Friday, November 22, 2013

The Long, Long View

Memory is not history. In his memoirs, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones goes so far as to call memory "fiction."

In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the personification of memory, may have been Clio's mother, but Clio is the Greek muse of history; her mother Mnemosyne is not.

And the Greeks wisely made Clio mute.

The late comedian Mort Sahl called November 22, 1963 "The Day The Music Died."

Sahl co-opted songwriter Don McLean when he said that, because McLean's 1971 song American Pie did NOT refer to November 22, 1963 when it mentioned "the day the music died." McLean's threnody for the good old days was about February 3, 1959, the day that rock n' roll legend Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in Mason City, Iowa.

Today, November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of that day in Dallas, Texas that none of us over the age of 58 (my current age) will ever forget, the day President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in broad daylight, in front of a large crowd that had turned out to watch him ride past in an open limousine.

For a month now, everybody my age has been sharing those where-were-you-when-you-heard-about-it stories. I won't bother you with that. Suffice it to say that I was eight years old and it was a Friday afternoon. So I was in school.

The fiftieth anniversary also falls on a Friday. I'm living in Turkey at the moment. Six degrees of historic separation: it was his administration's plan to put nuclear warheads in Turkey that laid the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 at Kennedy's feet. The Soviets didn't like the idea of the U.S. having missiles in Turkey, where they could reach Moscow in minutes, so Nikita Kruschchev, who was running the show in the Kremlin in those days, announced that he was going to stick Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba, from which Washington could be vaporized in minutes.

Kennedy and Kruschchev went eyeball-to-eyeball over this issue. Kruschchev sent the missiles across the sea. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade so the warheads couldn't reach Cuba. For a couple of days the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

Then Kruschchev blinked. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn.

Thirteen months later, Kennedy was killed by a woolly-brained Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald, who thought he was striking a blow for the revolution of his hero, Fidel Castro.

And....less than a year after that, (a detail often overlooked) Nikita Kruschchev was ousted in a coup in Moscow and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Politboro was not happy with Kruschchev for having knuckled under to Kennedy, so it replaced him with someone more hard-line.
A cold, sad day in the America of my childhood.

No question about it to anyone who remembers. November 22, 1963 was a sad and tragic day for America. The Second World War had been over for less than 20 years. America had emerged from that war triumphant, more powerful and richer than she had ever been. 1945 began what some were calling "The American Century." America was the leader of the free world. The sky was the limit.

And then her movie-star handsome, charismatic president was shot dead, in cold blood and in broad daylight.

We are so politically polarized these days, so utterly partisan, that if such a thing were to happen today, or if such a thing had happened six years ago, the president's supporters would mourn and the president's haters would cheer. Not in 1963. The killing of Kennedy was such an unthinkable event that his supporters and his critics were equally shocked. My parents did not like Kennedy especially. They didn't vote for him in 1960. But when I came home from school that afternoon, they were subdued. Quiet. Had little to say. I've heard this over and over again for the past 50 years. It was less important to the nation at that moment which political party the president belonged to than it was that such a thing could happen, to us. And that meant all of us. Democrats, Republicans, all of us. America had not yet become the "cafeteria republic" that it is today, in which we are Americans second and members of ethnic, racial or special interest groups first. In 2013 there are only "hyphenated" Americans. In 1963 there were truly none.  We still believed in the idea of "E pluribus Unum." We no longer do.

There are many among us who, for whatever reason, whether it's shameless romanticism or simple mistrust of government, want to believe that Oswald could not possibly have done this, or at least, not by himself. There had to be a conspiracy. Even before the blood from her husband's wounds had dried on her dress, first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy expressed dismay over the apparent evidence that her husband had been murdered "by some silly little communist," and not by some reactionary hater of Kennedy's "New Frontier." The death of such a luminary simply could not be the result of some tawdry "lone nut" scenario. There had to be a conspiracy. Emotions demanded it.

And no one's emotions were more exercised than those of the American Left, which in the years after his death made Kennedy the object of hagiography. He was one of their saints, and therefore he simply could not have been killed by a Marxist kook. That notion did not jive with the left's wide-eyed worship of its fallen hero. (Not to mention the soft spot the left has in its collective heart for Marxism.)

So the conspiracy theories began. Some wanted to believe that Texas right-wingers were behind JFK's murder. To gently nudge this absurd idea into the public's consciousness, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo churned out the script for an extremely meretricious low-budget 1973 film called Executive Action. The film disingenuously hid its real agenda by stating at the outset that it meant to show only how such a conspiracy could have existed. (For the record, Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, but he was, in fact, a card-carrying Communist for years.) Some wanted to think oil interests were behind it. Or the CIA. Or the mafia. And on and on and on.

I've read the books. I read Anthony Summers' Conspiracy  more than 30 years ago. More recently I've read Gerald Posner's Case Closed and Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History.

In between, I went to see Norman Mailer in person.

In April, 1995, Mailer had just published his own entry in the JFK sweepstakes, Oswald's Tale. It was not a conspiracy book, nor was it an anti-conspiracy book. It was simply a study of Oswald's life and character. Mailer came to Olsson's Books in Washington, D.C. that spring on a book tour, to give a reading and have a Q&A. I was in the audience.

"After doing the research and interviewing the principals for this book," Mailer said, "I'm prepared to believe that Oswald did it." Then he added, "but I also believe that if I had been Oswald's attorney, I might have been able to get him off, this case has so many holes in it."

Fair enough. But there's also something called Ockham's Razor. Philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347) formulated the famous principle of logic which states that among any group of explanations for a given phenomenon, the one which involves the fewest assumptions is probably the right one.

Or, as it is often mis-stated, the simplest solution is probably the right one.

One theory recently re-floated in a book (I've heard it before) is that Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy's vice-president, was involved in a plot against JFK. The logic goes like this: Johnson wanted to be president. Johnson was from Texas. Johnson had connections in Texas. Kennedy was thinking of dumping Johnson in 1964 and going with another VP candidate. Therefore...LBJ was involved in a plot to kill Kennedy.

The problem is, this theory is based on the highly questionable whisperings-at-parties of a woman who claimed to be LBJ's mistress. Toss it.

Other theories also involve bushel-baskets of assumptions. Oswald couldn't have gotten off three shots in the time allotted. (Never mind the fact that he had been in the Marine Corps and knew how to handle a rifle.) The "magic bullet" theory is impossible because a bullet couldn't pass through one man's body and hit another's. (Oh, yeah? High-powered rifles can do amazing things at short range.)

Other theories, involving everything from a shadow someone glimpsed on the grassy knoll to a group of tramps who were detained near the railroad tracks sometime later, have fed the public's imagination, and the imagination of a political left unwilling to face the simple facts about the death of its saint, to the point where you could implicate almost anybody in this 50 year-old murder that you chose to, from Texaco to the Book-of-the-Month Club.

I find it incredible that there are still people who get emotional over this, who will not admit the simple fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was probably the model for the character Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver: a Dostoevskian "nobody who wanted to be a somebody." These are people whose rose-colored glasses have such telescopic sights that they still, after half a century, want to think that Kennedy was not the pragmatic politician that he really was, and want to think of him as a martyred saint of the Civil Rights movement.

This notion is romantic hogwash, nothing more than the Woodstock Generation getting all soppy for its childhood. If you look at the record, Kennedy was as hard-nosed a cold warrior as his contemporary Richard Nixon (the Cuban Missile Crisis clearly illustrates that.) He was an anti-communist, and his "support" for the civil rights movement was mostly lip-service. The truth is that, despite his charisma and charm, Kennedy did not get along very well with Congress. It was ironically left to his successor as president, Lyndon Johnson, a graceless, unattractive boor who nevertheless knew how to read people and how to twist nuts, to get Kennedy's vaunted civil rights legislation passed.

There was no "Camelot." Kennedy's Thousand Days were not a Golden Age. But in America you can get very far if you're good-looking. After all, we are the nation that invented the "movie star." JFK and his wife Jackie were both as good-looking as movie stars, and for that reason alone were venerated in our nation of besotted moviegoers. We were still in the midst of our postwar innocence and optimism in 1963, and these beautiful youngsters seemed to be the very embodiment of that. Therein was born the legend of Camelot, and of course JFK made the brilliant marketing move of getting killed at age 46. As it was once said of Franz Schubert, "He died young, and so, for us, he will never get old."

For decades, each November 22 there has been a memorial gathering in Arlington Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where Kennedy is buried. As the years have gone by, the crowds at this memorial gathering have thinned and thinned. My guess would be that today's gathering will be well-attended, if only because we are so fond of round numbers, and "50," after all, is half a hundred.

