Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

Cruising With Peter Tosh, Jesus, and Syd Barrett

I did it again. I succumbed to another Caribbean cruise.

Cruises fascinate and frustrate me.  I love them and hate them. The complete and utter hedonism of these things is alternately seductive and disturbing. 

On a cruise ship, you don’t have to do anything. Just dress and undress.  The cooking and cleaning are taken care of. The staff pampers you. The food is delicious. The entertainment options are diverse. Relaxing at the pool, casino, bar, lounge, and library is at your fingertips. Depending on mood, you can cruise in warm sunshine or near Alaskan glacial ice.

But for all the positives there are negatives. The entertainment (music, comedy acts, games, trivia contests, Las Vegas-styled shows) is homogenized and cheesy and caters to the lowest common denominator (LCD) of tourist.  Our daughter Holly said it best: “Cruises are like a bad song you can’t get out of your head.  You just have to accept it and try to hum along.”

Tiki-tacky tourist trap that played awful music

And the physiognomy, fashion sense, and behavior of some of those LCD tourists can be a bit jarring, to put it politely. On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy scoping eccentrics, you’ll be in people-watcher heaven.

There’s also the incessant cheerfulness of the low-paid but extremely hardworking staff, most of whom hail from poor countries. It can be guilt-inducing to privileged Americans like me who are prone to cynicism.

And witnessing dirt poverty in certain ports of call, then trying to balance it against all the hedonism I alluded to earlier, can make a thoughtful person think long and hard about life’s inequities.

Even leaving out the guilt feelings, worst of all—for me, anyway–is awareness that cruise ships today are giant pollution factories, spewing massive amounts of carbon into the sky and treating the oceans as dumping grounds for their excess sludge.

Greenhouse Effect? What Greenhouse Effect?

I’ve written about the pros and cons of cruises elsewhere on longitudes (click here for starters), so I won’t belabor the negatives.  Suffice to say I’ve now done five cruises.  And once again I’ve sworn there won’t be any more.  The most recent was a few weeks ago.  Moping around the house after our beloved dog Sheba died, my wife, for whom a cruise is the ultimate vacation, suggested a Caribbean excursion as grief therapy.  On the heels of the worst days of COVID, they’re very inexpensive right now.  So in a moment of weakness, I sighed and acquiesced.

Surprisingly, this latest cruise to Cozumel, Honduras, and the eastern Mexican coast, on the Royal Caribbean ship Allure of the Seas, was slightly less guilt-inducing than I expected. It truly helped our mental state. Other than just a few moments of mistiness, we temporarily forgot about Sheba.

Looking down on Roatan, Honduras

The biggest surprise was the music. If you get one good band on a cruise, you’re doing well. This cruise had not one but three: the poolside reggae band Ignite which, every afternoon, honored my request to play Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” dedicating it each time to “PEE-ter” (no, not that Peter, this Peter). Last I checked, Ignite was still employed by Royal Caribbean.

Also the Latin lounge act Mirage, which subbed for Ignite at the pool one day and, during “Black Magic Woman,” boldly ripped into a six-minute guitar solo. (Of course, I and one other guy were the only ones who applauded afterwards.)

Four ‘n’ More: Valerio, Simone, Luigi, and Giovanni

And best of all, an Italian jazz quartet named Four ‘n’ More that played everything from Cole Porter to Antonio Carlos Jobim and were far too talented to be stuck on an American cruise ship. Despite only a few people in attendance, we caught their act every evening after finishing our Crème Brûlée.

(Question: why do cruise ship bands have such unimaginative names?)

Another surprise was the comedy show. I forget the name, but the Allure act was a male-female tandem who specialized in adult comedy. Now, my view is that most adult-oriented humor is either hit or miss. When it’s good, it’s very good. Think George Carlin or Richard Pryor. But most contemporary comedians fall way short of Carlin and Pryor, and when adult humor is bad, it can be a real turnoff.

However, this cruise apparently wasn’t afraid to deviate from the Branson, Missouri formula and to actually challenge its audience with sex-related jokes. Were they good? I don’t know. The act came on after our bedtime.

Formal night. The privileged American relaxes and anticipates Crème Brûlée and Italian jazz.

