Dr. M. (at the spacious Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, to a guard); "Can you tell me how to get to the new American Wing."
Guard: "You go straight ahead, through the main courtyard, through two more doors, when you hit Egypt, you take a left."
Dr. M. (at the spacious Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, to a guard); "Can you tell me how to get to the new American Wing."
Guard: "You go straight ahead, through the main courtyard, through two more doors, when you hit Egypt, you take a left."
Just back from the post office, where I mailed the granddaughter her gift, a zester. What is a zester, you ask? It's a kitchen device designed to remove the "zest," that is, the outermost skin of a citrus fruit. The granddaughter's zester is an inch and a half wide and thirteen inches long, including its five inch handle. Essentially, it's a hand-held grater, very useful if you're a cooking enthusiast. And why, you ask, would I venture out in 15F, snowy weather to mail the zester to California, when the grand-daughter could have put it in her backpack when she returned home? Because, I was creditably advised, the zester would certainly be confiscated by airport security.
What have we come to, when, rightly or wrongly, we seriously entertain the idea that an eleven-year-old child could hijack an airplane armed only with a zester? What would she do, abrade the pilot to death?
Before Grandma died, she specified cremation and asked that her ashes be divided between the graves of her husband Dan and her daughter Phyllis. Now the time has come to fulfill the first half of the assignment. We'll fly to NYC later this month. We'll make a pilgrimage to the Baron Hirsch cemetery on Staten Island, scatter a portion of the ashes, leave behind a ceremonial stone or two, and think thoughts as positive as the occasion will allow.
However, in the light of the Detroit plane incident, I'm concerned about carrying a box of white powder on board. Am I paranoid? is it completely nuts to imagine that some vigilant but misguided TSA employee will take a gander at the ashes and think "anthrax" or "explosives." Take me into that little room where they peruse your "body cavities." And then on to Gitmo.
Apparently, I'm not the only person with this worry.
"Passengers are allowed to carry a crematory container as part of their carry-on luggage, but the container must pass through the X-ray machine. If the container is made of a material that generates an opaque image and prevents the security screener from clearly being able to see what is inside, then the container cannot be allowed through the security checkpoint." Is our container sufficiently transparent? How would one know?
Instead of carrying the ashes aboard, why don't we just check them through?
"Some airlines do not allow cremated remains as checked baggage so please check with your air carrier before attempting to transport a crematory container in checked baggage." Why would United Airlines care whether I put ashes in my bags? It's obvious -- they lose the luggage and then we sue them for zillions. How about if I promise not to sue?
I'm going to guess that it's not a good idea to sew the "cremains" -- hideous neologism -- into my underwear.
OK, here's the plan. We take a symbolic portion the ashes, secure it in a transparent ziploc baggie, and insert a visible all-caps large-font note: "These are Grandma's ashes. They are not dangerous. Feel free to examine or to sample."
Incidentally, I can offer no confirmation to the rumor that the Department of Transportation plans to ban all underwear. Or that it will insist that underwear be worn on the outside. These are vicious canards.
We drove from DC to Bradford, Vermont. Not desrious of hazarding the I-95 corridor, we veered far to the west, almost to Scranton. It was a mostly pleasant ride. Travelers, remember the Taconic State Parkway -- it's underused, neatly landscaped, truck-free.
Along the way, we encountered a road sign which said, Lititz, Pennsylvania.
Lititz. I know that name. How? Have I been there? No. Did I have a friend from Lititz? I searched my mind. Nope. Some famous person come from Lititz? No.
It bothered me. Something in my mind connected with Lititz but I couldn't recall it.
Is it LIT-its? Luh-TITS?
We at last we arrived here in Bradford, Lititz still puzzling me. What kind of word is Lititz? Time to fire up the wikipedia. OK, here it is. "Lititz was founded my members of the Moravian Church in 1756, and was named after a castle in Bohemia named Litice.... For a century, only Moravians were permitted to live in Lititz, and until the middle 1800s only members of the congregation could own houses The lease system was abolished in 1855." Nice little exclusivist Pennsylvania Dutch town, but still the question lingers -- how do I know it?
"Lititz is also home to Linden Hall School, the oldest all-girls boarding school in the United States, founded by the Moravians in 1746." That's an interesting piece of news.
Do I know someone who attended Linden Hall? No, I don't think so.
I went to sleep, puzzled. Why is Lititz, PA so familiar to me?
Next day, we started spring-cleaning the house and ran into distinct signs of recent mouse habitations. I got out some mousetraps, the kind with the spring that I've been baiting with peanut butter at various catless times these last 50 years. They're Victor mousetraps. Aha. Printed on each one, in small letters: "Woodstream Corporation, Lititz, Pennsylvania."
Mystery solved. Next time through, perhaps we'll stop at Lititz, check out the church, the school, and the Moravian mouse-trap factory.
A long weekend in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- a handsome small city. I don't know of another place in the nation in which the principal economic engine is the making and selling of arts and crafts. I myself am in the familiar situation: anything I can afford, I don't want, and anything I want, I can't afford. Besides, we're in de-accessioning mode -- a condition which doesn't prevent us from appreciating the astonishingly high level of artistic achievement on display here. Fortunately, there's no cost to hiking in the nearby mountains -- we went to Bandelier National Monument to gasp at the spectacular rock formations and marvel at the Anasazi cliff dwellings. A most enjoyable and worthwhile expedition. The guidebook says that Santa Fe is the product of the melding of three cultures: Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo. I guess, by default, I must be an "Anglo." It's odd to be an Anglo, but not as disorienting as my experience in Salt Lake City, where, as a non-Mormon, I was considered to be a "gentile."
