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Senseless Death

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

The war in Afghanistan continues. But why? President Obama campaigned four years ago in part on the basis that Bush was pursuing the wrong war — Iraq rather than Afghanistan. Obama vowed to reverse priorities, and indeed he has, withdrawing troops from Iraq while building up in Afghanistan. But to what end? Al Qaeda would appear to be defeated, and in any case, to the extent that they’re still around, they’re next door in Pakistan. US troops don’t seem to be welcome. See for instance Matthew Rosenberg’s piece in the NYT a week and a half ago, which opens:

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report.

A decade into the war in Afghanistan, the report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other, never mind the Taliban. The ill will and mistrust run deep among civilians and militaries on both sides, raising questions about what future role the United States and its allies can expect to play in Afghanistan.

According to the NYT six days ago, “The Department of Defense has identified 1,868 American service members who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations.” And today I learned of one more Afghan war death, that of my friend’s dear son Will, a Marine, who was the same age as my son Joel. I wish I knew why.

As far as I can tell, domestic politics is once again driving the war’s prolongation, without the counterweight of a draft. If the politics of this country were at all sane, our president would have a lot of explaining to do. Instead, he’s sitting back while the truly insane warmongers of the other party call for yet more war, chomping at the bit to accuse him of losing Iraq.

Meanwhile, people die. My sadness is laced with anger.

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Categories: Politics, War

Taken

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote two posts ago about finishing Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin last night, closing with the observation that I was ready for something completely different. It didn’t take long for me to decide on the difference. This morning I downloaded Robert Crais’ latest crime novel Taken, which came out just this past Tuesday. It’s #15 in the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series, of which I’ve previously read entries #11-14.

After finishing the last one a year ago, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to keep going. I wrote at the time that “maybe reading three of them in 6 1/2 months wasn’t such a good idea. I didn’t enjoy this one as much. I don’t feel that I learned much more about Pike as a character, and I didn’t find him so interesting anymore. The plot drove me along. Crais is pretty good at that. But even that wasn’t so interesting.”

This morning I took a rosier view. After Bloodlands, leaving Eastern Europe behind for LA and the latest activities of Elvis and Joe sounded mighty attractive. So far, Crais is proving me right. I’m a fifth of the way through, and it’s all I could do this afternoon to put Taken aside so I could blog. Speaking of which, I’ll stop here so I can keep reading.

Categories: Books

Boston Patriots

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Fenway Park, set up for Boston Patriots football

[From the NYT, with credit to Boston Public Library, Sports Temples of Boston collection]

Bill Pennington had a great piece in yesterday’s NYT about the early vagabond years of the Patriots football team, when they were the Boston Patriots and moved from stadium to stadium. For the first decade, they were members of the American Football League. With the AFL-NFL merger, they joined the National Football League in 1970. A year later, they settled into their new stadium in Foxborough, in the remote (at least from my point of view, living in Cambridge then) southern suburbs, half the way to Providence, and re-branded themselves as the New England Patriots, after which things began to improve.

That first decade-plus was something special, as Pennington recalls. They bounced from BU’s athletic field, the one-time home of the Boston Braves baseball team, to Fenway Park to BC’s stadium to Harvard Stadium. Their one year in Harvard Stadium, that first year in the NFL, was my sophomore year. I could have taken a short walk from my room along the Charles to the Anderson Bridge, crossed over, and been at a game. I can’t believe I didn’t go. They won their home opener, against the Dolphins, and proceeded to lose all the remaining home games. OJ rushed for 123 yards when the Bills came; Johnny Unitas quarterbacked the Colts. Talk about missed opportunities!

Pennington tells one story from the 1970 season opener:

The former Notre Dame running back Bob Gladieux had been cut from the Patriots a few days earlier but decided to attend the season opener anyway with a friend.

Seated in the old concrete Harvard horseshoe before the start of the game, the two had already had a couple of beers when Gladieux’s friend agreed to get another round. Just after he left, the public address cackled: “Bob Gladieux, please report to the Patriots’ dressing room.”

Gladieux went downstairs and was told to suit up. Last-minute contract disputes had left the Patriots short. Gladieux, nicknamed Harpo for his flock of frizzy blond hair, hurriedly donned his pads and was soon running down the field on the opening kickoff against the Miami Dolphins.

Back in the stands, his friend wondered why he was alone. He looked up to see the Dolphins’ kick returner go down in the arms of No. 24 for the Patriots.

“Tackle by Bob Gladieux,” the public address announcer said.

Said St. Jean: “When we saw Harpo’s buddy later, he said: ‘I knew I was drinking, but not enough to be hearing things.’ ” The Patriots won the game, one of just two victories in another last-place season.

I was a Giants fan back then. (I could have seen them play at Harvard.) By 1975, I was a Patriots fan, and I suppose I still am. A little. Enough to know who I’ll be rooting for during next week’s Super Bowl. They’ve come a long way. Yet, some of the fun is gone.

