The Danger of Denying the Existence of Dragons

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Here is the complete quote: “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January of this year, leaving me bereft of her elfin wisdom. Not entirely, because there are all those books and stories of hers, which I am still plodding my way through. Today, I finished A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), which contained three short stories that are to my mind the best stories ever written about space travel. They include “The Shobies’ Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” and “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.”

That middle initial in her name, the “K,” comes from her father, Anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. What elevates Ursula from the technoid school of science fiction is her interest in exotic, invented cultures. These are best seen in her Hainish stories, which are my favorites among her works.  There is no end to the writing of fantasy stories, but somehow Ursula’s were special. They might be set in the distant future and on distant planets, but they involve real feelings among real beings. As she once said ,“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”  Well, she wrote those kind of books. In spades.

The Edition of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea That I Read

In the three stories I have mentioned from A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, there are two methods of space travel:

  • NAFAL, short for Nearly As Fast As Light. To the space travelers, the time expended in travel does not seem so long, but for those who have been left behind, years or even centuries pass.
  • Churten Theory, in which the travel is instantaneous. One could travel to Antares and be back for lunch. Travel via a Churten drive can be highly problematical, however, especially if the people traveling don’t get their stories straight or are incompatible in odd ways. “Wrinkles” in Churten travel can lead to strange results.

I look forward to reading (and maybe re-reading) several more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work this year.

 

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna on the Shore of Lago de Atitlán

When I visit Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala, I plan to stay at San Pedro La Laguna rather than Santiago Atitlán. There is more to see and do in San Pedro, and I can always take a lancha (covered motorboat) across an inlet of the lake to Santiago Atitlán. It would make a nice day trip from San Pedro. While there, I can visit the Maya god Maximón and make an offering to him for a safe trip, and I could visit the weaving cooperative.

Why San Pedro? It seems there are more places to stay. The town has something of a reputation as a party town for backpackers—and that aspect of the town is one I wish to avoid at all cost. When I travel, I like to sit down and read my Kindle—not listen to an international crowd of juveniles who have had too much aguardiente to drink. In fact, I generally prefer to avoid places where backpackers congregate. I guess this is all part of the “will you rotten kids get off my lawn” aspect of aging.

 

 

The Joys of Pre-Columbian Art

Moche Portrait Vessels at Lima’s Museo Larco

Not everyone is an aficionado of primitive art—particularly the Pre-Columbian art of the Americas. Children are not taught in schools about the early civilizations of the Americas. On the contrary, I suspect most kids think that, since the ancient civilizations fell so quickly to the conquistadores,  they didn’t have anything to offer to us.

Even one of my literary heroes, Aldous Huxley, came a cropper in his 1934 travel classic, Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’”

I strongly suspect that among Europeans of some eighty years ago, that was a common opinion. After all, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, Moche, and Inca do not in any way resemble the ancient Greeks and Romans—except that the Inca, like the Romans, were also great road-builders. They didn’t have much of a literature that has survived the Spanish conquest, except perhaps for the Maya Popol Vuh of the 16th century. As for philosophy, drama, novels, poetry… you can pretty much forget about it.

There was a period of tens of thousands of years during which the peoples of the Americas were isolated from any possible contact with European civilization. In consequence, they developed along different lines. Again and again in his book on Guatemala and Mexico, Huxley shows himself to be unwilling to consider that the Maya are very different. Not inferior, just different.

The Moche figures in the above photograph are all highly individualized. They remind me of the terra-cotta Chinese warriors discovered in Xian: Each of the 8,000 soldiers was different from all the others.

Totonac Figure from Mexico

Take the Totonac figure from the State of Veracruz in Mexico. This is a typical subject for Totonac art. Do we know what it means? The sloping forehead (does it show a deliberately deformed skull such as many Maya subjects?), the humorous expression: It is as if the distant past were laughing at us. And, in a way, it is. Many Pre-Columbian figures of animals from Mexico are downright hilarious. I don’t remember that type of humor from Greece or Rome, and certainly nothing similar from the Christian era.

Look at the Diego Rivera mural below, depicting a scene from El Tajin, the ancient ceremonial center of the Totonacs:

Scene from Diego Rivera Mural of El Tajin, Ancient Totonac Center

Let’s face it. We don’t quite understand what is going on here. We probably never will. I myself have been to El Tajin and saw Totonac youths rotating around elevated poles as voladores. Was there any convincing explanation of what was going on here? No, of course not. What intrigues me about this period is that the subjects are incredibly fascinating, but it is all a great mystery. Like life in general.

 

Serendipity: Are Oranges Always Orange?

