The Land of Mordor, Minus the Shadows

Beautiful Downtown Amboy

Beautiful Downtown Amboy

There are several places in Sunny California which I would compare to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor. You know he place I mean:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Except the places I would liken to Mordor are singularly without shadows. Curiously, they are all connected to dry lake mining operations. The grimmest of all is Amboy, on the original Highway U.S. 66. It lies a few miles east of Barstow, a hellhole in its own right, which is a rail junction and the gateway to Fort Irwin.

Today the population of Mordor—I mean Amboy—is perhaps four. Roy’s Coffee Shop and Cabins is no longer a going concern, unless someone is filming in the neighborhood. (Bagdad Cafe was filmed in Bagdad, a few miles west on 66.)

Amboy owes its existence to Route 66, but also to Bristol Dry Lake, which contains some 60 million tons of salt for your French fries.

Bristol Dry Lake

Bristol Dry Lake

Also in the area are mines containing Boltwoodite, a relatively rare form of uranium, along with gypsum, calcite, and fluorite.

I got to know Amboy when Martine used to work at Twentynine Palms at the U.S. Marine Base there (she was a clerical worker at the Naval Hospital there). A couple of times, I would pick her up, drive through the ghastly “community” known as Wonder Valley settled by veterans of gas attacks in World War I along a road which terminated at Highway 66 in Amboy. From there we headed to Las Vegas using the Kelbaker Road and the Morningside Mine Road. It’s a desolate area with sand dunes (near Essex) and some spectacular stands of Joshua Trees.

What are the other places in California I liken to Mordor? They’re right next to each other on the road from Ridgecrest and China Lake to Death Valley: namely, Trona and Borosolvay. Both are desolate but more habitable than Amboy. Yes, hell can be sunny sometimes.

“Are You Comfortable in Bed?”

I’m More Comfortable Than HE Is, As I Don’t Sleep on Rocks

I’m More Comfortable Than HE Is, As I Don’t Sleep on Rocks

In my last batch of spam e-mail, I got one entitled “Are You Comfortable in Bed?” As my answer is yes, I did not see fit to open the e-mail, which probably sold vigara [sic] or cialas [sic] or something like that. Thankfully, I am not suffering from electoral dysfunction. Which is to say, I usually vote Democratic.

Getting eight hours of sleep a night is important to me. That is challenged by my massive intake of iced Baruti Assam tea this time of year, but I usually manage to sink back into sleep quickly after draining my lizard. Occasionally Martine and I make like buzz saws, but curiously it doesn’t bother us much. I actually feel reassured that Martine is asleep next to me; and she graciously refrains from kicking me when I start sawing wood.

Every once in a while, I have a difficult time dropping off to sleep because my mind is racing in an infinite loop. I find that the only way to deal with that is to get up and either a bit of a TV movie (the only time I watch TV) or read a book. That somehow closes the infinite loop and allows me to doze. The one thing that does not work in that case is to twist and turn for hours. Better not to even try!

I am appalled when I hear of people getting by on five or fewer hours a night. Sometimes Martine can’t sleep because of her back pain. Frequently she wakes at five in the morning and twists and turns until morning light (or later).

We have an extra firm mattress which helps Martine somewhat. And our living room sofa is similarly firm. These things help (and they don’t bother me at all), but I would be happier if Martine’s back pain abated to the point that she could accompany me on my travels. It’s a lot more fun having her with me.

Serendipity: Dreams of Prisons

One of Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri Prints

One of Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri, or Prison Etchings

I am currently reading Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). Although I remember starting it some twenty years ago, I never finished it. Turning to it once again, I am delighted by his elegant prose combined with his large-scale surrealistic dreams as a result of ingesting opium. At the same time, I love what he has to say about Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose etchings of vast imagined prisons are among my favorite prints.

When I started at UCLA in 1967 as a graduate student in the film program, I rented one of the originals of the above print for three months as part of a special program. (I can’t imagine anything so valuable being rented out to students under present circumstances.)

Here is what De Quincey wrote:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever.  Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome.  Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below.  Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here.  But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss.  Again elevate your eye, and a still more aërial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.  With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.  In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.  From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:

The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendour—without end!
Fabric it seem’d of diamond, and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace, high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright
In avenues disposed; there towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified; on them, and on the coves,
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded,—taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky.  &c. &c.

