For the River, With Gratitude

fullsizeoutput_11df

One frustrating aspect of living in an outdoor paradise is the perpetually nagging notion that—no matter how much you do—you are missing out on something. That’s nowhere more true than in central Oregon, which is known worldwide as a playground for outdoor adventure: from skiing to mountain biking, from climbing to bird watching. And, of course, there is the fly-fishing.

I have long loved to fish, since my step-dad first took me trout fishing at Silver Lake, in the mountains of northeastern California.

The details of that first ever morning on the water stay with me: the overcast sky, the rich smell of the lake, the deep pine-duff where we left the old brown pickup, my little black and white fishing rod. I remember too that the anchor in our boat was fashioned out of an old Folger’s can filled with cement. It was very cold and I can still hear the slap of water against the boat, the muffled banging of the oars, as we rowed out into the dark gray water. I am certain, because these memories are so vivid, that I was in a kind of existential trance the entire day.

Last Friday I had another trip like that first one, and the gift of it will likely stay with me until I am carried away to Happy Acres. It was about time too, given that sincere little voice in my head that keeps telling me I’m not getting enough done, even as I know my days are full, excuses are easy, and sand is always running through the hourglass.

DSC_0314

But last Friday, some forty years after I first went fishing, something changed for me. I think there are a couple of reasons for that, not least of which is this growing sensibility, and concern, I am developing about what we are doing to the planet all around us. But more importantly–and I think it was the river itself that did it—something vital, something intensely human and personal, was revived in me that police work had nearly killed.

I’ve known that vital thing was dying, and I have struggled mightily—drinking far too much, living in a kind of lubricated haze, and diving breathlessly into the darker regions of my mind–to keep it on life support for far too long. What was revived, brought suddenly and brilliantly back to life, was a profound and deeply held appreciation for the many good things life still brings us. And what frightens me most, as I look back on the last ten years, is how close to dead that part of me actually was.

I am not a great fisherman. I only learned to fly fish five or six years ago, and was self-taught. I gravitated toward fly-fishing, I think, because it seemed to represent something clean and singular and healthy, something without artifice, and precisely in opposition to the filthy, heart-crushing, and duplicitous meat-grinder of southern California law enforcement. I was attracted to fly-fishing as an antidote to all of that, and it may be among the greater gifts I will ever receive from The Creator.

On one of our many initial visits to Sisters, before I retired and we moved here, I wandered into The Fly Fisher’s Place, our local shop, and met the owner Jeff Perin—who has become a friend and who is a real gift to this community. I told Jeff I wanted his cheapest beginner rod, some flies, and an idea of where to go and what to do. Jeff, who likely thought I had dropped in from outer space, outfitted me happily, and I took it all home, tried to figure out the requisite knots, and practiced a few lame casts in the driveway. Next morning, Wendy and I drove out to Crooked River, where we had never been.

fullsizeoutput_11e2

What happened was, I got lucky. I caught a lot of fish on my very first day, even as my casts were bad and self conscious and I was trying hard to imitate what I thought I was seeing in the famous fly fishing photographs and movies, where every swing is a work of art and there seems to be an element of magic at work. Catching fish my first time out with a fly rod was a lucky bonus, I suppose, but I also noticed and welcomed a sense of the pure, focused, and unadulterated joy that comes with a thorough immersion in the things of life, rather than the things of despair—which is where I had been living for so long.

People write books about this sort of thing, and I won’t be able to articulate it fully here, but fly-fishing is a fully engaging enterprise. It involves the body, the mind, and most certainly the whole-soul. It is multi-dimensional that way. There is no small measure of skill and experience required, but as in all things sporting there is also and always a dollop of luck involved. And there is a ubiquitous human appreciation for the more ephemeral sketch of the experience, recorded in cultures worldwide. I think of the Ceiba trees of central America, which the Arawak Indians revered for having their roots in hell, their trunks on earth, and their leaves in heaven.

At any rate, that’s my fly-fishing curriculum vitae, thin as it is. Outside of a magnificent drift trip down the McKenzie River with my good neighbor and full time guide, Steve Erickson, and my colleague from the old days Ed Olsen, (though Ed and I had at least one great day on another Oregon river) my fishing has been hit or miss and never more than occasional. But always, and without fail, each experience on the water has left me with a renewed and invigorated appreciation for the broader things of this life, and for the better and brighter mysteries in it that we might better cherish and sustain.

