Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Starry Nights

O What a Night
"Jelly" Leftwich and his Blue Devils at Duke University
Looks like a Pizzini Poster & Printing Co. product
Psychedelic show at old Tantilla
Starlight Ballroom, Hershey
During their heyday from the Jazz Era after World War I to the late 1960s, magic was made in the great ballrooms across the country.  "The South's Greatest Ballroom" -- not an exaggeration -- was the Tantilla Gardens at 3817 West Broad Street, Richmond, where up to 750 couples could dance from 1933 to 1969.  All the greats played there: Duke Ellington, the Dorseys, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson; Cliff's parents did too, as elegant and professional as any of those nationally known.  Their perfect poster above (no date, unfortunately) is actually available for sale by the state library's The Virginia Shop, 808 E. Broad St. today.  Bandleader George E. "Jelly" Leftwich Jr. had written the Duke University fight song, still used today; his singer and future wife went by the name Kay Keever (actual name:  MacIver) and he had used a stage name himself earlier (Lee Dixon).
The big bands' days were numbered due to the gas rationing and conscription of World War II.  Local bands did, however, get booked more frequently because of this.
Boy met girl at the ballrooms, each one dressed to impress, with lots of red lipstick and new haircuts.  Smooching on the Tantilla's unlit balcony probably led to more than a few marriages.  One source states that the ceiling opened up for relief on hot nights; if so, music, stars above and a brown bag nearby provided all the inspiration that frisky young folks might need.
In its last decade the Tantilla featured beach music, soul acts (The Tams tore it up), battle of the band contests and Beatles-inspired quartets.  The local Bill Graham, Chuck Wrenn, produced and provided the light show for the first psychedelic concert dance in August of 1967; the Actual Mushroom played its one and only gig that night.  (Some creative spelling on the poster:  "preformed" and "electricly.")  A Richmond musician said, "it could have been our Fillmore," but with $400,000 worth of renovations needed, the Tantilla had to close in 1969.  Virginia had approved liquor by the drink a year before, which might have helped if the new mixed-drink license had not required that food sales exceed alcohol sales.
Two hundred fifty miles north, the Starlight Ballroom in Hershey had a very similar history.  The dance pavilion was opened in 1923 and considerably remodeled in 1957, bouncing back after closing during a few of the WWII years.  All the same national acts appeared there for dances on Wednesday and Saturday nights; Duke Ellington for one evening in July 1965 just before it closed forever.  It was demolished in 1977, but many local couples keep it in their memories of when they were young.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Key

If you like a living author, it's a treat to find his/her latest work by accident or because of a recent review.  They can only produce so many (excepting the word factories like Patterson or Roberts -- yeech), so it's also serendipity when someone recommends one of their favorites and widens your scope, as Claire was so kind to do a few years ago when she said I'd like T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain.  I sure did, and found something else I like:  authors who use real people, places and events in thin disguise (known as roman a clef, that is, a novel with a key).   If you do not know a place well, the story and a map will expand your knowledge, and if you do, it's innocent fun to picture the exact place where the action occurs.
In Talk Talk, Mr. Boyle called the Santa Barbara, California setting San Marcos (actually a neighborhood east of downtown) and I enjoyed trying to develop my "key" to figure out the other names.
The author lives in a 1910 Frank Lloyd Wright house in Montecito, adjacent to Santa Barbara, and couldn't resist the pull to leave the local scene for once to novelize Wright's notorious (not-so-) private life in The Women.  All person and place names were actual, and I learned a great deal about the first Taliesin in Wisconsin.  If it had been done in roman a clef mode, I'd have been busy for a week tracking down who and what was actually what.
In his latest, When the Killing's Done, Boyle also goes full factual, and there was no research needed; I added my own motion picture to the script as I read along, proud to say I knew every location due to extensive perambulations in the area.  And the unavoidable seasickness during the choppy trip across the channel to Santa Cruz Island -- first hand experience there also.  (A hidden gem -- he has Tim the biologist wear his own favorite red Converse sneakers.)
Earl Hamner called Schulyer, Virginia, Walton's Mountain, and the University of Richmond, Boatwright University -- locals know Boatwright is the name of the treed, winding lane leading into the U. of R.  No one took any offense to his use of real people and places, because of affectionate and nostalgic treatment.  Other authors who are more frank don't exactly thrill the locals when they appear in print as they are, rather than how they would like to be remembered.  It took a number of years before John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas forgave him for portraying the misbehavior of the paisanos in Tortilla Flat and the ranch owners in particular did not approve of any positive view of the strikers in In Dubious Battle.  He did a good deed, though, by turning the real Ed Ricketts, who died far too young, into Doc in Cannery Row.  Ed would have been forgotten otherwise, and that would have been a sad thing.
Respectable society right here in Harrisburg got a skewering in John O' Hara's 1949 A Rage To Live.  Avoiding libel (a main reason for the clef treatment), he renamed everything and everyone (the city became Fort Penn), but the locals knew exactly who he meant.  They say Harrisburg is just Altoona with the Capitol in the middle of it, but there was and is a sufficiently large cast of political, professional and business socialites and heirs to populate a big story of misdeeds; why O'Hara set another, Ourselves to Know, in the hamlet of Lykens (he called it Lyons), is a head-scratcher.  I've been through there a few times, and it makes Mineral, Virginia, look like an exciting metropolis.
Who employed living people and geography more extensively than Jack Kerouac?  City Lights Bookstore has fortunately published three editions of the Beat Atlas, one each for New York and San Francisco and one state by state, biographical dictionaries which provide information about those in or related to the Beat movement.  With these resources and the Internet available, people and places who appeared under different names in various of Kerouac's books can be identified.  LuAnne Henderson, Neal Cassady's teenage first wife (called Mary Lou in On the Road), if still alive at 81 will probably be sought out when the movie version is released soon, with popular (miscast, for sure) Kristen Stewart portraying her.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I did not realize so many characters in Aldous Huxley's novels were based on luminaries in his circle such as D.H. Lawrence.  So, down to the basement to find those old dusty volumes, and then get to working on the "key."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Send In The Clowns

For our 201st posting, we're a little embarrassed to squander electronic ink on the the clowns running around in the Republican circus tent, but it's a perfect storm this Monday -- I can't resist.
Salon just named everyone's favorite old weasel, George Will, to this year's list of the 30 biggest pundit hacks.  That would have been enough amusement in itself, but today Will was aghast in his column  (as always, gratuitously wordy self-pleasure) at Newt Gingrich  for bashing capitalism!  Now, other fellow conservatives pretty much consider Newt to be the current Joe Isuzu, but when he criticized Mitt Romney for making his $300 million by bankrupting corporations and laying people off, Will went on the warpath. 
Romney had previously faulted anti-government Newt for charging $30,000 an hour to "advise" the unloved semi-government agency Freddie Mac (collecting $1.6 million total), prompting Newtie's return jibe at Mitt's equally ill-gotten gains.  Will maintains, in high dudgeon, that "firms like Bain Capital are indispensible for wealth creation...and we should welcome such animal spirits (as shown in the photo above of Mitt's early days at Bain) and hope for political leadership that will hasten the day when American conditions are again receptive to them."
Now, when did the day pass when the richest just manipulate money, debt and Wall Street jitters instead of actually do work and produce something of value?  And why is the end stage of capitalism, absurd globalized financialization, touted as the desirable sort -- instead of a civilized system which isn't just a mindless race to the bottom?
If he's lost George's affections, at least Newt has the endorsement of former Congressman Grandy (Gopher of Love Boat fame), who is also an idea man:  he claims the OWS movement is an Islamic plot against the United States.  It just keeps getting funnier.
Seriously, though, PLEASE nominate Newt for president this August in Tampa, GOPers!  The world loves a clown.


