The Waxman Goeth

Henry Waxman (D-CA)

Henry A. Waxman (D-CA)

He may not be much to look at, but Henry Arnold Waxman has been my congressional representative since 1975 and one of the few members of the House of Representatives whom I would NOT grind into dog food to feed to rabid dogs. Eschewing the limelight, he has been an exemplary hard worker dedicated to  passing legislation that actually helped people. Because of the demographic make-up of California’s 33rd district, I don’t expect we’ll be seeing him replaced by some tea party type who aims to collect $174,000 a year to sabotage everything near and dear to the voters who elected him, her, or it.

Probably best known for his contributions to health and environmental issues, Waxman will be sorely missed by people who care.

Over the last four years, the House of Representatives has been justly reviled for the white trash that has taken over, using the Congress as a bully pulpit to make stupid statements, such as the recent campaign by Darrell Issa (R-CA) to gut the U.S. Postal Service. I still think most Republican Congressman should be made to don orange jumpsuits and be hauled off to Guantanamo. Now that Waxman, won’t be there, the IQ of Congress has dropped by several whole percentage points.


Mischa the Penguin

A Lone King Penguin Among Magellanic Penguins on Isla Pajaros

A Lone King Penguin Among Magellanic Penguins on Isla de Pájaros

Serendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor Akelseyevich Zolataryov who writes for publication what his editor refers to as obelisks. These are obituary essays written about living people so that, when death comes to them, the newspaper is not caught short for materials to publish quickly. Oddly, though, it seems that all too many of the individuals Andrey memorializes in his deathless prose wind up … dead.

My favorite character is Viktor’s pet and companion, the King Penguin Mischa. When the zoo in Kiev was suffering a financial meltdown, they sold their penguins; and Viktor bought the one he called Mischa.

Mischa is very like the King Penguin at the right in the above picture, which was taken on the Isla de Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Tierra Del Fuego. The largish penguin took a wrong turn into the Beagle Channel and wound up in a rookery consisting mostly of Magellanic Penguins and some Gentoos. It was obviously very lonely and disappointed. Every once in a while, he would try to mate with one of the Magellanic females, but caused uproars every time he tried.

Viktor’s Mischa shambles around the apartment, looking into the mirror, establishing a kind of hiding place behind some furniture, and displaying all the symptoms of a morose and puzzled disposition occasionally verging on depression. Even while Viktor worries that his writing job is connected with an assassination ring, Mischa slowly keeps getting worse. At the same time, he winds up taking care of Sonya, the daughter of one “Mischa-non-penguin,” who was associated with the editor who hired the writer, and who disappears after leaving money and a pistol. He also hires a teenage girl, the niece of his friend Sergey (who dies mysteriously) as a nanny for Sonya, who lethargically enters into a relationship with him.

I loved Death and the Penguin for its mellow strangeness. For a man surrounded by violent death, to which he may be contributing in some unexplained way, Viktor is relatively cool. Eventually, the situation changes rapidly. Mischa becomes ill and gets a heart transplant; and Viktor, well, let us say he takes action of an unexpected kind.

The REAL Old West

The Main Room of the Julian Pioneer Museum

The Main Room of the Julian Pioneer Museum

One of our favorite things to do in small towns in the West is to hunt up the local historical museum. Julian, California, was no exception. Our first full day in Anza Borrego, Martine and I slowly wound our way up the Banner Grade to the small mountain town that sits at the 5,000 foot (or 1,524 meter) level in a pine forest. It was a nippy day on top of the mountain, so we were delighted to find the Julian Pioneer Museum on Highway 78 right near the center of town, where we received a warm welcome.

It was cluttered, but with things redolent of the past and sometimes with a long historical pedigree. For instance, there were several bookcases with glass doors that belonged to President Ulysses S. Grant. He had sent them to his son in San Diego. Some of them found their way to Julian. There was also a chair that belonged to Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, and a very worn pocket knife that once belonged to Zachary Taylor. On the rafters were taxidermy specimens of the local bird and mammal wildlife. There were carriages, a huge (the largest West of the Mississippi, it is claimed) collection of homemade lace, and the tools of the trade for several of the early professions in this Old West town.

Although it was forbidden to take pictures in the interior, I asked permission to take the above photo from the foyer.

Originally, the building was a blacksmith shop built of the native Julian Schist back in 1890 (see bronze commemorative plate below), then a brewery, before once again becoming a blacksmith shop before winding up a ruin that was restored to become a museum back in 1952.

Commemorative Plaque Outside the Museum

Commemorative Plaque Outside the Museum

The Julian Historical Society did such a good job putting together the collections that I rank it with my two favorite California historical museums: the Laws Railroad Museum in California’s Owens Valley near Bishop and the Eastern California Museum, also in the Owens Valley, in Independence, right opposite the house of late writer Mary Austin, whose The Land of Little Rain is a California classic.