Which brings me to last Friday. This fly-fishing trip into the otherworldly canyons of the lower Deschutes River was, I think I can say without overstatement, like being a struggling minor league ballplayer suddenly called up to play for the New York Yankees. If you can get your mind to imagine that place, that’s what it was like for me as Brett Miller, founder of Warfighter Outfitters, guided us downriver on a sharp, winter-bright early morning from the boat launch at Mac’s.

fullsizeoutput_11ed

Brett and I were joined by Jeremiah Spradling, a full time fly-fishing guide from Farmington, New Mexico, and all of us were bundled up against the cold November morning as we jounced downriver over broad riffles and skated around islands choked with cottonwood, sledding in and out of the cold morning shadows and always conscious of the immense walls of the canyon and the early signs of a bluebird sky we would enjoy all day long.

This was my first time using a spey casting rig, which if you don’t know is a much bigger, two-handed rod meant for larger fish, like the notorious steelhead we were after. Brett and Jeremiah, both of them experienced spey casters, gave me some pointers and sent me off downriver to work on my cast, and to develop a feel for the movement of the water, my place in it, and how I might work the line to attract a fish.

There is a necessary rhythm to fly-fishing, I think, at least to do it well. There is some conscious sense of conducting a large orchestra, of knowing when to bring the right instruments up, or tamp them down, or bring them all together, and there were times when I managed a decent cast and could feel the music starting to play in earnest. And then I would forget some element of the tune and wrap my line around a willow branch behind my head, or send out a tangled pile of leader and tippet in a ridiculous caricature of grace.

But I didn’t care. What I felt, standing bellybutton deep in the dark rushing water, watched by herds of bighorn sheep from the shale and scree tumbledowns in the canyon walls above, or a bald eagle in a cottonwood branch on the other side of the river, was pure exhilaration and appreciation that we have these waters at all, and that they are still clean enough to support populations of steelhead, who have been making their spawning runs here since sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths roamed the valleys of Los Angeles.

fullsizeoutput_11e6

It’s possible too, I think, to lose oneself so entirely in the act of fly-fishing that it is a kind of baptism, so that coming out of the river is a type of spiritual rebirth. I think that because that is what happened to me, last Friday. We traveled miles downriver, stopping here and there to anchor the boat in the rocks, or around a tree, and wade into the waters to fish, or simply to watch the bighorns, or the birds, or just to listen to the water rippling over stones in the shallows, or lapping in cold eddies along a cutbank. All of that, the art of it, the quiet dimensions of it, reached deep into the recesses of my mind, and then turned it inside-out.

And so stepping out of the boat at the end of the day I felt, for the first time in many years, that my long struggles with the depressions and darker turns of mind caused by the soul-sucking rigors of police work were finally, in a meaningful way, cut free from my identity. I can’t totally explain it, not even close, only that I know that without the river, without that canyon lifted from the pleistocene, without that day full of wading and slipping on rocks, of casting and fishing, of swinging a prayer into the cold, silvery waters, it would not have happened. Not the way it did. It was as if all of the anguish I have been trying to shake was rinsed clean in those waters and became another entity entirely, something I can examine and turn over in my hands like a museum piece, rather than feel coursing through my bloodstream like a warm shot of poison.

At the end of the day, without catching a fish or even feeling a bite, I felt twenty years younger in my soul. And that, dear friends, is a real and precious gift I could not have received it doing anything else, anywhere else, at any other time, on earth. It had to happen exactly the way it did, and with the help of the river.  And for once, that little nagging voice, which all along has been talking to me about something else entirely, has gone silent.

So, on this Thanksgiving, which is meant for us to give thanks, I am and will remain eternally grateful for a single day on the lower Deschutes River with Brett and Jeremiah. I can promise myself that there will be many more. But last Friday we had mile upon mile of the river completely to ourselves, as if we were indeed thrown far away in time, and the river was ours alone.  And now, as I think about it, I suppose in a way we always have the river completely to ourselves, even when, perhaps especially when, we absorb, appreciate, and ultimately share the lessons it has taught us.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Fistful of Dollars

daylaborers-1.jpg

Labor Line Scholars, Anytown, California

I’ve seen this man before. He’s Mexican, late middle-aged, soft spoken, and there is a shielded focus in his eyes that betrays the uncertainty of a life spent mostly standing over a trap door. His name is Armando. A couple of years ago, while sitting upstairs in my office working, I saw him ride down the road on a bicycle, carrying a rake in one hand like a lance. He was riding door to door, looking for work, but that day, for whatever reason, he did not stop in at our place.

Yesterday, he pulled into our driveway at the wheel of a used car. A Pontiac. I was, as I usually am most mornings, in my office working. He was welcomed by our dogs, who eagerly abandoned their obsession with watching the chickens for the prospect of something far more interesting. I went down to meet him.

