Working Within the System

Time Magazine Cover Story on Yevgeny Yevtushenko

There are two Yevtushenkos. Coming to light in the early 1960s was the young Siberian poet who gave poetry readings to huge crowds in the Soviet Union, like some kind of rock star. He was critical of Stalin, of Russian anti-Semitism, and the “blue envelopes” with extra pay given to writers who toed the official line. Yet he clearly worked within the system, considered himself a loyal Communist, and was allowed to visit foreign countries without fear of his escaping.

I have just finished reading the poet’s A Precocious Autobiography, published in 1963, at the height of his fame—at a time when the Western press was touting him as a Communist they admired. It was a book that was at the same time critical of the government and eager to please it. According to an article in The Guardian:

Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, however, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

As the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said about Yevtushenko: “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Here we have the second Yevtushenko, a figure of controversy.

Where do I stand on the poet? I have read his poems, but don’t care for them. But then, I don’t know Russian, and he could be badly translated—or else he might be one of those poets whose works don’t translate well into other languages.

When the Soviet Union blinked out of existence around 1989-1990, the the poet moved to the United States, where he taught courses at colleges in New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died in Tulsa in 2017.

 

The Gang That Couldn’t Govern

Republican Stumblebums from the Senate and House (Except for the Kid: He’s Innocent)

As the U.S. Government heads for another disastrous shutdown, one is led to wonder at the utter uselessness of the officials we have chosen to represent us in Congress. Senator Mitch McConnell (Ratf*ck—Kentucky) and Congressman Paul Ryan (Ratf*ck—Pennsylvania) should be made to swallow their U.S. Flag pins and commit ritual hara kiri on the steps of Congress.

I really don’t like writing about American politics. Heck, I don’t even like discussing politics with my friends. I feel soiled when I do.

Even though there will be an election this November, I have diminishing faith in the American voters who selected the present clowns in office. They will either be re-elected or replaced with other clowns who are attracted to the ways of power. When that power serves only to disgust not only the American people, but our allies (if any are left), and embolden our enemies (the list is growing).

 

Tough Guys

Yeah, Well, It’s Now an Epidemic

What ever happened to the American male? At some point, did everyone get together and decide that they’d be happier if they looked like Roman gladiators? What with all the tattoos and several days’ beard growths, guys are looking as if they can take care of themselves. Even if, really, they are marshmallows.

Even fat guys are wearing those shorts that go down to the ankles so that they resemble gang veteranos. Even if they never belonged to a gang.

What I want to know is this: Is anyone being fooled, really? What do we gain from looking like tough guys, even when we aren’t? Perhaps it’s because of the movies. I just saw the last half of a movie called In a Valley of Violence (2016) starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. All the male actors are as scruffy as makeup can make them, even the ones who are actually cowardly. The two women in the film—Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan—who play sisters, are actually tougher than their men, and without being scruffy.

I would hate to think that the American Male is a victim of Central Casting.

 

 

 

Farmers and Hipsters

Seafood Stand at the Old Farmers’ Market

Originally, there was the Original Farmers’ Market at Third and Fairfax. Even on the hottest days, it is a cool, shaded place with dozens of good restaurants and interesting stores. Naturally, this being Los Angeles, the real estate developers couldn’t leave well enough alone. Adjacent to the old market sprang up The Grove, consisting primarily of chains oriented toward young hipsters.

In the original market, I can take a book or Kindle and sit down for hours reading without being bothered. Oh, I buy lunch there, and maybe have a cup of tea when I arrive—and maybe even some snacks to take home.

At The Grove, there is no place to sit and read. After all, hipsters don’t read. It’s just not cool enough.

Hipster Duds at The Grove (Yawn!)

Fortunately, the presence of The Grove has not killed the Original Farmers’ Market. It’s still a major tourist attraction. So is The Grove, for that matter. Both are full of people taking selfies. I think that if The Grove swallowed the old market, people would protest loud and long. Also, I have a sneaking feeling that The Grove may require several re-designs as the new hipsters replace the old. The Farmers’ Market, on the other hand, should be preserved exactly as it is.