Thursday, December 15, 2011


Love what you do
Participating farms in the lower 48
The blogosphere is humming with questions stirred up by the OWS movement and the Arab Spring -- the Millenials are looking for a way out of a confusing mess, just like we were when our mess was the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle.
They must feel like they're lost in the woods, full of animal and insect chatter that tells them nothing, and facing a multitude of choices in trails with no idea which ones go anywhere good, or just nowhere.
If one of us were standing there, we'd have to tell the young person that we really had it better, with our productive years ahead supported by great supplies of energy in the industrial world and entire new technical fields opening up, and without the horrifying prospect of 7 billion hungry competitors.  Whether we chose to fly up the ladder of conventional success and collect the prizes of money and possessions beyond any previous generations' hopes, or skim along doing our own thing and still enjoy a pretty good quality of life, we had viable alternatives.
In so many ways, I don't think they do.
They probably have a deep feeling that they're gripped in a vise:  the contracting economy will never provide opportunities for a good living as the population expands, and there's the reality of those huge student loans coming due.  We could scrape by, starting out, because rent was $100 a month and few of us, except those entering lucrative professional careers, owed anything.
Kids, that may be your answer.  What was old is new again.
In the coming decade, less and more expensive energy supplies will put constraints on exporting and importing foodstuffs all over the world.  Local production of food and fuel is creating livelihoods already that corporate monoculture based on revolving bank credit, migrant non-citizen labor and long-distance shipping had seemingly eliminated.
If it's felonious to suggest ignoring that student debt as a deal gone bad, then I guess I can't...
But say you're starting out at zero, with no obligations and few possessions (and that's a good thing) and have a little cash scraped up from overtime at Starbucks or from family -- there is an opportunity to go off the radar, learn valuable new skills and be ready to grow in a new simpler economy instead of suffering from the train wreck of the old one.
A nonprofit called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) pairs up volunteers (you) and one of 1300 participating agricultural enterprises all over, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (see map above).  There are even several near here, at Duncannon, Gettysburg, Columbia and Pine Grove, and one can learn about animal husbandry, crops, wine or honey production.  The deal is simple:  you work for 1/2 day for six days a week, and the host provides food and accomodation (although some of that is just your tent), but most importantly, skills you don't have to buy your own property to learn.  There's even one in Claremont, CA, that's just a half acre!  I've followed the popular blog from a well-known family which has supported all its members well for years on just such a plot (also in the mild CA climate), so right there is an opportunity to learn how they do it (except they bought the home long ago at a tiny fraction of today's cost).  A woman runs a CSA farm on the Oregon coast and had 50 WWOOF volunteers this summer -- it seems a real financial and social benefit for all (be sure to find her website at revolutiongardens.com with an extensive photo record of this past summer).  But it's just a change, a beginning; people will have to figure out how to use the connections made and skills acquired to develop the specifics of where and how they will make a living.
They might have to forget the formula education=good job=large home and cars.  But education is, I think, about learning how to learn, and that will prove useful from day one.  Tomorrow's engineer may be making biofuel systems with two partners, instead of working for Shell Oil in an office complex, but he or she may be pleased with their place in the world.

Monday, December 12, 2011

If It Looks Like a Hornet Nest, Don't Poke It

Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan

With computers, it may be that WYSIWYG, but geopolitics is better characterized as being smacked on the back of the head by one unintended consequence after another.
Westerners from exploring nations had found little welcome in Japan before the historic pivot point in 1854, when American Commodore Matthew C. Perry strong-armed the Tokugawa Shogunate into signing an agreement to open their country to trade.  For centuries, feudal Japan had been inward-looking, agrarian and self-sufficient.  Previous approaches by the United States in 1837, 1846 and 1849 were rebuffed, but Congress decided on a show of force; the Japanese realized upon the fleet's arrival that the fortress in Tokyo Bay (and some wooden cannon) were inadequate to put up effective resistance.
The changes that followed were unpredictably, unbelievably, swift and thorough.  The domains of 300 daimyo (local lords) were first consolidated into a unified nation under a restored figurehead emperor, then industrialized and militarized by an energetically efficient oligarchy.  In a half-century, Japan leapt up from its dreamy isolation to become the powerhouse which bloodied the nose of both the Chinese and the Russian empires.  Full of hubris like Perry, they, in turn, poked back at the ones who started all this, in 1941.
Do we learn not to throw rocks at the junkyard dog, knock the bee nest down, or put our tongue on the frozen flagpole? 
No, we do it again, like Nixon did "opening" China in 1972.  There were reasons of the moment, as commerce had been with Japan:  putting the USSR off balance, helping to extricate the United States from Vietnam, and potential "markets."  China got full diplomatic recognition in 1979 and Most Favored Nation trade status later.  That and NAFTA will cost us more than the awakening of Japan ever did.
China wants, and will have, the natural gas in the East China Sea and the oil in the South China Sea.  We just recently set up a Marine station in northern Australia.  You add it up.
As David Frum said, "maybe Nixon should have stayed home."


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tony's Odd Neighbors

Moammar's summer house may be on the Multilist soon
Royalty in Bordentown
The characters who have washed up in tony northern New Jersey...
Jon Corzine, recently of the multimillions, has moved to Hoboken from Saddle River, not Manhattan as you'd expect.  Maybe he can call on Tony Soprano for tips on how to hold on to a fortune (Tony would tell him that gambling is for fools).
The Libyan government owns a mansion in Englewood, and Moammar himself was going to camp out on its front lawn in his Bedouin tent a few years ago, but the neighbors (one of whom is Eddie Murphy, but whether he cared isn't on record) wouldn't have it.  Never used by his ambassador for summer retreats as planned, it sits empty. 
The estate that once stood in Bordentown, Point Breeze, was built by none other than Napoleon's older brother Joseph after he abdicated as the appointed King of Spain following a revolt in 1813 (the one Goya pictured so devastatingly well).  He had not wanted to be a king, or a lawyer as his father had insisted, but rather a man of letters.  After moving to New York City and then Philadelphia, he enjoyed the largest library in the United States at the time in his New Jersey mansion.  It burned in 1820, probably due to arson perpetrated by a vengeful Russian immigrant.  He rebuilt, but left to return to Europe in 1839, dying a few years later.
Joseph left behind two daughters with his Virginia-born mistress, and younger brother Jerome left behind a baby Bonaparte after a brief American marriage in 1803 when he also returned home.  The last member of this family line met his end after tripping over a dog leash in Central Park in 1943.
Alpine, NJ, is home to many of the new royalty like Stevie Wonder, P. Diddy, Wesley Snipes and Lil Kim.
A motley crew!

