Worse Than Murder?

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859)

To put it simply, Thomas De Quincey was an opium addict. There were times when he wrote like an angel. Other times, reading him could be heavy slogging. Oft times you will find both in the same book, or even in the same essay. I have just finished reading his long essay “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” His description of the crimes of serial murderer John Williams is detailed and ghastly. Yet earlier in the essay is the following light touch:

For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun on this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

“The Fair Breeze Blew”

The Boat Channel from Chace Park

Whenever the summer heat of Los Angeles becomes too unbearable, I pick up the book I am reading and head to my magic peninsula, Burton Chace Park, which is surrounded on three sides by the boats in Marina Del Rey.

There is a Hungarian expression from my youth that aptly describes this week’s weather: dög meleg, or, in English, damned hot. Although the temperature has been in the low 80s Fahrenheit, the humidity has generally been over 50%, and there has been no cooling breeze.

Even when the area even a few hundred feet inland is like a blast furnace, there, for some reason, always a cooling sea breeze blowing at Chace Park. Unfortunately, the secret is out, especially on the weekends. Even if it can get crowded, it’s always nice to have a respite from the dög meleg.

The title of this post comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free:
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea. 

In Patagonia

Guanacos by the Fitzroy Massif

Of all the places I have visited on my travels, I think the most spectacular was Argentinian Patagonia from El Chaltén south to Tierra del Fuego. Twice I have traveled that route, once in 2006 (when I had my trip cut short by a broken shoulder) and once in 2011 with Martine. Although both my finances and remaining years are dwindling, I would like to take another stab at it.

I would like to fly into Ushuaia and take buses north all the way to Buenos Aires. To my right would be the South Atlantic and to my left the windy plains of Patagonia with glimpses of the Andes in the distance.

Argentina is not a destination beloved by North American travelers. The country is full of mostly Spanish-speaking Italians with pockets of Welsh and Croatians. Its main export used to be wool centered in large estancias held by British landowners, but it has become more diversified over time, especially with oil being discovered there.

Near El Calafate there are numerous glaciers originating on the eastern slope of the Andes. Martine and I visited the Perito Moreno, Upsala, and Spegazzini glaciers. As the world warms up, many of these glaciers will not be around for the next generation. But it was nice seeing them while we could.

Middle Wigwam

The Hanover NH Cemetery

As a student at Dartmouth College in the mid 1960s, I spent four years in the second farthest dormitory from the center of campus. Why? It was one of three new dormitories, and many of the older dormitories didn’t appeal to me for various reasons. Initially, my dorm was called Middle Wigwam; then it changed its name to McLane Hall. God knows what it’s called now, as the college erected numerous other buildings in the immediate vicinity and called another building McLane Hall. I certainly hope that the McLanes are happy with that.

There were several problems about being so far from the center, which mostly became apparent in the fierce New Hampshire winter. First of all, the central heating plant was more than a mile away. When the temperature dipped down to -30° degrees Fahrenheit (-34° Celsius), it wasn’t particularly easy to heat the building. Fortunately, I had an electric blanket for those days when the mercury sank way below comfort level. We never needed a refrigerator most of the year: windows were festooned with gallon jugs of apple cider.

Secondly, in going to and from classes and meals, I had to take a long walk on a frequently icy (and in Spring slushy) Tuck Mall past the Hanover town cemetery, which at night was a scary experience. Many of the graves dated back to the 18th century and looked ominous from dusk on.

Baker Library (As It Was Called Then) at Dartmouth

In my college years, I was frequently sick with severe frontal headaches that made going to class or the dining hall a misery. It was only after I graduated that I found the cause: a benign tumor was growing in my pituitary gland and pressing on the optic nerve. I was basically a pretty unhealthy young man who was taking long walks every day during the school year. Of course, once I got to my classes or the dining hall, I hung out in the Baker Library (now the Baker-Berry Library) or the Hopkins Center or—that’s where my habit began—the Dartmouth Bookstore.