The Spanish I have acquired came to me first on the deserts of Nevada, where I often rode and worked with Mexicans, and where I learned to string together a sentence or two and built a modest vocabulary around the things of ranch life. The second baptism came in police work, where I learned key phrases such as “Show me your hands,” and “Drop the knife,” and “Why is their a bag of meth in your center console?” I said those things often enough that I will probably be muttering them, to the consternation of my nurses, who will likely be Hispanic, in the day-room of whatever raisin farm I eventually end up in.

But Armando is a working man, and after many mucho gustos we worked through the limits of our broken languages and I found some work that I needed done—work that he wanted to do because like all men, he needs money, and unlike far too many of our fellow citizens, he’s willing to work for it. And it is, after all, almost Christmas.

day-labor-portrait-black-white-laborers-mexican-napa-valley.jpg

This is Not Armando, But It Could Be

What stays with me in all of this, and it’s something I’ve thought about before, is the tremendous admiration I have for Armando, and others like him, who are compelled to leave their homes by the absence of opportunity, or war, or worse, and suddenly find themselves many hundreds of miles away, deep inside an entirely foreign country, without facility in the language, and who nevertheless have the sand to get out—on a bicycle if necessary—get busy, and try to make an honest dollar.

It’s driven by necessity, of course, that kind of pluck, and no small measure of courage, but there is an overwhelming combination of humility and determination that we can all take a lesson from. It is also driven by a mindset and a vision of life that takes nothing for granted. Nothing, I daresay, in Armando’s adult life has ever been given to him. Not one single thing.

Which is exactly the place where the abundance of our culture, this leviathan of entitlements and the attendant attitudes—has become our Achilles heel. When people say that immigrants are willing to do work that Americans won’t, they aren’t making that up.  They are, and they do.  It is probably no accident that not a single American citizen—and there are plenty in this community that I live in, who need work and the money that comes with it–has ever come around to our little ranch with nothing but an old rake and a tarp, and a profound willingness to do as much or as little work as necessary in return for a day’s wage.

On one of my old beats, when I was a police officer, was the city’s labor line. Each morning a hundred or so people, mostly Mexicans but plenty of Central Americans too, would gather to sit on the rock wall and wait for contractors, or private citizens, to come by and offer work. It was also an open drug bazaar and later, when I become a narcotics detective, we would stage the occasional buy-bust operation to tamp down the brazen commerce in rock-cocaine and crystal meth. But these were basically nuisance operations—for us and for the dealers–because neither of us had any expectation that the trade would end over the quick spectacle of a few virtually meaningless busts.

Lazy-Stoner-from-The-Americans.jpg

Work?  What’s In It For Me?

But there were men there who were not a part of that. These men were honestly looking for work, and worked honestly when they found it. They were very, very poor people, often living 20-30 to a house in appalling circumstances. Later, as a detective, I would go into those places with some frequency. Bedrooms were sectioned off by hanging bedsheets, the lights never worked, there was often no legitimate plumbing, and the houses were filled with rats, cockroaches, mold, and filth. Their lives as refugees and immigrants had filled them with incredible stories of hardship, desperation, and no small amount of legitimate danger. They had come to America to live better lives, and the lives they were living in America were a window into how bad things must have been in the places they came from.

It was possible, over time, to see some of these men finally disappear from the labor line, which one hoped was because they had found steady work somewhere. The alternative was to inevitably slide into that sleaziest world of street-level meth, crack, and heroin dealing. The latter led only to revolving visits to jail, and sometimes prison, a laundry list of outstanding warrants under different names, and sometimes to violent injury or death.

Much of that experience has informed my opinions about Trump’s proposed border wall and on the topic of immigration, legal or otherwise.

But here was Armando, pulling into our driveway with his new-used car, his rake and a ratty tarp, without the slightest idea what kind of reception he might receive. The dogs liked him instantly, which is something I pay attention to because they have proven to be excellent judges of character.

636228677086397972-Screen-Shot-2017-02-16-at-3.42.06-PM.png

“Slumlords”, like Santa Barbara’s notorious Dario Pini, prey on immigrants  

Armando made his proposal, and we bartered, and he went to work raking pine needles out of the bunch grass. His reception here was far better, I promise you, than the one I reserve for the well-dressed and well-heeled missionaries who come banging on our door—even after I tell them not to do it anymore–looking to save my soul from what looks to them like a certain eternal damnation. But I have a practical approach to all of that: I’ll take help with the chores around our modest little ranch, but the final disposition of my soul is none of their damn business—it’s a matter held strictly between me and the almighty.

At any rate, we get these gifts. In Armando’s case it is the gift of help around our place, but he also serves as a kind of keyhole we might peer through and think long about what it is that we are becoming, this nation of immigrants. We might, by looking at how hard Armando works—without the slightest hint of a grudge or an entitlement–use his example to better judge ourselves, and our mindset about how things are supposed to work.

