Americans walk about half of what I did this year.

It went down this way.  I knew at the start of the day I needed just 2,943 more steps to hit my 4 mil.  So, as I walked to the library with a backpack slung over my shoulder and a fresh cup of Starbucks coffee in my left hand, I pulled out the pedometer and let it dangle at my side, watching it intently.  Just 40 more, 39, 30 . . . .  

Soon, in front of a nondescript house on the north, I was there.  I dropped my pack on the sidewalk, set down my coffee cup and speed-dialed Nebra who was at her office.  “Flash,” I said, and I gave her the news.  Nebra can appreciate 4 million more than anyone I know.   She wears a pedometer just like mine, and we have competed all year.   She trails me now by about 300,000 and has virtually no shot at the 4 million.

If I was half the reporter I say I am, I would’ve noted which foot, left or right, landed at the magical moment.  But I did not.  And neither was I able to stop perfectly.  The pedometer slid by to the 2,944th step, one step beyond 4 mil.  But no matter. 

Today marked only the official count, a symbolic triumph.  In reality I reached 4 mil many days ago.  Only the gods know when.  I may walk 50 steps a day or more that never get counted.  Some mornings as I awake it takes a while for it to sink in.  “Now where did I leave that pedometer last night?”   So I waste steps looking for it.  And on the few days I have a heavy thought I simply forget to snap the gadget on. 

I doubt I can ever do better than this.  More, I doubt that I will ever want to do better than this.  To do 4 million took work.  More time each day that I wanted to spend, just to walk.  But I know this.  I’ll probably be wearing a pedometer the rest of my waking life.  It’s like a birthmark or a toe or a finger.  I can’t imagine myself without it.

But there is irony involved.  Nebra pointed it out to me just minutes ago.  On the day I hit 4 million I failed to reach 10,000 steps for the day.  Just now at midnight I have only 8,469.  I was too wrapped up in writing  this blog and at the same time watching the waning minutes of the Spurs-Nuggets game.  Too wrapped up for a short walk.

Oh well.  In the walking world, there is always tomorrow.  The pedometer zeroes out at midnight.

The far side of football

Toward the end of another ugly NFL game here last Sunday, I trained my binoculars on Derek Anderson.  The injured Cardinals quarterback stood on the sidelines in black workout gear.  He did not play.  A concussion, they said, which may or may not be true.  It certainly was a good excuse anyway for a team going nowhere to play a new face, in this case that of the Fordham rookie John Skelton. 

I had lost interest in the game somewhere in the third quarter.  It was then I realized the opponent,  the Denver Broncos, was tanking the game in response to a coaching change several days before.  That the Cardinals won, 43-13, to raise their record a fathom off the seabed to 4-9 was meaningless.  That Skelton’s NFL debut had turned out so-so was even less meaningful in the dim light of the pitiful Broncos defense.

So I searched around for something interesting.   Eventually I found Anderson.  And before that, but related none the less, I found Brady Quinn.

Quinn stood on the other side of the field, likewise twiddling his thumbs.   If Quinn had wanted to see DA, he would have had no obstruction.   Nor the distraction of being deep into this sorry game.   All Quinn had to do was focus dead-ahead.  The one-time star at Notre Dame is the Broncos’ No. 2 quarterback behind Kyle Orton.  And like Anderson with Arizona fandom, Quinn is far from the darling of the Denverites.  He is no doubt a soon to be forgotten footnote in Broncos history.  It is the rookie quarterback, always the rookie, that the fans fall in love with.  For a few seconds at least.  And now, in Denver, it is Tim Tebow, the No. 3, a former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, that is the adored one.

But Anderson and Quinn have a much larger connection than any trifle that could occur this season as both teams wallow around waiting on the season to die.  The two quarterbacks were pitted against each other for several seasons with the Cleveland Browns.  Starter and backup.  Backup and starter.

In 2009, the Browns were the last team to announce a starting quarterback.  Would it be Quinn or Anderson? Coach Eric Mangini eventually named Quinn, who ultimately started nine games that season with DA starting the other seven. 

Quinn, a first round draft pick, was the fans’ favorite.  And the fans let Anderson know he was not welcome anymore, and when earlier this year he was cut by the Browns, DA responded in anger:  “The fans here are ruthless and don’t deserve a winner,”  Anderson was quoted as saying in an email.  “I will never forget being cheered when I was injured.   I know at times I wasn’t great.  I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and (we) roll them.”

I wondered if all that angst had embittered Quinn and Anderson, that they now saw each other as enemies.  That they wanted to forget the cruddy days in Cleveland.

So I had the glasses on DA as Sunday’s game ground to a halt.  I wondered if he would rush out onto the field to congratulate Skelton.  Or would he seek out Quinn?  Or someone else?

I followed DA’s progress as he walked onto the field.  He was a man on a mission.  He looked neither right nor left.  Just moved steadily straight ahead, paying no attention to teammates or the few Broncos still milling around at midfield. 

At last another figure entered my field of view.  It was Quinn.  Anderson strode up to him, wrapped an arm around him, and they embraced with DA affectionately ruffling Quinn’s hair.  It was a touching moment, I thought.  Like watching two warriors who had endured hell and more, and because of it had bonded in a way few of us ever will. 

I had been rewarded by knowing their history.  It is not always who wins and loses that engages.  It is little dramas like this that are often more entertaining than the game itself.