Why No Children?

Southern California Schoolgirls

Yesterday, as I was sitting in an armchair in the literature department of the L.A. Central Library when a group of Mexican school children—all holding hands—trooped by with their teacher. For a moment, I had a good feeling about the future. Los Angeles has thousands of attractive school children of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. That is one of the things that makes me love my town. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle:

Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device.

So then why do I have no children? It all goes back to my childhood during which, for a period of ten years, I had a pituitary brain tumor without knowing it. When I graduated from college in 1966, I looked like an eleven-year-old, as my growth hormone, along with all my other hormones, was not functioning. As you may recall, the pituitary gland, which lies midway between the ears and under the brain, is the master gland. All my other glands were fine, except that they were not given any orders from the pituitary to produce any hormones, so they didn’t, at all.

It was not until I was well into my sixties that my endocrinologist said, “You know, you can now have children if you want.” I had lived my entire adult life with the sure knowledge that I could not have children, and I live with my girlfriend, who most certainly does not want to bear or raise children. For some forty plus years, that worked out fine for me. Dr. Sladek’s offhand comment just reminded me how old I was.

Please allow me to cringe as the following five words make their appearance: “But you can always adopt!” I have never been interested in adopting, though some of my friends have gone in for this with mostly good results. What I wanted, though, were children that were my true biological descendants. At times, I have been abrupt with people who suggested this, answering them, “I am not interested in raising other people’s mistakes.”

That is an awful thing to say, I know. But I feel that adoption was never for me.

So do I not like kids? Far from it. I have accustomed myself to thinking of myself as the last of my line. Those were just the cards I was dealt in this life.

 

Monsters: American vs. Japanese

Mark Nagata’s Kaiju Eyezon

As I promised, I stopped in again at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown L.A. to take a second look at the “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys” exhibit. (To refresh your memory, the term kaiju refers to Japanese monsters, like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan.) Looking at the kaiju in the exhibition, I noticed that the Japanese monsters were picturesque, bordering on the cute. Even Eyezon in the above illustration, dangerous as he appears, would probably arouse as much amazement as terror.

Another of Nagata’s Kaiju, an Iridescent Giant Lizard

I keep thinking back to the Ishiro Honda’s Toho horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. There was an element of wonder, which was emphasized by the presence of child actors. Look, for instance, at the cute figurines in the above photo below the giant lizard.

What came to mind as I saw these kaiju was the role of the wrathful deities in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By being frightened of the wrathful deities in the bardo state following death, the decedent is reborn. Only by not being afraid can the soul attain Nirvana.

Contrast the kaiju with American monsters, whose goal is to frighten the bejeezus out of you, like Boris Karloff in The Mummy below:

Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

The aim of American and Western European horror films is to scare you to the maximum extent possible. If you don’t grasp the arms of your theater seatmate, the film is reckoned a failure.

Now maybe if Boris Karloff were iridescent, and children were brought into the picture, we would have something resembling the kaiju figurines I saw at the JANM.

 

Opus Tesellatum

Well-To-Do Young Couple from Pompeii

Many years ago there was an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) of various objects found at Pompeii that had been covered by the ash from Mount Vesuvius. I remember seeing the original of the above mosaic in the exhibit, which looked much better than the illustration above.

According to an article by Mark Cartwright published in 2013:

Mosaics, otherwise known as opus tesellatum, were made with small black, white and coloured squares typically measuring between 0.5 and 1.5 cm but fine details were often rendered using even smaller pieces as little as 1mm in size. These squares (tesserae or tessellae) were cut from materials such as marble, tile, glass, smalto (glass paste), pottery, stone and even shells. A base was first prepared with fresh mortar and the tesserae positioned as close together as possible with any gaps then filled with liquid mortar in a process known as grouting. The whole was then cleaned and polished.

In addition, there were wall paintings from Pompeii, but these dis not impress me greatly. It was as if painting was a kind of poor man’s version of mosaics. What surprised me was that, in so many instances, there were paintings of statues.

Mosaic of Fish and Ducks

There were even some historical mosaics, such as this badly damaged view of Alexander the Great and his army:

Mosaic of Alexander the Great with His Army


In almost every case I have seen, the Roman mosaics were superior to the paintings of the period that I have seen. When one sees the original of one of these mosaics, one is impressed by the vividness of the image and the superiority of the medium. When I see a Pompeii exhibit or attend the Getty Villa, I always end up feeling that, with the end of the Roman Empire, we have lost a great art form.

Tarnmoor in Toyland

Mark Nagata Surrounded by His Collection

On Sunday, Martine and I drove downtown to visit a museum that was closed because of the Memorial Day Holiday. So instead, we headed for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo. There was the standard (permanent) exhibit about the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps in the desert; but there was also something diferent.

I am not a toy collector, but I have always been impressed by the Japanese superheroes and monsters (known as kaiju). However powerful the kaiju were, there was something almost appealing about them. American toy villains are somehow more evil. The Japanese ones are almost cuddly.

At JANM,there was an exhibit entitled “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys.” It was scheduled to end in March, but was held over through July 7, 2019. I was enthralled.

