Busch Gardens

Went to Amber Ox in Williamsburg with Mariza & Brendan. We will go to Busch Gardens tomorrow.

We have enjoyed Busch Gardens since the 1980s. I still enjoy the roller coasters, but I find my advancing age pounds me harder, so I cannot stand to go time after time. A nice thing is that Busch Gardens is pretty. It is a garden, as the name implies. I also appreciate the landscape planning. The park is compact, but you get the impression of significant distance as you pass from one of the theme areas to another.

Whole family went down to Busch Gardens. I like Busch Gardens more than most amusement parks because it is really a garden. They do an excellent job of keeping the trees and plants healthy. In one of my pictures you can see their horse pasture. I noticed that the large white oak in the middle is very robust.

It has a European theme, going from England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Italy & France, including New France, i.e. frontier Canada. It is well laid out, giving the impression of more space than is actually there. Such parks are good places to test out theories and practices of urban planning.

We spent a lot of time in the Festhaus in Germany with the beer and brats.

I enjoy the roller coasters. Unfortunately, my body is not as resilient as once was and if I go too much I get queasy headache. But I enjoyed twice on Apollo’s Chariot, once each on the Griffin and Invader. Apollo’s Chariot and Griffin both feature an exciting initial plunge. You go straight down and cannot see the tracks. It is worth the extra wait to be in the front car for that reason.

We stayed overnight in Williamsburg. Watched “Fast and Furious 7”. I generally dislike car movies, but this one was fun because it was self-aware and made fun of its own excesses. In one scene, the cars drop out of an airplane and the drivers seem able to steer while falling through the air. In another Dwayne – “the Rock” – Johnson needs to help his friends. He has a broken arm, but flexes his massive muscle and breaks out of the cast. After that, former broken arm not hindering, he takes a 50 caliber machine gun and shoots up various bad guys.

Brendan seems a real expert on these movies and his commentary was useful. Chrissy & I are now going to watch “Fast and Furious 8,” which is widely acknowledged to be the best of the genre. And we have on the list to watch “Hobbes and Shaw”, where the Rock (Hobbes) teams up with erstwhile bad guy Shaw to stop a rogue British agent, who coincidentally is Shaw’s sister. Can’t wait.

“Hobbes & Shaw” is designed to further the “Fast & Furious” franchise while icing out Vin Diesel. The word is that he and the Rock get along poorly. Vin rightly sees the Rock as a bigger and better version of himself. The Rock has real charisma, while Vin is just ersatz. Who knew there was so much to know?

Afternoon at Tysons Mall

Chrissy & I spent the whole afternoon at Tysons Mall. Went to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” I recommend it. More on that below. If you don’t want to know the ending, don’t read to the end.

We had lunch and beer at Gordon Biersch (first couple of pictures), went to the movie and then drinks at La Sandia, across from Gordon Biersch. Chrissy wanted a margarita because the Leonardo DiCaprio had one in the movie. (I don’t drink tequila since January 4, 1974, when I drank a whole bottle and still feel sick at the reminder of the taste) Sandia also featured a good caipirinha, uncommon in the USA. You can see our respective Gordon Biersch and La Sandia photos below.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a good movie, especially if you were a fan of 1960s TV. There are lots of references and it is fun to find the allusions sometimes not plain.
The plot centers around a declining cowboy actor (DiCaprio) and his best friend and stuntman (Brad Pitt). They live next door to Sharon Tate and the Manson family figures prominently. This is the spoiler. The movie leads up to what you think is going to be the Manson family killing Sharon Tate and the others in that infamous crime. But that is not what happens. It is a “once upon a time” and it is Quentin Tarantino. It is what we wish would have happened to the Mansons.

Three of the Mansons, Tex, Squeaky Fromm and one other, show up that house of the old actor, where they find the stuntman and his dog. They plan to kill everybody in the house and are holding a gun on the stuntman, but he gets the drop on them. His dog attacks the gunman, mauling his arms and biting him in the scrotum. One of the girls runs at the stuntman with a knife. He throws a can of dog food and hits her in the head, killing her in a nasty way. The other woman tried to kills the actor’s wife, but then is hit. She falls into a poll where the actor was floating with earphones, oblivious to the events. She starts shooting randomly. He goes into his garage and gets a flame thrower (yes Tarantino) and burns her to a crisp.

