Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Diddley Bow, Don't Ya Know?

You know that thing where you see a, to you, unknown actor/actress on TV or in a movie then you start seeing him/her everywhere? Like Jane Lynch on Glee and 2 1/2 Men -- she's been around quite a while, but before her perfect turn as a wisecracking therapist on Men I'd never noticed. There are webs running through time which escape our notice; James Burke in his wonderful book Connections made many of us aware of this phenomenon.
In the documentary It Might Get Loud, about Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge, the irrepressible Mr. White runs a steel string over two Coke bottles at either end of a board, tightens the string and mounts a pickup which he plugs in.
He then plays a fast, screaming swamp blues on the thing.
Recently I heard about the diddley bow, a similar nonelectrified folk instrument. I assume Bo Diddley took his stage name from this part of his heritage, being old enough to have seen them used in the backcountry South. One last piece of this web: was the cigar-box shape of ol' Bo's guitar also from this tradition and not just a gimmick?
Once you're on a web, you can just keep going: I met one Wes Carl who gave me a card announcing the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival, to be held in York at the end of the month, featuring local proponents and guest musicians from several other states. Wouldn't you know there are many practicioners of this home-made art, and you can either make or get such a guitar (three strings or more) or even a diddley bow. Who knew, that in 2010, that such things from long ago and far away would surface in your own neighborhood?
Folk artist Willard J. of Coca, FL ( sings and plays a mean bow that he made, on his website. It's well worth a listen.
Willard J. has been around the block a few times, even to the extent of being on a chain gang, so his song rings authentic. He also advises, "Don't fall down; the hogs will eat you."
In this long, hot summer, some watermelon and swamp blues, and keeping a wary eye on the hogs, seem like just the thing.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Forward, Stop Light, Turn, Forward...Are We There Yet?

A long airplane trip is just like a local car trip is just like the progress of your life through time. You're moving along from point to point, get slowed down or stopped, lose momentum, redirect your efforts (or are redirected by larger forces), get what you want or need, or just get old (as Billy Joel noted). The soundtrack changes from propelling rhythm to scratches and noise, to commercials, and then sometimes a lovely Nick Drake tune kind of day.
Time to get serious and organized, time to detach and chill, time to get and time to give. The Hindus say there are four periods of life, each with its own challenges, pains and rewards: infancy (learn the basics), youth (direct your energies to advance skills), adulthood (family responsibilities, centering yourself), seniority (sum it up, give back, settle your mind on letting go).
Our type, or level, of consciousness is a gift and a heavy burden. Cats don't write or read history, perform music or question everything, but they are keenly aware, skilled and know exactly how to enjoy a nap in the sunny window.
Is there a word for doing something delightfully silly and useless, but doing it very well? Like a funny cartoon or joke, getting a hundred people to perform "Thriller," or making a sand sculpture like the one pictured...
On either our daily or cosmic trips, accomplishing what we set out to do is good, and taking a turn off the path to accomplish nothing except a moment of joy is good too.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Au Revoir

Winding down this year's adventure in the lotus land. Have to saddle up and ride into the... oh, yeah, sunrise -- heading toward the sunset would, after about a mile, put me in the ocean.
Ron and Claire will be back in a few days after an incredibly long flight from Australia. From what they say about the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and Coogee Bay, it was worth it. Seeing New Zealand and Australia is Nancy's big ambition: wonder if we'll ever get there?

Started off this serenely beautiful Saturday morning with a short trip to the Seymour Duncan office/plant, only a few miles away in a technology park (and a very park-like one) tucked between the hospital and acres of securely fenced-off nursery. He started out winding electric guitar pickups at the local Jensen's Guitar shop, and like Leo Fender and Les Paul, there was no one who could stop this innovator. No one there, but I wanted to pay my respects.

