Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mini-Review of “An Unbroken Agony” by Randall Robinson – A Troubling Look at a Troubled Nation

I respect the work that Randall Robinson has done over the years. As Founder of TransAfrica, he put enormous pressure on South Africa to end Apartheid. In the early ‘80’s, when we lived in the D.C. area, on several occasions my family and I joined him picketing at the South African Embassy. So, I was looking forward to reading his treatment of the recent history of the Republic of Haiti, a country I hold dear. Long time readers of The White Rhino Report are aware that in the 1970’s I spent a year living in Haiti working as the administrator of a village hospital in the mountains high above Port au Prince. I could not be more disappointed in the book, “An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President.”

That Haiti has had a tragic history is beyond dispute. That the United States has a checkered history in terms of its relationship with the island nation is also a well established fact. I was hoping that Robinson would document the history of the troubled republic with solid historical research and informed commentary. What I found, instead, was a series of personal anecdotes outlining the alleged kidnapping of President Jean Bertrand Aristide by Americans forces. Interspersed among his personal recollections, Robinson inserts frequent sardonic anti-American comments that are not supported by the facts. Aristide may have indeed been forced to leave Haiti in ways that should upset any true lover of democracy, but Robinson does not make a cogent or believable case. This is not a carefully reasoned book, nor is it even an impassioned plea for the return of true democracy to Haiti. It is, rather, a thinly-veiled diatribe against America and the Bush administration.

Haiti deserves better support and advocacy than the kind that Randall Robinson is attempting to give it in this ineffectual book.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Two Friends - Two New Blogs

Last week - within the space of 30 minutes - I received calls from two of my friends, David Schoenberger and Rich Adler. In each case, the message was essentially the same: "I am following in your footsteps and launching a Blog. I have just published my first posting." I was delighted at the double dose of good news. Both David and Rich have a great deal of value to say on a variety of topics, and I have already enjoyed reading their initial postings. so, I am pleased to introduce to the readers of The White Rhino Report these two new offering in the Blogosphere.

Here is Dr. Richard Adler's Blog:

The More Things Change

Welcome to my blog, which will explore ideas relating to change and decision-making. I intend to focus primarily on models for understanding, anticipating, initiating, and responding to change – be it social, political, or conceptual. Examples include simulations based on complex adaptive systems theory and models for public policy or organizational change. I invite you to join me in reflecting on how decision-making can be improved in the face of continual change.


Through this Guy's Eye . . .

Enjoy them both!


Discovering a Remarkable Author: Review of “The Painter of Battles” by Arturo Perez-Reverte

It is always a special joy to discover a treasure heretofore unknown. Such a new found treasure is the writing of Arturo Perez-Reverte. His new novel, just being released in bookstores and on this week, is “The Painter of Battles.” This is writing worthy of a Nobel Prize! In this carefully crafted novel, Perez-Reverte paints a picture of a dance of death between Faulques - a painter and a retired war photographer – and Ivo Markovic - a former soldier whose life was changed forever by a photograph that Faulques had taken of him in Vukovar, Yugoslavia.

Before he dies, Faulques wants to finish painting his concept of war as a mural. He has taken over an abandoned tower as the site for the mural. Markovic arrives at the tower and announces that he plans to kill Faulques, but that they have many things to discuss before he does the deed. The action of the book centers on their verbal and philosophical duel.

Perez-Reverte is himself a former war photographer, and he has much to say about war and about art. This is a story that will captivate a wide audience. Anyone interested in photography, painting, composition, philosophy, the history of war and interpersonal relationships will find something of value in this story. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, the writing itself is a work of art. The author uses a rich palette of images and phrases to tell this gripping story. He lays out for the reader the geometry and the gore of battle; he sketches the calculus of conflict. In the midst of telling a troubling tale of suffering, death and love in the time of conflict, he examines the ethics of what it means to be an artist who is a participant-observer in mayhem.