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Smallest apartment in New York
Advanced materials and design in Tokyo
A really narrow lot
Despite ol' Newt's (not geologically or mathematically possible) claim that if the Sierra Club would just get out of the way the U.S. could produce 4 million more barrels of oil daily, some rational people seem be on to the constraints our energy needs and wants face:  only 12% of future homebuyers now want driving-required houses in the suburban fringe, preferring nearness to town centers and walkability.  But buildings use half our energy, and people in areas already provided with public transit, most stressed by population density and cost of living, are developing some surprising ways to survive in changing conditions.
A married couple and their two cats live in New York's smallest apartment, calling it a "microstudio."  Located in Morningside Heights, it cost them $150,000 and they have adapted by not cooking there and storing their work clothes in office closets.  No car, of course, but speaking of cars, their home is the size of a parking space (175 square feet).
In Japan, microhouses (kyosho jutaku) are being designed and built utilizing narrow spaces, by going long and up to three stories high and experimenting with advanced materials such as superthin steel membrane and fiber-reinforced plastic.  Inner walls, doors and closets are eliminated, among other things we would be more hard pressed to think about living without.  Toyko's building codes must be quite receptive to innovation and the inspectors uncharacteristically open-minded.
For non-urban areas, some like Californian Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, who lives in a 70 square foot cabin himself, design and build single homes well under 300 square feet.  He got some publicity on HGTV's Design Star; I hope that helps him with his dream of a community of such "cottage houses" connected by paths with a green commons in the middle.  In upstate New York (Utica, I think), a similar co-housing community has existed for quite a while -- space is conserved by communalizing what can be (i.e., laundry, tools and maintenance equipment).  In both cases, Jay's dream and the existing community, cars are banished to parking on the edge.  Shared and public transit may reduce their numbers.
There are technologies, some used in the marine and RV industries, which would help make such radical living space reduction possible and economical, such as 12 volt lighting and fan systems.
Hot air from our lobbyist-purchased leaders and fear peddled by the apocalyptic religious evangelist-entrepreneurs will not solve any part of the energy problem facing us.  Hope for all of us lies in the creativity and rationality of a few of us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Yikes! What Bikes!

Bike mower -- could this work?

Ho Chi Minh Trail technology
Madsen cargo bike

E-Solex electric bike
  If  bike shops (outside of California) stocked some of the exciting new interpretations of that most efficient and economical machine, would they sell?  Highly featured and shockingly expensive baby strollers have found outlets and eager buyers, but they speak status rather than eccentricity.  Acceptability might follow the usual path of early adopters in vanguard enclaves, notice in the media, and then a favorable mainstream attitude vis-a-vis entertainment value + utility.
When huge and growing demand for fossil fuels slams headlong into declining supplies, we'll still need transport; the many ingenious varities of bikes and trikes now used for practical purposes in the third world might be one solution to the problem -- for the few fit enough.  I doubt if you see 350-pounders on Rascal scooters in the bicycling nations such as the Netherlands or China.
They do work, though -- the rickshaw trike can carry up to 500 pounds; for up and down hills I think you'd need an electric assist and sturdy brakes.  The North Vietnamese walked their heavily-loaded cycles through jungle and over mountains, but the Madsen cargo bike's design would do the job well for an urban guerilla going to Lowe's today.  And they're only about $1000; a car costs about $8000 a year to operate after a five-figure purchase price and sales tax to boot.  Not that a car, without public transit to use when distance and weather pose difficulties, wouldn't still be in the picture for most people.  Hybrids and all-electrics will make that possible.  Bicycle-based alternatives for light transport are out there, and you just may see them on the road someday soon.
The 50cc motorbike, moped or scooter has been used by millions in Europe and Asia; the Solex brand debuted in 1946 in France alongside the Vespa in Italy and they're still going strong due to well-focused design and quality.  The new 400 watt electric-motor E-Solex isn't available in the U.S., but at $2100 it's an attractive combination of trusty old and beautiful new.  Unfortunately, most of what is available here in electric bikes and scooters is made in China and promises a short life to disappointed buyers.
The Studebaker family knew when to transition from wagons to automobiles, and we know what a leap in transportation technology the Wright brothers' bike shop produced.  There are some inventive Wilburs and Orvilles at work around the world, and that's a comforting thought in challenging times.
ElliptiGO -- something really new

       (7/2012 update)  I just found out about the ElliptiGO, a real innovation, the brainchild of two former Ironman triathletes.  It was first introduced in California (of course) in 2010, and four arrived in a local (Camp Hill, PA) bike shop this year, which sold immediately.  If you ever wanted to take your indoor exercise equipment out into the fresh air, this is the way.  Described as looking a lot like a preying mantis, it will probably elicit a variety of reactions out on the roads!  This combination elliptical trainer/bike weighs about 37 pounds, has eleven speeds, can do 25 MPH and climb hills, while exercising older or beat-up limbs and joints safely.  The three models range from $1800 to $3500.  Looks like fun.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Galt's Gulch in the Seaweed

Ready-made island fort for sale!
James Bond villain's lair

As if the James Bond series were prediction, not fiction, we learn that yet another billionaire proves the rule that with great wealth comes great sociopathy.  PayPal founder Peter Thiel has put up $1.25 million to start the process for floating autonomous libertarian "countries" at sea.  Whereas the Bond villains wanted to take over the world, the real unbalanced superwealthy just want it to go away. 
For a little more, Peter could buy, for 4 million pounds sterling, an island fort built in the Victorian era (so perfect for a steampunk theme!) sited in the English Channel.  It has a 21 room luxury hotel, two helipads (a must-have for evil geniuses), a heated indoor pool, and can bristle with armaments again as it once housed 49 cannon as well as antiaircraft guns.  Peter, like all libertarians, really just wants to avoid taxes, so his plan is to head 200 miles west of San Francisco and eventually link up other oil-platform "islands" to make a nation recognized by the U.N. (a little libertarian contradiction inherent in that, but our Ayn Rand robo-clones today can't recognize cognitive dissonance for beans).
A Cato Institute utopia will not, as he might think, result in Plato's Republic; billionaires with limitless guns served by indentured serfs are no philosopher-kings  -- they're just mob bosses in a closed, rigged system (feudalism run by unrestrained aristrocrats and Church magnates all over again).  Yes, we had, in the 14th century, the "moral order based on freedom and individual responsibility" and "restrained government" that libertarians sputter about, and you can see it now in 15 failed states around the world.  Haiti is the exact image of what a libertarian nation is all about.
Aside from this silliness, islands of wealth effectively detached from the broader body politic have been established in the exurbs of cities such as New York, L.A., Philadelphia, Miami and Denver.  These wealthy enclaves, through local control, can fund large and well-equipped police forces supplemented by layers of private security.  Anyone looking out of place can be expelled and fined quickly.  They want or need nothing from the state and expect the same.  Meanwhile, a city in Michigan has removed its no-longer affordable street lights and miles of roads are returning to gravel all over the nation.  Mirroring the disappearance of moderates from Congress, families living in middle-income neighborhoods have declined from 65% in 1970 to 44% today.
The extremism of concentrated wealth here and the extremism of levelling (Mao's Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot's Stone Age ideal) are two faces of the same coin.  Neither ideology goes anywhere but off the cliff.  As Aristotle said, virtue always lies in the middle.

