Healing Vietnam Scars………Physically at Least


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Whenever I see this photo (lower right), and I’ve seen it many times, I am again horrified by the tragedy of Vietnam, by the brutality, sadness, and stupidity of it all.  I came of age as another baby-boomer during the late 1960’s,  but there was no way I’d let myself be drafted and go to Vietnam.  This photo takes people like me back to the day pretty fast.  I don’t like guns.  I would never kill anybody.

Nic Ut deservedly got a Pulitzer Prize for this harrowing 1972 photo of a nine year-old girl on fire after a napalm attack.  I remember I never bought Saran wrap back then.  Dow chemical made it and made napalm as well.

The only up part of the story of Kim Phuc, now 52, is what LA Times photographer Nic Ut did for her, and now a Miami dermatologist is doing for her.  Nic Ut took Kim to a local hospital, then cared for her for years after, helping her recover from her harrowing ordeal, helping her emigrate to Canada.

Now a Miami dermatologist, a physician who specializes in scar removal, is performing laser surgery gratis on the many scars that remain.  It reminds me a little of the American doctors who performed similar surgeries on the hibakusha victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Vietnam, the American War, was a war that should never have happened.  So many excuses, so much misinformation, beginning with the big lie about the attack on the USS Maddox.  Let Nic Ut and Dr. Jill Waibel of Miami be praised.   And let’s send our love and best wishes to Kim Phuc as well.

This is the recent feature on ABC, also published by various news organizations.  It tells the harrowing, of tragedy and healing as well.


Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) RIP





I was saddened yesterday to learn that Oliver Sacks had succumbed to the cancer that he announced last February.  He was 82 years young.

Sacks researched and wrote about various brain anomalies, one of which was Tourette’s syndrome.  It made me recall some experiences I’ve had.

I was an LA County Beach Lifeguard from 1965-2000 and had many great experiences during that long period.  One of them had to do with a lifeguard colleague on Venice Beach who was looking for a place to rent.  I suggested an upstairs apartment in Santa Monica, a four-plex on 3rd st. where I once lived.  He moved in and the trouble started right away.  A good friend of mine since high school, living in the unit below, was going to law school and needed to study all the time.  My lifeguard friend would scream out expletives at 2, 3, or 4 in the morning.  Finally my downstairs friend went up the stairs and confronted him with a baseball bat, thinking these outbursts were willful.  The lifeguard had Tourette’s.  This was in the early 1970s, when most people didn’t know about Oliver Sacks writings on the neurological syndrome.

Much later, teaching a music salon in my former home in Venice, there was a sweet guy named Christopher who’d always sit upstairs.  Problem was that he would occasionally produce a loud salvo of profane words from his upstairs perch.  This was in the early 1990’s.  After a while, it just didn’t bother us.  Later I realized he had Tourette’s too.

Thanks to Oliver Sacks I and others know much more about Tourette’s than I used to.  I also appreciate his love of music, which he expresses so movingly in his book Musicophilia.  I, like him, am a musicophile, a mélomane, as it’s called in French.   He loved the music of Mozart and was a superb pianist who could do justice to it.  He wrote about musicophiles like himself and the opposite extreme, people with amusia for whom Mozart sounded like pots and pans falling on the floor.  He also wrote in Musicophilia about people who understood music very well, using classical musicians as an example, but who found no beauty or anything emotional in music.

His studies on alzheimer’s patients also showed us the power of music on older people frozen in time.  In this video (Oliver Sacks is commenting on it) we see Henry,  catatonic, come to life with his rediscovery of music  He is so far gone he doesn’t recognize his own daughter, yet music brings him back to life.


I loved Michiko Kakutani’s eloquent piece on him in today’s New York Times.


Chris Burden 1946-2015 & The Other Vietnam Memorial


I’m near Chris Burden’s age, so some of my life story aligns with his.  One of those intersections was the Vietnam War, or The American War, as it’s known in Vietnam and some other places.  I never wanted to serve in Vietnam, and moved to Paris to go to school and took my Army physical in Germany.  In Los Angeles you would be inducted no matter what. There was a big quota to fill.  I had high school chums who got killed there, and other friends who returned psychologically damaged.  As we know now, it was a trumped up war, as McNamara admitted later on;  we should have learned from the French debacle but didn’t.