At breakfast in the hotel, a man at the table next to me told the following story to his friends (I was alone at the moment, pretending to inspect the complimentary USA Today). "A Hindu, a Jew, and a Republican are driving in a storm. The car breaks down, they walk to an isolated farmhouse and ask the owner if they can stay the night. 'Sure,' he says, 'but I have only two beds. One of you will have to sleep in the barn.' 'No problem,' says the Hindu, 'I don't mind sleeping in the barn.' But after a half hour, there's knock on the door, and the Hindu says, 'There's a cow in the barn. Cows are sacred. I can't sleep with a cow.' So the Jew says, "Don't worry. I'll sleep in the barn." But after a half hour, there's a knock on the door, and the Jew says, 'There's a pig in the barn. I can't sleep with a pig.' So the Republican says, 'Don't worry, I'll go sleep in the barn.' But after a half hour, there's a knock on the door. It's the cow and the pig."
Actual dialog, captured in the wild.
Stepping westward, we left St. Louis behind and detoured northward to enjoy scenic Route 79 to Hannibal. Well worth it --lovely, well-cultivated bottom land and wonderful vistas from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. We toured Louisiana, an old river town where a handful of century-old mercantile buildings are hanging on precariously, waiting to be redeployed for modern uses. I recommend if, especially for those who are not fazed by a seventy-five mile add-on to a twenty-four hundred mile jaunt.
While I'm dispensing advice, let me also commend Route 50 between and Bridgeport and Parkersburg in West Virginia -- another less-well-traveled and very beautiful highway.
Louisiana, Missouri (unknown to me until today) now enters that small but distinguished category of cities that are named according to an unusual template. Others include Washington, Vermont (and many other states), Delaware, Ohio and Delaware, Wyoming and Indiana, Pennsylvania. Related but Impure: Kansas City, Missouri; Michigan City, Indiana.
TV-free for more than three months, we stayed last night at a motel in Frackville, Pennsylvania and couldn't resist taking a gander at the tube. I was shocked to see how artificial and contrived it all seemed. The actors were not real people, nor were they actors pretending to be real people. They were actors trying but failing to act like real people. They were, at least to me last night, no more convincingl than those archaic Egyptian sculptures.
Try this experiment. Switch on the TV and then surf from channel to channel. I guarantee that you'll be able to tell within ten seconds whether the person you see on the screen is acting in a "daytime drama," a TV series, a documentary, or a movie. The style of performance in each of these genres is so heavily conventionalized that the cues become immediately obvious to the TV-literate. (By the word "convention." I mean "an agreed-upon departure from reality"). Good actors have assimilated these conventions. When they appear on screen, they gesture and smile and speak in agreed-upon but unnatural ways.
My new perspective was an artifact of the three-month hiatus. Temporarily unfamiliar with the style, all I could see were the conventions at work. Of course actors are always faking, but I had stopped seeing it. In Frackville, it all became transparent, offensively transparent. And because it was so transparent, it wasn't worth my time, especially when a little clicking brought me to baseball.
I wonder how long my resistance will continue. Not very many days, I imagine. I'll forget.
It's just about 2000 miles from our residence in Colorado to our summer quarters in Vermont. Early this week I made my 33rd drive from the one to the other. We were lucky -- we sidestepped both floods and tornadoes, though fields were flooded throughout Iowa and there was impressive and nasty twister damage in Aurora, Nebraska. There were the remnants of dwellings and big hunks of metal roofing lying on the side of the road. Nevertheless, it was one of our easier trips: four solid ten- to twelve-hour days of driving. As usual, I was impatient for the first hour -- It takes a while to get into the swing. But after a while I went into a "zone" -- otherworldly, attentive, resigned, content. It's another state of being.
It was only at the end of the trip, along narrow and undulating Route 4 from Rutland to Woodstock, when for twenty miles I trailed the Executive Director of the Slow Drivers of America, that I lost my equanimity. I was just about to metamorphose into the Incredible Hulk, vault from my vehicle and toss the guy and his Plymouth into the Ottaquechee River, when I found an opening to drop into third, floor it, and zoom by him. Ah, what satisfaction!
It's an amazing trip -- an ever-changing and fascinating landscape. Some people claim that the mid West, with its astonishingly large cornfields, is boring, but those who think so are just not paying attention. It's a long book, to be sure, but every page is different. Despite the pleasure of it all, I'm relieved to get out of the vehicle, stretch the old legs, and get going on the gardens. With nothing on the driving horizon except an occasional trip to town for supplies.
