Friday, December 25, 2009


Worldwide domination is within my reach! I have studied with the little master, Stewie Griffin. Batman, try to stop me!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mostly Sideways

If, in a moment of frustration, you ask yourself what else can go'll find out soon enough. Now I'm not railing at life in a larger sense; you have to keep your perspective and be aware of how great we have it compared to millions of others living now or before on planet Earth. As the Buddhists observed long ago, unhappiness occurs when your expectations and reality don't meet. And reality isn't going to do any adjusting. But you expect to experience forward progress if you're diligent, paying attention, and doing what you think are the right things and it's a nasty surprise when that doesn't make a whole lot of difference. What happens seems random, undeserved and maddeningly wasteful...for no reason you can discern except it's always One Damn Thing After Another.
Just recently, three new appliances failed (and not having a coffeemaker on Sunday morning is just not right), a snowblower took a nice chunk out of the garage, the replacements for the broken hinges on the brand new turntable are never going to arrive, the computer printer died (just like its many predecessors), two appointments in two days stood me up (so I wait around by the door and the phone for nothing), I can't empty the rabbit's litter pan because the composter's lid is frozen on, and to top it off the beautiful handmade martini glasses I ordered as a Christmas surprise for Nancy arrived with one smashed (and I can't make an insurance claim because the password is "invalid")!
Not major problems that knock people for a loop, but the sheer quantity of irritations is what got me cranked up. Think about good stuff: going to Richmond in a few weeks, really looking forward to that; local schools and government buildings are jumping into solar projects, including an 18-acre solar field near Carlisle (due to stimulus funds); Nancy's getting over her terrible cold and will be her old self soon; our ancient heat pump is working fine; the pets are healthy; far-flung family members are doing very well, especially the newly married twenty-somethings; the State wine specialty store is just bursting with excellent selections at ridiculously low prices (we filled the new wine rack); we're not living in Afghanistan...
Okay, things are back in perspective. Like the old Master on Kung Fu said, "Patience, Grasshopper!"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

It's said happiness consists of having someone to love, something worthwhile to do, and something to look forward to. I can't say I do much worthwhile, but I sure look forward to going places with the someone I love. Nancy must have been bitten early by the travel bug (along with a few mosquitoes, in humid Memphis). She showed me how to get moving to visit the familiar (family and friends) or the new. She had worn out two VWs when I met her, and we've worn out several more cars and trucks since then and been on some wacky flights and in some obscure airports. I just don't know about the future, though: the highways are about threading your way through canyons of thousands of trucks just to be stuck in a standstill down the road, and we don't need to get into what a cluster---- air travel is now. The point of an adventure is NOT to feel helpless; it's reveling in that heady feeling of freedom and power.
The places some friends have been to are astounding: the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia, Australia, even Africa... We actually stepped foot on the African continent, in Tunisia, for a day, and I'm still thrilled to have spent my 60th birthday on Malta. We've got a world map on the wall in Nancy's Worldwide Headquarters (the back bedroom) with map pins in the places we have been to together. The furthest north: Iceland (just the airport); south: Aruba; east: Malta; west: San Francisco. There is hardly an end to the list of far-flung islands I would like to get to: the Dodecanese, Scilly, the Aeolians, Rhodes, the Cook Islands, the Seychelles, Bali, Sardinia, Gotland. And great cities...I'd be happy just to get to my top two on that list, Buenos Aires and Paris.
Our kitchen remodel took the place of any grand trip this year, but Nancy has been away from the Caribbean too long already -- I have the feeling a brochure with palm trees on the cover will show up on this desk sometime soon. You've never seen anyone happier than that well-tanned rascal on a tropical island beach.
So after our short jaunt to Richmond in mid-January to see the Robbin Thompson Band show at the National, and of course the Nimrod, Cliff, we'll have to scan the horizon to see what looks irresistible along with the least painful way of getting there. All that stuff you acquire through the years you just have to store, but the memories of your great escapes -- that's where the treasure is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Say Hello to my Little Friend

Thanks to the magic carpet known as Craigslist, this old Harmony H802 short-scale "Student Electric Model" has moved from a local 15-year-old's home to ours. When I saw the picture that just screamed 60's retro, I warmed up immediately to this quirky rascal. The large "Woody Woodpecker" headstock has those lovely vintage ivory-colored tuning keys, but seems pretty large in relation to what looks like a 3/4 scale body. The pickguard is so huge it looks like it ate Cleveland, but it's got a lot of character. The orange sunburst finish (what's left of it, anyway) says, "I'm ready to rumble!" The tone control doesn't do anything, and I think you just keep the volume at 10. Simple. Two tiny slide switches turn the single-coil "Gifmen" pickups on. The bridge pickup or its switch doesn't work, but one is enough. No information found on those pickups; the original Harmonys used DeArmond/Rowe p'ups that were supposed to be very good.
There is good Internet information on the Harmonys, Stellas, Silvertones, and a dozen other brands produced at the two huge factories in Chicago until its closure in 1975, but not much on these produced after 1979 when the Harmony name was highjacked for Asian-made models (this one was produced 1985 - 1987). The original Harmony never copied the Gibson and Fender style leaders exactly (the H19 was REAL close to the Jaguar -- what a honey), and you gotta love their crazy designs like the H14 Bobkat and the far-out Stratotone. How many scrawny teenagers pored over the Sears and Penneys catalogs filled with gaudy color photos of Harmonys that could be theirs for the unattainable sum of $160? Paper routes were manned, and grass was cut, to make it happen: they manufactured 1,000 a day.
I'm itching to take it apart, especially to clean up those pots and look for loose or broken wires, but I've never taken strings off or put them on, and if you don't know what you're doing, harm is what you'll end up doing. Music-shop service/repair costs between what local electricians and plumbers charge, so that's not the way to go.
Until I figure something out, I'll just keep on wasting away in Retroville!


December 2012 update:  I've decided to go full mod, despite the fact that I like its original look so much.  The plan is to create an homage to surf music:   refinish the body in a pearly silver-grey and screen print a splash of hibiscus flowers on it in black, and sand off the headstock to remove the logo and have "Silver Surfer" printed on it.  Then, the local expert shop in Lemoyne will replace the electronics (as soon as they find suitable single-coil pickups) and install flat-wound strings.  Then, of course, I've got to get a reverb unit; I'm thinking the Danelectro Spring King.  A smaller black pickguard, still to be found, will finish the transformation.  Surf City, here I come!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Feelin' It

After gray and rainy days, the sun broke out from exile this morning (albiet for a quick visit) in more ways than one. A story in the newspaper featured a new ice cream/lunch shop on the main street in Lemoyne, the rather plain town just to our north. They are implementing the Main Street project, which has been completed in Annville and New Cumberland; new sidewalks, brick walkways, plantings -- suddenly the downtowns of the small places look like a place you'd like to spend more time in. The owners of this new business in an old building right in this improved area are retired and don't take a salary; they post pictures of their customers and introduce them to each other, while providing good food and treats. This sounds like something out of "It's a Wonderful Life," but it's not fiction, just good people getting more out of giving back to their little community.
Spread out over our first floor are 17 of a projected 36 Christmas gift packages, the midway point of Nancy's Secret Santa project through work. Information about the first-name-only recipients is gathered by area social service agencies, and Blue Cross employees do the rest; I'm not sure anyone does more than she. It is fun looking for what these children and teenagers expressed wishes for and wrapping the presents up in bursts of color. This world's a better place for the efforts of the ice cream man and my sweet wife. It was just a lovely sight in the morning sunshine today.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Road with the Noise Boyz

