The Hat Goes to Houston

… And It’s Waving a Flag!

I sincerely hope that no Trumpf supporters are reading my blog. First of all, I have nothing to say to them that would not be obscene. Secondly, however much they admire The Hat which they elected to the presidency, they must be apprehensive that he is continuing a long, spiraling descent into the pit.This has not been a great month for the Present Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania, however much he dislikes the place for its lack of gold plumbing fixtures and other brothel trappings.

Although I have my differences with the people of Texas, I would not wish such a storm on my worst enemy. Well, maybe I would; but the people of Texas are not anywhere near my enemy. Maybe Baghdadi of ISIS or Kim Jong Uhhhn of North Korea—but not the mostly innocent residents of Houston. They don’t deserve The Hat, and they certainly don’t deserve the flood. (Who right now is probably wondering why all the golf courses in Houston are all turned into giant water traps.)

The pictures of Trumpf deplaning in Houston show Melania behind him wearing a hat that says FLOTUS. I thought for a second, “Is that some sort of sick joke or something?” And then I thought it was short for First Lady of the United States.

One has to be a really astute leader of men to come out of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Katrina with one’s reputation intact. And the two presidents in question were certainly not that.

 

A Mythology Out of Comic Books

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

In desperation, o avoid another afternoon of a multi-day heat wave, I went to Santa Monica to see Wonder Woman in air-conditioned comfort. As one who, in my tender years, was an aficionado of comic book heroes (and heroines), I remember the thrill I felt at their sense of power against evil. When you’re a little kid, injustice really bugs you: You want to wreak vengeance on bullies without having the law, or the vice principal, or someone’s angry parents coming after you.

Superman came from Planet Krypton, Batman from a wealthy American family, and Wonder Woman from the secret Mediterranean (one presumes) island of Themyscira, which is shielded by fog from mortal view. All these super heroes have super powers. (As a kid, I had none—except the ability to survive a sickly childhood.)

Princess Diana, alias Wonder Woman, is powerful enough to stop bullets and deflect mortar shells. On a First World War battlefield, she singlehandedly attacks the German lines and frees a captive French village. She is in search of Ares, the God of War, whom she identifies as General von Ludendorff, and whom she kills with a special sword. But Ludendorff is not Ares: It turns out to be the British politician Sir Patrick Morgan, who ostensibly is trying to set up an armistice, but who really wants everlasting war.

Evidently, we still have war and lots of it. I guess that makes room for a sequel, which I am not surprised to hear is already in production.

What Would Be My Kryptonite?

In the jejune mythology of American comic books, there is frequently a weak point in every superhero. I guess it started with Achilles in the Trojan War, who was immortal provided no one shot him in the heel. It was Paris (no relation to me) who found this out and hit the Achaean hero there with a poisoned arrow. With Superman, he lost his powers when he was exposed to Kryptonite, a fragment of the planet where he was born. For me, I would probably lose such powers as I have if someone dug up some dirt from the East Side of Cleveland, near the intersection of Harvard and Lee, and waved it in my face.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this comic book stuff doesn’t move me much any more. The young love it, because they feel powerless in the face of all us evil adults who want to put them down and make them take out the garbage and clean their bedrooms.

 

Fairbanks 142

Chris McCandless in Happier Days

In the spring of 1992, a young man named Christopher Johnson McCandless, who styled himself “Alexander Supertramp,” went to a particularly wild part of Alaska near Mount Denali, was unable to return to civilization because the trail to Healy across the Teklanika River was in flood from glacial melt during the summer months and could not be crossed. Within a few weeks, he was dead of starvation with a possible assist from toxins associated with wild potato seeds. He died in the same Fairbanks City Bus #142 where he set up his base cam three months earlier.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of McCandless, a talented young man of many enthusiasms who broke with his family and yearned to live in nature—without money, without maps, without adequate stores of food, weapons, and insecticides (Alaskan mosquitoes are voracious).

There is something about youth that doesn’t love the prudence of later years. I have always admired people like Henry David Thoreau, Sir John Franklin, John Muir, and, yes, Chris McCandless. But I was never able to follow in their footsteps because of ill health arising from a brain tumor which, even when successfully removed, required a lifetime of prudent medication. Without Prednisone alone, I would not have lasted more than a few weeks.

The Magic Bus on the Shore of the Sushana River

Kracauer’s book made me think about my own life. He even wrote a couple chapters about his own attempt to climb a mountain near Petersburg, Alaska, called the Devil’s Thumb. Fortunately, he survived. McCandless didn’t. Why?

Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless’s friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris “was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people.” In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to his dilemma. He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.

If he had only known where he was, if he had a USGS topographic map of the area, he could have returned to receive care, without even taking any heroic effort. He just did not know that he was a scant sixteen miles from a tourist road patrolled by the National Park Service. Even closer were several Forest Service and privately owned cabins that would have provided shelter and some food.

The Kracauer book is a superb read. It is greatly expanded from a 9,000-word article he wrote for Outside magazine in 1995.

 

What, Me, Getting Lost?

