The Summer of Our Discontent

Earthquakes. Hurricanes. What’s Next?

The last several weeks have seen some serious damage done to North America: hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean; then earthquakes in Mexico. There was even a small quake a few days ago whose epicenter was only two miles from me. I shouldn’t be surprised if a volcanic cone started pushing up through the ground the way Paricutín did in Michoacán back in 1943.

Of course, the one really, really serious volcanic event on this continent would be for the Yellowstone Caldera to blow, the way it has three times before: 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago, and 630,000 years ago. Each explosion made major changes to the map of North America. If Yellowstone did in fact blow, the only good news is that it would take out Washington, DC, along with everything else east of it.

I’ve already written about Nibiru, though I disbelieve most Christian projections of doom. I merely think it’s wishful thinking on the part of Evangelicals, who, just perhaps, may be realizing that they’ve f*cked up really bad this time. They want to be raptured up quickly so they don’t have to take any more blame for destroying what once was a perfectly viable country.

 

 

A Mythology Out of Comic Books

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

In desperation, o avoid another afternoon of a multi-day heat wave, I went to Santa Monica to see Wonder Woman in air-conditioned comfort. As one who, in my tender years, was an aficionado of comic book heroes (and heroines), I remember the thrill I felt at their sense of power against evil. When you’re a little kid, injustice really bugs you: You want to wreak vengeance on bullies without having the law, or the vice principal, or someone’s angry parents coming after you.

Superman came from Planet Krypton, Batman from a wealthy American family, and Wonder Woman from the secret Mediterranean (one presumes) island of Themyscira, which is shielded by fog from mortal view. All these super heroes have super powers. (As a kid, I had none—except the ability to survive a sickly childhood.)

Princess Diana, alias Wonder Woman, is powerful enough to stop bullets and deflect mortar shells. On a First World War battlefield, she singlehandedly attacks the German lines and frees a captive French village. She is in search of Ares, the God of War, whom she identifies as General von Ludendorff, and whom she kills with a special sword. But Ludendorff is not Ares: It turns out to be the British politician Sir Patrick Morgan, who ostensibly is trying to set up an armistice, but who really wants everlasting war.

Evidently, we still have war and lots of it. I guess that makes room for a sequel, which I am not surprised to hear is already in production.

What Would Be My Kryptonite?

In the jejune mythology of American comic books, there is frequently a weak point in every superhero. I guess it started with Achilles in the Trojan War, who was immortal provided no one shot him in the heel. It was Paris (no relation to me) who found this out and hit the Achaean hero there with a poisoned arrow. With Superman, he lost his powers when he was exposed to Kryptonite, a fragment of the planet where he was born. For me, I would probably lose such powers as I have if someone dug up some dirt from the East Side of Cleveland, near the intersection of Harvard and Lee, and waved it in my face.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this comic book stuff doesn’t move me much any more. The young love it, because they feel powerless in the face of all us evil adults who want to put them down and make them take out the garbage and clean their bedrooms.

 

Fairbanks 142

Chris McCandless in Happier Days

In the spring of 1992, a young man named Christopher Johnson McCandless, who styled himself “Alexander Supertramp,” went to a particularly wild part of Alaska near Mount Denali, was unable to return to civilization because the trail to Healy across the Teklanika River was in flood from glacial melt during the summer months and could not be crossed. Within a few weeks, he was dead of starvation with a possible assist from toxins associated with wild potato seeds. He died in the same Fairbanks City Bus #142 where he set up his base cam three months earlier.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of McCandless, a talented young man of many enthusiasms who broke with his family and yearned to live in nature—without money, without maps, without adequate stores of food, weapons, and insecticides (Alaskan mosquitoes are voracious).

There is something about youth that doesn’t love the prudence of later years. I have always admired people like Henry David Thoreau, Sir John Franklin, John Muir, and, yes, Chris McCandless. But I was never able to follow in their footsteps because of ill health arising from a brain tumor which, even when successfully removed, required a lifetime of prudent medication. Without Prednisone alone, I would not have lasted more than a few weeks.

The Magic Bus on the Shore of the Sushana River

Kracauer’s book made me think about my own life. He even wrote a couple chapters about his own attempt to climb a mountain near Petersburg, Alaska, called the Devil’s Thumb. Fortunately, he survived. McCandless didn’t. Why?

Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless’s friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris “was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people.” In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to his dilemma. He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.

If he had only known where he was, if he had a USGS topographic map of the area, he could have returned to receive care, without even taking any heroic effort. He just did not know that he was a scant sixteen miles from a tourist road patrolled by the National Park Service. Even closer were several Forest Service and privately owned cabins that would have provided shelter and some food.

The Kracauer book is a superb read. It is greatly expanded from a 9,000-word article he wrote for Outside magazine in 1995.

 

Serendipity: Getting High on … Bananas?

How I Learned About Bananadine aka Mellow Yellow

It was the March 24, 1967 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press that taught me all about how to get high on bananas. You can see the cover of the issue in question illustrated above. Did I run to the nearest supermarket and buy up all the bananas in sight? No, I didn’t. It was just six months after my brain surgery to remove a chromophobe adenoma from the center of my head; and I was not about to go experimenting with psychedelic drugs. I was just finishing my first quarter as a graduate student at UCLA’s Film School. Although I loved the Free Press and looked for it religiously each week, I was both impressed and somewhat repelled by the whole hippie phenomenon.