Categories: Life, Sports

Bloodlands

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Three weeks ago, I finished Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, which I had been reading off and on and writing about several times over the preceding two months. As I mentioned two weeks ago, it focus in the later chapters on the close of World War II, the arrival of Red Army, and the mass westward re-location of the German population reminded me that a year earlier I had thought of reading Timothy Snyder’s then-new Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Anne Applebaum’s review in the New York Review of Books had caught my attention, and I quoted from the review at the time.

Two weeks ago I downloaded the free opening sample of Bloodlands to my Kindle. A day later, I bought and downloaded the full book. With the arrival of snow days later in the week, I began to read it and was surprised by how gripping Snyder’s account was of the events between 1932 and 1945 in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. No short description can do the book justice, and in any case, you can read Applebaum’s account for that. But the book turns out to be an unexpected, and horrific, page turner.

I finally broke free from Bloodlands‘s grip early this past week, in mid World War II, because a new New York Review of Books had arrived and I decided to devote my evening reading to that. A day later, fearful of returning to the horrors, I took another night off. But once I returned, I was again swept along, finishing last night.

Snyder works on three levels, if I may be a bit simplistic. There are brief overviews of the broader historic European and world events, beginning with the close of World War I and the Russian Revolution. There are detailed accounts of the actual horrors, starting with Stalin’s mass starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants in 1932-1933 in favor of shipping agricultural produce abroad in order to obtain the necessary capital for rapid industrialization (to simplify once again). And there are the searing descriptions, typically no more than a few sentences or a paragraph, of individual lives and deaths.

Special attention is given to the lands that formed the eastern half of Poland at the onset of war in 1939, the portion that the Soviet union took over by mutual agreement with Germany when the two invaded from east and west and divided the country between them. Two years later, Hitler would take these lands over on his way east toward Moscow, and three years after that the Red Army returned, pushing its way on to Berlin.

This of course isn’t news. Nor is the ultimate result, Stalin choosing to incorporate one-time eastern Poland into the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, while getting the agreement of Churchill and Roosevelt that Poland would be shifted westward to include lands that had been part of Germany before the war. Millions of Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and others were moved back and forth, a significant percentage dying along the way. And this was the least of the horrors. The Jews, of course, were by then already largely exterminated, as were (by design) millions of Poles, this suiting the interests of both Hitler and Stalin.

How all this came about, and why, with an explanation of the evolving political logic, forms the heart of the book. A central goal is the placement of the murder of six million Jews in a broader context, where it can be seen as not just an isolated abhorrence but part of a larger universe of mass killings. Snyder argues that there is in particular a need to recognize that typical accounts of the Holocaust are skewed, and for a particular historical reason: much of what we knew for decades was based on the camps discovered by the US and British troops in the west, whereas much of the killing was done in the “bloodlands” to the east, lands conquered by Soviet troops. This had two consequences in terms of our sources of information. First, Stalin did not allow news to come out about what was found. Second, much of the killing in the east was by shooting, or mobile gassing, the gas chambers of Auschwitz for example coming into use only after the majority of the killing was done. Thus, to the extent that we typically picture the Holocaust as consisting of Jews being sent to and dying in concentration camps, we are viewing only a small part of the story.

Here’s a short passage from Snyder’s Preface:

At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western Allies liberated none of the important death facilities. The Germans carried out all of they major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, Chelmno, and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives. Is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long.

I am so glad that I read Bloodlands, and didn’t content myself with a few reviews. A natural book to read next might be Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, which has sat above my desk for years. But 831 pages?! And small print? I don’t know. Some day. I’ll then want to re-purchase it for my Kindle, the price for that currently being set at $16.99. (What’s up with that?) For now, I’m ready for something completely different.

Categories: Books, History

Dream Hero

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment


[From the Parm website]

We didn’t eat much Ialian food at home when I grew up. Or maybe I should call it Italian-American food. No pizza. No pasta. And I didn’t mind, given that I wasn’t too interested in tomatoes. Or cheese. Or spaghetti, which was pretty much synonymous with pasta then. My brother would like to pick up meatball heroes from a place nearby. I didn’t understand that at all. The name alone was a puzzle. Plus, when he’d bring the paper bag into the car with the takeout hero, the smell was awful.

I know. My loss. And what a loss it was! Here we were, in a suburb of New York with a large Italian population, and I eschewed the local food.

The first four of my Cambridge-Boston years were no better. But finally, when I stayed in Cambridge to attend graduate school, I had to cook for myself and my interests broadened. No heroes in Boston. They had grinders. There was a Greek pizza and grinder shop on Mass Ave about halfway between Central Square and MIT that I’d walk past every day. One day I took a chance. Rather than heading on to campus to grab lunch at the student center cafeteria, I stopped in to look around. And ordered a meatball grinder.

Mind you, I didn’t have much room in my diet for onions either. Thanks to this shop, I learned. They made a meatball grinder the likes of which I’ve never had since. The meatballs were cut long and flat, like meatloaf. A small amount of sauce was put on top. And sliced onions. Then the grinder was grilled, the bread getting toasty, the onions crisp. It was so good. The best.