This week I was fortunate to snag Ralph Stanley's new autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow, from the library just as it came in. I'll have to admit I didn't know about the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys until the movie O Brother, Wherefore Art Thou? came out. Turns out Bob Dylan did, as he has an unerring nose for quality Americana -- he even states that his career highlight is a duet on a Stanley Brothers album! The 10 million-selling soundtrack was a career summit (despite recording hundreds of records since the late '40s) for Mr. Stanley, obviously. He still plays festivals and big concert venues, which he achieved upon finding worldwide fame, after 45 years of playing bars and schoolhouses. Anyway, the point of this is that occasionally, someone who does exactly what he was born to do and sticks with it despite decades of discouragement is either nuts or right on track (both are probably true).
Two posts ago, I was discussing how the amount of control you have over your life seems to be the most basic determinant of your health, mental and physical. "Dr." Ralph is 86 and still does 100 shows a year, so he would be a good example. He has maintained control (no outside management) of his life and career with a laser-like concentration, never comprimising his simple, solid values. He worked for somebody else about 6 months out of his long life. He thinks everyone has a gift, but so many do not ever find it and are thus at the not-so-tender mercies of others.
I found this twice in my working years, and treasure those times -- the idea of never having experienced that leaves me feeling very bad for those who haven't. 'Way back at the beginning of this blog, I mentioned my first real job working at WFMV-FM in Richmond, and how lucky I was to fall into the perfect combination: on my own, editing the news and selecting music to play, writing brief intros to introduce the next selections, watching the equipment carefully, keeping the FCC logs meticulously and having full responsibility for the whole works at a young age. Being paid (poorly) to learn so much was a thrill, too. I met quite a variety of people; we were even invited to dedicated listeners' homes for dinner and discussion. I had my first and only meeting with the Virginia State Police late one evening, when it was cold and raining and I hadn't gone outside to check the tower lights since dusk (of course, that's when the top one went out). Someone, somewhere noticed and called them, thank heaven -- taught me to not let things slip, because for the want of a horseshoe a kingdom (or a small airplane) could be lost...
It was a sad day beyond telling when the station ran out of money and sold the frequency to an easy-listening chain from the Midwest; we were replaced by tape machines. We got to split up the music library, though, and I've enjoyed selling them all over the world via e-Bay recently: I've had those gems long enough and it's time to give away, and give back.
After years of working with and for idiots, getting back to this type of sweet spot didn't happen; I made it happen. It didn't even last a year, but I proved my point about supervision just getting in the way. I had started with ASCC, a communications company headquartered north of Pittsburgh, when they got the contract for the new Keystone state office building in downtown Harrisburg. They needed to hire a large local crew for the duration; most of us hoped to remain on after it was completed. About five of us did; we stayed on most of the following year performing the "adds and changes," as they call it, sometimes re-doing whole office and courtroom areas. This made the company so much (taxpayers') money they bought their own new office building and several vehicles. We each got a big bonus, too. Most of our work was wasted: an extensive daycare area was never used (we had even wired the outside play area for audio and video); an entire complex was changed after we had crawled under the floor for two weeks to cable it for all the computer, phone, audio and video you could possibly cram into it; I cabled each of four outside entrances similarly (in 15-degree weather) only to have it all covered over with stainless steel panels; the granite-floored foyer and 9 floors' worth of receptionist offices were both completely cabled -- none of it ever used. An outstanding example of no control: your time, efforts and considerable material wasted due to the incompetence of well-paid authorities. We then did school after school (talk about frustration and waste) until the company landed what is called a multi-site contract. With these, one or two people travel to local sites of some large corporation and perform the same task, the challenge being to figure out different buildings quickly and trim your time down with increasing efficiency: we could see that responsibility and decision-making would be in our hands (yay) and we'd be out of those stifling schools (yay again). They were working on several of these (Fed Ex, Sheetz, Radio Shack, a reginal gas pipeline, Health South, retail chain's distribution centers) as big electrical contractors were successfuly taking the educational contracts from us (yay).
One of the Keystone alums, Bill, is my age and we worked together in the "adds and changes" phase and on several subsequent projects. We jumped at the chance to be an on-the-road team for the Health South nationwide satellite TV project, the first (and a sort of trial) of these multi-site deals. Bill isn't a drug-infested redneck smoker like half the other guys, and is level-headed. I thought we'd make a good team, and saw a chance to get out of the clusterf--- that was the usual big project. We got a Lowe's charge card and a Wright fuel card, a claptrap used-up Chevy van, and a portable television monitor, loaded up a heap of our own tools and supplies, and lit out from Pittsburgh. The project coordinator would fax us the work orders and Mapquest directions (what would a GPS have done for us!! I can assure you Mapquest is wrong half the time) on Sunday afternoon and we would meet up and hit the road at 7 am Monday. Now, satellite TV is not rocket science, I'll admit, but being free was worth the lack of mental challenge. Figuring out how to do each site was -- I recall the time we had to go from the roof of a four-story gym complex in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, down through a row of offices, down masonry walls, across the ceiling over an indoor pool, and down to the reception area while hundreds of people were in, out and around. Without ticking people off.
I still chuckle to think of the other two-man crews and what they did with that freedom: descending into drug and alcohol delerium, doing such shoddy work we would in the future spend half of each week cleaning up the messes, apologizing for their smoking and cursing everywhere. The clinic in Somerset, Kentucky, was hating on the previous crew so much we spent lots of extra time smoothing them over and doing a meticulously neat job to show that you do not have to be an immature redneck to do physical work. That got back to the project manager as we had hoped, and (1) three crews were dispatched to their just rewards (2) we got that baby-blue Dodge van in great shape which served us so well (3) gave us the leverage to put my plan into action.
That plan was to wrest control of our schedule from the manager (he set appointment times for each job -- absolutely nonsensical: a job could take 15 minutes or 10 hours; you never knew). My scheme was for him to send me the work orders, let us pre-contact the sites, and I would arrange the schedule and research the directions. I had two binders: one with the orders arranged geographically and with detailed directions, and one with those pulp motel-coupon fliers you find at interstate rest stops arranged in order, state by state. We got a per diem payment, and with careful management of expenses and the route, saved the company a great deal of money and made a lot for ourselves. Without superivsion, we managed the supplies so well there was no waste and hardly any trash. We utilized time so well by ourselves that were back in Pittsburgh by Thursday noon, restocked, and were back home for three-day weekends. If you have a little bit of sense and control over what you're doing, things become ridiculously easy. I can think of so many other places and times when that would have worked just as well, but there was no escaping the disastrous supervision.
We snagged a smaller operation at power plants; they didn't hire another crew since we could fit those less numerous jobs in on Fridays. I'll never forget how hard it was to find the one in southwestern New Jersey, on the Delaware Bay; due to security considerations, they're not on maps and there is no signage. That one we found after four hours by going through a church parking lot, down a one-lane dirt road, and through the woods. Believe it or not, the locals didn't even know it was there! At another, it poured down rain the whole day; it's not so easy hauling a satellite dish, eight cement blocks, stand, and monitor up a metal roof with a torrent of cold water rushing down it. Still, when it was done and we were wringing our socks out in the employee cafeteria (which had closed -- no food or coffee to be had), we both agreed it was STILL better than being part of a moron crew with no autonomy -- being tired wet, cold, but free and prosperous was a very good feeling. And we were done for the week, because we followed our own plan.
We got the nickname "The Noise Boyz" on our best day. We had to go back to the Columbus, Ohio Health South location for the second time because they had lost their signal again. The disk was somewhat sheltered from the wind, so we couldn't figure out why it was off location, but after studying the whole roof, saw that someone had been repairing small areas and just moved it out of their way. The director, a tall redhead who thought everything, especially us, was quite amusing, was glad to find out we weren't just doing a bad job, and bestowed the name on us, saying we were welcome to come back anytime. In all the states we visited, we only ran across one sourpuss, in Wilkes-Barre, and we concluded that having to live there would have that effect on anyone! When we arrived back in Pittsburgh late on that Thursday evening, we had done 9 jobs in four states, having started out there early that freezing morning (we had run out of non-Lowe's supplies so had to loop back). That record impressed the project manager mightily; but -- rather than ratcheting us up to the really good, long trips to Florida, Texas, California and -- eventually! -- Hawaii, we found out soon after that he had screwed up the whole deal and Health South said SEE YA! It was a long time until the FedEx and Sheetz projects would start, so we had to give up the baby-blue van and go do a new elementary school in York County, PA. We did a good job until we got supervision for the fiber-optic portion of the job, and then just dragged ourselves through to the end.
Since we didn't have to travel with a repellent crew who wanted to eat at convenience stores and truck stops, smoke and go to bars at 1 a.m., we saw some interesting places and met many nice people. The ladies at the Augusta, Georgia clinic were all dressed as if for an evening event and could not have been more gracious. The staff at Nashville downtown were hilarious; we were all laughing so hard our sides hurt. In Pulaski, Tennessee, they had a downtown car dealership (disappearing from small towns rapidly elsewhere) and a soda fountain with 5-cent Cokes. The KKK was founded there, but it was a nice town I'd visit again anytime. In northern Georgia, we saw a white marble elementary school on a hill -- they quarry so much marble there it was just donated to build the school. In suburban Charleston, South Carolina, we arrived late in the afternoon and had a heck of a time getting through the ceiling of two buildings (about 5" clearance) from dish to TV location, so were nowhere near finishing at a reasonable hour, but the last staff member volunteered to stay until we were wrapped up at 10 p.m., saying she had to study anyway. That allowed us to head home Friday morning, and we rode up the coast on a beautiful one-day vacation and visited Bill's in-laws in a little paradise called Sunset Beach. EVERYTHING falls into place when you are in control, and you work hard on what you're doing and how you do it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Poli Sci 101

These gems are from actual college exam papers:

"Anarcho-cyclicalists were socialists who could not bring themselves to believe in Marx. Bakunin was a flaming anachronist. Anarchism is a system of government headed by an Anarch. Canada, for example, became an anarchy in 1867."