Burden, who died yesterday at 69 of melanoma, lived in Los Angeles, had a studio in Topanga Canyon, and taught at UCLA, my alma mater.  Although he is best known for his extreme conceptual / performance piece, Shoot  (1971), a personal reaction to the Vietnam War and all the people being shot and killed there, and many of his shows in various LA galleries, the piece I most remember was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992:  It was called The Other Vietnam Memorial, a counterpoint to Maya Lin’s huge Washington D.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

It was an immense series of revolving copper plates, 13′ tall, and filled with etched names of the three million war dead, including the 57,939 American fatalities and the more than two and a half million Vietnamese dead, both military and civilian.  He gathered the names from Vietnames phone books.  You would move the huge heavy sheets around like you would in a poster shop with large posters.  It is one thing to think 3 million people;  it is another thing to behold and digest just how many human beings those names represent.

It was powerful and truth be told I just fell apart in the museum that day.  Seeing the enormity such loss was devastating.

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These are the rums I love.  Above is the famous picture of the Cubans “liberating” the Bacardi factory in 1959.   I am lucky to have a signed copy of the Raul Carrales photo, which I purchased 10 years ago.

Recently I’ve been getting into rum.  Although I love single malts, both highland and islay, lately I’m knocked out by the sensuality and variations in different types of rum.  Rum is a tropical drink and comes mostly from Caribbean countries.

There is Barbarcourt, 15 year old rum (they spell it Rhum), made straight from sugar cane in Haiti with no molasses, which is unusual.  A Frenchman from Cognac, France, started this company in the 19th century.  It’s a smooth dark rum.

I also love Matusalem from the Dominican Republic.  I prefer the dark, but there is a light version too.  I think the dark is one of my two current faves.

Then there is Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaican Rum. a fabulous, perfumed dark rum.  This is my other current fave.

Bacardi is the classic Cuban rum, which moved from Cuba to Puerto Rico after the 1959 revolution.  I have a great photograph by Raul Carrales of los barbudos (the bearded ones, as Castro’s troops were called, because they all had beards) riding along after requisitioning the Bacardi factory, which is ironic because the Bacardi family supported the revolution.

The Scarlet Ibis is a smooth, dark Trinidadian rum.

Pampero is Venezuela’s great rum, and many consider it the best of all rums.

10 Cane is an inexpensive Trinidadian light rum, great for cocktails.

Finally, there is Dos Maderos from Spain, thus named because the rum is aged in two different madera casks.

Rum is less $$ than single malt.  It is more lush and viscous, coats the throat with warmth and goes down slow.  It is for sipping, though when I was in Cuba years ago and the rum bottle came out, there were medium-sized glasses that were filled up half way and everybody around me–at 1 p.m.–downed each glass in about a minute or two, then got refills.

Perhaps I like rum because it comes from countries whose music I love:  reggae, Cuban, salsa, merengue, calypso and soca (soul calypso), and so on.

Let’s not forget that the Boston Tea Party was not about tea, it was about rum.  The colonists preferred French rum from Haiti but were heavily taxed by the Brits, who wanted to sell their own Barbados and Trinidadian rum.  In protest the tea got dumped into Boston Harbor, but the whole fracas was about rum, not tea.

Finally, I want to recommend a wonderful little book, Six Glasses that Changed the World.  Rum has a nice chapter.  The other glasses are coffee, tea, wine, beer, and coca-cola.

Doggie Bags in France: The Debate Continues


When I first lived in Paris, waaaaay back in 1970, a Stanford chum of my father who lived in the toney île st. Louis area of the 5th arrondissement, took me out to dinner at a very nice area restaurant.  I was going to the Sorbonne, living in the Latin Quarter, and didn’t have much money.  I ate couscous and gros sandwiches tunisiens at North African restaurants:  lots of food for not much money.  So this night was very special.

