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the diary thing 
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11.25.01
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 victory
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JUST CAME BACK from an organ recital at the church where we were married. A French organist -- the organist at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, among other places -- gave a concert of various pieces on the rather impressive pipe organ the church got for a (comparative) song. I used to go to all kinds of organ concerts years ago, when I worked downtown one summer, a lovesick junior accountant at a department store. They were usually held at the nearby Protestant churches, and I'd nurse my melancholy in the dusty pews listening to the church organist go through some of the less obviously liturgical pieces from his or her repertoire. It was nice, or at least it suited my mood at the time.

K. is quite involved with the church, and wanted badly to go. It had been years since my summer of exquisite misery, and in the interim I'd avoided organ recitals like a bad rash, but I know well enough not to dampen that eager look in my wife's eye. Off we went.

It was a nice program, with French composers (Marchand, Franck, Vierne) dominating German ones (Pachelbel, Walther, the inevitable J.S. Bach). A choice I heartily endorse. There was also an obscure little piece by Girolamo Frescobaldi that got rather lost in the program; a shame -- Italian composers before Verdi always tend to get stuck in the backbenches.

The organ sounded wonderful, happily so, since the crew that re-built it when the church went up a year ago were in attendance, listening intently to every tone. I realized, as the organist launched into the Bach ("Prelude and fugue in B minor", if you're curious) that I'd made the right decision when I asked Peter, the church organist, to avoid German stuff, especially Bach, at our wedding. I don't hate Bach -- far from it -- but his organ stuff tends to be a bit of a showstopper, all vast, mathematically sound blast and crescendo. It rather takes your breath away. I can't imagine why they ever let him write liturgical music at all; I could see any halfway sensitive parson getting up after the last towering notes of his work had faded, looking at his congregation over the pulpit, and sighing, "I'm afraid I don't have much to add. You can all go home now."

But I already knew this about Bach. The real revelation was the evening's closer, "Carillon de Westminster" by Louis Vierne. I didn't know what to expect; from the title, a staid little set of themes based on the famous eight-note chimes of Big Ben. Later, K. pointed out that the famous melody of the clock tower was indeed used throughout the whole piece, but I'd heard something entirely different. A surging, rolling soundtrack, almost nautical: images of fast seas and endless skies, square-rigged ships and the dark menace of the sea. I have to confess to being quite transported for the length of the piece, entirely unaware of the church or the crowd or anything besides the cascade of sound from the pipes, my own little movie rolling past my closed eyelids, a kinetic, wordless version of "Twenty Years Behind the Mast".

WE'VE WON THE WAR, or at least that's what the papers seem to be saying these days. Well, truth be told, we haven't really won it, as much as the dubious Afghan armies to which we've loaned an air force they otherwise couldn't afford. And we haven't won a war as much as a battle, or at least that's what the President and Mr. Rumsfeld seem to be saying. There's a long war ahead, we're reminded, and the end of the Taliban doesn't mean the culmination of our revenge against the forces that turned our jetliners into guided missiles scarcely three months ago.

But who really believes it? It's been a confusing enough war, what with having to learn the names of unknowable places like Herat and Kunduz, and the names of apparently untrustworthy allies like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmetyar. Just when our media had almost convinced us that we were bogged down once again in some awful foreign place with allies that seemed unwilling to inflict or accept the kind of casualties that we were patently unwilling to accept ourselves (regardless of whether 3000 or 5000 people were buried in the ruins of the World Trade Center), the Taliban suddenly collapses and Bin Laden's military leader is killed by an uncharacteristically well-aimed bomb. All the more confusing, it seems that this good news is hardly what war planners and world leaders, from Donald Rumsfeld to Pervez Mussharaf, had hoped to hear. Now why would anyone want a war to last longer?