But I'd be willing to bet that the swollen crowd at today's vigil will feature many bald heads, stooped backs, wrinkles, dewlaps and a lot of arthritis. The generation (mine) that made a folk hero of Kennedy is beginning to die off. As long ago as 1995, when the 33rd anniversary of the tragedy loomed, WETA radio in Washington mentioned that less than half of the current U.S. population had even been born yet on November 22, 1963. Despite the efforts of Oliver Stone and his fellow mythologizers to keep the romance of conspiracy burning, for the majority of currently-living Americans, the Kennedy years are as remote as the administration of Woodrow Wilson.

Yes, yes. We love round numbers, so today in Arlington Cemetery there will no doubt be a teary and sentimental, if somewhat geriatric party. But my guess would be that next year, when we mark Anniversary 51, the crowd will be smaller than ever before.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Night Thoughts In The Morning Rain

The current edition of Night Thoughts at Noon just passed the 10,500 page-view mark.

So how come I'm not famous?

Night Thoughts at Noon is in its second incarnation. I started blogging under this title in 2005. The original Night Thoughts at Noon appeared at I took it down in 2010, then a few months later started over here, at (It's still there, by the way. If you go to, you will see everything I posted between 2005 and 2010. Only the CIA can get things removed from the Internet; the rest of us can't.)

Oh, I sometimes wonder how I failed to be famous. Lord knows I tried. I've been writing, painting and raising all kinds of hell since I was in my teens. I turned 58 last Saturday, and I'm still penniless, which I don't mind so much, but I'm also still obscure, and for some reason that bugs me more than being penniless.

I never wanted to be rich. I never wanted to be powerful. But oh, boy, when I was young, did I want to be famous! Most of the friends to whom I confided my teenage dream, "to be the next Hemingway," are dead now.

I will be dead soon enough. The end is closer now than the beginning. And I never got to be the next Hemingway. Damn. (Well, frankly, in this TiVo world, there isn't going to be another Hemingway. The age of the "celebrity author" is over and gone.) Still, it's not that I didn't try. It's not that I haven't written a lot. I've written tons of stuff. Fiction, poetry, journalism....I just never published anything, outside of journalism, except what I was able to pony up for and publish myself.

No shame there, right? Walt Whitman and William Blake published themselves. Hell, Whitman peddled Leaves of Grass door-to-door.

I have self-published five books since 2000: Tower-102, (published under my legal name "Alexander Dupuis") Losing Philadelphia, Three Flies Up, The Vespers of 1610 and The Key. I don't know how many people have read them. Not many. Suffice it to say I'm not the late Tom Clancy.

But he died last week. He died rich and famous, but he's still dead. CNN carried the news of his death. It won't carry the news of mine. I'm poor and unknown, but, for the time being, still alive.

What am I doing all this for? I teach English in Istanbul, Turkey. I get paid maybe ten bucks an hour, live with two other guys, and have to count my coins before I go down the street for a beer. I have no wife, no children, no nothing. And yet I keep on keeping on. I'm sitting here typing this in an empty apartment during a rainstorm. My two roommates are both out of the country this week.

But you know what? I live as I chose to live. I blame nobody for my fate but myself. I was once a U.S. federal government employee. I could easily have ridden that gig out to a cushy retirement, but I decided not to. I didn't want to look back and see nothing behind me but 30 years of busywork leading to a pension. That's what my father did. I kicked that over and left. I bought into hard times. I did it deliberately. It's nobody's fault but mine.

So this essay is not about self-pity. I don't feel sorry for myself at all. Times are hard, but I made them that way. Nobody's ever read my books, but they can't say that I didn't write them. I wrote them, all right. I published them too. I'm proud of that.

I've been married and divorced twice. A guy like me, who rejects the harness, is not meant to be married. I haven't even had a girlfriend in more than three years. Nobody's fault. I live alone (except for two male roommates who both have Turkish girlfriends and go their own way) and I have no real complaints about it. Loneliness has its compensations. It's peaceful and it's cheap.

So, I guess I will go paint another watercolor now. I have a pile of them somewhere. And more to come. Until the last heartbeat, there will always be more to come.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Prettiest Girl On Luzon

I'm loading this picture on my my blog because Facebook will not load it. I've been trying for 24 hours to get FB to upload this picture, and it just keeps staring at me and doing nothing. (Facebook, that is. Not the picture.)

This is Ms. Mary Grace Herrera. I have never been to the Philippines, but should she turn out to be the prettiest young woman on all of those islands, I would not be the slightest bit surprised.

Neither will you be surprised when I tell you that half the guys on Facebook are in hot pursuit of this pretty face. And, believe it or not, she doesn't think she's pretty!

I don't know but I would suspect that Mary just might be the prettiest girl I ever saw, anywhere. And she describes herself as "ugly." Is that something? The entire male population of Facebook is drooling over her, guys are sending her indecent proposals and God-knows what all else, but she keeps insisting that she's "ugly."

Do you think this girl is "ugly?" I don't.

I think this is the prettiest girl on the island of Luzon. And I've never even been there.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Is Asia. That's Europe Over There.

On the road again. What a place is Istanbul--history
everywhere you look.
I am in Istanbul. That is correct. Istanbul, Turkey. I have come to teach English, with my teaching duties scheduled to begin tomorrow. Today is Sunday. The mosques are closed, but I think just about everything else is open. For everyone and everything in Istanbul except the mosques, Sunday is just another work day. I have today off, but my two roommates, also teachers, are both giving classes as I sit writing this and waiting for a hard-boiled egg on the kitchen stove.

I flew from Los Angeles on Sunday, September 8th, arriving the next night local time. L.A. to Istanbul is 11 hours if you're flying nonstop, as I did two years ago when I flew from L.A. to Tbilisi, Georgia on Turkish Airlines. I assumed I would be flying Turkish Airlines again, since Istanbul was my final destination this time and not a stopping-off spot.  But I didn't make my flight reservation until the last possible moment, and by then Aeroflot was cheaper than Turkish Air, so I went through Moscow. Kind of too bad, not only because Turkish Airlines would have been direct, but also (not to knock Aeroflot's in-flight meals, they're okay) Turkish Airlines has the best airplane food I've ever experienced this side of Air France.

There is always at least one crisis involved whenever I travel anywhere, and this trip was no exception. I'd been using my bank debit card all summer instead of cash, and continued to do so on this overseas journey -- I arrived in Istanbul with only my Mission Federal Credit Union Mastercard in my wallet. No cash. At passport control they told me I had to go to the visa office for a $20 tourist visa to get me out of the airport. When I tried to use my MFCU debit card to pay for the visa, it was rejected. They sent me to the transit desk, where a Turkish airport guy took me upstairs to the HSBC bank to try their ATM. No dice; the ATM rejected my card.

I was in a panic. Stuck in Istanbul, with no money and no way of getting any? I sat, paced, fumed while the Turks tried to figure out what to do with me. There was some rumbling about sending me back to Moscow. "How would I pay for that?" I countered.

Just as I was about to ask someone to call the American consulate, I remembered something. Last year, when I flew to China and tried to get some cash in Beijing, the moment Mission Federal's central computer saw a transaction being attempted on my card in a foreign country, it shut my account down. The computer assumed that my card had been stolen.

One of the Turkish guys at the transit desk let me borrow his cellphone (mine was dead) and I called my credit union. Sure enough, that was what had happened. MCFU's computer had seen a transaction coming from a foreign country and had shut down my account. We got it straightened out over the phone, but it took me two hours to get out of the airport. Happily, the young man whom my new employers had sent to meet me had not quite yet given up on me: he was still standing beyond customs, holding up a card with my name on it (misspelled, but close enough.) By midnight I had been escorted to the apartment I am now sharing with two other teachers. After 17 hours on the road, I collapsed right into bed, having landed "on my feet" one more terrifying time.

Istanbul has history woven into its bones, and for obvious reasons.

Istanbul divides Europe from Asia, standing as it does athwart the Bosporus, a narrow body of water that connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. There has been a city here since forever. In ancient times it was called Byzantium. In A.D. 330 the Romans came in and named the city Constantinople, after the Emperor Constantine. The descendants of the Romans ran the show here until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks took over. The city was renamed Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks ran the show until after World War I, then a certain Kemal Mustafa Attaturk (Turkey's version of George Washington, father of his country) got rid of them and founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923.

With the Bosporus as a neighborhood landmark, Istanbul is divided into two halves: "Asia" and "Europe." I, and the language center for which I will be teaching, are located on the "Asia" side of the water. But the "Europe" side is only about forty minutes away by bus. That's not because the distance is so great, but because the traffic is so horrible. In the photo above you will see the suspension bridge that connects Europe with Asia, and you can traverse the water that way by bus or car, but they tell me that the ferry is a much more pleasant way to travel from one continent to the other.

