Bigfoot and the Age of Unreason

You see it everywhere.  Often on a yard sign or bumper sticker.  Sometimes accompanied by the words “I Believe.”  Yesterday I saw it again while driving.

I’m not talking about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, flying saucers, pothead pixies, or various religious deities.  Rather, a different supernatural entity that takes the form of a furry biped.  A creature not unlike the Himalayan Yeti, or “Abominable Snowman.”  I’m talkin’ ‘bout Bigfoot.  Sometimes known as Sasquatch.  Scientific name: Hoaxus maximus.

At one time I was mildly amused at how certain adults clung to a grainy 59-second video—filmed in California in 1967, significantly when LSD was still legal—to substantiate their claims that Bigfoot is real.  “Let’s all play make-believe.  It’s easier and more fun than the truth.”

These days, I no longer see the cuteness or humor.

Since the 2016 nomination and election of an even more terrifying biped (scientific name: Dumbshiticus politicus), whose singular pre-election political credential was that he led a movement attempting to disprove the citizenship of a sitting president—even after that president was, beyond reason, compelled to produce his birth certificate—there’s been one idiotic claim after another.  And enough idiots to believe in those (always unsubstantiated) claims to cause serious alarm to the rest of us forced to reside in the Kingdom of Lilliput (America).

I truly believe (maybe I should use a different word) that these Bigfoot cultists actually think a creature like this exists.  Just go to the Wikipedia article.  Wikipedia is a wonderful tool.  But the entry for Bigfoot has 90 paragraphs devoted to him.  There are 249 footnotes

Remember, unlike World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia.  It is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln once wrote in a very different time.  Citizens of our republic contribute to it.  And there’s obviously been a helluva lot of contribution to Bigfoot. 

(The Wikipedia article for the Gettysburg Address has half the footnotes of Bigfoot.)

***

Some of you probably know that there once was an historical epoch known as the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason.  According to the aforesaid free encyclopedia, it was “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries with global influences and effects.”

During this Age, knowledge was pursued “by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”

Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were just a few of the leading lights casting light.  Another was scientist Sir Isaac Newton.  Newton must have had foreknowledge of what was comin’ down, because his Third Law of Motion states that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Satirist Jonathan Swift, the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. of his day (oil painting by Charles Jervas)

Longitudes predicts the 21st century will be the opposite reaction to the Age of Reason.  Think about it.  We kicked off this century, this new millennium, with a “truther” movement claiming that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.

Ten years later Lilliput entertained itself with a “birther” movement claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore shouldn’t be president.

Since then we’ve entertained ourselves with one fiction and conspiracy theory after another.  Manmade climate change is a hoax.  COVID-19 is a hoax.  Joe Biden’s election victory is a hoax.  The January 6 U.S. Capitol attack was “legitimate political discourse” (Republican National Committee, February 2022).  The Sandy Hook massacre was orchestrated by the government to enact stricter gun legislation.  (I’m not religious, but God help anyone who believes this last claim.)

But Bigfoot is real.

Why do so many people exercise freedom of choice by believing in unscientific, unsubstantiated, and preposterous claims?

The late James Randi, a professional debunker of psychics and faith healers, famously exposed the fraud of supposed mentalist Uri Geller on a 1973 program of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Geller was humiliated when his “mind” was suddenly, for the first time, unable to bend spoons.  The result?  Instead of the public showering Randi with praise and gratitude, he was the recipient of an avalanche of hate mail. (Few of us like being shown we were fools.)

James Randi with Johnny Carson

Psychologists undoubtedly have detailed analyses for the phenomenon of masses of people who choose the lie over the fact.  I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll just say: there are many idiots living among us.

People, there is no such creature as Bigfoot.  There’s also no Santa Claus or Luke Skywalker, and the town of Mayberry is fictional (ask journalist Ted Koppel, who tried to visit one time).  And—though this may shock and offend—there was no giant boat that held two of every species on earth.

***

Maybe I’ve got it wrong, though.  Those of us who still believe in reason and enlightenment—in progress, knowledge through education, book-learning, the scientific method, the five senses, solid and verifiable facts and the search for truth (of course, truth is ever-evasive; the idea is to pursue it)—still need a place to escape to in the face of monstrous tragedy (or monstrous idiocy).  And self-annihilation is not an option.

The Rolling Stones sang “We all need someone we can dream on.”

But like I tell my five-year-old granddaughter, Avi, while it’s fun to pretend, there really are no such things as ghosts, haunted houses, and people on horseback without heads.  And she gets it.  (Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are on hold.)  Sadly, there are way too many adults these days…adults, but who have the minds of children…who can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality.

And as long as society believes in things like Hoaxus maximus, there will always be a Dumbshiticus politicus lurking in the shadows.

