Who Knew?

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

I was born and raised for a while in New York City. Not quite to the age of consent, but long enough still to remember. I pride myself with a perverse pride in that I have yet to visit in almost 62 years any of the iconic attractions—dare I say tourist in proximity to that last noun?—of that city. The only destination of note I ever did visit was the World Trade Center, and indeed traveled to the roof of which tower they permitted such a thing. The rest is silence.

Pretty much the same pattern manifests itself in me here in France. Dodging the greatest attractions of Paris is easy. So far, no Eiffel Tower, not Pantheon, no Montmartre, no Montparnasse, etc. Why play with the destiny of these august destinations. Here in Provence, it’s a little more difficult.

You drive around, even aimlessly, and the next thing you know, you’re smack dab next to some ruin or some well-preserved monument that’s been there for a couple thousand years and untold millions have gaped at after traveling kilometers untold out of their way just to see it. My own little village continually surprises me, embarrasses me with its unknown treasures. Indeed, hidden in the very word "embarrass" is the source of one major surprise. In this tiny out-of-the-way unpronounceable village was born the guy, Count Barras, who, essentially, arranged for Napoleon to be Emperor. Thanks a lot Count.

But even I will allow myself a grudging pride in every lichen covered stone that probably graced a wall several millennia ago, built to defend a Roman encampment. I’ll even allow myself the fantasy of seeing well-muscled centurions, having spent a refreshing day beating a bunch of Gauls into submission, doffing their leather armor, watering their horses, kicking back for a well deserved snooze and a snootful from that skin of wine.

But what I won’t allow myself is a visit, especially now that I can entertain the more sustaining and satisfying fantasy of being a genuine tax-paying, mortgage-holding French landowner, to any of the myriad sites and sights for which the French themselves scrupulously, if not sedulously, plan for months prior to the skimpy four weeks (out of a total of six, not to mention all the three-day weekends, and other jours feriés (bank holidays) of summer they get to go anywhere they please. They are hardly to be blamed that the whole damn country is chockablock full of tourist attractions. They’ve been collecting them, hoarding them, building more, year after year for centuries, millennia.

But you won’t catch me going. No sirree. No Mont St. Michel for this homey. No Carcassone. OK, OK, so I and the wife did go to this ridiculous pile, restored to an inch of its life, with only about two or three million anachronistic errors by a narcissist with the laughable name of Violette LeDuc (and this is a guy we’re talking about), but I plead "tourist;" I was a tourist, honest. Owning a house here wasn’t even a fantasy at the time. Same with a few other medieval rattletraps, mammoth stones picturesquely strewn about, the now eternally silent cloisters of a clutch of monasteries, now bereft of monastics. But I swear, I’ve never set my baby blues on one field of lavender. Never haunted a trail in the Luberon. Never dipped a pinkie, or a baby toe, in the miraculous fonts of Lourdes.

Most important of all, though it’s practically right up the road a piece, never ogled the vaunted Gorges du Verdon, the so-called "Grand Canyon of France." Ha! I say. I say it to your face. Never ogled, boggled, or blanched at the (testimony abounds) splendors of the natural marvels of what, after all, I ask you, is anything more than some river meandering, do-se-doing its way like some whacked out switch-back mountain road, wearing the rocks away for what, like, thousands, maybe it’s millions, of years? I mean it’s nature doing its thing.

I do my thing. And my thing is not natural wonders.

But then there’s the problem of house guests. Essentially a special variety of tourist, on whom I lavish affection, love, and not even grudging them gobbets of time, driving, shopping, cooking, whatever, and all for their pleasure. And all I need do is silently chew the insides of my cheeks to raw flesh in mortal anxiety that they might take it into their heads to go and see. Yup. The freakin’ Gorges du Verdon.

Incidentally, let me disabuse you right now, should you ever head this way and are thinking, Verdon? Wasn’t that some really famous battlefield qua slaughtering ground of the First World War? Like did they throw themselves over the cliffs or something. But no, that was Verdun, which is way away that way (gesturing north). The Verdon is a river. Just another river down here. Like the Tarn and the Loup (which also have gorges—almost accidentally saw some of them a few years ago, I think it was the Loup, but I barely escaped, taking that fortuitous left turn out of a rond point to Vence), but mightier and more majestic and God knows more famous. In the summer the roads are literally clogged here, people can’t crawl slow enough to get to the Gorges du Verdon.