We spent last week in training at New York Studio, which used to be Berlitz and is one of many language-teaching centers here. This is where we'll be teaching, when we aren't on-site at any number of businesses around the city. The school uses the same methodology as Berlitz, and we had three days to learn it. There were five of us in my training group, myself, three young women from the UK, and another lady, Turkish, who already teaches in Istanbul but is coming to work for NY Studio and had to learn its methods. Our instructor, a woman named Demet, took us through our paces. It was a lot of information to absorb in three days. I took a lot of notes but my head is still swimming with it. My first class is tomorrow evening. I will be teaching business English to a group of advanced students. I haven't taught adults since I was in training for my TEFL certificate more than ten years ago, and I'm more than a little nervous about it. All the teaching I've done for the past two years has been with children.

Istanbul is a city of 20 million people. The Turks are mostly very friendly; when I go into a store to make a purchase, I usually get a nice smile and a "thank you." Same at the outdoor market they have on Fridays between our apartment and the school. Some of us stopped there last Friday after class and bought some fruits and vegetables. The vendors want you to buy their stuff of course, so they hand you free samples. One guy handed me a couple of figs. Figs aren't my favorite fruit, but I ate them to be polite, and found that these figs, anyway, were delicious. We're all on tight budgets of course, and Kirsten, one of my fellow trainees, said she intends to do most of her food shopping at the outdoor market because everything is very cheap there, and some of the stores are quite expensive. She got a big bag of tomatoes, potatoes and onions for four Turkish lira, about two bucks.

Yesterday was Saturday. We went to the center in the morning to observe other teachers conducting their classes. Then in the afternoon, Kirsten and I, along with Lizzie, another new teacher, took the bus across the Bosporus to Taksim, Istanbul's old city center over on the European side of the water. It was hot all week, but it's been cooler this weekend, although it's supposed to get hot again tomorrow. Taksim was jampacked with tourists and shoppers. There is a pedestrian street right in the middle of the old city, and people were literally crammed in there elbow-to-elbow, milling around, shopping. Some sort of political demonstration was cooking up, apparently. I'm not sure what it was about, but the police were taking no chances -- cops in riot gear outnumbered the demonstrators at least 100 to one. There were platoons of police all over the place, wearing helmets and body armor and carrying riot shields, rifles and machine guns. But there was no trouble that I heard of and of course the cops ignored us. And just about everyone except the demonstrators -- a man I asked on the street said they represented the Kurdish political party -- ignored the cops, as many of them as there were. We shopped, dropped in at NY Studios' Taksim center, met with another friend, shopped some more, ate and drank, sweated and got jostled a lot. All in a day's tourism.

Finally, about 8 p.m., we piled into a Dolmus, (the kind of seven-passenger van/taxi that the Russians call a marshutka) and made the trip back over the bridge and across the water to the tip of Asia, where we live. The trip back took more than an hour. I simply cannot describe Istanbul's traffic. Just think "constipation" and put it in terms of headlights, taillights, brake lights, lurch-and-stop, peristaltic lane changes and lots of honking. It was after nine p.m. by the time I got back to my apartment. The van dropped us near our school and then I had to hike down the hill toward my new home. As I struck out on foot, my feet aching and my backpack whacking my spine, behind me one of the local mosques began droning out the call to evening prayers.

You can set your watch by the mosques in this part of the world. In fact I find that I don't need an alarm clock here. Quite promptly, around 5:40 a.m. each morning in mid-September, I'm greeted by the early-morning call to prayers from a mosque around the corner from our apartment, on a boulevard which it shares with everything else you might expect: grocery stores, restaurants, shoe outlets, women's clothing shops, plumbing supply places and Domino's pizza. Also Papa John's. About the same time the mosque sends me my wake-up call, I also hear from the seagulls. We're a short walk from the Sea of Marmara here, although I'm told the beach is too dirty for swimming. The Black Sea is about forty-five minutes in the other direction. Doesn't matter whether we can swim or not; as a native Californian, the sound of seagulls is the sound of home to me. Just as the smell of the sea was the smell of home to the Greeks in Xenophon's March of the Ten Thousand.

Which happened somewhere in this part of the world, as I recall. Seagulls and history. Never mind that I can't read the billboards. If you have a sense of your own cultural heritage, there's a homey feel to this place.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Educating Me

I went to college a long, long time ago, and I did manage to get a four-year degree. For the record, my B.A. is in History and Journalism (I double-majored at San Diego State, the only time I ever even attempted to be an "overachiever.")

But, for the most part, I have been an autodidact throughout my life, with all the pleasures and pitfalls that entails.

Welcome home, old friends from my childhood.
Autodidacts pick up a lot of information, but since they do most of their studying without professional guidance, they often wander astray into weird areas, you know, like astrology, or worse, the strange, dark world of conspiracy theories.

One of my favorite authors, Henry Miller, was mostly self-taught, and he read hugely. But he never managed to divorce himself from some pretty odd stuff, including the aforementioned astrology. (Miller also took Oswald Spengler seriously, something no discriminating student of either philosophy or history would ever do.) Then you have Bobby Fischer, chessmaster genius, school dropout and total kook.

But these guys were geniuses, with all of the dangers that lie that way. I'm just an average guy who, like my hero Miller, has read a lot and continues to. (Why not? Reading and sleeping are two of the cheapest activities I know.)

For a few short years when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronomer. Honestly, I did. Outer space fascinated me,  and besides, I was growing up in the 1960s, when the race to the moon was in the headlines. Many boys of my generation dreamed of becoming astronauts, and I did too, for a while. But it was a short-lived dream. By the time I was 12 or 13 I had realized that I didn't have The Right Stuff. Somebody else was going to have to take that trip to the moon for me.

But that didn't mean I couldn't gaze at the stars and dream. I read every book on astronomy I could get my hands on, and between the ages of 11 and 14, went through three telescopes.

That dream died about the time I was starting high school. You see, I'm hopeless at mathematics, and the modern astronomer is a mathematician who works mostly at night. I flunked basic algebra in the 11th grade. So much for my becoming any kind of scientist.

But one discipline connects to another, and my boyhood interest in astronomy led to a concomitant interest in the science of physics. Einstein and Niels Bohr were among my childhood heroes. Now, I was never, ever going to become competent at physics. Not with my complete incompetence at math. In fact my experience of failure in high school algebra was related to my interest in physics: you had to pass algebra before you could take physics. My plan was to take algebra during my junior year, then take physics my senior year. Well, having flunked algebra, there would be no physics class for me. I took humanities and sang in the school choir instead.

But when I was still in junior high school, at the tail end of the 1960s, I bought a three-volume set of paperback books, Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov (New York: Signet Books. 1966.) These little books were so cool-looking. Their covers featured colorful, sixties-style "op art." The three volumes were subtitled, respectively, Motion, Sound and Heat; Light, Magnetism and Electricity; and The Electron, Proton and Neutron. Had I any aptitude for this stuff at all, I might have become a classic nerd.

But I had none. And although I possessed these books for many years, I never managed to read them. Poets seldom make scientists, despite the occasional exception like Loren Eiseley.  My acquaintance with the world of science remained largely a question of reading biographies of guys like Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. The science was lost on me because the math was lost on me.

On the other hand, there are examples in history of people with a childhood or youthful interest in science or engineering who go on to become creative artists. Poet W.H. Auden thought he wanted to be a mining engineer until a friend suggested to him one day that he should write poetry. Norman Mailer majored in engineering at Harvard, many years before he wrote his breakout novel The Naked and The Dead  in 1949. Many years after that, Mailer's training in the field of engineering would stand him in good stead when he wrote Of A Fire On The Moon, a book about the U.S. space program.

My childhood interest in astronomy and physics, hopeless though it might have been, has influenced my own poetry since I began to write poetry just about the same time my dream of becoming an astronomer was waning. And so, at age 57, I am now force-feeding myself those very three books by Isaac Asimov that I purchased as a teenager but could never get myself to read, chiefly because their plenitude of mathematical equations, even on casual glance, would send me into a confused slumber.

My strategy is simple: concentrate on the narrative and skim over the math, which is going to be lost on me anyway. I have already finished the second volume of the trilogy, Light, Magnetism and Electricity and have now backed up to volume one, Motion, Sound and Heat. Yes, yes, I know that these books were published nearly 50 years ago and are no doubt quite dated (they mention things like typewriters, film cameras and record players, which we don't have any more) but it doesn't matter. They're basic, and they reinforce a lot of stuff that I picked up as a child but have long since stopped thinking about.