Much of what has been written about the Old West comes under the heading of “printing the legend” (q.v. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but there is plenty to see that is real and fascinating. The Julian Pioneer Museum is one of those places.

And while you’re in Julian, don’t forget to drop in at Miner’s Diner for lunch and at one of the local bakeries for a great piece of apple pie.

The Bogeymen

It Costs a Ton of Money to Fight These Bogeymen

It Costs a Ton of Money to Fight These Bogeymen

Under no circumstances am I a follower of the infamous Koch brothers and their right-wing causes. On the other hand, I feel the Democratic fund raisers are too busy targeting these misguided nut jobs rather than changing the voters’ minds with a good political program and real accomplishments. The following is an e-mail I received this morning from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), virtually identical to about eight hundred other e-mails I’ve received over the last year:

James — With just 72 hours until the FEC deadline, we’d usually write to tell you how incredibly close we are to hitting our goal. Bad news: That simply isn’t the case.

Because of the Koch brothers’ UNPRECEDENTED early spending, we just dramatically boosted our fundraising targets for 2014. Right now, we still have a $300,000 hole in our January budget. If you can’t fill it, the Republicans can open a massive lead in the neck-and-neck battle for the Senate.

If we fall short this early — when MSNBC already projects the Republicans are favored to take the Senate — we simply won’t be able to respond to the Kochs and karl Rove, which will doom our chances to protect Democrats who are under attack. Will you step up and renew your DSCC membership for 2014 before the deadline on Friday?

So unless I personally go head to head with a couple of multi-millionaires in the political contribution department, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers will prevail because—as we all know—what it takes to win an election is money for otiose advertisements on television. Of course, everybody votes based on the candidate’s advertising budget alone. I’m supposed to step up and take it on the chin for the team. The Spineless Team. The Circular Firing Squad Team.

To be sure, I want Democratic candidates to win; but I will not be contributing hundreds of dollars for an off-year Congressional race. I have better uses for my money than making a bunch of big corporations that own television stations even richer. And all because Karl Rove and the Koch brothers don’t think the way I do.


Cooking with the Kumeyaay

Morteros at Kumeyaay Village Site in the Blair Valley

Morteros at Kumeyaay Village Site in the Blair Valley

It’s maybe not what you or I would like to eat, but the Kumeyaay Indians of the Anza Borrego Desert managed to survive in a highly hostile environment eating roasted yucca leaves, cakes made with the flour of ground piñon pines, and whatever else they could concoct with the highly limited plant life of the area. The Blair Valley about four miles in from Highway S22 contains an unusual concentration of plant life (see photo below).

Kumeyaay women would find a rock to use as a mano (grindstone) and grind various edible cactus and juniper parts against rocks until depressions formed in them. These depressions (as shown above) were referred to as morteros. The Mortero Trail in the Blair Valley leads to a nicely sheltered “kitchen” area where there are numerous morteros and cupules (vertical morteros, probably for ceremonial purposes).

Lush Hillside in the Immediate Vicinity of the Kumeyaay Village Site

Lush Hillside in the Immediate Vicinity of the Kumeyaay Village Site

Sometimes I wonder what use the tribe made of the creosote bushes and cholla cacti that seem to predominate in the area, but my knowledge only goes so far. Suffice it to say that the Kumeyaay still survives as a tribe in several reservations in California and Mexico’s State of Baja California.

Martine did not like the trail very much, because the pamphlet describing sights along the way was incomplete due to vandalism or some other reason. I loved it and felt that the Kumeyaay village site was probably the most beautiful corner of the whole Anza Borrego desert region.


Reading in the Desert

Our Patio at the Borrego Valley Inn

Our Patio at the Borrego Valley Inn

Martine and I have just returned from four days in the Anza Borrego Desert, the largest contiguous state park in the United States. Compared to the larger National Parks, it is something of a poor orphan; but there is much to be seen. The only problem is it’s very much a do-it-yourself experience. The trails are not very well marked. On Friday, we took what we thought was the Narrows Trail off State Route 78, only to find that there was no clearly defined trailhead, no clearly defined trail, and a plethora of steps leading off in every direction. On Saturday we had better luck. Nonetheless, I even enjoyed our missteps.

Because she lived in Twenty Nine Palms for three years working at the Naval Hospital there, Martine does not value the desert as much as I do: I would not live there, but I find that a visit there helps clarify my mind and brings a sense of peace.

Shown above is our private patio at the Borrego Valley Inn in Borrego Springs. On the table are my two Kindles and a tall glass of ice water. I finally managed to finish reading Tony Judt’s massive Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, and I made a large dent in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. While Martine watched television, I read hundreds of pages after returning from our day trips. The combination of exercise and reading concentrates the mind nicely.