Then on to one of the several ethnic festivals held in Oak Park each summer, this one a shout-out to all things French. Last year I went to the Greek/Balkan one, and someone told me the Caribbean event earlier in the summer is a great one, too (I can imagine!). One person dreamed up the French weekend 22 years ago and his project is going stronger than ever. The newspaper article this morning stated that the only other big French festival in the U.S. is in Milwaukee, of all places. The many Coast Live Oak trees shared their generous dappled shade while the very many food vendors shared their perfect-looking products with an obviously hungry crowd. My goal was to snag one of those irresistible crepes, but the line was a kilometre long. I settled for a napoleon at the booth next door; messy but quite fine. I then settled in by the little open air stage to see three quality musical acts that would be hard to find anywhere else but, say, at some hip college venue.
Mme. Fichot, a French-Chinese singer and accordionist, sang in French, Russian, Chinese and Spanish (!) clear as the proverbial mountain stream. A more mature but very energetic lady followed with Edith Piaf songs, and then an instrumental quartet lyrically toured through Django Reinhart, tango and gypsy numbers. The instrumentation was delightfully various: accordion, guitar, upright bass, clarinet/flute/sax, keyboard, violin and several handheld gourd-type percussion thingys.
Geez, now I have to add going to Australia, and gypsy jazz cafes in Paris, Budapest or Buenos Aires to the bucket list. So many places to wander, so much to wonder at.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name...

The bird we call "robin" is actually a thrush. It looked like the unrelated European robin so that's what it was named.

The Europeans also mistakenly named the bison "buffalo," after a similar animal, the wisent, which roamed the wild areas of eastern Europe (there are still a few left).

Hollywood was named after the abundant "holly" shrubs and trees found in the hills there. These have similar small white flowers, evergreen foliage, and red berries, but they are actually toyon and a member of the rose family.

Meg Ryan's real name is Margaret Hyra.

Using information like this to liven up conversation at a party will guarantee that you'll be left alone.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wrong End of the Telescope