--Despite this, it's been pretty calm there for quite a while.

"St. Teresa of Avila was a carmelized nun."

--That Spanish sun is wicked, all right.

"John Huss refused to decant his ideas about the church and was therefore burned as a steak."

--What is it about religious figures and the Food Network?

"When they finally got to Italy, the Australian Goths were tired of plungering and needed to rest. Italy was ruled by the Visible Goths, while France and Spain were ruled by the Invisible Goths."

--Led by Alice Cooper, probably.

"Plato invented reality. He was teacher to Harris Tottle, author of The Republicans. Lust was a must for the Epicureans. Others were the Vegetarians and the Synthetics, who said, "If you can't play with it, why bother?"

--C+. You left out the Plasmatics.

"The ball of events and stoppers that were used to stop it from rolling only added to its momentum which kept it rolling."

--This HAS to be the work of John McCain.

It looks like those parents who paid the tuition for these earnest scholars are due a refund.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What It's All About

Yesterday I happened upon a PBS documentary about the undeniable correlation between social/economic status, stress and health. Probably three other people were watching it on a Sunday afternoon (the other 200 million watching sports, of course), but I was slowly and completely absorbed by it. An expensive and well-done entertainment (such as an early Indiana Jones) doesn't engage me much anymore because it is not real -- except for enjoying the actual theater experience with quality seats and sound, wherein the content of the movie is only half of it. I learned this principle in the museum exhibit business -- the real thing is of intrinsic interest and value, whereas your mental interaction with even the best Disneyfied replication is only: "how did they do that?"
Einstein lusted after a unified theory to explain everything in the universe. A noble dedication, and a whole lot more useful/less harmful than the traditional non-scientific dead-end paths of religion and crackhead ideologies. But for the rest of us mortals, any good explanation of how we operate and why would be much more helpful, thank you very much.
I've put a link to the blog The Pragmatist on Just Sayin', hoping you would check out the recent one on the author's insight into using the Myers -Briggs personality profile to understand why 80% of the people are mighty attached to the status quo and won't be educated away from their fear of progress and change. However, an earlier one about our basic animal need for control over our environment relates to the PBS documentary on what the health and survival effects are on people who have that control and those who don't. Subordinate animals with no control (macaque monkeys are the example shown) suffer from constant stress, and MRI scans show this shortens the length and quality of their lives with major diseases -- the same ones humans have. Native Americans and renters in low-income neighborhoods, at the lowest end of control over their lives and destinies, have the highest rates of high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. The reasonable, conventional wisdom is that the poor physical environment, substance abuse and bad nutrition would be the salient causes, but detailed studies of neighborhoods show a much more exact relationship between social status and health problems. Amazingly, the data is the same in societies which have universal health care. The availablity of such care and what look like the obvious causal influences are not really the determinants -- everything I and everyone else thought to be the truth or the reality is not so. We've been looking at things that can be changed (with great effort and expense) to solve the problem. What we're looking at now is something so basic throughout the animal and human world it's hard to think of a way to do anything about it, except on an individual level!
If you lack security in income, are jerked around at your job, see no opportunity to move out or up, are threatened by danger around you, and the best you can do is to be careful and keep your head down, you're living in stress which will inevitably take its toll in health and longevity. If life is good, and you've got choices, resources and the freedom to make plans and decisions and don't have to waste two hours bringing the groceries home on the bus, you even get the bonus of consistently better health.
It's good to be king. Inequality kills.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

For Free

Even if it didn't happen it's still true -- Ken Kesey
Nancy forwarded this story to me.
In a Washington, DC Metro station on a cold winter morning, a violinist played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. Two thousand people passed through the station during that time, and of course most were hurrying to work, constrained both by time and the unfriendly weather. Only once in a while did anyone stop for a few seconds; one lady threw money in the musician's hat but didn't stop. Ten minutes went by before anyone else paid attention; only six people in total stopped to listen during the three-quarters of an hour. Children tried to, but were pulled along by their parents. After collecting $32, the violinist finished and silence took over; there was no recognition or reaction.
The performer was Joshua Bell, a famous virtuoso, who had played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a superior instrument valued at $3.5 million. Two days before, he had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats cost an average of $100. We are extremely tunnel-visioned and rigidly conditioned to respond in prescribed ways to our environment, like lab rats, aren't we? Not to mention our appalling taste, lack of perception and questionable priorities...
In the movie American Beauty, it took a character who could not function "normally" to see exquisite beauty in the swirling image of an ordinary plastic bag caught in a rising gyre of wind.
If it's not in an accepted context, beauty, talent or value can be invisible -- as we move forward with eyes wide shut. Mr. Nelson's advice in The Tao of Willie: stop and smoke the roses!
On the flip side, there is often perceived value in valueless icons such as celebrities and other two-dimensional faux heroes (John Wayne, sports Hulks, Ronald Raygun), luxury merchandise, bestsellers that aren't even good fireplace fuel, or the latest complex and short-lived gadget.
You can pay a lot in money or time, and really get nothing. Something you happen across by cosmic accident might just be priceless.
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Volunteers, The Circle of Life, and Tomatoes

The season's winding down, but there's room and time for a few more surprises. The planter which normally houses petunias was filled with onions this year, because those little green worms that chew up 'tunias had infested the soil. The onions were great -- nothing like having salad ingredients just outside the door! After they were devoured, I left the planter empty to further frustrate bugs and worms -- but Nature doesn't tolerate fertile space going unoccupied, so seeds from last year's flowers sprouted and even bloomed. A piece of onion re-grew and is trying to get as big as his daddy was.
The mums have been side-by-side for years and are now comfortably doing their own thing: they were originally one color per pot, and are now merging and showing up in each other's domains. Is it seeding or cross-pollination? A botanist would know, but I just enjoy the show.
The garden at Zach's was supposed to have an Act II, that is, Fall crops, but has fallen victim to fungus and mildew; I don't know if it was the mild, wet summer, or that the yard is over 100 years old and probably harbors every pest in the Northern Hemisphere. I didn't get the soil mix right (ran out of time before we had to get something started) in the first place, and there weren't enough nutrients. JM and Pat added quite a load of chicken manure to their box garden in Camp Hill, and it went nuts. Next Spring, bird droppings and the compost we're making in the new bin will go in, and even more tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and other salad goodies will make this now forlorn box a Cornucopia (or so we hope)!
The greatest successes were the less ambitious undertakings. The lone Early Girl tomato plant we grow in a large pot every year on the deck graced us with cute, red and round tomatoes until just last night. The exhausted plant will go into the compost bin and live again next year, in a way. Out front, a basil plant has rocketed up toward the sky and despite almost daily picking, just keeps on and on. It will be a shame to see the frost end its vigorous youth, but I hope to pluck it just before and hang it out to dry in the garage. Winter, bah. We're all just hung out to dry until the explosion of another growing season...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Banzai Washout!

Phil Dirt of Felton, CA defines surf-rock quite succinctly as "rhythm guitar locked into the lead single-note staccato synched with the bass and drums -- a solid bed for fiery leads."

It is claimed, among those who think about these things, that Dick Dale and the Deltones' "Let's Go Trippin," 1961, was the first surf rock single. Whatever is thought to be a first in the arts has always been preceeded by others which had the bad luck to go unnoticed and be mostly forgotten (Elvira, Jimi Hendrix, The DaVinci Code -- all were successful copies). The Tornadoes' "Bustin' Surfboards," the Belairs' "Mr. Moto," the Fireballs' "Bulldog," the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" and The Gamblers' "Moon Dawg" in 1960 - 61 were actually first, but -- except for the Ventures -- who remembers them? No disrespect to Mr. Dale (born Richard Monsour), who is not only a leader in electric music innovation, but is a great guy and one heck of a survivor (kicking Death in the rear no less than three times). The "King of the Surf Guitar"'s wonder years were confined to the brief reign of the surf genre from 1961 - 1964, but he has 15 albums to his credit and tours the West Coast to this day. He even played his inimitable version of part of Saint-Saen's "Carnival of the Animals" for the musical background of the Space Mountain rollercoaster at Disneyland.

Along with Les Paul, Sam Phillips and Leo Fender (and not-so-famous Sister Rosetta Tharp), Dick Dale is a foundation builder in electric music. One of the few real surfers in the genre, he wanted to reproduce what he called the "wet sound" that he heard while under the curl, but the weak equipment of the time couldn't cut it. He was known to grind down a pick in just one song, and used very heavy strings (16 - 58w!), which he broke anyway. This left-handed shredder, with his ever-present reverb unit, worked with Fender to produce the first 100 watt amp, the Single Showman, with a 15" JBL D130 speaker. Maybe now he wouldn't blow them up regularly!