Today we covered 200 miles or so of Route 34 of western Nebraska, the reddest part of one of our reddest states. We started in the high steppes and finished in fertile (when irrigated) farmland. Here are some of the roadside highlights. Nine reassuringly green John Deere dealerships, evenly spaced along the route. A number of llama farms, producing either wool or llamchops, I don't know which. Outside Benkelman, a large roadside sign: "Birthplace of Ward Bond." Entering Funk, Nebraska (pop. 204), a sign, "Welcome to Funk." The curious slogan of the small community of Minden: "The Christmas City" (for which act of arrogance Minden should be rechristened "The Chutzpah City"). Just west of McCook, a giant billboard: "In God we trust, not Hillary." A challenge to logic, I think. Or perhaps, a challenge to divine exactly what the billboardist was thinking. Are we supposed to imagine that Hillary Clinton is conceived of in McCook as the anti-Christ? And finally, just east of Hastings, for some years the residence of Willa Cather, the largest of billboards, viewable for miles: "Don't Beat Your Kids -- God." An admirable sentiment to be sure, and one to which we can all subscribe. Alas, the words that God put on the record are these: "He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes (Proverbs 13:24) and also "Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell" (Proverbs 23: 13-14). The amateur theologican who composed the words on the billboard offers a paraphrase of God's words which is, how shall I say this kindly, somewhat loose. Revisionist even.
On two occasions this year the Williamsburg Bridge (from Manhattan to Brooklyn) has made a guest appearance in the plot of my life.
In January, as faithful readers know, we set up shop in Manhattan. One day we strolled over the bridge from the Lower East Side to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The bridge is a splendid monument of nineteenth-century technology and the view from above is spacious and commanding. It's a restless, busy path from one side to another; all around you, automobiles, subway trains, bicyclists, runners, baby carriages -- the works. NYC in a Victorian nutshell.
Then, a few days ago, came the news of the death of Jules Dassin. Dassin is famous for Never on Sunday and Topkapi, but as movie-lovers know, he was a polished director of films noirs during the 1940s -- before Nixon, McCarthy, and blacklisting drove him into exile. We decided to embark on a Jules Dassin festival and tribute right here on our very own giant TV. Our first choice was Naked City (1949), a highly unsubversive policier, markedly patriotic but disturbing because all the bad guys are vaguely "ethnic." The climactic scenes of Naked City were shot in the Lower East Side (just where the Williamsburg Bridge hits Delancey). The murderer/wrestler/harmonicat Willie Garzah attempts to flee. A voice shouts, "he's on Norfolk near Rivington." Right where we had just a few months ago wandered! It's right off the bridge! And then Garzah panics and tries to escape by running across the Williamsburg into Brooklyn. Police in pursuit, squad cars, pistols, shouting, shots. Garzah climbs the girders--the very same girders, which, just a few months before, I had decided to honor my acrophobia by not climbing. And then he's wounded, and, as always in the movies, falls theatrically to his death.
It's peculiar, isn't it, when a store or a street-corner that you know in real life appears in the movies. Does it mean that film tells the truth, is real, or does the celluloid appearance provide us with some evidence that our own life is genuine? Why should the movies sometimes seem more substantial than the reports of our own five senses? How can art validate life? And at the same time, don't we feel a little cheated--in the sense that our privacy--our uniqueness--has been violated and the things and stuff that are personal to us have been delivered over to an unappreciative anonymous world? It's odd and disorienting when a familiar non-fiction bridge plays a supporting role in a fictional film.
Naked City is a good, solid, intriguing piece of work, well-paced and well-written. I'm not entirely happy with the way it treats women or the working-classes, but then, many such films are far more culpable. I liked best the authentic, unstaged street shots of Manhattan as it was sixty years ago. Delancey Street was nostalgic and poetic (although the shop signs, then lettered in Hebrew, are now mostly Chinese). The Williamsburg Bridge, solid and substantial, has weathered the years extremely well. It's well positioned to star in many another film.
Over there on the west side of Alameda, at the intersection of 9th and Santa Clara, plunked down right in the midst of an otherwise residential neighborhood, is a most intriguing commercial island. Once upon a time, I'm sure, it would have consisted of (let me guess) a hardware store, a mom-and-pop grocery, a haberdashery or a shoe store, and a gas station. Now it's a fully contemporary American mish-mash.
The gas station has been converted into the Islamic Center of Alameda. Where there would once have been a sign advertising Esso, there's now the harder-to-parse motto "there is no God but Allah, the self-sustaining, eternal." Directly across the street from the mosquette is a second store-front worship-opportunity, the Love Fellowship Church of God in Christ. Here pride of place goes not to Allah but to "Pastor Elder Samuel Butler," or "Pastor Elder Samuel Bulter," depending on which hand-painted sign you put your faith. Kitty-corner to Love Fellowship is Dance 10, no longer a shoe store, but now a venue where budding toe-tappers are instructed in "Hop. Lyrical. Modern. Musical. Theater. Jazz. Tap. Ballet. Acrobatics. Hip-hop." On the fourth corner, there's a "convenience" store, where outsized neon signs advertise "Budweiser" and "Tecate."
It's a comprehensive assemblage: feed your soul (for them as believe they have one), feed your feet, feed your gullet.
From 1965 to 1969 we lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Now we've returned for a month-long visit. In days of yore, we were the busy young parents pushing our baby carriage down Broadway. Now forty years more 'mature,' we step aside as nannies manuever the twins (without question there are both more nannies and more twins) around and past us.