A short and to-the-point article entitled "Greater Fools" in the July 5 New Yorker should be read by anyone in education, who has children in school, or who participates in the money economy. Yes, everyone.
I remember feeling a little queasy, that feeling that a scam and a pervasive threat is in the works, when Dubya was mouthing his handlers' "ownership society" theme. More home ownership would "give people more control over their financial lives." For a second you'd say, yes, few things develop responsibility, stability and spending on manufactured goods more than owning a home with a mortgage. But all little girls want to be princesses, and in the natural distribution there are only a certain number of openings for minor royalty. The maximum figure for home ownership in societies like the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom is no more than the mid-60% range. Aim higher than that, and you're mining people who won't be able to handle it, mentally or financially, and after deregulation (dereg = giving the fox unsupervised access to the henhouse) a pack of predators will be let loose to fleece the sheep and leave them to die of exposure. After the overinflated housing bubble inevitably burst, the conservative noise machine instantly blamed the Community Reinvestment Act, which was developed to help up those who were employed and stable but who lacked the lengthy and sterling credit history which allowed the more fortunate to sail into mortgages with favorable terms. In fact, the working class and nonwhite citizens who benefitted from the act have a few percentage points better record avoiding foreclosure than the white, middle-class mortgagees who didn't need it. You can figure out what the screaming critics' real beef was: helping anyone not exactly like you to become productive and rise from a lower stratum is un-American. The Marshall Plan and the GI Bill and Social Security were ripped up one side and down the other by conservative critics equally, but that was before think tank columnists and Fake News.
Study after study has shown that people think they are more financially savvy than they are, by a long shot. Many, for example, who thought they had fixed-rate mortgages actually had adjustable-rate ones. How could they miss that? "And the less people know, the more overconfident in their knowledge and abilities they tend to be." This has been identified as the Dunning-Kruger effect, that people who don't know much tend not to recognize their ignorance. How many people believe they are superior drivers (most, according to studies)? How many actually are (few, based on my own lifelong experience)? They then tend to come to erroneous conclusions, make poor decisions, and their ignorance "denies them the ability to realize their mistakes." The exploding financial industry is, however, keenly adept, knows the legal loopholes and can write legalese obfuscation in documents that, once signed, will wring their trusting and ill-informed victims dry. One of the most appallingly evil schemes they came up with was to target minority homeowners in older neighborhoods who had solid equity or complete ownership, selling them on refinancing which in short order sent them into deep debt and foreclosure. Nice.
Zach and I had a discussion a few weeks ago that had us agreeing that financial education must have a place in every level of schooling. Unlike calculus, what else other than English do you need grounding in to deal with life every day? In states where this is the case, it has a surprisingly great impact on savings rates. I remember taking an economics class at VCU, and mid way through, decided not to pursue it any further despite my intense interest; there was no real-world information, no relation to the individual, only the main contemporary terminology and theories, sketchily described. So it can be done badly, but that would do no harm while not doing it at all causes great harm. Would the financial industry lobby against money management education? Actually, they do, spinning a claim that it would make people overconfident (when the reverse is true). They would tell the businessmen on the local school board that it was socialism, un-American or some other scare-tactic B.S.
Without knowing the term "Dunning - Kruger Effect," I observed the same aspect of human nature again and again while working in the "redneck world" (my politically incorrect but accurate term). Most were willfully ignorant and based action and opinion solely on feeling and half-baked received opinion and yet were paradoxically (to me) brimming with confidence and overestimated their competence to a dangerous extreme. One person who had enough years in to know better was once trying to drill through an iron roof hatch with a large diameter masonry bit and got livid when I politely suggested using progressively larger diameters of steel twist bits (just try drilling a 5/8" hole through iron otherwise). Another dismissed my warning that there was nothing below us except inadequate 2x4 joists and drywall just before he fell through that ceiling, shearing loaded shelves off the walls on his way down.
You can only work around, not change, human nature; the vast majority will continue on as they always have. The bewildering complexity of life today will continue to be used against us very effectively by fast and clever predators (lulling us into complacency through their shills, pundits and propaganda); even if we did have education focused on realities it would be almost impossible to keep up. One of the lessons of history you will never hear in a school is that the oligarchy/aristocracy/established church top strata of society figured out long ago that the real money is to be made from fleecing the poor and powerless (your peers will assassinate you if you try it with them). Knowledge and perception is all you've got to defend yourself. Be careful out there.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Mysterious Gin Chow

The had me at the Taj.
To back up a bit: Scouring through the many local papers and broadsheets looking for cultural stimulation (it's too easy to shift to neutral here and just coast), I saw a thumbnail of an Impressionist painting that was just my type, so in reading the paragraph found out that a one-of-a-kind exhibition had just opened at the S.B. Historical Society Museum, of 30 works by one Colin Campbell Cooper (Triple C! -- good Google ID). I like late American Impressionism mucho, and the golden glow of the Taj Mahal, painted early in the 20th century, drew me in to make the journey to a quiet neighborhood in the city where the museum houses its treasures.
The sweet grandma at the desk said this exhibition will not travel and will not be duplicated since almost all of the works came from private owners. Labels near the paintings indicated many had not been exhibited for 90 to 100 years. Standing close and far back, the Taj portrait did not disappoint at all; it is good to see what it looked like to an artist who "saw beauty everywhere" and recorded its luminosity before its landscape became stripped down and tourist trampled. Reading on, I found out why the newspaper picture grabbed me: Mr. Cooper was schooled at the Philadelphia School of Art at the turn of the century under Thomas Eakins, like all my other favorites such as N.C. Wyeth.
Before settling in Santa Barbara in 1920, Cooper portrayed, besides India, Italy, Nantucket, and his most popular series, New York skyscrapers. Here he captured scenes lost to the 1925 earthquake, time or demolition, but set in place a vision and style pursued by dozens of South Coast artists today.
The permanent exhibition hall follows local history and culture in a chronological scheme, from Chumash natives to Dr. Sansum, pioneer in diabetes treatment. The Spanish and Western saddles and the Mexican charro costume were delightful to see in actuality instead of pictures. Portraits of worthies whose names are now given to streets accompany cases of their luxury possessions. The other ethnic groups each have their turn: Italians, crazy Americans, Japanese and Chinese. Oddly, no Chinatown or Japantown remains, like in other cities. Gin Chow, an immigrant from the Chinese Empire, found some success like so many others due to the produce of his land, but would not merit a place but for his prophetic talents. His weather predictions were considered better than the government's weather service, and were broadcast locally on radio and even in print on the east coast. Three startling predictions formed his legend: that of the disastrous 1923 Yokohama earthquake, the local 1925 earthquake, and his own death (1933) one year in advance. Well, I had to check this out, knowing full well that if you have 30 exhibit labels to write, you will hit the easiest sources and spend more time on editing than research. Despite being enshrined in the permanent exhibition, it seems the only verifiable source for the earthquake augury was Mr. Chow's own published 1932 almanac, which he wrote to help save his farm from bankruptcy (you can't blame him too much for fictionalizing -- it was desperate times for farmers and most everyone else). A story like this, repeated over time, is often accepted as true since it is, indeed, a good story. I'd tend to believe his foreseeing his own demise because that has happened to uncounted people.
After my visit to the museum, it seemed that except for the American gold rush invasion and a few nasty banditos who ranged around after Mexico's authority was overthrown in 1846, the people of the Central Coast were a diligent and well-behaved bunch who loved their culture(s) and their nurturing land. And if a few rascals like Gin Chow showed up from time to time, well, it just adds to the color.

