Archive for May, 2010

Here Is Everything You Want

“American artists are so embarrassed by American life,” I said. “So contemptuous of it.”

“It’s not as if they’re afraid,” she said. “They have to be superior to what they represent. They are embarrassed even that they do it so well.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s like a dream, American life. It frightens you. You feel you have to make fun of it, no matter how much you secretly love it. I mean, here is everything you want. You have to say it’s horrible.”

—Anne Rice, Belinda

“So Many Were Not Undone By Stalin Himself”

The third anniversary of the passing of Boris Yeltsin slid by without much comment here in the United States. Quite a contrast to the hour of his death, when the New York Times tolled the bell for a man it decreed possessed “extraordinary bravery” as he “embod[ied] the last hope of his people,” when, like a veritable colossus, he “eliminated government censorship of the press, tolerated public criticism, and steered Russia toward a free-market economy.”

Poor New York Times. Poor New York Times readers. The piece contains so many errors as to make one weep, contemplating correcting them all. The Times, whatever its worth in the “first draft of history” derby, has a fairly sorry record of limping far behind the field in getting the big things right. As the June Smithsonian reminds us, in recalling that the Times fretted editorially in the days before black boxer Jack Johnson’s July 1910 demolition of his white opponent, Jim Jeffries: “if the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than physical equality with their white neighbors.”

For even as the Times three years ago was extolling Yeltsin as some sort of bibulous Moses to the Russian people, Perry Anderson, across the Great Water in the London Review of Books, was more precisely describing Yeltsin as a bumbling butcher, misapprehended here in the West because he served as “a pliable, if somewhat disreputable, utensil of Western policies,” whose acts, in truth, will ultimately lay in their graves more Russians than even Josef Stalin managed to plant.


Labor Of Love

A hive of bees in May is worth a load of hay.

—English proverb

“I remember when I was a child being sent to visit one of our numerous elderly and eccentric aunts. She had a bee fetish; she kept vast quantities of them; the garden was overflowing with hundreds of hives humming like telegraph poles. One afternoon she put on an enormous veil and a pair of gloves, locked us all in the cottage for safety, and went out to try to get some honey out of one of the hives. Apparently she didn’t stupefy them properly, or whatever it is you do, and when she took the lid off, a sort of waterspout of bees poured out and settled on her. We were watching all this through the window. We didn’t know much about bees, so we thought this was the correct procedure, until we saw her flying round the garden making desperate attempts to evade the bees, getting her veil tangled up in the rose-bushes. Eventually she reached the cottage and flung herself at the door. We couldn’t open it because she had the key. We kept trying to impress this on her, but her screams of agony and the humming of the bees drowned our voices. It was, I believe, Leslie who had the brilliant idea of throwing a bucket of water over her from the bedroom window. Unfortunately in his enthusiasm he threw the bucket as well. To be drenched with cold water and then hit on the head with a large galvanized-iron bucket is irritating enough, but to have to fight off a mass of bees at the same time makes the whole thing extremely trying. When we eventually got her inside she was so swollen as to be almost unrecognizable.

“She recovered after a few weeks in hospital. It didn’t seem to put her off the bees though. Shortly afterwards a whole flock of them swarmed in the chimney, and in trying to smoke them out she set fire to the cottage. By the time the fire brigade arrived the place was a mere charred shell, surrounded by bees.”

—Gerald Durrell, My Family And Other Animals

Awake And Alive

Katrina Hyena

May 28, 2010

Here I am again, speakin’ into this tape recorder, for the book that Karen‘s writin’ for me, so I can get vindicated by history.

They’re already after me on this book, the mockers, even though the damn thing ain’t even written yet. Just look at them pictures they printed in the Commie paper over in England!

That’s not gonna be the covers of my book! They’s lyin’! Committin’ libels! That’s what they call it when Commies lies in their newspapers. I called Karl, and told him to get to puttin’ them news boys in jail. He said we couldn’t do it, ’cause they was in England. I reminded him that when we was president we had no trouble puttin’ people from England, or anywhere else in the damn world, in jail—secret ones, too—but he said we couldn’t do that any more. Dammit.

He said not to worry about them deriders, because that’s all they is, while I was the decider. That made me feel a little better. Especially after I’d drunk me a few pretzels.



Sometimes the right sees more clearly the Obama administration than does its putative allies on the left.