And the eternal West Side -- has it also matured? Certainly it's a more prosperous neighborhood and a more crowded one. With scores of giant high-rise apartment houses added in the intervening years, it's become even more densely populated. Paradoxically, it's also safer. In the 1960s, received wisdom stated that to wander onto 85th Street or onto Columbus Avenue after dark was to risk death or at least a good mugging. Now the area is peaceful morning, noon and night, and newly-fashionable Columbus Avenue houses dozens of trendy ethnic restaurants. Forty years ago, it was foolish to venture across Central Park to the aristocratic East Side, where, it was rumored, there lived people who were fair-skinned and blond. Some areas of the Park, like The Ramble, were famously dangerous and were visited only by those who were itching for action. Now, single women jog without the least concern. We took advantage of the new freedom by taking frequent jaunts to the row of fabulous museums along Fifth Avenue. (In the 1960s, museums were difficult for West Siders to access but admission was free; today, they're easy to reach but the ticket prices are staggering.) In the good old days, West Side street-corners were gathering points for enterprising drug-dealers. On this visit, I didn't spot a single dealer or a single transaction. Moreover, the neighborhood used to be thick with policemen on patrol; this time, police are scarce and apparently unnecessary. Why the improvement in public safety? In a word, money. Only the rich can afford to live on the Upper West Side, and rich people don't need to knock you down and empty your wallet. They have other fish to fry.
There's a new feature of transportation: droves of briefcase-bearing suit-wearers are shuttled Wallstreetway in luxurious "private cars." Meanwhile, the subway is as efficient and as filthy as ever, but nowadays we pay not with tokens but with "metro cards." The New York Times, then 10 cents, is now $1.25; it has fewer columns, a larger font, and poorer writing. More changes: in yesteryear, a man shouting in public was very likely a paranoid schizophrenic; now a noisy talker has a gimmick in his ear and a cell phone and he's doing nothing more lunatic than snapping up undercapitalized mortgages.
Dogs, here as elsewhere, are horribly indulged. One day we peeked into a "pet exercise" gymnasium and later were amused by a well-appointed van labeled "Pet Limousine." Although there are many more curs, there are fewer piles of canine poopery on the sidewalks; most dog-walkers make use of plastic bags. Thank you, dog-walkers.
Affordable supermarkets have disappeared and there are only specialty food shops where the prices are beyond astronomical. But where do the waitresses, cooks, cleaning ladies, nannies, cashiers, shop girls, bank tellers, kioskers, subway maintenance men, bus drivers, janitors, and policemen shop? Where, in fact, do they live? Not in the neighborhood; not since the entire West Side went condo.
It's still a polyglot world, but there's much less Spanish and a lot more Russian, Chinese, Hindi and Arabic.
More novelties: there's a Duane Reade (sometimes two) on every street and there's a second crowded Starbucks visible from the Starbucks where you sit poring over your wireless laptop and nursing your gigantico skinny dry vanilla latte. In the 1960s, there were seven movie theaters within walking distance -- including the New Yorker and the Thalia, the mother churches of cinema worship. Now, there are none -- nor even a single dvd rental store. It's all Netflix and downloads.
There's been a phenomenal growth of personal services: not just the barbershops and hairdressers of old, but also whole galaxies of nail care shops. Who could have imagined that in the new millennium, fingernails would become the cornerstone of the economy? An economy of which I'm not a part; my nail care consists of occasionally biting off a sliver of stray keratin and taking a cosmetic nibble or two at the paronychium. I don't believe I've spent a nickel, lifetime, on my nails, nor do I intend to do so. Nope, no manicures, nor pedicures, nor medicures (what the heck is a medicure?) nor massages nor aromatherapy for me. Nor will I have my ears candled (a process that one medical website calls 'useless and dangerous") or my eyebrows threaded or any part of my body, public or private, waxed. It appears that every facial feature and every organ has an entire industry dedicated to its hygiene and its remediation. Is the upper West Side experiencing an outbreak of good health? Or a triumph of narcissism?
One final observation: since we lived here, many expensively-architected fancy-shmancy private schools have appeared. Meanwhile, public schools have been allowed to slide further into poverty. Ugly, concrete block buildings surrounded by chainlink fence and razor wire -- not temples of learning, but prisons.The gap between rich and poor, evident then, has become a chasm. Manhattan is safer and more livable than it was (at least for the properous), but it will not be truly healed until its citizenry moves beyond "private wealth and public squalor."
As is our custom, we journeyed from New York to Washington (and back) on the so-called "Chinese bus." It's a bargain: round-trip between Chinatown here and Chinatown there for just $35. It's a non-standard, non-greyhoundish, no frills experience. It's also shoestring capitalism in the raw. When a potential passenger arrives at the East Broadway departure site, he/she will be accosted by young female representatives of several different companies, each touting her own organization. The ladies are aggressive but hard to decipher inasmuch as they shout in Chinese and possess only the most rudimentary English. A traveler must be careful to board the right bus at the right hour (the first time I used this service, I was almost shanghaied to Boston). The buses are not well marked and misrepresentation is rife. Leaving New York last time, we talked with a number of travelers who were frustrated and angry. Some had been told that the bus would set out for Washington at noon, some at 12:30, some at 12:45 -- whatever time would sell the ticket and get the luggage on board and the passenger into a seat. Because there's no terminal and the streets are so crowded, the bus had to run a loop around lower Manhattan. Each time it set out, there was optimism, but then fifteen minutes later it would return to square one to board more passengers. We circulated three or four times. At 1:30, which was in fact the scheduled departure time, we were on the road, but with quite a number of unhappy passengers in tow.
A few years ago, almost all the passengers were Asian, Nowadays, the news is out and it's all complexions from ebony to ivory. Still, the dominant language and the dominant food odors are Chinese.
