Happy Birthday:

All the best to the USMC on its birthday. One of you Marines raise a glass in honor of the Corps for me.

Gilbert & Sullivan & Death

Gilbert and Sullivan and Death (additional Friday lyrics):

I had some good (if spooky) responses to my request for contemporary songs about death - Cassandra's reference to "old favorites" turned my mind back to my longtime love for Gilbert & Sullivan. I hadn't thought about this before, but death is a theme in many of their jokes and almost all of their musical comedies (Patience and Trial By Jury are the exceptions that come to mind). So, much of The Mikado's plot is driven by the Emperor's crazy law that imposes the death penalty for flirting (leading to my favorite pun in the series: "Flirting is capital!...It is capital!") - and Ruddigore is, I'm convinced, the funniest ghost story ever written (the name led to one of Gilbert's wittier exchanges - partway through the run, an acquaintance asked:

Acq: How's Bloodygore going?
Gilbert: Ruddigore.
Acq: Well, it's all the same, you know.
Gilbert: Is it? Then I suppose if I say I admire your ruddy complexion, it's the same as saying I like your bloody cheek! Well, it isn't - and I don't!

I read it here.) I don't know whether this is part of the plays' staying power or not, but so it is. Many of their songs are on this general theme. There's everything from this bit of bravado in The Yeomen of the Guard -- (sung by Colonel Fairfax, falsely accused of sorcery and expecting to be executed):

Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That death, whene'er he call,
Must call too soon.
Though fourscore years he give,
Yet one would pray to live
Another moon.
What kind of plaint have I
Who perish in July?
I might have had to die
Perchance in June.

Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit -
Nay, count it not a whit,
Man is well done with it!
Soon as he's born
He should all means essay
To put the plague away.
And I, war-worn,
Poor captured fugitive
My life most gladly give --
I might have had to live
Another morn.

(the four-beat lines and rhyme-sceme make it seem "cutesy" when you read it - but Sullivan gave it a slow, martial tune that gives it dignity and fits the character) - to some really hilarious pieces, some of the best in the two plays they wrote after their infamous break-up. In The Grand Duke, Ernest Dummkopf lost a "Statutory Duel" - he and his opponent drew cards; he drew the low card and lost; so under the laws of the duchy he was legally dead. Which leads to this exchange between him and his fiancee (who's been shunning him):

Ernest: If the light of love’s lingering ember has faded in gloom,
You cannot neglect, O remember, a voice from the tomb!
That stern supernatural diction
Should act as a solemn restriction,
Although by a mere legal fiction
A voice from the tomb!

Julia: I own that that utterance chills me – it withers my bloom!
With awful emotion it thrills me – that voice from the tomb!
Oh, spectre, won’t anything lay thee?
Though pained to deny or gainsay thee,
In this case I cannot obey thee,
Thou voice from the tomb!
So, spectre, appalling, I bid you good day –
Perhaps you’ll be calling when passing this way?
Your bogeydom scorning, and all your love-lorning,
I bid you good morning, I bid you good day.
Good morning, good morning, good morning, good day!

...the tempo is upbeat and prevents the joke from going stale; the last five lines are like a fast waltz. If the Ultimate Reality is going to catch us, whatever we do, why not have a little fun with it? It's perfectly healthy, seems to me.
Friday Lyrics

Joseph asked for contemporary songs about death. Since today is Friday, may I offer an old favorite:

Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance
For a break that would make it okay
There’s always one reason
To feel not good enough
And it’s hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction
Oh beautiful release
Memory seeps from my veins
Let me be empty
And weightless and maybe
I’ll find some peace tonight

In the arms of an angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort there

So tired of the straight line
And everywhere you turn
There’s vultures and thieves at your back
And the storm keeps on twisting
You keep on building the lie
That you make up for all that you lack
It don’t make no difference
Escaping one last time
It’s easier to believe in this sweet madness oh
This glorious sadness that brings me to my knees

In the arms of an angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort there

You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here

Ap horse cutting buffalo

Cutting Buffalo:

Here's a video my wife thought you'd enjoy.

The cool thing is that the horse is doing all the work. The rider, as the voice-over explains, doesn't know how to cut the buffalo herd. But the horse does.

What Love Is

I still recall the dress I wore to my first dance. It was black with wild roses – pink ones - on it. The empire waistline tied in the back with grosgrain ribbon and the deep, square neckline was trimmed with white lace. My date gave me the most beautiful corsage: pink sweetheart roses and baby’s breath.