And his signature gold Strat is as iconic as Elvis' gold lame' suit.

Just as E was a transformer, making a new and irresistable weave from diverse musical threads, Dick D brought together country twang (The early Elvis "Mystery Train" has elements presaging surf, for example), rockabilly, the sounds in his head, and Middle Eastern/Eastern European themes welded to a propulsive beat. With a Lebanese father, a Polish mother, and an uncle who played oud in belly-dance music in his background, his knowledge of non-Western scales, and a Greek/oriental melody, he came up with his version of "Miserlou," a unique instrumental which went on to be used as the theme for Pulp Fiction years later.

Despite its brief lifetime in mass popularity (other rock/pop genres were blown away by the British Invasion of 1964 too), surf-rock has a lineage of vibrant and enduring sources, and has contributed back mightily to West Coast jazz, Latin jazz, space music and psychedelia. It was self-limiting in its small but stunning stock of ideas, demographic, and instrumental-only orientation (Eliminators rhythm guitarist Preston Wilson said, "Leo Fender's the lead singer"). Where would The Dead, Phish and Eddie van Halen be without it?

They're not just golden oldies -- the Chantay's "Pipeline," the Surfaris' drummers standard "Wipeout," or the many Roger "Hot Dog" Christian compositions performed by Jan and Dean or the Beach Boys -- they're crystal-clear moments in that creative collision of ethnic musical traditions and individual genius that also birthed the blues, jazz, fusion and singer-songwriters. Righteous.

Odd bits:

"Wipeout" was a B-side to "Surfer Joe" made up on the spot in the studio, and the Surfaris never got royalties.

The "surfer's stomp" dance just evolved from people chanting and stomping at Dick Dale's shows. Thus , a 1963 group adopted the name The Surf Stompers.

Dale's band, the Del-Tones, was named after his father's record label.

Link Wray and the Raymen should be noted for their style based on minimalism and sustain. And their cool name.
The old dude above is not a surf rock legend, but he plays one on

1960's instrumental single, "Moon Dawg," by Hollywood studio players (including premiere surf drummer Sandy Nelson and future Canned Heat bassist Larry "the Mole" Taylor) calling themselves The Gamblers, not only can lay claim to be one of the very first in the genre, but had a B side tagged "LSD 25." Surf's not only an important element of later psychedelic music, but had the very first drug reference in a song title!

A revival started in 1988, with many groups in the SF Bay area (NoCal) active today. Some of the notables are The Insect Surfers, The Mermen, The Woodies and Buzzy Frets & the Surfabilly Orchestra. No gremmies or hodaddies!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Object of Lust

Made you look!
Paul Reed Smith SE Custom 22 Semi-hollow body. We are not worthy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cletus Knows the Way

We're back from another adventure, with only one of us the worse for wear. To celebrate JM's 40th and my recent birthday (yeah, way beyond 40), JM and Pat took us along on a return trip to Wellsboro, PA, where they had gone two years previously. In the "Northern Tier" of rural counties lying below the N.Y. state border, Wellsboro and Tioga County (which is larger than Rhode Island) are famous for the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, site of an ancient glacial lake and quite green and leafy, unlike its western cousin. It's been preserved by two state parks, a state forest and game lands, fortunately, because the northern half of the state was stripped bare a hundred years ago by the white pine loggers and left to erosion; the wildlife was decimated. Now the bears and bobcats are back, and oaks, hemlocks and hickories feed legions of chipmunks. Agriculture, hunting and tourism have replaced the early 1900s rapacity, and despite forbidding winters, the wide stretch of hills and valleys is well worth the drive to see during the milder half of the year.
We stayed in a French-themed Victorian B&B, La Belle Auberge, with Jacuzzi tubs and a breakfast spread that will be long remembered (burp), saw the Canyon and hiked around along the hardwood forest trails a little, and enjoyed two of the several surprisingly good restaurants. There is natural gas production and some industry in the area to raise it up from the usual rural claptrap poverty, and the logging era left behind more perfectly maintained Victorian mansions than you can tip your top hat to, so Wellsboro is one of the most prosperous and diligently kept small towns I have ever seen. It even has a family-owned department store (no WallyMart!).
The next day we headed out to the hamlet of Ansonia to go horseback riding. The weather forecast was not good, and the terrain is steep, rocky and muddy in places, so we greenhorns thought we were about to star in City Slickers, Part II. We didn't need the outerwear and gloves after all, because as the day progressed it just got more perfect. After a very good introduction by Rachael, our guide, we hoisted ourselves up onto our 1300 lb. hayburning Harleys, namely Poe, Freedom, Firefox and Cletus. This last rascal was red, about 16 years old, and pretty determined to do whatever he wanted to; he was my buddy up hill and down for the next couple of hours. We took a different trail than usual, and that turned out great--not as much steep mountain climbing, and we crossed a broad rocky stream twice (just like in Western movies). On the opposite bank, halfway up in the dense treeline, sat a bald eagle -- never saw one of those in the wild before! In the tangled growth and tall grass, the horses are tempted to eat their way along, and you're not supposed to let them, but try telling Cletus that. I jerked up on the reins (as instructed) to dissuade him, but he's been doing this a long time and proved to be a master of the salad bar we threaded our way through. He really liked sycamore tree saplings (must be horse arugula).
All the horses just headed to their parking spaces, to be tied up to trees, when we stopped at a high, dry lunch spot in the forest. They knew what they were doing; we pretended we were giving them directions which I'm pretty sure they just ignored. Cletus had to be first even though I started out in back, and nudged and squeezed his way to front of the line. When I tried to control him and keep an even pace, he fixed my wagon by breaking into a trot and bouncing me around like a lottery ping pong ball.
Back at the corral, Nancy's horse Poe had to step back while being tied to the fence, and unintentionally stepped on her little toe. It wasn't broken, but that little piggy sure is a livid shade of purple today!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Top Ten from Esquire's "60 Things Worth Shortening Your Life For"

1. Danger Dogs: Tijuana hot dog wrapped in bacon and fried, then topped with mayonnaise
2. Jersey Breakfast Dogs: with scrambled eggs and melted cheese
3. Surf Teahuppoo, Tahiti: great swells above a cheese-grater coral reef
4. Give Someone a Kidney
5. Black Cat Espresso from Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea: a triple. makes you vibrate.
6. Vision Quest Bull Riding Experience, Branson MO: "we try to match the livestock to your abilities"
7. Bullfighting School in California (the only legal one): someone's getting wounded in this battle
8. Butter
9. Drugs
10.Cream Puffs: the best are at the Wisconsin State Fair
Gives you something to think about, anyway.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From The Zahir, by Paulo Coelho

"...I need you to write something about the new Renaissance."

"What's the new Renaissance?"

"It's similar to the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when geniuses like Erasmus, Leonardo and Michelangelo rejected the limitations of the present and the oppressive conventions of their own time and turned instead to the past. We're beginning to see a return to a magical language, to alchemy and the idea of the Mother Goddess, to people reclaiming the freedom to do what they believe in and not what the church or the government demand of them. As in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Florence, we are discovering that the past contains the answers to the future."


It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn't matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over. Slowly, I began to realize that I could not go back and force things to be as they once were...