Sometimes the driver bypasses a scheduled stop. Sometimes it's necessary for one passenger to discipline a fellow passenger for surreptitious smoking, Amenities are minimal. The waiting rooms are small, dank, and squalid. On the bus, the john is unspeakably foul. BYOTP.
But it's inexpensive, it's fun, and it gets you there.
Today we paid a call on the New Museum of Contemporary Art. It's an uncompromising, vibrant building, all the more grand for being plunked down in the rusty old Bowery. The space is wonderful. But the stuff on exhibition is, in my less than humble opinion, ludicrous. A mattress covered with buttons. A cage made of chain link fencing. Fluorescent light bulbs arranged in a series of "Y" shapes. Aluminum foil hanging from sticks. Broken glass on a bench. Cardboard boxes, some open, some closed. Plastic pipe threaded through a deck chair.
Three substantial floors littered with such artlessness. What a dreadful, terrible squandering of space and opportunity.
The unifying principle: a conspicuous antagonism to craftsmanship. Every single piece of work left with rough edges and bad joins and unpainted surfaces, as though not to complete the task is fundamental to the aesthetic. If there is an aesthetic other than fakery.
I don't get it. I don't want to get it. To me, it looked like the detritus of a civilization in utter, hopeless implosive decline. A decadence beyond ordinary decadence. In-your-face ugliness.
What is attractive or interesting or even repulsive about old clothes tied into a tight bundle with an orange electrical extension cord? It's still a bundle of old clothes. It's not art because it's in a museum, and if it's supposed to be a critique of art, it's not not even remotely clever. It's stupid.
There were lots of museum-goers who milled unexpressively around the various objects. Were we all pretending that we were looking at Vermeers?
One of the sculptures, so-called, consisted of a pile of chairs, randomly arranged. A four-year-old boy looked at the "sculpture" and announced, in a very loud and clear voice, "It's a pile of chairs. Very funny." And he laughed. It was a great clothesless emperor moment.
The Ranch Restaurant (family-owned, not a chain) in Rochester, Minnesota offered a splendid salad bar. In addition to the conventional fare (greens, onions, tomatoes, peppers, etc.), there were some items that were distictly regional: herring in wine sauce, baked beans, cherry jello topped with whipped cream, chocolate pudding and also Watergate Salad.
Watergate Salad, new to me I must confess, is a melange of pistachio pie filling, mini-marshmallows, canned pineapple chunks (with syrup), pecans, and Cool-Whip. Here's a question for those who are expert in Minnesotan fine dining: is your Watergate Salad best eaten with or without herring?
Our waiter at The Ranch, asked whether the tomato soup was prepared with cream, replied, "It's a tomato biscuit with peas and stuff in it." He was slightly off the mark: lots of stuff in the bisque but alas no peas.
We've named our GPS navigatrix, who gives instruction with a schoolmarmish London accent, Dorcas (which is, along with Prunella, one of my very favorite English given -- or as they call them,"Christian"-- names). Dorcas has proved to be, on the whole, a reliable friend. She had a little trouble in Cincinnati, where, it turns out, there are two entirely distinct 225 Hill Terrace addresses. She took us to the wrong one -- but I confess that in this case the error can fairly be traced to information-inputter, Dr. M. himself.
Dorcas also had a royal hissy fit when we had to detour onto a single-lane-on-the-other-side-of the-road somewhere in Ohio -- she "recalculated" twenty or thirty times, until I had to temporarily stop her mouth. It could only be my imagination, but I thought I detected a trace of exasperation in her tone of voice.
Despite these failings, the Dorcster is a dream at finding her way around unfamiliar towns. No longer will I have to stop at gas stations for incomprehensible advice about how to get back on the highway. I just call on Dorcas and I've got a friend, oh yeah, I've got a friend.
Today In Cawker City, Kansas, we made a pilgrimage to the world's largest ball of twine. It's enormous: 40 feet in circumference and 14,000 pounds (when last measured in 1986). And still growing. We were offered some twine to add our bit, but declined. It would be desecration -- like adding a stone to the great Pyramid. Instead, we paid silent homage.
We didn't stop to see the world's largest prairie dog in Oakley. Or the Russell Stover birthplace. Can't do everything.
And yet there are people who say that there's no culture in Kansas.
We're just back from a week in Greenwich Village. Here are some of the stores that were within two or three blocks of our temporary residence: "Beasty Feast Pet Food Supplies"; "Cherry Boxx" (sex toys and outfits); "Golden Rule Wine and Liquor"; "Henrietta Hudson Bar and Girl"; "Badlands Entertainment" (xxx videos); "Condomania" --all kinds of condoms and related gear; "Suds Cafe" (a laundromat and espresso bar); a shop that specializes in "eyebrow threading"; the "Sports Cap and Hat Store"; "Man + Plus" (which I read as Man plus plus); "Yuki's Chinese Restaurant" (bad corporate name); "Birthday Suit" (bachelorette-fetish, the sign clarified); the "Why Not Men's Spa"; "Pet Portraits"; "Doodle-Doos" (a children's hair salon); "Kid's RX" (children's prescription drugs); and "Cowgirl" -- I couldn't recognize anything that was on sale inside; also, an admirable piece of commercial hyperbole: "Splendid Dry Cleaners." In addition, a truck bearing the name "Dr. Playground" --mobile playground repairs, I would suppose. All in all, quite a display of capitalist initiative.
