An Enchantment


Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The barons at his court were extremely worried when they saw that the sovereign, wholly taken up with his amorous passion and unmindful of his regal dignity, was neglecting the affairs of state. When the girl suddenly died, the courtiers were greatly relieved—but not for long, because Charlemagne’s love did not die with her. The emperor had the embalmed carried to his bedchamber, where he refused to be parted from it. The Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this macabre passion, suspected an enchantment and insisted on examining the corpse. Hidden under the dead girl’s tongue he found a ring with a precious stone set in it. As soon as the ring was in Turpin’s hands, Charlemagne fell in love with the archbishop and hurriedly had the girl buried. In order to escape the embarrassing situation, Turpin flung the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne thereupon fell in love with the lake and would not leave its shores.—Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, quoting Barbey d’Aurevilly.

Why I Don’t Text

One Can Pick and Choose Which Technologies to Adopt

Is it because I’m older than dirt? Hmm, maybe, but it wouldn’t be the exact reason. The real reason is that I faced a major struggle to learn how to speak and write correct English.

It all started at Harvey Rice Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio in January 1951. The school was at that time right in the middle of the largest Hungarian neighborhood in the United States. My parents and great grandmother did not speak English at home, so I was raised speaking Hungarian. (We didn’t have a television set until later.)

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell, sent me home with a note pinned to my shirt saying “What language is this child speaking? Is there something wrong with him?” Duh! Mrs. Idell was teaching in the middle of a Hungarian neighborhood and had no idea of what Hungarian sounded like. How 1950s is that!

I wonder whether that was the main reason we moved to the suburbs in 1951 after my brother Dan was born.There, I attended St. Henry Elementary School on Harvard Avenue where I made fairly rapid strides in learning what was for me a new language. Where, in kindergarten, I was thought to be something of a retard, by Fifth Grade and onwards I was getting all As—particularly, I might add, in English. In fact, by the Eighth Grade, I was the only person in my class who could diagram complicated sentences by parts of speech. And I got a scholarship to Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio (now called St. Peter Chanel).

With this background, I do not accept the abbreviations forced on texters, such as OMG, LOL, IMHO, YATFM, and wkewl. My idea of language is not a branch of shorthand: It is a medium for communication that attempts to be exact and even, whenever possible, elegant. I like varying my sentence architecture and even using words that might not be all that common. But I always search for the mot juste. And abbreviations and shorthand don’t qualify. I love Martine dearly, but I will not confuse her by saying 143 to her. Incidentally, it’s not the technology: it’s all the shortcuts I hate. I never even used any smileys in my e-mails, though I was e-mailing before many texters were even born.

At the risk of being thought an old fool (which imputation I will not necessarily dispute), I will continue to eschew technologies that vitiate the hard-won battles of my past life.


“A Naked Stranger”


The sea tempted him. He made up his mind to bathe, and at once walked toward the shore. The instant he stepped outside the shadow line of the forest trees, the blinding rays of the sun beat down on him so savagely that for a few minutes he felt sick and his head swam. He trod quickly across the sands. The orange-coloured parts were nearly hot enough to roast food, he judged, but the violet parts were like fire itself. He stepped on a patch in ignorance, and immediately jumped high into the air with a startled yell.

The sea was voluptuously warm. It would not bear his weight, so he determined to try swimming. First of all he stripped off his skin garment, washed it thoroughly with sand and water, and laid it in the sun to dry. Then he scrubbed himself as well as he could and washed out his beard and hair. After that, he waded in a long way, until the water reached his breast, and took to swimming—avoiding the spouts as far as possible He found it no pastime. The water was everywhere of unequal density. In some places he could swim, in others he could barely save himself from drowning, in others again he could not force himself beneath the surface at all. There were no outward signs to show what the water ahead held in store for him. The whole business was most dangerous.

He came out, feeling clean and invigorated. For a time he walked up and down the sands, drying himself in the hot sunshine and looking around him. He was a naked stranger in a huge, foreign, mystical world, and whichever way he turned, unknown and threatening forces were glaring at him. The gigantic, white, withering Branchspell, the awful, body-changing Alppain, the beautiful, deadly, treacherous sea, the dark and eerie Swaylone’s Island, the spirit-crushing forest out of which he had just escaped—to all these mighty powers, surrounding him on every side, what resources had he, a feeble, ignorant traveller to oppose, from a tiny planet on the other side of space, to avoid being utterly destroyed?… Then he smiled to himself. “I’ve already been here two days, and still I survive. I have luck—and with that one can balance the universe. But what is luck—a verbal expression, or a thing?”—David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus


Soup Wisdom

Sadaf Soup Mix, One of the Indispensable Ingredients

Soup Wisdom is the name of a little book by Frieda Arkin that was produced by Consumer Reports back in 1980. It is one of the two sources of what I know about making soup. It is the lesser source: The main one is my mother, Sophie Paris, to whom this blog posting is dedicated. For the duration of my childhood and well into my adult years, my mother taught me that soup can make for a great meal. Just recognizing what a great soup can do for you is half the battle: The rest, like sex, consists of experimenting with a willing partner.