Dumbshiticus politicus, exhorting his mob toward “legitimate political discourse”

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey: Final Thoughts

This last Appalachian Trail post coincides with me finishing the transfer of my trail journal from a dog-eared, narrow-rule, chub notebook to an electronic file.  But unlike when I fashioned a book from my 2013 to 2018 section hikes, I won’t be formally publishing this time around.  Instead, I’m offering my journal to anyone who would like a free copy.  The journal covers all 165 days and nights I was on the A.T.

There’s quite a bit here.  In addition to my usual misanthropic observations, I talk about where I hiked, where I slept, people I met, wildlife encounters, fear, anger, loneliness, joy…even songs that I whistled.  And there are lots of photos!

If you would like a free PDF, just give me your email, either in the comments section here or in an email sent to: pkurtz58@gmail.com.

Anyway, here are my final thoughts to wrap up this series:

The Appalachian Trail has become a human highway.  This is undoubtedly due to the prevalence of recent hiking books and movies, iPhone technology, and to significant improvements in backpacking gear.  These days it’s not only “cool” to do a thru-hike, it’s easier than ever (or as easy as a long-distance hike can possibly be).  The days of a solo backpacker spending multiple days and nights alone with his or her thoughts, and calling home from a phone booth located god knows where are long gone.

I’d go into detail on why thru-hiking has exploded and why it is now so easy, but I already touched on this here and there.  My journal also covers this ground.

Audie Murphy plane crash site, Brushy Mtn., Virginia

The Appalachian Trail is becoming increasingly commercialized.  This first became apparent to me when I visited my local outfitter to purchase a few items.  When Emily and Luke learned I planned to do a thru-hike, they gave me a substantial discount (the tribe thing).  Then at the start of my hike I learned about “slackpacking,” where hostels are able to double their profits by offering shuttle services with day packs to hikers who temporarily trade in their full backpacks to make their hike easier.

At the end of my hike I learned about “food drops” in the once-austere Hundred-Mile Wilderness, and the popularity of one-stop shops like Shaws Hostel, which (some argue) are placing profit over quality, integrity, and ethics.

In between I experienced well-publicized speed contests on the trail, A.T.-related blogs and YouTube channels chock full of advertisements, and even a news channel specifically for A.T. hikers.

The Appalachian Trail reminds me of today’s sterilized Nashville country music scene.  As Waylon Jennings sang long ago, “I don’t think Hank (Williams Sr.) done it this way.”

People on the Appalachian Trail are the same as people off the Appalachian Trail.  I met hundreds of backpackers during my five-and-a-half months out there.  The vast majority were friendly and helpful.  They encompassed the mass of humanity: young, old, male, female, wealthy, middle-class, poor, homeless, highly educated, lesser-educated, urban, rural, liberal, conservative, white-collar, blue-collar, heterosexual, homosexual, religious, non-religious, American, non-American, extroverted, introverted, fat, and skinny. 

The one exception to this was a noticeable absence of “people of color.”  It’s evident to me that there is a socio-cultural element that is determining who backpacks and who doesn’t.

Abandoned barn near Hampton, Tennessee

The Appalachian Trail has a tendency to get under a person’s skin.  I’m not sure why this is.  One of my favorite hikers last year was a 74-year-old man from Honolulu, Hawaii named “Bruiser.”  He was on his third thru-hike of the trail. 

I asked Bruiser why one thru-hike wasn’t enough, and he said he liked doing them to stay in shape.  I then asked why he didn’t just work out in a gym back in beautiful Hawaii, and he said the fast food and snack machines there would be too tempting to overcome.  I then asked why he didn’t do other trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail, and he said his skin was sensitive and there wasn’t enough shade out west.

I don’t know if Bruiser was being entirely truthful with me.  My impression was that, like me, he couldn’t really verbalize why the Appalachian Trail had gotten under his skin.

There won’t be another thru-hike for me, but there are one or two special places on the A.T. that I’d like to return to, if only for just a night or two.  If you read my journal, you’ll know where they are.

***

Thanks for following me on my trek, and again, if you’d like a free copy of Call Me Omoo, please comment or email me (pkurtz58@gmail.com).

Soon, I’ll be exchanging my tent for six months of beachcombing in Venice, Florida.  My hedonism agenda includes tennis-playing, sea kayaking, snorkeling, kitesurfing lessons, and collecting sharks’ teeth.  I want to eat a lot of fresh fish and catch up on my reading.  While I’ll miss being detached from the bullshit of 21st-century society – at least, superficially – a change of venue is in order. And I have absolutely no regrets being retired.

Perfect timing: I just received an unsolicited text from a recruiter about applying for a position. My response? “Thanks, but I quit the rat race and would prefer not to.”  Like certain sad copy clerks whose lives contain walls, I still have the power of self-determination.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake, Maine

English Language Minor Crimes

The English language may be on life support. I’m sure this isn’t news. Whether it’s tied to an overall decline in formal education, I don’t know. I’ve already written about America’s abysmal standardized test scores and low international rankings, so I won’t cover the same ground.

