Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Goodbye, Dear Del

It's all over the Internet: Del Martin has died. She is survived by her widow, Phyllis Lyon. After half a century together, they were the first couple married in 2004, when San Francisco defied the state and started holding same-sex marriages. They were the first married this year, when the California Supreme Court struck down the barriers to same-sex marriage.

Four years ago, when their marriage was invalidated, Phyllis Lyon said:
Del is 83 years old and I am 79. After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time.

Thank God they had a few short months of legal recognition. But even that can be taken away, Don't let it happen. Honor Del's life and commitment by defeating the California marriage ban.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Good Night, Sweet Pitcher

Dottie Wiltse Collins, one of the best pitchers in women's baseball and the moving force behind the alumnae organization of retired players from the women's leagues, died on August 12 at the age of 84.

A powerhouse pitcher who could throw overhand, underhand, and sidearm, she pitched two no-hitters within a seventeen-day stretch. Collins won more than 20 games each of her first four seasons as a pro. In her best year, 1945, her record was 29-10, with a 0.83 ERA and 293 strikeouts. She once pitched -- and won -- both halves of a doubleheader, and in 1948, she played until she was four months pregnant.

Her work to gather and preserve the history of women's baseball inspired the movie A League of Their Own. More important, the memorabilia she helped gather is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY. Where she belongs.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sekrit Religious Messages Decoded
Sometimes you need an ex-Baptist to translate current political rhetoric. (Ex-Baptist, but still very much a Christian.)

“It may be typical of the pro-Obama Dungeons & Dragons crowd to disparage a fellow countryman's memory of war from the comfort of mom's basement, but most Americans have the humility and gratitude to respect and learn from the memories of men who suffered on behalf of others,” he wrote.

I've seen various people bitterly complaining that McCain insulted D&D players and by extension all geeks. He did deliberately evoke a lot of nasty stereotypes, and he is already in disfavor with many of the computer-literate for his own unwillingness to deal with technology. From my POV, this is all to the good. By the time the campaign is over, I hope he will have alienated the gamers, the geeks, and every other human being so that he ends up with just one vote in his favor.

I've also seen plenty of people laughing -- with reason -- at the notion that D&D players are likely to be Obama supporters. The gamers I know range from hard-core libertarian ("any fourth-grader should be able to buy heroin with the money zie has earned") to a deeply conservative Iraq War vet to a red-diaper Marxist-Leninist. Many, many gamers are at least fiscally conservative, and a good many have served their country. There was even a games-for-GIs initiative a few years ago -- remember?

This is not surprising. One of the reasons I rarely game is that so many gaming scenarios are morally simplistic, good-versus-evil morality plays, in which the Bad Guys are readily identifiable by their appearance. (A good GM can make a huge difference. Also a great gaming system like Cat.)

But neither the insult to gamers nor the linking of Obama with D&D was gratuitous. Weird as it may seem, this throwaway line was designed to make Obama look like a minion of Satan -- very much like the Internet ads implying that he is the Anti-Christ. Even Tim LaHaye, senior author of the Left Behind series, saw the allusions, and he is no milk-and-water liberal by any stretch of the imagination.

I could give you examples from my own experience, but I'll let others speak for me.

Some quotations from Evangelical writings on RPGs:

RPGs encourage Satan worship:
The words demon, devil and hell appear a total of 225 times in eight pages of Deities and Demigods (pages 16-23), and encourages the worship of them as lesser gods (page 105).

The D&D universe is not Christian:
This problem is that the cosmology of D&D is fundamentally anti-Biblical. Many of the defenders of D&D make the common mistake of assuming that because there are roles in the game for "clerics," this makes the game alright. They make this mistake because they equate Roman Catholicism and its robed clerics for Christians. They do not understand that one can be a cleric (Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) and not be a Christian.... But any game which draws people away from a true understanding of Jesus, God, salvation and the cosmos IS soul-destroying in the truest possible sense of the word. That is incalculably worse. We only have our bodies a few scant years before they turn to dust. Our souls we will have forever, and what if they have been destroyed by playing D&D? They may well end up in the fiery blackness of hell.

