Die for a Tie

I didn't know my Granddad very well. I knew he had flown bomber missions in World War II and Korea as a flight navigator, and that he spent many years of his life in the unshakable clutch of alcoholism. Even as a kid, I understood that the former probably had a hell of a lot to do with the latter.

I recall a black and white picture of Granddad, posed in his army uniform, young, handsome with a hint of a smile on his face. I had a hard time reconciling that picture with the stoic, cursing old son-of-a bitch I knew as a youth. Honestly, Granddad scared the shit out of me.

The one positive thing I remember was Granddad calling me over when I was around ten years old. I approached cautiously. The old man pulled a ten dollar bill out of his pocket and shoved it in my hand. "Now goddammit, I'm not giving you this money, see? I'm expecting you to mow my lawn when you come down and visit."

Time ravages the memory, but I think when we went down to Texas to visit two years later I breathed a sigh of relief to see that his lawn had already been cut. It was a gift after all.

I would find out later through my uncle that Granddad had in fact participated in the Dresden firebombing, a fact that Granddad was not proud of, a fact that probably weighed on him for the rest of his life.

The ghost of my Pall Mall-smoking Granddad informed my reading of David Halberstam's brilliant accounting of the Korean War (and sadly his Halberstam's swan song), "The Coldest Winter." While I have not read his monumental book on Vietnam, "The Best and the Brightest" I did read "The Fifties" an excellent survey of that decade that touched on Korea and left me wanting to know more about that horrible conflict.

Sometimes you read a book, so affecting, so well-crafted and complete that you have to pause mid-sentence and acknowledge that you are in the hands of a master. So it is with "The Coldest Winter." Not only does it stand as probably the best single volume of the history of that war, but as a much needed antidote to "The Greatest Generation" nonsense that fills the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Books no doubt my Granddad would have openly scoffed at.

Here we see an overconfident and ill-equipped American army fueled by the larger-than-life hubris and not-so-subtle racism of General Douglas MacArthur and his cronies suddenly in full retreat from Kim Il Sung's Soviet-backed North Korean People's Army just a few years after V-Day. While Inchon stands as MacArthur's greatest military victory, that amphibious assault would further loosen his tether from reality.

On his command, the Army would march in the icy dead of winter headlong toward the Chinese border at the Yalu River perilously stretching its supply lines on the assumption that the Chinese would not enter the war...it would be MacArthur's gravest miscalculation among the many he would make in this conflict, and open full-scale massacres of American troops at the Chosin Resevoir and the infamous "Gauntlet" a six-mile stretch of road where Chinese bullets cut down entire battalions of American soldiers.

With MacArthur defeated, the Joint Chiefs would send General Matthew Ridgway to Korea. Ridgway would stanch the bleeding and push the Chinese back to the 38th parallel, but the possibility for victory over the entire peninsula was lost.

Halberstam captures the entire panorama of the Korean War, from the political fights in Washington and Beijing, to brass in-fighting and MacArthur's inevitable downfall, to the grunts who endured inhuman suffering and carnage, even by WWII standards.

At the end of the book, my thoughts turned to my Granddad, who after bringing hell to Dresden, may have also been one of the first Americans to bring another type of hell to the enemy in the form of napalm in Korea (although my uncle is pretty sure he was deskbound). He would fight two wars in ten years when no man should even have to endure one. I'm pretty sure I'd have hit the bottle too after such an intensely terrifying experience.

Like most vets, my Granddad was tight-lipped about his war experience. It may likely have been out of a sense of protecting his friends and family from the blood-soaked images of war. I think it was as much about protecting himself from re-living those horrors. My uncle says that the stoicism of vets serves no one, that in fact it does more harm than good because we don't understand the realities of war before we make the commitment. I agree.

It makes you wonder if a certain president and vice president had not dodged Vietnam, would they be so quick to commit troops to a region known for continuous conflict?

Of course we know that endless military miscalculations guided by bigotry and bluster would not be unique to Korea and Vietnam, a fact that isn't lost on Halberstam:

"Then in 2003 the administration of George W. Bush, improperly reading what the end of the Russian empire might mean in the Middle East, completely misreading the likely response of the indigenous people, ignoring the warnings of the most able member of the George H.W. Bush national security team, Brent Scowcroft, and badly wanting for its own peculiar reasons to take down the government of Saddam Hussein, manipulated the Congress, the media, the public and most dangerously of all, itself with seriously flawed and doctored intelligence, and sent troops into the heart of Iraqi cities with disastrous results."

