Saturday, September 05, 2009

Summer's End

China Camp

Alone on a small beach here today, the only sounds were small waves lapping at the shore, a breeze in the trees, and sea gulls. The same sounds of 130 years ago in this remote corner of San Francisco Bay.

The crumbling buildings still here are a ghost-town. Way back then, only Chinese was spoken here. You can close your eyes and see it all -- the junks, the nets, the shells.

The kids and I like to come here at the change of seasons. To imagine the past, and also the future.


Friday, September 04, 2009

Losing the War in Afghanistan

If a picture is worth a thousand words, that's just 6,000 words of value I've added, right?

No. First of all, I'm an awful photographer. These are digital photos, taken at low-res. They are not publication quality.

I could set my camera to high-res, and publish those here but it would be a waste. The files would be too heavy for anyone visiting over a lower bandwith connection, such as visitors from overseas.

Over the past three and a half years, people have accessed this blog from all over the planet. The last time I checked, at least one person from virtually every country on earth had visited Hotweir at least once.

Maybe no one from Kazakhstan has come by yet, but they should, given the many times I write about Central Asia, especially Afghanistan. Life in the Land of the Afghans (Pasthuns) is not that different from life in the Land of the Kazakhs, except the latter at least are not suffering from an unending war.

My political opinion has changed, again. My unwavering support for the war in Afghanistan has weakened considerably over the months. This is unlike Iraq. It isn't a civil war of clashing ethnic groups, although it could easily degenerate into that at some point, whether the U.S. military is there or not.

Rather than force, I'm starting to sense a more powerful weapon. It was the rebellion in Iran that first got me thinking this way. Then, came last week's election in Japan. For the first time since World War Two, for the first time in Japan's experiment with democracy, the ruling party was thrown out of power.

The events in both Iran and Japan were inspired by the election of Barack Obama. The things that conservatives and know-nothings despise about Obama, though they never admit it, are primarily his race, his family's Islamic background, his centrist politics, and his ability to inspire people of all faiths, beliefs and politics.

In other words, the fringe right fears Obama. They are frightened little people, cowering before the specter that their ways are fading away, never to return.

If they actually had the analytical ability to see what Obama's influence has become, on a global level, they would have to remake their own geo-political calculus much as I have had to.

Obama has the power to change Japan, the world's second largest economy, from a pseudo-democracy into (finally) a functional democracy. No previous U.S. President had this power.

I'm still a realist about the need for drone attacks on the badlands of the Khyber Pass, and an agreement with whoever happens to be in power in Kabul that al-Qaeda leaders will be bomb-able by the U.S. wherever and whenever we locate them.

It's time for a true "War of Terror." In the course of that, it's time to stop being seen as an occupation force by the Afghans. A deep irony about these people, many of whom I have known and respected deeply all of my adult life, is the minute the U.S. removes its military troops, our national image will begin to improve among the Afghans and their need for our support will increase accordingly.

Afghans are first and foremost realists. They don't want Russia, Iran or Pakistan to have undue influence in their internal affairs. They actually prefer Americans to all of those potential occupiers by an order of magnitude.

The problem is that right now we are on the wrong side of the Afghan equation. We've allowed ourselves to become the bad guys who kill civilians and don't bring peace or security.

You can still argue this political position from either side; to be precise, I can still argue it. It is the proverbial rock and hard place; we are basically screwed whether we stay or leave.

Obama, of course, wants the international community to really embrace this piece of the war on terror, but most countries are far more sensitive to the utter inability of any outsider to impose order on a country so chaotic that no conqueror -- from Alexander the Great to the British to the Soviets -- has ever succeeded.

The U.S. won't, either.

I'm no foreign policy expert, and this is not a white paper. But it's time to start rolling back from military confrontation, I believe, and step up economic incentives and the "lead-by-example" method that has destabilized Iran and re-energized Japan in the first few months Obama has been on the job.

He can and will work wonders in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The military is the military, even the best-trained, best-resourced military in the world, and that is based on imposing physical force on "bad guys." The trouble is that the paradigm has shifted and today's bad guy is tomorrow's friend.

We're still, as a people, trying to undue the "clash of civilizations" the Bush-Cheney crowd decided to employ post 9-11. It failed.

It's time to turn another page. It's time to wage peace.

p.s. That was about 800 words.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Some Things Matter; Others Don't

In summer's final days, with all the ridiculously childish behavior by right-wing extremists all over the place, we're just ignoring these people here for now, and concentrating on more important things, like dog-walking.

Now his brother has started high school, my youngest son has taken over the job of walking a neighbor's dogs every weekday. In this kind of weather, and with two hilltop parks within walking distance, the dogs anticipate his arrival each mid-day.

You can hear them begin to yelp as he ascends the stairs. Since inside the baby is napping, the nanny brings the dogs to the door and shushes them out quickly, so quickly that he cannot get a hold of the poop bags inside.

"That's okay," I say, as I free a couple of the throwaway newspapers from the front stoop of their plastic bags. "You can use these."

The stuff he scoops up behind the dogs is exactly the material being excreted by these ridiculous "truthers," and "birthers," and other pathetic maniacs who represent the death-throes of American white racism.

These people purport to represent a true groundswell, but as one who was at the grassroots of the Sixties movements, let me assure you they are nothing more than flabby fakes.

They represent the ugliest of America's past, but they are nothing but the past. They have no future. If they had enough courage of their convictions to ask their own children, they would find out they are embarrassments, not role models.

They, too, will pass. And they will have accomplished nothing. President Obama will remain President Obama right through his second term, into early 2017. No action by these extremists can change that fate.

