A Fragmented Life

Our Lives Are Not Quite an Uninterrupted Triumphal March

I have just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, which she wrote in 1928. Actually, it is not the biography of a real character, but of a highly fictional one. Not only does Orlando live for upwards of 400 years, but the character physically changes gender at some point in the early 18th century. And he/she manages the change swimmingly.

As Woolf wrote about her Orlando:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.

Tilda Swinton as the Male Orlando in the 1992 Sally Potter Film

There was an excellent film version of Orlando released in 1992, with Tilda Swinton playing both the male and female lead.

Both the book and the film set me to thinking of my own fragmented life, which included the following scenes:

  • The 5-year-old sent home from kindergarten for not being able to speak in English (my native language is Hungarian).
  • The teenager who has turned sickly with punishing frontal headaches.
  • The high school valedictorian who has won a four-year scholarship to an Ivy League college.
  • The college graduate, within days of leaving for graduate study at UCLA, goes into a coma and subsequent brain surgery. My pituitary gland was destroyed by a tumor that was causing the headaches and making me, at 21, look like an 11-year old.
  • The young man in his 20s who feels as if he were from Mars, looks absurdly young, and can’t get girls interested in him.
  • The same young man in a few years learning that alienation is part of the human condition.
  • In his 40s, he finds love with a cute woman born in France, who doesn’t mind that he can’t father a child.

… and so on.

Tilda Swinton as the Female Orlando from the Film

I guess I managed all those years without once having to change my gender. Of course, there is little chance that I will reach the ripe old age of 400.

Breakfast

My Favorite Meal of the Day? Breakfast!

I have written in the past about my love of Indian black tea, hot and iced. Even in the heat of summer, I love to start the day with a pot of Darjeeling, Assam, or Ceylon—or my personal blend of same. In the picture above, you can see my cheap Japanese metal teapot, which has an insert for the loose tea leaves so they don’t end of floating in my cup.

Of late, I have drunk my breakfast tea with either mesquite or desert wildflower honey, and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Accompanying it is usually one of the following:

  • Quesadillas with pickled rajas de jalapeño chiles
  • Huevos à la Mexicana: Scrambled eggs with chopped onions, garlic, serrano chiles, and (when available) tomatillos
  • Toasted English muffin with melted cheddar cheese and Indian red chile powder
  • Slices of cheese with crackers, the type of cheese varying with the season
  • Jimmy Dean’s frozen biscuits with sausage
  • Steel-cut oatmeal with dried cranberries or cherries and a dash of maple syrup
  • Hominy grits cooked with a chicken bouillon cube with butter, sausage, and fresh ground pepper
  • Sourdough toast with butter and garlic (for when I have a sore throat)

I would love to have grapefruit, but, like many men of my age, I am on Lipitor (generic Atorvastatin) to reduce cholesterol. It doesn’t work when you eat grapefruit.

Accompanying breakfast is my home-delivered copy of the Los Angeles Times. I scan the national, international, and local news, but spend most of my time with the puzzles and comics page.

When I have a good breakfast—and I usually do—the rest of the day starts of on a good footing.

I Agree With Mark Twain

I Am an Unrelenting Enemy of the Smartphone

As far back as 1890, Mark Twain sent out this Christmas message:

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us-the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage-may-eventually be gathered together in heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss-except the inventor of the telephone.

I have more or less come to terms with my land line. (“What’s that?”) I’m pretty good at sorting out the fakers and phishers who make up most of my calls. (“We’re canceling your Amazon account because [Click]” and “Your account with Apple [Click].”) One just has to be hyper skeptical with all robocalls and perhaps a majority of live callers.

But there is something about the cell phone which makes it irritating in the extreme:

  • It’s ridiculously expensive
  • It turns most callers in public places into boors
  • Particularly with the smart phone, it is dangerously distracting—particularly on the road
  • Too many parking spaces are occupied by idiots fingering their smart phones
  • Everyone assumes you have one
  • The screens are so tiny that, past a certain age, one can’t view them comfortably
  • What passes for a keyboard with cell phones is a sick joke

Today, I couldn’t get into my personal accounting system on QuickBooks Online because Intuit decided I had to change my password. To prove that I am me, they sent a code to my cell phone. I couldn’t view the code because the first text message on my system was corrupted, so I had to restore factory settings and destroy all five text messages. (No problem, that.)