(The Hipcrime Vocab blog is the inspiration and principal source for this post.) 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Name Game

To answer the old question, there's a lot in a name.  Our individual names (given and surname both) come from somewhere ("Melissa" comes from the Greek for "honeybee;" I hope no one's name means "jerk" in some old language).  Jack Kerouac's family name can be traced to an ancestor from a "wet place" in Brittany; Henry VII Tudor's family name came from a  time when ordinary people only had a first name, in this case, Tedwr (Theodore).   Place names everywhere usually hide an intriguing story, and we don't call other peoples and their countries by their real names at all.  Egypt is from the Greek word for the place; it's called Misr in Arabic.  India is really Bharat.  The Chinese transliteration of America comes out Mei-kuo, which literally means "beautiful country."  The Hungarians have always called themselves Magyars, and the Greeks call their country Hellas.  Finland is Suomi:  not even close.
That emerald isle we commonly refer to as England has changed its official name to reflect expansion (unlike the United States, but they've been around a lot longer): England and Wales comprise Britain; add Scotland and you have Great Britain; add Northern Ireland and today it's the United Kingdom.  The English St. George, the Scots St. Andrew and the sort of made-up Irish St. Patrick crosses comprise the Union Jack (the Welsh dragon didn't make the cut).
The ancient Phoenicians didn't call themselves that; they were Canaanites but identified with their individual city-states only.  If the names we use are those bestowed by the "winners" of history, they often were or still are derogatory:  the adjective "Punic" used by the Romans to refer to the Phoenician Carthaginians had negative connotations due to their centuries of rivalry and war.  The followers of the Roman polytheistic religion were called "pagans" by the Christians, which derived from "peasant."  I think those referred to in the Old Testament as the people of Dan were actually Minoans, based on their superior metalworking skills.  So many lost peoples and places are referred to in the Bible, it makes you realize how little knowledge we have compared to what has vanished and appears only in a shadow of a memory.
When Europeans expanded over the New World, native names or versions of them were retained, but often misunderstood.  Sewickley, a borough near Pittsburg, claims its name means "sweet water," but it probably has a source in a contraction of the name of one of the seven clans of the Shawnee.  I think Michigan actually means "sweet water," but who knows for sure.  Chicago may mean "stinking water!"
The French explorers heard of the Sioux before they met them; that name which we've adopted comes from the Algonquin word "nadouessioux," which means either "foreign speaker" or "enemy."  The Sioux themselves refer to their allied nations as the Seven Council Fires.  The French also unkindly named the Atsina "Gros Ventres," or Big Noses, and the Wyandot they called "Huron," which just referred to their hair style.  Most native nations called themselves simply "the people," or added a distinguishing adjective such as the "raven people" (Crow in English, Absaroke in their language).  The tribal group in northwestern Pennsylvania wiped out by the Iroquois known to us as the Erie or the Neutrals called themselves the Cat People.  Too bad we don't know anything more about them, but they ticked off the mighty Iroquois, which was a fatal mistake in those days.
The French have the greatest variety in surnames, and the Koreans the least; I think all Sikhs are named Singh.  Makes their phone book pretty hard to alphabetize... Barcelona got its name from the Barca family of Carthage (of which Hannibal was the premier member); did their reputation for business acumen come from those Phoenician traders, who established that and many other still-vital Spanish cities?
It amuses me to chase down facts through history, but I'm guessing "page views" for this post will be 0.
And the only comment would probably be, "get a life, dude!"


Monday, November 21, 2011

Badass Baldassare

Angelo Roncalli was elected pope in 1958, and by choosing the name John XXIII probably irritated the gentleman above who had the same appelation, and now rests in the Baptistery in Florence inside a lovely tomb inscribed, "John the former pope." With all those Johns, some confusion has set in.  It began back in the 10th century when there were two John XIVs, and, two hundred years later, no John XX.  There may well have been a female pope named Joan, but that's a tale for another time.  All this sort of skews the infallibility thing, it seems.
Our forgotten first to be the twenty-third of his name had a beginning that was consistent with his end:  born to a noble family who alleviated their impoverishment by becoming pirates, he was ambitious, larcenous and quite successful as a soldier. But he was more the Godfather than a saint.  Baldassare Cossa had risen high enough in the Church hierarchy to be one of the three claimants to the papacy in 1409, and with the death of one, moved into the job, making his fortune quickly by naming the Medicis the Vatican bank on one hand and selling indulgences all over Christendom on the other.
His rivals, Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, didn't go away quietly and had sufficient support to have a Council called at Constance, Switzerland to resolve the dispute.  Always the operator, Cossa tried to distract the gathering by luring the Bohemian "heretic" Jan Hus to state his case there, guaranteeing his safety ("not a hair on his head shall be touched").  Poor Jan, denied any chance to speak, was thrown into a refuse-pit cell for a year, then burned alive (at least we only get pepper spray -- so far -- today).  The sideshow did not work as planned, as Cossa was charged with several heinous crimes and deposed in 1415. Then our former pirate and pope was removed from the official list; no one wanted to share his name for quite some time.  Cossa was imprisoned like his victim, but the Medicis repaid  favors by ransoming him and providing the fine final resting place a few years later.
They don't make 'em like that any more.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tuscan Bean Soup

                                         The new Fiat 500, 2007
                                         1959 Fiat Abarth Zagato
Consider the white canneloni bean, and its unexpected grand moment when it stars in Tuscan bean soup.  The genius of north-central Italian cuisine is to raise a modest number of humble ingredients to new sensory heights with thoughtful combination and exactly the right spices.
The cute Fiat Cinquecento (500), produced en masse from 1957 to 1975, was the kidney bean of cars:  utilitarian, inexpensive, adaptable; but since it was from the smoky industrial center of Torino, it had no spice and zero street cred.  The Renaults, Yugos and Fiats disappeared from the American market for very good reasons (the Citroen, too advanced and too weird for its time, did not die out because of any similar lack of quality and safety).  Yet, for a year to so, a Fiat Frankenstein lent a little color, not to mention a lot of blue exhaust, to our otherwise dull suburban enclave in the far western reaches of Richmond.  Even in the desert, a flower blooms once in a while.
Around the corner and up a block, my friend Bob Freeman was the only child of well-educated, slightly eccentric parents.  He was born in Rome (!), since his father was in the Immigration Service and did a lot of good work helping resettle refugees after WWII.  He could identify exactly where someone came from by their last name or accent; I thought that was a pretty unique skill. They also, like one other adult couple I knew of, had a library.  The family next door to them had a classic ketch (small yacht) and an impossibly gleaming black Steinway grand, so maybe the desert had more flowers than I thought.
Bob liked things I did, with great enthusiasm:  Bob Dylan, New Directions avant garde paperbacks, the two cuties in the Steinway house, and....cars.  We weren't snobs, either; we liked 'em all if they had personality, Chevys or Jaguars or Corvairs.  His parents eventually gave in to his pleading to acquire something more interesting than the utilitarian sedans they got every three years or so from the tiny Chevrolet dealer way out in Crozet (I went along a few times), so first they got a Renault Dauphine for him with windows so cheap they mostly didn't work after six months, and a three-speed stick on the floor.  Thus began Bob's long and surprisingly lucky career flipping cars over.
The deadman's curve where Quiocassin turns into Gaskins destroyed the tin Renault after the second flip.  His wonderful 'rents then got a burgundy Corvair Monza with a FOUR-speed floor shift and a sexy black pleated fake leather interior.  One hundred and twenty horsepower and faulty weight distribution = another 360-degree spin and into the ditch at deadman's curve. Minor repairs to Bob at the emergency room, a short time-out on the driving, and then, damned if he didn't call me to come see his 1959 Fiat Abarth 750 pocket rocket (he paid for this one himself).  Already staining the driveway with oil and other fluids, there it was in its gleaming silver aluminum body, the craziest and most, uh, unusual Class H slalom racer anywhere.  Others in the Virginia Motor Sports Club (which we quickly joined) were always excited to see it, turning away from the suddenly mundane Austin-Healy Sprites and MG Midgets, frankly amazed it was running (it was built on a Fiat, after all).  My 1958 Mercedes 180 with its fierce Lucas foglights was mostly ignored, but what it lacked in performance (everything) it made up for in adorability.
A little background, since people have heard of and seen the products of better-known racing/tuning shops, like AMG, Shelby and the BMW M series:  Carlo Abarth (a Scorpio, thus the cool scorpion logo) allied his fortunes with Fiat a few years after starting his company, producing what he called "small, but wicked" racers along with his renowned exhaust systems.  It was acquired by Fiat, morphed into its racing division, and then for the past couple of decades has been mostly just a name with cachet.
I have no idea where Bob found it in the mid-60s, as there were very few Abarths around in the U.S.; only 600 of the 1959 - 1960 Zagato750's were made, and they were useless for transportation.  Our houses had no garages, so he worked on it -- endlessly -- in the driveway, sometimes under a tarp in the rain.  When ready, he drove it up at the Puddleduck raceway north of Richmond and had a ball leaving the Sprites in his dust and smoke.  It didn't always make it back home on its own, but glory and a few quite small trophies did.
Flip #4 came late one night in the Willow Lawn parking lot, where Bob was practicing his chicanes.  Miss Abarth was in peak condition and I guess her driver got a little overenthusiastic.  I was across the street at the radio station, and after signing off at midnight, came out to see the police and ambulance lights flashing, surrounding the fleet silver bug.  She was greasy side up, but went out the way she was destined to, the diva.
Bob's accident #5 occurred in Aix-en-Provence, France, on a mobylette in a medieval alleyway, but that's a whole other story.  Like several of my friends, he was lucky enough to enlist in the Coast Guard; he went off to the Chicago area to defend Lake Michigan and we lost contact.
With the retro trend still strong, the Fiat Abarth has been born again along with the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper.  Based on the new regular 500 reintroduced in 2007, it is "wicked" again, in red and black with 160 turbocharged horsepower, racing suspension and brakes.  It's no 750 Zagato, but that's probably wise.
Wherever he is, I suspect Bob's on the waiting list for a shiny new Abarth.  If you own a shopping center, I'm warning you now.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Story for All Times

