Archive for May, 2008

Frost in Love

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Fall of Frost, Brian Hall, 2008

A work of biological fiction where the author, choosing a few incidents and events of a very long life (89 years), imagines what Frost might have been thinking and how events may have shaped his words. Done with love and humor, but without the cooperation of the Frost estate, this novel brings us to understand and care about Frost as his several biographers have failed to do. Written as a series of vignettes randomly organized from the 1890s to 1963, we slowly are introduced to Frost, his wife Elinor, a high school friend who jilted Rob at one time, and their long suffering children.

Frost at Derry robertfrostderry.jpg

Early Elinor White elinorfrost.JPG

Frost Family frostfamily.jpg

Frost bought several New England farms but was a lazy, untalented farmer and Elinor a very casual housekeeper and mother. Both were spacey in the extreme. Frost quips that New England farmers have been failing for three hundred years so he is in a good tradition. They lost one child at age 3 and another after 3 days. Elinor aborted their final pregnancy over fears for her health. Of their surviving children, Margorie died at age 29, crazy Irma was finally committed by Frost but lived to 78, and suicidal son Carol (Why did you give me a girl’s name?) finally shot himself at age 38 within hearing distance of his own 15 year old son. Tough daughter Leslie, after her divorce, jointed the United States Information Agency (USIA) where she spent a career telling everyone in sight that the agency was doing everything wrong.

Frosts at Plymouth frostcouple.gif

Frost with Kay and Theodore Morrison 1948 kay1948.jpg

After the death of Elinor in 1940, Frost established a close relationship with a married woman that would last until Frost’s death. Frost claimed K was his lover but K never divorced and maintained the relationship was all in Frost’s mind, she was simply his secretary. At JFK’s inauguration, Frost was invited to read a poem. He was stumbling badly and couldn’t read his papers in the bright sun. LBJ tried to use his hat to shade the papers but Frost grabbed the hat and they wrestled for a bit. At the conclusion of the reading he misremembered the President’s name.

In 1962 Frost meets Soviet ambassador Anatoli Drobinin in whom he confides he is a great admirer of self made Khrushchev but is concerned with the tensions over Berlin and has some suggestions. Drobinin arranges a meeting with Khrushchev and 88 year old Frost flies off to Moscow (he hates flying). Frost becomes feverish and Khrushchev goes to Frost’s hotel. Frost tells Khrushchev he is the most powerful man in the world and that Frost really admired the moon shot and orbiting astronaut. Frost tells Khrushchev that the powerful should also be magnanimous and he should give East Berlin back to the West Germans as a sign of that magnanimity. Khrushchev doesn’t take the advise. When word drifts back to Washington JFK is furious. Frost returns home at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. He imagines the nuclear destruction of all mankind and it inspires new poems.

Frost spent year after year, at the end, giving farewell tours. These tours were so popular, that after his death a show with two actors playing the young and old white haired Frost was mounted to continue the farewell tradition. Ever the showman, Frost died on Ground Hog’s day 1963. Daughter Leslie and K secretly interred Frost’s ashes in an unmarked grave in the family plot. Leslie will lord it over Frost’s estate the rest of her life. Few of Frost’s letters show up after he dies, having been destroyed or lost by most of his children and K. Hall suggests, wickedly, that Irma probably ate hers.

Frost universally hated all critics and professors who “interpret” his work for their students. The only one he trusted as a critic was Elinor. He never liked the poetry of Tom (T.S.) Eliot and hated his army of thousands of (Wasteland) interpretive Professors. He was somewhat fonder of Ezra Pound and even assisted in getting Pound released from his asylum.

Hall himself is no slouch when it comes to words. Example of imagined thoughts of Frost:

Freud was a frustrated Novelist. His system is a form of Swedenborgianism, taking good metaphors and petrifying them into dogma.

Self reflections of Frost on his fame:

He’s been given jobs without duties, students without classes. Money has come mysteriously, from a secret fund, an anonymous admirer, a colluding collector. When he has hinted after prizes, committees have gone down on one knee to hand them to him. He, who played sick from school most of his childhood and never finished college, has been awarded so many honorary degrees he had the hoods sewn into a quilt, and at night he sleeps under it like a Celtic Pendragon warmed by the skins of his enemies. Each time he has hinted, connived, covered his tracks, hinted again, he’s got what he wanted, and each time he has felt guilty, and vindicated, and mean, and undeserving, and long overdue.