(just remembered: they have the oldest known C.F. Martin guitar on display. I remember reading on the Martin or a fan site that a couple purchased it while on honeymoon in New York City, and that's exactly what the label said. This is for you, Art!)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Swingin' Under the Palms

There are a half-dozen free publications in the S.B. area that list all the goings-on, and there are more such events than you can digest -- every subculture, taste, art and diversion (and some perversion, like naked yoga). If you're tied to a work schedule with a commute involved (so many people here work out of home or coffee shops, but someone has to haul the coal), I'd guess you would only look through these once in a while, rarely jogging outside your routine. We're free birds this month, and having noticed a free series of evening concerts at a seaside park that started last week, duly made note on the calendar and headed there last night, after a blissful hour at California Pizza Kitchen. Chase Palm Park has a lovely lagoon, is across the highway from the Pacific, is indeed ringed by palm trees, and somehow has golf course-quality grass. The solid stage has a curved backwall to handle the sound and a rising hill in front of it so all the viewing/listening spots are good.
The group was called Blame Sally, three lady troubadors from San Fran, with a bassist in back. All sang on their original numbers, playing keys/accordian, guitar, and percussion. I have no idea what kind of drum she spanked and sticked, but it was so much more appropriate to the music than a standard kit.
You have to bring jackets and blankets to outdoor events here on a summer evening, as the chill ocean breezes make it seem more like late October than July (we learned this the hard way). That is a small price to pay for the good part, which is: no bugs! You know how mosquitoes and other flying demons make evenings outdoors a dodgy experience in the other, humid areas of the country -- the lack of such irritation coupled with the near certainty of no rain makes for a vibrant fresh-air culture.
The demographics are fascinating to observe at events also. Dance has deep roots here, for a couple of reasons. The daughters of a large moneyed, educated elite are schooled in all types -- ballet, jazz and Spanish. Schools and clubs practice all year for the flamenco and tango performances during the Fiesta in August (originally called Old Spanish Days when begun in the 20s). Many show business people also have dance and music in their backgrounds, and the families seem to cherish these arts for their own sake as much as for their career value. The Mexican and Spanish traditions (and there are many distinct ones) are alive in both the Anglo and Hispanic communities. It seems that once in a while we really can all get along.
Last night a large area was filled with dancers from the first number on; I assume it's that way at each of these park concerts. Some were doing the Grateful Dead twirling, some elegant ballet, some just gettin' down with great enthusiasm, showing off the amazing physical prowess of the lifelong Californian fitness devotee. I imagine there were a lot a musicians in the crowd every bit as good as the performers on stage, and many songwriters too.
On the opposite side, a half-dozen jugglers were flipping their colorful clubs quite well (no one got bonked). People brought their dogs, well-behaved big breeds mostly on leash; next to us was a Spanish Water Dog (never heard of or saw one of those before) quite intent on catching his floppy fabric frisbee.
The only drawback to experiencing all this wonderful art is the traffic (150,000 people hemmed in between mountain and coast makes it rather dense) and the city's counterproductive parking restrictions. We enjoyed the long walk back to what must have been the last free space for miles (judging from how long it took to find), so that worked out too. A stop at Yogurtland on busy nighttime State Street put a tasty cap on the evening.
Next week at the park, there's a local favorite oldies band, and it's on the calendar already. Can't wait to see the dancing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