I kept the ticket and the corsage for years on a bookshelf in my bedroom. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it seemed the sort of thing that should be remembered. I don’t think I missed a dance in school and I kept each corsage I was given; even the ugly ones.

Not every boy who asked me out was as adept as that first young man at matching flowers to my outfit and personality. But that didn’t matter. To tell the truth I never really liked corsages, even in high school. They were awkward and clunky and the pins had a nasty way of poking you in the shoulder when you tried to dance or stood up on your tip-toes for that long anticipated good night kiss. But they were tangible reminders that a young man had taken pains to please me, just as I had gone to a great deal of trouble to look nice for him, to make his evening pleasant. Memorable.

And so I kept them, every one. All my yesterdays, pressed between the leaves of my mind like wildflowers from some long forgotten ramble down a country road on a summer’s day. As they slowly faded in their allotted spaces on my bookshelf, they somehow managed to retain traces of their former loveliness; giving off sweet memories of being courted, cherished, of feeling - for the space of few moonlit hours - like a princess in a fairy tale.

Thus it is with some sadness that I wonder: what on earth do today’s would be princesses have to look forward to?

Last month, a boy asked my 16-year-old daughter to his school's homecoming dance. She agreed to go, bought a new dress and made a hairdresser appointment.

The boy never bought tickets to the dance. Neither did his friends. They decided that attending homecoming wouldn't be cool, and instead planned to just dress up that night, go out for dinner and then hang out with their dates at someone's house.
My daughter was disappointed, as were her girlfriends. They would have loved to have been taken to the dance, to show off their dresses, to see and be seen.

At 6 p.m. on the night of the boycotted dance, about a dozen of these girls and their dates gathered in one boy's backyard so a mob of parents could photograph them. I found it dispiriting. My heart went out to those girls -- all dressed up with no place to go.

I live in suburban Detroit, but this phenomenon is playing out elsewhere in the country, too -- a telling example of the indifference with which young people today view dating, chivalry and romance.

Studies, of course, show more young people skipping romantic relationships in favor of "hooking up." As teens socialize in packs, forgo one-on-one dating and trade sex nonchalantly, it is no stretch to find that boys are asking girls to homecoming and not bothering to take them there.

When I was a young girl I recall hearing a song by Peggy Lee on my transistor radio.

“Back in the day”, as my boys are fond of saying with rolled eyes, you couldn’t just summon up a tune any time you felt like it. We didn’t have iPods, playlists, or personal CD players. When it came to that special song that made you dizzy with delight, you were at the mercy of the DJ down at the radio station. You had to wait, sometimes for what seemed like ages, for your favorite song to come onto the airwaves and thrill you to the very marrow of your bones. That’s what made it special: rarity, and the knowledge that you couldn’t hear it any time you wanted to. If you were really, really crazy about a song you might save up and buy the 45, or even the LP. But that took a while. And in the meantime there was the agony of suspense.

I wonder, sometimes, if that is what is missing from modern relationships: the ache of wanting; the knowledge that someone isn’t there just for the taking, the thrill of finally gaining your heart's desire after long uncertainty, a series of delays? Of knowing you might never have had them at all? What happens to our sense of wonder when we take everything for granted, when we are never deprived, when we never take pains?

When nothing is special anymore?

There is something to be said for anticipation. I carried my little transistor radio everywhere, glued to my shell-like ear. I must have known the words to a million songs by heart – I repeated them over and over in my head while waiting for the next time my favorite song would come over the airwaves. I still do. Who does that now? The song was called, “Is that all there is?”

I hated that song with a passion, even then. It asked that question - “Is that all there is?” - about love. It was too cynical and worldly wise for me then and it still is today, forty-odd years later, because no matter how long you walk this earth, you never stop discovering the unending wonder of loving other people, and you never quite do come to know all there is to know about life.


I know that in my bones. There are a million kinds of love, and to me the saddest thing on earth is the cynic who asks, “Is that all there is?” because she has never experienced the delight to be found in pleasing others; who says “Let’s not bother…” celebrating special occasions because he has never been denied anything (and so sees every new experience through a lens of dreary sameness), who doesn’t understand that hooking up or casual sex, though amusing, can never be anything but pale substitutes for what happens when two people really love each other, when making someone else’s heart race a mile a minute is just as satisfying as feeling the earth move yourself. And sometimes more.