I’ll admit to seeing the Verdon, at the very very end of it, because I’ve been many times to a little town called Moustiers Sainte Marie, a truly god-forsaken place, which I visited regularly before I wised up. I have a fondness and hence a weakness for my wife, and she likes it there, for the there. She certainly doesn’t like it any more than I do for what’s most famous about the place (aside from a chapel built halfway up a mountainside, which you access via steep stone steps cut into the same mountainside, the climbing of which is very much akin to being given a stress test by a sadistic cardiologist, or the strange ten pointed star—similar to a regulation normal five pointed star, except for some reason it has tiny little points between the usual large points—that some maniac prince in the famous medieval bygone era ordered strung across a, well there’s no other word for it, gorge that runs smack through the center of this essentially kitschy little burg, and there’s a legend about how the chain that holds up the star broke, so they had to string the damn thing back across the gorge, because the prince was sentimental and made a pledge—it’s still there so you can tell I’m not making this up; I’d show you a picture, but it would be too shameful and embarrassing for a serious photographer like myself, even though I have a very nice snap that takes care of the whole nauseating touristic thing: the chapel, the star, even the chain, and the gorge of course). But what Moustiers Sainte Marie is famous for is its faience, which is a fancy French word for dinnerware. Which is all like white with tiny hand-painted figurines wearing cute Fragonard type outfits from the eighteenth century doing quaint homey eighteenth century type stuff, like hanging out, or hunting grouse or pheasants, or butchering pigs. Stuff like that. Anyway, it’s the kind of stuff my mother, may her soul be at peace in heaven—next year is her centennial by the way—would like. They still make it the same way. Big euros. And the old stuff looks exactly like the new stuff, only it’s even bigger euros because it’s old.

But the town is nice, in a patently cute, old-fashioned kind of way, and you can manage to squeeze off a few good shots along the way, what with all the rocks and rills, and little runlets and rapids, and really tall stone walls, which are about as troublesome and puzzling as that star on a chain—like, why did they build them?

And I do have house guests, and, it being past the winter solstice, the days do grow longer, and you gotta’ find things for people to do. We had a reprieve for a couple days, because we had a friend of theirs, guest of a guest, which may mean something, but in this case, what it meant was good, because he was and is a good guy, and we had to piss away a whole two days just picking Jean up and eating big time in Aix-en-Provence when we did, and shopping, and doing good solid American stuff like that. So the Gorges du Verdon went way to the back of my mind. But all good diversions must end. And Jean had to go back to Paris, and I’m sorry to say, Bob and Naomi didn’t forget the Gorges. Not for one second as it turned out.

Then the weather bailed me out. It rained for three days, which it almost never does, certainly not in January. But all bad things must end, and soft-hearted basically masochistic fool that I am, the next thing I knew, sun playing tag with clouds in the legendary blue skies of Provence, I was driving north toward Moustiers. And then en route, Bob being Bob, and me being me who can refuse my friends nothing, Bob, Gee How, if you don’t mind (I hear this particular combination of words and my brains turn to a frigid gel), maybe we could take this road and take a look directly at the [loud minor chord] Gorges du Verdon.

So I took the right with the sign to a town I never noticed before and had my own stars been set right, and had I lived a more righteous existence, I would never have had to notice, Aiguine. But we plowed right on through that sucker and kept going. Gorges du Verdon, and destiny, right this way. There was one more precipitous turn onto the corniche above Aiguine and a road sign smiled at me, a sign I had never seen before. It was entirely pictorial, as no words were needed. It showed a tire with chains on it. I don’t know the French for tire chains anyway. But with a song in my heart, and knowing I had remembered to take my anxiety meds that morning, we plunged ahead. I shouldn’t use the word "plunge" of course, because I know what a corniche is (Alfred Hitchcock made good use of them in several films, including "To Catch a Thief," because driving along a corniche is like instant cinematic suspense and terror). And we drove and drove and switched back and forth, with increasingly more thrilling views, until it was clear we need not actually drive up as high as the clouds, which were, in fact, literally enveloping the tops of the cliffs overlooking the Gorges. So we stopped at a turn-out, facing a sign that said 967 meters, referring to the elevation.

And, well, what’s the use? It’s time for the words to stop, because they do, indeed, literally fail.

But here’s what we saw, along with a few glimpses of Aiguine (and its charming castle, semi-charming soccer field, and views of the town perched high above the Lac de Sainte Croix, into which the Verdon River now debouches (the very very end of the river that I referred to above), easily visible, as are the high walls of the Gorge, as you cross the bridge that separates the Var, the département my house is in, from the Alpes de Haute Provence, the département that Moustiers is in, because, try as I might to avoid it, we ended up there for lunch. So there’s a few of the more palatable pictures I shot in Moustiers to end this little Web gallery.

