Thursday, February 28, 2008

Non-gainful gain?

The past couple of morning zazen sittings were outstanding. A couple of weeks ago, I had an electronic conversation with one of my gentle readers about the apparent tension between the Zen concept of no-gain and the feeling that we get gain because sometimes things are just better somehow after sitting. We must get some kind of gain out of what we do, as we keep going back for more, and Zen isn't the type of spiritual practice Americans would do out of tradition or social obligation. Moreover, I did not get into Zen practice as part of a search for any enlightenment or ultimate revelation (for now, I'm content with the transient, impermanent human truth works for me at the moment). Rather, I was simply trying out something that seemed like it might create a space of tranquility in a chaotic mind. At the time, tranquility was a major gain. Of course, with Buddhism being a non-dualistic philosophy, it could be that gain and no-gain aren't in any tension at all, but are somehow one and the same and can be held in a perfect balance.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Language Cake

I started reading Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor's Redemption Falls the other day. The book is set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War; perhaps it's a kind of new wave Gone With the Wind (which I found rather dull, quite honestly). This book was highly praised by critics of all stripes in the TLS, and I can see why. O'Connor's language is like a very rich piece of chocolate mousse cake that I can only eat a little bite of at a time. I find myself rereading paragraphs just for the pleasure of nibbling at the author's delicious dessert of words, so I haven't reached page 30 yet. To wit:

She had not been walking long when it started to happen. Everything was coming to merit attention. A rice-field. Two flies. A dead chicken-hawk in a gully. The eyes of hungry alligators resentful in the slime. All of it seemed equal, which is one definition of madness. The weight of the world had lost proportion.

There were days when she hobbled until the world began to shimmer. The sky billowed around her like the folds of the apocalypse and the white-hot egg of pain in her breast threatened to crack with a seepage of venom.

Goodness knows how long it's going to take for me to reach the end of this novel

And the Oscar for being just plain weird goes to . . .

Gary Busey. I get him confused with Nick Nolte.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Go Blue!

Now here's an odd fact--38 of the 43 U.S. Presidents have had blue eyes, yet we blue eyed types currently make up only 16% of the U.S. population (down from 50% in 1900). Maybe I'll enter the 2012 race.

Annoyingly Effective

Well, this "Dear Adoptee" letter certainly brightened up my Friday. There's no "non-ID" file in Austin with my name on it; I've already signed up for the registry she mentions; and there is no agency from which I can obtain anything. Moreover, I finally got an answer to my petition to unseal my adoption file--"no," by non-ruling. If I feel a need to refile, I'll load the petition up with documentation to create a nice record on appeal. I found this most recent letter sufficiently off-putting that I began thinking of this as more of a long-term campaign with lots of zigs, zags, and inching forward than as a quick march to victory. I sat down and wrote a list of questions and identified some resources that might lead me in the right direction. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Of Bowls and Behaviors

I visited the Autism Center at St. Mary's the other day. Each of my boys has his own training room, where he recieves 1:1 ABA training per day. Both of them are doing well with their current objectives.

The St. Mary's Parents Group is holding a fundraiser in April, the Greco Bowl, honoring the late Bishop Charles Greco. This is our first attempt at this kind of fundraiser, but it has great potential. The kids are painting bowls, which a regionally renowned chef (John Folse, who has a show on PBS) will fill with gumbo. The diner then keeps the bowl. We're probably going to reserve all of our kids' bowls and give out a few as gifts.

A. has a minor case of sinusitis this weekend, but he had a great time playing in the warm water of the hotel swimming pool.

T. had an up-and-down weekend at home. We're working through a period of obsessive/compulsive behavior that can be painful to observe. As God is my witness, I had no idea that Clearview Mall has two key-operated freight elevators with the doors permanently opened (what, were teenagers having sex in there or something?). Also, the other elevator we had been riding stopped on us. Not good. Not good at all. However, there was a stiff wind coming off the gulf, and T. was able to play in a nice little surf, albeit while wearing a long sleeved boatsman's shirt. That was fun. This morning, T. was extra clever. He saw some unfolded swimsuits on the couch, so he found a suitcase and packed it with the swimsuits. If he could get that suitcase into the car, it would mean we would have to check into the hotel to go swimming. Not bad reasoning, and it took some planning.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Uptown is Red?