People occasionally call me on my cell phone, but I never answer calls because most of them are in Chinese; so I would rather keep my cell shut off except when I have to place an emergency call. (That’s the only good thing about cell phones.)

Sorry about the rant. Why do I get the feeling with most technical innovations that they are one step forward and two steps back?

Sinking Your Teeth Into Florence

No, Not Florence, Italy: Florence, South Carolina

I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine about dentistry. Depending on where you are, dentistry can take your household finances and turn them into mulch.

For their dental care, my Mother and Father actually ripped off the Peoples’ Republic of Hungary (that’s Magyar Népköztársaság for you fellow Hunkies) by having the Communists pay for their false teeth. I doubt they flashed their American passports, but they got thousands of dollars worth of dental care for bupkis.

One could cross the border into Mexico for inexpensive dental work, but there is no good way of holding the dentist accountable if something happens.

My Aunt Margit moved to Florence SC in the 1970s. When she died in 1977, my parents were in Budapest and couldn’t get back in time for the funeral; so my brother and I went instead. One of the things I discovered while there is that Florence was a major dental center, with some clinics doing dental procedures 24/7.

I don’t know if that’s still the case, but there are scads of dental clinics still in operation—many of which have no problem with giving you a price list in advance of need. I suspect that since dentistry is so competitive in Florence, there must be some good dentists to be found there. Even if they voted for Trump and Lindsey Graham.

Family Plot

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

In my family, there was a plot to marry me off to a nice Hungarian girl who would think nothing of giving up her life with me to take care of my aging parents. They had even settled on a distant cousin of mine, one Ilona Vörös (Helen Red in English), a resident of Újpest who worked for MAV, the Hungarian State Railways.

This all happened in the mid-1970s, when my parents brought Ilona to the U.S. to introduce her to me. Mind you, I had nothing against marriage per se; but something about this whole arrangement set all my warning lights blinking and alarms sounding off.

Me in Hungary 1977 on the Shores of Lake Balatón

Why would any self-respecting young woman want to enter into a kind of weird marriage in which would become a slavey to my Mom and Dad, whom I thought were being incredibly naive about the whole thing? When I backed out of the arrangement, my father was furious with me. Why? I had not made any promises to marry Ilona, and then send her to Cleveland to serve as a housekeeper for my parents. I was just going to meet her and see what came of things. (Which was naive on my part, I now see.)

I suspect that what my parents really wanted was for all four of us to live in one household. I had been in Los Angeles for ten years. This was a plot to bring us all together. But I didn’t want to live with my Mom and Dad, as much as I loved them. I rather liked living in California on my own. As for marriage, I preferred to find someone who was not hedged about with all kinds of weird expectations.

Then it came about that Ilona and one of her MAV co-workers had been carrying on a long relationship in Budapest. Then my Mom had words with Ilona’s mother, and within a year or two, Ilona and her family were persona non grata.

Probably just as well.

The Death of Boris Vian

Writer and Jazz Musician Boris Vian (1920-1959)

This is a reprint of a blog I posted on October 1, 2018—with some minor changes. Vian was not only a member of the Oulipo literary movement, but he was a renowned jazz musician.

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and sci-fi writer A. E. Van Vogt). In addition, he was a friend to the existentialist writers of the 1950s.

I have just finished [in 2018] reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Boris Vian at the Trumpet

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves [not to be confused with the various rape revenge films released under the name of I Spit on Your Grave without the “s”]. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and music.

The Spiral Road

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

Here is another poem by Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke), belonging to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). Considering all that has happened to her people, she is curiously optimistic “for earth’s grandsons.” And that is the title of her poem.