When the Unwanted Guest arrives...
I might be afraid.
Or I might say:
My day was good, let night fall.
You will find the fields ploughed, the house clean,
the table set,
and everything in its place.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Most Excellent Adventure

I'm pretty young, I'll admit: only been an adult for a little over 24 hours. I think I've learned a lot in that time, but with a line of ancestors stretching back twenty-five million years, we sort of hit the deck running, intellectually speaking. That's a lot of know-how passed down, and I believe the 500 brothers and sisters are maybe the best class this week, and not just because we're related. A few have gone a mile or more and seen some things.
Maybe our keeness developed during that long dream-time as a pupa; it was a much needed rest, at least, after the endless, ravenous eating we did as larvae. I'm not going to use the word "maggots;" that's just disgusting. And why are body parts so badly named, too? "Proboscis" for mouth, for example. And a dull word like "wing" for that superior, strong, light structure that is an apotheosis of art and mechanics. There's a lot more I don't understand although I've been a good student, using my 16,000-facet (yeah, that's right: the rest of you species might as well be bats!) eyes to the fullest.
One thing that's puzzling me is the girls. They look and smell and act different, but it's a puzzlement as the old song goes (I listen well, too). My homies who are a little older say that when our hatching is mature in another 45 hours, we'll figure it out. Looks interesting. But I've got a bigger story to tell right now; I can hardly believe what just happened over the last hour! If life holds adventures this big, I can't wait to get on with it. Simply put, I've gone farther than anyone maybe ever has!
You don't learn much if you're not curious, right? Coming down from an upland (we call it a mesa, here), a swirling breeze brought a new, complex smell: rotting plants, salt, stale heat...I had nothing better to do than investigate, so toward the blue horizon winged this daring pilot.
When I cleared the cliff, my prob...mouth was wide open -- didn't even know what I was looking at! No land or trees, just a blue-gray plain below a bright sky with torn wisps of cloud. I hovered around, trying to figure this out and keeping eyes out for birds, when I felt a tremor in the air. Before I could react and dive low to shelter, the wind cranked up, lifted and tumbled me around, then straight up, then forward, then up in a spiral. Bouncing off the cliff and taking me with it, the sudden blast carried me high over what now looked and smelled like the biggest pond ever. My wings were whirring at top speed to get some control over this alarming situation and after levelling out, I saw land coming up again, but just a small patch, out in the great pond by itself. An idle thought flashed by: wished I'd flown into a library this morning and studied a little local geography. The ancestral memory let me down on this one.
I felt the wind slow down as the little piece of land loomed larger, and before I had a chance to be frightened about slamming into the sharp, baked rock, I regained control and with feet extended in textbook landing position, just drifted into a nice spot next to a crevice filled with dark shadow.
I'm just going to relax here in the sun for a few seconds, since the chilly air above the great pond affected my reflexes and fogged the old noggin (making my well-executed landing even more awesome!). Boy, will this be one great story to tell when I get back to the 'hood -- those older guys won't have anything on me! I'll just pick up another one of those winds once I figure out the pattern.
Got to do some exploring here first: I feel like I'm going to burst with curiosity! Wait a minute -- what's this? Can't move my feet; they're just stuck! I'm not too cold now, so that can't be it...whatever I'm on just vibrated, and not like a leaf. Uh-oh, this can't be good. Something moving out of the crevice toward me, that's what I'm feeling. Covered with hairs like me but 'way too big for a's raising its front legs! I know what it....ouch! aargh...aaahhh...

Friday, August 21, 2009

I Want to Believe

Not really, but I do like Agent Mulder's catchphrase. I wonder about how people "believe things that just ain't so," as Will Rogers put it. The current clash of ignorant armies in the night (another great phrase) about our health care non-system came to mind as I was reading Willa Cather's 1915 book, The Song of the Lark. One character says, "Facts really don't count for much, do they? It's all in the way people feel..." The psychology of this is well analyzed in a new book by Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick, about how to make ideas "stick" -- and it's not about rattling off a factual, logical argument. Those aligned on the Right have been extremely good at this since Roger Ailes (now head of Fox Noise, dontcha know?) crafted Nixon's successful 1968 counter-revolution with the simple image -- and message -- of the hardhat guy. Reagan's speechwriters' quips, "tear down this wall," "get government off your backs," and "there you go again" sealed the deal in the minds of millions. No substance, but sticky as Superglue. The current President's team should have kept in front of their eyes the half-dozen basic principles of advertising, propaganda, persuasion, or whatever you want to call it: a few templates that when used are sure to affect the way people think. Just compare the effectiveness of a page of statistics on Africa's problems to a Save the Children ad with a face and a name. That the Administration has the facts and the truth is irrelevant to success in convincing the mass public.
They also have to understand the conservative and fearful nature of the masses and how to work around it (they don't think and analyze, they believe). Although written a century ago, the thoughts of the Thea, the protagonist in Song of the Lark, are still true today: "She had seen it when she was at home [a small town in Nebraska, 1880's] last summer -- the hostility of comfortable, self-satisfied people toward any serious effort."
The emotional reaction -- and that is what counts -- to the candidacies of Andrew Jackson, Harding and Reagan was that they looked like presidents, and in the case of the latter two, that was all there was but it was enough. And the selling of Dubya, who looked and sounded no more impressive than Barney Fife -- well, that was just a brilliant job.
The ancient Greek and Roman orators knew how to bring in an audience. The 20th century masters of propaganda and advertising knew it. I really wish I could hand our hapless leaders these tools to use, because the stakes are high.

Friday, August 14, 2009


What does this old 1959 Ford Ranchero pickup have to do with salsa??
My new neighbors for the month, Eric and Chris next door, very nice folks and native Californians, took me and a picnic along to the lawn of the Mission for a music and dance performance last week. Between the rose garden and the venerable mission, with a full moon rising...that was quite enough for a fine evening, but Chris' cold bean salad was right up there. I asked what the secret ingredient was, since there obviously was one, and she said, salsa. When Ron, Claire and I went to Los Arroyos Mexican restaurant in town the night before they left on their long trip, we brought back a small container of one of their salsas, and was I glad we did. The whole thing disappeared the next day. Yum.
I thought that life as a whole is more vibrant when you enjoy the little "containers" of added flavor you encounter:
A gray-haired lady drove into a parking space this morning in a well-rusted 1959 Ranchero, looking completely original and still running well. She may have bought it new, and she's seemingly still running well too. I'll bet she picks up hay for a horse and big bags of feed for a few goats, and sighs over all the fence maintenance that's building up.
Parked nearby was a pristine early 70s VW Beetle, with gleaming red upholstery and a sunroof. Does that bring back memories?
A sprig of alyssum blooming in a seam between curb and sidewalk in a busy commercial area. (All the locally-owned, regional or national stores, cafes and restaurants are built in modern faux Spanish style, which a purist would object to, but it's so much easier on the eyes and the spirit than the air-conditioned nightmare of postwar cheapo box construction.) On the stone patio beside the house here, a tiny wisp of a plant with about two leaves, and one blue flower the size of this "o." The tidy round tree near a hidden creek, bejewelled with purple plums, all the same size and looking perfectly many who knows how long it would take to pick them?
An apple, an orange, an apricot picked from the trees in the back yard. Strawberries in the ground a few dozen yards from where they're sold at Lane Farms Market (the way it looks inside the breezy wood building with a gravel parking lot, it could be 1940).
It's good to see people of all ages so trim and fit (we first marvelled at this in San Diego, years ago). On the nearby bike trail, the colorful and helmeted riders speed by on sophisticated many-geared machines with tires about the circumference of spaghetti, and near the ocean and on campus the big-tired no-geared beach cruisers loaf along. Along with skateboards, they're about the only cheap, no-maintenance transportation available, although the bus system here actually works.
And there's something about flowers blooming all year 'round that gentles the soul, too.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


What if the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team had been in charge during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis?
You wouldn't be here to wonder about it, most likely.


New oxymorons:
a sound investment
a conservative plan for the future


How are a Zen monk and a loaded pizza alike?
They're both one with everything.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Down With Progress!

When men are lonely and huddle as children
They mistake the prattle of fools
For the voice of the sage, so desperate
Is their search!

(graffiti found in a Stanyan St., S.F., doughnut shop)

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Old Spanish Days, or Fiesta for short, is on this week as it has been after the earthquake and rebuilding of 1925. Yesterday I went to El Mercado del Norte, one of two daytime events, with the usual carnival rides (the kids were having a great time on the bungee jump!), Mexican food stands, and dancers on stage. The gloriously colorful (and well-made) costumes and dances of several Mexican states went around first, from tiny beginners to adults (there are about six dance clubs/studios dedicated to this art here; many begin as preschoolers and continue into their forties). Next were more polished groups presenting flamenco (with live musicians) and rhumba. Chomping on a churro, this anglo had a great time.
Ron and Claire's extra-nice neighbors, Eric and Chris, took their sons and me to the big official opening event on the lawn between the rose garden and the Mission (the Queen of the 18th-century California missions, the only one still staffed by Franciscans). We were pretty far from the stage set up in front of the facade with the magnificent twin bell towers, but it was splashed with colorful light to highlight the dancers and musicians, and the sound was perfect, so with a full moon behind us it was a magic evening. The above lady in the all-white flamenco dress is this year's Spirit of Fiesta, Daniela Zermeno. I wish I could have found and posted the picture that was on the front page of the paper today, with her twirling a gigantic white shawl. If I lived here, I'd have a caballero's outfit, for sure. You know, the Zorro look!
At 7 a.m. this morning, my new bud Eric showed me how to get on the trail around the Mesa that the horse riders use (step CAREFULLY), a blissfully serene 5-mile amble which on one part runs right along the cliff edge overlooking the ocean. We found lots of wild fennel; the tiny new leaves taste exactly like black licorice. Pelicans were diving, precisely, to ruin some fish's day, but we didn't see any dolphins or whales, or any more than two other humans. Reading the paper after returning, I learn that great white sharks are now plentiful in the Channel, and are nipping at sea lions and harbor seals. Good thing the water's too cold to go out in!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Grazing in a New Field

