Pumpkins and Skeletons

This last Saturday, Martine and I visited the Grier Musser Museum, which had just re-opened to the public after the Covid-19 lockdown. I have always particularly loved their Halloween antiques, art, and other displays, such as the above throw pillow. Martine wore her witch costume (see yesterday’s post: Decidedly a Good Witch). We both resolved to re-visit them just before Christmas, when their displays will be less horrific.

Tonight, I watched four horror films in a row, three of which were the original Universal Frankenstein releases:

  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Plague of Zombies (1966)—a Hammer horror film

I waited by the door just in case some trick-or-treaters would come. As usual none came. I don’t think any have climbed the stairs for upwards of thirty years. I thought this year would be different because my downstairs neighbors are Ukrainian refugees with two young daughters.

Now that Halloween is almost past, I realize we are in the HallowThanksMas Continuum, where three Holidays seem to come one after the other like falling dominoes.

This October, I read four horror-related books in celebration of Halloween:

  • Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine (1817-1834)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the first half of which is set in a spooky abandoned monastery
  • Edith Wharton’s Ghosts (1937), selected by the author
  • Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008), a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley story

Decidedly a Good Witch

Above is Martine dressed as a witch—but as a good witch, to be sure! On a whim, she bought a great witch’s hat and dress at a Santa Monica costume shop and has been wearing it everywhere the last few days. The comments she has been receiving during that time have been overwhelmingly positive.

Beware of making any negative comments lest she wave her magic wand at you and turn you into a batrachian (tailless amphibian of the order Anura; a frog or toad).


It all started with Edward Saidi (E.S.)Tingatinga of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (1939-1972). He painted a series of animal paintings that became wildly popular. Then he started training a number of other fellow Tanzanians to paint in his style. For instance, the image above is by Abdul Amande Makura (b. 1954).

Below is an original by E.S. Tingatinga himself of a zebra with various African birds:

After E.S. Tingatinga died in 1972, six of his associates formed a group called the Tingatinga Partnership to perpetuate their founder’s style. It is thought that the style goes back much earlier than the 20th century, but it has become known as the Tingatinga painting style. According to the article on the style in Wikipedia:

Tingatinga is traditionally made on masonite, using several layers of bicycle paint, which makes for brilliant and highly saturated colours. Many elements of the style are related to the requirements of the tourist-oriented market; for example, the paintings are usually small so they can be easily transported, and subjects are intended to appeal to Europeans and Americans (e.g. the big five [African animals] and other wild fauna). In this sense, Tingatinga paintings can be considered a form of “airport painting.” The drawings themselves can be described as both naïve and caricatural; humour and sarcasm are often explicit.

This afternoon, I took the bus to UCLA and visited the Fowler Museum of global arts and cultures. What impressed me today were the African exhibitions, which included not only Tingatinga art but Fante Asato Flags from Southern Ghana and the work of Kwame Akoto of the Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana.

The vigor and color of the African works moved me immeasurably more than anything I have seen by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Piet Mondrian. I feel that we have arrived at an impasse with our art scene in the West.

Tall and Short

From left, Moscow-appointed head of Kherson Region Vladimir Saldo, Moscow-appointed head of Zaporizhzhia region Yevgeny Balitsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Denis Pushilin, leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Leonid Pasechnik, leader of self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic pose for a photo during a ceremony to sign the treaties for four regions of Ukraine to join Russia, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. The signing of the treaties making the four regions part of Russia follows the completion of the Kremlin-orchestrated referendums.” (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Government Pool Photo via AP)

Why is it no surprise to me that Vladimir Putin is so much shorter than his political lieutenants? Actually, he is 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm), which is only an inch shorter than the mean height of men around the world. (For the record, I myself am 5 feet 8 inches, the average height.)

