At the Start of the Covid Outbreak

It was the night of January 14, 2020. I was scheduled to take a flight on Volaris to Guadalajara, Mexico, and then on to Mérida in Yucatán. The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX was crowded with Chinese returning to their country. Most of the flights were to Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and other major cities on the Chinese mainland. My Mexico flight was one of the few in the wee hours of the morning that was to a Western Hemisphere destination.

A month earlier, on December 1, 2019, a patient was admitted to a hospital in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, with a strange case of pneumonia. I didn’t know anything about the official Chinese coverup of the disease until around January 24, when I was staying at the Hotel Lopez in Campeche, where I had access to the Al Jazeera news channel in English on my TV. The whole time I stayed there, the news was filled with pictures of Chinese healthcare personnel in hazmat suits. There were just then beginning to be cases of the unknown disease in the United States, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Viet Nam, Taiwan, and Nepal.

By the time I returned to the United States on February 7, mass quarantines were in effect in various countries around the globe. A month later, in the middle of March, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance performance of Kárpátok before submitting ourselves to the lockdown the next day.

There is an interesting chronology of the first days of the Covid-19 outbreak available by clicking here. Fortunately, we managed to avoid getting the disease; and my fingers are crossed that we never will.

“Desert Places”

It’s difficult to imagine Robert Frost writing a poem which is albeit partially about the desert. Although he is most often associated with New England, Frost was actually born in San Francisco. The name of the poem is “Desert Places”:

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. 

Africa, Australia, and North America

Giraffe at Palm Desert’s The Living Desert

When visiting my brother in the desert, I enjoy going with him to one of my favorite zoos, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. I remember going there with Martine when she lived and work in Twentynine Palms for the naval hospital there at the Marine Combat Center. Now that Martine has come to hate the desert after having lived in it for two years, now i go with my brother and his family.

Over the years, there have been numerous improvements, including an Australian sub-zoo and now a rhinoceros exhibit. Unfortunately, the rhino was not into being stared at, so he was in hiding when we were there on Sunday. Originally, there were only two parts to the zoo, North America and Africa.

Me at the Living Desert

My brother took the above picture of me sitting in a rocking chair. He deliberately cut off my feet as part of a family joke. My father used to say that if you didn’t show the subject’s feet in a picture, people would think he or she didn’t have any. So you can guess whether or not I have any feet. (Hint: I do.)

Probably the most spectacular creatures this visit were the giraffes. They are in a particularly large and photogenic location, so I managed to get a lot of pictures of them.

On Desert Time

I had a good time visiting my brother in the desert. When the weather is just right, as it was this weekend, there is no better place to be. Conversely, during the scorching days of summer, it is best to seek water, shade, and air conditioning as fast as possible. Touch a metal surface on your car, and you can hear your skin burn.

It is difficult to imagine ponds in the desert, yet they exist, as the above image shows. It’s mostly because they are near the San Andreas fault, where subterranean water sometimes pools at the surface.

The only palm tree native to California is the Washingtonia filifera, or California Fan Palm. On a hot day, they not only provide excellent shade, but somehow seem to lower the shade temperature by several degrees. The best place to see this in the Coachella Valley is at the Thousand Palms Oasis off Ramon Road.

Stretching at times all the way to the ground, the dead fronds provide a safe habitat for various critters.

Cholla cactus look so inviting, so huggable even. But beware, the spines are barbed and difficult to remove. Many dogs have chased critters into a cholla and find themselves in great pain. An Arizona hiking site gives instructions for removing cholla cactus spines:

  1. Do not touch your face or put the injured area into your mouth. The cactus needles can easily transfer, so putting it near or face and/or mouth will only make the problem worse.
  2. Carry a plastic hair comb or a multi tool in your pack. It’s been said that if you get stuck with a cholla, you can use the comb to go underneath and pluck it out of your skin. Just make sure your aiming the cholla pod away from everyone else around.
  3. Use tweezers to remove the left over needles. They will likely be small and hard to see so make sure you get to good lighting to see better.
  4. Place duct tape over the area and then quickly pull it off like a band aid. This will hopefully remove the needles, and not your skin!
  5. Use gauze and white glue. Wrap the area up in gauze and then soak it in white glue. Once the glue dries, peel off the gauze which should take the needles with it.