It lures young people into the occult:
I myself became very interested in occult things due to the constant reference to it in AD & D, and I believe that over a period it would be very hard for a non-christian to resist the attraction of the descriptions of evil things in the AD & D rule books.

Satan is like a roaring lion, prowling around looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). How delighted he must be when someone starts becoming interested in him due to descriptions in the AD & D rules.

You become what you pretend to be:
The bible is the final authority on right and wrong, and if God declares in the Bible that prostitution, rape, stealing, mutilation, murder, human sacrifice, worshiping other gods, casting spells, using magic, and practicing necromancy are wrong, then should one pretend those things or become involved in a fantasy game in which one participates by imaginative role playing? NO!

Evangelicals take words and imagination more seriously than almost any other group I can think of. In gamer terms, many of them are rules lawyers, constantly obsessing over what exactly The Book says, but they honestly, profoundly believe that what's at stake is their immortal soul. And yours.

So, knowing that, it's easy to see that the linkage of Obama and RPGs is not innocent or accidental. It was a coded reference and a subtle character assassination.

There is a certain irony to the fact that this disingenuous little statement was made in defense of McCain's story that a North Vietnamese prison guard, secretly a Christian, connected with him by drawing a cross in the dirt with his toe. The world is full of secret messages.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Visions of Iceland

Joe Decker's book, Saga: Visions of Iceland, is well worth buying. (Or getting as a birthday present, which is how I got my copy from Debbie..) The photographs are superb as always, and the printing is up to his demanding standards. Seen through Joe's eyes, the stark, dramatic scenery of Iceland becomes almost abstract.

Some images are subtle, nearly monochromatic studies in pure form or pattern, like Black Mud Swirls. The pure black volcanic sands are background and foil to incandescently verdant grass in Grass and Volcanic Alluvium. This high-contrast image with its expanses of deep black and subtle layering of light must have presented serious printing challenges, but it looks good on the page.

Others show sky and land bleakly glacier-colored, grey and blue; rainbows, waterfalls, quiet streams; sunsets as bright and ominous as new lava flows. Decker sees and conveys the beauty in small details and broad landscapes.

The book is hardbound with a dust jacket. Bonus: the author picture (taken by Josh Andrews) is a vivid and revealing portrait of Joe.

Joe Decker is an internationally known, award-winning nature photographer who just keeps getting better and better. Buy his work now, before the price goes to Ansel Adams levels. Yes, he is that good.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Quote of the Day

What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you -- that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can't get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit till at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say, "Doesn't he look peaceful?" It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old.

Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels

Friday, August 01, 2008


Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.--Ansel Adams

For me, his words evoke that country even better than his photographs of it. The iconic images of Yosemite are great art: black-and-white studies in line and form: very fine photographs of an important landscape.

Powerful as they are, they can't evoke the sublimity of the place. I'm damned sure that I can't, either. That's why I've taken more than a month to even begin to fumble my way toward a post about Yosemite. We didn't go for a visit; we drove through the High Sierras on our way to Las Vegas.

Photos shrink the magnificence into a two-dimensional rectangle that can be held in the hand -- just another object humans can look at, which will disappear when they close their eyes. This distorts and reverses the proper relation of human to landscape. Yosemite -- all of the Sierras -- are overwhelming, enfolding. You can't close your eyes and make it go away. You can't control it or ignore it. When you are in that country, you are subject to all its laws, and no plea of ignorance or good intentions can save you. The mountains are implacable, indifferent, stark.

And yet my spirits rise the moment I go from flat land into hills, and in the Sierras I was giddy with it. (Yes, some of that may be due to thin air, but it starts immediately. I love mountains.)