I wonder if these children will recognize (or would they be bored by) the quiet, peaceful Sunday morning comfortableness that sneaks up on you when you’ve been together for half a lifetime? When you fit neatly together as though you had been made for each other? That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of living, and sometimes years of ups and downs that I sometimes wonder if they will have the patience to wait for?

Love takes many forms. Love is having the faith and the courage to let go when your children need to strike out on their own. Love means trusting in their judgment (and your own long stewardship); it means recognizing that they are no longer babies, but young adults. It means releasing them gently, lovingly, gracefully; though every fiber screams they aren’t ready yet – that they aren’t listening to you, that they will screw things up if you don’t keep a hand on the old tiller. It means not saying “I told you so”, when you did. Again. And again. It means biting your lip, and your tongue, a lot. It means giving them the space to grow, as you did once. Love means standing a bit apart when they come home, though you long to crowd them with questions as you did when they were small; waiting for them to come to you. Loving it when they finally do.

Even though it took years. Boys are a slow crop.

Love means taking pride in the achievements of your friends, sharing their every day triumphs and tribulations, both great and small. Taking satisfaction in their talent, not knowing whether to laugh or cry when one of them writes something so poignant it could have been plucked from the pages of your own life:

Pre-deployment briefs.

Right before Lancelot went on his latest trip, he reminded me that the Dark Prince was coming home on Friday. I must have had a blank look on my face because he then reminded me why: Dark Prince's pre-deployment brief the following day. A brief that I would have to attend with my son without my husband.

Looking back, I'm now of the opinion that my husband planned to be out of town so as to avoid the whole nightmare....

For starters, my son is not very skilled in the social graces. Some might even assume that he was raised by wolves. Arriving at the brief, it began.

"Mom, I have to go talk to someone."
Me: "Oh, okay, I'll be right here."

This, in case you didn't know, is his way of avoiding even the admittance that he has a mom (let alone introducing her).

Nope, not the Dark Prince, he was hatched from an egg.

Love means thanking God for them when they aggravate you, and when they make you laugh, when they lift you up. What would we do without friends? They make the sun come out when all the world seems grey and cloudy. They say things that make you cry. And laugh out loud. Sometimes in the same breath:

A house isn't a home until you can write "I love you" in the dust. I just ask that you don't date it.

I like that. But for a military wife home can never be a place, really, or a time. Times change, and even the people we meet are often far less constant than they appear to be. But somehow, friends are a gleaming thread running through the hopelessly tangled skein of our lives. Pull on it, and everything suddenly slips into place effortlessly; all the snarled knots come untied. They know, without our having to tell them, certain things about us. We share, not everything – because no two people share everything – but the important things. A friend will be there to celebrate quietly with you those moments that mean something to you. And that can make all the difference, for then you carry home inside of you wherever you may roam.

Because home, you see, is the people you care about. A home is love.

I am sitting here in Georgia with The Burrito in my lap. He is one week old. My son’s house is full of light, and warmth, and love. The Burrito is mostly full of milk. His eyes are very heavy and he is making comical faces as he falls asleep in my arms. Across the room, my son is talking quietly to his wife. I like watching him with her. He loves her very much. I am thinking of what I will write to my husband in the morning. The scene around me is proof that families do evolve – they have so much more than we did, starting out. But then they are a good ten years older than we were when we had our first child. I am also thinking of ten years ago, when I was convinced the man across the room from me was a complete bonehead and wasn’t listening to a word his mother had to say.

He is a fine young man, a good father, and an even better husband. I am proud.

And The Burrito totally rules.

Singing About Death

Singing About Death -

Reading one of Mark Steyn's recent articles - including a little rant on pop lyrics - I was thinking about songs of death, specifically songs about how we do and should respond to the reality of death (even when it seems far off). Some of my favorite classical songs are arrangements of A.E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad on this very theme (my favorite arrangements are by George Butterworth) - numbers 2, 23, and 27 are especially moving in Butterworth's arrangements.

I didn't much listen to pop songs of any kind until the last few years and my pop-culture IQ is very low. I had it in mind to post here and ask whether anything good on those themes had been written in the last decade or two. Before I could write the post, I picked up this on the radio. Is there something else any of you would recommend?
Iraq, By The Numbers

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

To all those who said the “surge” in U.S. forces in Iraq was doomed to fail, a look at the latest results should be instructive, if not humbling.

