“World Within World”

See the Poem (Below) Inspired by This Photo

See the Poem (Below) Inspired by This Photo

Below is a poem by David Ray inspired by the above photograph. It is called “World Within World”:

Why has this picture
so long haunted me—

an American airman
on the stern deck

of an aircraft carrier
practicing golf,

his club in the air
about to be swung

as if he were back
home on the green?

One golf ball at a time
he lofts into the wake

churning in the blue
Persian Gulf, a white

road to the far horizon,
one sea at a time—one

war at a time, the duty
to fill up the sea with one

little world at a time.

The Tropics We Cross

Julian Barnes and His Late Wife, Pat Kavanagh

Julian Barnes and His Late Wife, Pat Kavanagh

Little did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the grief of losing one’s wife. I can quote the paragraph where the book, quite suddenly, more than halfway through, changes gears:

Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still—at least if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.

The book began as a kind of essay on lighter-than-air ballooning, with an interesting sidelight on photography. Then, in he second section, we meet Captain Fred Burnaby, an avid balloonist, who falls in love with the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. But it is not to be, she rejects him by simply switching partners, and he goes on to marry a young woman who becomes ill and must spend the rest of her life in a sanatorium in the Alps for consumptives. He later fights with Gordon in Khartoum, and dies of a spear thrust at the Battle of Abu Klea.

Early in the third and last section, Barnes tells us what the book is really about: namely, what happens to his life when his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, dies of cancer, leaving her husband to realize that there is no simple and sure-fire way of dealing with protracted grief:

Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that—if it is not moral in its effect—then love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure. Whereas grief, love’s opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living.

I have often wondered what would happen to me if I should lose Martine. I see myself on a long journey, taking interminable bus rides in Patagonia perhaps, where the outer desolation would mirror my own insides. Or else, I would not. It is possible I would live the rest of my life as an unfinished conversation with my departed little French girl that continues despite strange looks from my friends. Who knows?

In the meantime, I will try to live while I can. It’s a mistake not to.

The Brussels Airport Attack

Patrick Smith On the Brussels Airport Attack

Patrick Smith on the Brussels Airport Attack

I don’t do this very often, but I want to quote in its entirety Patrick Smith’s well reasoned attack on the “We Need More Security at Our Airports” argument from his website, Ask the Pilot:

I WAS AFRAID OF THIS. The minute I learned of the double bombing at the Brussels airport check-in lobby earlier today, I knew how the conversation would go. Sure enough, even before the morning was out, we were hearing calls for tighter security in airports.

First, a little history. Although airplanes themselves are historically the choicest target, attacks inside terminals are nothing new. For instance:

In 1972, the Japanese Red Army murdered 26 people in the arrivals lounge at Israel’s Lod Airport (today’s Ben Gurion International).

In 1985, the Abu Nidal group killed 20 in a pair of coordinated ticket counter assaults at Vienna and Rome.

In 2002, a gunman shot three people near the El Al airlines ticket counter at LAX.

And most recently, in January, 2011, a suicide bomber at Moscow’s busy Domodedovo airport killed 35 people.

“Aviation security experts have been warning” read an Associated Press story after the Moscow attack, “that the crowds at many airports present tempting targets to suicide bombers. Arrivals halls are usually open to anyone.”

Now, in the wake of Brussels, we’re hearing this again. The implication is that our airports aren’t yet secure enough, and that only more barricades and checkpoints and scanners and cameras and guards standing around with automatic weapons will make them so. There’s talk from supposed security experts asking if perhaps terminals need to be closed off to everybody except ticketed passengers and employees, with security checkpoints moved literally onto the sidewalk.

This is something I worried about years ago, when I was a columnist for Salon. Just wait, I wrote, until the next big attack takes place at the check-in counter or at baggage claim. They’ll be turning our airports into fortresses.

As, if by moving the fences, they can’t get us. The only thing moving security curbside would actually do, of course, is shift the perimeter — and the busy choke point of passengers — to a new location. This means nothing to an attacker, whose so-called “soft target” has simply been relocated from one spot to another, no less convenient one. But it would mean immense amounts of hassle for everybody else.

Thus, it’s precisely the wrong line of thinking. It’s reactionary in the purest sense, and it plays directly into the terrorist’s strategy — a strategy that encourages a response that is based on fear instead of reason, and that is ultimately self-defeating.

The reality is, we can never make our airports, or any other crowded places, impervious to attack. And while maybe you wouldn’t mind living in a society in which every terminal, shopping mall, sports venue and subway station has been militarized and strung with surveillance equipment, count me among those who would.

