Sprawl

The World of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy

For the last few days, I have been re-reading the last two novels of William Gibson’s sci-fi Sprawl trilogy. The Sprawl is Gibson’s take on how the Boston to Washington DC corridor will develop in time to be the largest urban area in the world. The trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer (1984), in which the term cyberspace was first introduced
  • Count Zero (1986)
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)

The 1980s was a time when the United States was awed by the growth of the Japanese economy. Throughout the trilogy, the yakuza, or Japanese underworld, has a presence—along with Haitian Voodoo gods such as Baron Samedi and Papa Legba, who seem to have taken up residence in cyberspace.

I do not think it is possible to reprise the plot of any of these novels in a coherent way, and I am sure I will forget most of the details within a week or two. What I will not forget, however, is the wild imagination that Gibson displays in his work. For instance, many scenes in Mona Lisa Overdrive take place in a barren New Jersey rust belt area known as Dog Solitude.

One of the difficulties of summarizing any of these novels is that, typically, the action takes place in numerous locales with numerous characters, many of whom have numerous aliases.

For some reason, I have not read any Gibson for a number of years. Now I am hooked again.

Seven Dolls

Sign at Entrance to the Ruins

There are untold thousands of Meso-American archeological sites scattered through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Sometimes, it’s fun to visit some of the lesser-known sites. I have particularly fond memories of Dzibilchaltún, which is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Mérida. It was the first Maya ruin I visited back in 1975 with my guide Manuel Quiñones Moreno. We set on the steps of a temple and played several games of chess, which I lost handily.

So it was fun to visit it again in 2020. Now there was an entrance hall, an admission fee, and a rather nice museum. Plus, the cenote was filled with children diving into the limestone-cooled waters.

The Temple of the Seven Dolls

Above is the most famous structure at Dzibilchaltún, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after a number of figurines that were found by archeologists buried under one of the altars.

The Seven Dolls Buried in the Temple

Dzibilchaltún is not a world class beauty like Uxmal, Chichén Itza, Copán, or Tikál, but it helps fill in vital parts of the Maya story. Although it doesn’t have a lot of first-class structures, the city was inhabited for over a thousand years. It was close to the coastal salt flats that led to the one item most frequently used in the coastal trade with other peoples, namely: salt.

And I have happy memories because this is one of the places where I began my travels as a young man.

Waiting for the Bus at Bundy & Exposition

When I go downtown to the Central Library, I travel by bus and train to avoid paying the usual exorbitant parking rates (upwards of $30 in some places). This afternoon, when I got off the train to transfer to the Santa Monica #14 bus, I ran into a hard-core racist. It was ugly and disgusting.

He was sitting on the bus bench next to mine talking to himself. He obviously hated Asians, so he was enumerating the many things about Asians that teed him off. When three cute Mexican high school girls walked by talking in Spanish, he switched topics and complained that they were speaking Spanish in his United States.

This character was probably in his late twenties, with a skateboard and a cart full of clothing and other miscellaneous items. He didn’t appear to be homeless: He was relatively well dressed, and he boarded the #16 bus headed to Brentwood, which is a high rent district to the north.

At one point, he looked to me for confirmation of his racist patter. He received the shock of his life when the old white man at his right answered him in Hungarian, inviting him in the Magyar language to be sodomized by a horse. His response? “Another effing furriner!”

Morose Delectation, 1970s Style

Michael York and Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run (1976)

The 1970s were a lonely decade for me. At the beginning of the decade, I was still a Master’s Candidate in UCLA’s film school, but rapidly discovering that the politics of the department were pushing me away. At the same time, I was recovering from a 1966 brain surgery that removed a pituitary tumor, as well as what was left of the pituitary gland. I looked absurdly young, yet felt that I was, for all intents and purposes, a hopeless celibate from Mars.