Science fiction is like country music.  There's the real thing, like Johnny Cash, the Stanleys, the Carters or Merle Haggard and Willie; then there is what mega-sells, the plastic neo-Nashville hat acts (three chords and a cliche, as I refer to that dreck).  Classic SF is anchored in the real, and the author has something authentic to say that would be as true set hundreds of years in the past as hundreds in the future.
For all the cheap production values and deliciously hammy acting (fun to enjoy in itself), Star Trek was and is a worthy successor to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke; without the props and sets, it told us stories that improve with age.  Stories that we want to go back to and find deeper meaning.
Episode #76, aired 2/28/69, "The Cloud Minders," is so relevant today it is startling. 
The Enterprise arrives at planet Ardana to obtain a mineral, Zenite, much needed on another planet to halt a crisis.  Kirk and Spock beam down to the Zenite mines to negotiate, somehow not knowing what Ardana's deal is.  The miners are acting violently, but the security forces of the leaders who dwell in the floating cloud city above disperse them and invite our intrepid Star Fleet emissaries to meet with them while order is restored and the mineral can be gathered. 
They observe that Ardana society is divided between the laboring Troglytes in the mines and the elite in the luxurious city above.  Turns out that the mines were in the midst of a rebellion, and Kirk and Spock get involved with Troglyte infiltrators who have managed to enter the city.  Dr. McCoy, meanwhile, has discovered that the Zenite emits an odorless gas which degrades the Trogs' mental capacity and plays havoc with their emotions.
The infiltrators, free of the effects of the gas for the first time, begin the realize the full extent of their mistreatment.  After several tussles and reversals, the rebels accept the filtering masks the Enterprise crew has devised, and clearheaded, with Kirk as ally, demand equal treatment.  The Enterprise departs with its mineral shipment; a good week's work done.
You can see the disorienting gas as advertising/broadcast propaganda/sickening pollution; the cloud-dwelling elite as the globalized 1% in control of commodities, production, and labor; even the infiltrators as the OWS and the Arab Spring.
When that 1% go too far with unaccountable authoritarian capitalism and the always-bad decision making of centralized control, they won't collapse and go away.  They are already using their billions in cash, which they understand will be devalued by inflation and eventually worthless, to buy agricultural land and establish safe havens (look back to a previous post, "Mystery Ranch," for a description of Dubya Bush's well-prepared, off-grid Crawford TX retreat).  One hedge fund group is already the 15th biggest farmer in the U.S.  A former hedger, with millions to spend, is buying large tracts of farmland in eastern Sudan and western Ethiopia (good soils, Nile river water, dirt cheap labor).  They are as good as the best SF writer at looking into the future.  Better, actually.
As has been the case in feudal societies and for a while in South America, the superrich are building up secure gated compounds, with high walls and security guards (thousands of soldiers will be coming home, to what other employment?).  Greenwich, CT and Cali, Columbia: the same scenario.  Many mansions now have large Cummins generators and plenty of diesel fuel to power all the conveniences their owners are accustomed to and do not intend to lose.  Several years ago I knew, in contented little Elizabethtown PA, a local baron (fortune and land from his father's trucking company serving Hershey Foods) with many acres and a garage-size building housing a generator, backed up by a pair of fuel tanks behind a fence.  There were two repair shops loaded with tools and parts, and you can bet on less visible alarm systems, guns and ammunition.
The elite in Beijing, China, are now insulating themselves from the killing air pollution by installing advanced air filtration systems in their buildings and homes.
The cloud city imagined on Star Trek  -- it's not fiction.


Friday, November 11, 2011

News to Me

For the past three days, the newspaper has been 80% about the scandal-du-jour, this one at Penn State; before that it was the bankrupt capital city, of course.  Before that, miscreant weather.  Seemingly serious stuff, but exciting and diverting, too.  The smaller filler entries are always taxes, crime and fires.  A lot of people would agree with old Will Rogers ("All I know is what I read in the papers..."), but would have to update that with the addition of other, noisier and trashier media (tabloids, AM radio, overexcited cable right-wing propoganda).
If we had any to start with, this constant assault displaces any sense of  proportion between what's entertaining and what trends and events will actually be important to our lives.  Do the yeast cells in the wine vat, living it up consuming the delicious sugar in the grapes, notice that it will all soon be gone and they will die in the alcohol wastes?  We think we're the crown of creation, each one of us a sacred personhood, but it looks as though we're a lot more like those mindless yeast cells.
The hares in the snowy north multiply, like every species, as much as they can, taking more than full advantage of all shelter and food resources.  The foxes follow suit, and their population collapse soon follows that of the hares, who in their numbers ate everything.  My point is that the only news worthy of 80% of the paper is this:  7 billion people on the same earth.  William Catton noted way back in 1981 that the resource-depleting indistrial age which allowed such astronomical population growth was not proof of the inevitable march of progress, but came about due to two non-repeatable achievements:  the discovery of a second hemisphere, and development of ways to exploit the planet's fossil fuels.
"Use of oil has quadrupled earth's carrying capacity since 1900." (Paul Chefurka, 2007)  The normal carrying capacity of non-industrialized earth is about 1 billion; a sevenfold increase in humans obviously overshoots the fourfold increase in capacity.  Memo to the foxes:  the huge supply of hares (oil, arable land and usable water) is temporary.  You can conserve and limit your numbers or just live it up today.
We foxes don't want to hear it.  "As President Carter discovered, it is not easy to take a country conditioned to believe that every problem has a technical solution and to persuade its citizens that a major change of orientation has become necessary."  (Stewart Udall)
We are amused at the cargo cult beliefs of the Melanesian islanders during World War II, who saw the advanced Westerners in their midst get every good thing from the sky. And how do our deepest beliefs differ? We in the United States virulently rejected the few Cassandras who saw beyond today (Carter, Dr. Hubbert, the 1952 Paley Commission, Udall and those damn granola-crunchy commie tree-hugger environmentalists) and bought the "Morning in America" meme that since we're exceptional, resources are either inexhaustable or technological substitutes can always be found.  G.E. will just bring good things to life (Ronnie R. was paid to say that; he was well-paid by Big Oil and Big Medicine, too). Well, technical superiority failed in Vietnam, the oil embargo coinciding with the 1970 peak in domestic oil production was not noted for the huge economic-political impacts it had and will have, the atomic age was overestimated, and we don't notice the stark reality that 95% of the world's fossil energy has been discovered and everything in the developed world moves by or is made of it.
There was no mention in the print or broadcast media of what was discussed at the ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) conference in Washington last week; boring stuff, I guess.  There was a little room left for the dozens of paragraphs about awards, local politics and crime that padded out the full-pages coverage of the latest scandal.  As long as we keep things in perspective...