We ate a three-star meal, washing it down with lovely bordeaux.  When we finished, I politely asked the waiter for a doggie bag.  “Garçon, est-ce que vous pouvez me donner un petit sac pour le chien”.  He stiffened and frowned, saying “ça ne se fait pas ici, monsieur” (“that isn’t done here”).  And so I had to leave the leftovers at the restaurant, probably so one of the employees could take it home to his or her dog.  A pity, because it was wintertime and you could just put the leftovers on the balcony and they would keep just fine for the next day.

The thinking was that you were supposed to enjoy a nice meal out in situ, not try to repeat it at home.   French vs. American thinking at work.

And so I read with interest this article the other day.  The debate goes on, 40+ years later.  Mon dieu.


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The Outbreak of WW1: 100 Years Ago Today


I just read an article in the New York Times about the outbreak of World War 1 exactly 100 years ago.  It brought back memories.

I had a French teacher at USC who fought in the Great War.  He used to tear up when talking about it so many years later.  He once told us that France lost 60,000 men in one battle.

Driving across Northern France in the 1970s when I lived there, you would see endless fields of crosses.

The war was triggered by a number of blunders.  It also ended the Ottoman Empire and changed the map of Europe.

I watched the film Gallipoli alone and got really choked up.  I couldn’t go straight home;  I stopped by a friend’s home for emotional rescue and support.  It was devastating.

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Chester Nez: Last of the Navajo Code Talkers: RIP




Today we look toward Normandy for the 70th anniversary of that amazing June 6, 1944 invasion that cost many American lives.  It will probably be the survivors’ last get-together.

But let’s not forget other battles on the other side of the world.  The final Navajo warrior just passed away.  His name was Chester Nez.  He was 93.

The idea of using the Navajo language to stump the Japanese was a brilliant one.  It came from a WWI veteran who grew up near a Navajo reservation.   The Marines showed up at his Tuba City, Arizona high school and recruited him along with other Navajo students.    After training they were shipped out and covered some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater:  Bougainville, New Guinea, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima.

The Marines were a far cry from what Nez grew up with:  if you spoke Navajo in school, you’d get punished and your mouth washed out with soap.  Nez’ father insisted that the young boy also learn English so as to get ahead in life.

Even though discriminated against, the code talkers felt a responsibility to aid America.  Upon returning after the war, however, they had a hard time finding jobs because they were sworn to secrecy about their work backgrounds.   And racial discrimination continued against them.   Chester was able to find work as a maintenance worker at a VA hospital in Albuquerque.  He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2001.  His memoir, Code Talker, was published in 2011.

The British were brilliant in dropping aluminum foil into the skies foiling German radar during the war.  But I think the idea to use Navajo code talkers was even more brilliant.   May Chester Nez be blessed in the afterlife.

Here is the LA Times obit by Elaine Woo:




The Crow: One Smart Bird


I remember in the BBC special The Life of Birds with the wonderful David Attenborough when crows would drop walnuts from power wires over a crosswalk, then wait for cars to run over them and break the shells, then descend to the street and hop with pedestrians across to grab the shelled nuts.  Smart birds.

Check out this clip from the BBC show and be impressed:


There was a piece on crow intelligence in yesterday’s New York Times Science section titled Moral:  Aesop Knew His Crows.


If I couldn’t drink the water (like if I didn’t have opposable thumbs) I don’t know if I’d have thought of the pebble solution.  But the crow did.  Smart bird.  Here is the Aesop Fable about the crow and the pitcher.  By the way, my last name means “beak” in German so I can relate to this fable.  Why somebody way back when would adopt the name “schnabel” is beyond me.

A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into
the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.


Salt, Pepper, and Other Spices We Take for Granted



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Last night, as I ground black pepper and sprinkled some French sea salt into my salad, I stopped to ponder how we take these spices for granted.

Back in the Middle Ages, before Portuguese, Dutch and other Voyages of Discovery sailed to Indonesia, India, and other places, spices were worth as much as gold and were often bartered for them.  Some people paid their rent in peppercorns.  The Spice Route was the culinary counterpart of the Silk Route that connected so many countries   In Ghana–formerly the Gold Coast–gold was traded for salt.  Nutmeg, one of the most valuable spices of all, came from just one small Indonesian island.  Cinnamon was also very rare and prized.    Spices revolutionized food during the Renaissance and elevated cuisine beyond measure from the bland, tasteless stuff of medieval times.  Spices were also condemned at first by the Catholic Church for arousing the senses.  We weren’t supposed to take such gustatory pleasure in food.

We take all this for granted now.  We shouldn’t.  Spices improve our daily lives, are plentiful and.  It wasn’t always that way.  The book below tells us wondrous things about the history of spices.


Snail Mucus Mask: Proustian Memories Gone Bad


The other night I was slightly horrified when, upon opening my girlfriend’s refrigerator to grab something, wine I think, and saw a packet of something called “Snail Mucus Facial Mask” on the inside door shelf.  Apparently it’s all the rage now;  after getting its start in Spain, it’s now big in Korea and becoming popular here too.

It reminded me of something that happened when I was around five.  My big brother was ten at the time and twice as big and strong as I was.  Sometimes that meant torture.  One time he pinned my arms down on the grass with his knees on top of me and put a snail under my nose.  It slowly moved across from one side to another.  It was excruciating, but  I couldn’t do anything about it, not even get revenge later on (he’d always win anyway).

So now people are willingly putting this slimy disgusting stuff on their faces?   I’ll pass, thanks.  Just give me clay instead.

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LSD: Back in Therapy Once Again


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LSD has had a complicated history ever since a Swiss chemist, Dr. Albert Hoffman, discovered it by accident back in the 1940s.  It was used by the CIA in experiments, by Hollywood stars in the 1950s, and was huge among the hippies and mind-adventurers in the 1960s.  It was banned in the U.S. in 1966.

Now, another Swiss doctor, this time a psychiatrist named Dr. Peter Gasser.  He is administering the drug to end-of-life patients,  who are having mystical experiences and who reported less anxiety and a more positive approach to death.   One patient said “I will say I have been more emotional since the study ended, and I don’t mean always cheerful……but I think it’s better to feel things strongly–better to be alive than to merely function”.

The New York Times piece was published yesterday.  Here is the link:


The article reminded me of Aldous Huxley, British novelist and visionary.  His book The Doors of Perception was widely read in the 1960 and still is today;  it chronicles his experience taking mescaline in the 1950s, while living here in Los Angeles.  The band The Doors took its name from Huxley’s book.

As Huxley was dying here in late 1963, he asked his wife Laura to give him an injection of LSD so he could fully experience his own demise.  On that dark day in history—when JFK was assassinated–Huxley reportedly died a death of serenity and bliss.

Hiroo Onoda: Last Japanese Soldier to Surrender After WWII (in 1974) RIP


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(In the photo gallery above, we see Onoda as a young soldier, a photo of him the day he was brought off Lubang island;  making up for lost time while dancing with a Playboy bunny, surrendering his sword to President Ferdinand Marcos, and his cattle ranch near Sao Paulo, Brazil).

I just read Hiroo Onada’s obit;  it was in both the LA and NY Times today.   He was a soldier of rare determination and devotion to duty and to the Emperor.   He lived on a Philippine island for 29 years, from 1945 to 1974, following his final orders to stay and fight as the Americans were launching their final surge onto Japan.  He was officially declared dead in1959.

I remember reading the newspaper article all the way back in March, 1974, when he was found on Lubang Island in the Philippines, about 90 miles from Manila.  I was amazed then, and amazed again now.

At first he wouldn’t leave because he thought, even after almost three decades living in the jungle, that the war was still going on and he had received no further orders than the one to stay and fight from 1945.   There were searches for him, leaflets dropped from American planes saying the war was over, but he didn’t believe it.  It took a visit from his commanding officer who had given him his marching orders to convince him that the war was over and Japan had surrendered.  The Imperial army followed a code that said death was always preferable to surrender.  Onoda was 52 when he was discovered.

Before returning to Japan, he went to Manila and surrendered his sword to then-President Ferdinand Marcos.   He wore his now 30 year old imperial army uniform and cap during the ceremony;  his uniform was in remarkably good condition.

For a soldier who believed in the Emperor’s divinity and who thought the war was a sacred cause for the Emperor, it was not easy to return to a new Japan unrecognizable from the one he left so long before.   He felt himself to be a stranger among all the new shiny buildings and cars and modern amenities unheard of in the 1940s.   Nevertheless, he got a hero’s welcome when he finally returned.