Cable TV introduced me to a number of actresses who were all too willing to be nude on screen. They included Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame, the gorgeous Nastassja Kinski, and Britt Ekland. But my favorite was Jenny Agutter, a classy looking Brit who showed off her stuff in:

  • Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971)
  • Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976)
  • Sidney Lumet’s Equus (1977)
  • Monte Hellman’s China 9 Liberty 37 (1978)
Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil in Walkabout (1971)

My friend Alain called my interest in these young, delicious actresses a form of “morose delectation.” I am sure he was right. Fortunately, I got through the 1970s and discovered that I was not from Mars: I was just another lonely earthling.

Reconnecting

Mona Mistriel and Her Younger Son Wylder in 2013

I am always delighted to hear from an old friend with whom I have been out of touch for a while. Today, I received an e-mail from Mona Mistriel, with whom I had worked at Lewis, Joffe & Company for a few years back in the mid 2000s. She had been in Tucson and Sedona in Arizona and is now in Ventura, about an hour north of me.

Her two sons are now fully grown and reflect well on the care she had taken as a single mother with them, through good times and bad.

Mona is a natural healer and has been an influence (along with Martine) on nutritional supplements I am taking, with some success, to improve my health.

I look forward to meeting with her in a couple of weeks. Martine and I look forward to taking her out to dinner here in LA.

Two Wild and Crazy Guys

Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the Two Crazy Guys

The following repost is from April 25, 2013. It refers to the Tsarnaev brothers who used pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon that year.

You may recall those two Wild & Crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, the brothers Yortuk and Georg Festrunk, on Saturday Night Live. As they shimmied across the stage in search of “foxes, ” they displayed an exquisite misunderstanding what the United States was all about. In the case of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, the result was comedy. In the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two Chechen brothers from Dagestan, the result was death and disorder.

In the years to come, one of the greatest dangers to America will be the failure of immigrants from cultures vastly different from our own to adapt to the prevailing culture of the U.S. Even the mother returned to Russia, leaving several arrest warrants for shoplifting in her wake. The streets of America are not paved with gold. They are fraught with dangers not understood by people who have been influenced by our popular culture without understanding the particular demons that we in the States have to contend with in our daily lives.

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, my parents took in two sets of refugees. The first was a mother and son who thought that, now they were in America, everything would be golden. That ended badly when Feddike, the son, was sent to a juvenile correctional facility. Next was Lászlo, a young man in his twenties, who also quickly fell afoul of the law—whereupon my mother and father resolved not to take in any more refugees from the Mother Country.

I do not mean to imply that immigration is bad, but that American culture sends misleading vibes to the rest of the world. People who are not thoughtful and who think that just being on American soil is the solution to all their problems are more likely to go astray. No, they must be ready to roll up their sleeves and start working long and hard toward their goals.

The Tsarnaev brothers should be an object lesson to American officials that they have to probe more deeply than mere external circumstances when opening the doors of the henhouse to potential predators.

Highland View

Above is an aerial view of Highland View Hospital in Warrensville Township, Ohio circa 1965. For a number of years, my mother worked there as an occupational therapy assistant; and I spent several summers in high school as a volunteer in the occupational and physical therapy departments.

At the time I volunteered there, I thought of Highland View as a hospital for the terminally ill, because most of the patients were seriously ill. The average length of stay per patient was 67 days. I don’t have any statistics about what percent of patients died there vs. were released.

As a volunteer for occupational therapy, I helped bring bed- and wheelchair-ridden patients from their rooms to an auditorium where a visiting volunteer named Harry Zasz screened movies from a 16mm projector onto a screen. After the show, I helped take the patients back to their rooms. The movies were standard Hollywood fare: I remember Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Seventh Cavalry (1956) as two films that were shown several times over the years.

I remember one ambulatory patient who had a very visible dent one or two inches deep in his forehead.

Probably what impressed me was something that happened toward the end of my volunteer gig. I played chess with an elderly Puerto Rican patient named Manuel. I was proud to have defeated him, but chagrined to find he had passed away that night. So much for triumph!