How Did We End Up In Bedrock?

After two days of overcast coolness, the sun popped up at 6:30 this morning. I'm not usually up at that hour, but Hobbes the cat starts meowing for his breakfast a 4 a.m., and I finally have to deliver it to him at dawn. What in the world makes him think of eating at 4, I have no idea.
This turn of meterological events was to be desired, because today's agenda featured a trip to the most wonderful beach at Carpenteria, one of the few which doesn't have a pay parking lot, and is so clean that Atlantic City should hang its head in shame. First we stopped at The Daily Grind on Mission St. in Santa Barbara for a cool drink and a giant zucchini muffin. Supposedly a hangout for celebrities, we have never seen anyone even a little out of the ordinary there. The place is always busy, everything is delicious, and it still, after years of visiting it, is in dire need of a pressure washer. Even George Clinton would say it's got the funk.
The beach was almost empty the last time we were here, but not today. Despite the heavy crowd, there was no litter or dumb behavior. There is, in fact, nothing not to like about Carpenteria at all. Nancy visited the Twice As Nice consignment shop, located in a sprawling Victorian house. You can imagine the quality and style of the clothing consigned by millionairesses -- there was a $12,000 purse (for $400)! Nancy said it was pretty ugly.
Then, up California Route 150 through the hills and mountains to the isolated town of Ojai. The backcountry of Carpenteria is agriculture-intensive; this is where the Hass avocado was developed, and you can see more avocado trees here than anywhere. Strangely, they end abruptly at the county line as you cross into Ventura County. Don't know why.
Ojai is about the size of New Cumberland but decidedly more upscale. Like Sedona, Arizona, it has mostly clothing boutiques and art emporia; two well-appointed gas stations and a dry cleaners were the only "normal" businesses there. I'm guessing that, in addition to the tourist trade, it's a retreat for wealthy Angelenos and landed squires.
Since route 192 is the only other road, it wasn't hard to find our way back to the 101 freeway and zip back to Santa Babs. Our final destination was Woody's Barbeque, located in a green and leafy compact shopping center, but looking both inside and out like it should be in a dusty Texas town (or on a touristy street in Austin). The clientele were distinctly non-Barbareno: quite overweight and clearly intending to stay for hours with their glistening pitchers of brew, discussing car parts in great detail. We had noticed some intriguing items on the menu the previous day, mainly, the rack of bison ribs. After thinking about it all day, I just had to go for it. We cracked up when we saw the plate -- it looked just like the tray of Brontosaurus ribs that Fred Flintstone always got at the Bedrock drive-in. So, a large chunk of dinosaur, a quart of Woody's Amber Ale, some taters and a little coleslaw later, I really felt like wearing a sabretooth tiger fur onesie.
And the day ends with Hobbes the cat, as it began: we have to give him his twice-weekly I.V. fluids with a needle that would make your eyes widen significantly if it were aiming at you. He's 19 years old (93 in human years) and it's a miracle his kidneys work at all, so we're glad to help him along. Come to think of it, he looks a little like a sabertooth tiger...