Even as an increasing number of sky-is-falling lefties flock to the duckspeak that there is little substantive difference between the Obama people and the George II crew, the right is in a ferment over two recent statements, one by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the other by Vice President Joe Biden, that indicate clearly that, in contrast to the rogue lone gunman ethos of the George II years, Obama’s is indeed an in-ternationalist presidency, one that is deliberately, if quietly, decoupling from the pernicious fantasy of divinely-ordained American exceptionalism that has driven US foreign policy since “the two Williams”—McKinley and Hearst—inaugurated America as Empire.


Sage And Spirit

The ancients were enamored with sage. So am I. The ancients believed that sage could confer immortality. What I believe: who knows? I eat the stuff, and I’m still knocking around.

“Why,” demanded one Latin commentator, “should a man die who grows sage in his garden?”

Beats me.

Among the English, it is believed that the plant’s immortalist properties are most pronounced in May:

He who would live for aye
Must eat Sage in the month of May.

We have a few May days left here. So get to nibbling.

Or maybe it’s okay to wait until next month. For over there in Provence, says Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, folks aver “[i]t should be picked on the dawn of Midsummer Day when the first ray of sunlight strikes the highest mountain.” Provencal proverb: “he who has sage in his garden needs no doctor.”



There are a couple of girls at Pleasant Hill that are freshmen; I’ve known them for a long time. They’re headed for doom. They have gone out two or three times—bought a couple of bottles of Mad Dog 20-20, fallen down, broken their teeth, broken their glasses. They’ve had two or three motorcycle wrecks. They have run away from home. Everybody knows the syndrome. What’s wrong with them? They don’t have any sense of the eternal. Where are they going to get it? They’re not going to church. There’s no church for them. Even if they go, their ears can’t hear it. They can’t find their place any more. And yet they’re screaming with their mouths bleeding and laying in the dust of the motorcycle. They’re screaming for some direction.

Patty Hearst is the metaphor for these girls. She’s like a blackboard; anything can write on her. What is going to write on her if we don’t? If somebody doesn’t step in and take up the chalk and write words of Shakespeare or Yeats on this blackboard, what is going to be written on it is going to be pornography, is going to be shallow stuff, pap at its worst level, because it caters to these particular lost girls and it leads them further and further into lostness instead of leading them toward any light.

Everybody in this room has pretty much the same idea that I have about what the light is. One time somebody was saying, “But you’re so much more enlightened than I am.” Paul Foster was sitting nearby and says, “The light is seven million miles away and we’re all clustered up back here at five inches, five-and-a-half inches, six inches, six-and-a-half inches.” Maybe somebody’s a half an inch ahead of somebody, but that’s about all. When it comes to really going toward the light, the people in this room are about as enlightened as it gets. I know Baba Ram Dass, I know Tim Leary, I know all the honchos of enlightenment. There isn’t a one of them that knows anything that everybody in this room doesn’t know.

It’s time we fought for it. It’s time we fought when we say, “Moby Dick is better than The Carpetbaggers. Okay? Moby Dick is better than The Carpetbaggers. The Taj Majal is better than the Holiday Inn. The Eugene Armory is better than the Federal Building.”

—Ken Kesey, “Earthshoes and Other Remarks”

Do The Right Thing

(I think I wrote this piece in the fall of 1994, for the local once-alternative weekly. It says pretty much all I have to say about California’s Central Valley, and about Elvis Presley.

(My brother always liked this story. He was the model for the character Tector. He was supposed to accompany me on this journey, but for some reason backed out. I brought him along anyway.

(He never made it to South America. Because when he died identification of the corporeal container was at best a guess, I like to think he actually did, and thrives there to this day. Freed at last of white people, and all the other demons that possessed him.)

calling elvis
is anybody home
calling elvis
i’m here all alone

The Feather River delta died years ago below too many goddam dams. The banks of the Yuba/Sutter bottomlands shimmer in that shade of scummy yellow-brown that settles round the throat of the toilet when you don’t scrub the thing very often. In signal-clotted fits and stalls I am following the highway, preparing to cross the river, frantically throwing garlic at the “I YAM WHAT I YAM” messages emanating from the jesusjumping signboard hung above the Yahweh Hotel.

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland West, in Yuba County: I’m going to Graceland. Poorboys and picaros, from felonious families; and we are going to Graceland. My traveling companion is thirty-three years old; he is the child of our father’s second marriage. With that shotgun cross his knees, we will not be well received, in Graceland.


Peasant Palate: Dinner For A Dying Ocean

There is a Pacific Coast fisherman, a natural-born cook, who prepares a special soup to warm up dock parties on cold California nights. Oddly, this “Skip’s Meatball Soup” contains no seafood. It is therefore appropriate for these days of Deepwater Horizon, in which oil blowing from an unsane undersea well is denuding the Gulf of Mexico of life. Skip’s soup is true comfort food, and jeebus knows we could all use some comfort.