The Carbuncle of Giamschid

I usually write favorable reviews of most of the books I read, but this will be an exception. My review won’t hurt the author, as he died in 1844, unloved and unlamented. William Beckford’s Vathek was originally written in French by this British writer and translated into English by another.

It is an oriental fantasy, which means it is lush with weird details and productive of much wretched excess. One reads along this piece of overripe Turkish delight and comes across a sentence like this:

In the morning, which was lowering and rainy, the dwarfs mounted high poles like minarets, and called them to prayers. The whole congregation, which consisted of Sutlememe, Shaban, the four eunuchs, and some storks, were already assembled.

What in coruscating blue blazes were those storks doing there? There is no reason for their existence except to add some local color. And what about Sutlememe, Shaban, and the four eunuchs? Details without a reason for their existence is nothing less than a form of literary cancer. Instead of being organic to the story, the whole thing comes across as a massive inorganic blob.

Characters come on the scene and subplots are born without any reason for their existence:

Dread lady, you shall be obeyed; but I will not drown Nouronihar; she is sweeter to me than a Myrabolan comfit, and is enamoured of carbuncles, especially that of Giamschid, which hath also been promised to be conferred upon her; she therefore shall go along with us, for I intend to repose with her beneath the canopies of Soliman; I can sleep no more without her.

In the end, one feels as if one has swallowed whole a Myrabolan comfit and choked on it.

Read it if you dare, but be prepared to shove the Carbuncle of Giamschid where the sun doesn’t shine. God knows, I did!

Halászbástya

It looks as impressive as all get-out, but the Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) on Budapest’s Buda bank was actually built between 1895 and 1902 to serve as a viewpoint over the Danube. The myth behind it is that during the Middle Ages, it was the role of the Fishermen’s (Halász) Guild, located in the general vicinity, to protect that reach of the river from invaders.

Sitting across the Danube from the Bastion is the Hungarian Parliament, built around the same time. There was a lot of construction in Budapest around that time because 1896 was the thousandth anniversary of the settlement of the Magyar peoples under Arpad in the plain that was to become Hungary.

And here is the view of Parliament from the arches of the Bastion.

I was in Hungary and Czechoslovakia with my parents in 1977 and saw the sights with my cousin Vörös Ilona, who worked for the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV). It was an interesting trip. In addition to Budapest, we hung out at Lake Balaton, visited a huge opera festival in Szeged (where, to stay in a railway workers’ hostel, I had to pretend to be a Hungarian railway worker), and travel to where my father was born in the present day Slovak Republic.

Like Poland, Hungary was on one of the main invasion paths into Europe. Its history was a tragic one, fighting off (not always successfully) the Mongols, the Austrians, the Germans, and the Russians. Now it’s ruled by a rightist dictator named Viktor Orbán, who is smarter than Donald J. Trump, but in the same political ballpark.

To the Hebrides

If you go to Scotland, the best thing to see are the islands. The concession for RORO (Roll On Roll Off) car ferries to the Hebrides is run by Caledonian MacBrayne. They include longer trips to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, as well as a 5-minute sail between Mull and the Sacred Isle of Iona, where the ancient kings of Scotland are buried.

Martine and I have ridden the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to Mull, Iona, and Islay. In the Middle Ages, the Hebrides were ruled from Islay by the Lord of the Isles, the best known of whom was Somerled (1113-1164). At their height the Lords of the Isles were the greatest landowners and most powerful lords after the Kings of England and Scotland. Today, the Lord of the Isles is Charles, Prince of Wales—though the title is now purely ceremonial.

Above is Kildalton Cross on Islay, where my favorite Scotches are distilled: Laphraoig, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, and Caol Ila. They are known for their peat smoke aroma.

When it is safe to travel again, and if I had the money, I would love to go to Scotland and hop aboard Caledonian MacBrayne, going from island to island.

If you are ever interested in seeing a classic British film set in the Hebrides, I highly recommend Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore! (1949), based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel of the same name. It’s a classic.

Heavy Industry

Though I understand that the brand-name still exists, the company for which my father worked as a machine-tool builder for many years no longer does. The Lees Bradner Company manufactured gear-hobbing (cutting) machines and thread milling machines, primarily for export.