The quoted poem is from William Wordsworth’s “The Excursion.”


Why the Arab Spring Failed

With Islam, You Have to Buy the Whole Package

With Islam, You Have to Buy the Whole Package

If a religion is pervasive enough to tell you which hand to use to wipe your butt, the chances are that things won’t improve when you throw out that dictator, such as Mubarak, Assad, or Gaddafi. Instead of a thousand flowers blooming, what you are likely to get in his place is a bunch of ragged bearded men brandishing AK-47s and insisting on more radical forms of religious fundamentalism. Since politics and then whole subject of governance is dictated by the Quran, there is no such thing as democracy or a constitution that does not comply with Sharia law. There is only religious fundamentalism or dictatorship: the dial does not go in any other direction.

My comments here are primarily restricted to the Arab countries and a few North African countries. For over half a century, Turkey has been a largely secular democracy (though with some Islamist leanings). The Muslims of Southeast Asia run the gamut from Pakistan as the most fundamentalist to Malaysia and Indonesia as more permissive.

With most flavors of Islam, there is no hierarchy: There are just a lot of imams contradicting one another. (The only exception is Iran, where there is a hierarchy of Ayatollahs with Khamenei in charge.)

When many of the Arab (and some North African) countries erupted two years ago, most Americans (myself included) had some foolish notion that the result would be an ultimate victory for liberal democracy. As it turned out, it was anything but!

The Slow (or No) Road to Fame

The All-Too-Easy Road to Mediocrity

The All-Too-Easy Road to Stultifying Mediocrity

My congratulations to Brian Gordon of FowlLanguageComics.Com for a very funny cartoon.

I have gotten thousands of Spam e-mails offering cheap (pseudo-)pharmaceutical products and Louis Vuitton and other fashion knockoffs. Interspersed among them were comments that my website needed improvement. I was supposed to have a lot more pictures and a lot fewer words. And I was supposed to load much faster on Safari—whatever that is—than I currently do. Also I get a lot of questions from people asking for help setting up their own websites. (Good luck, guys!)

This website as it is is a reflection of who and what I am, not an attempt to get thousands of “likes” and “favorites” from people who not only do not mean anything to me, and with whom I do not necessarily care to interact.

Let’s face it: I’m a dinosaur. I don’t watch television, follow sports teams, listen to pop music, or give a flying f*ck about celebrities. Life is so pitifully short that I do not care to waste any of it going into the clickbait business. I have seen great websites fall into the click trap. When I feel I don’t have anything else to say, you can bury me. Until then, I will follow my different drummer to wherever he leads me.


Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

A Particularly Persistent Superstition

A Particularly Persistent Superstition

If you’ve never heard this Latin phrase before, you might want to remember it. It describes a logical fallacy which, translated into plain English, is “after that, therefore because of that.”

Let me give you an example. You are a little boy who, for the first time in his life, kisses a girl the in school playground. That same day, your teacher decides to land hard on you—even though she does not know about the kissing incident—and makes you sit in the corner all afternoon with a dunce hat on your head while the whole class taunts you. Using a very common form of magical thinking, you blame the punishment on the kiss, even though it is totally unrelated. Because the punishment came after the kiss, you assume it is because of the kiss. Result: you think that girls must not be kissed, or else terrible things will happen.

In September 1966, to give an example from my own life, I had a terrible headache. I was during my summer vacation just a few days away from starting graduate school in film at UCLA. I managed to cook a hot dog for myself as well as a can of corn. On the hot dog, I smeared some ketchup. Within an hour, the headache became unbearable. I managed to crawl into bed, but the pain kept ramping up. I realized I had to contact my parents and tell them that something was wrong. It took me over an hour to crawl to the kitchen phone, blacking out from the pain several times in the process. Finally, I managed to get my mother at work. Having told her what was happening, I collapsed on the kitchen floor.

And Then There Was the Canned Corn

And Then There Was the Canned Corn

The next thing I knew, I was in the emergency room at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland being asked questions by physicians. Within minutes, I fell into a deep coma. Somehow, my doctor figured it was a pituitary tumor; and, when I came to after having been wrapped in ice to keep my temperature down, I was operated on. I might add the operation was a glittering success.