Monday, November 7, 2011

The Coffeemaker on The Wonder Years

"...In many households, Green Stamps were the primary source of disposable family income...my mother saved Green Stamps like my college education depended on them.  She took comfort in knowing that, as long as my father could buy food, there was a better than average chance that Santa Claus would find our house come Christmastime.  She gazed longingly at drab photographs of TV-dinner trays, basketball hoops, vacuum cleaners, pressure cookers, wall clocks, and camping equipment as if she were looking at film stars in a movie magazine.  All because of the little green stamps, a wonderful selection of shoddy merchandise was sometimes attainable in a life otherwise devoid of entitlement...Were I to meet whoever invented these stamps, I would pledge them eternal gratitude for offering my mother hope in times of despair."
                                              -- from Rodney Crowell's autobiography, Chinaberry Sidewalks

The S&H album pictured above was the style in use when my grandmother methodically collected those stamps, mostly from the local Weis grocery store chain.  Gas stations were the other main source, but the free drink glasses offered in the summer were better premiums; in times of fierce competition, you could score both at one purchase and feel like you'd really won.
When I was visiting in Pennsylvania in the summer, I'd get to install the miniature stamps in the albums (using a small sponge instead of a quickly gummed-up tongue) while perusing the catalog for whatever weapon or outdoor gear item called out to my greedy young heart.  Fifty points completed a page; 1200 an album.  The large stamps were 50 each rather than one or 10; getting one seemed like a lottery win, if I had known what that was.  And it took a looong time to fill that album.  Patience is in shorter supply when you're young than time is; like the similar long stretch to Christmas, it made the long-sought moment of acquisition as sweet as anticipated.
How many kitchens, thanks to Green Stamps, had a three-piece set of red and white plastic containers labeled Flour, Sugar and Tea from the catalog (seductively named The Idea Book)? And more than a few clocks, Faberware pans, and (oh yes!) those TV dinner trays -- what home didn't have those?  Ours (in Richmond) came from Best Products, which was no step up in class from trading stamps, believe me.  My grandmother was quite pleased with the large, square electric fry pan that cost many filled books, and used it often for years.  If I'd gotten that bow and arrow set, the impertinent groundhog raiding the back of the garden would have been in for a rude surprise.  Or a good woodchuck chuckle, more likely, as I would have missed and taken out corn stalks rather than clever rodents.
The heyday of the stamps was from the 1930s through the 1980s.  In the 60s, the catalog was the largest publication in the United States.  S&H was sold to a company who tried to modernize them as points for online purchases, but that may have faded away by now.  But comparing the two, I'd say stamps were a much better and more satisfying deal than frequent flyer points today.
And the coffeemaker the mother liked so much on The Wonder Years?  From S&H.  She felt like a winner.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Off the Road

From the Dead's AOXOMOXOA, taken at Olompali
Jack Casady, Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart playing at Olompali in 1968

Rancho Olompali State Park
I have a feeling that despite spending two weeks around the central coast of California recently, we did not get to nearly enough of it.  The tone was relaxed and the main goal was pretty much just to explore the Napa Valley, which was just fine.  Not knowing our way around very well, we picked a few things to concentrate on rather than spending large amounts of time lost on the highways (although the signage was good, and with a GPS we could have done all right -- without a good map or electronic help, I could not, however, find a shopping center a mile away in compact Carmel). 
The trip down Route 1 from Napa to Carmel was a delight.  We passed by many towns I had heard of and I was fascinated to see how they varied:  some dry and flat, some hidden in wrinkled, green hills, some hugging the San Pablo Bay shoreline, some intensely agricultural, some rich, some forlorn, their industries and military facilities long abandoned.  Legendary poets of the 40s - 70s had lived all around:  Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg, Lamantia, Kyger; musicians like Suzanne Ciani, Mimi Farina, the Bay area bands, ol' David Freiberg and so many others. The parade of over a dozen Ferraris that zipped by was a nice surprise -- confirming the belief that anything can happen in the Golden State, and does most every day.
The day trip to San Fran couldn't have been better:  a rare balmy sunny day, a  peaceful and uncrowded ferry ride from and back to Vallejo, introduction to the famed Blue Dog coffee stand in the terminal upon arrival, the vast farmer's market, an excellent Italian bistro (across the street from where John Phillips and his associates were once the house band), and finally up to the Coit Tower and down the famed Filbert steps, where Tales of the City was set.
We did go through the western neighborhoods of San Fran from the Presidio through Golden Gate Park, outer Sunset and outer Richmond, which we'd never been near before, and stopped in so-funky Santa Cruz for some creative food and atmosphere.  What to do?  There are years' worth of places to explore just in the SF peninsula, but I looked back to the north-of-the-bay counties like Marin, thinking we'd missed too much even though we'd gotten around more than on previous trips.
Although it's mostly memories now, and peaceful, not looking much like its notorious past, I'd really like to go back and visit Olompali, which I'd first found out about in a couple of old books about the Grateful Dead.  While searching around to find out the who, where and when of this oddly-named place (it's Miwok for "southern village"), I realized that a novel I'd read by T.C. Boyle, Drop City, a Lord of the Flies-like take on a mid-sixties commune set somewhere in Marin, was pretty much the factual story of what occurred at Rancho Olompali just after the Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were there in 1966.  The title is actually the name of another, longer-lasting artistic commune in southern Colorado (their story is related in a book by founder Peter Rabbit, but is hard to find).
The Acid Tests put on by the Pranksters, with music by the Dead, were getting a little too much scrutiny in the city, so they all headed northward and spent some summer months at the old mansion and on its grounds, playing away and freely using still-legal LSD. Janis Joplin, tight with Pigpen for a while, added her own considerable color.
The Rancho was a white stucco mansion built in 1911 by the grandson of a dentist who became wealthy by inventing dental powder.  The dentist in the late 1800s treated his mother-in-law who died while under anesthesia, driving his father-in-law, James Black, to drink and an accidental death.  The first home there was an adobe (still extant) built in the 1830s by a Miwok headman named Camilo Ynito.  He was conned out of his land and home by the illiterate, clever but ill-fated James Black for $5200.  The gold coins were hidden; Camilo may have been murdered for them and it's said they were found, with a metal detector, under the floorboards of the unhappy house after it burned in 1977 (faulty wiring or malcontent ghosts?).  The property passed from the family in 1943 when it was bought by the University of San Francisco for use as a retreat, but it was mostly either empty or leased out for the next 34 years until it became a state park.
From November 1967 to August 1969, a commune called The Chosen Family was set up by former businessman Donald McCoy who leased the Rancho and went through hundreds of thousands of his family's dollars supporting it.  It was no model for an intentional community, as McCoy's only principle was doing whatever came to mind, which was mostly large quantities of drugs.  About a dozen children were there, and according to those who remember that time, they were actually the most responsible and turned out well -- except for two unfortunates, very young girls who fell into the unfenced pool while riding their tricycles.  CPR was bungled; cars wouldn't start, and they did not survive.  Two drug raids had scattered the founders, the money was gone, and the deaths deflated what energy was left.  County officials and armed sherrifs moved in, cited code violations, and ordered everyone off.  The pool is filled in now, just a grim ring of grass.
On top of all this strange history, the Bear Flag Revolt staged its first battle in California with the Mexican authorities in 1846 at Olompali.  I doubt if they could have imagined an Acid Test there 120 years later.


