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Archives for February 2014

Deja vu

If the past is any guide to the future, the next governor of the great state of Arizona will be Al Melvin, our very own Scarecrow from the land of Oz. He is a searcher. If you missed his interview with Anderson Cooper, look here.

It’s more fun than a barrel of Evan Mechams.

And who is it, exactly, who says history does not repeat itself? 


Is it possible that the average IQ of the Republican members of the Arizona Legislature does not equal the overnight low in Nome? In February? Or 1062 divided by 1070?

Can you believe that Governor Chris Christie (of the great state of Tony Soprano) is not as Bill Maher said, “350 pounds of toast”?

Do you remember when the stable of New York Times editorial-page columnists included Russell Baker, Tom Wicker, James Reston, Anthony Lewis, Flora Lewis and C. L. Sulzberger? Can you also recall which one of these wasn’t worth didley? And how would you compare them to today’s crop — Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd and the others whose names I cannot not remember?

Could this town have had a better week than the last one for a rodeo, golf thingy, gem show and a Colorado smack-down?


Pluto and Carlos

Note: This being Rodeo Week, here is an excerpt from a cowboy mystery novel I have been working on for years. It is what might be called a work-in-progress, progress being very hard to come by. This is the introductory chapter, but is missing the prolog, which introduces what Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin, the premise.  The setting is the San Rafael Valley and the time is January 1973.

Team roping is a rodeo event that goes back to the time when cowboys had to lasso mavericks to brand, doctor or castrate them. A maverick weighs upward of half a ton or more and it took two cowboys to handle a maverick, one to rope the head and the other to snag the heels and are known as the header and the heeler. The cowboys ride on either side of the maverick, the header usually to the left and the heeler on the right. Once the header catches the maverick, he pulls the animal to the left and his partner ropes the heels, which ain’t easy. In rodeo competition, the team with the best times for catching a series of steers wins.

From Cowboy 101: A Guide to Rodeo

By Ferlin Slym and Waylon Markowitz

 The maverick looked peculiar. It had the black and grey coat of a Brahma, and it spilled over his face as well. The body was shaped like a Corriente with the pronounced back leg muscles. He had a Brahma neck and big muscled shoulders with even larger muscles in the hindquarters. His face was speckled with orange splotches on a gray face crowed by short curved horns. He had an abnormally long body with back legs nearly a half-foot taller than the fronts and a black tipped bottle brush tail that stretched to but a few inches above the ground.

The maverick bull stared at the two riders and the dog across the stock pond.

Blinking his bulging yellow-brown eyes, the Brahma away from the trio, swished his tail. He did not run. He began a slow trot, a bouncy strut emitting a series of loud farts, suitably contemptuous. The dog took offense. He shook his shaggy blue merle coat and darted around the pond, barking, followed by the first rider, Pluto, a dark-skinned cowboy of about 20 with a gray Western Stetson hat, boots with spurs, a blue work shirt and Levis.

The other rider —  Carlos — sat his red and white paint mare named Janis Joplin and smoked a joint. He crossed his lanky right leg over the saddle horn, watching the chase. Carlos wore a broad, floppy canvas hat with cloth strap around his chin, corduroy pants and high-top Converse sneakers topped with heavy cheap canvas chaps. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses that corrected a moderate myopia and severe astigmatism.

The maverick favored the Power line trail, a main cow-country thoroughfare in this semi-arid high plain of the San Rafael Valley. It was straight, flat and wide lined with junipers, cottonwoods and high grass. Pluto spurred his sorrel, half Arab, half quarterhorse. It horse started quickly, throwing clumps of earth, giving chase. Pluto looped his rope by his side. In a matter of seconds he would throw the loop over the maverick’s head. He expected Carlos to bring up the rear and rope the maverick’s rear hooves.

But Carlos was busy. Besides holding his breath as long as he could to maintain the THC pouring through his veins, he had to finish this song.  He was wearing headphones under the floppy hat, listening to “Back in the USSR.” The tune and the beat were perfect for the chase he was watching, “You don’t know how lucky you are boys….”

The dog did not bark so much as curse. He quickly caught up to the maverick’s rear end and alternately snipped at the hooves and barked. It was his high-pitched banshee bark, an annoying screech to any ear within range. The maverick was not fazed. It kicked, and just missed the dog. The dog kept nipping at the back legs of the maverick, which continued a slow loping gait. Carlos considered, as he finally exhaled, whether this was the first blasé maverick he had ever seen.