Well, that isn’t very short after all. But then look at the height of all the U.S. Presidents and presidential candidates since FDR:

2020Joe Biden5 ft 11+1⁄2 in182 cmDonald Trump6 ft 3 in191 cm3+1⁄2 in9 cm
2016Donald Trump6 ft 3 in191 cmHillary Clinton5 ft 5 in165 cm10 in25 cm
2012Barack Obama6 ft 1+1⁄2 in187 cmMitt Romney6 ft 1+1⁄2 in187 cm0 in0 cm
2008Barack Obama6 ft 1+1⁄2 in187 cmJohn McCain5 ft 9 in175 cm4+1⁄2 in11 cm
2004George W. Bush5 ft 11+1⁄2 in182 cmJohn Kerry6 ft 4 in193 cm4+1⁄2 in11 cm
2000George W. Bush5 ft 11+1⁄2 in182 cmAl Gore6 ft 1 in185 cm1+1⁄2 in4 cm
1996Bill Clinton6 ft 2+1⁄2 in189 cmBob Dole6 ft 1+1⁄2 in187 cm1 in3 cm
1992Bill Clinton6 ft 2+1⁄2 in189 cmGeorge H. W. Bush6 ft 2 in188 cm1⁄2 in1 cm
1988George H. W. Bush6 ft 2 in188 cmMichael Dukakis5 ft 8 in173 cm6 in15 cm
1984Ronald Reagan6 ft 1 in185 cmWalter Mondale5 ft 11 in180 cm2 in5 cm
1980Ronald Reagan6 ft 1 in185 cmJimmy Carter5 ft 9+1⁄2 in177 cm3+1⁄2 in9 cm
1976Jimmy Carter5 ft 9+1⁄2 in177 cmGerald Ford6 ft 0 in183 cm2+1⁄2 in6 cm
1972Richard Nixon5 ft 11+1⁄2 in182 cmGeorge McGovern6 ft 1 in185 cm1+1⁄2 in4 cm
1968Richard Nixon5 ft 11+1⁄2 in182 cmHubert Humphrey5 ft 11 in180 cm1⁄2 in1 cm
1964Lyndon B. Johnson6 ft 3+1⁄2 in192 cmBarry Goldwater5 ft 11 in180 cm4+1⁄2 in11 cm
1960John F. Kennedy6 ft 1 in185 cmRichard Nixon5 ft 11+1⁄2 in182 cm1+1⁄2 in4 cm
1956Dwight D. Eisenhower5 ft 10+1⁄2 in179 cmAdlai Stevenson II5 ft 10 in178 cm1⁄2 in1 cm
1952Dwight D. Eisenhower5 ft 10+1⁄2 in179 cmAdlai Stevenson II5 ft 10 in178 cm1⁄2 in1 cm
1948Harry S. Truman5 ft 9 in175 cmThomas Dewey5 ft 8 in173 cm1 in3 cm
1944Franklin D. Roosevelt6 ft 2 in188 cmThomas Dewey5 ft 8 in173 cm6 in15 cm

I was shocked to find that the only times in recent history that the shorter candidate won was when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford; George W. Bush beat John Kerry and Al Gore; and Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.

Americans seem to vote for the taller candidate. Why is that? Do we think that taller candidates are more imposing? Is that, perhaps, why we have never had a woman in the White House? Perhaps one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost to the man from Mar-a-Lardo is that she is a full ten inches shorter than him.

The only candidate who was my height was Michael Dukakis, who was trounced by George H. W. Bush. And that was a pretty ignominious defeat, so you can bet that I’m not tempted to run for anything. (Though there are not a few things I would run from.)

Chain of Chance

The following is adapted from a post I made on the late unlamented Blog.Com on August 14, 2009.

I had not read one of Stanislaw Lem’s (1921-2006) novels for a number of years, remembering only that I always enjoyed them for their quirkiness and imagination. A few days ago, I picked up one of his books at random: It was Chain of Chance (1975).

Picture to yourself a series of murders or suicides of a seemingly random group of people. What they have in common is all are males in their fifties who were athletic in build, and all were visiting a spa in Naples, Italy. The victims consisted of both Americans and Europeans. Sent to investigate what happened in a washed-out American astronaut who calls himself Adams after one of the victims. He attempts to set himself up as a guinea pig doing what the average victim did and trying to see what happens. There were some strange occurrences, such as the collapse of a woman in a large shop where there are no visible employees on the Naples-Rome highway.

