After coming out against Year-in-Review news stories, I thought I’d contradict myself by highlighting the stupidest people of the past year. Think of it as Stupidity-in-Review, which is not quite the same thing.
NICKI MINAJ pops right up to the top of my list. During a global pandemic, she refuses to get vaccinated because of the (unnamed) cousin’s friend in Trinidad whose testicles became swollen and became impotent as a result. Well, that goes smack against the experience of my grand nephew’s proctologist’s accountant’s client who had no problems whatsoever—except for the painful anal probe when he was kidnapped by a UFO.
JANUARY 6 INSURRECTIONISTS run a close second. If most were tried for treason and executed, there would be a lot of rental units in the basement apartments of their mothers that would suddenly become available in Red States.
GWYNETH PALTROW. Speaking of Goops, there’s this actress who is actually trying to own the term without quite understanding what it means. With her belong many nabobs in the WELLNESS COMMUNITY who don’t understand that their belief systems do not deter potentially fatal viruses.
DONALD J. TRUMP who still thinks there are 70 million idiots just waiting to do his bidding. Hey, America knows how to forget losers.
QANON, yesterday’s favorite conspiracy source, has been outed thanks to an HBO documentary series, and is now running out of steam fast. (Reminds me, I need to go to the basement of the pizzeria to munch on some fresh babies.)
If you want to see a happy post, don’t catch me between Christmas and New Year. It is no accident that all my posts this week are unusually dark. My lone adherence to the Maya religion is my belief in the Uayeb, the unlucky five days that follow the 360 day Haab calendar to bring the total up to 365. According to an interesting website about the Uayeb:
Despite the fact that these days share the calendar with 18 other periods lasting 20 days each, the Uayeb had a bad reputation among the Maya people. According to writings found during the colonial period, these days were considered black periods in which the universe had released dark forces and therefore they didn’t share in the blessings of time.
In the Songs of Dzibalche, a codex found in 1942, a series of allusions to the Uayeb were discovered. These expressed the discomfort the days caused the Maya people:
The days of weeping, the days of evil/ The devil is loose, hell is open/ There is no goodness, only evil… the month of nameless days has come/ Days of pain, days of evil, the black days.
Several theories describe how the Maya passed through such dark times. Some specialists maintain that during these periods they stayed in their homes and washed their hair. Others claim they undertook great processions in thanks for what they’d experienced during the year. One thing that’s certain is that the word Uayeb could be translated as “bewitched staircase.”
Every year around this time, the press and the broadcast media like to run stories in which they remind us of the many infamies of the year that is to expire. I say let it expire in peace, without unnecessary commemoration.
It is good that we now have vaccines. If only we had people who were caring enough to take advantage of them. Today, I saw on Santa Monica Boulevard a pickup truck plastered with signs attacking the vaccine as a nefarious government plot to impugn our purity of essence, or some other likely rot. The vaccine would have been a triumph, but not in a nation teeming with ignorant mofos.
It’s equally to difficult to look back at the disasters wrought by climate change: California wildfires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and a steadily rising mercury level.
While the economy hasn’t altogether collapsed yet, it gives dangerous signs of doing so.
So please forgive me if I neglect to celebrate the passing year. Only a fool celebrates the passing of time.
I returned from my last vacation in South America under a dark cloud. It was November 9, 2016. I had spent a sleepless night at the Viejo Cuba Hotel on La Niña in Mariscal watching the election returns on CNN. I could not believe my eyes. Twenty times I would shut off the television and try to drift off to sleep; and twenty times I sprang awake and turned it back on because I could not believe my eyes.
Despite my dislike for Hillary Clinton, I had gone to considerable trouble to vote for her before flying off to Ecuador. I had to drive all the way to Norwalk on the I-105 in a heinous traffic jam. And now I would have to return to the United States to see my country attempt to survive the next four years under a malicious buffoon.