Frost proves a talented teacher, but a late bloomer in fame with his poetry. When recognition starts to come:

They want to press him while he’s impressive, screw him down in the frame. Principal of some stone institution, state commissioner for pickling souls. They’ll kill him with the best intentions. Run!

On longevity:

..Cannily wicked Dylan Thomas has succeeded in drinking himself to death…His soul and his stock rise, hand in hand. Frost’s own vanity, fiercely held is this, he will survive. The steeple is not for directing eyes heavenward, it’s for climbing, and Frost will remain at the top–partly by kicking, when he has to, other climbers in the face, but mainly, (so simple!), by not leaping off.

On his poem November:

What makes New England rich is its decay, its compost. Waste turned under. The waste of laziness! Which his grandfather deplored. But Rob’s laziness rotted and sprouted his poems. The practical crowd want to ignore the waste leisure and of pleasure, and the pacifist crowd want to ignore the greater waste of human hate, which maybe can be as lordly and creative as hate.

T.S. Eliot ts-eliot.jpg Ezra Pound ezrapound.jpg
On a conversation with the Younger Poet after his death:

This is hell. If you want change, go to purgatory. Tom and Ezra are there, vomiting up their undigested Latin. They’ll be ready for heaven in about a thousand years…I was great wasn’t I? It takes a moment for the Younger Poet to recognize this as a question. “Yes.” You hesitated.

Dog’s Life

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Ellington Boulevard, Adam Langer, 2008

Apartment at 523 Ellington Blvd 523-ellington.jpg

A cute tale of life in contemporary New York, particularly in Manhattan Valley, the upper West side between Central Park and Riverside Park at 106 St (now Ellington Boulevard). Deals with the lives of several interrelated people and one dog, named Herbie Mann. Herbie lives with Ike a black jazz clarinetist in an apartment building that he help rehabilitate in the eighties. For his help the landlord lets him stay in a nice apartment in the building for $350 a month for as long as he wants. No written agreement was ever drawn up.

Ike owns a priceless B-flat 19th Century Mueller clarinet. Ike has split from his funk band and is just returning from Chicago where he cared for his now deceased mother in her last months. He hasn’t played or written music for several years. The landlord dies and his lazy son, figuring the market is nearing its peak, starts selling all of daddy’s real estate including Ike’s apartment. Without a written agreement, Ike can’t do much.

George Washington Bridge from Riverside Park riverside.jpg

Enter the other characters, the buyer, whose father’s success as a jingle writer allows him to help his daughter buy the apartment for $650,000, and who has dropped out of graduate school to start her first job as assistant editor as a once prestigious journal, now in sad decline; her husband, for six years a PhD student and teaching assistant at Columbia who can’t get motivated to finish his boring dissertation; the turn around artist hired to save the journal who sets about firing everyone she can find but likes the buyer and promotes her to full editor; the investigative reporter who has been researching the fraudulent methods including phony subscriptions the turn around artist uses to “save” publications only to have them fail totally once she has moved on; the real estate broker who is a failed actor but successful real estate man; the Korean mortgage broker, a girl living in Fort Lee whose parent’s corner fruit stand is going bankrupt and who prays for continuing bad employment numbers so interest rates will stay low; the owner of a run down theater on the upper west side that is losing money and may need to be sold; the heiress who wrote and anonymously published a child’s fantasy novel as a young girl and who is currently studying writing at Columbia. The husband will fall in love with her and the wife will seek revenge by outing her as the author of the fantasy and then trashing it in a review.

Chapters are dedicated to advancing the story from the point of view of each character. Most interesting were the chapters from the point of view of the dog, Herbie, who Ike rescues from the dog pound when he hears Herbie’s perfect A-flat howl. Herbie has been dumped into the pound by one of the other characters in the novel and Herbie has a long memory.