"The Coldest Winter" is a towering achievement, a clear-eyed final report from one of America's greatest journalists.


Blood and Thunder

I've lived all of my 38 years in the American West, and sadly, in all that time I've learned nothing of its history. The West, unlike practically every other region in America doesn't have a Lincoln Monument or a Civil War battlefield or a Colonial Williamsburg.

OK, that's not entirely true, historic Spanish missions and ancient Indian ruins dot the Southwest, but the West is better known for monuments of Prehistory (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Rockies, etc.) rather than American history.

If there was a single man who defined the West and who brought a magical historical gravitas to every rock he touched and every forlorn creek he drank from, it was Kit Carson. Journalist John Sullivan may have coined the phrase, and the curmudgeonly James K. Polk may have been its architect, but it was Kit Carson who willingly or not personified the romance and blood of American "Manifest Destiny."

Hampton Sides' "Blood and Thunder" is a gory and glorious report on Carson and the conquest of the American West. Carson's name of course is ubiquitous in the West with rivers, mountains, parks, and even towns and cities bearing his namesake. As a born and bred westerner, you just grow up taking his name for granted as you can't cross a river he hasn't forded, a mountain he hasn't climbed or a desert he hasn't traversed. However, as many times as Carson escaped certain death at the hands of hostile Indians, drunken French trappers, not to mention that callous bitch Mother Nature, he was also reliably at the fulcrum of events that turned the West from a Spanish/Mexican Outback, to a continent that would spread from Boston to Santa Barbara.

That's not entirely a good thing.

The flip-side of our ocean-to-ocean ambitions was the premeditated destruction of entire civilizations, particularly the Navajos led by their immortal "Chief" Narbona. (I put 'chief' in quotes, because the Navajo didn't have a strict hierarchy, although Narbona's authority is rarely questioned.) Here Sides masterfully shows Carson, in spite of his lack of formal education and simple demeanor, as a complex man wrestling with the contradiction of his reverence for the Navajos and the inevitability of their conquest.

It seems Carson's siding with Polk and his generals was as inevitable as the conquest and subjugation of the Navajos.

This is one of those rare history books that grips you like a Charles Dickens novel...come to think of it, in "Blood and Thunder" we even find Dickens chiming in on the exploits of Kit Carson. Like the labyrinthine network of canyons where the Navajos would make their last stand against a patient and merciless Carson, the book follows every dead end, meticulously probes every cave and every boulder-strewn narrow and when it's done, we no longer see the lonely, crowded West of stretching suburbs and resort communities, but instead we get a rare peek into an enchanted land, a West that quit existing the moment we set foot in it.

A compelling read.

I'd like to thank my Mom for generously donating this book.


Dangerous & Radical

Well, it's been quite a stretch since my last post. Apologies all around.

Anyway, it's not like I quit reading.

In fact, I read two head-spinning non-fiction books that will surely make your hair stand on end.

Joel Garreau's riveting take on western civilization's ever-ascending technology curve and the mind-boggling ramifications for humanity as we know it had my head swimming for at least a couple of weeks. If that wasn't enough, I tossed in John Brockman's "What is Your Dangerous Idea?", a compendium of answers to the book's title from some of the world's leading scientists, philosophers and academicians.

However, it's Garreau's book that has this human in a state of future shock. According to some very credible scientists the exponential nature of the information technology curve (think Moore's Law here), we are rapidly moving toward the "singularity" a moment in human evolution where the line between what is human and what is machine is blurred past the point of recognition.

For some, like Dr. Ray Kurzweil, this is humanity making it's inevitable move toward immortality. Garreau follows Kurzweil through the "Heaven Scenario" where our technology abolishes poverty, pestilence and even death. Kurzweil is no crackpot, the guy predicted the internet in explicit detail decades before it's development.

Of course, one man's heaven is another man's hell. Garreau flips the evolutionary script following Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy into scenarios that seem plucked from a James Cameron script. Which isn't to say that any of Joy's doom and gloom scenarios aren't realistic...some of them, to me anyway, seem downright inevitable. Swarms of self-replicating nano-bots, stark stratifications between artificially enhanced humans and "naturals", or artificial intelligence deciding the fate of humanity. If technology is accelerating at a clip faster than human morality can absorb its broad-ranging implications then some kind of technological catastrophe or even a holocaust is inevitable in our lifetime.