Today at the market, I finished reading the first volume of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and then started in with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Plus I had two great vegetarian tacos at The Lotería, one with nopalitos (marinated prickly pear cactus) and potatoes with poblano chiles. With it, I had a delicious watermelon agua fresca.

 

America: Going Down the Drain?

The Vegas Strip

Somehow, over the years, something happened to the United States and its people. In 1945—the year I was born—we were one of the few countries involved in the Second World War that were not in ruins. We were on top of the heap. The hardworking people who struggled through the Great Depression and helped restore Western Europe after the Nazi onslaught, were suddenly guilty of hubris. We thought we were really something, that our way of life was the only way to go. We were the City on the Hill, and everyplace else was a steaming sh*thole.

Nemesis struck quickly and often. Korea. The Bay of Pigs. Viet Nam. Iraq. Afghanistan. Panama. Grenada. Al Qaida. ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. And that was just the military!

We still thought we were really something. We got into deep debt, figuring that we had it coming to us. We stopped saving money for a rainy day. There was always Vegas, the Lottery, or the Horses.

We built fancy new things, never figuring that we would have to maintain and repair them somewhere along the line. The streets of Southern California are full of potholes, ringed by K-Rails, and bumpy with steel plates.

Americans drove these mean streets in leased luxury automobiles they really couldn’t afford. The more they paid, the more they assumed they could do anything they wanted: They were the privileged class with their Lexuses, Bentleys, Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, Infinitis, and Range Rovers.

These same Americans elected a President like them, a privileged real estate developer who made the Whites into the New Aryans.

Will I live to see American feel a twinge of humility? Or will we continue to swirl around the drain until we go down it?

 

 

Looking South to Guatemala

Temple I at Tikal in the Petén

It’s time to resume visiting Mayan ruins, after a hiatus of twenty-five years. It was in 1992 that I went to Yucatán with Martine and several friends from work. For years I had wanted to see the ruins in Guatemala, but there was something like a civil war going on under the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, whose “Evangelical” regime was slaughtering the Mayans. For most of the 1980s, the U.S. State Department recommended that Americans stay out of Guatemala.

Later this year, I hope to visit the ruins of Tikal and Quiriguá in Guatemala and hop over the border into Honduras to see the ruins of Copán. Half the trip will be devoted to ruins, and the other half to visiting picturesque Highland Mayan towns like Antigua, Huehuetenango, Chichicastenango, and Panajachel. It would be nice if I could talk someone into accompanying me, but even at my advanced age, I am too adventurous for most of my friends.

I am starting my planning early, because I have a lot of reading to do before the rainy season ends in Central America.

 

Old Man Crazy About Fish Tacos

Is It Now My Favorite Meal? Could Be….

My first acquaintance with fish tacos was in Yucatán in 1975. I tasted not only regular fish tacos, but also tacos with pan de cazón, or shark. I liked it then, but over the decades the taste has begun to grow on me. There’s something about grilled fish with raw shredded cabbage, a squeeze of lime, and even avocado slices that is capable of sending me into transports of ecstasy.

Today, Martine and I went to Gilbert’s El Indio Mexican Restaurant in Santa Monica. I had heard they had good tacos, but their fish tacos, which I tried for the first time today, were nothing less than superb. Each was wrapped in two warm corn tortillas and served with wedges of lime and pico de gallo.

In Southern California, there are fish taco chains, such as Wahoo’s, but I care not for their product. Maybe because they slather on some white sauce that tastes like sugared mayonnaise. No, I want to control the flavor of my fish taco, and do not want any weird sauces to wreck my flavoring the taco as I wish.

I have lived in Los Angeles now for upwards of half a century, and I find that I like the cuisine of Southern California, which is really Mexican. I love pork tamales with hot sauce, salads with marinated nopalitos (prickly pear cactus pads), and aguas frescas made with tunas (cactus fruit, not fish). I love hot chiles, when Martine lets me cook with them (they irritate her eyes). Freshly heated corn tortillas are still magical to me.

Although I was raised as a Hungarian—and I still like Hungarian food, when I can find it—I must have been kidnapped by Mexican bandidos when I got off the train at Union Station in 1966.

By the way, the first taco I ever ate was at the Mexican Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.