The cops show up and the mood is almost jovial. The stuntman & actor are joking how they had to kill the hippies, who BTW needed killing. They are portrayed as very bad. The actor goes next door and meets Tate et al, who in this version of events are not killed and they play the title “once upon a time …” showing that this is a fantasy of a better way it could have turned out.

BTW – as I mentioned Brad Pitt was one of the stars of the movie. I know that there might be some confusion in the photos. That is indeed me and not a picture of Brad Pitt.

I thought “the Way Back” would be just an adventure movie. It was interesting from the adventure point of view, but I thought it was even more interesting from the point of view of politics & heroism.

The main character is a Polish officer captured by the Soviets after they and the Nazis divided the country between them in 1939. The Soviets massacred many Polish officers at place like Katyn forest, so that he escaped alive was an achievement. It was a terrible time in Poland and not very good in the world in general. It sometimes seemed that the world would be divided between totalitarian communist or totalitarian Nazis, with lots of petty tyrants mixed in but not much space left for freedom. In the movie, the communists throw the guy into a Gulag on the usual communist style charges. There are scenes of the brutality. The main character and some others escape and walk all the way across Asia from Siberia to India.

It has been more than twenty years since communist collapsed in Europe and Poland led the way to freedom. The horrors of communism have faded from popular memory. It is almost impossible to believe it really happened at all. Whole populations exterminated, people thrown into camps because of their associations, class origins or just for no real reason at all. The wars of the 20th Century were bloody with industrial strength, which makes it even more astonishing that more people died from the murderous internal oppression of revolutionary socialism, like communism and its cousin Nazism,  than in all the battle associated deaths.  When the world started to wake up from that long nightmare, when the Berlin Wall fell and freedom returned to large parts of the world, our joy at the events allowed us to put aside some of the horrible memory. Few Americans have ever experienced anything even remotely like the horrors of the Soviet Union, but it is important sometimes to recall the carnage and suffering committed in the name of progress toward totalitarian utopias.

We like to think that the human race has grown past this kind of thing. People living in just societies in peaceful times can feel that way. History gets sanitized. But the study of history informs us that it good times represent just pushing back the wilderness, in limited times and geography. The demons still lurk out there and even within. World War I opened the door for lots of them and in many ways Lenin, Hitler, Stalin & Mao were made possible by the monumental disruption in the world order. With the passage of time, some of these events and personalities seem less pernicious; they become stereotypical characters, and their murderous henchmen, like Leon Trotsky or Che Guevara can even acquire a kind of radical chic.  

No matter the other merits of the movie, it helped me remember both the horror and the heroism of those who resisted tyranny and ultimately brought it down and also the dangers of revolutionary change. The mostly peaceful general collapse of communism in Eastern Europe may have made us too optimistic. In a place like Poland, it happened smoothly as power moved to a well-prepared and civilized opposition. Despite the past, there were no significant reprisals. As I write this, we are witnessing potential revolutions in the Middle East. I don’t know the details and I certainly cannot predict the future. But I am afraid that behind the revolutions there, there is no Geremek, Onyszkiewicz, Mazowiecki or Wałęsa. I am not sure what the historical analogy will be. When the Iranians knocked down the Shah, worse and more persistent tyranny followed. Just knocking down tyranny is not enough. Some will be there to pick up the pieces. Good does not always get there first with the most. The good people are not always the best organized and the violence, exhilaration and power associated with revolution can corrupt even the best people.

There is no solution to this or a formula that will work all the time. In the times of wrenching change, a lot depends on personalities and luck. Would our post-revolution been so successful w/o men like George Washington?  If the Germans had not “imported” Lenin back into Russia, might their revolution been more moderate and less horrible?  The farther we get from events, the more they seem to have been destined to unfold as they did, but nothing is determined.

Returning to the prosaic, “the Way Back” is a good movie, worth going to see. You can enjoy it as an adventure film and a tale of adversity & triumph and if it makes you think, so much the better.  Colin Ferrell does a great job of playing a murderously dangerous and dumb but somehow likable man.  Ed Harris always does a good job. And Jim Stugess, who plays the Polish officer in the main role, portrays an honorable and determined man in an almost impossibly challenging position. See the movie.

Groundhog Day

“Groundhog Day” is one of my favorite movies.  I was watching it this morning, dubbed into Portuguese with Portuguese subtitles, so I could assuage my guilt for not studying enough.

I like it for several reasons.  One is unrelated to the movie itself.  The movie was on cable at the Condo where we stayed when we took the kids to the theme parks in Orlando back in 1994. It seemed to be on over and over, so I recall it being on the whole time.  It was a good time.  The kids were excited about Disneyland etc.  The weather was perfect that October when we went and our sense of relief was accentuated because we were coming from Krakow, where the weather was turning bad and – more significantly – the air pollution in those days was horrendous.  So I remember being in a clean, green place with Chrissy and the kids having a good time.  Everything associated with that basks in the glory of that moment, including “Groundhog Day”.  But there must have been other things on too that I don’t recall.  “Groundhog Day” had other things going for it.

The setting is comforting.  The movie is set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but it was filmed somewhere in Illinois, so it has a thoroughly Middle American feel. Of course, I have never actually seen a small-medium sized city that is as lively or has so many diverse things to do, but it is nice to imagine.

If you have not seen the movie, you should. A brief summary is that a weather man comes to Punxsutawney for the annual groundhog festival, but each day he wakes up to the same day. It repeats, over and over. They never say how long this happens, but it is a long time, maybe thousands of years’ worth of February 2. The main character, Phil Connors played by Bill Murray, goes through predicable stages. At first he is confused; after that he takes advantage of life with no consequences; then he gets depressed and kills himself many times in many ways, but each day he wakes up in the same place. Finally he decides to live in the moment. He improves himself by reading and learns to play the piano.  He also improves the lives of the people around him w/o any expectation of personal gain.  He does these things essentially because they are the right things to do at the time when he does them.  Finally, after living the perfect day, he progresses to the next day and that is the end.

The movie raises lots of philosophical questions, but it does it in a stealthy almost unconscious way, which makes it such a unique film. I suppose you could watch the whole thing just for the fun of it w/o getting any deeper than the funny lines and situations.  But I think it would be hard not to think about it, if you were at all paying attention. Most of us have thought about how we might do things differently if we could do things over again, if we had a second chance. This takes us a little beyond that. What should be your ethics in a world where there are no permanent consequences to your actions? I think that the film leads to the conclusion that there ARE permanent consequences, even if external conditions don’t change, because the consequences are contained in the person, who chooses, or not, to do the right thing. The movie is a story of personal development, of redemption.

Phil starts out a selfish a-hole, who after many renditions of the same day develops into a man balanced and at peace with himself. It is not the he just becomes unselfish and helpful to others. More profoundly, he becomes selfless in the true sense of the term. He merges himself with the people, things and the place around him.  He becomes his task no matter what it is, he becomes what he does and loses himself in it. He no longer works on being good, no longer thinks about doing the right thing, he just does it because it has become what he is.

I suppose I am reading way too much into a Bill Murray movie. But I have read many books of wisdom: the Zen of this, the Tao of that or meaning of everything. I am not saying that watching the movie is the one-big-thing.  There is no one-big-thing; however, if someone asked me about the great spiritual sources, I would include this movie. Like all works of philosophy, it should be watched, considered and discussed over time. The book – or in this case the movie – doesn’t change but your different experiences make it different each time. That is why it is impossible to understand any philosophy at the first sitting.  It takes a while to sink in, maybe years with differing conditions.

Lately I have been giving a more philosophical career advice. I tell the young people who ask me that they should strive to become the person they want to be, become the person who deserves success rather than strive for success itself. Success can be limited. Only a few people can be the bosses, champions or among the best at anything.  But everybody can aspire to become what they think is a good person. Reasonable success will almost assuredly follow anyway, but no matter what, you will have something of value when you are finished.  

The picture up top I took of the TV with “Groundhog Day” playing. The other pictures I took when I was wandering around getting the car serviced.  You can see Fairfax Honda and the Borders Book where I got the Hadrian book I wrote about yesterday. The last one shows the respect that pedestrians get around there. I was clearly in the middle of a car-preferred zone.  It is no place for old men, since you have to make a run for it when you want to cross the road.

Tropa de Elite

Not many people work on the day after Thanksgiving. The Metro was mostly empty and the streets were eerily silent.  It was pleasant, actually. This morning was unseasonably warm and balmy. The overcast weather added to the feeling of relative solitude. It cleared up a bit by evening and got a lot cooler. This is the time of transition to the colder weather. It will be warm again, but less and less.