Here I will attempt to give away my secrets to making a delicious soup. Some of what I say will be general, some specific.

Take Your Time. Soups are better when you take several hours to make them. Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat and slowly add the ingredients one by one.

Using Your Blender. A mistake that many neophytes make is to make the soup too thin. There are several ways to avoid that. The Hungarian method is by making a rántás, or roue, using butter; minced onion, garlic, and parsley; Hungarian (not Spanish) paprika; and a couple tablespoons of general purpose flour.

What I usually do is, as the soup nears completion, ladle some of the mixture—liquids and solids together—into my blender and add a chopped-up bunch of Swiss Chard, which gives the broth a wonderful flavor along with the thicker texture. If you don’t have Swiss Chard, some other greens could be substituted—but note that the Chard is a really great flavor booster!

“Soup Mix.” Living as I do in an area where there are numerous Persian, Armenian, and Middle Eastern markets, what I always do is buy some “soup mix,” which consists of small pieces of green and yellow split peas, pearl barley, rice, and alphabet macaroni. I add this to the soup as soon as the liquid begins to boil and let it basically cook down to form a nice and very healthy background flavor and texture. I am partial to the brands put out by Sadaf and Springfield Foods.

Soupercharging Your Soup. If you have more time than I have, you might want to make your own beef, chicken, or vegetable broth to use as the base of your soup. Here’s where I cheat a little: I buy some soup broth of the desired variety from Trader Joe’s or my local supermarket. This week, I made a vegetarian minestrone using Swanson’s canned vegetable broth, which was quite good. I love the Trader Joe chicken broths, of which there are a couple of varieties.

Salt at the End. Some ingredients tend to get a little tough if you salt the soup too early. Since Martine doesn’t like salt very much, I don’t add any salt until the soup is served.

I know I said at the outset to take your time, but one of these days, I’ll post a blog about what I do to cheap ramen mixes to make them tastier and healthier without taking more than 5-10 minutes of my time.

The Great Benghazi Conspiracy

Attack on Benghazi, or Is It Just a Homecoming Weekend Bonfire?

It does not seem as if the Republicans have learned much from their decisive loss in the November 6 Presidential Election. A few Republicans have repudiated Grover Norquist’s insane no-taxes-under-any-circumstances pledge—and that is all to the good! But the continuing drumbeat on Benghazi and all the swirling conspiracy theories relating to who said what when continue to crowd the Right’s media noise machine.

That all doesn’t matter, does it? Talking points are not deeds. What matters is what is done. In the meantime, the various U.S. embassies and consulates in Islamic and some non-Islamic Third World countries will continue to be targets of opportunistic terrorists. Now Susan Rice is under attack by John McCain and his fellow senatorial troglodytes because she only passed on what she was told by intelligence sources. Of course, that puts her at the epicenter of this conspiracy which has gone on long enough.

I think that the sane half of the country should come up with its own conspiracy theories. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are paid agents of the DPRK (that’s the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea).
  • Grover Norquist is a traitor and turncoat who is deliberately attempting to sabotage the political and economic future of the United States.
  • Mitt Romney is a robot created by the Chinese and programmed to take over the country; but, like many Chinese products, it was defective.
  • The House of Representatives is infiltrated by the descendants of Nazis who fled Germany in 1945 and who are attempting to build a Fourth Reich based on the teachings of Ayn Rand.

I have always thought that the obvious solution for failed U.S. Conservative wing-nuts is self-deportation to some tiny airless asteroid on a collision course with the planet Uranus. And I say that only because I’m basically a nice guy.

’Tis the Season … for Soup

Japanese Udon Soup

Shown above is the Pork Udon soup made by the Men’s Club at the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon festival each July. Even though it is in the middle of summer, I always go to down a couple bowls of the stuff. I always add a little Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese chili powder with black sesame seeds) to bring out the flavor.

Soup and I go way back, to the beginning in fact. My mother was a great cook, especially when soups and pastries were involved. We always had a bowl of soup for every lunch and dinner we ate together as a family. Sometimes that bowl was all we needed, particularly if the soup was the hearty Gulyás Leves—or Hungarian Goulash, as it’s also called.

I wish I had the recipes for all her soups, such as the Hungarian egg-drop soup, the mushroom and vegetable soup, the green bean soup with sour cream, the Slovak dry bean soup, the beef broth with big chunks of beef in it (Husleves), the tomato soup, the rice and caraway seed soup—and the list just goes on forever. Mom’s homemade beef broth was the stuff of dreams, though I remember not appreciating it as much when I was younger because I thought my Dad asked for it too often.

Virtually all Hungarian soups begin with a roue (Hungarians call it rántás) consisting of minced onion and garlic, real Hungarian paprika (not the Spanish variety), minced parsley, and some flour. I’m still working at trying to get the right combinations to make it taste as if Mom made it.

Martine has not been feeling well for the last couple of weeks, so I will cook a home-made vegetarian minestrone tonight with a broad mix of veggies and crowned with some Swiss Chard that has been blended into the stock. I’ll try to remember to take a picture of a serving of it tonight and save it for later publication, perhaps with an approximation of the recipe I used. (I never follow recipes exactly: Usually I cherry-pick several recipes and add a few elements of my own.)