He hurried to establish a new life, married, and moved to Brazil where he became a cattle rancher.  He still made trips back to Japan.  He said he needed to hurry and catch up after so many years hiding in the jungle, living off coconuts, bananas and whatever rice he could steal.   He also killed villagers’ cows in order to make beef jerky.

On February 20, 1974, a young traveler named Norio Suzuki went to Lubang island with the express purpose of finding the missing soldier.   He set up a tent and stayed in the jungle until Onoda finally emerged from hiding.   It was after this that Onoda’s commanding office, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, was called on to fly to Lubang to convince Onoda that the war was over and that he could return to Japan.

There was a book and a movie based on his life in hiding and his return to modern life.

Here is a part of the movie from youtube.  I think they’re speaking in Tagalog.  This is part one. There are 4 parts.




New York Times Article Recalls the Term ‘Sabotage’.


There was a front page article in today’s New York Times : Textile Plants Humming, but Not with Workers


Despite the upswing in textile manufacturing here in the U.S., many workers are being laid off due to automation.  This situation recalls a similar one many years ago.  Dutch textile workers during the Industrial Revolution were being laid off as textile mills became industrialized.  They protested by throwing their Dutch wooden shoes, called sabots because they resembled the small wooden sailboat, into the machinery and disrupting production, sometimes ruining the mills.  The resulting act and word became known as  “sabotage”.

My old friend from UCLA grad school days,  Mark Squires, sent this comment, which is so interesting I am compelled to include it here:

“Tom, my historical sources, though not universally accepted, differ somewhat from the NYT’s story that”sabotage” derived from Dutch textile-mill-workers throwing a ”sabot,” a small wooden shoe named after a small wooden boat, into the machinery. A retired intelligence official tells me that, originally, the disgruntled workers threw the entire boats into the machinery – a very effective tactic. But the capitalists’ agents soon learned to sniff out which workers were carrying boats into factories. The workers adapted by carrying in smaller and smaller boats; and this growing demand eventually led to boats only the size of a shoe (and this, though interesting for surfers, led inevitably to the decline of the Dutch whaling industry).”

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Brusque French Waiters, Great Food, and Paris’ Brasserie de l’Isle St. Louis


A recent New York Times article, “A Quest to Make Gruff Service in France More Gracious” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/world/europe/can-the-gruff-frenchman-become-the-gracious-frenchman.html?pagewanted=all talks about French waiters’ penchant for being curt and sometimes just appearing plain rude.  Then it mentions the Brasserie de l’Isle St. Louis.  It also made me think of Yves Montand in the 1983 Claude Sautet movie, Garçon in which the great French actor and entertainer is an aging waiter who still dreams of becoming a singer though working in a cafe most of his life.

When living and working in Paris in the 1970s I would go to the Brasserie de l’Isle St. Louis whenever I had enough money to spend on a nice meal.  It was right across the Seine from the flying buttresses at the rear end of Notre Dame cathedral.   They served room-temperature brown ale on tap, and I loved their choucroute garnie, their wonderful cassoulet, and in Spring they had a salade called “pis en lit” (piss in your bed), made up of young dandelion leaves, a white vinegar and bacon fat dressing, and thick lardons, thick Canadian-style bacon.  So tasty.

I speak French so I never had any questions.  But I imagine that French waiters get some pretty dumb questions.  “Is the baguette gluten-free?  Is there any dairy in the soup?”    No wonder the waiters get impatient and gruff.  I can’t say I blame them.

Below, a picture of the Brasserie and of Yves Montand.  And of the dishes I enjoyed so much there!

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A Buddhist Monk Confronts Japan’s Suicide Culture


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A recent New Yorker Magazine featured an article called “Last Call:  A Buddhist Monk Confronts Japanese Suicide Culture“.   It’s a fascinating story of a young Monk’s struggle to prevent suicides there, not an easy task for anybody including a trained Zen monk.  I was reminded of several things, first my reading of Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, where (if I recall correctly, it’s been a while) the young lovers plan and carry out a double suicide.  This was in the early 19th century, and when the novel got to Japan there were many copy cat suicides by young people smitten by the romantic ending.

But I was also reminded of another incident that happened closer to home.  In the mid-1980s a young Japanese mother took public transportation to Santa Monica Beach north of the Santa Monica Pier, walked into the water and drowned her children, then attempted but failed to take her own life, mainly because a beach goer ran into the water and rescued her.  It was in early spring and not every lifeguard tower was open like in the Summer months.  I know this because I was an LA County Beach Lifeguard for many years, and worked that beach.

In the article we read that in traditional Japanese thinking the mother is bonded with her children and if she commits suicide it is immoral to leave her children motherless.  In the New Yorker piece, we read that “suicidal parents have killed their children, so as to not to abandon them to an orphan’s life;  by tradition, a mother who killed herself but not her children was thought to be truly wicked (p.58).  The case of Fumiko Kimura was tried in Santa Monica Municipal Court and I followed it in the LA Times articles that tracked it.  Ultimately the woman was not charged with infanticide but rather freed, the presiding judge taking in cultural context into the decision.  There was also the interesting fact that the woman’s husband was having an extramarital affair, and his lover came to the couple’s apartment offering to take her own life as a gesture of ultimate shame.

I also remember the little fact that after the spurned mother heard this confession, she made her husband dinner, drew a bath and washed his feet and served dinner.  It was the next day that she took her children on the MTA bus to Santa Monica Beach.

She returned to Japan to undergo therapy and I have no idea what happened to her after that.

Below is a link to the fascinating New Yorker article by Jarissa MacFarquhar:


Here is a link to the 1985 Los Angeles Times article about the incident:


The Racing Bike I Never Got


When I was 12 and 13, cycling was everything to me.  I rode around 100-150 miles weekly, was on an informal team called “Le Voyageurs” (The Travelers), complete with jerseys, chamois-seated shorts, toe clips,  the whole deal.  A weekend ride would have us all ride from Santa Monica Canyon up PCH to Malibu Canyon Road, then up to Mulholland, and out to Malibu Lake.  Then back home again.  It was a long ride.  The ultimate prize was going up Tuna Canyon road, just north of Topanga Canyon, without getting up off the saddle.  I subscribed to a UK magazine called Sporting Cyclist, reading about the Saeco and St. Raphael Geminiani teams, the great Louis Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, and the disgraced UK cyclist Tom Simpson, who was busted for doping.  Yes, I’m dating myself….this was a long time ago.  This was before I went beserk for surfing.

One day, driving with my mother down Lincoln Boulevard near Westchester’s LMU, we stopped at a bike store where I beheld a beautiful Italian racing bike….a Legnano.  It was all-Campy–all Campagnolo components, then the Dom Perignon of derailleurs, brakes, head stems, seat posts, chain sets.  Beautiful Italian duraluminum that could have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci.  I lusted and longed for that bike.  It cost $199.00.  My mother said no and I remained stuck with my older brother’s hand-me-down.  Later I saved lunch money for three months and bought a Raleigh Grand Prix.  But I never forgot the Legnano.  It was the bike that got away.

It reminded me of a story I heard once on NPR:  a kid who wanted a certain baseball glove for Christmas.  He cut out pictures and showed them to his parents.  He made it clear that this was the glove he wanted….it had some famous player’s name on it.  Christmas came, and the little guy was almost peeing in his pants as he opened a square package smelling of neats foot oil, the stuff they put on baseball gloves.  He opened the box and ! was devastated.  Instead of the prized $20 glove, it was a cheap knock-off that his parents bought for five dollars.  For them it was all the same.  For him it was completely different, and painful.

Don’t ask me why, but I looked up this coveted Italian bike that never was, and found a link.  Here it is:  even in the same chartreuse color I remember so well:



Those Crazy Russians: In the Circus, On the Roads



The other day my twin sister sent me a video of Russian drivers.  It was insane.  Are all the drivers, car & trucks, and pedestrians, looped on vodka?