A few weeks ago, I noted that in The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin made the case that early humans were prey rather than predators. Now I've read a new book on the subject: Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman, Man the Hunted (Westview, 2005). The book's title is a bit misleading because it concentrates on primates other than modern man. Nevertheless, it was good to be reminded of the circumstances under which our hominid ancestors lived. Seven million years ago and until recently, our diminutive forbears were forest dwellers who were pursued by huge crocodilians, outsized eagles, packs of hunting dogs, a variety of giant cats, and hyenas the size of modern lions who had jaws strong enough to crunch human skulls in a single bite.
And also man-eating snakes. In the course of their discussion of snakes, the authors of Man the Hunted report on the instructions provided to early African missionaries on the proper response to pythons. (A 25-foot-long reticulated python can weigh up to 300 pounds.)
Remember not to run away; the python can run faster. The thing to do is to lie flat on the ground on your back with your feet together, arms to the sides and head well down. The python will then try to push its head under you, experimenting at every possible point. eep calm, one wiggle and he will get under you, wrap his coils round you and crush you to death. After a time the python will get tired of this and will probably decide to swallow you without the usual preliminaries. He will very likely begin with one of your feet. Keep calm. You must let him swallow your foot. It is quite painless and will take a long time. If you lose your head and struggle he will quickly whip his coils around you. If you keep calm, he will go on swallowing. Wait patiently until he has swallowed about up to your knee. Then carefully take out your knife and insert it into the distended side of his mouth and with a quick rip slit him up.
Well-meant advice, I'm sure, but perhaps difficult to follow. Suppose you're just not in the mood to allow the python such liberties with your person. Suppose you've forgotten to bring your knife; suppose the python decides to start with your head rather than a foot. Suppose you involuntarily wiggle just a teensy bit. Suppose you just don't feel that it's a good day to be engulfed.
I think that, on the whole, running away and screaming at the top of your lungs is a more sensible reaction. But then again, I never signed up to be a missionary.
There's more neighborhood mountain lion news: yesterday a seven-year-old boy, walking in the rearward of a group of six or seven hikers, was pounced upon in the mountains just west of town by a big guy. The child was bitten and clawed but is now recovering. Family members drove the lion away. In my view, they should never have allowed the child to pull up the rear.
I’d been thinking about predators even before this last attack (see the entry for April 8). By one of those curious convergences that make life so rich, I just happened to be reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines (New York: Viking, 1987), a travel narrative ostensibly about the sacred but invisible paths along which the ancestors of the Australian aborigines traveled and 'sang the world into existence.' The thesis of this quirky, self-indulgent and intermittently brilliant narrative is that human beings are by nature not sedentary but migratory. But the book isn't only about migrants; in one of The Songlines' many meanders, Chatwin writes a few pages on the age-old interaction of human beings with big predators like the mountain lion. He takes issue with the much-loved claim of right-wing thinkers that human beings are naturally territorial and aggressive -- that we are nothing more than naked apes who must continually strive to control larger and larger dominions. Instead, he offers the alternative view that because of our long history of fending off predators, human beings are naturally not aggressive but defensive -- and, moreover, that It's the defensive imperative that caused our species to move from savagery to civility. He asks us to think of the situation of the earliest humans. "The first men were humbled, harried, besieged -- their communites few and fragmented… clinging to life and one another through the horrors of the night." "Might not," he asks, "all the attributes we call ‘human’ – language, song-making, food-sharing, gift-giving, intermarriage... have evolved as stratagems for survival, hammered out against tremendous odds, to avert the threat of extinction?" It's a challenging, overarching hypothesis -- and whether or not there are facts to validate it is beyond my ken.
It's certainly true that first humans in Africa had to cope with a variety of nasty predators --lions were there long before people -- and that when our ancestors migrated to Europe they walked into a wild, dangerous country. The European lion, panthera leo, widespread from 900,000 years ago to the end of the last ice age, was a third taller and longer than surviving African lions, which themselves can weigh 450 pounds and reach a length of 8 1/2 feet. The lions in the virginal land that our ancestors crossed the Mediterranean to colonize would have been as tall as a fully grown Paleolithic man and might have weighed as much as 880 pounds. And remember that for 99% of our time on earth, humans were either entirely unarmed or possessed only of the hand ax -- a palm-size piece of sharpened but haft-less flint. No matter what theory of the origins of civilization we embrace, we should remember that our genes were selected in a world of woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, aurochs, and wolves and that we competed with the big bears for what were then the best residences on earth-- the limestone caves in the Ardeche region in France.
It's in these caves that the memory of European lions is beautifully preserved. Thirty thousand years ago, a long tradition of animal representation climaxed in the paintings in the Chauvet Cave. There are beautiful representations of European lions on the hunt and at rest in Jean-Marie Chauvet's The Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave (New York: Abrams, 1995) -- irrefutable evidence that our forefathers knew them at first hand. It's unquestionable that many a child -- and many an adult -- fell prey to these adversaries. And perhaps Chatwin is right; perhaps those humans who survived to reproduce were selected not for aggressiveness but for congeniality and especially for artistic ability. How else can we account for our species' continual preoccupation, or perhaps obsession, with all the many forms of beauty? April 17. The authorities tracked and killed an 80-pound female panther. I sincerely hope that it was the offending animal and not an innocent bystander.