But not a traditional meatball hero. Or sub. Or grinder. I wouldn’t learn to eat them for a few years more. The year we spent in Princeton, when Joel was a baby, I began serious research. Whenever we went to a pizza place, I’d be sure to order a meatball hero too. Some were good; some weren’t. They were nothing like those Greek meatball grinders from Cambridge, but I didn’t use them as my standard. I treated this as a different food category, and I was content.

Here in Seattle, as Joel has gotten older, he has begun his own search for the perfect meatball hero. We don’t have the same vision. I am convinced, for now at least, that the best in Seattle are from Stellar, in Georgetown. Joel’s not impressed. He prefers Piecora’s, which he grew up eating. More to the point, he’s not convinced there are any good meatball subs in Seattle. He may be right.

Which brings me to Pete Wells’ weekly NYT restaurant review last Wednesday, in which he awards two stars to Parm and breaks my heart. Why must we be so far away?

I would like somebody to explain why my mind keeps drifting back to the meatball parmigiana hero at Parm. Like most things at Parm, which opened on Mulberry Street in November, it is prepared by cooks wearing white paper hats and is set before you in a red plastic basket. And, like most things at Parm, it is completely faithful to your memories while being much, much better than you remembered.

At first, the sandwich exhibits nothing out of the ordinary. The tomato sauce, simple and summery, just seems to have been made by a good cook. The mozzarella and torn leaves of basil are fresh, which isn’t unheard of. The seeded roll is completely normal. The meatballs are not normal. For starters, they are not balls, they are patties. Anyone who has ever taken a bite of a meatball hero and watched one of the meatballs launch into orbit will recognize at once the significance of this deviation. Patties stay put.

Most sub-shop meatballs are as hard as a 15-minute egg. The patties at Parm are not. Your teeth fall right through them.

And when they do, you find something else that isn’t normal: the meat is juicy and rosy pink on the inside, the color of a perfectly cooked pork chop. The meatballs, made from veal, beef and sweet Italian sausage, are pink because they were braised at 180 degrees in a CVap low-temperature cooker for 40 minutes. They were braised at 180 degrees because Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, the chefs behind Parm, studied fancy-restaurant techniques under chefs like Andrew Carmellini, Mario Batali and Wylie Dufresne.

But the meatballs are sitting on a hero roll because Mr. Torrisi and Mr. Carbone are Italian-Americans who, once they had a restaurant of their own, decided to cook what is a kind of soul food for them and for millions of other Americans, even those with no Italian ancestors.

In the summary data at the end of the review, Wells describes Parm as “an Italian-American lunch counter with tables, where the short-order cooks in white paper hats happen to have trained in some of Manhattan’s best restaurants.” The service is “as smiling and professional as one could ask of a place where nearly everything is served in a plastic basket.” Parm receives two stars, a ringing endorsement of such a simple place. We will have to find our way down there next time we’re in Manhattan.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

Post-1000 Lull

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

My gosh, has it really been nine days since my last post? I can’t explain it. After all those snow days the week before last, I did get busy last week: work, Australian Open tennis (broadcast live here in the evenings), reading. But still, I should have had time for a little blogging. Maybe I was unconsciously taking a break in celebration of my last post, which was the one-thousandth of Ron’s View.

Lots to catch up on. Here goes.

Categories: Writing

Romney Apologist David Brooks

January 20, 2012 2 comments

[Jen Sorensen, from Slowpoke Comics*]

David Brooks appears alarmed by the treatment Mitt Romney is getting, so much so that Brooks devotes today’s NYT column to defending him:

Mitt Romney is a rich man, but is Mitt Romney’s character formed by his wealth? Is Romney a spoiled, cosseted character? Has he been corrupted by ease and luxury?

The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder. He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business). He built a business. He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career.

Romney’s salient quality is not wealth. It is, for better and worse, his tenacious drive — the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions.

Gosh, who knew? Two Harvard degrees simultaneously! A worker and a grinder! And here I thought the problem was that Romney is a liar. Brooks never gets around to that. He’s too busy recounting the hardships endured by Mitt’s ancestors. “Where did this persistence come from?” Brooks asks. “It’s plausible to think that it came from his family history.” Brooks spends the remainder of the column reviewing that history.

Who gives a darn about Romney’s persistence, or his family history? How about his long-time willingness to say whatever he thinks needs saying to get elected, whether as senator, governor, or president? How about his campaign being based on slandering President Obama? (See for instance this account of Romney lies by your fellow columnist Paul Krugman, who asks, “is there anything at all in Romney’s stump speech that’s true?”)

That’s what disturbs me.

*The cartoon alludes to the 1983 Romney family vacation, which began with a drive to Canada for which Mitt put Irish setter Seamus in a crate and strapped the crate to the top of the station wagon. NYT columnist Gail Collins has referred to this incident throughout the primary season whenever writing about Romney.

Categories: Journalism, Politics