I am hoping to avoid my father's fate, you see. In his final years, my father made so little use of his brain that it turned to mush. I was his caregiver as he sank into dementia, uninterested in much of anything beyond large-print westerns and John Wayne movies. I don't want to go that way, although I still might; after all I'm up against some powerful genes. I've always been told that if you keep your mind busy, your mind will remain clear. At least up to a point. So, as I approach 60, I am reading through those very books on science which I relished (but did not read) as a boy. It's edifying. It's a jog down memory lane.

And maybe, just maybe, it might help me hang on to my memory.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Classics that Clunk

Sometimes my reading follows no pattern at all. I've described it as "brownian motion," like the bouncing-off-each-other of certain subatomic particles that seems random even to physics.

I'm living in Moscow. Just a couple of weeks ago I visited the house in which Tolstoy lived here when he was a child. (I believe he hated it.) You might think I'd be prompted by such experiences to read Tolstoy.

Well, been there, done that, as we used to say. There is very little of Tolstoy's fiction that I haven't already read. I've read War & Peace and Anna Karenina at least three times each. Both are on my Kindle, but I probably won't bother with either again. I brought along with me to Moscow my Penguin edition of The Cossacks and Other Stories, which includes the remarkable late novella Hadji Murad...but again, I've read all of that before.
"He wrote as if writing were
a painful duty."

So...what was I reading during my first couple of weeks back in Russia, after all these years?

Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Dreiser (1871-1945) was an American novelist possessed of a peculiar sort of genius.

He couldn't write worth a damn. Even his admirers admitted the fact. I was prompted to read Sister Carrie after reading an essay on Dreiser by the great scholar and critic Joseph Epstein. Of Dreiser's famously clodhopper prose style, Epstein writes, "Finding aesthetic fault with Theodore Dreiser is easy, a game the whole family can play. The very first sentence of [Dreiser's novel] Jennie Gerhardt contains an obvious tautology, where Jennie is referred to as "a young girl of eighteen," (as opposed, one wants to shoot back at the author, to an old or perhaps middle-aged girl of eighteen?") Epstein goes on to cite four or five "strenuous cliches" that turn up "before the novel's first paragraph of seven sentences is complete."

H.L. Mencken, an admirer of Dreiser's, nonetheless famously noted that Dreiser had "an incurable antipathy to the mot juste."

Oscar Wilde once remarked of Henry James that he wrote "as if writing were a painful duty." If Wilde could make a crack like that about Henry James, I can only wonder what he would have said about Dreiser. I managed to get through Sister Carrie, but noted in my journal along the way that reading Dreiser's prose is "like swallowing cod liver oil."

True. But ... believe it or not, there IS such a thing as "good bad writing." Having said that faulting Dreiser's prose style is "a game the whole family can play," Epstein adds further down that making fun of Dreiser's prose is "snobbery, a game no one in the family should play," and he has a point. If a writer has good instincts, and Dreiser did, he or she can compel without charming, create human portraits, dramatic moments and what might be called spiritual or psychological honesty without possessing the niceties of a fine style.

Sister Carrie was a groundbreaking novel for its time. Published in 1900, it overturned some Victorian conventions with its frankness regarding human weakness and the realities of urban life. Some critics objected to what they called the book's "immorality" -- Dreiser's heroine Carrie Meeber lives out of wedlock with two men and suffers no punishment for it. In the 19th century, such "sinning" had to lead to comeuppance or something was out of whack.

Dreiser was having none of such sentimental treacle, and thus earned a reputation as one of the founders of the "realist" school. His urban landscapes are unsentimental, unforgiving, unstinting and capricious. If the plot of Sister Carrie contains few surprises -- the reader watches Carrie triumph while her lover George Hurstwood sinks into degradation and despair -- it also comprises a brutally honest narrative about what it's like to be poor in the big city, sparing no one and nothing. The novel was filmed twice, including a 1952 production starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.

You wonder. What is it about "good bad writing?" How can something poorly-made still manage to work? It's a mystery to me. The young Ernest Hemingway, who had been reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, once asked his friend Ezra Pound if he had any clues into how Dostoevsky could "write so badly and make you feel things so strongly?" With typical Poundian candor, Pound is supposed to have responded by admitting that he had never read "the Rooshians." 
It's a mystery.

As far as I know, Hemingway could not read Russian (I can't either) and knew Dostoevsky through the English translations of the indefatigable Constance Garnett, who starting around the beginning of the 20th century translated just about all of the Russian classics that she could get her hands on. So how did Hemingway know that Dostoevsky was writing badly, if he had to read him in translation? Maybe Constance Garnett was a good enough translator to make badness "come through." I've read her stuff -- just about every English-speaker who doesn't know Russian but is curious about Russian literature has. And I have managed to find Dostoevski as exasperating as he is brilliant, so I guess old Constance did a good job. Those "in the know" will assure you that Dostoevsky's writing is slipshod. Vladimir Nabokov, the great prose stylist who wrote in both Russian and English, absolutely could not abide Dostoevsky.  My Russian friend Nadya, at one time a great reader, loves to talk about the immortal Tolstoy, but if you bring up Dostoevsky she tries to change the subject. As a Russian cultural patriot, I think Nadya finds Dostoevsky slightly embarrassing.

And I don't think this is fair. Dostoevsky belongs to the same tradition as Dreiser: that of writers who wrote in a way that discerning critics might find malodorous, but who nonetheless, as Hemingway pointed out, have the ability to reach deep into your soul and pull things out. But in Dostoevsky's case external circumstances are an important part of the story. Tolstoy could afford to write beautifully. He was extremely wealthy, owned a large estate about 250 miles south of Moscow and possessed the aristocratic leisure (after all, he was COUNT Leo Tolstoy) to take his time with his writing, polish, adjust, edit, polish, and then polish some more. I think I read somewhere that his wife Sonia copied out the entire body of War & Peace three times.

Dostoevsky had no such advantage. He was not wealthy and had to rely on his pen for a living. Consequently he was subject to editors' deadlines -- and was always behind deadline, as writers invariably are -- so that if his writing often appears slapdash, it's because it was: Dostoevsky had to write quickly, and he did. Deadlines are not the friend of fine writing, take it from a former newspaperman who knows what he's talking about.

Speaking of newspapers -- a powerful symbol of the transitory in Sister Carrie -- critic F.R. Leavis once noted that Theodore Dreiser seemed to have learned English from a newspaper. It was as if, Leavis pointed out, Dreiser had no native language of his own. Well, there's the cliche that a workman is only as good as his tools. And it's usually true. But there is also an ineffable quality called transcendence, which seems to be the exclusive property of genius. I don't know how to describe it, except to say that when you're in its presence, you'll know. You'll know it when you look at Michaelangelo's David or listen to Handel's Messiah. Okay, Michaelangelo and Handel are two of "the big guns" -- as genius goes, Dostoevsky and Dreiser don't quite run in their crowd. But whoever passes out genius sometimes passes it out in larger and sometimes in smaller portions. Another mystery. There's no question in my mind that the twin D's had it, each in his own quirky way, and each for all time.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Papa's Got A Brand-New Blog

Heads up, Night Thoughts At Noon fans (both of you.) I have been recently humming On The Road Again (again.) Yes, old KD has broken his old record for peregrination: I've taken up residence in my third foreign country in less than two years. In 2011 I went off to teach English to school children in Tbilisi, Georgia. In 2012 I left Georgia and went to teach in China.

One of my favorite Moscow neighborhoods
...long before I came along.

Well, now I'm in Russia. Arrived in Moscow a week ago Friday, April 26.

In Georgia, and in China, I made my observations about life and work in those countries on the Night Thoughts At Noon page. But Russia has been a part of my life for so much longer, and my experiences here of so much more profound impact on me, that I've decided to create a new blog, exclusively to keep track of my Russian life "this time around."

Entitled Moscow Days, Moscow Nights after a blog entry I put on Night Thoughts some years ago to talk about my experiences in Russia during the 1990s, my new blog is located at

My everyday, non-Russia-related rantings and ravings will continue to appear in this space.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Confessions of a Hodad

Yesterday on one of our local cable channels here in southern California, I was watching one of my favorite movies, Riding Giants. It's a beautiful (and sometimes scary) documentary about surfers. Not just any surfers, mind you, but big wave surfers, that especially-nervy subculture of the surfing subculture that gets its thrills from the quasi-suicidal: surfing the world's biggest waves: Mavericks in Santa Cruz, California. Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Teahupoo, Tahiti, where the waves are so big and so treacherous that a surfing contest there was recently canceled --evidently it was decided that the surf was too dangerous for anyone except maybe the Lord Poseidon himself ... and most Greek scholars that I have talked to are unaware that Poseidon ever surfed. Gods are usually too smart to be daredevils; hubris and its twin brother stupidity are pretty much human foibles.  