I was fortunate to have survived my college years. All the times I showed up to the student infirmary, I was told I had migraines or hay fever or some such—pure bosh! But then, in those early years, all they had to go on were X-Rays; and the pituitary, being directly in the center of the head, did not show up well on the X-Rays of the period. MRIs and CAT Scans were all in the future.

Even so, I enjoyed most of my time at Dartmouth. It was a beautiful place, with majestic elm trees all over the place. No more! And the college’s aggressive building program has destroyed much of the campus’s charm.

“The American Night”

Here is one of my favorite poems by Jim Morrison of The Doors:

The American Night

for leather accrues
The miracle of the streets
The scents & smogs &
pollens of existence

Shiny blackness
so totally naked she was
Totally un-hung-up

We looked around
lights now on
To see our fellow travellers

I am troubled
Immeasurably
By your eyes

I am struck
By the feather
of your soft
Reply

The sound of glass
Speaks quick
Disdain

And conceals
What your eyes fight
To explain

She looked so sad in sleep
Like a friendly hand
just out of reach
A candle stranded on
a beach
While the sun sinks low
an H-bomb in reverse

Everything human
is leaving
her face

Soon she will disappear
into the calm
vegetable
morass

Stay!

My Wild Love!

I get my best ideas when the
telephone rings & rings. It’s no fun
To feel like a fool—when your
baby’s gone. A new ax to my head:
Possession. I create my own sword
of Damascus. I’ve done nothing w/time.
A little tot prancing the boards playing
w/Revolution. When out there the
World awaits & abounds w/heavy gangs
of murderers & real madmen. Hanging
from windows as if to say: I’m bold-
do you love me? Just for tonight.
A One Night Stand. A dog howls & whines
at the glass sliding door (why can’t I
be in there?) A cat yowls. A car engine
revs & races against the grain- dry
rasping carbon protest. I put the book
down- & begin my own book.
Love for the fat girl.
When will SHE get here?
~~~

In the gloom
In the shady living room
where we lived & died
& laughed & cried
& the pride of our relationship
took hold that summer
What a trip
To hold your hand
& tell the cops
you’re not 16
no runaway
The wino left a little in
the old blue desert
bottle
Cattle skulls
the cliche of rats
who skim the trees
in search of fat
Hip children invade the grounds
& sleep in the wet grass
’til the dogs rush out
I’m going South!

A and Not-A, B and Not-B, C and Not-C

Joan Didion (1934-2021)

I am beginning to realize that what I admire most about the essays of Joan Didion is that they do not take a stand. They present both A and Not-A, B and Not-B, and C and Not-C. Take, for instance, the title essay in The White Album. There is a constant feeling of dread, yet Joan never takes the easy way out. Here, for example, she writes about Huey Newton of the Black Panthers:

I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that Huey Newton did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newtons guilt or innocence was irrelevant. I am telling you only How Huey Newton happened to be in the Alameda County Jail, and why rallies were held in his name, demonstrations organized whenever he appeared in court.

There is also a description of a 1968 recording session by The Doors at which Jim Morrison was not initially present. When he arrived wearing his tight black vinyl pants, the scene was a discombobulated one:

The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival was this: no one acknowledged it. Robby Krieger continued working out a guitar passage. John Densmore tuned his drums. Manzarek sat at the control console and twirled a corkscrew and let a girl rub his shoulders. The girl did not look at Morrison, although he was in her direct line of sight. An hour or so passed, and still no one had spoken to Morrison.

Didion does not say that Morrison was an inconsiderate dick: She presents the scene and lets you draw your own conclusions. Particularly revealing is a quote from a psychiatric evaluation of Didion in Santa Monica after she reported “an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out.” The evaluation concluded:

Patient’s thematic productions on the Thematic Apperception Test emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure….

In her place, we might all be tempted to put our thumbs on the scale, to introduce our own prejudices and draw a conclusion which may be no closer to the truth, but mainly revealing of our own misperceptions. I do find it odd that she would quote a lengthy psychiatric diagnosis of her sense of dread near the beginning of the essay, or anywhere within it for that matter.