Pluto approached, his loop ready about ten feet behind. At the moment he threw the rope, the maverick made a 90-degree left turn. The timing was such that it seemed maverick had eyes in the back of head and knew precisely when to turn. The maverick maintained a regular gait. The loop landed on a bush and horse and rider stopped to gather the rope. The dog, panting, also stopped.

They were surprised. The maverick stood and watched, eyes blinking with long, bovine lashes.

Carlos, having finished his smoke, followed and then pulled up, joining dog and rider.

“That was odd,” he said straightening his glasses and folding his earphones. “He isn’t normal.”

Pluto spat. “Thanks for the help.”

“Seems clear I would have made no difference.”

“A slippery chingadero,” said Pluto, eyes narrowed. “Little shit maverick.”

“Looks big to me,” said Carlos.

Pluto looped the gathered rope over his saddle horn and spurred his horse to the chase. The blue dog sputtered and barked. Dog and rider ran at the maverick while Carlos watched, drinking guava juice from a canteen to slake his marijuana thirst.

Instead of turning tail, the critter held his ground. Pluto could not believe he had a stationary target. He threw the loop, which was in the air as the maverick bolted again to Pluto’s left. The rope landed on the ground again. Stunned, Pluto watched in disbelief as the maverick charged him. He passed within six inches of his left stirrup, and as he ran, bobbed his horns at Pluto’s leg, but the aim was too low.

“Ole! Ole! Bravo. Viva el chingadero,” shouted Carlos.

They stood, just looking, the maverick at the rider and dog. Pluto gathered his rope.

The dog sat. His coat was mottled blue and black, a blue merle. His face was splashed white from the jaw to his constantly swiveling radar ears. The left eye was cornflower blue and the other an emerald green. Both were rimmed with gray cornices.

It was impossible to peer into these canine eyes and not feel strange as if transported to a cloud that floated from one blissful place to another. Even if the dog uttered a low menacing growl, it did not threaten so much as coax. It was a soothing comfort, childhood blanket.

Pluto, whose name was Plutarco — after a Mexican president who some think went wrong and others consider a hero — once had a dream that the dog was the reincarnation of Rasputin. The dream took place in the court of Czar Nicholas as Alexandra and the dog used mystic powers to control Alexandra who commanded her wimp husband as the  Bolsheviks stormed the palace and killed Rasputin. The ghost dog vowed he would return as a wolf to free the family and vanquish the revolt. Carlos did not comment on the dream, deciding it best not to judge. He was, after all, Pluto’s half brother older by three years, born of a Chinese father. If he thought this was horseshit, better to allow it to turn slowly to manure. Pluto was convinced the dog had certain gifts.

Carlos rode next to his brother at a brisk walk. The paint horse mare, Janis, and the sorrel gelding — Grumps — got along well enough, being companionable stable mates. But when there was a bite to be taken, Grumps was the bitee, Janis the biter. Carlos reached beneath his gray sweatshirt, which had “Stanford Rodeo Team” written in red block letters on it, and produced a joint. He lit it with a Zippo took a drag and passed it to Pluto.

“This is not normal,” said Pluto, inhaling.

“I think we have established that much,” said Carlos, reaching back to his saddlebag to find his oversized, ultra-cool Manfred Friedelbone mirrored wrap around shades, which were enormous and fit over his prescription glasses. He looked as though he was wearing a funhouse mirror. His half-brother and took a long tug at the joint and held it in his lungs. He released the smoke slowly and as he did said, “I don’t feel good about this dogie. We don’t know if he belongs to us. Got no brand.”

“That is not the issue,” said Pluto. “This chingadero, this clown cow has made the mistake of making my dog mad.”

The dog, whose name was Wuph — so named by Pluto on the theory that a dog should be able to tell you his name — panted and leered at Pluto. He yupped in agreement, not realizing that he had been thinking clearly. Pluto dismounted and so did his brother. They found a log and let the horses nibble the ground for feed.

Carlos stretched his legs. “I think el chingadero thinks this is a bullfight. But I am confused about who’s the bull. I think that move was a paso de pecho. Or a veronica”

“Yeah?” said Pluto, looping the rope. “You’re stoned.

“Yes, but I’ve read Hemingway.”