What the Best Oranges Look Like

What we usually think oranges should look like are bright orange throughout. We are unlikely to accept oranges that are green with some orange on their rinds. But the best oranges I have eaten, whether in solid form or juiced, are much too ugly to sell in an American supermarket. In his book Beyond the Mexique Bay (1934), Aldous Huxley describes his own discovery along these lines when he visited Trinidad:

The oranges that grow in these tropical islands are particularly juicy and aromatic; but they never appear on any European or North American market. As with so many of us, their faces are their misfortune; they have a complexion which nature has made, not orange, but bright green, irregularly marbled with yellow. Nobody, therefore, outside their countries of origin, will buy them. For fruit, strangely enough, is sold on the strength of its appearance, not of its taste. Every grower knows that his product must appeal first to the eye and only secondarily to the palate. Immense pains have been taken to embellish the skin, but how little does anyone ever trouble to improve the flavour, of our dessert! …

But this is not the whole story. Man looks out on reality through an intervening and only partially transparent medium—his language. He sees real things overlaid by their verbal symbols. Thus, when he looks at oranges, it is as though he looked at them through a stained-glass window representing oranges. If the real oranges correspond with the beau idéal of oranges painted on the window, he feels that everything is all right. But if they don’t correspond, then he becomes suspicious; something must be wrong.

 

Is Sean Hannity Trumpf’s Love Child?

Why Is He Always Photographed with His Mouth Open?

Years ago, I read an article either in Harper’s or The Atlantic entitled “There Are 00 Trees in Russia.” It was there I discovered that editors who did not like a particular news subject printed a photograph with his mouth open. I am amused that all the news pieces I read about Sean Hannity show the right-wing pundit with his mouth agape.

The discovery that Hannity is one of Michael Cohen’s three clients This seems to indicate a much closer tie between the last remaining Nazi troll at Fox News and the Nazi thug president he adores. I don’t quite know what to make of this, and I am not sure I’ll ever know, but it amuses me to no end. I keep thinking of the calypso song in Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Cat’s Cradle:

Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

While I have no great admiration for the Democrats as they try to recover from the debacle of 2016, I must admit that the Republicans have displayed such general incompetence that I have some hopes that perhaps the Democracy will somehow stagger forward another few cycles before it collapses of total inanition.

 

Favorite Films: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and James Coburn as Pat Garrett

Film is an art form that involves the work of teams of people: producers, directors, writers, crew, and actors. As a result, virtually no film is perfect. That is particularly the case when directors like Sam Peckinpah are at odds with studio heads like MGM’s James Aubrey. Aubrey didn’t give Peckinpah anywhere near the resources he requested, partly because his attention was turned to completing the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

And yet Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (PG&BK) is a wonderful film. It is certainly a violent one: Martine left the theater at the Autry Center about a half hour into the film. There is a lot of swearing, a number of characters die bloody deaths; and yet … there are scenes of such beauty that one rarely encounters. I am thinking particularly when Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker is gut-shot, and his wife, played by the splendid Katy Jurado, throws away her rifle and follows him to the side of a pond where he has gone to die. In the background, the lovely song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is playing.

The sound track is by none other than Bob Dylan, who wrote and performed all the music—and who also had a minor part in the cast, playing the part of Alias. (It is quite evident that Dylan never acted before, but the film is great enough to encompass a host of minor flaws.)

PG&BK plays with the whole Billy the Kid legend. James Coburn as Pat Garrett is the unwitting tool of the Santa Fe politicians, led by General Lew Wallace, author of the novel Ben Hur. In the past, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) had been a lawman, and Pat Garrett the outlaw. Now the roles have been reversed.

Martine Going Down the Stairs at the Lincoln County, NM Courthouse Which Billy the Kid Used to Escape

In June, Martine and I visited the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Pat Garrett was the sheriff of Lincoln County. Peckinpah did a wonderful job of recreating the courthouse room where Billy was held prisoner and guarded by deputies J. W. Bell and Bob Olinger, both of whom were shot during his escape. In the photo above, Martine is obscuring with her left shoulder a bullet hole which Billy may have created when he shot his way out of captivity.

There is a strange quality to PG&BK. It seems as if Billy and Pat spend most of the film avoiding each other. Only at the end does Pat seem to feel pushed to catch up with his old pal Billy at Fort Sumner and kill him. Even there, there is a certain delicacy on his part as he waits for Billy to finish making love to Maria (played by Kristofferson’s wife, Rita Coolidge) before making his presence known and killing him.

 

So Much for This Rainy Season

I Doubt We’ll See Another Drop for Many Months

The rainy season of 2017-2018 turned out to be something of a bust. Oh, we had one good rain that killed a lot of poor people in Montecito. That whole range of hills that abuts the Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Gaviota is subject to mudslides whenever there is a short period of intense rain. It happened to the pretty little coastal town of La Conchita in 2005, and this time it was Montecito’s turn.

I just looked ahead to the forecast for the next 10 days. On Thursday, April 19, there is a 20% chance of rain—which probably just means a few droplets in the mountains and foothills. Most of Southern California will continue to be bone dry until the end of the year, if not longer.

The term “April Showers” doesn’t have much meaning in a Mediterranean climate zone such as the one I live in. If you were to drive for an hour and a half east of here, you would wind up in the Mohave Desert. Drive eight hours north of here, and you would be in the wetter Northern California zone. There are some 20 climate zones of 24 possible classifications to be found in California. I just happen to occupy one of the drier zones.