Two Uptown New Orleans residents--one of them a U.S. citizen--have been arrested and charged with espionage for collecting classified information about American arms sales to Taiwan (including, apparently, some technical information about U.S. military communications) and transmitting that information to the spy service of the Peoples Republic of China. Perhaps I should walk over to the holding cells and see if they need any help with the waterboarding of these treason suspects.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Water and Sky

I took my kayak out on Saturday morning, paddling down Cane Bayou into Lake Pontchartrain and back. It was a fabulous day for paddling, with a temperature in the high 60s and a gorgeous blue sky. We're going through the fabulous sci-fi Western Firefly on DVD at home right now, and I thought of the theme song to that show as I lay back in the kayak, floated along, and looked up at the sky:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me.

Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me.

Leave the men where they lay
They'll never see another day
Lost my soul, lost my dream
You can't take the sky from me.

I feel the black reaching out
I hear its song without a doubt
I still hear and I still see
That you can't take the sky from me.

Lost my love, lost my land
Lost the last place I could stand
There's no place I can be
Since I've found Serenity

And you can't take the sky from me.

A few hours later, I was at the theater watching There Will Be Blood. One can't spend an entire Saturday lazing around outside.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Instant American Classic

Holy crap! gentle readers, I saw There Will Be Blood last night. I've thought about it a little, and it may be one of the best movies I've ever seen.

There is very little blood and there an ocean of oil in the movie, so it could be that the title is an allusion to certain events in the Middle East, in which oil, religion, and violence are all whooshed up together, but that may be a stretch. If it is indeed a "message movie," that fact is so subtle that it shouldn't stop anyone from seeing the movie.

The film takes place in the New Mexico and California oil fields right around the beginning of the 20th Century. Like Citizen Kane,, the movie is about greed and paranoid, ruthless ambition. The greed, paranoia, and ambition here are served up with strong flavorings of rage and resentment. The protagonist and antagonist in the film are oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and dirt-poor preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) of the Church of the Third Revelation. One online reviewer referred to Plainview's business and Sunday's church as the twin churches of greed, and, in the film, that's exactly what they are. Plainview and Sunday are very much alike, and their relationship in the movie is a cycle of provocation and vengeance. Throughout the film, each is able to see through the other, and it seems that they can see something of themselves in each other.

The movie opens with a sequence of oil drilling scenes, with several minutes of no dialogue at all. Men are in claustrophobic, dusty, narrow holes in the ground, almost as if they are both injuring the Earth and digging their own graves. Quite a metaphor there. With a few exceptions, the landscape is a parched, nearly lifeless desert, much as Daniel Plainview's soul. The movie was filmed near Marfa, Texas. I've always wanted to visit the Big Bend country.

Much has been made of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, and it is great. However, I was very impressed with Paul Dano (Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine), who carries his rage, ambition, and greed in a more tightly controlled and devious fashion than Day-Lewis does--and his sermons are absolutely fabulous. The hustling preacher was a fixture on the American frontier, and Dano does that character justice--as Plainview said after one of his sermons, "that was a goddamn hell of a show!"

There Will Be Blood is a great movie. The pacing is a bit slow for anybody expecting rapid action, and director Thomas Paul Anderson gets a bit artsy, but only momentarily. This is one of those movies that people will be watching 50 years from now, it's that good.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Children of the Cheka

These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do . . . ?

--T.S. Eliot, Gerontion

The CIA's famously paranoid counterintelligence director James Jesus Angleton referred to his field as a "wilderness of mirrors." Former CIA Soviet division agent Tennant Bagley, a player in one of the oddest episodes of the Cold War, revisits that wilderness of mirrors in Spy Wars. Bagley was the first CIA handler for Russian defector Yuri Nosenko in the 1960s. Nosenko defected in early 1964, claiming to have reviewed Lee Harvey Oswald's KGB file. He assured the CIA that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the Kennedy Assassination. The Americans accepted that the Soviets didn't kill JFK, but Bagley, Angleton, and others became convinced that Nosenko was lying about pretty much everything, though there was disagreement inside the Company.