The test pilots in The Right Stuff talked about "pushing the envelope" all through that film. The surfers in this film are a living testimony to pushing the envelope. In this subculture, the more frightening a wave gets, the more bound-and-determined some surfer is going to be to develop a new twist on the technology of the sport which will allow those who dare to ... well, dare.

I'm hooked on this stuff. Stoked, as surfers say. I will watch any surfing film that comes along. Another favorite is Step Into Liquid, in which some especially focused adrenaline-junkies go so far as to have themselves taken 100 miles out to sea off the coast of my native San Diego in a boat, there to have themselves towed via jet-ski to where they can zip down waves close to 100 feet high, some of them on special, hydrofoil-equipped surfboards that allow them to coast along just above the water as they ride waves the size of bank buildings.

Me? I don't surf at all. I don't think I could if I tried. Oh, I took a few lessons a few years ago. My teacher was a fellow named Randy Couts. Randy is actually well-known in the surfing world, or used to be. He was a competition surfer who was giving surfing lessons to kids one summer about ten years back, when I was a newspaper reporter in Chula Vista. I read about his surfing school in the San Diego paper, then called him up and asked if he might give me some lessons. He readily agreed, and we met at Coronado Beach on a few contiguous Saturdays, where he drilled me on how to lie on the board, paddle out to the line, watch for a set of waves, launch yourself upon one and then try to execute one of the trickiest moves this side of bowing a Stradivarius properly: finding the "sweet spot" on the board which will allow you to leap into a crouching position and then rise to a standing position on the wave without tipping over and falling into the drink.

I even bought a surfboard from Randy. I was that serious about this stuff. My board is long-gone; when my second wife divorced me it got left behind in her garage. I bought a wet suit, too; it's in a cardboard box in my sister's attic.

I'm a capable-enough swimmer, but I've never been able to completely overcome a fear of the ocean which has haunted me since I was eleven years old and got caught in a rip current at Silver Strand State Beach, just a mile or two south of Coronado. I damn near drowned on that summer day in 1967. An alert lifeguard saved my bacon, but after that I was always afraid to go out in the water any higher than my shoulders. Randy cajoled me into putting this fear aside for our lessons; as we floated on our surfboards within view of the famous Hotel del Coronado, he assured me that the water where we sat was only about eight feet deep.

It was early September: late summer, and the waves were still suitable for beginners. A month later, autumn was coming on and with it, bigger waves. Randy and I met at the beach one last time, sat there talking and looking at the sets from the shore, and did not venture out.

I tried to "solo" once, going out to Coronado with my surfboard and without Randy. That was a couple of months later. Failure: I rode in on a couple of waves, on my stomach, without trying to stand up on the board, and went home. I've never tried to surf again.

The surfing subculture defines a "hodad" as ... well, a phony. Someone who pretends to be a surfer but isn't. I guess I could give myself a not-guilty on the accusation of technical hodadry -- I have never tried to pass myself off as a surfer. I'm something much worse: a wannabe. I would love to be a surfer. I just don't have the nerve. (And, I'm 57 years old.)

Now, I have fantasised about being everyone from Beethoven to Ernest Hemingway. But not in my wildest imaginings have I ever tried to see myself as Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning or Matt Wilkinson. Even if I ever did work up the nerve to try surfing again, you would never find me within screaming distance of big waves. I'd stick to places like Imperial Beach and San Clemente, and even those places only on days when the surf was no higher than my head.
Good film. Let these guys (or their stunt
doubles) take the risks. I'll watch.

Oh, but the vicarious has its attractions, the safety of one's living room being only the most obvious. I'm never going to hang ten or shoot the curl, but I can by-god sit on my sofa and watch the pros do it. Nothing wrong with envy. I have seen The Endless Summer at least ten times, and while I laugh with the cognoscenti at such dopey sixties fare as Ride The Wild Surf or the Frankie-and-Annette beach romps, one of my favorite feature films is Big Wednesday, directed by John Milius in 1978. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey play a trio of surfing pals growing up before, during and after the Vietnam war, reuniting near the end of the story for the big waves of Big Wednesday.

I've never met legendary surf filmmaker Bruce Brown, who made The Endless Summer in 1966, but I can claim a six-degrees thing with him: his son Dana directed a film in 2005, Dust To Glory. It's not a surfing film, but rather a documentary about the famous Baja 1000 auto race. I've never met Dana Brown either, but one of the participants in the 2004 Baja 1000 was Scott McMillan, the son -- and grandson -- of two of San Diego County's most prominent realtors, and I interviewed Scott in 2005 for a newspaper article about the race and the film.

That same year I requested a surfing calendar as an office Christmas gift, and for a year I actually subscribed to Surfing magazine. That's probably as close to the Pipeline as I'm ever going to get. Oh, if I can swing it one day I might drive up the coast to Huntington Beach or wherever the hell it is they hold that annual surfing competition, just to watch. Or maybe I'll cruise up to Tourmaline, just south of La Jolla, and watch the weekend warriors go at it.

If I squint just right, this might be me. Those waves are about my speed.

I'd love to be out there with them, one of them, paddling to the line, talking surfing the way ballplayers talk baseball.

But I'm afraid a dream is what it's going to remain. That day at Silver Strand during the Summer of Love is not going to be banished from my memory, I fear. Oh, well. Facing our mortality is part of becoming more mature, as is facing the fact that we're never going to be what our heroes were. Maybe that's why they remain our heroes.

As Clint Eastwood said many years ago in Magnum Force, "A man's gotta know his limitations."

I think I'll just toddle off and enjoy The Endless Summer one more time. That's another advantage to being an eternal wannabe: in my living room, the surf's always up.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Self-Portrait, 2013

I "interviewed" myself two years ago. I decided to do it again, just to see if anything has changed.

Self-Portrait, 2013
Q: If you had to live in just one place – without ever leaving – where would it be?
A: Two years ago I wasn’t sure. I demurred at the suggestion of Paris, which is not really that big a city. Now, in 2013, I think I would say Paris. And it’s not a romantic-dream thing either, like in the Woody Allen film Midnight In Paris, where the hero gets to actually meet Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Picasso. The 1920s are not coming back, nor is the Belle Epoque, but I have been to Paris several times and it is as beautiful as everyone says it is. Who knows, maybe I’d finally get down to learning French.

Q: You don't speak French?
A: Nope. My dad did, but I don't.
Q: Are you writing anything these days?
A: Yeah, this stupid blog. Gives me something to do. I’m editing a friend’s novel, which gives me something else to do, and looking for another overseas teaching job, which gives me yet something else to do. Actually, I have gotten back to work in a tentative way on a novel I began writing in 2010.

Q: Care to say anything about it?
A: Why not? It involves the CIA, but has nothing whatsoever to do with espionage.

Q: Do you prefer animals to people?
A: Sometimes, not usually. Animals are great because they have no guile and they don’t know what the word “betrayal” means. On the other hand you can’t talk about baseball, cooking, Steven Spielberg or Proust with them. Oh, you could, but the conversation would be a bit one-sided. Having said that, I agree with Truman Capote that people who tell you they love animals are often very cruel to people. Hitler loved dogs.

Q: Are you cruel?
A: I try not to be. Sometimes I fail. Cruelty is the most abominable of vices. I can think of nothing that makes me angrier than cruelty of any kind, and one of my problems with the British is that so much of their "comedy" is based on cruelty. Graham Greene has a short story called The Destructors, which we were required to read in high school. It's about a bunch of shitty little English brats  who completely wreck and gut a poor old man's house just for fun. I think the British find that story funny, but I certainly didn't.  I am sometimes verbally cruel, especially when I’m angry. This has become less of a problem since I gave up drinking hard liquor, which gives me a tongue like an adder.I always regret my cruelties immediately. Me and my big mouth have hurt people I love way too many times.

Q: Do you have many friends?
A: No. Most of my friends are dead. There are maybe five people I more or less trust.

Q: What qualities do you look for in friends?
A:  Obviously patience is a biggie. If you’re going to be around me, you’d better have patience, and I have little of it.  Impatience is my worst quality. Understanding, a much tougher demand, is something else I look for. Mostly, I want my friends to understand that they must under no circumstances interrupt me when I'm watching the opening day of baseball season, or one of my favorite movies. Don't get between me and the flat screen if there's anything running on cable that has Audrey Hepburn or Genevieve Bujold in it.

Q: Are you often disappointed by a friend?
A: I’ve had some unpleasant surprises from people I considered to be friends. But friends change as do we all, and sometimes I find that I like the later version of a friend less than the earlier one.