The fact of the matter is I’d take one Armando, whatever his legal status in this country—a man of obvious substance and character and humility, of good cheer despite his circumstances—over ten of the kind of smug, lazy, weak-minded, foul-mouthed, and utterly entitled Americans who are sucking the life out of our republic. It’s no accident that, no matter how badly they might need a fistful of dollars, those folks never come knocking on my door in the humble, and utterly honest, attempt to earn it.  It has simply never happened.  Not even once.

Carrying the Fire

Friends and Readers:

For nearly a year Jim Cornelius and I have been writing, researching, reading, and working feverishly on a new literary project to identify, diagnose, and ultimately combat the ironies, mind-numbing complexities, and feverish groping that often define our modern American life.  We are pleased that those efforts are now nearing fruition, and that Running Iron Report will soon launch.  

The RIR is not a replacement for our efforts elsewhere.  The Bunkhouse Chronicle, and Frontier Partisans, will remain and continue to grow as they are.  RIR is a joint attempt to explore creative solutions to complex problems.  It is underwritten by a belief that our republic, as much as we have loved her, seems now to be buckling under the same historical pressures that have ultimately crushed other empires, in other times, and that we have options available to us that may prove anodyne.

The articles, editorials, and features of RIR will be comprised of historical, ahistorical, political, apolitical, and theoretical discussions anchored and driven by the notion of living well–of “carrying the fire” of all that is best about our republic into what we see as an inevitably less prosperous, and significantly more dangerous and chaotic future.  It will also be occasionally funny, and irreverent in the best possible ways.  RIR will most likely upset some people, particularly those who maintain narrow, and therefore largely disabled, minds, or those who insist on flogging the comatose coal-pony of failing institutions. 

RIR has no political affiliation.  We are not shilling for either of the largely irrelevant, certainly corrupt, and most definitely ineffective major political parties in the United States.   

Running Iron Report is coming soon.  We sincerely hope that you will join us around the campfire, and become an important voice in the conversation.

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 10.29.03 AM.png

Santa Anna’s Leg

fullsizeoutput_11cd

The Leg in Question

I do realize, of course, and sincerely appreciate, the profundity of our great national obsession with Russians, Hollywood perverts, Donna Brazille’s new book, bump stocks, the NFL kneeling/not-kneeling shenanigans, and even Trump’s midnight bully-tweets aimed at a fat Korean dictator.  But, and here is an admission, I personally lost faith in travelling carnivals somewhere around age 7, though I did once pay a dollar–when I was ten–for a peak at “The Ugliest Man in the World”.

It went like this: you gave the guy a dollar. He pulled out a wooden box and lowered it over his head. One side of the box had a little window, on tiny hinges, which you then opened—nervously, for who knew what one might see–and peered inside.

So that’s what I did. I gave him a buck and opened the window. All around me I could hear the shouts of carneys, the peals of laughter from people pretending to enjoy the various rides and baloney-booths on the midway. I looked in, cautiously, eagerly, and realized at once that I had been had. It was a very, well, Muelleresque sort of moment.

See, the guy had no teeth. All he did was pull his lower lip over his nose and up to his eyeballs, a kind of gummy balaclava. He sat in there, under the box, needing a shave and looking at you with sad eyeballs. I had been sucked into this farce by the shrieks of the girls who had gone before me, but mostly I felt cheated, and even a little angry at the old guy with the box on his head.

6

But the story of the guy in the box is not where I wanted to go. I wanted to write about the historical trials of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s legs. General Santa Anna, you might recall, was the villain of the Alamo. Two years later, in what became known as The Pastry War—a kerfuffle between the angry French and the angrier Mexicans–he was hit in the left leg by cannon fire while retreating from Veracruz. His ankle was broken, the lower leg mangled, and it was eventually amputated just below the knee.

But Santa Anna thought very highly of the leg that had served him so well. In a flourish of the kind reserved for Mexican Generals, he ordered that his left leg be buried with full military honors—it was actually a state funeral–and managed to become the President of Mexico for the fourth—or was it the fifth—time.

Santa Anna, no malingerer, had a prosthetic leg made from cork, and ambled around with his medals and strategies and fancy hats, just in time for the 1847 Mexican-American war, wherein his prosthetic leg was captured—after being abandoned in the field during a surprise ambush—by troops from the much-heralded 4th Illinois Infantry.

Santa Anna is said to have fled the field on horseback, under fire, which was undoubtedly an impressive feat of horsemanship. A second prosthetic, more of a peg-leg than a fancy cork prosthetic, was also captured by our boys and used as a baseball bat during pickup games in the big Mexican sand lot. True story.

santa-anna

My Leg…It is that way…

The legend of the original, living leg, did not end with its internment—it was eventually dug up by protestors and dragged through the streets of Mexico City, by people mad at Santa Anna.