This is rich, troubling and evocative writing that is worthy of a broad readership. Having sampled the writing of Perez-Reverte, I plan to go back and visit the full gallery of his previous works of art.



Monday, January 14, 2008

A Love for Literature

The most recent edition of WheatonMagazine, the alumni publication of my alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois, contains a wonderful series of articles on the love of reading. The cover features an elegant picture of Wheaton’s Alumna of the Year for 2007, Dr. Beatrice Batson. I have mentioned Dr. Batson previously in the pages of The White Rhino Report. I give her credit for teaching me to love and appreciate the great Russian novelists, especially Dostoevsky.

The author of the main article in the magazine is Karen Halvorsen Schreck, whom I remember as a young girl. Karen’s father, Dr. Clayton Halversen, was Director of the Wheaton College Men’s Glee Club for 30 years. I was privileged to have sung under his direction from 1965-1970. Karen traveled with us to Europe with her parents when the Glee Club toured in the summers of 1968 and 1970. I have vivid memories of a day when we were getting ready to sing in Salzburg, Austria. Sometime during the course of the day, a member of the group was asking where Dr. Halverson had disappeared to. Our accompanist, who had a quick wit, snapped back with: “Oh, he’s off looking for an Austrian Prince for Karen to marry!” Well, in reading Karen’s bio in the magazine, I see that she did to marry a Prince, but did grow into a gifted writer and award-winning novelist.

I commend to you her articles on reading and on Dr. Batson, along with recommendation for reading from some of Wheaton’s English professors. The relevant articles can be found on pages 14-19 of the link below:


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review of “Quiet Strength (The Principles, Practices, & Priorities of a Winning Life)” by Tony Dungy (with Nathan Whitaker)

As I write this review of Tony Dungy’s inspiring memoir, we are a few hours away from knowing whether or not Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts – defending Super Bowl Champions – will be playing the Patriots in Foxborough next Sunday for the AFC Championship. This book has spent 25 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The accolades are well deserved – both for the book and for the man who shared his thoughts in collaboration with Nathan Whitaker.

I was prompted to read “Quiet Strength” by my friend, Daron Roberts. Daron, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is on the coaching staff of the Kansas City Chiefs. Daron and I had a chance to catch up by phone last week As we talked about his first season in the NFL, he asked me if I had read Tony Dungy’s book. I was aware of the book, having walked by piles of the hardback that were stacked and awaiting shipment in the offices of Veritas Forum, located down the hall from the offices of White Rhino Partners. Daron’s closing comment to me as were finished our conversation was: “Make sure that ‘Quiet Strength’ is the next book you read.” As soon as I hung up the phone, I walked a few yards down the hall and asked the folks at Veritas Forum to sell me one of their extra copies of the book.

Even before opening the thin volume, I was well aware of Tony Dungy’s career and life. As a fan of the New England Patriots, I know of him as the head coach of our perennial rival – the Indianapolis Colts. As a frequent visitor to top Tampa, where my sister makes her home, I know of him as an icon who brought respectability and a winning attitude to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even though he no longer coaches in Tampa, he remains a beloved member of the community. I also knew of Tony Dungy as a committed family man whose teenage son had taken his own life. I wondered how he would address the painful parts of his life in the story that he chose to tell in “Quiet Strength.”

Reading this book offered me a full banquet of emotions. I smiled at some of the stories he shared, cringed at some of the difficulties that he had endured, and found myself moved to tears on several occasions as he shared openly and unashamedly some of the tragedies that he and his family had encountered. I do much of my reading on the Red Line on the T as I commute from my home in Quincy to my office in Cambridge. There were a few times this week when I had to stop reading momentarily because I could not see through the tears. Dungy managed to turn my quotidian commute into an emotional odyssey. As a father of four grown sons, I found myself trying to imagine how he and his wife summoned the strength to deal with the death of their son, Jamie. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Dungy to stand before the hundreds of mourners at Jamie’s funeral, to encourage them to try to find joy amidst the tragedy of his death.