# # #

Two hours later, Pluto and Carlos were in the Chuparosa line camp near Canelo. It was next to a stock pond fed by a spring. The pond looked like a bog at the edge, but the spring ran clear and cold this time of year. The horses grazed beyond the pond where the grass was winter brown. The camp had a small shed for storage, a rock fire pit with log seating around it. There was crude table, four stumps and an old solid pine door, now warped by time and weather. Carlos sat at the table, a bottle of Southern Comfort at his elbow along with a tin cup. He typed rapidly on a light Olympia portable. It weighed a little more than four pounds. Pluto carried wood, which was piled next to the shed, to the fire pit. It was starting to chill.

Wuph then suddenly appeared, striding slowly into camp. The elusive maverick followed behind, like a calf after its mother. Pluto grabbed the rope from his saddle. Carlos retrieved his. Pluto threw a loop over the young bull’s head and quickly wrapped it around a tree. Carlos caught the critter by his back feet and did the same.

The Brahma was stretched out. He bellered. Wuph barked. Pluto pulled a pocket knife from his jeans. He retrieved a blue bottle from his saddle bag. This was a disinfectant to be used after the castration.

Wuph barked and jumped in circles. First to the right, barking his banshee bark. Then to the left. Carlos leaned over the young bull’s chest to hold him for the cut. Wuph barked yet louder. Pluto opened the knife. The bull bellowed. Wuph then circled behind Pluto, hooking the cuff of his blue work shirt. He held the cuff in his teeth. He did not grab any part of the wrist.

Wuph held the sleeve. He did not growl, held the sleeve firm. Pluto turned. He patted the dog with his left hand. “All right, OK, OK.” The dog let the sleeve go. Pluto folded the pocket knife.

“What” said Carlos, “do you think this is about?” The young bull was breathing hard.

“I can’t tell right now, but I’m sure the answer will come to us.” He pulled the knot from the tree after Carlos removed the loop from the Brahma’s back legs. The young bull rose and then, unfazed by the near loss of his parts and only slightly indignant, sashayed to the pond where he took a long drink and farted.


A cyberitic chat

It can be difficult, dealing with the cyberitic (if sybaritic, then why not cyberitic?) world.

I received this week a warning that Comcast’s servers had been hacked, and I should therefore change my password. I am grateful to my brain that I can remember my password, life being thusly iffy when you reach a certain age.

So I ventured to Comcast’s cyberitic place.

I notified the place that I should like to change my password. The place did not object, but it replied that I had to answer a question, a matter of security, the only way of proving who I allegedly am: “What is your favorite beverage?”  I believe this question was once upon a time posed to me to be used in case I did not seem to be who I am, and would therefore answer the question correctly, proving I was who I said I am and not an imposter. I answered, I suppose, accordingly. It was many years ago when I did this.

It now occurs to me that my favorite beverage lo those many years ago might have been bourbon. I cannot remember what I put as my favorite beverage those many years ago. I do not like the word “beverage.” It does not sound liquid, but rather like a condition, as in one might be in an advanced state of beverage, possibly of excessive belching.

But I digress. I tried “water.” This answer was not acceptable. Nor was “juice.” Or “vodka.” I tried others and eventually concluded that this was a futile cyberitic business. I saw a button that invited me to chat online with Comcast. This was help in the offing, just what I needed. A little help from my friends.

I clicked the button. A box appeared in which I was asked to describe the problem. Early on in life I ran across the axiom that “a problem well defined is a problem half solved.” Having tried over many years to implement this tidbit of wisdom, I discovered it was bullshit.

Nevertheless, I believe I described the problem as succinctly as possible. What follows is a transcript of my “chat.” I swear that the following is a relatively accurate replication of the transcript, which I have presented in italics because I like italics because they look fancy. (The arrows {>} are as they appeared in the chat transcript.)

Chat ID: 756C25AF-2B05-49BF-82D9-AFA881690AFF

Problem: Can’t remember answer to security question. Am I supposed to change my password or what?

Sukhraj> Hello STEPHEN & EDITH. Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Sukhraj. Please give me a moment to review your information.

STEPHEN & EDITH > My issue. Can’t remember answer to a security question. Am I supposed to change my password or what?

Sukhraj> My pleasure to have you on this chat!

Sukhraj> I understand that you want to access your Comcast account and need yur login information, am I correct?