The Year of Reading Dictionaries

My first real job in Los Angeles was for System Development Corporation (SDC) in Santa Monica. My predecessor in the job was a young woman who was murdered by a UCLA film student. How odd that she was succeeded by another UCLA film student—me!

The nature of the job was to proofread two transcriptions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Thy had been punched on paper tape and converted to character files that were sent to a line printer. The first was the Merriam-Webster Seventh Collegiate Dictionary and the other was the M-W Pocket Dictionary.

Everything had been entered—not only the definitions but the pronunciations and etymologies as well. This was a database to be used to assist in computer translation between languages. Was it, in fact, ever used for this purpose? I don’t really know, because my part of the project ended before the database was ever used for any practical purpose.

The project ended with a publication in June 1969 of which I was a co-author: Two Dictionary Transcripts and Programs for Processing Them. Volume I. The Encoding Scheme, PARSENT, and CONIX. My co-authors were Richard Reichert and John Olney. If you are interested in reading it, you will find a copy in the Library of Congress.

Annapolis Royal

An Amazing Collection of Botanical Art

A few days ago, I wrote about Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island. I have always enjoyed visiting botanical gardens. Two of the best are on opposite sides of Canada. Martine and I also loved visiting the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. What I found interesting is that the Canadian gardens looked equally good rain or shine, while the ones in California looked best in sunny weather.

Also, the Canadians did a much better job in labeling the different plants than the American gardens we’ve visited.

One of the neat features of Annapolis Royal is that is only a few footsteps away from Fort Anne, originally built in 1629 to protect shipping. It saw action in five wars, terminating in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). On the northern part of the island is the extensive Fortress of Louisbourg, built by the French in 1713, which played a major role in the French and Indian War.

In general, Nova Scotia was our favorite part of Eastern Canada, followed by the City of Québec. We loved the lobster dinners and the French Acadian culture of towns like Chéticamp, where moose could be viewed from the window of our B&B.

Travels with Chris and Topher

Chris Raney and Topher of Yellow Productions

In doing research for my upcoming Hawaii trip, I ran into a great information resource: Chris Raney of Yellow Productions and his YouTube videos on travel. A resident of Southern California, Chris does his videos with a small stuffed panda whom he calls Topher. (Hmmm: Chris + Topher = Christopher?) Occasionally, he is accompanied by his cute little daughter whom he carries on his back or pushes in a stroller.

I started by watching his video entitled “Cheap Eats Waikiki.” Although it was done several years ago, it was still fairly up-to-date. He has also done videos about his favorite Japanese convenience store on American soil (Lawson Station at the Sheraton Waikiki), things to know before visiting O’ahu, and several other topics—including, for validation purposes, some of his videos about Los Angeles, about which I know a thing or two. He passes the test: Chris knows what he is talking about.

You can see a list of Chris’s videos here.

Paradise from an Old Quarry

Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia

Eighteen years ago, I took a solo trip to Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. One of the highlights of my trip was my first visit to Butchart Gardens, fifty-five acres of botanical paradise a short distance from Victoria. Usually, botanical gardens look their best in bright sunshine. Curiously, Butchart shone as much in the rain as it did, later that afternoon, in bright sunshine.

I spent hours exploring the grounds, rewarding myself with a delicious English tea for lunch.

Back in 1904, the grounds were part of a large limestone quarry that looked dismal, until the wife of the owner Click here to see how Jenny Butchart turned that ruined earth into a small paradise. Today it is a National Historic Site that draws thousands of visitors from around the world.

A few years later, I returned with Martine, who also fell in love with the place.

Come to think of it, Butchart Gardens was one of two botanical gardens we visited in Canada. The other one was in Annapolis Royal, clear on the other side of Canada. I will write about it at some point in the coming week or so.