Though the meatballs hew Italian, and the vegetables smell of the French, there are strong Mexican accents to this dish—indeed, I was introduced to it by Jacqueline Higuera McMahon, sprung of a family that received one of the first Mexican land-grant ranchos in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lost in the latest ignorant populist ferment over immigration is the historical memory that places like California were Mexican far longer than they’ve been gringo . . . and will be again.

Anyway, thanks to the Mexican contributions, the soup as presented here has a bite to it. The heat level can be adjusted, however, in a number of ways: seed or eschew the serranos, settle on a milder chili powder, switch out the Salsa Brava for a less fiery sauce.

Finally, the usual proscriptions against food-touching are suspended here. That is because this is a soup. And soups by their very nature are wanton, promiscuous creatures—hot, steamy baths in which various and sundry ingredients defiantly fondle one another, shamelessly, thoroughly, publicly.



Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but sophistication was not his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country too, Dobbins was drawn toward sentimentality.

Even now, twenty years later, I can see him wrapping his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck before heading out on ambush.

It was his one eccentricity. The pantyhose, he said, had the properties of a good-luck charm. He liked putting his nose into the nylon and breathing in the scent of his girlfriend’s body; he liked the memories this inspired; he sometimes slept with the stockings up against his face, the way an infant sleeps with a flannel blanket, secure and peaceful. More than anything, though, the stockings were a talisman for him. They kept him safe. They gave access to a spiritual world, where things were soft and intimate, a place where he might someday take his girlfriend to live. Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he believed firmly and absolutely in the protective  power of the stockings. They were like body armor, he thought. Whenever we saddled up for a late-night ambush, putting on our helmets and flak jackets, Henry Dobbins would make a ritual out of arranging the nylons around his neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left shoulder. There were some jokes, of course, but we came to appreciate the mystery of it all. Dobbins was invulnerable. Never wounded, never a scratch. In August, he tripped a Bouncing Betty, which failed to detonate. And a week later he got caught in the open during a fierce little firefight, no cover at all, but he just slipped the pantyhose over his nose and breathed deep and let the magic do its work.

It turned us into a platoon of believers. You don’t dispute facts.

But then, near the end of October, his girlfriend dumped him. It was a hard blow. Dobbins went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter.

“No sweat,” he said. “The magic doesn’t go away.”

—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Forest For The Trees

We live equally in two worlds, an African had told Blair. Awake, we plod on with our eyes downcast from the sun, ignoring or not seeing what lies around us. Asleep, eyes open behind their lids, we pass through a vibrant world in which men become lions, women become snakes, in which the vague fears of the daytime become, through heightened senses, revealed and visible.

Awake, we are trapped in the present like a lizard in an hourglass that crawls forever over the falling sand. Asleep, we fly from the past into the future. Time is no longer a narrow, drudging path but an entire forest seen at once. Blair’s problem, the African said, was that he lived only in the waking world. That was why he needed maps, because he saw so little.

—Martin Cruz Smith, Rose


I don’t often write about my legal work. The lawyers round here are old-fashioned, even crusty folk, who don’t believe in discussing cases, ever, with anyone but themselves.

There is always the danger, so goes the thinking, of letting slip in public something discovered in private, thereby violating the holy seal of the legal confessional. Furthermore, all are always concerned—some might say paranoid—that something said about one case may someday redound to the detriment of a client in another, by portraying a police officer or a district attorney or a judge in a light they might perceive as unflattering, and which they will remember, and later be moved to avenge, by wreaking upon a once and future client Great Wrongness.

So generally I stay sealed, like the tomb.

But I think I’m okay talking about this one. Pretty much everyone, in the end, behaved honorably, and the resolution was public, happy, hopeful, and just.


The Knuckles Drag For Thee

When raising my daughter, and questioned by her as to why we seemed so often besieged by the de-evolved, the divergent, yea even the demented, I would respond that the trouble was that we had, for our sins, been sentenced to live in “the Alabama portion of California.”