I still went to Portuguese class today, wouldn’t miss it. We aren’t supposed to take any leave during language training, except for optional days designated. The day after Thanksgiving is such a day as are days around Christmas and New Year. But these are the best times to go to work, since few people are on the roads and Metro and in language class there is a good chance to get an instructor to yourself. I had my own class in the morning; my colleague came in the afternoon.

As usual, I watched the Brazilian news before class. Almost all of it was about fighting crime in Rio. They are waging what looks like a war against drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro.  The military police and actual military units, such as armored vehicles and helicopters are involved in cleaning the bad guys out of the favelas near the city and then setting up checkpoints to structures to keep them out.  Many of the drug kingpins are already in jail, but they were evidently still running operations from inside, so they have been relocated to far away locations usually undisclosed, although some have gone out to Porto Velho, which is the capital of the state of Rondonia. You really cannot get too much farther away from anyplace than Rondonia.    

The action is broadly popular with the population.  The inhabitants of the favelas have long been terrorized by the criminals and lately they have been expanding their operations to attack traffic on roads, as a kind of retaliation for increased police presence in the favelas.  It is interesting ho different this is in this time and place than it would be in others.  Think about how this might have been in the 1960s, when the Soviets and their Cuba surrogates were spreading tyranny and murderers like Che Guevara were fomenting trouble.  (I will never understand how that guy, a sadistically mass murderer and an incompetent one at that, can still be acceptable on posters and t-shirts.) The drug traffickers would have characterized themselves, and been characterized,  by many in the press as revolutionaries.  Or consider the same sorts of events in a Middle  Eastern country, one ravaged by violent extremism.  It is a lot better if the crooks do not have some kind of unifying ideology to turn them from local menaces to worldwide terrors.

This evening Chrissy & I watched “Tropa de Elite,” a Brazilian film about a special police unit (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE)) that deals with crime in the favelas.  The film was wildly popular when it came out in Brazil in 2007.  Now they have made a “Tropa de Elite II,” which has broken all records to become the most popular Brazilian film of all time, beating out perennial favorite “Dona Flor & Her Two Husbands,” featuring Sonia Braga, probably the most famous Brazilian actress in the U.S.

If you click on the “Tropa de Elite II” link above and watch the trailer and then watch the actual news stories from yesterday at this link, you will see the similarities.

“Tropa de Elite II” is not yet available on video. The first one is okay. It is in the spirit of the Dirty Harry movies, maybe mixed with something like “the Shield” or “the Wire.”  Gritty. When people feel affected by crime and corrupt cops, they like to watch films where the bad guys are hunted down and maybe killed.  When the danger passes, or among those who were always more or less secure, these things are less in style and people sometimes feel a little guilty about them.

There is an interesting sub-plot, almost like an American stereotype of the spoiled rich kids v the hard working guy who came up from poverty. One of the good cops is the poor kid who wants to be a lawyer and goes to school with a bunch of privileged rich kids. They all say the cops are bad and are just tools of ruling elite to oppress the poor.  Despite their evident wealth and privilege, they consider themselves part of “the people.” When the character – Mathias – speaks up in class to question the prevailing wisdom, admitting that many police are corrupt but that the drug dealers are also bad, the other students shun him. 

The film was criticized in some circles for glorifying violence and rough measures. The interrogation techniques & other methods.  

The BOPE in the film has a general Spartan or maybe a Nietzsche feel.  Very violent and not for the faint of heart, but the movie is worth watching.

The photos – Up top shows Thomas St on the way to FSI.  The construction workers are not there today and there was little traffic anywhere.  Next is the cloudy sky at FSI. Under that are construction cranes at sundown from Ballston Gold’s Gym.  The movie poster below is from “Tropa de Elite.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The old Jimmy Stewart classic was on today.    I suppose that it was scheduled well in advance, but the movie is particularly appropriate these days given the Senate seat sale apparently underway in the great state of Illinois.   “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was made in 1939, so I guess it shows that political corruption is nothing new.   But I fear that we seem to have lost the capacity for shame.   Now we see things in terms of political maneuvering and tend to treat it more like a game. It should not be. Politicians do not own their offices.  They just are holding them for the people. 

That film made an impression on me.   I saw it on TV for the first time on the day before my mother died.    That whole day is strongly pressed into my memory.  We didn’t handle it well.  My father was trying to protect my sister and me, but I think it ended up isolating us.  I figured if I just didn’t believe it was possible, it wouldn’t be true.   My sister was only fifteen.   My time would have been better spent being with her than watching television by myself.   Sorry.  Seeing that movie brings back those memories.   Thirty-six years later it still stings.  But that’s not all.