When we have soup, we rarely eat an entrée with it. Sometimes I’ll have some cheese and crackers.

If you want to get through the winter happy and healthy, I recommend you eat lots of soup. Real soup, not the canned stuff!

Serendipity: Flitcraft and Wakefield

Hawthorne’s Wakefield

The scene takes place in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is describing a case from his past to Brigid O’Shaughnessy while the two are waiting for Joel Cairo to show up. Following is a slightly abridged version by Robert B. Parker:

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned….

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand…. Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right….

“Here’s what had happened to him. Going to lunch, he passed an office-building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It took only a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was that the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had gotten out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of woman that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Now this passage set my mind to thinking. There was another story with a similar plot that was written approximately a hundred years before. In 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne had released a short story called “Wakefield” and subsequently published it in his collection entitled Twice-Told Tales. It’s worth taking a look at, and you can find it by clicking here. The two stories end quite differently, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

This is the first of what I trust will be a continuing series of things that surprise me in the course of my reading and traveling. Now it could be that Dashiell Hammett knew the Hawthorne story and copied elements of it, but somehow I don’t think so.

The above drawing of Wakefield, the hero of the Hawthorne story, comes from a Spanish blog called eldesconsciente.


Best American Films By Year, Part Two

John Wayne in The Searchers

In this posting, I continue my list of “The Best American Films By Year” covering the period 1915 to 1977. What I am going from is a list produced by my friend Lee Sanders, with whom I am in substantial agreement. When there are two films for a particular year and the second one is in red, the second one is because I disagree with Lee’s choice (which you will find is not too often). Below is the continuation of the list from 1941 to 1960:

1941 – How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
1942 – The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles); Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) – Lee actually had both films tied; I prefer the second
1943 – Air Force (Howard Hawks)
1944 – Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli)
1945 – They Were Expendable (John Ford)
1946 – My Darling Clementine (John Ford); The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) – Lee had both films tied, a decision with which I agree.
1947 – Pursued (Raoul Walsh); Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
1948 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
1949 – Caught (Max Ophuls); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
1950 – Rio Grande (John Ford)

1951 – On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray); Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
1952 – The Quiet Man (John Ford)
1953 – The Bandwagon (Vincente Minnelli)
1954 – The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
1955 – Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
1956 – The Searchers (John Ford)
1957 – Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
1958 – Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
1959 – Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
1960 – Home from the Hill (Vincente Minnelli); Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)

When I conclude this list, we will look at American films of the 1960s and 1970s (up to 1977, and I will bring the list up to 1980 with my own choices).



Zeus Goes A-Wooing

Leda and the Swan

Whenever the Greek God Zeus was felt attracted toward mortal women, he disguised himself as someone or something else and just raped them. That happened in the case of Europa (either as a bull according to Ovid or as an eagle according to Robert Graves); Danae (as a golden shower—hey, I don’t make this stuff up); Callisto (as the Goddess Artemis); and Alcmene (as her husband who was away at war at the time).

Probably the most famous coupling was with Leda, for which Zeus became a swan. The result was Helen of Troy and Polydeuces. Leda’s legitimate children by King Tyndareus of Sparta were Castor and Clytemnestra. You may recall that Clytemnestra married Agamemnon and later murdered him in his bath when he returned from the Trojan War.

The above photo was taken earlier today by me at the Getty Villa in Malibu, one of the best collections of ancient Greek and Roman antiquities in the New World.

All this comes out in this magnificent poem by William Butler Yeats:

Leda and the Swan by W. B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Run Like Hell: The Holidays Are Here!

Thanksgiving: Gobble Until You Wobble

The end of the year tends to be something of a blur for me. The holidays come one right after the other, starting with Halloween and continuing with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. I am of two minds about these holidays. On one hand, I feel I am required to be in a festive mood and follow certain “family” traditions that were, in fact, never a part of my own family. On the other hand, while I appreciate the time off from work, I would rather pick my own holidays and spend the time going someplace interesting, such as Peru, Siberia, American National Parks, or Australia.

Still, for those of you who feel they have to be uplifted by celebrating our holidays in a traditional manner, my heart goes out to you. Just remember that your holidays do not define or delimit you in any way. You are a unique person with needs which other people might at times find off-putting. Never you mind! Just put on a happy face and grit your teeth. But whatever you do, remember to pay homage to your own daemons, once the needs of your loved ones have been taken care of.

I recognize that I am a little strange at times. But so are we all! There is a certain safety in being conventional, but that safety is an illusion. Any day of the year, I would rather read a good book than watch a football game; eat a pork tamale with a fiery salsa picante rather than turkey; give gifts because I want to, not because it is a social obligation.

Tomorrow, Martine and I will go to the Getty Villa to look at ancient Greek and Roman art. We will pointedly not join the throngs at the malls looking for Black Friday bargains. We would rather have a restful Friday looking at works of art which have survived for two or more milllennia that were created by people who were much like us.