For ours is not the California of popular imagination, of beatniks and hippies and free speech and libertines and mystics and tree-huggers and sixth-dimensional soft-ware engineers. Oh no. Ours instead a place settled by dour plodders, trailing Puritan chains, who’d sojourned to the Golden State from the South and the Midwest, their “California Dreamin'” a place of no blacks and no Jews and no homos and no Weird White Kids, with just Mexicans enough to work the fields, so long as they keep their mouths shut. Wedded to “Gods, Guts, and Guns,” as one officeseeker here once put it, painting said slogan—in red, white, and blue, natch—on good-sized rocks, which he distributed to would-be constituents, urging them to hurl the things through the windows of his home, should he be selected to serve, and then fail in his Duty. “Guts” and “guns” self-explanatory, “God” defined as a more or less eternally pissed-off fellow who hates fucking but indulges killing, and who created the whole shootin’ match some 6000 or so years ago, at which time he set Adam and Eve to riding dinosaurs to church.

So when I read this morning that Alabama gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne had commenced the St. Vitus Dance, upon being accused by an opponent of believing in science, I felt an instant kinship—why, he sounds like the sort who’d be beloved by folks around here.


Way Out West

The disagreement with the [Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid] unit production manager finally came to a head when he confronted [director Sam] Peckinpah one evening. After a long and heated exchange of words, he threatened to put a contract out on Peckinpah’s life. Among those present when this threat was made was a friend of Peckinpah’s whose father holds a high position in the Mexican military. Taking the state-ment at face value, the friend imme-diately picked up the phone and called Mexico City asking that Mexican gunmen be dispatched to eliminate the unit manager. After the manager had finally departed and the dust cleared, Peckinpah tactfully took his enthusiastic friend aside and explained that the threat had been spoken in anger and that he must call Mexico City and head off the gunmen. Several days later, MGM recalled the unit manager to Hollywood.

—Garner Simmons, Peckinpah: A Portrait In Montage

In Dreams

When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city—which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbor; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat . . .

And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that cer-tainly were not birds.

Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the lights lay like strings of glow-worms along the shores, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.

It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, May, where this lovely city could be.

She shook her head, and told me that there was no such place—not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. Dreams were funny things, and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time—the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before.

—John Wyndham, Re-Birth

Eternal Recurrence

In John Ford’s funny Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, you see all the actors like they always should appear: James Stewart should always wash plates and be looked after by women like a clumsy child, and then shoot his enemy, dressed in an apron (but in reality it’s John Wayne who does it for him). Lee Marvin should always stumble around and die slowly at the end; Lee van Cleef should always stand in the background and grin; John Wayne should always set his own house on fire; Edmund O’Brien should be drunk at all times and deliver monologues; James Stewart should always still be babbling while the audience is already leaving the cinema.

—Wim Wenders, On Film

Let There Be Life

Millennia before the political people got hold of it, May Day was for lovers.

Equidistant between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, arrived that day when human beings participated in the seasonal renewal of life by themselves bursting into bloom—making love.

Details varied. In some places, particularly in the Celtic realm, this day was known as Beltane. Sometimes a woman and man, recognized as particularly sympathetic to or skilled in the magic arts, would, representing the Goddess and God themselves, couple in a ritualized ceremony, either observed or alone, and most often in a freshly seeded field.

Very often, as it says here, “[y]oung couples were encouraged to test their fertility with Beltane trysts, and any babies born from Beltane were believed to be blessed by the Goddess herself.” Pretty magical, such witch children.

Too, “[t]rial unions, called hand-fastings (as the lovers’ clasped hands were bound by ribbon), were also popular at Beltane, committing the couple to each other for one year and a day in preparation for a marital commitment.” Such a ceremony is today popular among some contemporary neo-pagans.

Other places, on this day, there was a sort of relationship “time-out,” when the people of the tribe, in the interest of renewing the earth, could couple indiscriminately, and without consequence.

Of course, “without consequence” is in such things more often a wish, than a reality. In many versions of the Arthurian tale, for instance, Guinevere and Lancelot first acknowledge the inevitability of their attraction on May Day. Fair to say there were some consequences from that one.


The Greatest Story Never Told

Years ago I was searching for the biggest rooster I could find and heard about a guy in Petaluma, California, who had owned a rooster called Weirdo that weighed thirty pounds. Sadly Weirdo had passed away, but his offspring were alive, and guess what? They were even bigger. I went out there and found Ralph, son of Weirdo, who weighed an amazing thirty-two pounds! Then I found Frank, a special breed of miniature horse that stood less than two feet high. I told Frank’s owner I wanted to film Ralph chasing Frank—with a midget riding him—around the biggest sequoia tree in the world, thirty metres in cir-cumference. It would have been amazing because the horse and the midget together were still smaller than Ralph, the rooster. But unfortunately Frank’s owner refused. He said it would make Frank, the horse, look stupid.

—Werner Herzog, Herzog on Herzog

When I Worked

May 2010