But then again, those sci-fi outcomes seem just a little too easy.

Garreau's third scenario the "Prevail Scenario" that seems most likely. If technological calamity doesn't render humanity extinct then we will muddle through as a species to a scenario we simply can't imagine yet. The movement toward the "singularity" might push humans toward rather than away from each other and through creativity and embracing the unknowable, we may be able to (eventually) transcend technology and be forced by necessity to accept each other in what will clearly be a wildly heterogeneous world.

Anyway, the future is at once scary and exhilarating...and so I guess there is nothing new under the sun...for now.

John Brockman's "What is Your Dangerous Idea" brings together Garreau, Kurzweil, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and dozens of other scientists and intellectuals to briefly proffer their scary ideas...and the book doesn't disappoint. Ideas here range broadly from Stevens Institute Director John Horgan who surmises that the human "soul" doesn't exist to Harvard Business School's Juan Enriquez seeing technology as hastening the disintegration of the United States.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to return to my closet and resume shutting my eyes, muttering to myself and rocking back and forth.


Oh, and thanks again to the Denver Public Library who graciously loaned me Joel Garreau's "Radical Evolution."



After reading Bill Buford's kitchen memoir "Heat" I think I can contrive a hackneyed metaphorical recipe that boils down the life of a Babbo kitchen slave:

1. 1 cup of your Soul (pulverized)
2. 1 tablespoon Masochism
3. 2 Cloves Perfectionism (minced)
4. 1 pinch obscure knowledge of Old World cooking
5. 1/2 cup second degree burns
6. 1/2 cup various nicks, cuts and abrasions

Pressure cook for two years, or until the Soul has evaporated.

OK, that last line isn't fair.

Once again Buford has taken me on a wild trip through his latest obsession.

Heat is less a biography of Babbo chef/icon Mario Batali and more of a meticulous diary of one man taking a mere fanciful notion ("hey, I should try and get a job with Mario Batali") and taking that notion to it's extreme, practically absurd conclusion (Buford searching a library in Rome for the exact historical moment the egg was introduced in making a pasta; singing 'O Sole Mio' while making pasta in the kitchen of a small italian village and pondering the ethics of a Tuscan butcher using a Spanish cow).

Of course, it's all positively riveting.

We follow Buford from bumbling kitchen ignoramus to a scholar to everything arcane in Italian cookery. In the end even maestro Batali is ultimately impressed and a little perplexed by what Buford has learned.

A fascinating read, even if cooking is not your thing.

Thanks to the Denver Library for loaning me this book.


Among the Chefs

On the Nightstand:

Heat, Bill Buford (Knopf 2006)


Memoir, Professional Cooking, Italy, Mario Batali.


From Powells.com: "From one of our most interesting literary figures — 16 years as editor of
Granta, 8 years as fiction editor at The New Yorker, author of Among the Thugs, the best-selling expose of the world of English soccer hooligans — a sharp, funny, exuberant, close-up book about his headlong plunge into the life of a professional cook-in-training.

Expanding on his August 2002 New Yorker article, Bill Buford now gives us a richly evocative chronicle of his experience as "slave" to Mario Batali in the small, chaotic, highest-standards kitchen of Batali's three-star New York restaurant, Babbo, and of his apprenticeships with Batali's former teachers. In a fast-paced, candid narrative, Buford describes three frenetic years in the kitchen: trials and errors, disappointments and triumphs, as he worked his way up the Babbo ladder to a line cook... his relationship with the larger-than-life Batali, whose story he learns as their friendship grows through (and sometimes despite) kitchen encounters and after-work all-nighters... and his immersion in the art of butchery in Northern Italy, of preparing game in London, and of handmade pasta at an Italian hillside trattoria.

Heat is a marvelous hybrid: a memoir of Buford's kitchen adventure, the story of Batali's amazing rise to culinary (and extra-culinary) fame, a dazzling behind-the-scenes look at a famous restaurant, and an illuminating exploration of why food matters. It is a book to delight in, and to savor."