I’m rankled by mangled English more than most probably because in college I majored in journalism and minored in English, therefore these minor crimes really stick in my craw. While hiking and sheltering with other hikers this past year, my craw was filled to the brim. (What’s a “craw”? A jaw?) As a way to let off steam, I’m listing some of the most egregious linguistic violations I’ve encountered.

This pedagogue ain’t perfect and has his own stumbling blocks. (The word “ain’t” here was deliberate.) One of my biggest blasphemes is intermixing subject and object pronouns.  Example: one doesn’t say “The teacher accused she and I of bad English.”  “She” and “I” are subject pronouns but are mistakenly being used here as object pronouns.  The correct sentence is “The teacher accused her and me of bad English.”

However, you should say “She and I use bad English,” because in this sentence the she and I are used as subject pronouns.

A good trick is to chop off part of the sentence.  Would you say “The teacher accused she” or “The teacher accused I”?  I would prefer not to.

Here then are longitudes’ top English language pet peeves:

  • Happy Belated Birthday.  I see this all the time on Facebook.  Everyone seems guilty except I me. Not many take time to ponder this convoluted phrase, because thinking has taken a back seat to blindly following lemmings, and not just in political circles. Here, the adjective “belated” is modifying the noun “birthday.”  Taken literally, this implies that the person’s day of birth has changed; a phenomenon that generally only happens with Hollywood celebrities. Listen up, Facebook: the sentiment is belated, not the person’s day of birth.  It should be Belated Happy Birthday. (You’re welcome.)
  • The word “literally.”  Literally is an adverb and should be used when something occurs that has both a figurative and literal meaning.  Example: “I literally bumped into John yesterday.”  This means that you not only saw John, but that you physically walked or ran into him. 

However, numerous millennials (and some older fucks) say “literally” when the literal doesn’t apply (“I literally died when I saw her”) or when there is only one meaning (“I literally fell asleep during lunch”).  Since correctly choosing the word “literally” involves thinking, it’s probably best to avoid this word completely. But if you feel compelled to provoke astonishment in your listener—try substituting “actually” or “believe-it-or-not.”  I realize they don’t sound as impressive, but saying “literally” ad nauseam impresses no one and makes you sound like a dumbass.

  • The word “like.”  This word, when spoken in the middle of a sentence multiple times and out of context, indicates substandard vocabulary or verbal laziness.  Most people use it to stall, as a substitute for “uh” or “um.”  Others are fast talkers and invoke “like” as one would shove coal into a furnace. Either way, it’s like, a bad habit.

When I was a disc jockey in a previous lifetime, long pauses while in front of the microphone were referred to as “bad air,” and the program manager frowned on them.  However, outside of the radio booth long pauses are an indicator of a thoughtful person who takes his or her time to choose the right words.  Former President Obama, although not perfect, was very good at this.  I encourage it.

  • The word “so” used at the beginning of a sentence.  I’ve written about this before. Some think this trend began in Silicon Valley, or with Facebook nerd Mark Zuckerburger.  “So” is used either as a coordinating conjunctive to refer backwards or forwards to something, or as an adverb.  But “so” is now regularly used at the beginning of a sentence when responding to a question.  Example: “What is Facebook’s privacy policy, Mr. Zuckerman?”  Response: “So our latest and greatest privacy policy is (blah blah blah).”

Are you really keen to emulate Mark Zuckinstein’s poor command of English? I would prefer not to.

  • Waiters and waitresses who use the pronoun “we.”  Example: “Would we like some dessert this evening?”  How the fuck did this shit get started!  “Who invited you to eat with us, Ashley?  Yes, pull up a seat, we’ll all have some dessert together.”

I don’t know why it is so difficult to use the word “you,” or the Southern colloquialism “y’all” or Yankee colloquialism “you guys.”  “We” is not only the wrong pronoun, it also sounds condescending as hell, as if the patron is a child. Do waiters and waitresses think the pronoun “you” is impolite?  DON’T FOLLOW LEMMINGS!

Other minor English crimes include pronunciation violations (here in the Ohio Valley they say “warsh” instead of “wash”) and America’s peculiar penchant for raping geographic names derived from Europe.  (“Versailles” should not be pronounced “Ver-SAILS,” you good people of southeastern Indiana.) 

I think the most comical mispronunciation example I’ve heard is in and around the small, Amish-Mennonite community of Berlin, Ohio.  People here literally actually pronounce their town’s name “BER-lin,” with the emphasis on the first syllable.  I’m guessing the awkward pronunciation is an attempt to distance the town from 1940s Germany, similar to 19th-century Irish immigrants who dropped “Mc” and “Mac” from their surnames to escape discrimination by hiding the fact they once scoured bogs for potatoes. But I say: folks, stand your ground, and fuck the lemmings.

I feel better now.  As I said, like President Obama, I’m not perfect, so if I’ve violated anything here, I’ll accept the traffic citation.

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.