RLS on Vailima

Epitaph of Robert Louis Stevenson at Vailima on Samoa

He wrote his own epitaph for his grave atop a mountain in Samoa, and it is one of the great epitaphs:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

I have become obsessed by the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Pacific, where he busily spent his last days in a frenzy of writing, local politics, and building. I had always liked the work of RLS, but I think in the South Seas he came into his own.

One of the best books I have read over the last twelve months are the Vailima Letters:  Being Correspondence addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin (1895) of the author, named after the estate he built in Samoa, just south of the capital at Apia.

Stevenson’s Estate at Vailima: Early Stages

About a year ago, a friend in Australia recommended two books about Stevenson’s final days in Samoa: Joseph Farrell’s Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa and Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room. I immediately downloaded both books from Amazon Kindle. The Farrell I read last May, and I am now halfway through the Michael Fitzgerald. Both have been excellent reads. Now I will try to read more of RLS’s last novels that he wrote from Vailima.

As I grow older, I find myself drawn more and more to Stevenson. His style is so limpid, and yet his thoughts can be so profound.

 

Beauty and Brains

Actress and Inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

One of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on the silver screen was also a brilliant inventor whose work—for which she did not receive a dime—is used by most Americans on a daily basis.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, was an Austrian actress from a Jewish family that fled to the United States on the brink of World War Two. She was slightly notorious for having appeared in the nude in Gustav Machaty’s Czech film Ecstasy (1933). Not only was she unclothed, but was photographed in a tight facial shot simulating an orgasm. As a result, the sanctimonious studio boss of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, put her in films, but never in the big productions.

Poster for Ecstasy (1933)

Still, Hedy did her best, starring in many films, but also making a unique contribution to the war effort. Working with music composer George Antheil, she developed an invention for producing an unjammable system for communicating with a torpedo that has been released. The method involved hopping across a broad spectrum of frequencies. In 1942, her invention was granted a patent, but never used during the war because the Navy thought they knew better. But by the time the patent expired in 1957, it was being used and is used today in Bluetooth technology and on legacy versions of WiFi.

Because Miss Lamarr did not renew the patent, she did not receive any remuneration for her invention. I just saw a thoughtful documentary by Alexandra Dean entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017). Perhaps, in the end, Hedy was too smart for Hollywood—and Hollywood did not tend to reward actresses for their brains. She drifted through several marriages and several bouts of plastic surgery. But looks were never her problem. This woman had a brain, and that was unforgivable.

 

 

Plague Diary 15: No Destinations

The Beach During the Early Days of the Plague: Now Forbidden

I used to love taking walks, but now I am somewhat indifferent. You see, what attracted me was not the mere exercise: It was having a destination. And my favorite destinations were bookstores. Well before the coronavirus plague reached our shores, the bookstores of Los Angeles pretty much melted into history. Now I will occasionally take a walk to an Italian grocery in Santa Monica or to the West Los Angeles Post Office.

For a while, it was possible to walk along the beach, or over the bluffs in Santa Monica overlooking the beach. Now both are closed to enforce social distancing. The above Los Angeles Times photo was shot during the early days of the plague. Now, the police are out in force chasing people from the beach or anything else that looks like a nice place to walk. We are urged only to walk for the sheer fun of it, or to go to the market or pharmacy to shop for necessaries.

One thing I absolutely refuse to do is wear a mask while taking a walk. If some random bozo attempts to upbraid me for it, I will gladly send my sputum in his direction. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, until I can find another solution, I cannot exercise while fogging up my glasses. I will gladly stay far away from other walkers, as my distrust of strangers long predates the arrival of the coronavirus. I am always happy to answer strangers’ questions in my ungrammatical Hungarian, which may include some colorful expressions of contempt.

Later this week, I will probably walk to Bay Cities Imports (the Italian deli in Santa Monica) to pick up one of their delightful Spaniard sandwiches together with some ingredients for a future Italian meal. Their pasta, sauces, and Italian sausages are nothing short of superb.

 

 

Plague Diary 14: From Not Recommended to Mandatory

What’s Next? Encasing Our Heads in Blocks of Lucite?

A scant week ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) was recommending that face masks should only be worn by people who had the coronavirus. Now, all of a sudden, security guards are turning away customers who are not masked. In no way does a face mask protect the wearer from getting exposed to the virus, unless it is from another person who has the virus but is not masked.