However, gone from my diet were hot dogs, ketchup, and canned corn. The one time I had that lunch, terrible things happened. It is only forty-eight years later that I can now eat those three items—though not together. And I put mustard on my hot dogs now instead of ketchup.

In a smaller way, I still see the same logical fallacy at work in my life. The last time I ate at the Yamadaya Restaurant, I suffered what looked to be (but wasn’t) a stroke: It was a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Only today was I brave enough to go back. Somehow, at the back of my mind, I still fear something bad will happen to me today. And I didn’t even get to kiss a girl this time!


Two Christs for Modern Man

Bernard Verley as Christ and Edith Scob as Mary in Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)

Bernard Verley as Christ and Edith Scob as Mary in Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)

After two centuries of Christian art,the West has produced thousands of images of Jesus Christ—almost none of which connects to people who are alive today. The Son of God is usually portrayed as a man who was born to be tortured to death on a cross, but not as a man who could gather around him twelve apostles and hundreds of followers.

One notable exception are the vignettes with Bernard Verley (above) as Christ in Luis Buñuel’s film The Milky Way (1969). The scene pictured above is at the marriage ceremony in Cana, when the Redeemer performed his first public miracle.

The other image is one I saw at the Getty Center today: It is the Italian painter Correggio’s “Head of Christ,” pictured below:

Correggio’s “The Head of Christ” (1530)

Correggio’s “The Head of Christ” (1530)

I like the look of consternation on Christ’s face as he contemplates what lies ahead while he is wearing the crown of thorns. This is the Christ who, the previous night at Gethsemani, had said: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” He may be God, but the look on His face is 100% pure human.


Confronting Demons

Confronting Your Fear When It Matters Most

Perhaps the Demons Are Not Real

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is a detailed discussion of how a dying person should be guided past the “wrathful deities” that are images of his fear to the desired annihilation of the self in Nirvana. There is a state between death and either rebirth or liberation from the circle of endless rebirths.

Here is a description of one of these demons, named Heruda:

O, Child of Buddha Nature, listen without distraction. Although the intermediate state of the peaceful deities did previously arise within you, you did not recognize it. So now you have wandered, [through the succession of pathways,] to here. Now, on the eighth day, the assembly of wrathful blood-drinking deities will arise. Recognize them and do not be distracted! O, Child of Buddha Nature, he who is called the Great Glorious Buddha Heruka will [now] arise, vividly manifesting before you from within your own brain. His body, blazing in a mass of light, is dark brown in colour, having three heads, six arms and four legs, which are [firmly] set apart. His right face is white, the left red and the central face dark brown. His nine eyes are fixed in a fearsome wrathful gaze, his eyebrows are quivering like lightning, his fangs are bared and gleaming, and he is laughing loudly, uttering the sounds of Alala and Haha, and Shoo oo—like whistles, in loud piercing cries. The golden-auburn hair of his head blazes and rears upward, sun and moon-discs, black serpents, and dry skulls adorn each of his heads, and black snakes and fresh skulls form a garland around his body. In his six hands he holds, on the right in the first hand, a wheel, in the middle one, an axe, and in the last hand a sword and to the left, in his first hand, he holds a bell, in the middle one, a ploughshare and in the last a skull. The female consort Buddhakrodhesvari is embracing his body, her right hand clasped around his neck and her left offering a skull-cup filled with blood to his mouth. Amidst loud pounding palatal sounds of ‘Thuk-chom’, and an [echoing] roar like the reverberation of thunder, the fire of pristine cognition blazes from the fiery indestructible pores of their bodies, and thus they stand together, [with one leg] extended and [the other] drawn in on a throne supported by garudas.

Do not be afraid! Do not be terrified! And do not be awed! Recognize this to be the buddhabody of your own intrinsic awareness. These are your own meditational deities, so do not be terrified. This, in reality, is the transcendent lord Vairocana and his consort, so do not be afraid. Recognition and liberation will occur simultaneously!

It is difficult for us to recognize what appears to be a wrathful demon as a manifestation of ourselves. By exhibiting fear in this critical Bardo state (as the Tibetans call it) will tie you to this life and the inevitable defeat of rebirth. Perhaps in our culture, we do not see rebirth as a negative: Rather, we typically frighten ourselves with demons and exhibit fear.