Bagley wanted to get behind Nosenko's lies to determine what it was the Russians did not want the Americans to know, particularly the identities of any moles inside the United States Not that Nosenko would know them, but if his interrogators could discover what his lies were designed to cover, they could work from there. The Soviet division--and not Angleton's counterintelligence shop--detained Nosenko in a small house on a military base for a few years, but were unable to get anywhere with him. The higher-ups at the CIA intervened, freed Nosenko, then turned him into a hero. The official wisdom on the topic is that the paranoid Angleton, who saw Russian spies everywhere, had Nosenko incarcerated in a "torture vault," drugged him, and otherwise tortured him. The received knowledge is that Angleton's obsessive hunt for moles--when none ever existed--made the Company disinclined to search for them, allowing traitors like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen to spy unimpeded for years. Angleton and his inner circle were pushed out of the CIA, and Bagley retired after an overseas posting in Belgium.

Bagley reviews the facts of the case and maintains his position that Nosenko was lying and in the service of the KGB. Bagley details the history of Soviet counterintelligence and places the Nosenko incident in the context of that history. The Russians were aggressive, creative, cynical, and ruthless, using "false flag" schemes, infiltrating other intelligence agencies, and, when necessary, sacrificing Russian agents and troops to protect their sources and operations. They were (and doubtless still are) playing 3-D chess on a large scale. Bagley's discussion of the KGB's operations alone is worth the price of the book.

Bagley's case against Nosenko is pretty compelling; the man knew nothing about day-to-day operations in the KGB, for instance, and his career history made no sense at all. If Nosenko was a KGB man, he was probably rushed into defecting because of the JFK assassination. Moreover, Bagley makes a good case for the proposition that there were Soviet moles inside American intelligence. Some Soviet discoveries defied explanation even after known traitors like Ames and Hanssen were taken into account.

It's obvious in the later chapters that Bagley remains angry, and he enjoys shredding the official version of events. Some of the reports setting out that official version have been declassified and put online by the CIA itself. I looked through a couple of them, and they did not look terribly impressive.

It is curious that Bagley fails to mention a now-declassified internal CIA article from 1987 by CIA analyst Richards Heuer, "Nosenko: Five Paths to Judgment," in which the author lays out five factors to determine whether a defector is legit, and concludes that Bagley and his team failed to apply those factors correctly. Heuer doesn't share the view that Bagley, Angleton, et al., were paranoid mole hunters; rather, he disagrees with their analysis and conclusions. He also disagrees with the importance they placed on Nosenko's inconsistencies. His notion that the KGB wouldn't risk exposing its own assets and operations by sending its own agents to infiltrate the CIA seems a little off, given the KGB's history.

All of that said, the Nosenko case is such a tangled web that I have no idea who is telling the truth about what. Also, Angleton's mole-hunting got wacko paranoid and ruined several careers.

Bagley discusses the phenomenon of confirmation bias, in which only the evidence opposing a hypothesis is given strict scrutiny, while evidence in favor of the hypothesis recieves what we lawyers call rational-basis scrutiny, meaning virtually no scrutiny at all. He is of the opinion that the higher-ups in the CIA simply did not want to believe that the Company could be infiltrated by the KGB. Bagley and Angleton, however, have been accused of having their own confirmation bias as to Nosenko. Bagley believes that the American intelligence community was again guilty of confirmation bias in the run up to the Iraq War, accepting intel. supporting the Administrations belief that Saddam had WMDs and rejecting intel. that did not support that view.

This is a fascinating read. It also makes one wonder about what kinds of international 3-D chessgames former KGB Agent Vladimir Putin might have in mind as he reasserts Russia's inflence and power.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Super-dee-duper Bowl

Damn, that was a great game last night. I was pulling for the Giants--not because I have anything against New England, but it's always fun to see a huge build-up come crashing down. Also, the Giants have played scrappy football for the past several weeks, and I like scrappy teams. The Giants played the Pats very hard in week 17, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that they were up to the task of beating the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl. What was surprising was how effectively the Giants' defense shut down New England's offense--the highest scoring offense in NFL history, IIRC. DW started the game leaning slightly towards New England, but she damn near leapt from her chair during the Giants' final drive, when Eli Manning sprang loose from a certain tackle and threw that incredible pass to David Tyree, then tossed the ball into the end zone for the winning touchdown shortly thereafter. It may have been the best Super Bowl ever.