The prosthetics, both the expensive cork version and the baseball bat, were hauled back to Illinois, much to the continuing ire of Texans, who now want it back. The cork leg went to the Illinois State Military Museum, while the peg leg is displayed in the home of former Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby.

But those Texans, never a people to sit idly by and allow the universe to merely happen to them, are petitioning for the return of the cork prosthetic. A museum, built around the battle of San Jacinto, wants the leg so that it might enjoy a place beside Santa Anna’s knee-buckle, and an historically important tent stake someone brought in from the desert. And students at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, who are only trying to exorcise the demons of their on-going undergraduate identity crises, want the leg back so they can hand it over to Mexico where, they think, it rightly belongs.

The_Battle_of_San_Jacinto_(1895)

The Battle of San Jacinto

Naturally, all of this furor over Santa Anna’s legs has raised the dormant martial ire of Illinoians, and even the weighty editorial board of the Chicago Tribune has leaped into the controversy. “In any case, we can’t imagine why the Texans imagine they have a claim. At San Jacinto, Santa Anna still had the legs he was born with. Texans didn’t inflict the injury that necessitated the replacement, and Texans didn’t capture it or preserve it for 169 years. As we all know, possession is nine parts of the law,” they wrote.

So there is that. In the final analysis the on-going trial of Santa Anna’s legs is much more interesting—at least for this bemused independent–than which comedian was caught with his pants down, which political party is promising the moon, or what Pro Bowl linebacker was arrested at 4 am for domestic violence.

And it is far more–by orders of magnitude–gratifying than the buck I forked over, in a fit of childish curiosity, to see “The Ugliest Man in the World.”

Vegetable Transparency

IMG_0985

Spring Works.  Rebuilding the Raised Beds.

It’s time to come clean. Way back in March, or April, or maybe it was May, I wrote in these pages predicting—it was really more of a populist pandering, almost a campaign promise—that we would grow 500 lbs. of vegetables. That was worth a giggle then, and somewhere inside I knew it was a bold pronouncement, but it seems much funnier now.

Armed with lessons learned from our previous gardening heartbreaks, attendance at a master gardening class, etc., and no shortage of work–rebuilding the raised beds, amending and improving the soil–we might have been a little cocky. But we had, or thought we had, the garden gnomes–those mute little lobbyists–on our side.

And now that the snow has fallen, twice, conjuring nightmares of last winter’s ice dams, houses in flood at -26°f, cars in the ditches, and you know, all of the other joys that came with it, I would be cowardly if I did not put the numbers out there.

We grew 18 lbs of peas. That was an excellent start to the season, and gave me great confidence in those early days of a young summer. Nothing beats the crispy sweetness of a sugar snap pea. Of course, no one knew then that we were going to lose all of August, and half of September, to smoke from the explosion of Krakatoa, but I’ll get into that later, as this tale of Central Oregon gardening runs from comedy to tragedy—like any modern political campaign–most ricky-tick.

IMG_1657

The Squash Kept Coming

We grew 14 pounds of green beans, but my wife doesn’t like them. She says they taste like cardboard. I think she’s right. I planted a different variety this year and although they came on strong, they were never going to win converts to the greater pleasures of green beanery.

I planted two kinds of onions and we pulled 9 pounds of them out of the ground. That was a big win for us because there was no sign of the onion maggots that have, somehow, found our onion patches in the past.

IMG_1603

A Handsome Start.  Before Krakatoa.

We grew 150 pounds of spaghetti squash. I cannot say why, but the squash went crazy. I only planted 5 of them—started in the greenhouse—but whatever combination of things they like, they definitely received, because the squash just kept coming. This was, by far, our biggest win of the season. The rest of the tally isn’t so impressive.

I had also made some bold predictions about growing corn—which other people do with some success in Central Oregon, and I was determined to grow a bushel of gigantic ears to post pictures of, like fishermen do with huge trout, just to brag about what a terrific farmer I am.

Meh. I did two things that are arguably stupid. The first was trying to beat two problems at once. First, I transplanted corn from the greenhouse into the garden. This is fraught with problems, although the best ears we had came from those transplants. The second was just trying to grow corn at all.

We had terrific early success with the corn, and some very nice ears, before the law of averages caught up with me and not much else happened. I poured the bloodmeal to them early and late, sang my best Ian Tyson love songs to them, and even went native by planting with the 3-Sisters method—corns, beans, squash–but in the end the corn crop was a flop. 7 pounds.

IMG_1661

Hops.  Next Year:  Beer.