 Q: Are you a truthful person?
A: I think so. That’s not to say that I always tell the truth, but I’m a miserably poor liar, so I usually just don’t try it. I wouldn’t have made a good actor, although some people have told me that I should have been an actor. I disagree. If I say something and I don’t mean it, you can tell. It’s easier to lie as a writer of course; no one can see your face when you do it. But I don’t like lying, it makes me uncomfortable and gives me guilt, especially if I’m lying to someone I love.

Q: Do you believe in God?
A: Yes, but I think that “yes” raises more questions than it answers. I believe in God, but on the surface of it anyway, it sometimes seems as if God and I don’t have much use for each other. That could be just more of my impatience. Atheists are always talking about how much cruelty and misery religion has caused. I don't see that atheism has a great track record for spreading, peace, love and joy either. I wouldn't want Robespierre, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha or Kim il-Sung coming down my chimney on Christmas Eve. I  don't see much difference between Truly Convinced fundamentalists and Truly Convinced atheists. Both think they have the True Answer, and people who are convinced that they have the True Answer often become killers in the name of it. I envy people who claim to have a personal relationship with God. At 57 I'm still not sure who He is. But I believe He is there. I guess I believe because I believe in a world of colors. Belief comes in many colors. Unbelief only comes in one color: gray. You know, like the gray of East Berlin, which I once visited. And anyway, as Bob Dylan wrote, "negativity won't pull you through."

Q: How do you like to occupy your spare time?
A: I love to read. I always have. Reading coalesced for me when I was about six, and I’ve never stopped.  I love to cook, and often read cookbooks for fun.

Q: What are you reading these days?
A: I’m studying the history of philosophy.

Q: Why philosophy?
A: Because I never took a philosophy course when I was in college, and it’s a big, fat gap in my education. But it’s something we should know something about.

Q: Have you learned anything that you consider important or useful from the study of philosophy?
A: Yeah, that a lot of philosophers were smarter than me. But I wonder how many of them read cookbooks for fun?

Q: Reading anything else?
A: I’ve been reading some of the poetry of James Merrill, and I think he’s just amazing. Recently I read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, so now I understand a little bit more about Abraham, "The father of faith," than I did before. And I’m re-reading Of Human Bondage, which is a great classic, but to read Somerset Maugham means trying to overcome one of my most basic prejudices: I just hate the way the British talk. Goddamn it, people, talk English! Nobody says “I shall” anymore. And if one more of his characters starts out a sentence with "I say," or describes something as "frightfully" this or "dreadfully" that, I'm gonna scream. I'm also reading Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, a memoir about his experiences of being under a death sentence from the Iranians for having published a novel that many Muslims considered an insult to Islam.

Q. Refresh my memory. When did that happen?
A: How soon we forget. In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini, the madman who was running Iran at the time, pronounced the fatwa, or death sentence, on Rushdie's head. Rushdie lived in England -- still does, as far as I know -- and spent years in hiding. I was in Brazil when all of this happened, and immediately ordered a copy of the book in a gesture of solidarity with Rushdie. There was no in those days; I had to place the order by snailmail and wait.

Q: Was the book worth the wait?
A: The gesture was. I read the book more than 20 years ago and remember little about it. Some people claimed that they found it unreadable. I don't remember any overt blasphemy, but I do remember a less-than-flattering portrait of an old kook who bore an uncanny resemblance to Khomeini, which might have been what all the fuss n' feathers was really about.

Q: Of what are you most afraid?
A: Homelessness. Death, too, of course, but death is something you only have to deal with once. The idea of ending up homeless scares the shit out of me. I see homeless people all the time, as do we all, and try to hand them a couple of bucks when I can. Then I think of the song Eleanor Rigby and my heart sinks into my shoes. There but for the luck of the Irish go I.

Q: You're not Irish. Your last name is French.
A: Uh-huh, but that's on my Dad's side. My father's people were canucks -- they came down from Quebec in the early 20th century and wound up in Massachusetts, where my father was born. My biological grandmother on my mother's side was Irish. Her family name was Russell. They came from County Meath. You know The Book of Kells? Kells is in County Meath. Can't get more Irish than that.

Q: Where was your mother born?
A: England. Blackpool. My grandfather Winrow brought her to America when she was a girl. He was a Brit. He was born in 1879 and was in the British merchant marine for years. He met his first wife, his Irish wife, on a merchant ship bound for Peru. She died in 1921, when my mom was three months old. He met his second wife, the woman I knew as “Grandma,” in Pennsylvania.

Q: England, Ireland, Peru, Pennsylvania. How did you end up in southern California?
A: Grandpa Winrow came west in 1929 to join a friend of his in a business venture, which I understand was to have been regular air cargo freight service from the west coast of the U.S. to South America. But one of my family's curses is its ill-timing (and mine is absolutely the worst.) You can probably guess what happened: 1929. The stock market crashed, Grandpa Winrow and his buddy were wiped out, and the family was mired in San Diego County. Eighty years on, there are only two of us left here now, myself and my sister Carla. And I'm looking to get out.

Q: Why would anybody want to leave a beautiful place like San Diego?
A: The family's gone, and the family homestead, a house my grandfather bought in 1941, was sold after my father's death in 2005. There's nothing left here for me but memories. If you saw the Woody Allen film Radio Days, you might remember its poignant ending, in which Allen, as voice-over narrator, reminds one and all that memories fade with each passing year. All this played out against Kurt Weill's September Song, to me the saddest song ever written.

Q: Did you know either of your grandfathers?
A: No. Grandpa Winrow died six years before I was born, in the very same room in which my father would die 56 years later. I don't even know what Grandpere Dupuis looked like. My dad probably didn't know, either. My paternal grandfather ran off and deserted his family when my father was a little boy.

Q: What shocks you, if anything?
A: Well, we already talked about cruelty. Cruelty shocks and disturbs me. And any work of art, be it film, book or whatever, that is deliberately mean-spirited or makes light of mean-spiritedness. Very hip people thought David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet a sophisticated spoof of something. I saw only ugliness. I hated every minute of it.

Q: Have you been to the movies lately?
A: As a matter of fact I went to a movie yesterday. First time I’d gone to a movie theater to see a first-run film in seven years. My pal Charlie and I went to see Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

Q: What did you think?
A: I was ambivalent about it, and so was Charlie. We agreed that the movie gave us too many emotional cues, which can lead to a viewer’s feeling manipulated. But that’s Steven Spielberg. Remember Saving Private Ryan? Also, it should have ended with Day-Lewis walking off into the night on his way to Ford’s Theater. But it went on beyond that. Every American schoolkid knows that Booth shot Lincoln. We didn’t need to be shown that again. The film was about the passing of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery just before the end of the Civil War. That’s where it should have ended I think.

Q: Do you exercise?
A: I have to, these days. I don’t have a car anymore. When I’m in California, I pretty much get around on a bicycle.

Q: What happened to your car?
A: When I went overseas to teach school about 18 months ago, my sister sold it. I asked her to.

Q: What’s the most hopeful word in any language?
A: Love.

Q: And the most dangerous?
A: Love.

Q: Have you ever wanted to kill anybody?
A: Yes, but never for more than five minutes, which wasn't enough time to actually do it.

Q: What are your political interests?
A: I have none. I don’t vote any more, and only look at the newspaper to check the obituaries and the baseball scores.

 Q: If you could be anything, what would you like to be?
A: Financially independent, just like everyone else. Other than that, I don’t know. Invisible, maybe. That could be a lot of fun.

Q: What are your chief vices? And virtues?
A: Well, I hardly drink any more, and I never did do drugs. I don’t gamble. You couldn’t pay me to watch TV. I guess the only vice I have left is cigars. And smokeless tobacco. Virtues? I think if I have a chief virtue, it’s gratitude. As W.H. Auden put it, “Let your last thinks all be thanks.”

Q: Do you have a particular guiding principle that you live by?
A: Yeah.  If it looks too good to be true, it is.

Friday, March 1, 2013

There Is Joy In Mudville

It's warm today here in southern California, even though the calendar says it's still winter.

That's what everybody likes about southern California.

Along with the warm weather of early March comes a piece of very good news for Los Angeles Dodgers fans.

Sandy Koufax is back in Dodger blue. Yes!

Sandy Koufax imparts wisdom to youth.
Koufax was signed by the old Brooklyn Dodgers for $10,000 as a "bonus baby" in 1955, (the year I was born), retired from pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 after a string of amazing seasons, and is (deservedly) a legend. He is the greatest lefty who ever pitched for the Dodgers, and maybe the greatest lefty, period. (I would answer "yes" to the latter, because Koufax has been one of my gods since I was a  child.) But I don't want to spark any baseball debates, and by the way, my friends who are San Francisco Giants fans are hereby excused.