Later, my mother moved on to Saint Vincent Charity Hospital near downtown Cleveland. I had a very short stint there as a volunteer in surgery. First they had been clean up a very bloody operating room after a surgery. Then they had me shave around the genitals of a man scheduled to have a hernia operation. I just didn’t have the stomach for surgery and didn’t go back.

Incidentally, Saint Vincent Charity was the hospital that appeared in Billy Wilder’s film The Fortune Cookie (1966) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. My Mom appeared in one shot, but the scene didn’t make it into the final cut.

Dancy Dancy

How Convincing Are the Happy Dances, Really?

I cannot help but think that life is grimmer than ever, based on all the happy dances on TikTok and TV commercials. Together with all the pharmaceutical commercials, with their family-happiness-in-the-outdoors tropes, the happy dances are a promise that is almost never fulfilled. How does that delirious couple in the photo above look when medical bills and their mortgage are more than they could bear. Even if they got that great house for the cheap price of a zillion dollars.

The one happy dance which doesn’t bother me is Matt Harding’s “Where the Hell Is Matt? 2008.” That son of a bitch had something to dance about—the sheer joy of life—and it would be my pleasure to join him:

Fragrant Hills

The Tomb of the Kamehameha Dynasty of Hawaiian Kings

Honolulu’s Royal Mausoleum (or Mauna ‘Ala, “Fragrant Hills”) is the home of most of the two Hawaiian Royal Families of the Kamehameha and Kalakaua dynasties—with the sole exception of Kamehameha I “The Great,” who is buried in Maui.

As you can see from the fresh flower leis on the tomb, today’s Hawaiians revere the memory of their kings and regard the mausoleum as holy ground. Martine and I hope to visit it when we go to Hawaii in three months, perhaps visiting nearby Queen Emma’s Summer Palace the same day.

The Tomb of the Kalakaua Dynasty

It was King Kamehameha IV and his consort Queen Emma who had the mausoleum built in 1862. Unfortunately, the first occupant was their four-year-old son Prince Albert.

In addition to all the Hawaiian kings after Kamehameha I, many of the retainers and chiefs are also interred nearby. For a list of the occupants, click here.

Queen Lili‘uokalani on Hawaiian Postage Stamp

I include the above postage stamp image just to demonstrate that the Kingdom of Hawaii was a self-governing entity before being annexed by the United States in 1898. Queen Lili‘uokalani was the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands.

Ozzie’s Islands

O. A. Bushnell’s Home in Manoa Valley

Who is the great novelist of Hawaii? (If you say James Michener, deduct a thousand points and surf off a cliff.)

When Martine and I went to Hawaii in 1996, I did some research on the subject and came up with the name O. A. (short for Oswald Andrew) Bushnell. I promptly bought all five of his novels:

  • The Return of Lono (1956), about the death of Captain Cook on the Big Island of Hawai’i
  • Ka’a’awa: A Novel About Hawaii in the 1850s (1972)
  • Moloka’i (1975) about Father Damien and the leper colony at Kalaupapa
  • The Stone of Kannon (1979) and its sequel The Water of Kane (1980) about Japanese immigration to Hawaii
O. A. Bushnell (1913-2002)

I am ashamed to say that, to date, I have read only the first two books. Between now and our trip to Hawaii this fall, I will also add Moloka’i to my to-be-read pile.

What I find interesting about Bushnell is that he was a professor of microbiology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. In fact, he also wrote a book on the subject: Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawaii (1993). Yet he was also a natural at writing fiction. Come to think of it, much of his novel Ka’a’awa dealt with the devastating smallpox and influenza epidemics of the 1850s

How to Make Serious Literature Look Cheap

I remember visiting the Los Angeles Times Book Fair around 2000 and coming upon a booth staffed by the University of Hawai’i Press. At the time, I had not yet read any of my Bushnell titles, but I asked about how the author was doing. “Ah, poor Ozzie!” came the answer. “He’s pretty ill, and we can only hope he pulls through.” Alas, he was to die shortly after.

But his work lives on, and it is definitely worth reading.