Not a Connoisseur (Accent on the 2nd Syllable)

It Was Just a Phase I Was Going Through

I have fallen out of love with wine. Oh, when I was younger, I thought that it would be very cool if I were knowledgeable about wine and showed everyone what good taste I had. Right next to the company where I worked, there was a Vendome Wine & Liquors, and I tried mightily to read up on vintages and varietals, and to be the guy who showed up at the party with the most interesting wine.

My biggest coup was to find several 18th century Madeiras. It was a bit of a rip-off, because only a small portion of each bottle dated back two centuries, but the bottle stated that it was a 1756 (or whatever) vintage. It was all right, I suppose, but now Madeira is a bit too sweet for my taste.

Now my brother is a genuine wine connoisseur (with the accent on the last syllable). He actually has a wine cooler at home set to the ideal temperature, rarely varying more than a degree or two of optimal.

Perhaps the reason I no longer drink wine is that the medications I take—anyway, most of them—may not be taken with alcohol. And, as a diabetic, I know that alcohol turns into sugar in the body. So I rarely drink anything alcoholic with my meals. Yesterday’s lunch was an exception: I had some British hard cider, which was quite good. And when it is blisteringly hot, I will occasionally drink a beer.

As for wine, that is, for me, so 1970s that I generally avoid it. It was all well and good when I had people to share it with, but Martine doesn’t drink wine either, and if I open a bottle, what do I do with what I don’t finish? Put in in the refrigerator? That kind of wrecks the taste.

The last time I enjoined wine was three years ago when I was in Valparaiso, Chile. The Bed & Breakfast where I was staying had a wine tasting of reds and whites from the nearby Casablanca Valley. They were all pretty good. So maybe, it’s not so much that I don’t like wine as that the circumstances of my life as it is lived have irrevocably changed.

 

Wild December

What With Rain and Santa Ana Winds …

I like to think of the month of December as The Passing Parade. Now you have the Santa Ana Winds blowing from East to West, sending the humidity down to near zero and fomenting the horrible brush fires we have seen around Malibu and Paradise. Also I have a wicket hangnail on my right forefinger. Then you have the winds suddenly reversing direction and bringing rainstorms from the Northwest, making the humidity rise precipitately. Not to mention the massive floods and mudslides.

Imagine what all that does to the human body. Yesterday my blepharitis flared up again; my left eye dissolved in a flood of tears unrelated to emotions; and upper left eyelid look swollen and angry. As an accompaniment, I burst out in truly frightening sneezing fits that were so loud that I received long-distance calls from St. Louis, Missouri saying “Gesundheit! And please keep it down!” Sometimes these allergic bodily responses are so intense that they segue into a miserable cold. So far that has not happened to me yet this month.

As I am leaving for Guatemala next month, I’m hoping that when I board the plane, I will be well. Unfortunately, I have no control over the crazy weather systems that swing back and forth across the state during this wild month.

 

“An Appalling Record of Death and Destruction”

The Disastrous Flood Caused by the Saint Francis Dam Break in 1928

The worst disaster in recent California history is the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Over three thousand people lost their lives in the quake and the ensuing fires. Today, while Martine and I were visiting the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society in Newhall, we were forcibly reminded of the second worst disaster in recent California history: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March 1928 and the resulting wall of water that swept some fifty-four miles until it found its way to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. Almost five hundred people lost their lives, decimating much of the then sparsely populated northern communities of Los Angeles, as well as many in nearby Ventura County.

If you have seen the movie Chinatown (1974), you know something about William Mulholland, the engineer behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water to L.A. from the distant Owens Valley along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas. Almost singlehandedly, he made Los Angeles a viable city that could sustain its amazing record of growth. It was the same man who took responsibility for the dam failure that was to end his brilliant career, referring in a speech to the disaster’s “appalling record of death and destruction.”