Monday, October 31, 2011


That strange Halloween music you hear is...chainsaws.
Everyone (except you Californians!) has had one bad storm after another lately, but surely the people just starting on recovery from the floods just could not believe the biggest October snow in 100 years was on its way.  Early Saturday morning we heard the rain and thought, with relief, that the temperatures would stay up and we'd just get more water we surely do not need.  Then, suddenly, a thick cloud of cottonballs appeared in the air, another unwanted gift from a sorely ticked-off Mother Nature. 
The leaves had barely started turning and were still thick on the trees, and the snow was wet and heavy -- a deadly one-two knockout blow that took out, either partially or fully, almost every deciduous tree on our increasingly bare hill.  And today that wet blanket is mostly gone but the damage will remain for the next twenty years.
Three-quarters of a big well-formed maple on a steep hillside is on the ground.  The only two ways in or out were blocked by over a dozen collapsed Bradford pear trees which have been chewed up by by one wind- or rainstorm for several years now.  Our electricity was out for twelve hours, which was not bad compared to the 20,000 in the county to the south who are still juiceless.  Most of the trees will surely just be cut down as what remains does not look like much any more.  I doubt if anything will be replanted, since they were put in by the long-gone developer, and the Landscape Committee of the Homeowners "Association" likes to cut and chop but only plants small things which soon die out.  Silver maples and Bradford pears are commonly used in suburban landscapes, and are about the worst choices there are.
Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel was here, adding to the national scrutiny of our misfortunes (weather) and dumbassedness (city bankruptcy).  One poor man was killed while napping in his recliner when a large tree crunched into his house.  And they're keeping an eye on a farm silo, which is leaning into Route 11 and looks like it has a very short future indeed.
It's always something.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Favorite Conservative Lesbian Feminist

I used hyperlinking without knowing it was a thing, and before computers.
My method developed rather quickly as a reaction to required reading in high school.  Not the excellent lists Columbia or Harvard students are required to complete in the summer before they commence college, which if followed would have you half-educated already by September.  No, what propelled me to find a way through to what genius, insight and inspiration was out there beyond my suburban-desert horizon was the demand, still puzzling to me, that we spend a half-year on Great Expectations.
Not to say we can do without Dickens.  His minor works are delightful but you only need to read one of the magnum opi, and that one should be about any character other than Pip.
The school bookstore had one of those vertical spin-around carousels to display paperbacks, and it actually had some good ones that had passed under the notice of the curriculum police.  Score.  A year or so later, I found Sandy's bookstore on Grace Street in the Fan, and I was on my (own literary) way.
I took advantage of the authors' knowledge of and fondness for books of all types, not prescribed ones: contemporary, earlier 20th century, foreign, and just odd, and searched out those that sounded intriguing.  I was off to the races.
Before out-of-print or rare books were so easy to find on the internet, the search itself was both challenging and frustrating.  Norman Douglas' novel from the 20s, South Wind, was on my radar for over 20 years before I found it, in perfect condition, free on the local library give-away table.  I almost said "my precious," but fortunately not out loud.
John Fowles, the British novelist whom most of us discovered after seeing the film version of The Collector, is as fine a guide to all things historical and literary as you could wish for.  He mentioned how taken he was with a 1913 novel by a Frenchman who tragically died a month after he joined the army at the outset of World War I.  Without the internet, I don't think I'd have every found a copy of Le Grand Meaulnes, and without Mr. Fowles would never have known of it.
Wallace Stegner's Beyond the 100th Meridian was mentioned by one of the many writers who held him in high esteem, and I'm still grateful for the tip, because it's now in my all-time top ten.
Today, on the blog Dispatches From the Culture Wars (on freethoughtblogs.com), I was introduced to someone I'd never heard of who is one type of writer I treasure:  the cranky misanthrope.  They're usually an older male, of the H.L. Mencken variety...but the 75-year-old Florence King is unique -- a Southern lady, a traditional conservative (the kind with a brain), a lesbian, feminist and monarchist.  Lately, however, she just prefers "spinster."  Isn't that someone you'd like to share a mint julep with (until she smacked you over the head with her cane)?
A descendant of colonial Virginia notables, the irony of her own lower-middle-class situation growing up must have bemused her as her mother and grandmother endeavored to raise her as a lady and a snob.  And she followed a conventional path as college student, teacher and newspaper features writer until she just couldn't stay on the tracks anymore.  Late in life came essays, novels, autobiography and even erotica and a romance (the less ladylike stuff under pseudonyms).  For many years, Ms. King has written a column for the National Review, of all things, where she has laboriously "shovelled through mountains of bullshit." Andy Rooney is just the Reader's Digest version of this spitfire.
Take the time to read the blog post mentioned above.  It quotes a series of letters between Ms. King and her agent, the subject of which is John Updike, and it's a skewering to remember.  She's got a sharp eye and a sharper tongue, and you could fill a deliciously mean book with morsels like these:
"Writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in."  (Touche, Mr. Updike!)
"Time has lost all meaning in that nightmare alley of the western world known as the American mind."
Link by link, you always find something or somebody you don't know how you lived without.




Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stuck in the Traffic Circle of Life

There's no end to the cliches about making choices or decisions in life.  With relative wealth and mobility, we think more in those terms than believing we're just in the thrall of fate.  Whatever our will or desires, we are limited by the fact that we fall somewhere in the continuum between those masters who are prepared and are in the right place and time, and those in the lower ranks or in traditional societies who have few options and just struggle day by day.
We are individualistic to an unusual degree, and forget that family and class determine most everything elsewhere, as in Italy, India, and much of South America and Africa.  There, you're fortunate to move into a family business or landholding because jobs are scarce and connections determine everything.  We're a nation of existentialists, though; we 'Muricans think we determine our own futures through education, vigorous effort and ambition, within a strangely contradictory straitjacket of conformity.  Some find a way.
Very much like cooking a fine meal, it's a combination of timing, preparation, proper equipment, ingredients and learning from experience.  But you're not a gourmet chef.  What if you felt you had no adults you could really trust, no choices other than getting a steady job were discussed, and you weren't sure you understood the goals anyway?
Naive and uninformed:  I remember thinking when young, from the lessons of television's Sergeant Friday, the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy, that crime was always punished.  Then you find out that half of murders go unsolved, and probably 10% of those prosecuted and convicted are innocent.  You'd be surprised how many of our and the Silent Generation got their ideas of history from John Wayne and the Old Testament.  In the course of re-educating yourself you wonder how anyone could have made good and productive choices while operating on a basis of misinformation and myth.  And yet, for those who just believe in the Mighty Oz, things can work out pretty well. 
Not only is that shaky mental and social ground you're standing on while trying to make decisions, but since Freud's theories have been so successfully used in political and corporate propaganda over the past century, your unrational side is, every waking hour, being relentlessly manipulated.  No wonder most working class people stop learning and growing around 18, and the more educated do the same around 30.
You might decide to make a big change to see what falls out because things are really going nowhere where you are.  In retrospect, that's just desperation; faint hopes for fortuitous change are like falling backwards into a swimming pool before checking to see if it's filled.  After a few of those, you become very, very careful about making choices, knowing all the while that no one ever found anything by setting the limits so close.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Learning Through Life: No Teacher, No Curriculum

Many years ago, in my travels around the large (86 buildings) Richmond City public school system providing services requested of the Media Services department from all levels of the food chain, I found that most of the schools suffered from an unnecessary choke point called a Curriculum Specialist, who often had as much power as the principal. Some required that all requests and requisitions be routed through them, and prevented any direct contact with the worker bees. One battleaxe challenged me upon entering the building (this was way before all that security stuff), which caused me to then research what the heck this obstruction was.