This Image Is Practically Engraved in My Memory

Apparently, I have this phobia of getting lost. When my brother and I were in Ecuador last October, we could not find any street atlases; though, it wouldn’t have done us any good if we had them, because outside the central tourist area of the cities, there were no street signs. Dan made fun of me for my meltdowns when we wandered off what maps we had. There mus have been an incident in my childhood when getting lost from my Mommy and Daddy terrified me. I wrote a blog about this entitled Where the Streets Have No Name.  (Sorry, Edge and Bono!)

Where this is all leading to is a dream I had last night. I was traveling alone in the City of London. Having been there five or six times and having expended fierce amounts of shoe leather each time, I have a good picture of the city permanently resident in my head. I was trying to find a bookstore near Charing Cross Road, but had no idea where I was. And, even more peculiar, there did not appear to be any Underground or Tube stations on the inadequate map I had.

I had had some sort of meeting and was wandering around the city with some of the participants. At one point, they decided to stop and have an impromptu cricket match, which fortunately did not last long. When they stopped, we kept wandering in an easterly direction, coming on a square with a large Catholic church and a troupe of nuns ministering to the need of a large bump encampment. I thought to myself, “Gee, I had no idea there were so many bums in London.”

In the end, the dream just came to a stop. (Did I wake up at that point?) Although I jnever got to my bookstore nor to any other recognizable monument or building, I was more perplexed than terrified.

Thi9s is not the first time I got lost in my dreams. In none of them did my reaction rise to nightmare levels, but it is an interesting recurring theme—sort of like having to give a public speech while buck naked.

 

Mindfulness Is the Key

Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Born 1926)

When I was cut back to two days of work in May 2016, I felt as if my world were shattered. Just by happenstance, within a week or two, I found myself at the Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Hope downtown on a Thursday. Every Thursday at 12:30 pm, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) gives a guided 30-minute meditation in Conference Room A. I have come to depend on these Thursday sessions, plus my own efforts at meditation whenever and wherever, to give me a feeling of living in the present moment and enjoying glimpses of happiness.

I have also read several books by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, most recently No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering and also The Art of Living. According to Thich mindfulness is the key to enjoying such happiness that we can experience in this life.

In answer to a question about the danger of dualism of the mind and body, Thich replied:

Maybe intellectually people know that they should live in the present moment, but the habit energy that has been there for a long time is always pushing them to rush around, so they have lost their capacity to be in the present moment in order to lead their life deeply. That is why the practice is important, and talking is not enough. You have to practice enough to really stop your running around so that you can establish yourself in the present moment. That is the very beginning of the practice: stopping. Stopping, looking deeply, and finding happiness and liberation—that is the Buddhist path.

On the existence of suffering, he writes:

Suffering and happiness inter-are. We can recognize happiness only against the background of suffering. It’s like when you recognize the white against the background of the black. Only if you have been hungry can you experience the joy of having something to eat. If you experience the suffering of war, you can recognize the value of peace. Otherwise, you don’t appreciate peace, and you want to make war. So your experience of the suffering of war serves as the background for your happiness about peace. Therefore, to have some suffering is very important. You learn from suffering, and against that background, you can recognize happiness.

There is a deep tendency in us to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. It is rooted in the store consciousness, called manas in Sanskrit. Manas is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain and suffering. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure-seeking because there is ignorance in manas. It is like a fish who is about to bite the bait and does not know that inside of the bait there is a hook. Manas isn’t aware of the danger of pleasure and does not know that suffering has its own goodness. It is good to experience some suffering, because when you suffer you develop compassion and understanding.

If you are interested in the simple practices that have meant so much to me in my recent life, I suggest you check out the website of MARC at http://marc.ucla.edu/. And see if you can find any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books.

 

 

Sign of the Times

Be Sure To Read the Last Line (In Small Print)

This is pretty much self-explanatory, though I doubt it was placed in a location where anyone could get hurt. Perhaps Trumpf’s beautiful new wall separating us from Mexico could be replaced with a few thousand of these signs—in English and Spanish.

The Great American Novel

Maybe the Great American Novel Will Be a Mystery …

Up until fifty or sixty years ago, the great American Novel would have been by someone like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or William Faulkner. Then something happened. Specifically what happened were writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, followed by scores of other excellent mystery writers such as Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Elmore Leonard.

I just finished reading Leonard’s Get Shorty, primarily because I loved the 1995 movie directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer, the loan shark from Miami suddenly turned movie producer.

Renee Russo and John Travolta in Get Shorty

Recently, I just finished re-reading most of Raymond Chandler’s novels (except for Playback, which I’ll get to shortly). And I’ve been reading other mysteries and noir novels and enjoying them immensely. I am beginning to think that, years into the future, this will be looked at as a golden age of genre novels.

America’s contribution is mostly in the mystery genre, but there have been great science fiction classics, especially from Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few. I will have to beg off on romance classics because, jeez, I’m a guy and the genre makes me alternatively giggle and puke.

If we eliminated genre novels from consideration, I would probably say that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was the Great American Novel. But I don’t think we really should cut off the 20th Century American genre novel from a shot at the title.