Thursday, June 21, 2018


I am trying to read a short story or poem every day. Poems sure are a lot easier—or at least, less time consuming, though "easy" not necessarily, if they go deep enough.

Today I bumped into these beauties, by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004):


Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Berkeley, 1968
Translated by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Pinsky

Campo dei Fiori

In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
baskets of olives and lemons,
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.

On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors' shoulders.

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs' pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet's word.

Warsaw, 1943
Translated by David Brooks and Louis Iribarne

Anthony Bourdain

I was not a follower of Anthony Bourdain, but when I woke up on the 8th and saw the news that he was dead, by suicide, I was stunned. It wasn't just that it was another celebrity suicide—his death but a few days after Kate Spade's. Even though I didn't follow Bourdain, I somehow knew him to be a life force. (Spade may have been too, in other circles—but not in mine. Which is not to say I'm not sad about her death too.)

David pointed out that Netflix has been carrying Bourdain's Parts Unknown TV show, about food and culture worldwide. And they were about to stop airing it. That prompted us to watch a couple of episodes: season 4, episode 4, on Hue, Vietnam; and 8.1, about Hanoi—simply because I was just in Vietnam and wanted to see his take on the place. Those two shows made me wish I'd gone on a culinary tour, and not a birding one. (Sorry, birds.) And that I'd known Anthony Bourdain in real life.

Today I spotted an article outlining the five not-to-be-missed episodes of the show. One was the Hanoi one I'd already seen. When David and I were considering what to watch this evening, I couldn't remember any other but the Bronx, and one in season 4. Turned out, they were one and the same: The Bronx, season 4, episode 2.

And there I learned a few things. First: hip-hop. Of course, I know that hip-hop exists, but I've never been quite clear on just what it is. Turns out (you probably know this), it's a culture, comprising four streams: rapping, DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing. The fact that I didn't know it can be so neatly defined just goes to show how very white, not to mention old, I am. (Though so was Bourdain, so really, what's my excuse?) But now I know what hip-hop is. My world is a little larger. I always like it when my world gets a little larger.

Second, just the other day I saw a reference to something that I was similarly unfamiliar with, when my niece's husband wrote on Facebook, "RIP Juicebox - I'll seriously miss the news/social commentary of Desus & Mero on vice, props/kudos for moving on up to Showtime." I had no clue what that meant. (I still don't, to some degree.) And then, because I subscribe to Vanity Fair, I saw a reference to an article, "Desus and Mero Take Their Show on the Road." I took note because of the nephew's comment.

And then, tonight—or rather, four years ago—Anthony Bourdain had a nice sit-down meal with Desus ("Gotta hear both sides") Nice.

Seriously? Three times in one week, to run into a reference to Desus and Mero? I think I need to check these guys out.

Third: I want to keep following Anthony Bourdain around the globe. I love his mix of food love and cultural delving and passionate lust for life.  Thank you, Netflix, for not canceling his show but rather for keeping it going in perpetuity. I wish he could have visited more and more and more places, and told us about them and their special pleasures.

I'm so so very sorry the lust for life didn't buoy him through, that a darkness caught him and caused him to drown.... I'm so so sad about that, and about all the other suicides that happen every day.

The national suicide hotline number is 1-800-273-8255, available 24/7; for crisis support in Spanish, the number is 1-888-628-9454. For the TrevorLifeline, a suicide prevention counseling service for the LGBTQ community, call 1-866-488-7386.
Here's a good guide to how to cope with a potentially suicidal friend or family member.

Oh, and by the way: the other three "must see" episodes are  Beirut (5.8), Sicily (2.5), and South Korea (5.1).

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Report: The Violet Hour

10. Katie Roiphe, The Violet Hour (2016) (6/15/18)

In this elegant exploration of death and dying—and, inevitably, about lives fully lived—Katie Roiphe focuses on five writers/artists, about whom there is copious documentation about the end of their lives: Susan Sontag, who lived in denial of death and continued to work fiercely until the end; Sigmund Freud, who declared himself “sensibly resigned” to death; John Updike, who, through his writing (and affairs), sought to cheat death; the wildly self-destructive Dylan Thomas; Maurice Sendak, who wrote and drew his hyper-imaginative children’s books to keep the darkness from pressing in and annihilating him. And, in an epilogue (fully alive, he and Roiphe had a conversation on the subject), James Salter, who didn’t really find death to be a problem at all: just don’t think about it, he counseled.

Roiphe suffered a near-death experience when she was a girl, and has always had a fearful fascination with the end of life as a result. To investigate that feeling, she delved into the writings—journals, letters, essays, fiction, poetry—of these people to find out what they thought, believed, hoped, and feared about death. She talked with their children, their caretakers, their friends, those who clustered around as life seeped away. She explored their biographies for clues. "I've picked people who are madly articulate, who have abundant and extraordinary imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words—and in one case images—in a way that most of us can't or won't."