Now all this causes problems for me. First of all, my exhalations result in my eyeglasses fogging up. So imagine trying to read the ingredients of a food item through a fog of one’s own creation. I will try to rig up some kind of improvised cloth face mask for myself using a scarf, if I can.

Secondly, anything that inhibits me from inhaling normally occasionally causes me to gag or choke. Again, an improvised cloth face mask may be the answer.

The face mask I wear is identical with the one in the above photo, except that I have stretchy rubber loops that attach to my ears.

 

 

Henequen and Chicle

Henequen Was the Major Source of Yucatán’s Wealth Around 1900

While I am here quarantined in my apartment, I look back with pleasure to my trip to Yucatán in January and February of this year, before the coronavirus outbreak reached America’s shores.

Before the days of mass tourism to the peninsula, the economy of Yucatán was based primarily on henequen, and less importantly on the sap of the sapodilla tree. In the first case, henequen fiber was used to make a rope usually referred to as sisal, or matting. Such was the demand for the fiber that the owners of haciendas that grew henequen became millionaires. Today, their mansions line the Paseo de Montejo, once one of the richest residential streets in the world.

A Pre-Wrigley Gum Wrapper

The other substance for which Yucatán was known was chicle, originally the substance that made chewing gum possible. Chicle was made from the mily latex of the sapodilla tree, which was tapped similarly to rubber trees in the Amazon. Men known as chicleros ranged far and wide in jungle areas tapping the sapodilla trees, and in the process discovering many of the Maya ruins which are now major tourist attractions. I remember a number of years ago a brand of candy-coated chewing gum called Chiclets. Even then, it was no longer made using real chicle.

Nowadays, both henequen and chicle are no longer major economic forces in Southeast Mexico. There are still a couple of active haciendas specializing in henequen for ropes or matting, but the day of the chicleros is forever gone since chicle has been replaced by a synthetic substance known as a polyol.

 

Non-Academic Poet

British Poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Sometimes the greatest poets are not those favored by academics. Philip Larkin was not a prolific poet, yet what he wrote speaks volumes even to those who are not “academia nuts.” When I look back at 20th Century British poetry, I see him as one of the brightest literary lights of his time. Take for example the following:

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

 

 

Plague Diary 13: Rainy Day Quarantine

Death’s Head Overlooking Venice Beach

Once again, I have taken a Los Angeles Times photograph from their evocative series on the effects of the quarantine on L.A.’s public spaces.

Today has been a day of steady rain, which started late morning and will probably continue through the night. We did get out around 11 am: Martine needed repairs to her eyeglass frames that only an optician could make, and I picked up a couple of Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwiches for her. Martine was none too happy with the yellow split pea rice pilau I had cooked the previous evening, preferring meat dishes even as I drift slowly into a vegetarian diet.

Returning around noon, we have stayed in the apartment. I sat in the library finishing Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. As I compare the current coronavirus disease with the bubonic plague, I would have to say that COVID-19 is by far less horrible. Whereas the mortality rate of the current outbreak is 2% of those afflicted, some 69,000 Londoners out of a total of 500,000 died of the 1665 outbreak.

The way that London enforced quarantine was to lock up any household where there was an instance of plague, enforced by two shifts of watchmen who would assist the tenants of the house get food and other necessities. But if one person in a household got the plague, it was fairly certain that all would die horribly.

On most days, I see at least one film, either from Spectrum Cable, Netflix’s DVD.COM service, or my personal DVD collection, consisting mostly of American and foreign classics. Today, since Martine did not go out for a walk, I decided not to induce her to retire to the bedroom to avoid listening to samurai sword fights, Western gunfights, or other irritatingly loud sound tracks.

Tomorrow, the rain will gradually taper off, and I will be able to play one of my films.

 

 

Serendipity: London 1665 Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague in London

As bad as the coronavirus is. it is nothing compared to the Bubonic plague. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published a superb work of reportage about the 1665 Bubonic plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year. At the actual time of the plague, Defoe was only five years old; so it is actually a carefully researched work of fiction.

It was known to us all that abundance of poor despairing creatures who had the distemper upon them, and were grown stupid or melancholy by their misery, as many were, wandered away into the fields and Woods, and into secret uncouth places almost anywhere, to creep into a bush or hedge and die.

The inhabitants of the villages adjacent would, in pity, carry them food and set it at a distance, that they might fetch it, if they were able; and sometimes they were not able, and the next time they went they should find the poor wretches lie dead and the food untouched. The number of these miserable objects were many, and I know so many that perished thus, and so exactly where, that I believe I could go to the very place and dig their bones up still; for the country people would go and dig a hole at a distance from them, and then with long poles, and hooks at the end of them, drag the bodies into these pits, and then throw the earth in from as far as they could cast it, to cover them, taking notice how the wind blew, and so coming on that side which the seamen call to windward, that the scent of the bodies might blow from them; and thus great numbers went out of the world who were never known, or any account of them taken, as well within the bills of mortality as without.

This, indeed, I had in the main only from the relation of others, for I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter. But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance; but I could know little of their cases, for whether it were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away; yet I believe the account is exactly true.

Smoking Was Considered a Way to Avoid the Plague

As this puts me upon mentioning my walking the streets and fields, I cannot omit taking notice what a desolate place the city was at that time. The great street I lived in (which is known to be one of the broadest of all the streets of London, I mean of the suburbs as well as the liberties) all the side where the butchers lived, especially without the bars, was more like a green field than a paved street, and the people generally went in the middle with the horses and carts. It is true that the farthest end towards Whitechappel Church was not all paved, but even the part that was paved was full of grass also; but this need not seem strange, since the great streets within the city, such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places; neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or peas, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual. As for coaches, they were scarce used but to carry sick people to the pest-house, and to other hospitals, and some few to carry physicians to such places as they thought fit to venture to visit; for really coaches were dangerous things, and people did not care to venture into them, because they did not know who might have been carried in them last, and sick, infected people were, as I have said, ordinarily carried in them to the pest-houses, and sometimes people expired in them as they went along.

 

 

Zoonotic Spillover

So This Pandemic Comes to Us from Bats?

My one experience with bats comes from the 1980s while I was visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Every day from June to October, almost precisely at sunset, tens of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the cave, gliding inches from the ears of spectators seated in an amphitheater near the entrance.

While I admire the creatures for devouring untold billions of insects, I have never been tempted to eat bat meat in any way, shape, or form. But the current coronavirus pandemic could be due to Chinese in Wuhan attempting to do just that with meat obtained at a highly unsanitary institution referred to as the “Wuhan Wet Market.” According to CNN, a bat-infected pangolin could have been eaten by Patient Zero of the coronavirus.

Bats Emerging from Carlsbad Caverns at Sunset

Others say that the virus emerged as a result of a lab accident in Wuhan in which a study of bats was involved. In either case, it was an instance of zoonotic spillover, in which a disease crosses from an animal to a human.

Whatever the source, there are numerous conspiracy theories in China, the United States, and around the world fomented by the usual guilty parties. These state that the virus was deliberately spread by China or the U.S. or by God, who is dissatisfied by the laxity and sinfulness of His worshipers.

Pangolin

I am not in a position to rule on how COVID-19 started on its quest to infect the world. Many comparisons have been made to the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) of the Middle Ages, of which one website provided the following description:

The Black Death was a devastating global epidemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent’s population.

Thankfully, COVID-19 has nowhere near that mortality rate.

Still, be careful and stay safe!

 

 

Plague Diary 12: Ways of Escape

I Keep Looking for a Way Out

For the first thirty years of my life, I was stuck either in Cleveland or in school. I loved my parents, but they wanted to control my life—and my whereabouts—for much longer than I thought was right. So one day in 1975, instead of taking a flight to Cleveland and remaining stuck in childhood, I flew to Mérida in Yucatán. Ever since then, I saw Cleveland as part of a past that I just happened to sidestep.

Now, during the awful coronavirus plague of 2020, I feel once again that my hands are being tied tightly behind my back. The only difference is that there is a matter of survival involved. For a few weeks, I could stay at home and remain more than six feet away from everyone but Martine. But my mind is traveling. While I eat, I page restlessly through an old Lonely Planet Mexico guide (cover illustrated above) picking places that look promising. Places like Bahía Kino and Alamos in Sonora, Morelia in Michoacán, or San Blas in Nayarit.

It seems that travel has become necessary to my feeling of well-being. I would even pick an American destination so that I can travel with Martine. Of late, she has shied away from going to foreign countries. She has even neglected to renew her passport. I would prefer to travel with Martine, but above all I need to travel.

Have I developed a thousand-mile stare? Perhaps I have. I guess spending a childhood in Cleveland will do that to one.