Today I read about Russian circuses, and how parents pay $10-20 to have their children’s pictures taken next to Siberian tigers and snow leopards.  Even though one of those kids got his head bitten off.  The parents defended their actions by saying life is full of risks and without taking risks, you really wouldn’t be living. Hmmmm.  They even cited Mikhail Lermentov’s example—he wrote the first Russian novel, A Hero in Our Time  in 1841, before the more famous Dostoyevky and Tolstoy published their famous novels. Read More →

Obama in Africa: A Warm Welcome


putin and obamaimages-5 images-4 images-3 images-2 images-1 imagesAs you look at the crowds greeting President Obama in South Africa, you can’t but help that everybody is smiling.  That’s because they love and are inspired by our 44th president, the fact that he is an African American with a Kenyan father, and that he shares so many things with the other great figure, South Africa’s first Black President, Nelson Mandela.

Along with John Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, I admire Obama more than most U.S. presidents who’ve served during my lifetime.  You rarely see Obama in front of disapproving crowds;  the exceptions are  sourpusses like Vladimir Putin and leaders of  the Republican opposition Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.

It is inspiring to watch Obama in South Africa, watching him take his teenage daughters to Robbin’s Island, where Madiba (clan name for Nelson Mandela)was imprisoned for so many years.  It is something his daughters will surely never forget.   Obama and Nelson Mandela also shared the same position on marriage equality, which is now being celebrated in scores of marriages here:  it is a basic civil right that Mandela boldly put forth early during his tenure as President.  Unfortunately it is not treated the same way in many other parts of Africa, where it is considered a Western idea and an imperialist malaise.

Barack Obama’s vision and world view accords with mine.  After eight years of Bush 43, it’s such a relief.  I am moved by his words and actions during his recent visit to Africa.

Amazing Pix of the Zeppelin SS Hindenburg, and the Newscaster Falling Apart


My music teacher sent me some amazing photos of the German airship SS Hindenburg that I’d never seen before:  the year was 1937, and this was before we went to war with Germany.  Germany had no access to helium, so had to use the much more flammable and dangerous hydrogen in its elegant, bauhaus-inspired airships.  The Hindenburg was one of the biggest and grandest of the German fleet.  The huge airship went down down in Lakehurst, New Jersey May 6, 1937,  75 years ago to the day.  My music teacher’s dad was there and watched the tragedy unfold.


I remember back, many years ago, when my father called me into the living room and said, “Don’t miss this!!!”.  The old reel from the 1937 disaster showed a newscaster in the process from professionalism to breakdown.  He just fell apart:

I still find this fascinating, 75 years after the tragedy.



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The Story Behind Winston Churchill’s Bulldog Portrait



I heard today on the news that England is about to issue a five-pound note with the famous photo engraved on it.  It was that jowly face that signified the Prime Minister’s bulldog determination to defend England from the Nazis.

Here is the story behind that photo, which I learned from reading Herman Leonard’s fabulous photo book, Jazz Giants and Journeys.  Leonard was apprenticing in Ottawa, Canada, with the great portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, famous for his portraits of Hemingway, Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Andy Warhol, and so many other famous people.

Churchill was in Ottawa for a conference in the early 1940s.  He went to Karsh’s studio to be photographed.  Herman A young Herman Leonard was there learning Karsh’s trade secrets.  The prime minister was in a foul mood, which could be intimidating to all around him;  his barbs could be crippling.  He walked into the famous photographer’s studio smoking a cigar, and Karsh said he had to take the cigar out of his mouth;  no smoking in the studio.  Churchill ignored the request.   Read More →

Tahiti: An Eden Despoiled


I’m reading Robert Hughes’ masterful art history book, The Shock of the New.  It’s a dense, heavy, and amazing book. Reading about Gaughin’s Edenic paintings of Tahiti–which reminded me of French photographer Lucien Gauthier’s book Tahiti 1904-1921–I was sobered by Hughes’ assertion that Tahiti had already been ruined by alcoholism and venereal disease by the time the French painter arrived at the end of the 19th century. Read More →

More Musings on Gun Control, Violence, the NRA, etc.


Having recently undergone shoulder surgery, on pain meds and having to take ambien because I’m forced to wear a brace and sleep sitting up on my back, I am watching tv more.  After finding nothing else on, bored and finding it difficult to hold a book in one hand with my brace on, I turn to local stations for the tabloid news, and out it comes:  more guns, murders, mayhem.