Herbie does not fully sense the passage of time – to him, it seems to be almost all one moment of running and standing still, of swimming and dreaming, of happiness and despair. He is a puppy and he is growing old. Ike is here and he is not. Part of Herbie is still swimming toward Canada, part of him never escaped the shelter, part of him is still in Chicago, part of him is digging in front of a house in Croix-de-Mer, part of him has only just been born. He smells the present and the past – he smells the meadow and his mother’s breath, smells Chloe Linton’s perfume and Ike’s shirt, smells Lake Michigan, the grass in Central Park, and the steps at Stranger’s Gate the once led down to West 106th Street and now lead to Duke Ellington Boulevard.

St. Croix Island st-croix.jpg

Destiny’s Canal

Monday, May 12th, 2008

Path Between the Seas, The Creation of the Panama Canal, David McCullough, 1977

French Excavator french-shovel.jpg

Epic tale of the efforts of the French and Americans to create the long desired passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. President Grant sent survey teams to find the best route in 1870 but nothing further was done by the U.S. to attempt to build a canal. Instead, the French, following their engineering and financial success at Suez, raised private money under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lessep, hero of Suez, who insisted a sea level canal be built in Panama. The French effort was under-funded and plagued with problems, not least of which was disease. Further efforts to raise money failed and the company was thrown into bankruptcy. Scandals at the highest level were uncovered with newspaper payoffs and political bribes but only Charles Lessep, son of Ferdinand, and one other minor player were ever sent to jail. The effort ended in 1889.

Teddy Roosevelt became President in 1902 and immediately set out to build the canal. He left it to Congress to decide the best route, although Nicaragua was assumed to be favored. Enter Philip Bunau Varilla, a French engineer of the earlier French effort and influence peddler William Cromwell who set out to convince Congress that Panama was the better route and that the U.S. should buy the French assets including rail and digging excavators at $109 Million. When it appeared they would lose, the French lowered the price to $40 Million and TR became interested, thinking this purchase would speed the completion of a canal. Two volcanic eruptions, one on Martinique and one in Nicaragua convinced Congress to vote for Panama.

Secretary of State John Hay (former private secretary to Lincoln (star with Henry Adams of Gore Vidal’s Empire ) immediately negotiated a new canal treaty with Columbia but after months of delay, the Colombian Legislature rejected the treaty in spite of the offered $10 Million immediate payment. Bunau Varilla, with Hay and TR working behind the scenes engineered a coupe in Panama with American naval support (gun boat diplomacy) so that Columbia could not land troops to regain control. TR asked his Attorney General to construct a legal defense for his actions, but Attorney General Knox replied:

Oh, Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.

When TR trying out a defense during a cabinet meeting demanded “Have I defended myself?” Elihu Root responded:

You certainly have, Mr. President. You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.

TR at the Controls roosevelt-shovel.jpg

Bunau Varilla was named special envoy to negotiate a canal treaty and Bunau Varilla wrote a draft totally favorable to the U.S. Hay recognized Panama as an independent country, signed the canal treaty and Congress ratified the treaty immediately. Panama hesitated to sign until Hay threatened to pull the navy back. The $10 Million went to JP Morgan to hold for Panama who invested most of it in New York real estate. The French got their $40 Million. McCollough reminds us that American Imperialism was largely the result of purchases (Louisiana, Alaska, Philippines) and was never considered to be imperialist as a consequence.

Heroes of Panama were William Gorgas who understood the role of mosquitoes as carriers of Yellow Fever and Malaria and who headed the health and sanitation efforts that came close to eradication these two killers. He had previously done the same in Cuba. John Stevens had built the Great Northern railway, discovering the Marias pass and the Stevens pass, giving the Great Northern the lowest elevation trans continental route. Stevens immediately saw that the keys to Panama were eradication of disease and building railroads capable of hauling the excavation debris away from the cuts. He spent a couple years building housing, hospitals, harbors, and railroads before any major excavation could start. He resigned at this point.

Colonel George Goethels of West Point was then appointed as the virtual dictator of Panama. TR knew that the military man would complete his mission and not resign.

Digging the Culebra Cut
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The choice between a sea level and lock and lake canal was not made until 1907. The canal was designed then to accommodate the Titanic, the largest ship of the time. The locks were 1000 feet by 102 feet. The size of the canal was to dictate the maximum size of ships for decades including aircraft carriers of the navy. Only the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were too large for the canal. Modern oil tankers are far too large. The lock and lake design meant damming two rivers on the Atlantic and Pacific sides.

The dams had the side effect that electric power could be made available for everything in the canal zone and in the entire country. The canal pioneered electrical trains, locks, and much else. The Culebra Cut, a nine mile stretch at the highest elevation, was the biggest challenge given the massiveness of the cut and the continuous land slides. Even after the canal opened, slides would close the canal for months at a time.

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The canal became a major tourist attraction while it was being built with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The canal opened simultaneously with the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and ceremonies were canceled. The first crossing was by one of canal’s own freight ships and was hardly noticed.

Club House panama-club-house.jpg

The physical and social structure of the canal zone comes in for detailed scrutiny with some suggesting the canal was actually a socialist system. It is probably more correct to look at the canal zone as a very large military base before the days of outsourcing with its rigid hierarchical structure and completely self contained infrastructure, even though most residents and workers were civilian and not military. In any event the canal zone was a model of efficiency virtually without corruption, nepotism, or fraud, a remarkable achievement. In this way, the canal zone stands as a shining beacon of American know how in sharp contrast to today’s Baghdad Green Zone where waste, nepotism, cronyism, fraud, and incompetence are the only way of life.

Osama Where art Thou

Monday, May 5th, 2008

The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll. 2008

This book seems to be almost a companion volume to the author’s previous Ghost Wars. That book was the account of the struggle over Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia without any consideration to the possible interests of Afghanis. Now we have a partial history of the Yemeni Bin Laden family whose patriarch Mohamed Bin Laden learned his way into construction at the same time that Abdulaziz Ibn Saud was consolidating his control and unifying what would become the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Bin Laden family kept relationships with the royal house of Saud by being useful to them. Mohamed established relationships with Addulaziz and his two sons and successors King Saud and King Faisal.

Salem Bin Laden 1975 salem.jpg

When Faisal and Saud asked Mohamed to mediate a dispute between them, Mohamed fained illness, explaining to his associates that the brothers Saud and Faisal would never hurt one another but anyone getting in the middle might well die. The Bin Ladens understood their place in order of things in a genealogically determined society. Mohamed’s sons and successors Salem and Bakr stayed close to king Fahd and were described by Coll as Concierges to the royal family. This is a polite way to put their role. Royal procurer is more apt. Still, the roles have paid off giving the Bin Ladens a steady stream of increasingly large construction contracts and they are among the wealthiest non royal families in Saudi Arabia.

This book gives a useful look at the tight family relationships of Arabs and the dictates of Islam as to multiple marriages (4 wives allowed – divorce is easy) inheritance (all sons get a share with daughters receiving a half share). For the Bedouin living on the edge of existence these rules allowed strong patriarchs to survive. In oil rich Saudi Arabia, it leads to an explosion of descendants (Mohamed had more than 50) and a population explosion.

The book is largely devoted to Mohamed’s oldest son Salem who became head of the Bin Laden family in 1967 when Mohamed died in a plane crash. Salem was educated in and comfortable with the west, a lover of aviation and of western women, and a popular party giver to the royal family. Extremely audacious, Salem is seen by the royal family as a kind of lovable, loyal court jester. In one instance, Salem bets King Fahd that he can propose to and marry his four western girl friends in one big get together in London. Salem loses the bet but later marries his British girl friend. He also dies in a plane crash in 1988. After Salem’s death, his British widow married a half brother of Salem to remain part of the Bin Laden family.

Mosque at Mecca and Prophet’s Mosque at Medina
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The Bin Ladens, both Mohamed and his sons, got contracts for restoration work on the holy shrines in Mecca, Medina, and the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem. From the beginning, revenue from the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy sites which is the lifelong dream of every Muslim, provided a significant source of revenue to the Kingdom. As the number of pilgrims exploded to more than 2 million annually, facilities had to be greatly enlarged and expanded. The Bin Ladens even installed the worlds largest York air conditioning in the mosques for the comfort of the pilgrims. Because infidels are not allowed near the holy sites, the machinery was located several miles away so maintenance workers could access the equipment. Of the Hajj Coll writes:

The pilgrims all arrived at the same time of year and all went to the same places, Medina and Mecca, and more or less simultaneously. They arrived, too, in a heightened state of spiritual awareness, if not longing or near-rapture. On this heavily preconceived yet richly emotional journey, millions of Muslims discovered and judged modern Saudi Arabia. It was a process about as reliable as the one by which Saudis discovered America through vacations in Disney World and west Los Angeles. But it was no less true of powerful, in either case, for being incomplete.
Well-educated, globally conscious Hajj pilgrims from poorer Muslim countries such as Egypt or India sometimes resented Saudi Arabia for two reasons; its garish, wasteful nouveau wealth, and its intolerant religious orthodoxy.

So where is Osama in this tale? It seems not much is known – knowable about him. Most of the information we have which finds its origins in American “Intelligence” is wrong. Osama is a younger son of Mohamed and a poor 15 year old Syrian girl Mohamed married probably to land a construction contract. He divorced her again within 3 years. Unlike his educated (both in Europe and America and the best schools in the middle east) brothers, Osama is a mediocre student with a Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) high school education. While in high school, he is targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood, probably because he is a member of the wealthy Bin Laden family. He never studies engineering but becomes a radicalized Muslim. When the brothers try to involve him in construction contracts in the holy cities, Osama proves to be a bad manager, and while quiet and polite, when he does talk, he seems to create friction and problems with his extreme religious views.

The family sends him off to Peshawar Pakistan to funnel charity donations to the Afghan cause during the Soviet occupation. Salem often acts as currier carrying bags of money for Osama to distribute. Osama wants to join the action and asks Salem for arms. Salem looks but is unclear what he finds for Osama. In Osama’s only significant military engagement on the Afghan border, 100 of his fighters are killed. While a military disaster, Osama films the whole thing and turns the result into a propaganda film with himself as star.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Osama returns to Saudi Arabia offending everyone in sight. He suggests to the royal family that they should allow Osama to raise an army to chase Sadam Hussain out of Kuwait rather than allow infidel Americans onto Saudi soil. The royal family tells the Bin Laden family to shut Osama up but they cannot so the Sauds pulled Osama’s passport and deport him. He chooses Sudan, one of the few countries willing to accept him. Bakr, now head of the Bin Laden family, sorts out inheritance issues in the family and Osama chooses $15 million in cash and small continued holdings in Bin Laden businesses.

Osama invests and loses most of this money in bad business deals in Sudan. Osama takes credit for blowing up two American embassies in Africa and the US pressures Sudan to exile Osama yet again. They do, and Osama returns to Afghanistan where he promises $10-20 million annually to the Taliban to give him asylum. It is unclear if he ever gave the Taliban financial support but he did build Mullah Omar a new family compound.

The idea for the plane bombing in the US probably originated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed uncle of Ramzi Yousef, the man who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Osama revised the plan to scale it back from 10 planes and to cast himself as the star.

Strangely, there is no mention of Osama’s health issues in this book. After 9/11, the American public was media fed the image of this tall guy running from cave to cave with a dialysis machine strapped to his back. Could Coll find no verifiable evidence of a health problem or did he simply think it wasn’t worth mentioning? Is this more evidence of invented intelligence like Osama’s wealth? Coll should have said something.

Both Mohamed and Salem Bin Laden died in plane crashes. Osama is unlikely to follow suit. American intelligence, after greatly exaggerating Osama’s Wealth ($300 million reported in the press up to $500 million) now set out to find the new sources of his money. This is a bit silly since the African embassy bombings are estimated to have cost only $10,000 and the 9/11 airline bombing to have cost only $100,000. Rich Saudis including Kings are known to drop several millions in a single night of gambling. The focus of this effort fell, of course, on the rest of the Bin Laden family. No connections or money flows have been discovered. The Bin Ladens continue to thrive in the construction business, being awarded a $1.6 billion contract for prisons in 2006. Osama has apparently not damaged the family reputation with the house of Saud.

This book, like Ghost Wars was hastily edited and is full of nonsense sentences and misspellings. Still, it gives a glimpse of Saudi Arabia, the house of Saud, and the role of the Bin Laden family within the kingdom. It is disappointing when it comes to Osama. Beyond debunking some of the false information about Osama, it sheds little light on this enigmatic, fanatical figure. We don’t understand him any better now than before.