Start with American military casualties. For October (36 Americans killed in action), they were the lowest for any month since February 2004, more than three years ago.

U.S. casualties have now declined for five consecutive months even as American forces press the fight against al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorists and move out of their mega-bases to operate from security outposts in Iraqi neighborhoods.

Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno reported the following arms captures: “Over 37,000 pounds of explosives, a thousand gallons of nitric acid used to make homemade explosives, over 2,000 artillery rounds and over 500 rockets, 136 assembled explosively formed penetrator IEDs (improvised explosive devices), along with 359 copper discs used to make more EFPs, and hundreds of rifles, grenades, anti-tank weapons and suicide vests.” Odierno attributed these arms captures largely to tips from local Iraqi civilians.

Iraqi civilian deaths are down more than 60 percent since their peak last December, from 3,000 that month to just over 700 in October.

The incidence of mass-casualty terrorist attacks (truck bombs, car bombs and the like) in Iraq's capital city is down 75 percent in recent months.

Overall, the declining numbers of terrorist attacks and security incidents represent, as Gen. Odierno noted, “the longest continuous decline in attacks on record.”

Yet another thing you won't hear about on the evening news, because it doesn't fit the narrative, is that for the first time since the war started there were five days in October when not a single Coalition forces service member was killed as a result of hostile action. But you see, we wouldn't want to take notice of such developments prematurely. They might result in outbreaks of irrational exuberance.

As the San Diego Tribune author points out, progress on the political front in Iraq is still not where we'd like it to be, but in an insecure environment sectarian reconciliation was never even a possibility. Advocates of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq have used the absence of hope as their primary argument for abandoning the Iraqis to their tormentors. The success of the Surge, following on the dramatic turnaround in Anbar province this Spring, makes this the second time they've been wrong.

But more importantly, the opinions of average Americans - those who vote, and those who make up those all-important opinion polls used to drive public sentiment on the war - are based on what they see and hear in their newspapers and on the nightly news. Perhaps it is time for us to wake up and ask ourselves who has a vested interest in consistently portraying things as worse than they are, and to what end?

Afghan Wars, Strategic Necessity, Iraq

Afghan Wars, Strategic Necessity, Iraq -
Rereading The Great Game:

I've been a little preoccupied lately, but I did find time this week to reread a splendid book on 19th-century conflict in Central Asia - Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game - which I can't too highly recommend. This time through, I spotted some analogies I missed before, that might be of interest. (As I get older and busier, I increasingly appreciate the value of well-written history; if I can't read it speedily, I'll never have time to read it again, and I always miss so much the first time through.)

The Great Game itself (I'm going to eschew further Wikipedia links here; you know how to go there!) arose quite simply, though the course was fascinatingly complex. Great Britain held India, which was a major source of its wealth and prestige (whether it should've is a separate question; it did). Britain had a stragegic interest in keeping India free from invaders; and Russia, which was often at odds with Britain over one thing and another, had a strategic interest in being able to threaten India. Afghanistan and Persia were, by themselves, moderately dangerous (both had invaded India in the past, and many Afghan tribes were still warlike and fond of plunder) - but as invasion routes to India (particularly after the Russians seized the central Asian khanates that gave them long borders with Persia and Afghanistan) they were appallingly dangerous. Russian officers in central Asia were quite forthright that they were wargaming just such an invasion in the event of war (they also had a nasty habit of acting beyond orders in carrying out attacks; the Czar tended to be very forgiving in the event of success).

Responding to (or learning about) a Russian invasion only when the first of the Czar's troops crossed the Indian border would've been an extremely bad idea; and Afghanistan was not the kind of powerful, secure nation that could resist such a thing alone, even if it wanted to (a recurring theme in Russian plans was to encourage Afghanistan to join in, and share the plunder, as it had long before). This in turn gave Britain a strategic interest in the rulership and foreign policies of Persia and Afghanistan (or, to use one of John Derbyshire's phrases - Afghanistan was in India's strategic backyard).