Which brings me to the bigger heartbreak of this season. Tomatoes. I generally plant in the neighborhood of 15-20 tomatoes. Tomatoes are not a difficult plant to grow. But they require sunlight, and heat, and relatively clean air, which was not going to be one of the gifts last summer gave us. Just at the time when our ‘maters needed a final push of glorious sunlight, Krakatoa exploded, the earth went dark, and the tomatoes began to choke, and stunt, and sit sadly in the swirling clouds of ash. The tomato totals ran to 25 pounds, which was okay, but not enough for the loads of salsa and tomato sauce I was dreaming of canning this fall.

Also, we grew one apple. We planted several apple trees last year, which blossomed nicely in the spring, but we watched as the buds took a hard frost early and we ended up with just one apple. But it was a good apple, and I shared it with the horses, who each got a nice slice.

We also grew trashcan potatoes. There were lots of potatoes in the cans, but something about them gave us both the willies, so mostly we aren’t going to eat them.

223 pounds, mostly squash. That doesn’t count the lettuce, kale, cucumbers, or the odd few pounds of carrots, but it’s clearly not the 500 pounds I was shouting about from the rooftops, and to anyone who would listen to my ravings. But I had to come clean. By sharing this information, going public in this forum, and maintaining the long tradition of Figure 8 Ranch vegetable transparency, I have completed the final harvest of the season.

And next year—I don’t know why I can’t stop myself from doing this—I just know we are going to grow 500 lbs of vegetables.

 

 

Jailbirds

_97405506_hi013565898

The Incredible Mr. Putin

The first True Bill in the big collusion extravaganza has finally been handed down. Early Monday morning, in a showbiz fail, Paul Manafort, former chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign, made a strangely unattended perp-walk with his lawyer into the FBI’s Washington D.C. field office. Manafort, who was clearly the first chair in a sloppy money-laundering symphony, was joined in the indictment by Rick Gates, a former deputy campaign chair, accomplished Moscow-mingler, and convention delegate-wrangler.

In this column’s opinion the charges we have all been waiting for are remarkably uninteresting, uninspiring, and weak for the purpose of climbing the collusion ladder. The indictment itself is heavy on evidence of laundering and tax fraud, solid on evidence of failing to register as a foreign agent, and laughable on any evidence at all of collusion with Russians to influence the election.

Anyone hoping for slam-dunk evidence of collusion with the Rooskies is certainly disappointed by the text of the indictment, and if Mueller is hanging the success of his case on flipping Manafort he’s chosen a particularly flimsy spatula for the job.

Manafort has likely known he was headed to prison for months—his whole scheme as described in the indictment is amateurish, not up to the laundering expertise of even mid-level narcotics traffickers—and so one wonders what he has to gain by cooperation—a tact which presupposes he knows anything at all about collusion. I’ll hazard a guess: not much, even with the exposure for his alleged crimes as serious as it is.

Strangely enough, Gates appears to be the far more interesting piece in this opening gambit, and one wonders what tales he might tell about his Moscow dalliances. There might be a songbird in Gates’ coat-pocket, and time will tell us how loud it sings.

The heart of former Director Mueller’s effort against Manafort is summarized nicely on page 2 of the indictment: “In furtherance of the (laundering) scheme, MANAFORT used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income. MANAFORT, without reporting the income to his tax preparer or the United States, spent millions of dollars on luxury goods and services for himself and his extended family through payments wired from offshore nominee accounts to United States vendors. MANAFORT also used these offshore accounts to purchase multi million dollar properties in the United States. MANAFORT then borrowed millions of dollars in loans using these properties as collateral, thereby obtaining cash in the United States without reporting and paying taxes on the income.”

171030092128-01-paul-manafort-arrival-1030-exlarge-169

Manafort’s Long Walk

There is solid information about Manafort and Gates acting as unregistered agents of the Ukranian government—unsurprising–but precious little in the way of concrete allegations of direct, or even indirect, collusion with Russians. True believers in the collusion angle will use every ounce of circumstantial evidence to cry foul, but what’s in the indictment doesn’t boost their case. Which isn’t to say it didn’t happen, or that Manafort and Gates won’t ultimately spill some goods, only that the crimes they are formally accused of are essentially tax fraud and money laundering charges—comparatively lightweight stuff–and if the government is pinning its hopes on leveraging these two mopes to find hard evidence of Russians in the White House pantry it doesn’t look promising.

If I were Manafort, or Gates, or their respective attorneys, I would negotiate with the government—but really only about what color of jumpsuit I get to wear in Martha Stewart Federal Penitentiary.

