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!"