The St. Francis Dam Site in San Francisquito Canyon in 2012 (The Dam Itself No Longer Exists)

According to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society:

To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in August 1928 was 385, but the remains of victims continued to be discovered every few years until the mid-1950s. Many victims were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific Ocean and were never recovered, while others were washed ashore, some as far south as the Mexican border. The remains of a victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and other bodies, believed to be victims of the disaster, were found in the late 1970s and 1994. The current death toll is estimated to be at least 431.

Kaibiles

Guatemalan Army Elite Kaibil Troops

Usually translated as “Tigers,” the kaibiles are elite counterinsurgency troops of the Guatemalan army. According to Ronald Wright’s Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, the Mayan word actually implies a “double” or something of double the normal strength. Wright describes meeting a kaibil detachment as he enters Guatemala from Belize:

The pole across the road is lifted, and we are waved through, between a wooden watchtower and a sandbagged machine-gun nest. Not far beyond the tower there’s a billboard with a naive painting pf a Guatemalan soldier in camouflage fatigues. The soldier is shouting, “If I advance, follow me; if I delay, hurry me; if I retreat, kill me!” An inscription below him boasts: ¡AQUI SE FORJAN LOS MEJORES COMBATIENTES DE AMERICA!—HERE ARE FORGED THE BEST FIGHTERS IN AMERICA! I have just begun to wonder whether this is intended for Belizean visitors or rebellious citizens when I see the back of the sign, which direcs its message to those coming from the Guatemalan interior. It shows a gorilla head in the King Kong tradition, or maybe Planet of the Apes. Maniacal eyes burn ferociously, the gaping mouth is dripping with blood and armed with sharp fangs; and lest anyone fail to get the pun … the creature wears a Che Guevara cap. Above it is the single word ¡ATREVETE!—roughly, MAKE MY DAY.

Wright goes on to describe kaibil hazing rituals which include cannibalism and drinking human blood.

His book, which was originally written in 1989, is (fortunately) now a little dated. Most of the depredations on the Maya population by the Guatemalan army have ceased since a peace that was signed in 1996. Still, when I go to Guatemala in January, I plan to steer clear of the army. Many of the army posts Wright describes no longer exist. I hope.

 

 

The Unthinking Detective

Belgian-Born Mystery Writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

The following is a slightly modified reprint of a posting from March 3, 2013. I have just finished reading Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Killer and decided to look up a five-year-old review of an earlier Maigret novel.

Sometimes I am surprised that Georges Simenon’s work is not part of the university literature curriculum. After all, he did for France what Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain did for the United States and what G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, and Josephine Tey did for Britain. Although he was a more prolific mystery writer than all the other above mentioned authors put together, his work could stand comparison with the best.

Inspector Maigret is a mystery in his own right. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s notion of a tale of ratiocination, Inspector Cadaver gives us a detective who absorbs with the help of intuition more than he reasons from dry facts. In fact, his case comes together when one of the characters, Alban Groult-Cotelle, quite unnecessarily, presents a receipt as alibi that he was not involved in a murder—before it was ever suspected that he was involved. Maigret’s response is classic: “Don’t you know … that there is a saying in the police force that he that has has the best alibi is all the more suspect?”

That starts the Inspector on a train of thought:

The minute he left the house, an idea had occurred to him. It was not even an idea, but something vaguer, so vague that he was now striving to recapture the memory of it. Every now and then, an insignificant occurrence, usually a whiff of something barely caught, reminds us in the space of a second of a particular moment in our life. It is such a vivid sensation that we are gripped by it and want to cling to this living reminder of that moment. It disappears almost at once and with it all recollection of the experience. Try as we might, we end up wondering, for want of an answer to our questions, if it was not an unconscious evocation of a dream, or, who knows, of some pre-existent world?

I love reading about Maigret’s train of thought, because it is not only unique in the genre, but fascinating as an expression of the French concept of débrouillage, working one’s way through a mental fog.

In a few pages more, we see some progress has been made:

At such moments, Maigret seemed to puff himself up out of all proportion and become slow-witted and stodgy, like someone blind and dumb who is unaware of what is going on around him. Indeed, if anyone not forewarned was to walk past or talk to Maigret when he was in one of these moods, he would more than likely take him for a fat idiot or a fat sleepyhead.

“So, you’re concentrating on your thoughts?” said someone who prided himself on his psychological perception.

And Maigret had replied with comic sincerity:

“I never think.”

And it was almost true. For Maigret was not thinking now, as he stood in the damp, cold street. He was not following through an idea. One might say he was rather like a sponge.

Try to get Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe to admit to something like this! He never thinks, and the facts come to him the way a sponge absorbs water. What Maigret does is allow the patterns to form by themselves in his mind. Then, he is ready to pounce!

Inspector Cadaver was published in 1944 during the War in a France under German occupation, and its atmosphere of grimness partakes of the time. And yet, and yet, Simenon, whenever he sets a tale in the provinces, creates an intriguing combination of ugly weather and pompous, ugly characters.

 

Identity Politics vs Power Politics

How We Liberals Fritter Away Our Access to Political Power

I am no longer a Democrat because I saw that the party’s emphasis on identity politics was leading it into a quagmire from which it might never return. No longer am I emboldened by gigantic protest marches—irrespective of the issues involved—nor do I care that somebody gets beaten up on Twitter or other social media. Have Liberals all become whiny little bitches who would rather be right than holding the reins of political power?

Evidently.

Hillary Clinton, Tom Perez, even Nancy Pelosi—all have been guilty of surrendering political power while pursuing some vague identity politics rewards points, which have a monetary value of $Zilch.

We are all victims of one sort or another. Instead of trading bubble-gum cards, let’s all get together, make deals with one another, and get rid of the clowns who have turned our country into a Tea Party Trash Bin. If you must insist on whining about your victimhood, lock yourself in your closet and do it in the dark, alone.

 

Mars Beneath the Surface

Doesn’t Look Like Much, Does It?

When I was attending my mindful meditation session on November 15, the cute young woman who acted as liaison with the L.A. Central Library handed me a flier that promised an interesting experience:

Live, from another world! Watch the live stream of NASA’s InSight mission when it lands on Mars. InSight is a robotic lander designed to study the interior of the Red Planet. The mission is scheduled to land on the surface of mars at Elysium Planitia, where it will deploy a seismometer and burrow a heat probe. This will be the first mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of the planet.

As the event was scheduled for today at 11 am, I took the Metro to the Central Library and attended the event. For all the years that I have lived in Southern California, I have never interested myself in the space program—except for my visit to the retired space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center. This was to be the first Mars landing in six years, and it was the first that was planned and executed all within the State of California. It was put together by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, staffed largely by graduates of Cal Tech, and launched early in May from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.

Although technically, the live-streaming was a bit of a dud, with the image going into long buffering pauses in between live action snippets. At one point, I asked if they were running Windows 3.1, which was the version I used in the late 1980s. When I found that they were using Apple’s Safari browser, I noted yet another black mark laid to Apple’s account (though it probably wasn’t Apple’s fault).

Mockup of the Mars InSight Lander

Fortunately, there were a number of JPL employees present who were able to bridge all the lacunae and present a coherent picture of the mission from the point of view of the techies who were most involved. Fortunately, it was a splendid success, with the first picture coming in within minutes of the landing. It doesn’t look like much: It’s merely an image of the surface on which the lander was situated. You can see mostly a lot of dust (this is because there is a protective transparent lens cap covering the photo lens) and a rock in the lower left foreground. At the lower right, you see one of the legs of the lander.

This mission is not meant to move around the surface of the planet: It is, rather, to use a seismograph (that’s the object above that looks like an upside-down colander) to determine whether the Red Planet has a molten core, or whether it’s as dead as our moon. There is also a probe drilled 15 feet into the surface of the planet to measure micro-variations in heat.

I understand that JPL has an open house in the spring that I am interested in attending.