At the Rome airport, “Adams” survives a terrorist bomb blast and saves a young French girl’s life. Suspected as being in with the terrorists, he calls in his embassy; and matters get straightened out allowing him to proceed to Paris.

There he meets with Dr. Philippe Barth, a French computer scientist who served as a consultant for the Sûreté, the national security service. The story then suddenly sags as “Adams” describes in exhaustive detail what the victims had in common, what they did, and so on. I thought to myself at this point that perhaps I had picked up the first loser by Lem, but it took only a few pages for the author to recover and pose an ingenious demonstration.

At the Paris Orly airport, “Adams” begins feeling strangely demented and suicidal. In the nick of time, he handcuffs himself to some solid furniture and begins to take notes of what appears to be a series of attacks, culminating in unconsciousness.

I will not divulge Lem’s brilliant ending, except to drop one hint: There is a close tie-in with the subject of The Futurological Congress (1971), which remains my favorite of his books. One more clue. Here is the thinking of one of the people attending the security meeting with Barth, a mathematician named Saussure whom I think is a stand-in for the author:

Man wanted everything to be simple, even if mysterious: one God—in the singular, of course; one form of natural law; one principle of reason in the universe, and so on. Astronomy, for example, held that the totality of existence was made up of stars—past, present, and future—and their debris in the form of planets. But gradually astronomy had to concede that a number of cosmic phenomena couldn’t be contained within its scheme of things. Man’s hunger for simplicity paved the way for Ockham’s razor, the principle stating that no entity, no category can be multiplied unnecessarily. But the complexity that we refused to acknowledge finally overcame our prejudices. Modern physics has turned Ockham’s maxim upside down by positing that everything is possible. Everything in physics, that is; the complexity of civilizations is far greater than that of physics.

In the world of speculative fiction—and I regard him as more properly a writer of this rather than science fiction—few could approach the Pole in his inventive mind, humor, and psychological acuteness. Among his works that I have enjoyed are the following, all of which are still available in good English translations:

  • The Investigation (1959)
  • Return from the Stars (1961)
  • Solaris (1961), which was made into a great Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961)
  • The Futurological Congress (1971)—my favorite among his works
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973) and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973), published in Poland as a single work
  • One Human Minute (1986)

I see that I have read quite a few of Lem’s work—and at the same time, not nearly enough.

“View with a Grain of Sand”

View from a Window

Here is a marvellous poem by the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. It is called “View with a Grain of Sand.” Never before have I seen a poem about things written from the decidedly non-human stance of the things themselves. See what you think:

View with a Grain of Sand

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.

Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is no different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it is finished falling
or that it is falling still.

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn’t view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake’s floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
On pebbles neither large nor small.

And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.

A second passes.
A second second.
A third.
But they’re three seconds only for us.

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
But that’s just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
his news inhuman.

Cold Nights

Fall Has Finally Begun in Southern California

Even with global warming, there are cold nights in Southern California, usually beginning in October or November. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any torrid days during the winter: It’s just that they may be bookended between nights when the mercury descends into the 50s or even the 40s.

This presents a problem for Martine and me, because due to rent control, we are persona non grata to the owners of the apartment building in which we live. The owners would love to charge between $3,000 and $5,000 a month for our two-bedroom apartment, but by law they can’t unless they can convince us to move. Under “vacancy decontrol,” they can charge whatever they want from the next tenants.

As part of their policy, they do not readily respond to requests for building repairs. For instance, the wire connecting our thermostat to our gas heater is the original post World War II wire, so that sometimes our heater goes on, and sometimes we freeze. I am no electrician, so I would not venture to make the repairs myself.

This morning I called the apartment management company but have not heard back from them. This is very typical of our interaction with them. They can be counted on to do as little as possible, preferably nothing at all if they can get away with it. So I have to do a little dance, making sure that the wiring is replaced without giving the owners an excuse to get us out of here.