I managed to compose myself enough to take a taxi to Mariscal Sucré International Airport and catch my return flight on Copa Airlines to Los Angeles via Panama City.
When I landed at LAX, though, I was conscious of being in a different country than the one I had left three weeks before. Quite suddenly, all kinds of disreputable figures emerged from their hidey-holes into the broad daylight. And now, even though the Lardfather is no longer president, I feel the ground has shifted beneath my feet. The look on my face is of a skeptical vigilance.
The following passage appears in the Res Gestae (The Later Roman Empire A.D. 354-378) of the 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. This appears in a chapter about the Emperor Constantius’s attempts to head off a powerful Persian invasion. I cannot help but think that eagles don’t exactly key on their prey’s screams of fear.
When wild geese, in their migration from east to west [?] to escape the heat, approach the Taurus mountains, where eagles are common, their fear of these formidable birds leads them to stop up their beaks with small stones, to prevent a cry from escaping them, however hard-pressed But when they have passed over these hills in rapid flight they let the stones fall, and so pursue their way free from fear.
During my entire adult life, I have been of two minds about Christmas. On the plus side, it is a pious celebration of God becoming Man in order to save the human race from the shame of Adam and Eve. Though I can’t help wondering that God, being God, could have accomplished the same result any number of ways.
On the negative side, Christmas time has become a two-months-long stress fest in which families immolate their finances and valuable time buying gifts that the recipients do not necessarily want or need. I am happy that the holiday is now over, because I will be able to drive without encountering quite so many highway kamikazes out on endless errands.
It was nice to see the two classical movie versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1938 with Reginald Owen and 1951 with Alastair Sim, pictured above). In his story, Dickens doesn’t even mention the Deity, but he makes a case for generosity and good will toward men.
I also saw Bob Clark’s marvelous recreation of a 1950 Christmas in his 1983 A Christmas Story. In a way, the quest of Ralphie (Peter Billingley) for a BB gun is not nearly as acceptable a journey as Scrooge’s, but it was a reminder of my own Christmases in Cleveland. The picture showed such old Cleveland landmarks as the Terminal Tower, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and Higbee’s Department Store. I never got much in the way of presents except clothing that I didn’t like—except that my uncle gave me a $20 bill every Christmas, which was like a rare treasure for me, even though I couldn’t spend it on what I wanted.
At least I didn’t have an Aunt Clara who would make me a pink rabbit suit that made me look like a deranged Easter Bunny.
Christmas 2021 was going to see Los Angeles minus two of her muses. We just lost Joan Didion (above) to Parkinson’s disease; and six days ago, we lost Eve Babitz (photo below) to Huntington’s disease. Didion and Babitz were, to my mind, the leading writers about life in Southern California over the last half century or so.
I remember when I was first introduced to Didion by my friend Stephanie Hanna, who recommended back around 1970 that I read her great collection of essays entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Since then, I have read at least eight other volumes of her fiction and nonfiction.
Eve Babitz was a more recent discovery, thanks mainly to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), which brought out most of her work in the last few years. I consider Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company to be among the best works written about life in Southern California.
Joan Didion died in her 80s, and Eve Babitz at the age of 78. That makes me feel vulnerable, as I am a male who is about to reach his 77th year next month. In many ways, my acceptance of women as a source of outstanding literature about the local scene is due to these two powerful figures.
Now, as I look around me, who is there to take their places? No one that I can recognize at this point. I am just going to have to start looking….
December has seen a record-breaking cold snap in Los Angeles. So what do I do? I read two books about polar voyages, one an actual voyage, and the other a fanciful Jules Verne story.
Farthest North by the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) is the real thing. Nansen was a bona fide arctic explorer who was the first man to travel by sledge across Greenland and who got closer to the North Pole than anyone else before his 1893-96 voyage north of Siberia. he was not only a great explorer, but a humanitarian as well who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work protecting displaced victims of the First World War.
On his famous voyage, he lost no members of his expedition and came back with his ship intact.
This is in contrast to Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, which was published the year that Nansen was born. The godlike Captain Hatteras loses his ship to a mutiny, which ship, the Forward (curiously the same name as Nansen’s ship), is blown up by the mutineers. He also loses his mind, though he makes it to the Pole through some fanciful geography invented by Verne. Did you know there is an active volcano right at the North Pole? and that the ice floes do not exist above a certain latitude?
I don’t think I would like to have been under the command of Captain Hatteras. Give me Fridtjof Nansen any time!
How do you feel about celebrating the holidays in a morass of darkness? That’s what I did today when I saw the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara.
If there are any predictions possible from seeing a single film, I would have to say that we are entering a period of gloomy decadence. All the scenes take place either in heavy rain, a blizzard, and—just for a change—a modicum of dusty and hazy sunshine. Standing out from the dark edges are glittering reds, blues, greens, and browns.
Although the 2021 version followed the original 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle, the del Toro film is ever more shady, especially with Cate Blanchett as the psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter. She not only robs Carlisle of his ill-gotten gains, but shoots his ear off with a 22 caliber pistol. Blanchett bids fair to become the neo-noir equivalent of such noir queens as Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame.
Both film versions are worth seeing. In fact, I would also recommend reading the William Lindsay Gresham 1946 novel upon which they were based.
One side note: There is something unspeakably grimy and evil about the whole carny world as it is presented in books and films. If you are drawn in, you might also want to check out Robert Edmond Alter’s Carny Kill (1966). You might also want to dip into his Swamp Sister (1961). Neo-noir doesn’t get any better than this.
If he did nothing else during his life, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) gave us a magnificent translation of one of the great surviving Anglo-Saxon poems:
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days Hardship endured oft. Bitter breast-cares have I abided, Known on my keel many a care’s hold, And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted, My feet were by frost benumbed. Chill its chains are; chafing sighs Hew my heart round and hunger begot Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not That he on dry land loveliest liveth, List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea, Weathered the winter, wretched outcast Deprived of my kinsmen; Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew, There I heard naught save the harsh sea And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries, Did for my games the gannet’s clamour, Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter, The mews’ singing all my mead-drink. Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed With spray on his pinion. Not any protector May make merry man faring needy. This he little believes, who aye in winsome life Abides ‘mid burghers some heavy business, Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft Must bide above brine. Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north, Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now The heart’s thought that I on high streams The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone. Moaneth alway my mind’s lust That I fare forth, that I afar hence Seek out a foreign fastness. For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst, Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed; Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare Whatever his lord will. He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world’s delight Nor any whit else save the wave’s slash, Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water. Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries, Fields to fairness, land fares brisker, All this admonisheth man eager of mood, The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks On flood-ways to be far departing. Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying, He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow, The bitter heart’s blood. Burgher knows not — He the prosperous man — what some perform Where wandering them widest draweth. So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock, My mood ‘mid the mere-flood, Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide. On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me, Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer, Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly, O’er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow My lord deems to me this dead life On loan and on land, I believe not That any earth-weal eternal standeth Save there be somewhat calamitous That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain. Disease or oldness or sword-hate Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body. And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after — Laud of the living, boasteth some last word, That he will work ere he pass onward, Frame on the fair earth ‘gainst foes his malice, Daring ado, … So that all men shall honour him after And his laud beyond them remain ‘mid the English, Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast, Delight mid the doughty. Days little durable, And all arrogance of earthen riches, There come now no kings nor Cæsars Nor gold-giving lords like those gone. Howe’er in mirth most magnified, Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest, Drear all this excellence, delights undurable! Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth. Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low. Earthly glory ageth and seareth. No man at all going the earth’s gait, But age fares against him, his face paleth, Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions, Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven, Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth, Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry, Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart, And though he strew the grave with gold, His born brothers, their buried bodies Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
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