All cruises offer “shore excursions,” like snorkeling, sunbathing opportunities, jeep or bus tours, and bicycle trips that, for an extra fee, enable one to “experience the local culture.” Translated, this means “helping a few industrious brown-skinned locals try to earn a living wage through servicing the wealthy and overweight Caucasian tourists.”

Lynn and I skipped these. Not because we didn’t want to help the locals who lined the street trying to sell something, but because, as our Venezuelan-born, ukulele-strumming friend Jesus (pronounced Hay-SOOS) said with a smile, “They want to hook me! Jesus is not the fish, I am the fisher man!” So although we didn’t get hooked, we did buy some gifts for our granddaughters from those few locals licensed to operate a stall near the dock.

Lynn and our pal Jesus conversing while returning to ship. A true eccentric, Jesus carried his blue ukulele and harmonica everywhere, even into the dining room.

Back at the pool by noon, we were usually able to find unoccupied outdoor recliners close to Ignite.

I always bring a good book on vacation. For a Caribbean cruise, you want something light and cheery. This is why I brought a biography of Syd Barrett, the tragic leader of Pink Floyd who lost his mind and ended up living alone in his mother’s Cambridge basement for three decades before dying of pancreatic cancer.

I kept hoping some ancient English acidhead would see my book, start raving about Syd, and we could then strike up a lifetime friendship. But it was not to be. There were many “ancients” on board—the number of military veteran ball caps was astounding—but only a few English accents, and I don’t think many ex-acidheads go on cruises. I know that poor Syd never did.

***

Our adventure in paradise lasted six nights. As I said above, after losing our dog it was just what the doctor ordered. It also coincided with our 35th anniversary and my formal retirement from the nine-to-five. (And unlike some of those characters trying to hook me on the streets of Puerto Wherever, I feel lucky I can retire.) So Allure of the Seas did allure us, and did serve a purpose.

However, while Lynn plans many more cruises with her friends (the “Cruise Chicks,” I call them), my cruising days are over. For good. I swear. Just knowing that those fumes belched out of those stacks, even while the ship was in port, while all were at play, turned my stomach. I think it was Jesus who said, “They know not what they do.”

No, not that Jesus. The other one.

The ingredients for a great vacation, even on a cruise ship: beer, book, body lotion, and willful forgetfulness

The First Thanksgiving (Re-Post)

(Note: I first published this back in 2012 not long after I began longitudes. Since I’m now feeling lethargic after too many piña coladas while visiting the Caribbean, and therefore don’t feel like writing, and it’s Thanksgiving once again, I’m re-posting this golden oldie with a few light dustings. I hope you enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.)

This Thursday, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday: Thanksgiving.  (Certain other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving at different times.) It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, breaded stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and assorted other culinary delights.  Some Americans indulge in televised football games.  And American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: peace-loving religious dissenters from England who landed at “Plymouth Rock” in 1620 and who ate turkey with friendly, benevolent Indians.

Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s mainly about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order).  But there are not surprisingly a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks, in 1621.

Unless it’s Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, longitudes strives for truth. So below is my feeble attempt to demolish a few long-held myths.  My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; a smattering of well-sourced Wikipedia info; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England, known as Mourt’s Relation.  His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving. (Plymouth Governor William Bradford reflected on the colony many years later in Of Plymouth Plantation}:

  • Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for twelve years before arriving in the New World on the Mayflower.
  • The Mayflower first landed on the sandy northern tip of what is now Cape Cod in November 1620.  The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
  • There is no mention of a “Plymouth Rock” in Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation.
  • The original feast took place over three days, probably during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
  • Over ninety Wampanoag Indians and about fifty English attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit, Winslow, and Bradford. (Most depictions of the feast show roughly a dozen colonists and half that many Indians.)
  • Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course.  It was more likely ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on venison shared by the natives.
  • There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal thanks.  He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.”  The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
  • The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s.  And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.”  The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
  • Modern Thanksgiving as a holiday for all American states wasn’t established until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress changed this to the fourth Thursday of the month.
  • The Plymouth colonists, although they established the first English colony in what is now known as New England, were not the first English to permanently settle in the New World.  That would be the Jamestown, Virginia settlers of 1607, who were driven here by mercantilism rather than religion.
  • The Christians of Plymouth Colony were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans. Rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.
  • Violence between English and Indian had occurred even before the feast. On August 14, 1621 military leader Myles Standish preemptively attacked the village (Nemasket) of a rival sachem of Massasoit’s. His brashness was a harbinger of King Philip’s War of 1675-1678, a conflict between English colonists and their Indian allies and Chief Massasoit’s son, Metacom. It remains the bloodiest per-capita conflict on American soil.

And speaking of violence, it’s important to note that the colonists did not watch American football on television during that first Thanksgiving.  If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.

Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

COVID-19 in Cartoon America

Watching “CBS Sunday Morning” this morning drove home a startling statistic: the United States ranks number 48 in the world for percentage of citizens who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I knew things were bad here.  A story on that same program revealed that the social media platform Facebook is, once again, under fire.  This time it’s for permitting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19—such as that the vaccine contains a microchip allowing the government to monitor us—that is leading directly to people’s deaths.

Researchers analyzing Facebook misinformation, not surprisingly, had their Facebook accounts shut down.  And Facebook, not surprisingly, declined a “Sunday Morning” request for an interview.

I’m far from being an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, and I have a lot of issues with Facebook, despite being a moderate user.  But one thing Zuckerberg said hit me in the gut.  He implied maybe the problem isn’t so much Facebook, but America, since other countries are less inclined to get suckered by false information on social media platforms.  Ignoring his garbled English, he said “I think that there’s that’s something unique in our ecosystem here.”

My position is that, like other deadly pursuits such as tobacco use, hard drug experimentation, and irresponsible sex, if adults exercise their freedom of choice by choosing ideologically-driven rumors, conspiracy theories, and cartoon science, we shouldn’t bemoan any consequences befalling them.  The problem is, their “viral” stupidity have consequences for the rest of us.  And maybe there is something unique here in America that contributes to our embrace of lies and the lying liars that tell them.

What might this unique condition be?

I’ve always believed that education, not military or economic might, is the key to a population’s well-being.  However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, while the U.S. scores high in upper secondary education (i.e. high school) graduation rates, it is below average in student reading, math, and science skills.  Per the OECD’s latest (2015) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 40 OECD-member nations. Just behind Latvia.

In other words, we’re spitting out high school graduates like assembly line widgets, but many of these widgets are flawed and mucking up the entire machine.

Certainly there are other factors in our embrace of polluted information: an inordinate (or perhaps warranted) distrust of government compared to other countries; a gaping ideological divide that drives the most fanatical ideologues toward irresponsible leaders and media outlets; deep-rooted cultural fears and prejudices.

But doesn’t education overcome much of the above?  Maybe not.

Just yesterday I learned that the father of one of our daughter’s friends tested positive for the coronavirus and is now resting not so comfortably in a hospital bed.  Of course, he’s unvaccinated.  Evidently he has, or perhaps had, a strong ideological opposition to vaccines (and evidently doesn’t care about spreading the virus to others).  His daughter, at one time livid with him for being so stubborn and selfish, is now wringing her hands with worry.  I don’t know his educational background, but his daughter attended one of the best and most expensive private schools in the city, so I’m assuming this guy has a college degree, or at minimum a high-school diploma.

And I have an old schoolmate who graduated with honors from high school, attended an Ivy League university, and who works in health care, yet who consistently lampoons the president’s Chief Medical Advisor and his attempts to educate Americans with scientific data on the coronavirus.

So maybe education isn’t a match for dogmatic ideology.  Or maybe American schools these days are less about knowledge and more about job training and income earning potential.  I don’t know. Does anyone?

Speaking of cartoons, where’s Mighty Mouse when you need him?

A Climb on the Hollywood Sign

Our son could have chosen to live anywhere.  He’s personable and well-educated.  Of all the places he chose to live, he chose southern California.

Now, I’m not one of those narrow Midwesterners who associates Los Angeles—the “City of Angels”—with all things evil.  I know all about the goofy liberalism, Botox, taxes, crime, homelessness, air pollution, traffic congestion, and everything else that makes this neck of the country so disreputable.

But I choose to concentrate on the positive. This includes year-round sunshine.  Ocean surf and beaches.  Great restaurants.  Beautiful and historic homes. A hundred years of high-quality motion pictures (aka films, aka movies).  Classic rock ‘n’ roll. And what red-blooded American male doesn’t like California Girls!

So here are a few pics from our recent vacation to visit our son in one of the most golden places in the Golden State. Come along if you dare!

***

First is the header picture, a photo of the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, site of the famous 1955 “youth” picture starring, among others, James Dean and Natalie Wood: Rebel Without a Cause. I did an 8 or 9-mile hike through Griffith Park. The views were stunning: Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the San Fernando Valley on the other.

At the other end of the park is the famous Hollywood Sign. I climbed up Mt. Lee to reach this point. It’s one of the world’s great symbols, 45-foot-tall white capital letters that overlook the buzzing hub of the world film industry. Originally spelled “Hollywoodland” to advertise a realty firm, the most significant letter for me is the Peg Entwistle memorial “H.” (To learn what happened, click here.)

We also visited Venice Beach and nearby Santa Monica Pier. Venice Beach is noteworthy not only for it’s expansive beach and vagabond, free-spirited spirit, it’s also where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek accidentally met one day in 1965 and conceived one of my favorite bands, The Doors. “Moonlight Drive” was in my head.

My son Nick and I visited the enclave of Hawthorne, home of the Wilson brothers (Brian, Dennis, and Carl), who formed the Beach Boys in 1961. Their house was demolished to make room for a freeway, but a plaque commemorates where it all started.

Would a trip to Los Angeles be complete without a jaunt to Sunset Boulevard and the haunts of some of the greatest rock music bands in history? I think not. We visited Ciro’s, where The Byrds invented folk-rock and dominated the pop music world for a while, although the venue is now a comedy club. I also visited the former site of Bido Lito’s, on Cosmo Alley, where another fave band, Love, ruled the local underground scene for a short while in 1965-66.

Then there’s the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where The Doors gained notoriety before their revolutionary first album, released 1967. (The Doors being heavily influenced by Love.)

Hollywood Walk of Fame? Sure! And I finally got to meet my favorite actor, the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, and my favorite actress, the very naughty B-movie star, Gloria Grahame.

But the best part of all is visiting with family. Lynn and I capped off our SoCal sojourn with stunning seafood, thanks to our son and tour guide Nick and his girlfriend Elsa, at Moonshadows in Malibu, where the ocean waves literally lapped the restaurant.

Other visits included Laurel Canyon, famed hippie and music enclave of the ’60s and early ’70s; Robin Drive and Poinsettia Place, which featured in the classic Peter Sellers movie The Party (click here for a review); views of both Warner Brothers and Disney studios and the cylindrical Capital Records building; Doug Weston’s famed Troubadour club; and a lunchtime visit to legendary burger joint In-N-Out Burger.

***

Thanks so much for joining me in my travelogue of Los Angeles, California! As Jim Morrison once sang, “This is the end, beautiful friend.”

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler…

Prince Hamlet’s thinking leaned more existential than a choice between appropriate verbiage for a non-secular holiday salutation in the 21st century. Still, it’s a question we modern-day philistines are faced with. And there’s an element of nobility and gallantry behind deciding how to answer the question posed in my essay header.

I’ll get to the quick: while I’m not anal about it, I prefer “Happy Holidays.” You conservatives might say it’s because I’m a leftist liberal.  There’s a grain of truth to that (although I’m not as leftist as some of you might think).  I would say a more appropriate reason is that I often employ the same brain machinations in non-political as political ways. Hey, I am what I am.

When I was a kid I threw around “Merry Christmas” all the time (or in print, the lazier “Merry Xmas”).  I didn’t know anything about religion.  Hell, I barely knew how babies were made.

I’m older and somewhat wiser now.  I now realize that Christmas is a commercial religious celebration (or at least it started out religious), but that a lot of my fellow Earthlings actually are not Christians.  Eureka!  We’ve got Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, paganists, agnostics, and atheists galore here in Uncle Sam land.  (Maybe not in North Dakota…but you know what I mean.)  Lots of smaller cults, too.

I’ll still say “Merry Christmas” in return if I’m greeted that way, because I know the person greeting me is okay with it.  But if I’m doing the initial greeting, and I’m ignorant of the religious or non-religious affiliation of the person, I always say “Happy Holidays.”  Like Mutual of Omaha, it’s an all-encompassing insurance policy.  It covers New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and I think it usually satisfies atheists and garden-variety, Christian-tinged agnostics like me.

(I shouldn’t forget Kwanzaa, a black cultural celebration occurring just after Christmas.  Kwanzaa’s popularity has evidently declined since its peak in the 1990s, to the undoubted dismay of Hallmark.)

***

So to those fist-pounding militants who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” like the guy around the corner with all the crazy yard signs, I say “knock yourselves out.”  Just don’t foist it on me.  Nothing against Christ—who, by the way, preached humility and tolerance—but I’ll celebrate Christmas in my own way, thank you.

It’s all about politeness.  Or gallantry and nobility. You know, “’Tis nobler.”  Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen with people who are adamant about their “individual rights” and defying “government intrusion” by refusing to wear facemasks in public—masks intended to protect themselves and others—politeness is in absentia in certain dark corners of the country right now.

But in the Christmas spirit, I’ll offer a “Happy Holidays” to even these people.  And throw in a “Be Safe” for good measure.

Grappling with Woodstock in 2019

hendrix

Nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fucking awful—Joan Baez, on America during the age of Trump

The Woodstock 50 extravaganza crashed like an overburdened shuttle copter somewhere between Maryland and organizer Michael Lang’s attorney’s offices. But Woodstock Nation crashed many years ago.

First, the planned anniversary concert. It was a dumb idea from the get-go. Not only since you can’t replicate—or pretend you’re not replicating while trying to replicate—the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair festival, either musically or sociologically. But doing so in an age when the host country of America is a global village idiot is beyond laughable.

Maybe it’s come down to getting stoned on corporate-sponsor beer and flashing the peace sign while posing for social media selfies. The peace sign used to mean something, but I guess we needed a war to remind us.

And Woodstock Nation? I’ve seen the documentary of the original Woodstock multiple times. It is a strange experience for one who shares the ideals of many of the organizers and festivalgoers, in theory if not always in practice.

The music, of course, is always a rush.  Richie Havens singing of “Handsome Johnny” marching to the Concord war, with skeletal scaffolding and descending chopper framing his intensity. Or Joe Cocker screaming his lungs out in front of his half-million friends.  And a former army paratrooper, delivering the most searing and honest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner”…honest because there were no words or sentimentalities to muck it up, and the song is open to interpretation, although I think I know what he was saying.

But outside of that…well, one minute I have tears welling up at the innocent promise of that incredible weekend. And in the next, my head is in my hands, sad and disgusted at how that promise was frittered away, with hard drugs, disco, and Reaganomics, with yuppies snoring and snorting and stashing their wealth while the vulgarians stampeded through the gate.

No, I didn’t expect a subculture could change the world overnight, or do it without making mistakes along the way. But like Baez said, no one could have foreseen the backlash that caused this.

In 1969, I was too young to pilgrimage to Bethel without being listed a missing child or runaway.  But like many, I’ve visited numerous times in my mind: pitching a tent in green trees behind Filippini Pond; hammering nails through the night to prepare the stage; rolling joints backstage with Jerry Garcia; serving granola and smiles with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm; searching for Holly and Wheat Germ’s medicine bag…all the while unearthing directional arrows for the adult path ahead of me.

Now that I’m a grandfather and see nothing but a landscape of mud and garbage awaiting my grandkids, I ask myself: have we lost all our directional arrows?  Are we insane, stupid, greedy, or all the above? To find “the garden,” will I have to wait till I mix my ashes with those of Richie Havens?  And if so, will the vulgarians put up a gun shop or Chick-fil-A along Hurd Road in view of Richie and me?

All we can do is continue to hope for fewer slogans chanted and more trees planted. Hope for fewer concealed-carry classes and more Kundalini yoga classes.  Fewer Animal Farms and more Hog Farms.  Fewer police forces and more Please Forces.

Then, maybe after another 50 years, we’ll have finally gotten ourselves back to the garden.

By then, I’ll be long time gone.

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An Ohio Yankee in Sir Walter Scott’s Court

scott monument

Last year, our daughter moved from Nashville, Tennessee to a sleepy village in Scotland called Milngavie. It’s located seven miles northwest of Glasgow. (The move was precipitated by our son-in-law’s job transfer). While my wife and I have always encouraged our kids to travel, Nashville to Milngavie seems quite a cultural shift. But Holly is comfortable over there. She’s more Vauxhall Corsa than Dodge 4×4, anyway.

Last month, I finally got to visit them and our two granddaughters. The only thing I missed, aside from The Lawrence Welk Show, was American sunshine.

One of my familial lines leads to Scotland, so it was a sort of coming home. My middle name is Scott, a family clan name traced to ancestor William Scott, who ran a deer park and salmon fishery in Scotland in the 1700s. Bill fled Scotland for County Derry, Ireland (something about papists). His grandson, James, then ratcheted up the rebel thing and sailed to the state of William Penn. Jimmy Scott then joined the Pennsylvania Line to battle British Redcoats during the American Revolution.

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1822 painting of writer-historian Sir Walter Scott

Coincidentally, my plane landed on July 4, which is America’s Independence Day (also my birthday). In England, some call this “Treason Day.”  Really, everything is a circle.

But I discovered both the English and Scottish were exceptionally friendly, bending over backwards to help a stupid Yank with train and bus info, directions, money confusions, etc. They all noticed my hayseed accent and were curious where I was from. To avoid apologies and embarrassments due to recent events, I just said “North America.” Fortunately, they didn’t push for details.

The highlight of my trip was spending time with my granddaughters, Avi (22 months) and Rory (4 months). But I did manage to sightsee some. Here’s a wee bit of my travels in the land of clans and kilts.  And I promise, there will be no photos of kilts or bagpipes here.

MILNGAVIE (pronounced “Mull-guy” per the original Gaelic): the Scottish love their dogs, and I saw more dogs here than anywhere I’ve ever been, and they’re all very well trained. Hikers also flock to Milngavie, because the 96-mile West Highland Way, one of the UK’s most popular distance trails, begins here. I met hikers from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, California, Seattle, and elsewhere. Early one morning I met a local man named Chris, who was doing a one-man protest to save an old English phone booth (“phone box”) from being removed. He explained that, in Scotland (or maybe just Milngavie), authorities won’t remove or destroy anything if at least one person shows up each day to protest. (Does that include living things like trees?) Anyway, I think that’s a great law.

Chris in Milngavie

Chris, rescuing red phone boxes in downtown Milngavie

The center of Milngavie, like many towns across Europe, is a brick walkway for pedestrians. Lots of quaint shops and cafés, including Fantoosh Nook, where Holly and I ate lunch one day. My friend Neil…Yeah, Another Blogger…visited Edinburgh recently and mentioned Cullen skink, which I sampled while at the Nook. It’s a smoked haddock and potato soup that has a bacon flavor. I loved it…a far cry from Campbell’s New England clam chowder. Thanks for the tip, Neil, you blogger you.

Along the West Highland Way, just north of Milngavie, I visited Mugdock Park. The park is named after Mugdock Castle, which dates back to at least 1376, and was in use until the mid-1600s. It was the stronghold of a clan named Graham. Parts of the remains of the castle were rebuilt over the centuries, but the main tower is original. When I visited Jamestown, Virginia a few years ago, my mind was boggled to think that, just under my feet, there rested relics and bones dating to 1607. But 1376?? That’s beyond boggling.

mugdock castle

Mugdock Castle in Milngavie

GLASGOW: along with Edinburgh, Glasgow is one of Scotland’s two major cities. Both have their merits. Edinburgh is definitely more scenic, with its storybook architecture. But it’s also rampant with tourists. (Tourists spend quid, which help local populations, but we also taint exactly what we’re drawn to.) Glasgow, on the other hand, is more of a working city, and the Scaw-ish brogue is more evident here. It’s said that Edinburgh is where you want to visit, but Glasgow is where you should live. Not sure this is 100 percent accurate, but it might come close.

I spent a half day with Holly and Avi in Glasgow. We visited Kelvingrove Park and University of Glasgow. Both were impressive, but I have to be honest and say that the main delight was pushing Avi on the swing, and holding her hand while strolling across the university grounds. That grandparent thing is for real. Next time, maybe Avi won’t be along to absorb my attention, and I can soak up more of this vibrant city.

Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

Avi and Holly at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

EDINBURGH: one day I took the train from Milngavie to Glasgow to Edinburgh and enjoyed a rare hot and sunny day in this historic city. I exited Waverley Station in Old Town, and the first thing I saw was a massive blackened spire piercing the blue sky, towering hundreds of feet above Princes Street. With Ohio Yankee naivety, I initially thought the spire might be part of a castle. Then I got closer and discovered it was a monument to my “cousin,” Sir Walter Scott. It’s the second tallest monument to a writer in the world.

Speaking of Mark Twain, the bard of the Mississippi River used to, if I recall, ridicule Scott’s penchant for high romanticism. And maybe that’s why I never read him (Scott, that is). Does he really deserve such an impressive monument, even if we are related? Alfred-e-newmanMaybe one day I should put down Mad Magazine and read Ivanhoe.

Then, across a valley, I spied Edinburgh Castle, the centerpiece of the city. It sits on a rocky promontory overlooking much of old Edinburgh. It’s exact date of construction is unknown, but it may go back to the 12th century, and human habitation on Castle Rock dates to the 2nd century AD. It was the site of numerous military sieges from the Middle Ages until the 1745 Jacobite rising. Kings and queens, royal intrigue, crown jewels…you name it. I refer you to Wikipedia for a full history.

I walked all around the perimeter of the castle, and up to the front entrance, but the heat and locusts (tourists) made things too claustrophobic, so I declined joining a tour.

Edinburgh Castle_Weller concert

Paul Weller and others: appearing soon at a castle moat near you!

Instead, I was drawn toward a threatening looking man standing in a café doorway, just down from a makeshift stadium in the castle esplanade. He had a shaved head, was clothed entirely in black, and had muscles on top of tattoos on top of muscles. I walked up to him and joked that he must be the Castle bouncer. But he said (in thick Cockney) that he was security for a concert later that evening. I asked who was playing.

“Paul Wella.”
Paul Weller? Yeah, I love him! The Jam and Style Council!”
“Ass roit, mate. Stoyle Cancel.”

I couldn’t believe an ex-punk rocker was performing in a collapsible stadium sandwiched between a former church (now ticket office) and the Edinburgh Castle gates. But I guess that’s life in the 21st century. I later asked about tickets. There were only six left, priced at 60 pounds apiece. It was time to move on.

I left the locust swarm in Old Town and strolled downhill, away from Castle Rock, across several blocks to 136 Lothian Road. The premises are now occupied by a pastry shop, but in the early Sixties it was The Howff, one of the top folk clubs in Great Britain. Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee, and Archie Fisher played here, and Bert Jansch had a regular residency.

The Howff_Edinburgh2

The Howff (with inset of Bert Jansch)

Jansch is an acoustic guitar legend, a Scotsman, and one of my musical heroes—he directly influenced Neil Young, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Nick Drake, Al Stewart, Donovan, and many others—so it was cool to see the place where he first earned a reputation. My side trip here might strike some as strange, but little musical connections like this always get my juices flowing. (Wait till I discuss my trip to Liverpool.) Besides, I got to see a quieter side of Edinburgh that most tourists never see.

My search for an oasis in the locust swarm took me to St. Cuthbert’s Church, at the foot of Castle Rock. This quiet cathedral may date to 850 A.D., which makes it the oldest building in Edinburgh. The burial ground here is filled with noteworthy Scotsmen and women, and, since real estate is at a premium here, some are buried under more “important” people’s tombs (monuments).  Hey, just like life!

I climbed back onto Princes Street, then crossed George Street to a tunnel-like lane called Young Street. Here, far from the madding crowd, a cool breeze pulled me along, past discreet shops and businesses that one would overlook if not for a modest plaque mounted next to a narrow doorway. I expected any second to see a Scottish version of Scrooge, Marley, or Cratchit emerging.

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The modest “Oxford” Bar, on modest Young Street

I was half-tempted to wet my whistle in the scrunched The “Oxford” Bar (the quote marks are part of the name). It’s a pub established in 1811, made famous in Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series of novels…which I also haven’t read. It’s also a hangout for Edinburgh policemen—and secret agents, since Sean Connery supposedly quaffs here (although I wonder how many Scottish pubs make this same claim). But I had a mild headache from the whiskey and Brewdog Punk IPA that I’d earlier tipped on High Street in Old Town, so I kept “strolling down the highway.”

In my next installment, I’ll conclude the rest of my Edinburgh visit, discussing High Street, aka The Royal Mile, and the World’s End…which is Close.

Edinburgh Castle 2

Monolithic Edinburgh Castle, from foot of volcanic Castle Rock

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

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Cast of Characters:

Actress Lillian Gish
Producer/Director D.W. Griffith
Bowling Green State University administrator (“Mr. Gobsmack”)
Black Lives Matter (BLM) representative
Black Student Union (BSU) representative
Two anonymous soldiers

ACT 1
February 8, 1915: The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Lillian Gish: “I don’t know, Mr. Griffith, this moving picture could cause trouble.”

D.W. Griffith: “Oh, come now, Miss Lillian. Just because it depicts the Ku Klux Klan as saviors? This is 1915 and no one cares. Who in Robert E. Lee’s name is this ‘Jim Crow’ fellow anyway? Besides, it’s not my fault…it’s the guy who wrote the book.”

Lillian Gish: “Well, despite the unusual interpretation of history, it is an awe-inspiring achievement. Critics are already calling it a motion picture landmark. It’s a shame sound hasn’t been invented yet, so people would be able to hear my voice.”

D.W. Griffith: “And Lil, you’ve done so well in Birth, I would like you to appear in my next epic project.”

Lillian Gish: “Mr. Griffith! Thank you! My friends back in Ohio will be so thrilled! What is the title?”

D.W. Griffith: “I’m calling it Intolerance.”

griffith

ACT 2
June 11, 1976: The GISH FILM THEATRE is dedicated at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

Bowling Green administrator: “…And in this glorious two-hundredth year since our nation’s birth, we humbly dedicate this new theatre to two of Ohio’s own, legendary actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, for their combined 136 years on stage and screen!”

(loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Thank you, Mr. Gobsmack. I accept this elegant honor in honor of my late sister and myself. Dorothy was a better actress than I, and I only wish she, and mother, could be here to bask in this lovely moment.”

Bowling Green administrator: “And tomorrow we will be presenting you with the honorary degree of Doctor of Performing Arts!”

(more loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Dear me, you are all so very kind. I have never been a doctor before. By the way, can everyone out there hear my voice?”

ACT 3
February 2019: Black Lives Matter approaches Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University

BLM representative: “Put your smartphone down, brother. We gotta remove another intimidating and hostile name. We’ve been spendin’ time researchin’. Do you know who Lillian Gish is?”

BSU representative: “Uh…doesn’t she have a cooking show?”

BLM representative: “No! She was a white actress from Ohio! Did a bunch of silent films! She was in that film Birth of a Nation!”

BSU representative: “Huh? You mean that racist Civil War movie with Cary Grant?”

BLM representative: “No! You’re thinking Gone With the Wind, and the actor was Clark Gable! (But don’t worry, that movie is next on our agenda.) No, I’m talkin’ ’bout a 1915 film dealing with Reconstruction where the KKK is a hero!”kkk

BSU representative: “Damn! And she acted in that shit?! Yeah, we need to wipe out another name, like Wisconsin did last year with Fredric March. I’m now intimidated by that hostility!”

BLM representative: “Good, glad you agree. Get with those university trustees and tell them to wipe that intimidating and hostile Gish name offa that theatre.”

BSU representative: “Got it covered. And I guarantee it’ll be a 7-0 vote in favor of wiping.  No American college official these days wants to risk being labelled racist. We can’t tolerate our university having a performing arts theatre named after a legendary actress from Ohio who had the intolerance to appear in a racist film 104 years ago. We will wipe!”

BLM representative: “Cool. Her sister Dorothy wasn’t in any racist films that our people can determine—yet—but she doesn’t have a voice in this. This is 2019 and no one cares that her name will also be…uh…whitewashed. Anyway, she was friends with that Griffith guy!”

ACT 4 (Epilogue)
July 3, 2063: Somewhere on a field strikingly similar to Cemetery Ridge near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

First soldier: “I think this battle could be the turning point in the war.”

Second soldier: “You could be right. Finally, the end of political correctness.”

First soldier: “Yep. You don’t need to correct anything when there’s nothing left to correct.”

(fade out)

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