The short answer to the question, “How did he find the strength to do that?” lies in Dungy’s belief system. His strong Christian faith is gently and deftly woven into the fabric of the narrative of this book – in much the same way that it is gently woven into the tapestry of his life. While the author makes uses of occasional scripture verses to illustrate lessons that he has learned, at no point does it feel to the reader that he is using the Bible as a cudgel. His humble sharing of his faith as a fact of life is inspiring, and not at all off-putting.

“Quiet Strength” is a very fitting title for the book, as well as an apt description of the man. Dungy is an intensely competitive man who never feels the need to yell in order to convey his intensity or his authority. He stands out as an anomaly in the bombastic and workaholic world of NFL coaching. He has always insisted on creative an atmosphere for his players and his coaching staff that seeks to hold a balance among commitment to excellence on the field, commitment to family off the field, and commitment to community at all times.

As a fan of the New England Patriots, I now find myself torn. I want the hometown team to win the Super Bowl again and finish a perfect season. But in order to do so they will probably have to defeat Dungy’s team next Sunday. It is a wonderful dilemma. I almost feel as if I cannot lose next weekend - no matter which team scores the most points. I can root for the Patriots – Brady and Belichick and company – with my heart and for Dungy and his troops with my spirit. Belichick may “out-coach” Dungy next week, but he will never “out-person” him. In the playbook of life, Dungy has figured out the X’s and O’s very well.

This is a book worth reading and a man worth emulating.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Review of “Chasing Ghosts - Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective” by Paul Rieckhoff

I knew this would be a book well worth reading when I saw the following blurb from my friend, Nate Fick, author of “One Bullet Away”:

“Paul Rieckhoff is a citizen in the classical sense. He went to war when his nation called, but is service didn’t end when he came home. Paul poured his hard-won wisdom into changing the public dialogue about Iraq . . . and it’s working. He’s a patriot, a warrior, an organizer and a leader. Paul’s an inspiration, and you cannot put this book down without realizing that guys like him are changing Iraq, and America too.”

Nate’s eloquent summary of Paul Rieckhoff and his book hits the bull’s-eye. This is a book that added to my understanding – not only of what our troops are facing in Iraq – but what they face when they return home. Rieckhoff makes a strong and passionate case for celebrating the bravery and resolve of our forces fighting in the trenches. He makes an equally compelling and passionate case for holding accountable those at the top of the chain of command whose failure to adequately plan and to properly deploy and equip our forces have led to more suffering than was necessary. President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld do not emerge as heroes in this tawdry tale.

Rieckhoff is a gifted writer, so I will let him make the case in his own words:

“A scenario that happened more times than I can count: a sedan comes barreling towards us. Te headlights are out. The car is not slowing down. Maybe the driver can’t see the line of soldiers in the street. Maybe he doesn’t notice the headlights of two Humvees facing him. Maybe he’s extremely drunk. Maybe the car is filled with a hundred pounds of explosives. We wave our flashlights at the car. But he keeps coming. We scream, yell, and wave our arms. But he keeps coming. We fire warning shots in the air. But he keeps coming. The car is close enough now that I can see the outline of the three passengers inside the cabin. But he keeps coming. I think about the fact that last week, and Squad lit up a car and killed a little girl. The .50-cal rounds blew her head clear off her body. She was wearing a little blue dress. I saw the pictures. But the driver keeps fucking coming. Just a few weeks ago, four American soldiers were killed ten blocks away when a car leaded with explosives ran a checkpoint. One of the soldiers had five kids. Another was nineteen years old and had just gotten married. We fire rounds into the ground feet in front of the bumper. But he keeps coming. There are no alternatives left. The vehicle is close enough that I can see dents in the orange hood.