South of Quito

Street Scene, Cuenca, Ecuador

Street Scene, Cuenca, Ecuador

Today my brother and I talked about our upcoming trip to Ecuador. It seems we will be together for only the first two weeks or so of the trip, leaving me to return to Los Angeles separately a week or so later. That would suit me, as well as suiting Dan’s construction schedule in his business. We will probably leave from LAX right after the October 15 tax deadline.

Even though we will rent a car for part of the time, we will likely not have a chance to see four major clusters of destinations in two weeks. First we’ll have to get acclimated to the 9,000 foot altitude of Quito (about three days), then spend several days at and around Otavalo, and then head to the cloud forests around Minto or the Intag Valley to spend some time at a lodge, and finally head south to Cuenca, around which there is a whole large cluster of sites, including the Nariz del Diablo railroad, Mount Cotopaxi, Vilcabamba, and several national parks. Then, of course, one or both of us would return to Quito for Dan’s departure.

Possibly, I will do the southern stretch of the Ecuadorean Andes by myself, traveling by bus. Plans are still in flux around this time. The key thing is that we are in basic agreement about destinations, transport, and accommodations. The main thing I want to avoid is getting stuck in a backpacker hostel. Not that I dislike backpackers; but I do dislike bunk beds and late night loud discussions that disrupt my reading and sleep.


Serendipity: I Am Flying Home

Flower at the Lake Shrine

Flower at the Lake Shrine

I did some work this morning, but I had the afternoon free. So Martine and I went to the Lake Shrine of the Self Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades. It was balm for my troubled mind, which was still frazzled with this morning’s tax problems. While there, I bought a copy of Metaphysical Meditations by the SRF founder and sage, Paramahansa Yogananda. There, I found this quote on page 44, which decided me to buy the book:

Good-bye blue house of heaven. Farewell, stars and celestial celebrities and your dramas on the screen of space. Good-bye, flowers with your traps of beauty and fragrance. You can hold me no longer. I am flying Home.

Adieu to the warm embrace of sunshine. Farewell, cool, soothing, comforting breeze. Good-bye, entertaining music of man.

I stayed long, reveling with all of you, dancing with my variously costumed thoughts, drinking the wine of my feelings and my mundane will. I have now forsaken the intoxications of delusion.

Good-bye, muscles, bones, and bodily motions. Farewell, breath. I cast thee away from my breast. Adieu, heartthrobs, emotions, thoughts, and memories. I am flying Home in a plane of silence. I go to feel my heartthrob in Him.

I soar in the plane of consciousness above, beneath, on the left, on the right, within and without, everywhere, to find that in every nook of my space-home I have always been in the sacred presence of my Father.

In the Cloud Forest

The Cloud Forest Around Bellavista

The Cloud Forest Around Bellavista

All through this horrible tax season Easter Week, my mind has been floating free, dreaming of the things I want to see on my next vacation. I have already written about Quito, the Quechua crafts market at Otavalo, and the tourist railroads of Ecuador. Today my dreams are turning toward the high cloud forests of the Andes, over a mile in altitude, with their exotic birds such as the lemon-spectacled tanager, the pale-browed tinamou, the fasciated tiger-heron, and thousands more.

If my brother agrees, I’d like to spend a few days at a lodge in the cloud forest, perhaps such as the Tandayapa Bird Lodge west of Quito. A few days hiking in the misty forests and looking for exotic multi-colored birds would be soothing to my soul.

Mountain Tanager

Mountain Tanager

There are several patches of cloud forest in the Ecuadorian Andes. It would be fun to choose from among them. The trip is months away, but it is at times like this, when otherwise I would be under heavy stress, that I let my thoughts fly south.


Through the Devil’s Nose

The Nariz del Diablo Train Route

The Nariz del Diablo Train Route

When I go to Ecuador later this year, I hope to take one of the trains that go through parts of the Andes. The only problem is that they are all tourist trains, that is to say, the locals do all their traveling by bus. Most of the routes are scenic fragments of what once were longer routes, back when one could ride the trains with Andean natives carrying their goods to and from market.

The problem is that I tend to dislike traveling with large groups of Americans. That’s when I dummy up and answer all questions in Hungarian. I don’t want to talk about how things are in East Jesus, Arkansas.