In the days to follow, I will write several postings about our desert experiences.


Desert Interlude

Sunset in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Sunset in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Before tax season gets too intense, Martine and I will spend a four-day weekend in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert. Occupying the eastern third of San Diego County and stretching roughly from just south of Mount San Jacinto to the Mexican Border, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in the United States, and also one of the least known. And, for all its desolation, it is a place of surpassing beauty. Here one can actually sees stars at night—by the million.

If one goes at the right time of year, the desert can be a healing place. What is the right time of year? I would say from late October to late May. During the summer, temperatures can rise to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (or 54.5 degrees Celsius). Only emergency workers and German tourists try to brave the blast furnace heat of a desert summer.

As I do not have a notebook computer (nor do I want access to one at this time), I will not be blogging again until Sunday or Monday.


Bunny Love

Russian Boy with Bunny

Russian Boy with Bunny

Quite by chance, I ran into a website showing selected photographs from Elena Shumilova at Her pictures were a revelation to me: Imagine the most beautiful scenes of Russian farm life, children, and animals—and take it to the power of ten! You can see more of her work at, along with a portrait of the photographer.

There is something so warm and tactile about Shumilova’s photographs that I could not even imagine anything better on the theme. Having read Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook, Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe, and Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer, I have long marveled at the Russians’ love of their countryside. It is as if Shumilova’s photographs opened a window into these authors’ hearts.


Back to Bedlam

Title Shot of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946)

Title Shot of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946)

Originally, it was called Bethlem Royal Hospital or St. Mary Bethlehem. Over the years, the British mental hospital has moved from Bishopsgate to Moorfields to Southwark, where it is now, a reputable institution associated with Kings College London. From its period of notoriety in the 18th century, where the glitterati paid admission to see loonies chained to the wall, it was better known as Bedlam.

There is a wonderful Val Lewton film of the same name, starring Boris Karloff, that was released by RKO in 1946 (see above). In it, a sane young woman is forcibly admitted to the insane asylum when she refuses to odious attentions of a powerful rake. Like almost of all of the Lewton films I have seen, it is a delight. It includes a rebellion of the inmates against the infamous Boris Karloff, who plays the head physician at Bedlam.

Poster for Val Lewton’s Bedlam

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s Bedlam

The reason that Bedlam the movie comes to mind is my realization that we have little progressed from those bad old eighteenth century days when the mentally ill were mistreated for the amusement of visitors. Now, things are almost worse. Ever since the 1980s, the mentally ill have been on their own.When they receive any attention at all, it is usually by the police and prison guards. Instead of getting the medication that helps keep them on an even keel, the mentally ill are mistreated by guards who punish them for their non-normative behavior.

Recently, several Orange County, California police beat up and killed a mental patient named Kelly Thomas who was living on the street. In their various police academies, the police are trained to deal with malefactors, and not with persons who have a tenuous grip on reality. The police were tried and acquitted by an Orange County jury.

The outlook for the mentally ill who are loose on the streets is not a good one. Perhaps even the old Bedlam would have been an improvement.

The Light of Civilization

Traditionally, Chinese scholars, men of letters, artists would give an inspiring name to their residences, hermitages, libraries and studios. Sometimes they did not actually possess residences, hermitages, libraries or studios—not even a roof over their heads—but the existence or non-existence of a material support for a name never appeared to them a very relevant issue. And I wonder if one of the deepest seductions of Chinese culture is not related to this conjuring power with which it vests the Written Word. I am not dealing here with esoteric abstractions, but with a living reality. Let me give you just one modest example, which hit me long ago, when I was an ignorant young student.

In Singapore, I often patronized a small movie theatre which showed old films of Peking operas. The theatre itself was a flimsy open-air structure planted in a paddock by the side of the road (at that time, Singapore still had a countryside): a wooden fence enclosed two dozen rows of seats—long planks resting on trestles. In the rainy season, towards the end of the afternoon, there was always a short heavy downpour, and when the show started, just after dark, the planks often had not yet had time to dry; thus, at the box-office, with our ticket, you received a thick old newspaper to cushion your posterior against the humidity. Everything in the theatre was shoddy and ramshackle—everything except the signpost with the theatre’s name hanging above the entrance: two characters written in a huge and generous calligraphy, Wen Guang—which could be translated as “Light of Civilization” or “Light of the Written-Word” (it is the same thing). However, later on in the show, sitting under the starry sky and watching on screen Ma Liangliang give his sublime interpretation of the part of the wisest minister of the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), you realized that—after all—this “Light of Civilization” was no hollow boast.—Simon Leys, Introduction to The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays