A Death in Tax Season

My Late Friend Don K. Yamagishi

My Late Friend Don K. Yamagishi

I would give anything not to have to write this, but today I lost a friend and co-worker. Don Kiyomi Yamagishi was an accountant and an attorney, and one of the most friendly and approachable people with whom I have ever worked. Although the above photo is twelve years old, Don did not look very different in this, the last year of his life. When we learned the news late this afternoon, there was not a dry eye in the company.

Don served as the tax manager of the accounting firm for which I work. He was a real scholar, a man of knowledge and consummate professionalism. He also served as the accountant for the Union Church of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo and as a volunteer working at a summer camp for disabled children.

Most of all, though, he was a friend whom I will miss deeply. Some people, when they leave us, leave many holes in our lives. Such was Don. May God have mercy on his soul and reward him for just being himself. Which is the best I could say for anyone.

Frida Kahlo: “A Ribbon Around a Bomb”

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait

In all of the New World, there was never so beguiling and striking a painter as Frida Kahlo. Today is her birthday. If she were alive today, she would be 109 years old. But, alas, she died in pain at the age of 47.

At the age of 6, Frida came down with polio. For the rest of her life, her right leg would be thinner than her left—a fact she disguised by wearing only pants or long dresses. At the age of 18, she was in a bus accident in which she suffered, according to Wikipedia, “a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder.” Also she was able to walk again, she suffered excruciating pain, had multiple surgeries, and became a world-famous painter.

She married the painter Diego Rivera, had numerous affairs, including with Leon Trotsky, and was, despite her health issues, beautiful and proud. Of her, André Breton said of her art that it was “a ribbon around a bomb.”

Nude Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Julien Levy

Nude Portrait of Frida Kahlo by Julian Levy

In the end, after she died, Frida’s fame only grew, such that her work is more recognized today than that of any of her contemporaries. If ever I should return to Mexico City, I would like to visit the Casa Azul, the Blue House, in Coyoacán, where she was born and where she died. Today it is a museum dedicated to her life and work.

Frida’s Self Portrait with Broken Column

Frida’s Self Portrait with Broken Column and Nails

Asked why she appears as the subject of so many of her paintings, the artist said “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Muhammad Ali’s Long Journey

It’s Been a Long Journey

Somewhere Enroute, He Became a Beloved Hero

He was handsome. He was strong. He was a big time bad-ass. Cassius Clay seemed to flout all the standards of the world of the 1960s. Then, when he converted to Islam (influenced by another bad-ass: Malcolm X), the now Muhammad Ali seemed almost Satanic in his majesty.

Today, the same boxer who frightened us out of our wits died an old and much-beloved hero. He may have floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, but he became ever more enlightened and benevolent as he aged. In 1996, he reached his apotheosis by lighting the Olympic Flame at the Atlanta games.

Although it was not unexpected, I am still broken up by Martine’s announcement of his death as I was on the last page of a biography of French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Somewhere along the line, we are all on the last page of the book of our own lives.

Hidden in the Credits

Production Designer Sir Ken Adam

Production Designer Sir Ken Adam

Above all, we tend to give credit to the actors in a movie. Those who know a little more about how films will tend to credit the director. But it doesn’t stop there. What about producers like Val Lewton and Henry Blanke, cinematographers like Gregg Toland and Gabriel Figueroa, editors like Slavko Vorkapich, and—more to the point here—production designers like Sir Ken Adam?

I remember having a Dartmouth Film Society dinner with Hollywood producer Max Youngstein in the mid 1960s. He had just produced Fail-Safe (1964). When I asked him if the production had been designed by Ken Adam, he positively beamed at me. He prided himself for having found someone else who gave the film a Ken Adam touch.

Why? Ken Adam was responsible for film designs which will forever be associated in our minds with the best of the 1960s, such as Doctor No (1962) and Doctor Strangelove (1964).

Doctor No’s “Reception Room” in the Film of the Same Name

Doctor No’s “Reception Room” in the Film of the Same Name

In addition there was the War Room in Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964):


Kubrick’s War Room in Doctor Strangelove

Model for Kubrick’s War Room in Doctor Strangelove

As one who lived through that anxious time, I will always remember Ken Adam’s sets for these and other films. Perhaps he is unknown to the general film-going public, but now that we lost him, his vision will be missed.

A 20-Year-Old Fan Letter


Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Harper Lee (1926-2016)

The author of everybody’s favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), died today at the age of 89. Most literate Americans revere her memory, even after the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman (2015), in which Atticus Finch is revealed to be a (gasp!) bigot. I take no position on it, however, as I have not read the book; and I find the first reaction to anything by the media is usually wrong.