Alex Paris was for a number of years the shop steward for Mechanics Educational Society of America (MESA), Local 19. He stayed with the firm until the bitter end, when new owner White Consolidated Industries decided to close the factory at West 121st and Elmwood and move the operation to Dexter, Maine to its Fayscott Division in 1975. My father and most of his colleagues decided not to make the move—which was just as well as White sold off the division eleven years later.

Cleveland used to be a major center for the machine tool building industry. No more. In fact, most of that industry is now in China.

You can still find lots of used Lees Bradner machines for sale. Apparently, they had a pretty good reputation.

The Rape of Europa

Titian’s painting of “The Rape of Europa” tells of how Zeus turned himself into a bull, seduced the beautiful Europa, and impregnated her. Here is one version of the tale from Greeka.Com:

The name of Europa is mentioned in many contexts, most of which deal with the divine union between a young girl and Zeus. The most popular myth about Europa says that she was the daughter of Agenor, a Phoenician king, and later became a wife of Zeus, the King of Gods.

According to the legend, Europa was the epitome of feminine beauty on Earth. Zeus once saw her on the seashore of Phoenicia playing with her friends. He was so captivated by her beauty that he fell in love with her and developed a strong desire to possess her. Immediately, he took the form of a white bull and approached her. The bull looked wonderful with its snow-white body and gem-like horns. Europa looked at the extraordinary animal curiously and dared to touch and later hang him because he appeared so calm to her. Later, she was somehow motivated to climb on his back.

As soon as she did so, Zeus ran to the sea and carried her all the way from Phoenicia to the island of Crete. There he regained his human form and mated with her under an evergreen tree. This was the abduction of Europa, who later gave birth to three sons of Zeus, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. These men were known for their fairness and became the three judges of the Underworld, when they died. In fact, Minos founded the town of Knossos and gave his name to an entire civilization, the Minoan civilization.

Zeus loved Europa so much that he showered her with three priceless gifts. The first one was a bronze man, Talos, who served as a guard to her. He was the bronze giant that the Argonauts met and killed in their attempt to shore on Crete. The second was a dog, Laelaps, which could hunt anything she wanted. The last one was a javelin that had the power to hit the target, whatever it was. Europa was later married to one of the kings of Crete, Asterius, who adopted her sons and made her the first queen of Crete.

And here is the Roman poet Ovid’s telling of the legend from The Metamorphoses, as translated by Darrell Hine:

Majesty is incompatible truly with love; they cohabit
Nowhere together. The father and chief of the gods, whose right hand is   
Armed with the triple-forked lightning, who shakes the whole world with a nod, laid   
Dignity down with his sceptre, adopting the guise of a bull that   
Mixed with the cattle and lowed as he ambled around the fresh fields, a   
Beautiful animal, colored like snow that no footprint has trodden   
And which no watery south wind has melted. His muscular neck bulged,   
Dewlaps hung down from his chin; his curved horns you might think had been hand carved,   
Perfect, more purely translucent than pearl. His unthreatening brow and   
Far from formidable eyes made his face appear tranquil. Agenor's   
Daughter was truly amazed that this beautiful bull did not seem to   
Manifest any hostility. Though he was gentle she trembled at first to   
Touch him, but soon she approached him, adorning his muzzle with flowers.   
Then he rejoiced as a lover and, while he looked forward to hoped for   
Pleasures, he slobbered all over her hands, and could hardly postpone the   
Joys that remained. So he frolicked and bounded about on the green grass,   
Laying his snowy-white flanks on the yellowish sands. As her fear was
Little by little diminished, he offered his chest for her virgin   
Hand to caress and his horns to be decked with fresh flowers. The royal   
Maiden, not knowing on whom she was sitting, was even so bold as   
Also to climb on the back of the bull. As the god very slowly   
Inched from the shore and the dry land he planted his spurious footprints   
Deep in the shallows. Thus swimming out farther, he carried his prey off   
Into the midst of the sea. Almost fainting with terror she glanced back,   
As she was carried away, at the shore left behind. As she gripped one   
Horn in her right hand while clutching the back of the beast with the other,   
Meanwhile her fluttering draperies billowed behind on the sea breeze.