Sukhraj> Please provide me the username you need a password reset for and also if you use it primarily for account management or email?

Sukhraj> Stephe,m Meanwhile, let me tell you about our Comcast Guarantee, we are available to answer your questions at your convenience, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week either online or email.

Sukhraj>To better assist you, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?

Sukhraj> To protect your account I will need to verify some additional information. Would you please provide me with the last 4 digits of your social security number?

STEPHEN & EDITH > Look, we got an email saying we should change our passwrd because of an enormous security breach. Is that true or what?

Sukhraj> After some time you have to change your password just for your account security.

Sukhraj> So that nobody can hack your account.

STEPHEN & EDITH > Doesn’t answer the question.

Sukhraj> Once you ae able to login, you can change the Password/secret question under “User and Preferences” tab.

Sukhraj> May I know that are you able to login your Comcast account with your current user name and password?

STEPHEN & EDITH > Do you think you actually could anser yes or no tothe question? Has there been a security breach, just a yes or no will do.

Sukhraj> It is no true.

Sukhraj> Password reset up to you.

STEPHEN & EDITH > Thanks. I really cannot remember what my favorite beverage is. I prolly answered that question 13 years ago. Shall I keep trying because I really don’t want to give you numbers and stuff because who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

Sukhraj> May I know that are you able to login your Comcast account with your current user name and password?

STEPHEN & EDITH > I am indeed, and I must say have been able to do so happily for many years. I’D RATHER NOT CHANGE.

Sukhraj> Your account is fully secured with Comcast.

Sukhraj> I hope you understand due to customer account security is Comcast top most policy.

STEPHEN & EDITH > Many thanks. Have a nice day.







Dimples wasn’t dumb

cropped-DSC_0039.jpgBack in the day, The Arizona Daily Star sponsored a book and author event, and one year — 1988 or 1989 — Shirley Temple Black was one of our authors; her autobiography “Child Star” was the book. The B&A event was a big deal, difficult to assemble, manage and present. The effort was led mostly by June Caldwell Martin who spent the year before scouring the planet for writers willing to hype their books in a desert backwater. Some authors were easy to work with, others not so much; Ms Temple Black was in the latter group.

John Peck, then the Star’s managing editor, came to me to announce that Ms Black had certain requirements. She would be coming from the East on a very long flight and requested that we pay for a first-class seat in the smoking section. We did not pay air fare. But in this case we did.

She was an enormous draw. Tents were set up outside the convention center Music Hall where the event took place. People lined up to buy books and get autographs long before the 10 a.m. start time. They brought all manner of memorabilia, clothes, dolls and the like. The chain-smoking Black refused to autograph that stuff. Only the books. She gave her talk during the event and left after having sold, I’d guess, around a thousand books.

I got to spend a very little amount of time speaking with her. I was curious because I remembered that some years previous to this when Black was our nation’s delegate to the United Nations, she had attracted the attention of William Loeb. He was the prick publisher (a redundant phrase to be sure) of the Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader, a newspaper then well-known for its conservative, if not reactionary, editorials. He wrote one concerning Ms Black under the memorable headline, “Dimples is Dumb.” In that short time talking with Ms Black I could see she was anything but dumb. That was a good for it provided additional evidence in support of my long-standing conclusion regarding newspaper publishers.

(The most engaging and charming authors I met in these events were Kitty Carlisle Hart, the actress and singer who wrote an autobiography and Richard Selzer, a surgeon, who wrote “Taking the World In for Repairs.”)

Etc. (2) Of roses, spreading manure and poetry

DSC_0016 I have been spreading manure. I say this freely, knowing full well that those of inelegant minds will see this statement as an opportunity to characterize my entire career thus. Well, it may be true.

Nonetheless, I oversee 30 rose bushes, most of them floribunda, some tea, a few grandiflora and assorted (alleged) climbers. It may be of interest that one of these insists upon blooming in mid February, a show-off to be sure, but worthy of respect.

I have resisted quoting Gertrude Stein as to a rose is a something or other.

Speaking of poetry, I have received another issue of Poetry. This time the back cover poem is similar to the previous quote {Etc. (1)} in the sense I cannot make head nor tails of it. Perhaps that makes it edgy. Please do not tell me that poetry does not “mean.” Have had quite enough gibberish today.