I'm usually the last one to hear news. I don't read newspapers, I don't watch TV news, and I avoid Internet news websites. But I do watch baseball, and when it's not available on TV, I listen to it on the radio. Yesterday I was listening to the Dodgers play the Angels in a spring training game on KLAC AM 570 out of Los Angeles, and KLAC laid some joy on me.

Sandy is coaching Dodger pitchers in spring training again. This is good news for the Dodgers.

And for me.

Koufax and the Dodger organization have had their estrangements over the years. The reclusive Koufax has distanced himself from the Dodgers more than once, although for many years after his retirement he showed up at spring training camp every winter to observe, advise and, well yes, be gawked at. (I'm sure this last caused Koufax some discomfort. He shuns the spotlight and doesn't like to talk about himself.)

But listening to yesterday's game on the radio, I learned that Koufax had been talked into coming back. Former Dodger owner Rupert Murdoch is long gone, and with him his media empire, which includes the New York Post. The Post published a piece in 2003 that so angered Koufax he disappeared again, and was gone for years.

But now he's back. The Dodgers and their fans may rejoice.

To commemorate this great occasion, I will now reproduce a poem  wrote a couple of years ago about my childhood experience of watching Koufax pitch, once and once only, on television:

Sandy Koufax posted an unbelieveable
.038 ERA in three games of the 1965 World Series
against the Minnesota Twins. I was ten, and
will never see the like again.

Seeing Sandy Koufax
I ran home from school one afternoon -- ran, got it?
Because baseball was still an afternoon game then,
and I wanted to get in front of the Sears
black-and-white portable as quickly as I could.
I couldn't have known it, but I was racing the clock
for keeps: at the end of that very season he retired.
The elbow caught up with the arm from hell.
But I got there. KTLA, Channel 5: I saw it,
him, the clockwork nightmare. (Willie Mays
Himself said the ball looked like an aspirin --
you barely sensed it whooshing past,
a dancing bullet in the afternoon light.)
Baffled hitters had two-tenths of a second
to watch it drop like Tennyson's eagle. Dancing.
Children, there was nothing like it. I pity you,
not having been there, never having seen.
His body became a slingshot like David's,
or like the spaceship in that dumb sequel to 2001,
where it sweeps around Jupiter, and using
the giant planet's gravity, slingshots itself violently
toward home. (This was about pitching, and going home.)
I got to see it in glorious black-and-white.
I was ten, and would never see its like again.
A few years ago someone published a book entitled 101 Reasons To Love The Dodgers.
This is Reason #102.
Play ball!


Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Runner Stumbles, Then Walks Away

NOTE: This is the beginning of a novel that I began writing a few years ago and didn't finish. In fact, I hardly got started. It stops suddenly after eight pages. Anybody care to pick up where I left off?  "Interactive fiction!" Why the hell not?

"The wild god of this world is sometimes merciful
 to those that ask for mercy; seldom to the arrogant."
--Robinson Jeffers
            Nobody hitchhikes any more, not unless they have a death wish.  We’re told that hitchhiking used to be as American as hopping freight cars, something else no one does any more.

 It’s a new world, and it’s been a long time coming: way back in 1978, Bob Dylan told an interviewer that he wouldn’t consider hitchhiking even then, although he had famously hitchhiked from Minnesota to New York when he was about 20 years old.  “Too many drugs out there now,” I think he said.

 Already, as early as 1978.

I sometimes get nostalgic for this America that I never saw or knew, (call it second-hand nostalgia) the America in which Jack Kerouac could thumb and freight-hop his way from one coast to the other without having to worry about any threat more sinister than a railroad bull looking to toss him off the Midnight Ghost from Los Angeles to San Francisco, (yes, I know that this has been exaggerated—he did most of his actual  traveling either in friends’ cars or on Greyhound buses, but what the hell, it makes a good story), the America of Route 66 and its less-storied sister two-lanes, which ran right through the middle of otherwise-sleepy towns where you could get a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake for 85¢. 

The advent of the interstate highway system ended all of that.  The Eisenhower years are traditionally depicted as a time of stagnation, but in that sense they were revolutionary:  they killed off Kerouac’s “great American night” and replaced it with a homogenized network of coast-to-coast asphalt on which you can go for a thousand miles in any direction and hardly have a sense of where you are outside of the state name heading the red-white-and-blue sign by the road that reads “70,” “8,” “95” or whatever. 

Hitchhikers?  You’ll still see them haunting the occasional on-ramp about once every conjunction of Jupiter and Mars, but nobody in his or her right mind would give them more than a glance while accelerating into the right lane past the “Speed Limit 55” sign which everyone also ignores. Too many drugs out there. Not to mention guns, knives and wannabe space aliens waiting to hijack your car for a side-trip to the Planet Mongo.

            These problems didn’t exist, or barely existed, when my father, James Donahy, hitchhiked from Los Angeles to El Centro in 1940. 

The Great Depression was lingering.  America’s entry into World War II wouldn’t come along to finally end the massive unemployment for another year and a half.  My father knew how to drive a truck and someone had offered him work driving lettuce out of the Imperial Valley.  He quit a job as a security guard at a Long Beach oil refinery to take the truck-driving job in El Centro because it promised to pay better.  But he didn’t have much money in his pocket and he wasn’t sure whether the new job was going to work out or not, so to save a couple of dollars he hitchhiked out to the desert rather than taking a bus. 

But as it happened, the truck driving job worked out well, so well that he stayed in Imperial County for three years.  He got married there, (he’d already been married and divorced once) to a woman whose family was from Long Beach, the place he had left to come to the desert.  Having Long Beach in common was in fact what started their first conversation at the Centinela CafĂ©.  It was a Saturday night, and I like to imagine that Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were blowing out of the jukebox.  (Another boring romantic, that’s me.) 

My father and his second wife, whose name I think was Betty (my mother was his third wife) moved into a house in Holtville, about 15 miles east of  El Centro.  

Betty died in childbirth, as my father’s story went, and the child lived only a few hours.  Her family back in Long Beach wanted to have her body returned to the coast for burial there.  The baby, who didn’t live long enough to be named, was buried right there in Holtville.  My father moved on. 

Almost four decades later, I went to El Centro to take my first real job. Call it a coincidence if you  like.  I didn’t hitchhike there, I drove—in a 1973 Plymouth Scamp, to be exact. 

But modes of transportation aside, the Imperial Valley is a place where my family has gone to burn a lot of karma. 

            Later I found out that Herm Syktich wasn’t exactly home-grown either.  He was a transplant too, in his case from Pomona.  The official story from the Syktich family was that he’d come to the Imperial Valley for his health.  He had asthma and they thought the dry air of the low desert would be good for him.  That, and real estate was cheap there—very  cheap, for the obvious reason that nobody in his right mind who wasn’t born in Imperial County would want to live there, not with those 115-degree summers—so the house in Holtville where the Syktiches lived had been a bargain. (Syktich is a Ukrainian name,if anyone cares.)

But I suspected that there was more to it than that.  Pomona is in Los Angeles County, and Los Angeles is a big place.  Herm’s incessant letters-to-the-editor couldn’t have been attracting much attention there. But in Imperial County,  a sparsely-populated farm area with lots of churches, Herm and his alternately neo-Marxist and neo-atheist broadsides would get listened to, if not necessarily welcomed.  Pissing people off, after all, beats the heck out of being ignored. 

How I came to close my father’s circle is simple enough.  When I got out of college the country was in a recession, (again) so jobs weren’t that easy to get generally, and to make matters worse, I had majored in journalism, chiefly as a sop to my father, who was worried that I wasn’t “learning a trade.”  I’d wanted to major in history; in fact I did pursue a history major, but after witnessing not only my father but both of my parents wringing their hands over the generally-accepted “uselessness” of a liberal arts degree, I added journalism as a second major.  Yes, it came under the College of Professional Studies, so I suppose in a sense it passed for “learning a trade,” but journalism is a field in which it’s notoriously hard to find work, (and once you do find it, the next thing you discover is that the pay is a joke) so I didn’t just walk out of Cal State Northridge’s front door on graduation day and find a job waiting for me.  No, to my parents’ continued consternation (and continued hand-wringing) I lived on at home for a time after graduation, working at odd jobs and trolling for that first break in the news business.

 It was a while in coming.  In fact after a few months I began to think that maybe, despite my father’s misgivings about liberal arts as a career, I ought to go back to Northridge, get my M.A. in history. After that perhaps  I could at least teach somewhere. 

But then, when I’d been stocking shelves and mopping floors in a 7-11 store in Los Angeles for about six months, on the graveyard shift no less, a man walked into the store at 4:00 one morning for a pack of cigarettes.  He stopped long enough to have a cup of coffee and I, grateful for a chance to put the mop down, chatted with him for a few minutes as he sipped and smoked. 