For Earth’s Grandsons

Stand tall, no matter your height, how dark your skin
Your spirit is all colors within
You are made of the finest woven light
From the iridescent love that formed your mothers, fathers
Your grandparents all the way back on the spiral road—
There is no end to this love
It has formed your bodies
Feeds your bright spirits
And no matter what happens in these times of breaking—
No matter dictators, the heartless, and liars
No matter—you are born of those
Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands
All through the miles of relentless exile
Those who sang the path through massacre
All the way to sunrise
You will make it through—

Pictograph at Chaco Canyon Showing the Spiral Road

I liked the way the poem ends with a dash: All this is still happening. I posted another poem by Joy Harjo on October 20 here. Both poems are taken from her recent book An American Sunrise (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).

Discoveries: Nikkatsu

Nikkatsu Studios Logo

During this hyperextended quarantine, I continue to make interesting discoveries. Late one night, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) put on a double bill of noir films from Nikkatsu Studios.

Nikkatsu? I had heard of Toho, Shochiku, Diaei, and Tohei … but never Nikkatsu. After a quick look at Google, I found that Nikkatsu was actually the oldest studio in Japan, founded all the way back in 1912, three years before D.W. Griffith filmed Birth of a Nation.

I began to look at I Am Waiting (1957), but as the hour was late and I was tired, I reluctantly prepared for sleep.

But then, I discovered that the TCM website has a Watch Now option. When you select Watch Movies, you have available to you virtually all the recently shown films on the channel, including cartoons and shorts. The only requirement is that you subscribe to a service on your TV that carries the TCM channel: There is a login required.

A Scene from A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

I was delighted to find that both I Am Waiting and A Colt Is My Passport were available through the website. Thereupon I watched both films and was delighted that I persevered in searching them out. Not only that, but I bought the Criterion Collection’s Nikkatsu Noir series of five films, which included the above titles but three others that I plan to watch in the weeks to come.

Film noir has traveled from the United States to France (the films of Jean-Pierre Melville), England (the original Get Carter with Michael Caine), and Japan.

L.A. in the Civil War

Docent at Wilmington’s Drum Barracks (2008)

Southern California was separated from the main battlefields of the Civil War by thousands of miles, yet it was contested territory. The California State Legislature was a hotbed of secessionism, and there was talk of separating the state into two halves, with the southern half being part of the Confederate States of America.

Two military officers stationed in the area became major players in the East: Albert Sidney Johnston becoming a general for the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott Hancock for the Union.

Winfield Scott Hancock, One of the Heroes of Gettysburg

Fortunately for the Union, there was a strong cadre of Yankee sympathizers in town. These included Phineas Banning, responsible for building the Port of Los Angeles; District Attorney Ezra Drown; rancher Jonathan Warner; and publisher Charles Conway.

The only remaining military facility from those days is in Wilmington—the Drum Barracks, just south of Phineas Banning’s palatial estate.

Los Angeles in 1861

If you’d like to read a more detailed account of how L.A. fared during the Civil War, with numerous photos, I recommend you check out this website from TV station KCET, entitled “We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist”—Los Angeles When the Civil War Began.

Tropical Penguins

Feeding Time for the Humboldt Penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo

I am looking back to a visit Martine and I made to the Santa Barbara Zoo some ten years ago this month. At the time, penguins interested me more and more. In 2006, I had seen some Magellanic penguins at Isla Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Argentina’s State of Tierra Del Fuego.

In 2010, I had hopes of talking Martine into coming with me to Argentina in 2011 (which she did) and seeing the penguins at Pájaros and Punta del Tombo in the State of Chubut.

The penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo are similar to the Magellanic penguins of Argentina, but they inhabit warmer country, namely the coastal regions of Northern Chile (site of the Atacama Desert) and Peru.

Lone Humboldt Penguin

I have always regarded the penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo as my favorite exhibit. Clumsy on land, the Humboldts swim with speed, fury, and precision. (For that reason, they are much harder to photograph when they’re in the water.)