The idea of owning a second home or, horrors, a time-share (a big trend for a lot of people until 2008) fills me with fear and loathing (thanks, Hunter S.), and going to a completely new place has its anxieties too (because you learn how to visit a place by doing it badly the first time and well when you return, educated). Returning to the familiar new is like the last bowl of porridge or Little Bear's bed. It's the nuances you explore, the big things having been figured out. I get an unnaturally large charge out of finding those hidden free parking spaces in a big city or tourist trap -- let the first timers walk 3 miles across the steaming hot parking lot at Disney World!
A lot of quality reading material streams into Ron and Claire's home here in California, and since I don't have, for a month, the usual responsibilities eating up time that could be more pleasantly wasted, I roll around in the luxury of having the Sunday NY Times like a feline in catnip.
The Magazine and Book Review by themselves would be enough to take to a desert isle (along with some cold white wine, mojitos, or microbrews, of course).
As Ms. Cortez mentioned on Rus' FB page, you can get any adult libation anywhere anytime around here (liquor in the drug store? sure!). And despite recent business closings, with a little under 500 restaurants to choose from, and dozens of music performances every day, there's a lot of 'splorin to do. But just knowing it's all there (like the opera in NYC) is enough most days, because the easy feeling of freedom -- not being constricted and constrained and deprived for no good reason -- is the best thing about visiting any sunny vacation area near lake or ocean.
Back to the Times, though: just in the Sunday edition there so many bits that catch the eye like a jewel in the sand. Such a contrast to the whiny conservative local paper, or the T-D, or our local fishwrapper which tries hard, but is all emphemera with no pretension towards writing at all.
Well worth spending 20 minutes reading: an article about a photographer who documented people who have opted out of conventional American life, all over the South --- hermits, hobos, wanderers: Alec Soth entitled his work "Black Line of the Woods," taken from Georgia writer Flannery O'Connor who noted the significance of the treeline behind any house and yard, where the rules of civilization start to disappear, of which he says, "She's talking about where culture ends. I wanted this work to be about the longing to escape." The reviewer has captured the meaning of a book you never heard of, and made you want to find it.
Another arresting insight -- a character in another new book reviewed says: "...but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected." The theme of life and history distilled in one sentence. Did any teacher or textbook ever give you a laser beam of illumination like that?
In Travel, you learn that 20% of the modern Irish are non-drinkers, and that a good pub has craic, which in Gaelic means the whole concept of friends, fun and banter (like the Taproom on Robinson St.). The English "fellowship" pales by comparison; the French "bonhomie" being a little better, but this one is a keeper.
On another page, you learn that if you lick the underside of a banana slug, your tongue will go numb. Back before kids "numbed their senses by staying cooped up inside," it seems most people in coastal Oregon knew that...
Feeling pretty ignorant after all this new and precise knowledge, I eagerly dove into an op/ed piece on a topic I'd been thinking about: the business model of keeping your customers by getting them hooked. The insanely profitable worldwide success of advertising and cigarettes will morph into food products engineered for addiction. Products are "spiked" to "drive cravings and create repeat purchasers." "In one study, 40 of 43 rats preferred sugar to cocaine after trying both." High-calorie, fatty and sugary "foods" are proving to be "addictive as well as destructive." I've seen in the checkout at the grocery store back home carts full of nothing but snacks and sodas and paper products...
It's too beautiful outside to keep sitting here or reading more, so since I need one thing from the store today, I'm off on foot to get it. You can't 'splore in a car; you miss too much.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Zombie Days

After a harrowing three-leg flight, I arrived much the worse for wear, and am only now starting to feel normal. The sun is slow breaking through the overcast today, which is just fine; all this Saturday morning it has been quiet, with no one stirring except for the hummingbirds and the cheeky gray-headed jays.
I won't detail the horrors of cattlecars-in-the-air, since you've all been there too, except to note that in the Minneapolis airport I was surprised to discover how fast and far I can still run.
While Ron and Claire were busy packing for their trip to Asia and doing the thousand other things that had to be wrapped up, I just sat outside like a zombie, not only to stay out of their way, but because that's all I was up to doing. The gentle weather has been healing, and I'll never fail to be amazed at the wonderful food growing in the yard: apples, apricots, tomatoes and oranges. The hibiscus and roses aren't edible, but feed the spirit.
Yesterday morning I was pumped up to take that lovely 2 1/2 mile round-trip walk to Java Station, and check on any changes during the past year, before diving into that lovely sixteen ounces of Kona coffee. But, aaargh! -- my favorite yellow-painted wood tables outside are GONE, an action taken by the new owners. The endless wait to get into the unisex restroom remains the same.
Two houses that had been for sale for over a year had the signs down, but may not have sold. The six lovely new Spanish-style houses at the very end of Vieja Rd., two blocks away from Ron's, are all STILL for sale over a year after they were finished (there are currently over 2,000 homes on the market in L.A., Ventura and Santa Barbara counties priced at $2 million or more. That's just unreal). Our favorite place, on the end of the spur and backing up to the vast and undeveloped Mesa bordering the ocean, has been reduced from $2 mil to $1.8 mil -- when Nancy comes out, we have to hop on that deal!
Well, probably not.
Saw a sign on the back of a truck yesterday: Sodem & Gromora Landscaping.
I wish I could transport (NOT by plane) all you out here to walk along Old Vieja Road, which shows as a regular route on the map, but is anything but. Half is paved, with beautiful, peaceful houses and estates, but then it ends at a metal barricade, with a low section for horse riders to pass over. From then on it's dirt, bordered by dozens of huge eucalyptus trees, exuding that unmistakable Vicks VapORub odor. Their smooth trunks are swirled with subtle colors that have no names and would drive someone who's tripping right over the edge (disclaimer: this blog does not advocate altered states of consciousness, in public at least). Great mounds of some species of shrub are covered with red flowers whose petals look and feel just like tissue paper. Hundreds of horseshoe impressions indent the dusty trail, and of course you have large steaming mounds of horse product to step around. Astonishingly rural scenes in the midst of uber-class surburbia: not only many horses, but chickens, ducks and goats while Audis are parked in driveways. You know the Corollas belong to the maids.
Weird Scene on De La Vina Street: I went to a free music event held in the performance space next to Jensen's Guitar & Music last night, billed as "Noise/Experimental/?" The first group, Soul Manure, "played" a fairly long piece with an old Japanese movie projected on the back curtain, a TV on showing skateboarding, and instrumentation of violin, guitar, electric bass played with a bow, and keyboard. Second, a soloist from L.A. sat on the floor in the dark with one blue light, playing long sustained notes on an old Fender, with an iPod providing whooshing sea sounds and then what must have been a hurricane in progress. He said he was on tour for 2 1/2 weeks, so there must be an audience here for this digital-age Warhol happening stuff. Who knew?
I bought a cool 45-watt used amp at Jensen's, same brand I have at home, but this one has a fuzz-type effect on one channel. I was lucky it was a good buy, but boy are things more expensive out here (about 9.5% sales tax, too).
On the national scene, a clever writer in the Washington Post skewered Fox Noise nicely:
"The world. Flat. We report, you decide." Teach the controversy!
The sun's out now, so I must be too. Your intrepid reporter will probably have some more odd tales to relate, so tune in next week!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Goin' To The Edge (of the continent)