How much money are we talking about here? According to the indictment, a cool $75 million flowed through banks in such garden spots as Cyprus and the Grenadines, which Manafort must have thought was safe enough from the prying eyes of FinCen, which is why he violated the FBAR (foreign bank account reporting) requirements so boldly.

FinCen—The Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network–is an authority you should probably know about. FinCen is essentially the assassin squad of financial crimes enforcement, used often in major dope cases to conduct clandestine audits—which is generally the best, and sometimes the only–way to prove that someone’s lifestyle doesn’t match their declared means, particularly when that investigation must remain invisible. If you are structuring deposits, stuffing cash into hidey-holes, or buying a fleet of helicopters with sleeze money, FinCen can figure out how you are doing it.

One wonders, by the way, where Manafort might have learned to execute such handsome real estate schemes. It’s almost as if he knows people who are big in real estate.

But that is a far cry from collusion with foreign agents to sway an election. In the comfort of our modest homes we might all form circumstantial conclusions about what, if any, influence the Russians had, directly or indirectly on the Trump campaign, and what Trump knew or didn’t know about Manafort’s financial highwire act, but that isn’t the same thing as hard evidence of what—committed knowingly and with intent–amounts to treason. And hard evidence is still the best evidence in our courts of law.

Thus far, after months of backfiring and scorched earth scrambling, we aren’t seeing much beyond the suggestion of Russians in the smoke—though the true tale behind the Steele Dossier and its employment by the RNC, the DNC, and Comey’s FBI is yet to be unraveled.

170307164939-01-christopher-steele-mi6-0307-restricted-exlarge-169

Cold Steele

This column believes that if there is an intelligence effort led by Russians to influence our election, it’s to be found in the sordid tale of that document and how it was ultimately used by extremely powerful people–across the full spectrum of the American government. If the Steele Dossier was essentially created by Russian agents, which is the allegation, then THAT is the real story, and it’s much, much bigger than any single political party, or Paul Manafort buying a condo in SoHo with slush money.

Wherever this ends up going, and whoever ends up going to prison, rest assured that Putin has his feet up on the furniture of his billion dollar Sochi compound, and is grinning from ear to ear because he’s already won—by deeply undermining our remaining faith in American institutions.

More true bills are coming. Mueller has hit a long single into the gap with Manafort and Gates, but if the effort here is to find hard, prosecutable evidence of Russian collusion to influence an American election—potentially treasonous acts by anyone who committed them–it’s time to start swinging for the fences.

Et tu, General Flynn?

The Red Rover Blues

gran_torino08

Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino

Trigger Warning: I am about to make light, where making light is due, of some of the more sensitive topics currently sucking up so much of our collective bandwidth. But before you remember, suddenly, that time I called you “sweetheart”, or brushed your bosom, or inappropriately sang the old schoolyard chanty “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, Look at These!” while grabbing my junk and flipping you the bird, please know that where it is merited I condemn utterly, and forever, actual incidents of sexual assault, or actual racism, or any of those other interminable human ills that now light the flame of hashtag crusades. Disclaimer concluded.

Also, I don’t care about the NFL, so leave me out of all that.

What has my attention is, in particular, the #metoo, phenomenon, where suddenly hundreds of otherwise dyed-in-the-wool feminists, most of them actresses, or models, or women in the entertainment industry, who have been barking at mostly ambulatory white male adults for the last 60 years about how ambulatory white males are the root cause of all things wrong on the planet, have suddenly revealed that in the interest of—well, what, exactly—they have been ignoring actual crimes in private while lecturing us all in public. For years.

Weinstein I get. The guy is a troglodyte. One photograph is enough to know that if he didn’t do half of what he’s accused of, he’s definitely good for something, somewhere, that is equally repugnant or worse. He’s precisely the mugshot of some loser on the nightly news that finally got wrapped up, even if what he did isn’t what he’s currently in the can for. He’s exactly that guy.

article-2152972-1363C0AC000005DC-230_634x768

The Groper In Chief, A Dangerous Man

But George Bush? Really? A 93 year old man with Parkinson’s disease confined to a wheelchair? This guy patted your butt, made a dirty joke, and you can’t get over it? I get it, there is some temptation to jump on this #metoo crusade—if only for the free attention it gives to flagging careers—but George Bush? This guy should probably just make you laugh and remember that time when we had a category for Dirty Old Men, and everyone knew Dirty Old Men eventually get parked in the corner, facing the wall, in their wheelchair. The Dirty Old Man is a typecast feature of human existence, sad as that may be, but it is hard to imagine old George Herbert Walker as a John F Kennedy or a Roman Polanski, which is to say a serial womanizer or a rapist—two guys who incidentally remain strangely adored by many of the same people we are now hearing from as #metooers.