National health care reform will be instituted this fall. It will be nowhere near what it should be, partly thanks to the noise-makers, but really due to the money spent by those who are manipulating them (bloated insurance companies.) None of it will matter in the end. The fakes will feel the sharp sting of defeat due to just how wonderful reform turns out to be.

With that lash on their back, their ranks will begin to splinter and they all will secretly begin to doubt themselves.

Like all weaklings, they will begin to abandon their dubious "cause" and scatter. Another round of reform; this time the Democrats will not play nicey-nicey and will shove hard reforms down their throats.

The mid-term elections next year: The Republicans, lost on the fringe, will give up substantial numbers of seats in Congress. Then, the pace of change will quicken. I am sorry, my conservative friends, but it will get too ugly to describe here, in this family-friendly place.

You'd better spend your time learning how to let go of bitterness. I'd suggest Buddhism, for a start, or intense therapy, or poetry.

As history unfolds, and all of this nonsense passes, I will not, alas, be involved much longer. I'm moving on, at this blog and in reality, to higher callings. Higher callings include parenting, gardening, reading, speaking, writing, and attending my HS freshman son's first soccer game on his varsity team next Tuesday.

He turns 15 the day before; we'll have a backyard party here. The following day he is the starting right defender. His Dad will be there.

"And if you ain't into that," as Hank Williams, Jr., would say, "We don't give a damn!"

Go Balboa!


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Triangulating Family Networks

One of the fascinating thing about a big family is all the different roles people take toward one another, especially over time. Of course, if you're Dad, you're always Dad, but the relationship with your children evolves as everyone gets older.

My older kids know more -- much more -- about all kinds of stuff than I do. My younger kids are familiar with technologies, cultural trends, and music that I only learn about through them.

Case in point: There's no way I would know that "SpongeBob, SquarePants" is a brilliantly-written TV show unless I had young children.

Besides all of this, there's a network effect as you add people into your family. The bigger the group, the larger the multiples, as family members create different relationships with each other.

This is why social media like Facebook, if you keep at it assiduously, will eventually yield a community of contacts in the thousands or even millions. (Note to file: I don't do this.)

Although there is no possible way you could ever get to know, or even meet all of those people you are a degree of separation or two away from, when you add in keyword search, and targeting technologies, you can see why a service such as LinkedIn might well help you find your next job.

This was all swirling around in my head today as my older son helped me prepare for an upcoming conference presentation. I meanwhile, was channeling Julia Child and cooking him an omelette, my prosaic new cooking specialty.

This is a mid-week that features my two middle children, both boys, yet one is also a youngest child, while the other is also an oldest child, due to the peculiar math of having raised two separate groups of three.

So, at breakfast, my 28-year-old, as the neuroscience PhD he is, was walking me through the logic of a fascinating if obscure exercise about how color affects our brain's response time when completing simple tasks, like reading.

Then, we packed up his stuff for Burning Man.

Last night, news came that my other middle child, 14 years old, has made his school's varsity soccer team as a freshman, after a grueling eight-day tryout in blazing heat. He also has advanced up into Honors Physics and seems to be doing well with that challenge.

Two boys in the middle of the pack, with two other wonderful siblings older and two equally wonderful younger. Despite my obsession with math, I'd just never thought of them that way before. You'd think that with 128 years of parenting under my belt plus two more to add before next month is out, it would have occurred to me, but there you have it.

Burning Man. Neuroscience. Soccer. Physics. Two boys, one Dad. Just workin' our network...and feeling the effects.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Old Timings, New Times

Yesterday, at a BBQ north of the City, I connected with a bunch of old friends and made some new ones. That simple experience pulled me out of an alienation partly driven by the weather -- on Saturday in the City it was stiflingly hot, around 98 degrees in this end of town. We also had high humidity. The kids were languid and didn't want to go outside at all.

Then, on Saturday night, the fog moved in and yesterday it was freakishly cold and windy. Nobody wanted to go outside into that.

But up in Marin, it was a different story. Nestled in one of the valleys that creep down from mighty Mount Tamalpais, we met in a yard sheltered from the elements.

I used to "own" a house one valley south of there. My wife and I bought it in 1987 for just over $200,000, in that time a fairly princely sum. It was a dream property for raising our three then-young (now grown) kids. We sold that house over a decade later.

A lot has happened since then. I have rarely returned to the area, maybe just a handful of times each year -- or even less. But I remember the fresh air smell under enormous trees, the flora and fauna, the narrow, winding roads, the deer, my garden, the contours of a community where we were relative strangers at first, but soon felt at home.

And I remember the ineffable sadness of leaving the house myself after only two years on the property. Transition time had arrived, and I was the one who had to go. The kids did grow up there, but without me on the scene -- except as a frequent visitor.

There were regular visits, when I got them dinner, helped with homework, attended Little League games, or took them on shopping outings. Come to think of it, these amounted to almost every day of the week. Then there were the unscheduled visits I made, when somebody was ill and couldn't go to school. I'd drive out with snacks and treats and sit for them for an hour, before returning to work.

And there were also the days when I scored Giants' tickets. Then, I'd drive out and take one of them far south to windy Candlestick Park. I did a lot of driving in those years. That's another thing I remembered yesterday.

It can be pretty scary driving to and over the Golden Gate on 101 North, these days. For locals, it's a commute. For tourists, it's a time to drive slowly and take in the scenery.

I'm neither now, and I don't like being caught, as a driver, between these two distinct groups. It felt yesterday like I was the only one paying attention, frankly.