Because the fun part is over -- the pursuit and the chase and the exercise of power and skull-pounding technological might, and it's apparent that catching and (preferrably) killing Usama bin Laden will be a bit of an anticlimax, never mind just what the hell we're going to do with the even more shadowy Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, should he turn up in the net. (I'm sure everyone in the war room is counting on a quick on-the-spot execution by a zealous mujahadeen, followed by shots of happy Afghanis dancing in the streets of Kabul. Done and done.) Some eager policy beaver was thinking of this when they suggested a highly illegal, unfortunate precedent-setting quickie military tribunal to G.W. Bush, who rather rashly (but predictably) decided that was just the ticket. Convenient, yes, but bad news for our partners in the international coalition who rather frown on star chambers and secret courts; they've had their own history with them, and they don't play well in repertory.

Regardless, the next stage is going to be a drag, whether the next target is Iraq or not. The UN has estimated a minimum of $25 billion for the reconstruction of Afghanistan over the next decade, much more if the country slips into civil war again. God help us if the war on terrorism takes us into yet another economic and political basketcase of a country again.


 
"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the dimunition of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages."
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- Samuel Johnson

 
Here's a review I wrote of a book criticizing the mad politics and even madder fantasies behind the "new economy" boom, just passed. Scroll halfway down the page.

And thanks to reader Alexandra Klein of Vienna for the lovely silk for our wedding quilt. Readers -- it's not too late to contribute to the quilt. Just send me an e-mail and I'll give you the address.

IN ANY CASE, THE WAR IS OVER and there are scores to be settled. Rest assured they're being settled in decidedly unpleasant ways in the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul and Jalalabad; back at home, they're being settled with the querulous press, with the "looney left" and the insufficiently prescient or patriotic -- in the light of our unexpected victory, they're the same thing, anyway.

The press, after weeks of increasingly dour reports from the frontlines, were mostly happy to pronounce mea culpa and get with the program. Ismail Khan and his Tajik-Sunni army in Herat? Amazing news; a military triumph on the order of Monty at El Alamein. Never mind that Khan is only slightly less unsavoury than most of his Northern Alliance cohorts, or that the citizens of Herat have already demonstrated against Khan's support of Burhannudin Rabbani in favour of the old king, Mohammed Zahir Shah; for the moment, we have palpable results, regardless of their worth in the long run, and new footage to air.

In any case, the authors of defeatist tracts have been duly noted. A year ago, writer Andrew Sullivan was fighting for his reputation; the famous figurehead of the gay conservative movement was discovered to be fond of "riding bareback", that is to say, favouring sex without condoms, and had indiscreetly advertised his preference. Today, he's publishing a list of the insufficiently outraged and the foresight-handicapped on his website.

I'm no great fan of the left, even if my own voting preferences have never strayed from left-of-centre. Intellectually, much of the writing that's come from the left has been unable to grow out of paranoid fantasies of malevolent corporations, soul-mortgaged politicians and the stygian business of government, abetted by nauseous generalizations about the "working class" and the "oppressed" that dehumanize as they turn everything they touch into an abstraction. Even worse, sensitive souls stricken by dismal readings of history have evolved a theory of moral equivalence that easily manages to equate shortsighted, unhappy American foreign policy -- as formulated by sinkholes like Dr. Henry Kissinger and put into action by the mostly mediocre agents of U.S. intelligence agencies -- with an open invitation for the oppressed to kill thousands of innocent civilians in economic wholesale batches, a kind of schoolyard tit-for-tat on a monster scale.

Personally, I've never been less than conflicted by this new war. A few days after the attack, I sat in a bar with the priest who would marry us, an American by birth, who was fighting unhappily with an urge to see swift, brutal revenge. I told him that, were America a truly Christian country, it would merely express it's sorrow for the attack and its loss of life, pray for the souls of the perpetrators, alive or dead, and announce that it would not answer murder with murder. It would take inhuman strength, the kind less possible in a country than in a single man. Perhaps a few million people, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, would see this for what it was -- proof that while America was morally righteous, true to the religion that inspired its founders, and that its enemies and anyone who celebrated the death of innocent civilians were not. That Usama bin Laden is a bad Muslim seems unquestionable to me; that George Bush and his war cabinet are bad Christians seems, sadly, just as true.