California! A prophet on the burning shore
California! I'll be knocking on the golden door...
-- Grateful Dead, "Estimated Prophet"
A big change of time zone begins Wednesday morning, very early, as I fly the cramped skies through Minneapolis of all places to end up at brother Ron's home in Santa Barbara. The next morning I take them to the airport for their much longer trip to Singapore; if that's not exotic enough, they're taking a side trip to Cambodia! Saint Babs has palm trees and adventurous food too, and no known land mines, so I'll be pretty pleased to be there.
There are no raging fires in the mountains and canyons this year (they occurred early, but of course could begin again any time since there's no rain except during the winter, and everything's as dry as an algebra textbook). With irrigation most everywhere, there's an unreal Garden of Eden veneer over the underlying harsh desert, but the flowers, fruits and vegetables are lush and seductive: the rose garden near the Mission, the vast orchid farm hidden down a dirt road, the downtown arboretum park with turtles clustered on rocks, lemon groves and strawberry fields...
The ocean is about a mile and 1/4 away, and down a steep cliff about a hundred rough steps. High tide just about obliterates the sand, so you'll be spending a few hours on a rock if you wander too far unaware of the tide schedule. There doesn't seem to be any beach glass to be found any more (rounded and smoothed by years of tossing around) -- I wonder if that's because plastic has replaced glass beverage containers on boats. This section of the long shoreline is called More (pronounced "moray") Mesa Beach and can be pretty empty, especially in the gray, foggy mornings. That's a picture of our favorite spot above. There are only a few places to park, a good walk away, so there's a natural limit to crowding. Runners, mountain bikers and horseback riders use the many sandy trails on the vast and flat mesa that mercifully remains undeveloped.
Pleasures of a less wild sort are found at my favorite coffeehouse, the Java Station, on the main boulevard, Hollister Avenue. It's a fairly long and invigorating walk from Ron's home, the stretch along the creek lined with huge eucalyptus trees being my favorite. You have to watch the bicyclists, as I found out almost to my peril once: they go very fast and silently, and DO NOT yield to pedestrians, preferring to knock them off the pathway. If my favorite spot outside of J. Station is unoccupied, I unfold both the standard and the alternative local papers (the second founded by rebel reporters from the first), and settle in to enjoy time and place.
The farmer's market is held weekly on several blocks of State Street downtown which are closed to traffic (again, mercifully). It's like none you have ever seen. There are plants and flowers, jarred and fresh foods, and beverages that you just wonder over, not having any frame of reference. Everything is so perfectly tempting, you could easily buy more than you can carry very quickly. Buskers and some very strange characters dot the sidewalks.
Mellow. Psychedelic, even.
There are hundreds of restaurants (Cafe Buenos Aires, the Natural Cafe and California Pasta Kitchen are our favorites), but the one Nancy is looking forward to revisiting when she comes out for the week of our 30th anniversary is Jeannine's, where you will find the most healthy and yummy breakfast on the planet under gossiping palms and languid flowering vines.
If I get into the wine country to the north in the Santa Ynez valley (where the movie Sideways was filmed), you'll be here all day, so suffice it to say it's worth a flight of 3000 miles on its own.
There is way too much traffic, and a tiny rundown house you wouldn't live in costs $400,000 (start at 3/4 to 1 million for a nice one) but Santa Barbara isn't just another place under the sun.
And they have a Trader Joe's!
Wear your "Life is Good" T-shirt.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Clipping off loose threads...

A little moral drama, an impasse, a Sophie's or Hobson's Choice: yesterday I ended the life of a seedling hickory tree growing up with the lilac just behind our house. It was most likely the scion of the old hickory about two blocks away, cut down due to disease this Spring. Was this its only viable offspring, the last of its line? It had grown lushly for about three years, but you can't have a potentially huge hardwood tree two feet from the foundation (so it was him or us). I would not have mourned a weed tree, but a hickory seems almost a native aristocrat. That same day I saw a tulip poplar seedling out front poking through the pachysandra, this time a foot from the garage foundation. Am I being tested?

Random thoughts + Internet access + Wikipedia = instant gratification/huge time suck.

I've been coming up with stand-alone verses (possibly planted in my head by some playful Muse) for decades now. I work on them a little until they sound good, with a clearly enigmatic meaning, but never expand them into a poem or song. Like clouds floating by, they have a shape and existence for a while, but no future.

What recession? The roads and parking lots are jammed, places are crowded, and some stores and restaurants bustle just like in boom times. Maybe under the surface it's like India, with more and more people swirling about, but the wealth is just sucked upward with increasing intensity.

Brother Ron says when I get out to California next week, expect to see the orange trees and apple tree full of fruit, the tomatoes producing a cornucopia, and the flowers putting on a lavish Fashion Week. One large homestead near the creek, I remember, has the entire front 1/2 acre in citrus trees, roses, and even artichokes -- nothing like that around here. I am saddened, though, to see the orange, grapefruit and lemon trees left unharvested, piles of fruit just so much trash under the limbs to eventually clean up. Could anyone be bored with paradise?

Starting to re-read James T. Farrell's classic Studs Lonigan trilogy. Has any student or critic noticed the similarity between the title character and Rabbit in Updike's series? Updike was an acute outside observer, whereas Farrell used his own life and experiences extensively, so the point of view is different, but the theme of spiritual poverty in the under-, working, and lower middle classes rings as true today as ever.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Thoughtful Reader

If you're in bad shape for any reason, or beat up by work, or don't think you are where you should be even by a little bit, you may conclude as one writer did that "books are better than life." Books, food, nature, love, friendship and music do indeed add immeasurable value. It's a shame that many find palliation in addictive behavior and television (redundancy alert...), because all the above help you grow spiritually and may open doors to solutions for those hard to get around underlying problems.
I remember trying really hard to find alternative books and media as a youth (looking for answers to the question, "Is this all there is??") -- it seemed that either things were not available outside urban or educational centers, or we just didn't know anyone interesting who knew where those things were. Charlie Slay's bookstore on Grace Street was my eye-opening source: the Beat authors resided there (and only there), as well as New Directions paperbacks.
I wish I had gotten to know him; but wherever you are now, Charlie: thanks. My belief that there was a bigger life out there was not only confirmed, but led to a lifelong search and journey that has paid off along the way and is still doing so.
With good bookstores and libraries everywhere and, of course, the Internet, we peasants can feast at the king's literary banquet these days, and I like that just fine. I read The Economist at one library, and Rolling Stone at another (the selections are really bad, but just one right-on publication is treat enough). Today I posted, to share, two articles from the NY pages on Facebook, one on the sordid history of Goldman-Sachs' pump-and-dump short-selling frauds/economic bubble machine, the other a musing on the meaning of life as evidenced by two monkeys (really). Read the whole article by Matt Taibbi on Sachs at -- if you have a strong stomach.
I'm not so sure about formal education (but hever have been). I took a semester of economics at VCU, which just consisted of the definition of basic, accepted, terms. I had thought at the time that everyone needs to be conversant with economics, as we are all helplessly tossed up on shore by those tides and then swept away if we aren't aware of the tide charts (overworked metaphor alert) ... but I've found that extensive informal education (reading, comparing, judging) has done the job so much better. Paul Krugman and Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone are excellent teachers, and oh so cost-effective compared to college classes.
Reading junk does you no more good than eating or buying junk. Most of the circulation of public libraries (and I speak from experience, my last little part-time job being at the second-busiest library in Pennsylvania) is mysteries and romances. I remember one day I whispered to one customer, "you're the only person today to check out a book worth reading." He smiled and nodded. Good thing that wasn't my career; you have to be more careful when your livelihood is at stake. The quality of the collection reflects the McDonald's-level culture of the clientele: 143 volumes of Danielle Steele, but only one of Kerouac or Durrell. Seven biographies of Dubya and his wife in the children's section, none of William Penn. There is a saving grace, though: with interlibrary loan or or, you can find anything you want -- a far cry from 1965. It's a feast out there, and most poor bastards are starving!

Monday, July 13, 2009


Reconnecting with old friends through Facebook and instant e-mail has been re-invigorating. Like buildings with character, they are essentially the same yet wear many years of growth, change and experience, and wear it well. I look forward to maybe meeting and getting to know some of those many friends- and relatives-of-friends, because quality people are surrounded by, and then in the cycle of life succeeded by, others cut from good and lasting material.
It's unusual, but strangely true, that other than the three pranksters (Cliff, Joel, and Art) and the guys in the Mourning Disaster, I can hardly remember anyone by name or appearance from college years. I was just at work all the time I wasn't in class. I do remember spending good, low-rent, quality time in the joints on Grace Street, but with whom other than the seven samurai just mentioned? I remember five teachers, four of them fondly. There must have been a lot more...
After so many decades, I do think of high school friends and acquaintances and remember them well while wondering what ever became of them -- I doubt I'll ever find out.
The last I heard of John Charles Harris, he was leaping a backyard fence fleeing the law for draft evasion. He had one of those iconic gold-and-cream Triumph Bonnevilles, and his motto was cherchez la femme. They liked him too. Bob Freeman and I listened intently to music from each other's records, but when he went away to college we lost touch quickly. He had been born in Rome and had written a novel in high school, and had escaped from his first college to live in Aix-en-Provence in southern France, before a motorbike accident and a broken collarbone sent him back home. He knew all about The Lord of the Rings before anyone else, having a set from England. An adventurous pirate intellectual.
Mike Boyes was a sci-fi fan, a little strange, but had the nerve to name his band The Penetrators to scandalize everyone, but relented once and called them The Lamplighters to play at the school. I hope he didn't end up in a comic book store. Jeff Old was appropriately named, since he was tiny and old-looking (probably some medical condition undiagnosed at the time), but never lost his cheery demeanor regardless of the teasing from those born lucky. He was great to be around.
There's at least one class clown, right? Bill Ragland was the funniest person I've ever met. He could crack you up with just a look, and ALWAYS had a new joke. What a hoot it would be to find him again, although I'd probably break a rib laughing.
Bunny Gill was small and round, a load of fun, and had a mother who was into the psychic Edgar Cauce and his A.R.E. foundation in Virginia Beach. Their home was swallowed up in plants and cats, and everyone was welcome.
Bonnie Allen was a beautiful folk singer with auburn hair. She was one of those individuals who was so intelligent and wise you know they did well. Grayson Farner -- yes, that was his name -- lived in a beautiful house on Patterson Avenue and he and I were surely the most fervent Rolling Stones fan club in Richmond. He had an outside entrance to his upstairs room, a mysterious and stunning girlfriend named Frances Shifflett, and his parents gave him a series of astonishingly cool cars: a Triumph Herald convertible with a red top, a Jaguar XK140, then a Jaguar Mark IX, which was a limousine shaped like a giant bumblebee with foldown walnut picnic trays in the seats and purple dashboard lights. I heard both he and his mother, quite a cool lady in her own right, left for Canada to avoid the draft, but never heard another word. You'd think with a name like that, he'd be easy to look up, but no luck there.
Our own Holden Caulfield was John Brooks, whose divorced father was prosperous but older than the rest of ours. He had been in a private school in North Carolina, but was sent packing home after he and a friend were interrupted emptying out the contents of a beer delivery truck. He dressed like a New York preppie (who else had an overcoat?), and was the jaded sophisticate among us suburban rubes. He knew all about musicians in New York and San Francisco we'd never heard of. Oh -- and he had a gray 1963 MGB roadster. He drove me around on a cold Christmas day once with the top down. The sort of thing Holden would surely have done.
Time and fate may have taken a few of these people, but these ghosts remain forever young in memory.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What If?