We're in Washington D. C., this week and inadvertently wandered by the Mayflower Hotel. A memory: in July of 1952, I stayed at the Mayflower for a few days with my father's sister, my peripatetic and eccentric Aunt Mollie. It was a rare and unique event. I came from an automobile-less family, and my parents were not in the slightest bit adventurous. The trip to Washington was the sole occasion in my childhood when I was in a city other than New York (and by New York I mean deepest Brooklyn, with an occasional foray to the Bronx Zoo or to the Museum of Natural History). It's hard to convey the full measure of the naivete with which this schoolyard boy approached a new city. I knew that Washington was smaller than New York and therefore assumed that it would consist of a smaller Brooklyn, a smaller Manhattan, etc. I had no conception that different cities had different geographies--let alone different characters. Highlights: the Lincoln Memorial (I was exhilarated), the Jefferson Memorial, a boat ride to Mount Vernon. My strongest memory is of exciting and down-to-earth Harry Truman addressing a crowd from the base of the Washington Monument on the Fourth of July. The result of this voyage into the unknown was the realization that there were other cities, that they were accessible -- in short, that there was a world elsewhere. I'm permanently indebted to my Aunt for allowing me the opportunity to grasp such a big idea. And also that there was such a thing as a restaurant. It might seem incredible, but from birth to college, I didn't enter a restaurant more than a half-a-dozen times at the very most. In our family, there was neither the money nor the inclination toward such extravagance. I still consider it a something of a miracle that a guy like me can walk into a shop, sit down, and that people will generously put food on my plate. All that I have to do in return is fork over some money.
Exactly thirty-five years later, I stayed at the Mayflower a second time when AGP was honored and celebrated. At this Mayflower reprise, it was not Truman but Ronald Reagan whom we encountered. I remember the dyed hair, the unnatural orange skin, the ventriloquist's-dummy delivery of the speech that was handed him, and the undeniable inference that he was already deeply incapacitated by the Alzheimer's that would eventually kill him.
In Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Abducted by Aliens (Harvard, 2005), Susan Clancy recounts interviews with fifty or so "abductees." Each person's experience is unique, but the various stories can be melded into a composite narrative. "I was having problems with anxiety and depression. I was at Fenway Park with my buddies watching a game. The next thing I remember, I was on Mission Hill and it was five in the morning. I was always interested in science fiction. I read Communion; I saw E. T and Close Encounters. I went to a hypnotist, and memories started flooding back. I started sobbing uncontrollably. They were long and tall, with huge black eyes that went around their heads. I remembered them fastening a device like a suction cup to my genitals to suck out the sperm painfully. They inserted a foot-long tube into my nostril. I know it happened because I get nosebleeds. My dad thinks it's a transmitter they put in there. They've programmed other memories to disappear. Until I experienced the aliens, life was empty, meaningless. Now that I have my memories, I understand everything. What happened to me was overwhelming. It was real. I can't explain-- I felt it. I was changed from the person that I was. It was the most positive event of my life. It helped me to see life as beautiful, as a gift."
Alien abductees may hold to false beliefs, but they have powerful faith. Clancy reports that once, at a convention of abductees, she tried to talk about the unreliability of anecdotal evidence, the fragility of memory, the nature of the sleep-paralysis syndrome, the creation of false memories under hypnosis, Occam's Razor (the employment of the most economical hypothesis to explain a phenomenon), etc. According to Clancy, there was a long silence, and then one of the participants said, "tell her about the metallic tube that came out of Jim's nose, the one that went down the sink before you both could catch it."
Eventually Clancy brings herself to discuss the obvious parallel of abduction to religion, which, she says, she is reluctant to do because she has "about a thousand Irish Catholic relatives [she] doesn't want to offend." Nevertheless, she concludes that "alien-abduction beliefs can be considered a type of religious creed, based on faith, not facts." Kind to her extended family, Clancy does pursue the argument to the next logical step: that ordinary, accepted beliefs of supernatural intervention in human affairs are exactly as credible -- no more, no less -- as belief in macrocephalic waifs with black wraparound eyes who stick needles into your navel to produce hybrid children.
She also reports that one of her informants, when challenged, responded, "I trust my gut and my gut says aliens." Is there a better argument for listening not to our guts but to our brains?