At the same time, I live in the real world -- a fallen world, ultimately -- and I knew that there was no way this was going to happen. We made the first step down this sorry road of retribution the moment the first man decided to attack another man, and when that man hit back. Perfectly reasonable actions that mitigate everything noble about us and our capability as a civilization.

On the whole, the most reliable voice I've read over the whole of this sad autumn has been Christopher Hitchens. Hardly a right-wing stalwart, Hitchens has nonetheless been confronted by everything from the erudite piffle of Susan Sontag to the outright looney horseshit of Oliver Stone. Hitchens has been able to grasp the depth of meaning of the "evil" at hand that the president is content to reiterate as if the profundity of the concept had only just struck him. Hitchens knows that no one deploring the human waste of American air strikes would have wanted to live in Afghanistan at any time before or after the bombs came down. He appreciates the rich, curdled irony of seeing some public intellectual deplore the very existence of the only society in the world that lets them voice their petulance, outrage, and moral squeamishness without fear of anything besides looking ridiculous.

MY FRIEND ALAN has just put a diary entry, an account from his perspective of the week of my stag and the wedding. For those who appreciate a "Rashomon" diary experience, it's right here.

It's funny -- gratifying, but a bit unsettling -- to read about yourself from another person's perspective. I'd like to think that I maintain as few illusions about myself as possible, but it's still a bit of a strong wind in the face to read something like:
 

"Rick is an eccentric. By his own admission."

Which is, by my own admission, true. But you still run the sentence through your mind, testing the feel of it, the weight of its truth. Yeah, I am a weird guy. Not unsociable weird, or dangerous weird, but definitely not most people's cup of tea weird. But how am I weird? Perhaps my opinions are a bit too strongly held for small talk, or my interests a bit unconventional, not perverse, or morally questionable, but perhaps a touch too enthusiastically pursued. I'm a bit confrontational, perhaps, and my language tends to be...colourful. I any case, there it is: "eccentric". Fair enough.

And then there's one of those things, one of those statements, a compliment with a bit of steel in it, more than just nice words; a sharp hint of the context in which the nice words fit:
 

"He literally found the person who was made for him. He was lucky. But (unlike the jazz musician) he deserves it. I wouldn't have been surprised if it hadn't happened but it's nice to know that sometimes it does."

No, it might not have happened. It almost didn't. K. and I met three times before we finally got together, and each time it didn't "take", despite the subtle attempts by friends to bring it all about. The first time, K. was in a nasty mood (with good reason), and I walked out of the party with Greg and Vicki sarcastically thanking them for introducing me to such a surly girl. 

The second time, I was in the weird mood, eding on hostile, at a party with too many strangers, and I didn't connect K. -- the pretty girl in the gold cocktail dress serving drinks with the host -- with the surly girl at the cigar bar a month or so previous. In any case, I thought she was with the host, an obviously gay man. Well, perhaps not that obvious. I mean, who can tell these days?

The third time, I was at a bar. We were introduced. I thought she was cute. I went over to say hello to a friend. I excused myself to come back to K. She'd left. I actually remember standing there, feeling a bit of a pang. Another opportunity blown. Opportunities, I knew with some certainty, that were receding and finite.

Three strikes. I should have been out. But then I got a fourth swing. Home run. Imagine that. 

Actually, there was no reason why I should have met someone who could put up with me. By the time we'd met, I was eding into the terminal. Too solitary, too self-sufficient, too...weird, I guess. (Which is, by the way, not a description I'd apply to Alan, despite his own agonizing.) Alan had every reason to expect nothing to happen with me. I was lucky. I have no other way to explain it. I'm a very lucky guy.

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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