Say Cheese!

A Delicious Looking Piece of Stilton Cheese

Early in my adult life, I became a cheese-o-holic—particularly at breakfast time. I loved having hot Indian black tea with a couple cubic inches of cheese with crackers or bread.

Lately, I have taken to making my own Mexican quesadillas for breakfast using La Banderita soft flour tortillas, Monterey Jack cheese, and sliced pickled Jalapeños.

I usually have on hand Monterey Jack, Extra Sharp Cheddar, Parmesan, and a blue cheese, usually English Stilton. What I never eat is what is euphemistically called American Cheese or any similarly overprocessed “cheese food.”

Also excellent are sheep and goat cheeses. I remember visiting a wine and cheese shop in Amboise, France, that was built into the foot of the rock on which the Château d’Amboise was built. I must have tried a dozen varieties of goat cheese with local Loire wines. I was in hog heaven. I feel similarly about good quality feta cheese, especially in Greek dishes.

Once I open a packet of cheese, I always repackage it first in wax paper and then aluminum foil. It seems to last longer that way.

In terms of health, there are different points of view about cheese—as is true of almost any kind of food or drink. Despite the high sodium and fat content of cheese, my blood pressure and cholesterol are well under control. Consequently, I plan on continuing to enjoy cheese as long as I can.

The Horror Films of Val Lewton

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

The following is a repost from October 31, 2015. I had just saw The Leopard Man on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and started thinking (for the nth time) how great Val Lewton was as a producer—probably the only great film producer.

There are horror films, and there are horror films. They can scare you out of your wits, like Curse of the Demon (1957) and Poltergeist (1982), or they can make you understand that the world is both light and dark in equal measure, like Val Lewton’s great films of the 1940s, such as The Cat People (1942).

Val Lewton, born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia, was interested in making low budget films to compete with Universal Pictures’ highly successful Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Wolf Man franchises. The title for The Cat People was assigned to Lewton by RKO, and Lewton went to work on a psychological thriller in which there is no overt violence. Perhaps the greatest scene takes place in a swimming pool in which a young woman is swimming all by herself at night. In the shadows, we imagine there is a black panther, but neither the swimmer nor we the viewers are absolutely sure.

Even though Halloween is just about over, I highly recommend all the following Lewton films:

  • The Cat People (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • The Leopard Man (1943)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • The Ghost Ship (1943)
  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • The Body Snatcher (1945)
  • Isle of the Dead (1945)
  • Bedlam (1946)

All are great films worthy of being seen multiple times. They are short, thoughtful, extremely moody, and highly successful. Also available is a Turner Classics biopic about Lewton’s career called Shadows in the Dark narrated by Martin Scorsese. Martine and I watched it last night and recommend you see it.

In all of Hollywood’s history, Lewton was probably the only film producer who controlled his products as if he were the director. Even though Lewton directorial protegés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson went on to have brilliant careers, when one is watching a Lewton film, one recognizes it as a Lewton film.

Fish Story

Giant Grouper

With this lovely picture, I come to the end of my Hawaii posts. The same day that Martine and I had our disappointing visit to the zoo (The Problem with Zoos), we walked over to the Waikiki Aquarium, which is competently run by the University of Hawaii. The overall experience was better in every way.

It was another hot and humid day, so we sat down in front of a large tank in which the Giant Grouper swam up to the glass and looked at us balefully. There was a docent sitting near us answering questions. Now, I remember eating (and liking) grouper in Florida, but I had no idea they were so big. Apparently the ones in Florida are not quite the size of our friend here, but they are still pretty ginormous.

I like the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, but the place is always full of toddlers in strollers being pushed by zombie parents who aim at our ankles rather than our brains. It’s obviously a lot better endowed than the Waikiki Aquarium, but size doesn’t always count. Similarly, I much prefer the Santa Barbara Zoo to the enormous Los Angeles Zoo (again, those damned strollers).