When I read Neal Ascherson's Black Sea, I had to admit that I knew nothing at all about a huge and contested part of the world. I followed up on Ascherson's bibliography and read a series of ethnographic studies of ancient Black Sea peoples -- Scythians, Sarmatians, etc. -- and from there moved eastward to the Caucasus and leaned about the Abkhazians, the Ossetians, the Chechens, etc. Yesterday I finished Nicholas Griffin's Caucasus (2001), which is half travel book and half a biography of Imam Shamil. Shamil, of whom I also knew zero until a few days ago, is the legendary Avar guerilla leader who led the opposition to the Russian conquest of the mountains in the mid-nineteenth century. He's the national hero of the Chechens, and is a compound of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo-- with a little Islamic fervor added in. The Russians conquered the Caucasus with a combination of overwhelming force, superior technology, and ruthlessness: they systematically obliterated villages, murdered as many civilians as possible, and when all else failed, cut to the ground the primeval beech forests -- defoliation not then an option -- in which Shamil and his Murids found refuge. Reading about Shamil led me to Hadji Murad -- Tolstoy's extraordinary last novel and one in which Shamil is a minor character. In 150 pages or so, Hadji Murad says as much about the brutality, the stupidity, and the vanity of war as War and Peace says in ten times as many pages. Tolstoy, who had soldiered in the Caucasus, wrote in his diary (according to Griffin) that the war was "so ugly and unjust that anybody who wages it has to stifle the voice of his conscience." Hadji Murad is a charismatic leader who's involved in a foolish feud with Shamil; he surrenders to the Russians, tries to escape, and is killed and beheaded. That's the plot, but the genius is in the telling. After recounting an atrocity in which the Russians, in sport, destroy a small settlement, ruin the crops, and bayonet a small child, Tolstoy describes the feelings of the remaining villagers as they set about the hopeless task of rebuilding: "It was not hatred, because they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings, but it was such repulsion, disgust and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them -- like the desire to exterminate rats, poisoous spiders, or wolves -- was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation." Tolstoy is disgusted by the Russian actions, but he's equally repelled by the brutal mountaineers, and he goes out of his way to draw parallels between the utterly cruel Imam Shamil and the fat, ignorant, vainglorious Nicholas, the Czar of All the Russians.
In the nineteenth century, the Russians cut down the forests; in 1999, they conquered Grozhny (the capitol of Chechnya) by dynamiting every significant building in the entire city.
On November 27, writing about Lermontov's A Hero of our Time, I found it offensive that Azamat trades his sister for a horse. I found fault with Lermontov for employing what I judged to be a fraudulent plot device. I've since read Amjad Jaimoukha's The Chechens (2005) where the following appears: "In Ingush society, a man had the right to give away his sister in marriage without her consent." (The Ingush, like the Chechens, are a subset of the Vainakh.) What appears to be a bit of crudeness in A Hero of our Time might in reality be an accurate representation of nineteenth-century Caucasian society. Apologies to Lermontov.
In the Black Sea just off the Bulgarian coast lies Nessabar, an island (nowadays artificially an isthmus) that has been a trading center for several thousand years. Still standing in the old city are churches and fortifications that date from the 8th and 9th century. It's authentic and it's intriguing, but it's also one of the very few places in Bulgaria that's distinctly over-touristed, so it was a relief to hop the informal ferry (really no more than a glorified dinghy) from Nessebar back to the mainland. To be afloat on the fabled Black Sea felt--how else can I say it -- Romantic and a far cry from landlocked Colorado. It was that windy boat ride that pushed me into reading about the inhabitants of the Black Sea littoral and of the neighboring Caucasus. This is the land of the ancient Thracians, builders of tumuli, of the Scythians, who went to war with mares only, and also of the Sarmatians (of whom the sum of my knowledge had been the story of the ten virgins of Sarmatia deflowered in a single night by the Emperor Procopius--who was, according to Montaigne, a "master workman and famous in the task." It's a land that is presently the home to Abkhazians, Georgians, Circassians, Ossetians, Chechens.
My browsing eventually brought to mind that I've read a novel set in the Caucasus--Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of our Time. The novel was written in the late 1830s (its author was killed in an idiotic duel in 1841 at the age of twenty-seven). A sickly but wealthy Muscovite, Lermontov had been sent to the frosty Caucasus several times in his childhood for the bracing air and the healing baths. Later, as a Russian officer, he participated in the displacement and genocide of the Caucasian peoples--a war that began in the days of Peter the Great and continues to this very moment. Of the novel itself I could recall only vaguely the deep romantic chasms and rushing mountain streams, the unlettered tribesmen, the gallant horsemanship. Re-reading was, as always, a revelation. The nominal hero, Pechorin, of whom I'm embarrassed to say I had not the least memory trace -- but let's face it, forty years is a long time-- is a hyperconscious but conscienceless cad. He's the underground man as cavalry officer.
Here's a sample hunk of plot: at a wedding, lustful Pechorin is taken by the sight of a fair young Circassian girl named Bela. Bela is also sought by Kazbich, a swarthy Chechen fighter, the owner of a most remarkable horse. The horse is coveted by Bela's younger brother Azamat. Azamat and Pechorin conspire: Azamat will kidnap and deliver his sister to Pechorin if Pechorin will help him abscond with the horse. The intrigue succeeds and Pechorin takes the "wild girl" Bela as his concubine. She, of course, sickens. One day, while Pechorin is out hunting boar, Kazbich returns and attempts to re-abduct Bela. Pechorin, returning home, shoots at Kazbich and wounds him; Kazbich escapes but not before fatally stabbing Bela with his dagger -- preferring, it's assumed, to kill her rather than surrender her.
It seems like a horribly racist tale -- made worse by the fact that the Chechens are regularly characterized as thieves, the Ossetians as stupid, and so on. The equation of horse and woman is inherently offensive. But the story is redeemed from bigotry because blonde Pechorin is by far the nastiest character in the novel, and because the whole episode can be and perhaps should be interpreted as a rebuke to the brutality of Russian imperialism.
It's obvious that the novel's themes are not specific to the Russian-Caucasian frontier. It's easy to imagine a translation of A Hero of Our Time into a film set in the American west where Chechens become Sioux, the Caucasus becomes the Rockies, Pechorin is played by James Stewart while Bela transmutes into Debra Paget in a buckskin skirt, and racial, imperialist and genocidal themes are enacted in a frontier that is more familiar but equally romantic.