And she interrogates what she finds. With Freud, for example, she quotes him as writing to a friend, shortly before turning 68, that "though apparently on the way to recovery, there is deep inside me a pessimistic conviction of the closeness of the end of my life, nourished by the never-ceasing petty torments of the scar, a kind of senile depression centered around the conflict between irrational pleasure in life and sensible resignation."
Why is resignation sensible? [she asks.] Why is pleasure in life irrational? Freud is so eager to rise above, to conspicuously see and take in the facts of mortality, that he can only classify an ebullient attachment to life as "irrational." Rationality seems to be an expansive, overarching code word here for something altogether stranger and more rare: moderation in one's attachment to life. As if one is supposed to be only a little bit attached to life.
Contrast Freud's sensibility with Thomas's lack thereof.
The true mystery of Thomas's last days . . . is not the precise medical cause of his coma; it is how the unnatural fear and apprehension of death melts into a craving for it. His long preoccupation with the end, with all the celebrating and singing one can do on the way to that end, his overdeveloped, painful consciousness, always, of that end, is transformed into something almost beautiful. It seems if you are afraid or preoccupied with something for long enough, you begin to develop a feeling toward it not dissimilar to love. This is not a trick of the mind that most healthy people can understand. David Foster Wallace once wrote, in a Harper's piece about a cruise ship, a decade before his own suicide: "The word 'despair' is overused and banalized now, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. It's close to what people call dread or angst, but it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I'm small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It's wanting to jump overboard." 
In her conclusion Roiphe writes,
I am coming to see that the real thing I am afraid of is not death itself but the fear of death. This fear is not abstract to me. The knowing you are about to die. The panic of its approach. That is what seems unbearable to me. That’s what I’ve been trying to write my way through.

But here’s what I learned form the deaths in this book: You work. You don’t work. You resist. You don’t resist. You exert the consummate control. You surrender. You deny. You accept. You pray. You don’t pray. you read. You work. You take as many painkillers as you can. you refuse painkillers. You rage against death. You run headlong toward it.

In the end the deaths are the same. They all die. The world releases them.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Report: Lola

9. Melissa Scrivner Love, Lola (2017) (5/31/18)

I had high hopes for this book, based partly on the enthusiastic Bookshop Santa Cruz shelf-tag recommendation, partly on the cover blurbs: "One of the best[-]written crime dramas to be published in quite some time" (AP); "Achingly beautiful . . . Scrivner Love does better than Stieg Larsson" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel); "An act of literary magic . . . a gritty, tightly plotted masterpiece" (LA Weekly); "An unbelievably smart mystery" (Newsweek); "Stunning . . . Love has created a fully fleshed-out and uniquely compelling antihero" (Publishers Weekly).

It starts out well enough—set in the barrio of Huntington Park, the "South Central" of Los Angeles, and concerning a very small gang known as the Crenshaw Six . . . which, we soon learn, is fronted not by the usual man, but by small, fierce, fearless Lola. Who, as the story gets going, receives a death threat from a rival gang, and a couple of options to remove said threat.

But as the story progresses, the pace slackens, the characters become more and more cardboard-like, the double-crosses and loyalties and retributions more convoluted, and the nagging theme of "how many hours until she dies?" more tedious, until, frankly, I just didn't care.

But I did finish, just in case there was some sort of redemption (not really) and to be able to post a report here. Because, fifty.

Certain themes did emerge: the wreckage caused by heroin; dingy linoleum floors; doll houses; barbecues; beauty products; women in control; obedience; family; fox hunting (kidding, but not). I rarely got a clear idea of place—save kitchens with their impossible floors—or of what most people looked like, except all the Mexican American women and girls seemed to have long straight shiny black hair.

Mostly, I found the worldview sour and cynical and clichéd, as in this description of a Westside fitness center:
Lucy [a five-year-old whom Lola saves from her junkie mother] slips her hand into Lola's. Together, they exit the locker room, leaving behind the blow-dryers and the bad news. They pass the cardio machines and the skeleton women doing endless mindless reps of bicep curls and squats in front of the inescapable mirrors. See your flaws. Fix your flaws. They stride by the café where hungry ladies salivate at the turkey burgers and opt instead for salads with dressing on the side. Together, Lola and Lucy push open the glass doors of this training academy for trophy wives, a factory in its own right. Perhaps it's better to be raised in the ghetto, away from this sweatshop of a different color.
The book, I learned in a review, started out as a TV pilot (Scrivner Love works primarily as a screenwriter), and it feels like it. A sequel made its way to her agent a year ago. If it gets published, I will be skipping it.

P.S. My opinion may be somewhat shaded by the delightfully rich and complex House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, also about Mexican Americans, in San Diego. The stories are different, of course, Lola being plot driven, House about relationship. But if you want a story about real people, not stick figures, try House. You won't regret it. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Pine Valley, Ventana Wilderness

On Friday and Saturday, fellow wilderness ranger Roger Beaudoin and I made the six-mile trek into Pine Valley from the Tassajara Road, to maintain the eight or ten established campsites in the valley, dismantle a few illegal campfire rings, and talk to backpackers making the hike in for the long Memorial Day weekend—some 46 souls. I took a few photos (see below).

In the middle of Pine Valley is the cabin of Jack English, a man I met a few times during Search & Rescue overnight trainings. He would always invite a few of us in for coffee and a chat, and oatmeal if it was morning. (The coffee was always on his stovetop.) He may have lived in the middle of nowhere all alone, but he enjoyed people, and I know he made a lot of friends among the hikers who came to Pine Valley regularly. He died two years ago, at the age of 96, and his cabin is now closed up (a scattering of sprung mouse traps adorned his back porch, so apparently someone is looking out for the place). There's a wisteria vine in front, looking healthy: it must have been glorious earlier this spring, full of bright green leaves and purple flowers. I miss Jack, and I know I'm not alone in that. He was a real gentleman.

Here's a video that was made about him when he was 93. It's one I enjoy watching every so often. It reminds me of what's important in life, of having a good spirit.

And here are a few of the photos I took on our hike into Pine Valley, in Pine Valley, and then back out, along the Pine Ridge Trail. It was an overcast couple of days, with drizzle, and the thigh-high grasses along the trail did a great job of soaking us through. But it wasn't cold, and the light was absolutely gorgeous, saturating the blues, reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and purples of the abundant wildflowers. Better, especially on the uphill hike out, than hot sunshine. It was a lovely couple of days.

Looking east across Tassajara Road from the start of the
Upper Pine Ridge Trail
The boundary of the Ventana Wilderness
A beautiful pink thistle (Cirsium mohavense)
Santa Lucia monkeyflower (Erythranthe hardhamiae)
The trail bounded by sky lupine (Lupinus nanus)
and scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius)
Chaparral yucca (Yucca whipplei)
Hulsea heterochroma, a fire-chaser
Sky lupine and yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus)
The rocks behind Jack's cabin
Jack's memorial to his beloved Scrumptious
Santa Lucia monkeyflower among the granite
Pine Valley as the sun sets: this was virtually my view
the next morning, rising from my tent
Bedewed ladybug(s?)
Scarlet bugler penstemon
More scarlet bugler, in the deep fog
And that darn pink thistle again

And finally, a couple of before and after pictures of our illegal fire ring maintenance. I do love hurling rocks! (They'd be better paired, but I'm too lazy. You'll get the picture by scrolling, though.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Report: Still Life

8. Louise Penny, Still Life (2005) (5/23/18)

I almost never reread books. I read too few books as it is—once, never mind twice. Plus, I'm a slow reader, so I don't want to "waste" precious time going backward rather than forward.

My most recent book, however, was a revisit. I was in Bookshop Santa Cruz the other day scanning the mystery shelves, and there were several by Louise Penny. Hers is a name that often comes up when discussing good mysteries with fellow aficionados. I remembered Still Life vaguely, remembered enjoying it and its main protagonist, the "cerebral, wise, and compassionate" Inspector Gamache (to quote Kirkus Reviews, from the book's cover). I considered forging ahead with the second volume in the series, but when I read the first paragraphs of Still Life and didn't immediately remember the story, I thought, No, I'll start at the beginning—get to know Gamache all over again.

I'm glad I did. For one thing, there's a passage in the book that has stuck with me since my first reading, though I did not realize the words and ideas were from this book. They're about loss—an author's theory "that life is loss . . . Loss of parents, loss of loves, loss of jobs. So we have to find a higher meaning in our lives than these things and people. Otherwise we'll lose ourselves."

The woman speaking these words, Myrna, now a used-book store owner, was a psychologist before retiring to the small Quebec village of Three Pines, where the central murder and investigation take place. "I lost sympathy with many of my patients," she explains to the inspector. "After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he'd come with the same complaints. 'Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It's not my fault.' For three years I'd been making suggestions, and for three years he'd done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn't changing because he didn't want to. He had no intention of changing." Although many of her clients did work hard, genuinely wanting to get better, "I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life." She goes on:
"Life is change. If you aren't growing and evolving you're standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead 'still' lives, waiting."
 "Waiting for what?"
 "Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. The thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it."
 " 'The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.' "
 Myrna leaned forward, animated. "That's it. The fault lies with us, and only us. . . . The vast majority of troubled people don't get it. The fault is here, but so is the solution. That's the grace."
As it happens, this conversation between Myrna and the inspector informs the solution to the murder—of an elderly artist who spent her life chronicling the history of Three Rivers. As I read, I vaguely recalled "who dunnit," but nothing pointed without doubt in that direction—or "nothing" that I twigged to, though of course on reflection there were plenty of little inconsistencies that made me say, "Aha!" by the end. Mysteries are like that. Even on rereading. Fickle memory.

The story is populated by artists and misfits, and bow-hunting figures in. Relationship is at the center of the story as well: within families, between husbands and wives, between old and young, between old-timers and newcomers, within the police force and between the police and those being investigated. The lovely village of Three Pines in autumn plays a role. And we're sorry we did not have a chance to get to know the murdered woman, Miss Jane Neal, in life, though we do learn a lot about her through the eyes of others.

This was Penny's first book, and although at points I wondered if she was losing control of the narrative just a tad, she always managed to pull things back together. And now, I've got the second book on order. I look forward to watching Inspector Gamache work the next scene of the crime.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Report: Bad Stories

7. Steve Almond, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (2018) (5/18/18)

It took me a little while to read this not-very-long book, not so much because I wanted to savor every word, but because every chapter made me (a) angry and (b) really, really sad. I don't want to be in despair over what's going on in this country—and it's hard for me not to . . . but thankfully, smart, critical, unabashedly progressive and hopeful (if not necessarily optimistic) writers like journalist and social commentator Steve Almond (he's perhaps best known for co-hosting the podcast Dear Sugars with Cheryl Strayed) help keep me from slipping over the brink.

Bad Stories is an examination of our 45th president as a symptom of the recent election and our current state of seeming impasse (if not destruction). In these sixteen-plus-one chapters, Almond struggles "to see Trumpism . . . as an opportunity to reckon with the bad stories at the heart of our great democratic experiment, and to recognize that often, embedded within these bad stories, are beautiful ideals and even correctives that might help us to contain the rage that has clouded our thoughts."

Almond begins by invoking the notion expressed by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that humanity's dominance on this planet "stems from our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend our bonds beyond clan loyalties. Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good, the sort of mutual trust expressed in any trade agreement or currency." But what, Almond asks, if the stories we tell ourselves are bad—perhaps merely frivolous, or worse, fraudulent, whether by negligence or design, "intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance?"

Almond takes on various American myths/exaggerations/falsehoods in somewhat rambling discourses, supported by "statistical data, personal anecdote, cultural criticism, literary analysis, and when called for, outright intellectual theft." For example, Bad Story #1, "Watergate Was about a Corrupt President," wasn't just about that: it was even more so about our nation's shared idealism—which today seems increasingly fragile, even evanescent. To explore this idea, Almond cites Moby Dick and mad captain Ahab; conversations Almond has had with his own young children; Kurt Vonnegut and W. E. B. Du Bois; and slavery.

Other "bad stories" explore journalism and the Fairness Doctrine, feminism, sports culture, the Internet, television comedians, talk radio, immigration, Putin, and more. The central chapters refer to Neil Postman's influential 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—no less relevant, and perhaps more so, today than thirty years ago—and Melville's Moby Dick remains a thread throughout the chapters, and the idea that "the great peril of our age is not that we have turned into a nation of Ahabs, but of Ishmaels, passive observers too willing to embrace feuds that nourish our rancor and starve our common sense."

It's an interesting, wide-ranging read—though of course I'm in sympathy with Almond's progressive political views. Not all are. On FB, Steve posted links to a couple of places online where the opposing view is presented: first, in a caller's response to an otherwise solidly sympathetic interview with KQED's Michael Krasny ("Wow," Steve comments on FB. "Here's what happens when a Trump voter calls in to a radio show to complain that he feels 'condescended to.' Listen as I struggle to deal w/ Toxic White Entitlement Syndrome. [Spoiler alert: I kind of lose my shit...])" and then in a YouTube "podcast" called Left-Right Radio with conservative ("Trump Troll") host Chuck Morse (which for some reason starts in the middle, when Steve is again losing his shit—you can easily rewind to the beginning, though, if you're interested).

The one aspect of the book that I found unfortunate is the lack of source citations. In a work like this, so reliant on statistics, quotations, and facts—and not just opinions—knowing where the ingredients come from only makes the arguments more convincing. Assuming they come from credible sources. I'm sure Steve is able to provide that information, and I suspect his publisher nixed the idea. It's too bad. In a work like this, all the authority the author can muster is for the better, in my view.

The back cover of the book quotes Trump from his book How to Get Rich: "I don't mind bad stories, I can handle a bad story better than anybody, as long as it's true." Ayup. Nuff said.