What If? is the name of a really good restaurant in Hershey, and I urge you to try it, but I've got something else in mind.
Every once in a while, somebody writes a novel positing a different turn that could have been taken by history; say, if Stonewall Jackson had lived and been at Gettysburg. That leads me to an even bigger "W. I.?": had the nation let the South go instead of fighting the Civil War, what might the good and bad results have been ? The income of the federal government before the fateful date in 1861 was largely from excise duties and customs fees collected in the busy Southern ports (so you can glimpse the real reason for red-hot regional issues), and Northern businessmen didn't want to be taxed to make up for that loss. Corporate America got its initial big boost from the war effort, and would possibly not have catapulted into frantic boom-and-bust expansion without it. Whether the share-cropping underclass existence of the eventually freed slaves would have come about under a Confederate nation much later in the 19th century is unknown, but seems likely. Same result with less destruction and rancor.
Given the equally aggressive spirit of the Scots-Irish working class and the Cavalier landowning upper class of a hypothetical Confederate nation, a troublemaking foreign policy toward Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean would probably have been pursued (maybe short of European intervention, but hotheads could have pushed it to that). Would cooperation between the U.S. and C.S.A. during the Spanish-American war have led to alliances in World Wars I & II (like the Commonwealth coming to the aid of the United Kingdom)? That seems likely, and might have led to an amicable co-existence in the 20th century.
Another choice to go to war comes to mind: what would have been different if we had not gotten involved in Vietnam? Well, nothing, probably. I'm sure Thailand would have fiercely resisted any Vietnamese penetration beyond the old French Indochina (with allied help), since they had never been under European colonization and had an entirely different mindset than the Vietnamese, who demonstrated their own limits by pushing into Cambodia and battling China briefly. They were wise enough to back away from both, and return to misgoverning their own domain.
What if mankind were all like the Japanese, and didn't like the taste of sweets? Sugar, like spices, gradually spread downward and outward through populations from a desired item affordable only to the elite, from its introduction to Europe around 1100 A.D., to all of the mass market (1900). Slavery, first of the natives then of Africans in the New World, might not have been so successful and long-lasting if sugar cane had not been cultivated. At the end of the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War), King Louis was happy enough to give up Canada ("a few acres of snow," in his opinion) in order to get back Gaudeloupe from the British -- the gold mine of sugar plantations. We forget that French support for the American Revolution, and its naval expedition that secured the American victory, was in a large part based on their strategy concerning the Caribbean sugar islands. Sugar was as central to capital in Britain, France and the Netherlands in the three and a half centuries following Columbus as industry is now (Canada just cost old Louis a lot of money, and its fur trade was declining from dwindling supply and fierce competition from the Hudson's Bay Company, anyway).
Which brings up a related idea: what if we hadn't had a revolution, but had evolved to independence gradually like Canada and Australia? We'd still have been dragged into the world wars, but would otherwise have been at peace and would have health care for everybody, and the Queen is a pretty good old gal.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What The ---?

"Maybe I'm amazed," Paul sang. I'm just dumbfounded.
While the summer weather has been more like a delightful Spring lately, with cottony clouds, breezes, more sun balancing out the rain of past weeks, you'd THINK folks would be outdoors a little, open up a few windows, and turn off the endlessly rasping air conditioners. After 17 years here, we're still the only ones who eat outdoors on the deck, or even use it more than once a year.
When it's in the low 70s, the air conditioners all around never stop. Ours is still the rusty original, because we use it WHEN IT'S REALLY NEEDED and only then. After electric rate caps expire at the end of this year and rates go up at least 33%, will people just scream about the price and feel all oppressed? You bet. Lots easier than trying to improve your wasteful behavior.
I was stopped dead by the real estate section in today's (Sunday) paper. The featured home in a new subdivision which has already sold 29 of the 39 lots has a 900 square foot master suite! A single person (or an economical couple) could live in a place that size well enough (and do, all over the world). The price range in "Pinehurst Hills" goes from $800,000 to $3 million. WHAT? Multiply that by insurance, maintenance, taxes and improvements...the word obscene doesn't even cover it.
As Kingfish said, "I's regusted!"

Friday, June 26, 2009

Splitting the Arrow

Remember the Robin Hood stories where he fires away and splits the arrow already in the center of the target? If there's a word in German for hitting the exact center of something, clearly and unequivocably, I'd like the know it and use it here. There are billions of words in the media and online, a lot of them mildly interesting, amusing, or somewhat informative -- but whether we have too much or too little information, the essential reasons for and causes of events are often lost to overload, censorship or are just not visible. We fasten on soundbites, the extreme and sensational, and that constitutes our reality. And this culture of misdirected ignorance keeps leading us to disaster. How can we make any good choices when most of what we know is wrong, unimportant, or just noise?
Starting with the local, two examples: the new hotel a few blocks away closed a few weeks after opening, is still just sitting there, and not a word in the local paper. Twenty pages of high school news and sports, though. I and a co-worker were interviewed and photographed for a story on the expansion of the science museum in the 90s. Half of what I said was misquoted, the photo showed nothing, and nothing interesting made it into the story. Okay, another old example: when I lived on Hanover Avenue, a serial killer/mutilator was working in the neighborhood (I got some details from a cop who lived two doors away). Nothing, ever, in the paper about it. That was actually news we could have used!
Rus made a stellar point in his RTD forum, Unceremoniously Dispatched: journalism school does not emphasize writing -- the reporting should be accurate and thorough, but it needs to be interesting. NOT crudely titillating, but with telling details, color and meaning. And if newspapers and other media "don't tell us what we really want to know," -- and that is so true -- I'd say the majority of the readership or listenership doesn't even want to know what they should know; they just chase sensation.
Every day in our paper and on the air, people quote the iconic Reagan line (written by a speechwriter, but always credited to the amiable moron), "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" as the defining moment of the fall of the Soviet empire. This, media world, is not what happened at all. Today columnist Thomas Friedman pointed out what everyone seemingly has never known, much less forgotten: the body blow which felled the Soviets dates to September 1985, when Sheikh Yamani, oil minister of Saudi Arabia (pictured above), boldly decided to stop protecting oil prices so when that nation boosted its production fourfold, it would again dominate the market with a lot of product as prices went into a freefall. While it made billions on high oil income in the 70s, the Soviet Union wasted the funds on continuing the creaky status quo and engaging in military adventure in Afghanistan (which history teaches no one should ever attempt). Oh -- does this sound familiar (no reform under the Republican Congress and then trillion-dollar foreign adventures under Bush/Cheney)?? The essential center of the economic/political story since 1970 (when domestic oil production peaked and the balance of power shifted to Eurasia) has been OIL PRICES. Which direction trillions of dollars goes for energy supplies is THE news story, not Michael Jackson's or Newt Gingrich's mental problems. Whether lobbyists successfully disable thorough banking, energy and health reform, or we soon start recharging our electric cars almost for free from our home solar panels or wind turbines is the next big story.
Will anyone write it? Will anyone care enough to read it?