What would you do?” (Page 117)

Not all that the author shares involve tales of doom and gloom. He offers an uplifting story of his unit adopting an elementary school in a poor section of Baghdad, a school badly in need of their protection, because they were under fire from insurgents who did not want life as usual to continue:

“A little girl, half the size of the others, smiled shyly and took her time before bursting out with ‘How are you?’

‘I am great!’ I exclaimed, and laughed.

And I was. As we climbed back into the Humvees, Rydberg and I were as giddy as two kids who had just been sneaking bong hits behind the school. Talking to that class was without a doubt one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. That was why I came to Iraq: to help little kids keep their school safe.

And maybe to kill a few bad guys along the way.

A few hours later, Sergeant Mac was up high in a water tower near the school with his scope. I also mentioned the school’s situation to an SF [Special Forces] team leader who stopped by the auditorium to pick up an SUV. He had a sniper team with thermal sights looking for work. Three days and a few raids later, the shooting stopped.

For the children in Sector 17, we were the only protection. Bechtel and Halliburton were nowhere in sight. That school would become Third Platoon’s school. And nobody would mess with us . . . or them. The children in that school, and throughout Baghdad, were often our only real joy.” (Page 138)

The disconnection between the President’s words and actions and the reality of life on the ground in Iraq was made starkly clear in this passage:

“One story flabbergasted me. It was dated July 3, 2003, and was titled: ‘Bush warns militants who attack U.S. troops in Iraq. It described a macho speech by the president in which he stated: ‘There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ‘em on.’

Bring ‘em on? What the hell was he thinking? My soldiers and I were searching for car bombs in Medical City and scanning rooftops for snipers, and our president was in Washington taunting our enemies and encouraging them to attack us. Who the hell did he think he was? He had finally taken the cowboy act too far. Iraq was not a movie, and he was not Clint Eastwood. The armchair bravado and arrogance of our commander in chief affected our lives directly and immediately. If I had seen this news story, so had the Iraqis. I just could not fathom what would motivate him to say such a thing. Iraq was in a very fragile state, and we needed our president to be a statesman, not a bully.” (Pages 157-158)

In this tautly written account, the author documents dozens of instances of his unit being asked to perform with less than adequate equipment, lack of uo-to-date and accurate intelligence or proper support from those making decision in air-conditioned command centers far from the front lines. Upon returning from his deployment in Iraq, Rieckhoff felt the need to make sure the voice of the men and women on the ground in Iraq would be heard – in Washington and beyond. Along with several of his colleagues, he founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.


I urge you to read this book, “Chasing Ghosts,” and to visit the Website for IAVA. It is a rich repository of information about what is being done – and what still needs to be done – to support our men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.


Jake Armerding – An Artist Worth Knowing; A Singer Worth Hearing

My friend, JR, gave me a wonderful New Year’s gift; he introduced me to the music of Jake Armerding. JR and I booked first class seats on the Red Line and traveled last evening to Harvard Square to the storied basement cavern of Club Passim. Club Passim is a Boston area treasure and national spawning ground for several generations of folk artists. It is a place where Joan Baez’s voice still echoes and where Arlo Guthrie sang about Alice’s Restaurant” and a train called “The City of New Orleans.” It is a haven where Jack Kerouac sought refuge when he came in off the road. It is, in short, a special place that often hosts and launches special talent.

Last night was no exception. The headliner was Jake Armerding, son of blue grass musician, Taylor Armerding. I had never heard Jake before last evening, but I have become an instant fan of his musicianship and his artistry. An English major from my alma mater, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois (the other Wheaton College to most Bostonians!), Armerding’s writing is superb. His versatility as an instrumentalist is rare. Last night he played violin, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and mandolin – all with the mastery of a virtuoso. The instrument that is his voice demonstrates similar protean flexibility – morphing within the same song from the soothing gentleness of Arlo Guthrie to the gritty urgency of Jim Morrison.