What is this about getting high on bananas? Just read this excerpt from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which reminded me of this news story that happened some half century ago:

Bigfoot had been driving around once a week to Kozmik Banana, a frozen-banana shop near the Gordita Beach pier, creeping in by way of the alley in back. It was a classic shakedown. Kevin the owner, instead of throwing away the banana peels, was cashing in on a hippie belief of the moment by converting them to a smoking product he called Yellow Haze. Specially trained crews of speed freaks, kept out of sight nearby in a deserted resort hotel about to be demolished, worked three shifts carefully scraping off the insides of the banana peels and obtaining, after oven-drying and pulverizing it, a powdery black substance they wrapped in plastic bags to sell to the deluded and desperate. Some who smoked it reported psychedelic journeys to other places and times. Others came down with horrible nose, throat, and lung symptoms that lasted for weeks. The belief in psychedelic bananas went on, however, gleefully promoted by underground papers which ran learned articles comparing diagrams of banana molecules to those of LSD and including alleged excerpts from Indonesian professional journals about native cults of the banana and so forth, and Kevin was raking in thousands.  Bigfoot saw no reason why law enforcement shouldn’t b cut in for a share of the proceeds.

So, as you see, however much I dearly loved the Freep, the whole thing was an early instance of fake news on the (far) left.

The Free Press Called it “Bananadine”

I remember that the Free Press even had a bookstore on Fairfax, specializing in subversive titles, but with enough interesting general literature available to whet my appetite. A big plus is that it was right across the street from Canter’s Deli, which was open all hours, making it a popular nosh stop for film addicts discussing the pictures they had just seen. Martine and I still go there from time to time for their corned beef, pastrami, and other delights.

The Frogs Who Wanted a King

From Ancient Greece Comes the Story About What We Have Become

In case you are not familiar with this ancient tale by Aesop, here is a retelling from a website called Fables of Aesop:

The Frogs were tired of governing themselves. They had so much freedom that it had spoiled them, and they did nothing but sit around croaking in a bored manner and wishing for a government that could entertain them with the pomp and display of royalty, and rule them in a way to make them know they were being ruled. No milk and water government for them, they declared. So they sent a petition to Jupiter asking for a king.

Jupiter saw what simple and foolish creatures they were, but to keep them quiet and make them think they had a king he threw down a huge log, which fell into the water with a great splash. The Frogs hid themselves among the reeds and grasses, thinking the new king to be some fearful giant. But they soon discovered how tame and peaceable King Log was. In a short time the younger Frogs were using him for a diving platform, while the older Frogs made him a meeting place, where they complained loudly to Jupiter about the government.

To teach the Frogs a lesson the ruler of the gods now sent a Crane to be king of Frogland. The Crane proved to be a very different sort of king from old King Log. He gobbled up the poor Frogs right and left and they soon saw what fools they had been. In mournful croaks they begged Jupiter to take away the cruel tyrant before they should all be destroyed.

“How now!” cried Jupiter “Are you not yet content? You have what you asked for and so you have only yourselves to blame for your misfortunes.”

In the archaic L’Estrange version, the moral is: “The mobile are uneasie without a ruler: they are as restless with one; and the oft’ner they shift, the worse they are; so that government or no government; a king of God’s making, or of the peoples, or none at all; the multitude are never to be satisfied.”

As I sat down reading in the Santa Monica Main Library this morning, I noticed that the people seated around me look as if they had lost their battle with life. One black man alternately wept and swore; and a bearded youth in a hoodie kept calling his family to beg money for his anxiety medications. The coffee shops are full of people with notebook computers, undoubtedly using social media to communicate with people they don’t know or really care about. The natives appear to be restless.

Well, We Got Our King

This restlessness is probably what elected our current President, who is very much like Aesop’s King Stork. He seems to be comfortable only with billionaires and despots. And what can we expect from him? The answer, in one word is covfefe, and lots of it—brown, gooey, and pungent.

A Shakespearean Tragedy

The House in Which Richard M. Nixon Was Born

Today Martine and I visited the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda. It is a humble house that was built from a kit by Nixon’s father in 1912. Most of the furniture is original, including the bed in which Hannah Nixon gave birth to the 37th President of the United States. In keeping with that humility, within a few feet of the house’s rear entrance are the graves of Richard and Pat Nixon, who died within a year of each other.

There is no doubt that Nixon was a flawed man. Yet—at the same time—his list of accomplishments in office is impressive. He ended the unpopular war in Viet Nam. He ended the military draft. He was a staunch supporter of civil rights. His Title IX legislation made women’s sports at the collegiate level a major success. He courageously took it upon himself to re-open China to the West. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The list goes on and on.

Yet, despite his smashing victory over George McGovern in the 1972 election, he saw his opponents as a personal threat to him and initiated a burglary of the weakened Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Building. Like our current President, who also maintains an enemies list, Nixon was also a public servant who was intelligent and hard-working on behalf of the American People—which our current President is decidedly not.

The Grave Site of Richard M. Nixon

During the Sixties and Seventies, I was a determined enemy of Nixon. Now I am not so sure I feel that way. There was something about the man which could have made him our greatest political leader of this century. But he was all too human, and his life is like a Shakespearean tragedy of overwhelming promise and ambition brought down by an all-too-human flaw.

Sun Shining Through Leaves

Nothing Puts Me in a More Meditative State of Mind

This scene at Descanso Garden’s Mulberry Pond represents to me nature at its most lovely. I enjoy sitting there in the late afternoon and watching the lengthening sun shine through the leaves of the tree and the reeds growing from the pond. That luminous shade of green more than anything else makes me feel at peace. I usually let Martine walk around the park while I thinking about my inhaling and exhaling, all the while small children try to throw sticks and stones into the water. No matter: It’s all good.

One doesn’t always find this lush configuration of plants and sunlight in Southern California. More frequent are dusty botanicals that merely look dark. Not that Descanso has a team of caretakers dusting and polishing the plants—but that bench under the mulberry tree is one of the secret places in my heart. And it’s one of the reasons I keep returning to the park in La Cañada-Flintridge.