As with all real classics, the impressions from the movie grew beyond it with the outside experience.  When I joined the FS and came to Washington for the first time, I walked around the Capitol Mall, as Jefferson Smith does in the movie and I had a similar reaction.  I still do.  Even after all these years and daily familiarity with the monuments, they still move me. 

Of course, it is painful that Jeff Smith is such a complete rube.  We have a kind of fetish of the outsider in the U.S. that innocence and inexperience are the keys to successful political leadership.  I think that is wishful thinking and a caricature of the valid argument that not all expertise and intelligence resides with experts and professionals.  We need and benefit from a constant influx of new people and new ideas.   It is too easy for people within the beltway and the political class generally to think they have cornered the market on knowledge.  But like anything else, there are skills and experience that are useful in government and they are not always self evident or easily acquired. 

My view on the movie is more nuanced than when I saw it when I was seventeen.    Then I just saw the good little guy against the big corrupt machine.    I used to think that politics was about right and wrong, that there was a RIGHT answer.   Now I understand that we have politics because we disagree about what is the right thing to do.  When we all agree, we don’t have politics; we just have laws or customs.   Politics is about compromise in all the connotations of that word.    I don’t believe that a politician as a person must or should abandon principles or values, but the TOOL of politics is at best amoral.   That is why it is best to keep as much out of politics as possible.   Reserve politics for the real disagreements. 

As I watched the movie again today, I thought of how Jeff Smith should have gone about his work in the Senate.   He could have built that boys’ camp, but maybe not at that exact location.   In fact, the dam the Taylor machine wanted to build might have improved the setting.  They could have a nice lake and get to watch the nearby construction.     If all parties to negotiations have positions they cannot or will not compromise, it is unlikely they can come to any kind of mutually beneficial deal.   The idea is that everybody gives and gets.  When one of the parties takes a “my way or highway” stand, as Jeff Smith does, nothing moves.  

There are sacred principles that cannot be compromised.   There are things we will fight for and die for, things we will impose on others.  If you cannot think of any, you are soul-dead.   If you can think of too many, you are a self-indulgent narcissist.   Given a few more years of experience, Mr. Smith would have been more effective, if less certain of his righteousness.     It probably would not make a very interesting movie, however.

Charlie Wilson’s War

It is a good movie and I suggest you all go to see it.  I was particularly interested in it for a couple of particular reasons.  First of all, I started my career at the end of the Cold War; I joined the FS to help fight world communism and one of the first causes I publicized as a public affairs officer was the fight against the communists in Afghanistan. 

The end of the movie features a cautionary tale that is more relevant to me in this here and now spot. After helping the brave Afghans defeat the evil empire, we more or less walked away and largely ignored the place throughout the 1990s.   This abandoned the field to people like Osama bin Laden – the so-called Arab Afghans & their extremist local allies –  allowing them to claim that it was THEY who had won the victory, when their actual role in the fight against the Soviets was marginal at best.  Connecting my two historical strains, it was analogous to what the Bolsheviks did, showing up after others had done the heavy & dangerous work of overthrowing the Czar, convincing the world that they had done the deed and imposing their own obscene system on a devastated country.  It is a tribute to the success of their nefarious propaganda that ninety years later most people still believe the Soviet version. The truth doesn’t always win out over the lies unless it has some powerful friends.  In any case, Afghanistan slipped back into chaos; the bad guys took over and made the country into a safe home base to terrorists with delusions of worldwide struggle, while we were lulled into a false sense of security and thought that the fall of the evil empire meant and end to history.

History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes and that is what makes it worthwhile to study the patterns.  In Iraq we are not making the same mistakes. After winning the military conflict, we are staying long enough to secure the peace; at least I hope we do.  And I am proud of the contributing small role my PRT is playing in that unfolding process.

Sorry for the second in a row preachy posting.  Maybe I am just drinking the Kool-Aid, but surrounded as I am be people committed to finishing the job in Iraq, all of them volunteers, I think it would be hard not to want to be part of the team. Tomorrow and the next day I have some interesting things planned.  I promise to write something on the lighter side next time.  So please forgive my pomposity and don’t desert my blog.  Consider this as sort of the commercials in the regularly scheduled programming.

And do go to see “Charlie Wilson’s War.”