I will say in closing that I’m not sure of which I am more proud, losing at last my Gorges du Verdon virginity, or taking these pretty interesting shots with a tiny little Canon camera that costs less than two hundred bucks, is much smaller than a pack of cigarettes, and really hardly deserves to be called a camera at all.


As usual, enjoy.

rssrssby feather

A Response to “Dr. Chong”

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

On January 3, 2008 a friend forwarded a bit of Internet fodder, with the Subject header line supplication, "Please Read." I did. It was a bit of correspondence/essay attributed to a Dr. Vernon Chong, a USAF Major General (Retired). It turns out it has been kicking around since 2004. It is not uncommon for these things to spring up from time to time, sometimes redundantly, if not repeatedly, among the small motley circle of my friends who exchange items of interest. Or at least they are of ostensible interest. We are motley for our wide spectrum of political views, which range from Libertarian to Liberal (if not quasi-anarchistic) to those of one of us—an eternal trickster, if not provocateur, who gets a clearly perverse, if benign, delight in offering up bits of casuistry such as Dr. Chong’s. This last is simply to stir up the pot, and see what happens, especially if one of us makes the mistake of taking seriously the intent of the sender (or his credulity). This last go round for the maundering of the alleged Dr. Chong was passed along by one among us, who espouses a strange mix of middling liberality and staunch chauvinism (he is one of the few, if not the only one, among us, who served in the armed forces, albeit in the Medical Corps—during the late unfortunate hostilities known by our enemy at the time as The American War.

I won’t dignify or substantiate Dr. Chong’s remarks either by repeating them here (never mind the absorption of bandwidth) or even by providing a URL of the various sites on which they might be found on the World Wide Web. If you must waste your time by first reading them, I’d suggest entering some combination of Dr. Vernon Chong (or even include his rank) in Google, or your favorite search engine.

I do think it’s remarkably telling that, in the midst of what has become a surprising, if not exciting start out of the gate of the 2008 Presidential Nomination Follies, with newspaper headlines trumpeting the decreasing lack of importance of the war in Iraq that this should appear among a group of us comfortable, late middle-aged (some of us are, in fact, still working actively for a living) bourgeois Northeasterners of various political stripes. For some, indeed, the continuing bellicosity of various Muslim factions in Iraq, and the continued presence of well over 100,000 American troopers in that nation is not only an issue, front and center, but even if it settles somewhere into the middle or rearward  reaches of our consciousness, we are well aware that the more pertinent, or seemingly more salient issues—and in particular the economy, which worsens by the moment—are intimately tied to the effects (and costs) of the five years and counting that our military forces continue to be deployed in the former biblical kingdom of Assyria.

What follows is my response to this innocent attempt to evoke some interesting intellectual discourse among our stalwart little group of citizens, bound more by affection and friendship if truth be told than by any real desire to debate (which seems only to get us into trouble, especially as we each of us seem to lapse into emotional conflict rather than the desired dispassionate reasoned debate). I’ve cleaned up and edited a bit the spontaneous effusion I sent immediately back to the entire list of recipients.
Whether or not you read Dr. Chong’s "essay" is not important. Its argument, if it can be elevated so precipitously as to be called that, is contingent on one quasi patriotic, hyper-emotional assertion, about which the author goes on at such length as to permit saying that it is attenuated to the point of etiolation, if not beyond.

There is only one fault with this argument. However, it is a fault that is fundamental, if not elemental, and hence makes the rest of this argument, which I’m loathe to call it, as it is so badly articulated, built as it is on a false premise, not only dubious, but time ill spent in the reading. Perhaps this rhetoric is deliberate, blatantly bent on appearing persuasive, as opposed to expressing a truth, any truth.

The fault is the unsubstantiated assertion that we are at war.

We are, I would assert, not at war, not at the moment. And no more so than we were at the time of this essay of Dr. Chong’s, that is, some time in 2004.

However, we are at this time (January 2008) policing an insurgency among a people who only half want us to be there for any purpose whatsoever.