At present, the most spectacular route is through the Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose. It used to be part of the route between Quito and Guayaquil. Now it only goes between Alausi and Sibambe, where there’s a show for the tourists, a small hotel, souvenirs, and a small museum. According to Lonely Planet Ecuador:

Somewhere along the nariz, the old choo-choo (it’s actually more like a retrofitted bus) inevitably derails. Not to worry, though! The conductors ask everyone to get off and by using advanced technology—big rocks and sticks—they steer the iron horse back on track.

I remember taking the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad in Mexico between Las Mochis and Divisadero Barrancas some three decades ago, but that was a real train where there were no roads. Half the passengers were train aficionados like me, but there were many campesinos; and Tarahumara women sold tasty snacks at most of the train stops.

In Peru, I took the tourist train between Puno and Cusco, which was an all-day trip that I enjoyed immensely. Also, the only way to get to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu is to take the train from Poroy or Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu town. That  wasn’t bad either.

The Market at Otavalo

The Crafts Market at Otavalo in Northern Ecuador

The Crafts Market at Otavalo in Northern Ecuador

Two hours north of Quito is the town of Otavalo, famed for its textile crafts market. This and some of the surrounding areas look like great destinations. Consider, for example, a hike around the Lagunas de Mojanda, just south of town (see below).

Photo from Marco Vargas Photography

Photo from Marco Vargas Photography

Right now, as my eyes haze over from doing tax returns, is where my mind is. I am back in the Andes, with my brother, and dreaming of Quito and the surrounding countryside—such as the high altitude cloud forests which features dozens of species of wildly multicolored hummingbirds.

Dream on, Jim!

It’s a Crime!

LA’s Men in Blue

LA’s Men in Blue

Let’s face it: Los Angeles is known around the world for two things. One is Hollywood, though we’re by no means a major film production center any more. And the other is crime. Not, mind you, because we are a particularly dangerous place; but the books and movies have painted Southern California as a place where bad things can happen.

I guess it all started with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and Dashiell Hammett, whose novels painted this sunbright place as a pit of darkness. That was quickly echoed in the films, especially with the film noir classics such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Blue Gardenia, and The Big Heat.

Even now, excellent crime novels are being written by the likes of James Ellroy, Joseph Wambaugh, and Michael Connelly. I am currently reading Connelly’s Trunk Music, a police procedural featuring his homicide detective hero Harry (short for Hieronymus) Bosch. A small-time Hollywood producer is found dead in the trunk of his Rolls Royce, and Bosch ranges from the Hollywood Hills to Park Center (“The Glass House,” LAPD headquarters) to the Las Vegas Strip to find the killer while fighting off his own enemies.



To South America … Again

View of Quito’s Old Town

View of Quito’s Old Town

Once again, Martine does not want to travel with me. Her continuing problems with back pain when sleeping in soft beds and almost continuous irritable bowel syndrome makes her want to stay close to home. This year, I will go to Ecuador, especially to the Andes region.

The good news is that I will not be traveling alone: My brother Dan expressed interest in joining me. The last time we traveled together was in 1979, when we did the circuit Mexico City-Villahermosa-Palenque-San Cristobal de las Casas-Oaxaca-Mexico City. It was the same circuit described by Graham Greene in his book The Lawless Roads (1939). We traveled by air to Villahermosa (not a high point in any sense of the term) and by bus the rest of the way back to Mexico D.F.

Dan and I are, I think, good traveling companions. He’s not very interested in ruins (there aren’t that many in Ecuador), and he is very interested in native crafts (as am I). He has already been to Guayaquil and the Galapagos and said that travel to the latter was much too regimented. I was hoping he didn’t want to go there again because (1) when we’re going is the wrong time of the year (October/November) and (2) Zika.

At this point I’ll tell you a couple of anecdotes about traveling with my brother. We were in Palenque at the time of the Christmas Posadas, and Dan loved the coffee served in the area—it was grown locally. When we were in a café one evening, a shoeshine boy came up to us and asked if we wanted a shine. Dad slipped his foot out of his sandals and set it on the stand. The trouble is: As far as anyone could see, he was wearing only bright red socks. All the locals burst out laughing. No matter, I was wearing leather boots and gave him my business.

Another Palenque incident fortunately turned out the right way. Dan ducked out frequently in the evening to satisfy his coffee cravings while I remained behind reading a book. I heard a commotion in the street, and Dan came up shortly after. Apparently, a police informer tried to sell him “magic mushrooms” (psilocybin), and Dan guessed his intent at once. No sale.

There are some other stories from that trip that I’ll write about some other time.