Whereas in our culture it is death and the pathways to it that terrify us, the Tibetans see death as a teachable moment—the last chance for non-returning to a world characterized by misery.

As I write this, Martine and I have just returned from a nearby hospice in which a longtime friend is confronting pancreatic cancer and trying to prepare his mind for—what? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that fear on that last approach is an ever-present danger. May we all be spared from this fear as we make our way out of this world and into—what?

Frank Herbert in his book Dune included this Bene Gesserit mantra which I think of often when confronting my own demons:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

There is great wisdom in these lines.

A Plethora of New Words

Whom Do You Think Is Going to Win This Conversation?

Mansplaining: Whom Do You Think Is Going to Win This Argument?

The Oxford Dictionaries have released a list of new words that will start appearing in its online dictionaries and—who knows?—eventually the printed editions. I have indicated some of the more interesting ones below in alphabetical order:

  • amazeballs, adj.: (informal) very enjoyable, impressive or attractive. I can’t imagine anyone but a salesman using this one.
  • bro hug, n.: (U.S. informal) friendly embrace between two men. No tongues involved!
  • clickbait, n.: (informal) (on the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page. I am excessively familiar with this phenomenon.
  • cord cutting, n.: (informal) practice of cancelling a pay television subscription or landline phone connection in favor of an alternative Internet-based or wireless service. Unrelated to childbirth.
  • cray, adj. (also cray cray): (US informal) crazy. I wonder if there is any tie-in with Cray Supercomputers.
  • dox, v.: (informal) search for and publish private data about (an individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent. Look as you will, you will probably not discover anything about my incontinence.
  • FML, abbrev.: (vulgar slang) f*ck my life! (used to express dismay at a frustrating personal situation).
  • hate-watch, v.: (informal) watch (a television program) for the sake of the enjoyment derived from mocking or criticizing it. Just about everything that’s televised falls into this category for me.
  • humblebrag, n. & v.: (informal) (make) an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud. I would never call attention to myself this way. Honest!
  • hyperconnected, adj.: characterized by the widespread or habitual use of devices that have Internet connectivity. In future, people will look at this as one of the dominant cultural features of our time.
  • listicle, n.: an Internet article presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list. I guess this post would qualify as a listicle.
  • mansplain, v.: (informal) (of a man) explain something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing. This is my favorite. I’ve never heard of it before, but it’s going to become part of my vocabulary henceforth.
  • side-eye, n.: (informal , chiefly US): a sidelong glance expressing disapproval or contempt. Oops, this is something I do a lot.
  • throw shade, phrase: (US informal) publicly criticize or express contempt for someone. This is the main activity at Faux News.
  • YOLO, abbrev.: (informal) you only live once (expressing the view that one should make the most of the present moment)… And here I thought it was just a county in Northern California.

To see the complete list as published by Salon.Com, click here. WDYT? (What Do You Think?)


The Cloud-Covered City of the Kings

The Garúa Investing the Coastline of Lima

The Garúa Investing the Coastline of Lima

Just because Peru is a few degrees south of the Equator doesn’t mean the sun is always shining. In fact, from June through November, a warm wind interacting with the cold Humboldt current results in a condition around Lima locally referred to as la garúa. As one American expat describes it:

It is more than a fog, less than a rain. It is the heavy mist that sometimes appears in the winter in Lima. The locals call it la garúa, a sea mist caused by warm winds interacting with the cool water of the ocean. It is a condition found usually from June through November along the Peruvian Coast.

Arriving in Lima as I am in September, I will be in the Peruvian equivalent of March (subtract six from the ninth month of the year), which means it will still be winter. That will be fine with me, because I abhor hot weather. I expect Lima will be similar to our spring marine layers in Los Angeles that we usually refer to as “June Gloom.”

Here is another view, taken from the historic center of the City of Kings:

Foothills of the Andes from Central Lima

Foothills of the Andes from Central Lima

It will be a challenge to me as a photographer to make my scenic views interesting, but it will be fun. Once I leave Lima, I will be in the bright sunny mountains with their spectacular clouds.