And when

was the last time

with genuine sorrow

and longing to change

you got on your knees?

I could get some work done

here, I shrugged;

I had done it before.

Franz Wright

Pancho and Tom — how the Villa statue came to Tucson

A note: Thanks to Bunny Fontana a valuable source when it comes to Tucson’s history.

The United States has been relatively free of hostile invasion by land. I can think only of two invaders: the British in 1812 and General Francisco Villa in 1916. It might seem strange that Tucson would have a monument to the Mexican invader. If you have been in this town long enough, it seems like a good fit.

It was not always so. There was a time that Tucsonans would fume over the heroic statue of Villa in the downtown Veinte de Agosto park, which is less a park and more a traffic island on Congress. But the Villa monument has endured, surviving furious critics and defacement. It is here because former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt did not turn down the gift from Mexico, and Tucsonan Tom Price — a war hero —made it possible.

I called Babbitt recently and asked him about how the statue made its way to Tucson. He told me that he had a visit from journalists who wanted to know if Arizona would accept a friendship gift — a statue of Villa. Babbitt said he did not think Maricopa County would welcome such a statue, but he said he would call around and speak to people; he wondered if Pima County might accept it.

One person Babbitt consulted was Bernard “Bunny” Fontana. Bunny said he thought it was not a particularly good idea. He explained in an e-mail:

“I don’t recall the year, but when Babbitt was still governor we were both attending what for a few years was an annual fiesta held at Coronado National Memorial on the border on the south side of the Huachuca Mountains. It was there he told me about the statue that had been offered to Arizona and asked if I thought Tucson would be the proper place for it.  As I remember the conversation, I told him most Tucson Mexicans had close ties to Sonora, especially considering that Tucson was a part of Sonora until 1854. I also said Villa, while popular in Chihuahua and probably elsewhere in Mexico, was roundly disliked by Sonorans because of his actions during the time he spent fighting there.  The most egregious example is what he visited on the people of San Pedro de la Cueva.  He executed the village priest and all the adult males, 84 people in all.”

“It’s a pretty chilling story.

“My contact with Babbitt on that occasion was very brief and informal. But I was surprised when I learned the statue was coming to town.”

Babbitt told me he got a call out of the blue from Tom Price, then the city of Tucson’s director of operations. Babbitt said Price told him that there would be no problem in bringing General Villa to Tucson. He would take care of it.

Sure enough the Julian Martinez sculpture of Villa astride a muscular horse resides downtown in what is now called the Veinte de Agosto Park where it mostly watches over the homeless. He was at ground zero during the Occupy Tucson protest. Protesters had set up a makeshift tent city in the traffic median where the statue resides.

Between 800 and 1,000 gathered for the installation and dedication of the statue. Mayor Lewis Murphy was pissed off. He boycotted the ceremony, proclaiming Villa was a bandit. Normally, Murphy would have been there because he was natural at ceremonies. He was tall, possessed a soothing baritone voice, distinguished gray hair and a George Hamilton tan. He was a hail fellow well met, a devout Republican, sort of a mayoral Warren G. Harding. He served 16 years. An overpass is named for him.

The statue is beautiful. It was created by a Mexico City sculptor, Julian Martinez.  I think the horse’s neck is out of whack in terms of perspective. But Martinez seems to have had a problem with horse necks. He also made the Kino statute on Kino Boulevard where the good priest is depicted astride a horse whose neck could not slink lower and seems for all the world about to croak.

Tom Price was a Mexican-American born in Tucson and raised on the south side. He was a burly Marine who won five ribbons in Korea, including Inchon, Chosin Resevoir and the two Chinese spring offensives.

He died in February of 1988 after an eight-month battle against leukemia. He was 57. Price presided over the city’s sanitation department where his guys developed a reputation for throwing trash fast, roaring through alleys and getting it done in time for lunch.

He ran the operations department, which included not just sanitation, but also communications, fleet and street  maintenance and care of public buildings. At the time he died, he was in charge of 801 employees and a $32 million budget. He was in every sense a public servant.

The Villa statue used to provoke protests. Now it just presides over them.

Etc. (1)

I recently purchased a subscription to Poetry, a monthly magazine published by the Poetry Foundation. This quote appears on the back cover of the January issue:

A sheep grazing is unimpressed by the mountain but not by its flies.

Jane Hirshfield

Just had to share.

No need to thank me.