With a large headquarters downtown populated by many Assistant Superintendents and Directors of this and that, and a principal or two for each school to meddle with all such weighty concepts as "curriculum," the only reason for the C.S.'s existence was probably as a very well-paid reserve corps of future assistant supers, principals and directors. Bored and useless, they became petty dictators. I dealt directly with the teachers and librarians after that, learning which entrance to use to avoid the Reaper.

Not the only reason I've thought about education for many decades. My own, and your own, standardized school experiences as students give us all enough to contemplate for the rest of our lives (if the phrase WTF? had existed back then, I'd have used it every day).

Conventional school is too much like a factory; the innate contradiction is that each part is different instead of being the same. We learn in different ways, something little understood even now, and we learn on very different timelines. We get bored and inattentive if we encounter a subject too late in our development, and frustrated when we meet it too early. Curiosity is innate in human and animal young; they all want to learn. But there are such overwhelming limits on what can occur in a classroom setting in strict conformance to the clock, that enthusiasm just shrivels. Inescapable, pervasive testing is a cruel joke, since all souls must be evaluated the same when they are as different as snowflakes. Do-or-die testing and fear of failure do not encourage, but erode abilities and interest.

With the dizzying pace of change, we can't know what knowledge will be needed in the future. Learning how to learn will serve us better than ending up with a stack of boxes of knowledge with a diploma on top.

Cyberschools and homeschooling are now available, but the motivations for their establishment and growth alongside the conventional public systems are often negative. Parents who fear for their children in bad schools or neighborhoods are grateful for alternatives other than church school, but about three-quarters of homeschoolers do it to ensure religious instruction and to insulate their progeny from any worldview but their own. I used to have several volumes of religious homeschool texts and workbooks; the propaganda included little gems like the statement that all fossils were deposited during Noah's Flood, and dinosaurs existed a few thousand years ago.

Not mentioned in any but the most obscure journals is the "unschooling" movement, proposed by John Holt, Ivan Illich and Raymond Moore in the 1970s (the most active and productive era in educational thinking since the turn of the 20th century). Unschooling is based on learning through natural life experiences and explorations initiated by the students themselves -- superfically similar to, but very different philosopically from, homeschooling. It asks: Can you make a better path for yourself than someone else can make for you? As an inmate, I sure thought so, but there was nowhere to go with that idea back then.

Adults and parents involved act as navigators, provide access and introduction to mentors, while sharing their interests and skills. A high level of supervision slides down to a lesser one as the students age and grow. Even in conventional schools, the project a student takes the lead on and explores deeply will be the experience he/she will benefit the most from. This is proven over and over again by home-schooled children succeeding at consistently higher rates in higher education and in life; they are more mature and confident.

Our society is only going to tolerate a few who value cooperation over competition and don't value coercion at all, so the unschooling movement will remain small, and should, to survive.

Two working parents is a common enough situation which would prevent participation. The school calendar is a just a tyrant to families --those who can follow an alternative program will miss that rigid calendar as much as a toothache (and they can participate in some of the local school activities). And the commonest objection, "lack of socialization," is not the problem critics may think; the artificial context of the schoolhouse environment actually retards socialization due to lack of contact with many adults in the community, the loneliness of the crowd and age segregation.

It makes you wonder where a different path may have taken you.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Desert Rat War

On Wednesday, I had the car due to taking Nancy in to work, so I was able to go to the lively Cornerstone Cafe in Camp Hill instead of the few places I'm usually limited to due to traveling on foot.

I ran into and joined an old friend who regularly meets with his geezer and geezerette buddies around 8 a.m. before heading out to do one or another volunteer jobs for the borough.

People drifted away one by one (a few actually had to go to work), and the last fellow told me about an eccentric friend of his who is a scenepainter for the studios in Los Angeles, but lives way out in the desert in a small collection of shacks without permits or property taxes. Like most movie/TV people, he works long and hard for a while then has some nice breaks between gigs (right now he's on Glee, so he has a three-year commitment). He's entirely off-grid, but that's a necessity where utility lines (not to mention the unwanted attention they would attract) are hugely expensive to run.

I've never been in the dry interior areas of California, but driving in Arizona a few years ago we had noticed similar situations: a lone trailer, maybe with a few cobbled-together outbuildings, baking in the sun at the end of a long gravelly road. You figure they pretty much want to be left alone and won't bother you if you respect that.

The next day, I came across a story about the ongoing drama involving these "desert rats" like my new acquaintance's friend in the high desert country of Antelope Valley, about an hour from Los Angeles. These 2200 square miles have attracted refugees from city and suburban life, mostly truckers and harmless nonconformists who, it turns out, knew little or nothing of required land-use permits and county building codes ever being applied to isolated rural dwellings.

Elderly Jacques Dupuis and his wife, residents near Llano for 22 years, were raided by a Nuisance Abatement Team from the county codes enforcement bureau, who called Mrs. Dupuis out, demanding identification while they surrounded her with guns drawn. In 1984, they got a permit for a water tank (water is delivered by truck, like in Mexico), but the county was now demanding they install a well, which after all the subsequent requirements were totalled up, would cost almost $90,000 (what there is of ground water is full of nitrates -- thus the water tank decision they made years ago). They eventually were forced to dismantle their home and move away.

Why did L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich re-activate the NAT's in 2006 (they had been used in previous decades to deal with serious health and safety issues like giant boars at a residence)? Why, when questioned about the raids and destruction of homes in a public meeting, did he refuse to answer anything?

Kenny Perkins, who moved his antique car business out of the city to the desert because of gang vandalism, has been harrassed almost to bankruptcy -- he has met all demands including moving a large outbuilding which "did not meet set-back requirements," even though it was at the end of his private dirt road. He had rented the cars to movie and television productions, but the county shut his business down. Is creating a new group of unemployed, homeless people a legitimate function of local government? Fourteen people have left the area already, broke and propertyless.

After spending 30 years building, from telephone poles and I-beams, his whimsical but sturdy "Phonehenge West" near Acton, Alan K. Fahey was arrested for not having sufficient permits. He and his family were evicted and the animals were impounded this summer (picture above). In other cases the residents were cited due to anonymous complaints supposedly from neighbors, about their "interference" and "offensiveness" -- they remain nameless and indeed are few and far between; in one case no nearer than 10 miles in any direction. All Native Americans, as well as many of the first '49ers, know what the real Code of the West is -- use any tactic or level of violence to muscle people off their land, no matter how dry, remote or forlorn it is.

Either Mr. Antonovich is a classic case of an authoritarian, "punishing" personality gone mad with power, or someone wants to acquire this land cheaply for minerals, fossil fuels, a pipeline or a highway. Remember the historical basis of Chinatown?