A couple of examples of where this led, summarized brutally: in the 1830's, Persia was allied with Russia; Afghanistan and Punjab (not yet part of British India) were allied with Britain, but they had a large dispute with each other over a province that Punjab had seized, and the British refused to make Punjab disgorge. The king of Afghanistan (Dost Mohammed) began receiving Russian ambassadors (possibly to hint to the British that keeping him happy was much in their interest); the British responded by unseating him and placing one of his several rivals (Shah Shujah, who had no quarrel with Punjab) on the throne (controversial decision even at the time; the British agent in Kabul highly recommended leaving Dost Mohammed in place) (Around the same time, the Persians, with Russian advisors, besieged the border town of Herat - a couple of British advisors helped Herat hold out; and the Persians withdrew when the British dispatched a relief column.) Shah Shujah proved much less popular than the British thought; the natives ended up overthrowing him and massacring his British advisors. Britain, worried that it would appear weak and vulnerable in the faces of this, mounted a punitive expedition. A few months later, they allowed Dost Mohammed to return -- and he remained friendly to the British for the rest of his reign (they, in turn, let him seize Herat - which had been independent - without objection). Later, the British discovered the existence of viable invasion routes through Tibet; and they found it necessary to map Tibet secretly (the rulers did not allow it). Later still, having intelligence that the Russians were being received in Lhasa, the British invaded Tibet and won some extreme concessions from its rulers. Hopkirk dedicated a separate book, an excellent one, to that story. And he did not miss the tragedy of it all - for the British intelligence was false, the Russians had no significant presence in Tibet, and the Tibetans (unlike the Afghans and Persians) didn't exhibit a single foreign policy goal beyond simply being left alone.

The point, to me, is that dreadful and uncertain as these events were - as long as Britain held India, and had an interest in keeping it secure, the British could not simply ignore its neighbors or leave them strictly alone. "Should the current ruler of Afghanistan stay in power?" "How much control should we attempt to exert over him?" and "How strong do we let him grow?" were fair questions; "I don't care" was not a practical or permissibile answer. "How do we gain intelligence and advance warning in the event our enemies come through Tibet?" was a fair question. "Let's just stay in the dark" was not a practical answer.

In the end, the British and Russians settled their differences by treaty in 1907; agreeing that Afghanistan and southern Persia were in the British sphere of influence, and northern Persia (including Tehran) in the Russian; Russia would have no agents in Kabul but Britain would not "change the political status of" (i.e., annex) Afghanistan. (This wonderful, final settlement lasted all of ten years; the Bolsheviks took over, tore the treaty up, and started their own campaign to dominate Persia and Afghanistan, and eventually India - to which Hopkirk dedicated another book, which I haven't read.)

I think you can see the analogy I have in mind. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are to us as India was to Britain - a major source of wealth (though happily we've been wise enough not to annex them - no Sepoy mutinies for us - but simply to purchase what we need), and their neighbors are thus in our "strategic backyard." Iraq under Saddam was something like Afghanistan under Czarist control - a serious threat, with an interest in gaining prestige by controlling the wealth of the Gulf states and humiliating us. Those states had nothing like the power to defend themselves from what he could muster; and keeping an army in the Arabian desert (as we did during and after the first Gulf war) to defend them created extra problems for us. Creating spheres of influence in buffer states wasn't an option because there weren't any; attempting to end the threat by treaty (as we did in 1991) didn't work, because Saddam did not hold to his treaties. Our ultimate decision, and I think it was the best available, was to replace Saddam with something else - something that did not have an interest in threatening the neighbors. A democracy at least avoids the problem of picking Shah Shujah over Dost Mohammed - you don't have to guess which leader has the most popular support (and you can avoid at least some of the problem Shah Shujah faced - since he was seated and supported by foreign troops, he was an affront to national pride). Which isn't to say that, like all options available to us in 2003, it didn't have its share of problems, or of controversy, or require a massive amount of guesswork.

Whether we should've - let's say - long ago switched completely to nuclear power, so as to end our strategic interest in the Gulf states, is a completely separate question, and quite beyond the scope of what I'm writing here. What the Great Game analogy illustrates for me is this: as long as we do have a material interest in the Gulf states and who controls them, we cannot (much as we might wish to) simply ignore the question of who, or what, is in control of their neighbors. It's hugely tempting to adopt a viewpoint that says, "This is all stupid. It can't be worth it. If they're not attacking us, right now, let's just leave them alone." Or to insist that we can avoid messy entanglements, and stick with the Powell Doctrine or something like, while we have interests like that. If books like Hopkirk's were more often read, these temptations might be more often resisted, and foreign policy debates take place on a higher level.