Back in 1992 my friend Scott emphatically recommended Buford's soccer hooligan memoir, Among the Thugs, and fifteen years later that book still stands as one of my most favorite reads. Riveting from start to finish, we follow Buford as he befriends football hooligans of every stripe, blue collars, racists and brawlers, venting their pent up rage, and stifled nationalism in the name of Manchester United. Often we find the young Buford enthralled by this fraternity of sports-loving scofflaws, and it is the tension between the journalists objectivity and the human desire to belong that gives Among the Thugs a thick tension like no other book I've read.

In the last couple of years I have finally figured out that cooking is far from the dull chore I always thought it was. After buying Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything last year, the nascent chef in me has grown in fits and starts. Still, I'm no surfer of cooking shows, and couldn't identify Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, or for that matter, Mark Bittman, in a police line up. I'm reading Heat, more for Buford's potent and lucid journalism than Batali's love of the short rib.


Beyond Belief

Well, this month took a heretical turn, as I read both Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, and for kicks, my wife and I took in the eye-opening documentary, Jesus Camp.

As someone who has people close to me that identify themselves as Christians, I'll stay my hand on any potentially perceived rants so as not to offend those I love. However, let's be honest, the idea, the mere mention of atheism is the highest sort of insult to folks who believe in a supernatural and personal deity.

So in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or converted Jew. There are a whole bunch of other religions that I am not as well. For instance, I don't believe in Zeus or Quetelcoatl either. (You think I mock, but a considerable number of people believed in these gods) Also, I don't fancy astrology, or any of that mushy "New Age" stuff either. (astrology might be even more popular now than it was with the Ancients, and shamans still practice Animism all over the world.)

From an early age, I have found the whole notion of God dubious at best.

No doubt I have offended someone already, and yes, in a less modern society or a different time I would be put to death or tortured for saying such things. Still, I find myself in pretty good company.

Few self-proclaimed atheists are as reviled by organized religion as evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins.

Before a debate with a minister, Dawkins notoriously snubbed the minister's outstretched hand, quipping, "You sir, are an ignorant bigot." This is not exactly civil discourse, but it should be noted that religious leaders and allegedly Christian political pundits haven't exactly cleaved to the sermon on the mount as of late.

In the God Delusion, Christianity in particular, as the west's dominant religion, comes under Dawkins' withering, clinical gaze. Making quick work of "proofs" and rationale's for belief in God, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Pascal's Wager, Dawkins lays out an eloquent, unflappable logic.

My Christian friends and family would quickly point out that logic is hardly a prerequisite to having faith in God. In fact, in my experience, most Christians take comfort that God is "beyond" rationality. Of course this mindset absolutely horrifies Dawkins.

Most of Dawkins' secular wrath is reserved for the latest in evangelical chic, "Intelligent Design." The "theory" posits that the universe is best explained by an "intelligent cause" not an "undirected process like natural selection." (I love these little nonsensical, oxymoronic gems like 'undirected process.')

The proponents of 'ID' successfully lobbied to get their theory taught in the science classrooms of Dover, Pennsylvania with this little piece of chicanery:

"Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is
discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there
is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a
broad range of observations."

This deceitfully plays on the word "theory" in it's common use, meaning speculation or conjecture. However, anyone who has taken high school science, knows that scientific theory is an entirely different animal that requires a hypothesis, an experiment, and a high level of predictability. Facts are not inconsistent with theory, as many theories have a factual basis. For instance, the "Theory" of Gravity is a fact.*

Evolution, just as rigorously tested as gravity is also a theory and a fact; a fact that creationist forces have worked overtime to distort. Fortunately, they have failed. In the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, Judge John E. Jones set precedent by rebuking 'ID' as science, calling the defense's case "breathtaking in its inanity."

"The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a
mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

"A significant aspect of the IDM [intelligent design movement] is that despite
Defendants’ protestations to the contrary, it describes ID as a religious
argument. In that vein, the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the
designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity."

This last line from Judge Jones stems from when the defense was forced to admit that astrology was consistent with the teachings of Intelligent Design. In fact, any belief could be thrown into the mix.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

While The God Delusion points out such deceptions with equal the contempt of Judge Jones, it is Dawkins' virtual catechism on Charles Darwin and natural selection, that makes any attempt to find a divine hand in life a seemingly needless and futile enterprise. The slow and persistent process of natural selection has direction indeed, and Dawkins doesn't hesitate in trotting out the physical proof. 'ID' on the other hand while posing as a science relies on innuendo and the lazy human propensity to make up answers when none are apparent.