The Kaiju Eyezon, Created by Mark Nagata

Mark started as a collector, then became an illustrator and a creator of Japanese toys. The exhibit was so interesting that I resolved to visit it again on Thursday so that my thoughts on the nature of his art would somehow jell. I( thought back to my response to Ishiro Honda’s horror films for Toho of the 1960s, such as Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), and all the other Japanese monster films that were to follow. There was a definite difference in these monsters compared to the ultimate evil that is Dracula or Frankenstein or the Nightmare on Elm Street.

Poster for the JANM Exhibition

I am still thinking over in my mind what I will ultimately conclude about this exhibit and Nagata’s artistry, other than that I am strongly drawn to it. Stay tuned to this space for further developments.

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A Beneficiary of Global Warming

Habanero Chile Peppers

If you are looking for a hot time tonight, you could do worse than biting into a habanero chile, also known as a Scotch Bonnet or a Jamaican Chile. Although you can theoretically get hotter chiles from specialty food retailers and farm scattered farms, the hottest chiles I can normally find in Southern California are the habaneros. (For more information of the Scoville Heat Unit rating of the hotness of various chiles, click here.)

As I plan for my Yucatán/Belize vacation, I have taken to reading the website of The Yucatán Times. One interesting story I found related to a university study of which crops would benefit most from global warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You’ll never guess which crop would benefit the most. Of course, it’s the habanero chile, which is so fierce that I would not use more than one-half of a small pepper to heat over a gallon and a half of soup.

Following is an excerpt from the article:

However, people who work with habanero pepper expect higher production, due to the conditions that will prevail in the State, as was observed with the study that was carried out by specialists of Technological Agricultural Institute (ITA) and the Scientific Research Center of Yucatán (CICY).

“The Capsicum chinense harvest will improve as the conditions of temperature and concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) increase,” Garruña Hernández said.

He explained that the favorable result was obtained in different theoretical models of climate change simulated under controlled conditions in growth chambers located inside the CICY greenhouse.

That is to say, “in the laboratory it was possible to regulate both the temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the air, and the results with this emblematic product of the Yucatan Peninsula were remarkable,” he said.

Garruña Hernández indicated that habanero crops were grown in different environments, with temperatures of 30, 35 and 40 degrees [Celsius], similar to those registered as a result of climate change. At the same time, different concentrations of CO2 were maintained, CO2 levels are increasing, also as a result of climate modifications.

Are you thinking of biting into a habanero chile any time soon? See this video for the grisly result.

Note that the Mayan name of the chile means “the crying tongue.” Unless you are a real chilehead, be warned.

Where There Are No Rivers

Cenote at Chichen Itza in Yucatán

Even Los Angeles has a river. Never mind that its banks are mostly of concrete and that it runs dry most of the year. There are some parts of the world in which rain sometimes falls in great profusion, but where there are no rivers to be seen. The operative phrase here is “to be seen.”

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which I plan to visit next winter, is a solid block of limestone into which the rainfall seeps. There is quite a bit of water in Yucatán, but almost all of it is below sea level. Thanks to the giant meteor which caused the Cretaceous Extinction some 66 million years ago, numerous holes were punched through the surface of the limestone causing waterholes (usually referred to as cenotes). Many of these cenotes are interconnected through extensive subterranean caves.

Many of these cenotes make for excellent swimming holes in the subtropical climate of the peninsula, and they are a steady source of water for drinking and washing to the local population.

Where matters get more complicated is in the region known as the Puuc Hills, which rise several hundred feet above sea level, yet which sustained a large Maya population in ancient times. During rainy season, water is collected in stone cisterns called chultunes. During the dry season, these sources tend to dry up, and the local Maya must go hundreds of feet down to get at the subterranean rivers and wells. There is a famous illustration by Frederick Catherwood (around 1840) that shows the descent of hundreds of feet at the well in Bolonchen (see below). Shown here is only a portion of the descent to the wells, which continue for several hundred feet from the base of the stairs.

The Log Stairway at the Wells of Bolonchen (Representing Just Part of the Journey to Get Water)

Many place names in Yucatán contain the particle chen, which means well. In addition to Bolonchen, there is Chichen Itza, which, translated, means “The Mouth of the Well of the Itzaés.” A quick glance at a detailed map of this part of Mexico will turn up hundreds of other examples.

 

The First Ever Photograph of a Human Being

Look Closely at the Lower Left of the Photo, Where the Street Curves

This is a slightly modified reprint of a blog I published on the late unlamented Multiply.Com on January 21, 2011.

If you don’t look hard, you can easily miss it. Near the bottom left corner of the above photograph is the first photographic image of a human being ever taken. The place is the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The year is 1838. And the photographer is none other than Louis Daguerre, after whom the daguerreotype was named.

The only reason you don’t see other people in the street is that the exposure was for ten minutes, and anyone or thing in motion appeared only as a blur if at all. The reason the gentleman above was standing still for ten minutes was that he was getting his shoes shined.

No one knows the man’s name or anything about him. He just wandered into history, got his shoes shined, and went on his way.

Referenced in this article: For more info and a closer view of our mystery subject, click here.