In precipately, and pre-emptively, engaging in war with a sovereign nation, however disreputable and odious its government and leaders, and irrespective of the relevancy, applicabicability, or the verifiable condition of the stated causes we had for engaging this enemy at the time, we did unleash all the pernicious forces disposed throughout the unfortunate country known as Iraq.We removed the government and nominally disarmed, and certainly disbanded, the military forces of that nation, along with the entire organizational structure of those armed forces and all bodies of police and other keepers of the peace. As a consequence of our ill-considered (if they were thought about at all) policies as victors, the forces we unleashed have been free to wage terrorist acts upon one another, enter into internecine deadly conflict with one another, not to mention the repeated assaults on the U.S. troops we stubbornly keep in place on the proviso that were we to withdraw, just as precipately (and we now hope rapidly, so as to minimize further losses to our own forces), we would leave the countervailing factions to enter what is likely to be catastrophically bloody and chaotic civil war amongst themselves.

Whatever actual war we began and fought ended very soon after we started it, certainly within a month or two, or perhaps three.

Since then all acts of violence perpetrated on our troops, as well as on the opposing elements of the internecine forces that have always been resident in Iraq, plus those elements that have entered the fray from third party nations—with or without the sanction and support of those nations—since we neutralized the legitimate military and police organizations of Iraq immediately after defeating them in war, I would suggest are not acts of war. They are acts of violence that, in any other "civilized" nation, operating under any reasonable body of laws, whatever their basis: British Common Law, Napoleonic Code, or even laws formulated and legitimized by political bodies in governments adhering to certain religious codes, like the Koran), would be considered criminal acts. The perpetrators of these acts, these criminals, would be sought, neutralized, imprisoned, indicted and tried under those laws.

I would submit further that the litany of acts proffered as acts of war by this alleged Maj. General Chong (retired) against the United States since 1979 are, in the main criminal acts. Furthermore, one may go back, to earlier dates than these, if one must, as I would include other acts of terrorism — some political, some strictly criminal — performed mainly against military U.S. forces deployed in foreign countries, or U.S. citizens both at home or abroad.

Even acts, like the attack on the U.S. Panay, readily put at the feet of the military forces then under the government of the Emperor of Japan, that were meant to provoke our country, if not precipate engagement, were not sufficient to escalate our diplomatic or military posture such that we would, as a matter of policy, engage in war with an enemy that had a recognizable and coherent body of government formulating and implementing military engagement as an intentional act of war. Otherwise, the preponderance, if not the entirety, of these acts remain as they so patently and clearly are, as I said, criminal acts. All of which should have been, if they were not, prosecuted as such.

Every sovereign nation, whatever the prevailing religious beliefs of its citizenry, embraces a code of conduct and a body of laws that is meant to deal with criminal behavior. The maintaining of the social fabric demands of humans that they formulate codes for such a purpose. Crimes against individuals, or against a people, against institutions or corporations, are disruptive and potentially threaten the stability of any political entity, even a whole nation.

I submit that were all nations, in the interests of peace, and the maintenance of domestic tranquility (as I believe the phrase goes) were to concentrate on containing such acts of criminality, and indeed were to cooperate on whatever necessary basis to act in concert and to share intelligence, mainly of a forensic or probative nature, all such acts of criminality, widespread, and with the great frequency we have experienced them over whatever arbitrary span of time Maj. General Chong (or whomever) cares to define, would ultimately be contained to the point of manageability.

Terrorist acts are criminal acts pure and simple, and they should be dealt with as such, even if the dealing requires extensive applications of force and the resources to apply them. Widespread rioting, looting, and hooliganism in the modern history of all countries, including our own, have sometimes required to mobilization of national defense forces. These circumstances have never defined a state of war, even internally. And arguments prevail for calling our great Civil War as being, in actuality, a War Between the States.

We should be loathe to find wars where they do not exist. Even to a rhetorical abhorrence for application of the soubriquet of war (so enamored by our government, with various "wars" on poverty, drugs, even crime itself). War may be, Clausewitz cleverly defined it, a continuation of diplomacy (or politics) "by other means," but it is tantamount to mass murder, and the surest unequivocal sign of the failure of civilization, per se. It is, in short, not some manifestation of civilization, but its denial.

I don’t swallow a word this semi-literate, manipulative individual has offered up for purposes that can only be called inflammatory and ill-considered, never mind poorly reasoned and poorly argued.

Incidentally, Chong is, indeed, a real person, though he did not, apparently, write this letter, but passed it along to an email correspondent. The original letter, with a different original opening set of paragraphs, was allegedly written by an attorney and sent to his sons.

When, Oh!, when will we stop sending this crap to one another? It’s not worthy of lengthy discourse, never mind intelligent debate, if such were to be what it inspired.

rssrssby feather