His name was Tom Bergland.  He had just driven most of the night to get back from Santa Cruz, where he’d gone to attend a funeral.  He was a reporter for L.A. Press Service, an independent news organization that served subscriber newspapers in the county.  Naturally I mentioned that I’d just graduated from Northridge with a journalism major, and we talked about that for a while.  

He came back about a week later and asked me if I were ready to go to work.

 I thought he was joking.  But he wasn’t.  He said LAPS had just lost two reporters and he needed to replace them quickly.  He’d decided to offer me a shot at a real job.  He said he believed in giving young people a chance, and he gave me a test which, if I passed it, would convince him that I could be placed on a news beat. 

The test: he pointed to an office building across the street and told me that if I could find out who owned that building, that would prove that I knew how to dig for information, which he said is the most important thing any reporter does.  He’d put me to work if I could find out who owned that building.  He gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I did.

Not sure whether I was getting the break of my life or whether I was having my leg pulled by a loony, I drove out to the L.A. County Administration Center, found the hall of records and learned that the building in question was owned by a large insurance firm based in Indiana.  I called Bergland and gave him this information and he told me to meet him at the press room at city hall the next morning.  He was going to put me to work, he said, covering the Los Angeles City Council. 

 I could hardly sleep that night.  Six months out of college and I was going to work for a news service, covering the L.A. City Council, no less!  Either I was “on my way” or there was some very big catch to this that he wasn’t telling me about.

Of course there was, and I should have thought to ask, but when you’re 22 you don’t think to ask about such things, or at least I didn’t.

The catch was, of course, the money.  L.A. Press Service was a shoestring operation that didn’t even have its own office space.  Its reporters worked out of the press rooms of the public buildings where they worked: the city and county buildings and the county courthouse.  LAPS used desks and telephones that were furnished by local government for the media’s use, and often had to jockey for space and facilities with the more-mainstream people from the L.A. Times and other papers, not to mention the TV news crews, when something flashy enough to attract local television’s interest came up.  

             As a newcomer I would be paid 60 cents per column inch for everything I published in the subscriber newspapers.  I soon found out that, with long hours and hard work, I could expect to make $300 or $400 a month, and that would be a good month. 

Still, I quit the 7-11 store where I was working and accepted a berth with Bergland’s little organization. 

My parents were in despair of course, utterly convinced by this latest folly of mine that I would never move out of their back bedroom and get a “real” job.  I tried to explain to them that, even though L.A. Press Service wouldn’t be paying me much, this was an opportunity to get some hands-on experience which could lead to a regular, salaried job later on. 

It was a tough sell, to my father especially, who had lived through the Depression in his youth and even now, decades later, still subscribed to the belief that it was unreasonable of anyone to feel that they should be allowed to “pick and choose” their employment.  In 1934 you were grateful to have a job, any kind of job, and that was that.  He saw no reason to think that things should be any different now. That I would give up a guaranteed $3.25 an hour to go chasing after something that promised only so much for what I could sell seemed crazy to him.  So I took a second job, working weekends as a swing-shift security guard in a tuna cannery in San Pedro.  This served two purposes: it added a little extra change to what I was bringing home from my work at the L.A. Press Service, and it convinced my father of my seriousness: if I was willing to work seven days a week so I could be a reporter five days a week, well, that impressed him.

The city press room saw a lot of people come and go during the course of an average week, but there were some regular “fixtures” there besides myself.  A couple of times a week either Tom Bergland or Katie Cusic from LAPS would come by to check up on how things were going—they both handled client relations as well as reporting, and their time was as much filled with selling the service and getting the bills out as it was with actually covering news—but for the most part I spent my time with Leslie Sirota, who covered city government for the Los Angeles Times, and Juan Fontes, who covered it for the San Gabriel Valley News. 

Within fifteen seconds of meeting her, I decided that Leslie Ann Sirota was beyond any doubt the most beautiful woman upon whom I had ever laid eyes.  About three years my senior, she had already spent considerable time “in the trenches,” a fact made obvious in turn by the fact that she was, at age 25, already a reporter for the biggest newspaper on the west coast.  In fact, I learned as I talked with her, that from age 13 on she had never wanted to be anything except a reporter.  She’d gone to U.C.L.A. and had done an internship at the Washington Post  during the summer of her senior year.  After graduating, she’d taken a job on a tiny twice-weekly in Huntington Beach called the Huntington Beachcomber.  A dumb move?  Not at all—on a newspaper that small, one tends to become an editor very quickly, in fact, sometimes one becomes an editor upon walking through the door.  Leslie became the Beachcomber’s editor in less than two years.  Subsequently, when the Los Angeles Times was looking for someone to cover local government in Orange County, Leslie caught their attention and, at 24, she was hired.  A year later they had her covering L.A. city government.  She was a blue-eyed brunette, and I’ve always been a sucker for blue-eyed brunettes.  She was Polish-Jewish by descent; her parents had been in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.  They had both died by the time she was 18.  She didn’t put a lot of effort into dressing well—she was too wrapped up in her work, I always supposed—but she had a good figure and an engaging smile and what with that thick brown hair and those blue eyes, I spent the best part of the year I worked for LAPS hopelessly in love with her.  She was usually too busy to even talk to me, though, and I spent whole days sitting at my desk in that press room contemplating the back of her neck and grinding my teeth.

But although I would moon and moan at length over Leslie Sirota in the months to come, it was Juan Fontes who ultimately proved the wild card which would result in the closing of my father’s circle by bringing me to El Centro. 

Juan was in his thirties and had been in the business for ten years.  He was originally from San Diego.  In my early days of covering the council, he gave me pointers on everything from when was the best time to catch the city clerk in her office to cleaning my typewriter (yes, we still used typewriters in those days—mine was a Smith-Imperial Classic 12 portable, and no, L.A. Press Service didn’t provide me with it, I brought it from home.)  Soon Juan and were hanging out together.  We would sometimes go jogging during his lunch hour (there was a locker room in the basement where we could change and shower) and once in a while after work we would slip off to a nearby tavern for a beer or two, although my tight budget didn’t allow for too-frequent bar drinking.  It was during one of these beer-drinking sessions after a day at city hall that Juan raised the question of where I was planning to go from LAPS. 

“After all, sooner or later you want a job where you ain’t being paid so-many peanuts per column inch, right?”

“Well, yeah, of course,” I replied.  “But I don’t think the Times is going to look at me just yet, or the Valley News either.”

“I had my first newspaper job down in the Imperial Valley, in El Centro,” he said.  “You ever think about going down there?”

“Are you out of your mind?”  I asked him.  “The DESERT?  There’s nothing down there but lettuce.  And doesn’t it get up to something like 20,000 degrees in the summer there?”

“Right on both counts, and precisely my point.  See, because it’s such an undesirable place, nobody wants to stay there for very long.  So the daily paper down there has a turnover problem.  People come and go.  If you get your resume on file there, you might have a chance at getting a job.  I know it’s not much of a place, but it would be a step up from this.  At least you’d be working on a daily paper.  And you’d have a by-line—LAPS don’t give nobody a by-line, your stories just say ‘L.A. Press Service’ at the top.  Nobody’s outside city hall’s getting to know who you are, and people getting to know who you are is half the game.” 

He had a point. 

Still.  “The Imperial Valley?”  I cringed.

“Well, just think about it.  If you at least want to send a resume down there, I can tell you who to send it to.  The managing editor’s name is Henry Birnbaum.  He’s been there for about 10 or 11 years.  He was sort of ‘exiled’ from the paper’s parent organization, the Springfield, Illinois Tribune.  That’s where he’s from, Springfield.  But about ten years ago the Tribune decided they had too many assistant managing editors running around, and Henry got transferred all the way out here.  The Trib actually owns a chain of papers down there in the desert.  They have papers in Indio, Blythe, and Needles besides the one in El Centro.  Henry’s a case.  He used to give me a bad time about my long hair.  He called it my ‘Buster Brown’ haircut.  I couldn’t convince him that that was the style then.  Henry still lives in the 1950s.  But he’s really into the business.  His father was an editor, and Henry has ‘printer’s ink in his blood,’ as the old saying goes.”

“I don’t know.”

“Just think about it.  I’ll even give Henry a call if you like.”
From here, my protagonist was to have gone down to the Imperial Valley and gotten involved in the investigation of a ten-year-old murder case involving the killing of two FBI agents by a local young crazy whose trigger-point turns out to have been Herm Syktich's political ravings in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper. But this was as far as I got. I fear this book will never be written, and I spent 25 years thinking about writing it, because the story would have been based on true events.
Anybody out there care to make a suggestion as to what should have happened next?