Approaching Yosemite from the west, we climbed and climbed from the level, densely cultivated Central Valley. As the altitude increases, population decreases, and orchards give way to pines and fir trees. Even the greatest photo can't convey that Yosemite is not one image, a single view carefully shot so that the power lines and fast-food places don't show. Yosemite is wilderness embedded in wilderness. The mountain range runs for 400 miles north and south -- much of it wild, because the altitude is so high, the snow so deep in winter, the escarpment lethally steep. Yet it is within a few hours' drive of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

On the western edge of the park are a few hamlets and millions of conifers (lodgepole pines, incense cedar, Coast Douglas firs) on steep hillsides; inside, a few park buildings and a couple of roads open only a few months of the year. Even the tour buses cannot diminish the utter wildness of the place.

On the way to the park, I kept seeing warnings that it would cost money to get into Yosemite, but none of the signs indicated how much money. (It was $20 for a passenger car.) I'm used to parks being free. In California, many state parks charge an entrance fee of $5 or so, and still the state park system is crumbling. Yosemite is a national park, though, and none of the other ones I've been to (Valley Forge, Gettysburg) have charged admission fees.

We skipped the loop road that tours the Yosemite Valley and showcases the waterfalls, El Capitan, Half-Dome, and the other famous sites and sights. (To give an idea of the scale of the park: it covers 1200 square miles, about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.) But the road to Tioga Pass is magnificent enough; the road itself, made of the local granite, sparkles like snow. And we kept stopping (Look, snow! Look, a river! Look, Olmstead Point!) and looking. And lamenting that we didn't have a weekend, a week, to give to this landscape.

From the overlook at Olmstead Point you can see through oceans of air down the valley to Half Dome. People who love flat land talk about the big sky, but mountains offer something better: the sensation of dwelling within the sky. Olmstead Point does not quite hang out over space, but it gives a view down the valley of sheer glacier-scoured mountainsides. There's also a cast-bronze scale model of the viewable area -- Half Dome and all -- so you can see and touch the shapes of the mountains.

I was having geology-geek orgasms all the way -- the local geology is utterly spectacular. Spotting moraines and glacial erratics in the High Sierras is disorienting for me; the glaciated places where I have lived are much lower and much more seriously ground down. And until now I've never seen glaciers in action, carving their characteristic U-shaped valleys, scooping lakes at different levels in the mountains.

And glacial polish! In the east I'd seen it only as a little shine here and there. In the Sierras, vast shields of granite are polished almost to a gravestone gloss. With their joints, they look almost fake, almost like poured concrete, but it's real, all right. I spotted several intrusions -- dikes or sills -- where long ago, hot magma had forced its way into the granite. And more than one xenolith, a stone that had fallen into the granite when it was still a bath of hot magma and now hung suspended like fruit in a Jello mold. I was even lucky enough to see a xenolith that had been split by an intrusion -- one hell of an angular unconformity. Unfortunately, my picture of it didn't come out.

When the polished granite expanses are cracked, plants take root: small cushiony plants with brilliant fuchsia flowers, or tree seedlings. When the trees survive, they eventually split the boulder they took root in. I found this tough persistence of life extraordinarily moving; it's what my first Joe Decker picture shows. (Not incidentally, that photograph was taken in the Eastern Sierra.) A bristlecone pine not just clinging to life on the edge of the abyss, but beautiful in its twisted starkness and its determination to endure.

The High Sierras are an extreme environment, but there are places where bare granite gives way to something more hospitable. After the windswept grandeur of Olmstead Point comes Tuolumne Meadows, a tender, verdant landscape so welcoming it brought tears to my eyes. This level water meadow is lush with grass and bright with wildflowers.

We went out through the pass (at nearly 10,000 feet) and down into the rich world of the Owens Valley.

It's easy to see national parks as a kind of zoo designed to cage and display geological freaks. Despite its extremes, Yosemite isn't a freak. A magnificent landscape; a world of half a dozen ecosystems; a place of dry, tingling air fragrant with pine and fir. Magnificent, unique, but not alone: one part of a vast mountain range. The next valley over, Yosemite's twin, is Hetch Hetchy, which was dammed in 1923 to provide water and power for the San Francisco Bay Area. I drink the waters of the Tuolumne every day.

Watch a day pass in Yosemite with time-lapse video.