But what I want to write about is a letter Ms. Lee wrote to cartoonist Berkeley Breathed twenty years ago, when he decided to voluntarily stop publishing “Bloom County,” “Outland,” and “Opus.” It was the character of Opus the Penguin that she would miss the most. Here is the text of the letter as it appeared in Breathed’s Facebook posting today:

Dear Mr. Breathed,

This is a plea from a dotty old lady, and from others not dotty at all: Please don’t shut down OPUS. Can’t you at least give him a reprieve? OPUS is simply the best comic strip there is….

The letter goes on, but that’s all that Breathed shares with us. Fortunately, Opus is back, along with his Bloom County buddies, on Facebook, where I religiously check it each day.

Opus the Penguin

Opus the Penguin

Commenting on her letter, the cartoonist writes:

Bloomers: Many, but not all of you, know that in the way that creative life can often surprise, Harper Lee was one of you. One of us. You might be as surprised as I am that she played a large role in my recent return to the streets of Bloom County—streets inspired by those of Maycomb. When I retired Opus from the Sunday comics some years ago, Harper let me know her displeasure, with all the southern, gracious elegance we knew her for. See the letter below. I’ve waited until her passing to show it. We came to exchange many similar notes… including one in which she grudgingly forgives me for my retirement (irony alert). Imagine my 14 year-old self—freshly savoring the first reading of Mockingbird and sending Miss Lee a fan letter in 1970—being told about another fan letter returning my way almost 40 years distant. Life is wonderful and strange and wistful and happy at the same time. And I’m happy to share this with all of you today.

To follow Opus and his buddies, click here.


Slim Memed

Yasha Kemal (1923-2015)

Yasha Kemal (1923-2015)

My Turkish friend David urged me to read Yasha Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk (1955). As part of my Januarius program of reading authors I’d never read before, I decided to look into it. It was nothing short of amazing. The following is from my review of the book for Goodreads.Com:

Yashar Kemal is probably the best known author from that most admirable of Middle-Eastern peoples: The Kurds. His Memed, My Hawk is a folk tale of injustice by a cruel landlord turning a young farmer’s son to brigandage. At the same time he is a brigand, he is scrupulously justice, especially when dealing with the poor and the innocent.

“Slim Memed,” as he is called, is a hero created by an author who doesn’t believe in heroes. In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Kemal writes:

I have never believed in heroes. Even in those novels in which I focus on revolt I have tried to highlight the fact that those we call heroes are in effect instruments wielded by the people. The people create and protect these instruments and stand or fall together with them.


Still and all, Kemal was to write three more books featuring Slim Memed. For the first one, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. That award was won by the Australian Patrick White. I think it should have gone to Kemal.

Kemal’s villain is the landlord Abdi Agha, one of the most craven and beastly characters in all of literature. It is not until the end that Memed shoots three bullets into his chest, killing him; but he had been spiritually dead for years after Memed killed his nephew and wounded him.


Neither Rare Nor Well Done

Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television

Perhaps the Most Inventive Funnyman in Television

Because it was a drizzly day (courtesy of El Niño), Martine and I spent the afternoon at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine was bringing up episodes of “Superman” with George Reeves, Captain Kangaroo, and “My Little Margie,” I was watching a number of episodes of “The Ernie Kovacs Show.”

What Georges Méliès was to the cinema, Ernie Kovacs was to the medium of television: He was brilliantly inventive and something of a magician. All the other comedians on early TV came up from vaudevillian comedy skits, Kovacs started with the new medium itself. He was not only the starring actor: He was also the director and, if the show had one, the main writer.

Music was a recurring unifying theme to the strange collection of cutaways which might include:

  • A cute young woman taking a bubble bath, with strange things happening in the tub
  • The Nairobi Trio, three apes playing music and annoying one another
  • The furniture in an office acting as instruments, from the filing cabinet to the typewriter to the telephone switchboard to the water cooler
  • Artistic variations on a cowboy gun duel

One recurring piece of music used was “Mack the Knife” sung in German, but he has also used the 1812 Overture (during which we cut to Kovacs breaking a stalk of celery at key junctures), and “The Tennessee Waltz” sung in Polish—or was it Slovenian?—while he unsuccessfully lowers a chained escape artist into the river who never manages to re-emerge.

For the three hours that I watched the shows, I was in seventh heaven. Kovacs is a fellow Hungarian (though he, like me, was born in the U.S.), and he occasionally inserts some phrases in Magyar.

On the way home, I drove by the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen where Kovacs died in an auto accident on my seventeenth birthday in 1962.

The one quote that he is remembered for is typical Ernie: “Television: A medium. So called because it’s neither rare nor well done.” Well, when Ernie Kovacs was on the job, it was well done.