Here are some of the biographical basics of Armerding’s life and career, culled from his Website:

The Boston Globe calls “Walking on the World,” the newest release from singer-violinist Jake Armerding, "dizzying - it weaves together fiddle, mandolin, and guitar; stories about Rome and nostalgia; consonant ballads about a fleece jacket; and dissonant, off-kilter rags." Marrying genres is Armerding's forte, a product of growing up with 1980's pop radio in one ear and classical violin in the other.

At 14, after ten years of violin lessons, Armerding joined his father's bluegrass band, Northern Lights, on fiddle. He also turned his attention to songwriting, and by 1999 he had his first record in hand. _Caged Bird_ was an immediate hit with Boston's folk radio station, WUMB, which honored Armerding in 2001 with its award for "Best New Artist." He released _Caged Bird_ the old-fashioned way - out of his trunk. Touring regionally and with support from radio, the record eventually sold more than 2500 copies and got Armerding noticed by the hip Nashville independent label Compass Records.

In 2003, Compass released “Jake Armerding,” a collection of folk-pop songs written during a stint in Nashville. It was the #6 most added new record among Americana radio stations in April 2003, and Jake was in the national spotlight. "Armerding is the most gifted and promising songwriter to emerge from the Boston folk scene in years," claimed the Globe, while the Washington Post praised Armerding's "remarkable" instrumental skills. Festival buyers also took notice, and that year he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival (RI), Kerrville Folk Festival (TX) and Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (NY), along with some of the country's best-known acoustic venues, the Ark (MI), Bluebird Cafe (TN), the Tin Angel (PA) and the Freight & Salvage (CA).

After more than 500 performances, from Anchorage to London and Miami to Bangor, Armerding returned to the studio to record _Walking on the World_. With a mix of Nashville veterans (Dan Dugmore on pedal steel and Phil Madiera on Hammond organ) and his own friends in the scene, he crafted an album that is "sharp, original, quietly intense, and rewarding for any who'll listen with both ears" (Lansing State Journal). _Walking on the World_ is as difficult to categorize as much of today's best music; equal parts New England singer-songwriter, acoustic rock and newgrass, no genre is exactly safe. But the effect is natural. "His real achievement has been to bend the boundaries of the genre - to break the conventions that define country music" (Boston Globe, March 2007). Armerding stands out from a crowd of new singer-songwriters for what has always been a hallmark of great songwriting: an ability to create something new out of something old.

Let me share a small sample of Jake’s poetic lyrics, the opening song from his 2003 allbum:

Destiny's Flight

We were on schedule
and everything was going as I planned it
Then she deviated
for the life of me I could not understand it
And all this waiting for her
and trying not to bore her
It all came down to nothing in the end
My destiny
She wants to fly
She's leaving me
She wants to try to get a better view
trying to get a better view of the sky
I should have noticed
on the day she ceased to ask me for the answers
She'd play the innocent
and I would try to play the great romancer
But over a maudlin conversation
sobbing obligations
I caught a v-formation in her eye
I know which way her wind blows
She broke my heart and she broke my windows

Darling can't you stand to tell me why

When Armerding sang that song as part of last evening’s set, the poignancy of the lyrics and the beauty of the blend of his voice with the instruments literally sent chills down my spine. That is more than entertainment; that is transcendence. I bought the album after the show, and fell asleep listening to its magic. I woke myself up before 5:00 so I could hear some of the songs again before jumping back on the Red Line to head to work.

Raised in Ipswich, Jake now makes his home in New York City. So residents of Boston and of Manhattan have a chance to see and hear him often. I urge my Boston friends to join me next Tuesday evening, January 8 at 10:00 PM at the Cantab Lounge, 738 Mass. Ave. in Central Square, Cambridge. New York friends, I will let you know the next time Jake is scheduled to appear at the legendary The Bitter End. We will meet up there.

When you link to Jake’s Website, you can ask to be added to his mailing list. I just did. I encourage you to do the same.