And now it’s apparent that baseball players haven’t read the memo either. Making “Asian face” has been unacceptable since at least the conclusion of World War 2, when American propaganda hit its creative zenith of offensive caricature. Posters and pamphlets of that era invariably depicted the Japanese as buck-toothed, slant-eyed demons wielding the emperor’s gleaming bayonets. The Greatest Generation, those fine people–including George Bush—who temporarily saved us all from fascist doom, also had no truck with political correctness.

But Yuri Gurriel of the Houston Astros, who is Cuban, and therefore probably can’t be expected to enforce the American cultural embargo against offensive gesturing, and who went yard on pitcher Yu Darvish—who is Japanese–in the second inning of Game 3 of the World Series, offered this explanation to the carnivorous press (also guilty, it turns out, see: Mark Halperin, MSNBC) after his dugout pantomime: “I did not mean it to be offensive at any point,” Gurriel said. “Quite the opposite. I have always had a lot of respect [for Japanese people]. … I’ve never had anything against Darvish. For me, he’s always been one of the best pitchers. I never had any luck against him. If I offended him, I apologize. It was not my intention.”

102817-yuli-gurriel-primary-1

A Moment Which Will Live in Baseball Infamy…Gurriel Making “Asian Face” 

Under the Big Book of Offenses rubric, which is a fluid chart—author unknown—which explains how to punish this variation of given and received offense–based on an exponentially growing number of factors including collective bargaining agreements–Gurriel has been given five days off at the beginning of next season. But one suspects that is only because they couldn’t find—after an exhaustive search no doubt–an ambulatory white male American to pin up against the bricks, except maybe Abner Doubleday, whose statue in Cooperstown was immediately shrouded by tight-lipped officials from the Hall of Fame.

No word yet on when it gets removed to a warehouse in Pawtucket and eventually sold for scrap, and rumors on the street suggest that Dianne Feinstein has introduced legislation to have all baseball statues removed, everywhere. Except Jackie Robinson, of course, who was pure as the driven snow.

At some point, an awful lot of this begins to remind me of recess shenanigans during the long ago, in elementary school, where we were unleashed each day at intervals to touch each other inappropriately, get in fistfights behind the monkey bars, rat-pack a bully in the sandbox, and ruthlessly gang-tackle the unsuspecting and entirely too happy math whiz on his dash across no-man’s land during the intermural brutality of Red Rover, Red Rover. When the whistle blew, we all got up out of the dirt, wiped away our tears, went back to class and ate paste and boogers.

Halcyon days, one thinks.

The only real question, back then, was when the worm was going to turn and it was going to be your day in the barrel. And when that day came, complete with road rash and a thorough bruising of one’s eggshell ego, so too came the bigger lessons about steeling one’s self for the big playgrounds of adulthood. And just in case we forgot what happened on our day in the barrel, we carried the lesson home on a teacher’s note, safety-pinned to our chests, a kind of explanatory poem penned by a teacher who was buoyed by a sense of humor and the knowledge that parents of that era expected their kid to take a few lessons in the school of hard knocks.

The three R’s were important, but there were other, unscripted lessons that also mattered.

Not so much, anymore. Not for the kids, certainly, and not for the so-called adults, either. I haven’t seen an elementary school recess lately, but in my imagination the kids are all just standing in the wet grass in a kind of fugue state, wrapped up in straight-jackets and staring at their toes with an air of severe constipation, doped up and dumbed down like amorphous Teletubbies, under threat of arrest for so much as thinking about beaning a fat kid in the face with a red rubber ball.

73d64836625f1caaf5fff499d85085b0

Dr Suess, Doing His Part 

I’m not certain that state of affairs is so desirable. It seems to have created adults made out of cotton candy, who aren’t sure what actually constitutes an offense, and when, or how to deal with it when the real thing actually happens.

I realize, sitting here this morning, that #Itoo am in danger of becoming Walt Kowalski–hero of the film “Gran Torino”–in a number of different ways. Perhaps that’s just the way of things. I am also aware that my Ambulatory White Maleness is becoming a problem, and that there is a hashtag warrior waiting around every corner to pounce on my violations, real or imagined, and to find some way to line me up against the social media wall. Here’s the rub: on those vicious schoolyards of the long ago, I learned how to punch somebody straight in the face and let the chips fall where they may.  It’s no fun to prey on a hard target.

That sort of thing works, by the way.  Imagine if the first woman Weinstein proffered just hauled off and cracked him in the balls.  They don’t teach that sort of tough at Teletubby U, I guess.

But these days one wonders if all of this real outrage against real offenses might somehow drift inexorably downstream until it becomes unreal outrage against imagined offenses, and if, in the hands of the wrong people, the supposed cures might only serve to preserve the disease.