As a scientist, Dawkins doesn't claim to know the answer of how the universe sprung into existence. However, he insists that just because we don't know the answer to something, that doesn't justify a baseless assumption of an omniscient, all-powerful being.

For me, that is the rub. While science seems comfortable with the mysteries of the universe and practically prides itself on what it doesn't know, religion exhausts itself with contradictory and seemingly arbitrary explanations as to what it unequivocally does know, regardless of all evidence to the contrary and just plain common sense.

To be a Christian I would be required to believe that Jesus was the product of a virgin, and that he rose from the dead...at a minimum. To be a Jew, I would have to believe that the Jews are the chosen people, and to be a Muslim I would have to believe that the angel Gabriel visited Mohammed proclaiming him God's "final prophet." And that's just the Abrahamic religions. I won't get into the beliefs of Zoroasters, Mormons, Scientologists, Hindus, Jainists, Shintoists, Buddhists, Pagans and Sikhs. (I'll confess here a some affinity with the Buddhist philosophy, but not the religion, and I'm happy to report, the Buddhists seem cool with that.)

I was disappointed that Dawkins barely addresses the role of religion in giving comfort and solace. Churches, synagogues and mosques provide a support community that is crucial for some people to cope with loss. Atheists have no equivalent that I can think of, and apparently, neither can Dawkins.

Ah, the lonely life of the atheist...

Still, just because we are unable to cope with life's inevitable cruel twists and turns does that suddenly justify the belief in an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient super being? I know that when I am in pain it is real human compassion ("humanity") that I value, not the far-flung, ersatz abstraction of God's mercy.

I suppose with people like me, Dawkins is preaching to the converted (so to speak), but this book did open my eyes to other issues I hadn't considered before.

For instance, is it proper for children who have not yet even developed a sense of individuality, much less a sophisticated moral code, to be indoctrinated into the church/mosque/synagogue? Dawkins believes it unfair to label a child Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or even atheist as it doesn't foster a critical sense of self and the surrounding world. Religion defines the child before the child has a chance to define himself.

The religious argument is that it is religion that provides the child a moral code. Dawkins skillfully demolishes this reasoning as well. Also, it should be noted, that this is the special focus of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. I won't be reviewing it, as that would be atheist overkill, but Harris effectively uses passages from the Bible itself to refute claims of Christian moral superiority.

On a personal level, I hardly feel harmed by my brief period as a Presbyterian. Hey, I actually enjoyed Sunday School, but I'll admit, it took years before I was able to be openly skeptical of Christianity. My turn toward atheism felt like a betrayal of my Christian friends and family, but ultimately for me to pretend to faith would be shameless, dishonest and intolerable.

And on this point, I'm sure my Christian friends and I are on common ground.

I highly recommend this book, and include a shout out to the Denver Public Library who loaned it to me.

CORRECTION: Gravity is not a theory, it is a law. A better comparison would have been the "theory" of Continent Drift, or the "theory" probability, or game theory, or atomic theory...all have a basis in fact.


The God Delusion

On the Nightstand:

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins; (Houghton Mifflin 2006)


Evolution, Atheism, Religious Studies, "Intelligent Design."

Book Blurb:
From Publishers Weekly: The antireligion wars started by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris will heat up even more with this salvo from celebrated Oxford biologist Dawkins. For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe. But Dawkins, who gave us the selfish gene, anticipates this criticism. He says it's the scientist and humanist in him that makes him hostile to religions—fundamentalist Christianity and Islam come in for the most opprobrium—that close people's minds to scientific truth, oppress women and abuse children psychologically with the notion of eternal damnation. While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense." The most effective chapters are those in which Dawkins calms down, for instance, drawing on evolution to disprove the ideas behind intelligent design. In other chapters, he attempts to construct a scientific scaffolding for atheism, such as using evolution again to rebut the notion that without God there can be no morality. He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.


I saw an interview on YouTube between Dawkins and Ted Haggard. While the interview itself revealed nothing groundbreaking, it was fascinating to watch the keen and supremely arrogant Dawkins joust with the slick and equally arrogant, mega-church "deceiver" Ted Haggard. I also found the above review from Publisher's Weekly amusing, as I can't imagine Dawkin's rhetoric equalling that of notorious fundamentalists like Dobson, Robertson, Falwell and company.