The gun debate flared up after New Town and again with Christopher Dorner.  Now we have a 20 year-old kid from an upscale neighborhood near Laguna Hills go on a murder spree, killing both in his own home while his parents slept upstairs unawares;  yesterday ‘words were exchanged’ between an aspiring hip hop artist and some gangsters in a darkened-window Range Rover kill him in his Lamborghini, taking a few other innocents with them.  An Anaheim 7-11 is robbed and the poor clerk is shot and pistol-whipped by some thug in a hoodie and facemask.

When will it stop?  Why is America so addicted to guns?  The 20 year old was a loner addicted to violent video games…..gee, where have we heard that before?  Aurora? New Town? Read More →

Those Inscrutable Faces


A friend of mine, Pat Darrin, whose famous car-designer father, Howard “Dutch” Darrin designed the iconic and long-lived Citroën Traction Avant (1934-1957)–made famous by the film Diva-recently loaned me a cool book called “La Grande Histoire de l’Automobile–Les Jours de Gloire 1950-1959.   Some of my favorite cars came out during that period, including some beauties my dad owned–Ferraris, Maseratis, a Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, which my mother hated because it was so hard getting in and out of it.   They say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, and I’m a car nut too. I’ve also had some great cars–a 1963 Citroën DS 19 (DS 19-23 were produced 1955-1975)  immortalized in Roland Barthes’ brilliant little book Mythologies, a 1959 Jaguar XK-150S among others.  My older brother Larry is indifferent about cars, though he did manage to strafe the gears of my old man’s Ferrari 250 GT as a teenager. I had less fun:  I had to clean and wax all of them, including the Borrani wire wheels.   I do remember, however, the thrill of riding in those fast cars when my father put the pedal to the metal and I felt the torque plus the whine of those great engines.   My twin sister doesn’t even drive and like my brother has no interest in such things.

So–in this French book there is a picture of the young, androgynous Françoise Sagan, already famous for her precocious novel Bonjour Tristesse, published in 1954 when she was only 17.  Successful writers are crowned superstars in France, and Sagan was no exception.  She also loved driving fast, exotic cars, and almost died when she crashed her Aston Martin DB 2.     Read More →

Happy to Live at This Time in History


I’m happy to live this time in history.  When somebody tells me they’d like to live in some past era, say  after watching a romantic movie with castles, aristocrats, and beautiful clothing, I tell  them they’re nuts.  Ditto for Paris in the 1930s.  I am just now recovering from a bout of diverticulitis.  I wouldn’t wish this malady on my worst enemy.  It’s antibiotics that are helping me escape from it.  We didn’t have these meds back when Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Breton and Tzara were creating art and literature back then. Ditto for visiting the dentist, which used to be pretty frightening.  No wonder people preferred just letting their teeth fall out rather than visiting the dentists.  No Hollywood smiles back then.  And  god forbid having to have an operation. Read More →

Philippine Birth Control Bill Passes


It’s common knowledge that the Philippines have long been dominated by foreign powers. The Spanish, then the Americans, then the dictators the U.S. propped up (Ferdinand Marcos and his ridiculous first lady Imelda, who squandered tens if not hundreds of thousand dollars on shoe blitzes in New York City). America did this because we needed our big military bases back in the Vietnam days.

Then there was Cardinal Sin (couldn’t have made that one up) who told his vast flock that God wanted them to make as many babies as possible. Every time I saw images of children picking through landfills I thought of him.

And now, despite the Catholic Bishops’ conference warning that “contraception corrupts the soul”, the Philippine Congress approved contraceptive legislation that would make birth control available to all in the Philippines. Read More →

The Hero with a Gun: Not Exactly What Joseph Campbell Was Thinking


While in college I read an influential book by Joseph Campbell called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  It was his first and still his most popular and influential book.  In it he told of how we mythologize heroes in our daily lives, and these heros represent the cultural mass and mores.  One famous quote is as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won, the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.  George Lucas, for instance, was influenced by Campbell’s “monomyths” in the making of Star Wars.  But I don’t think Campbell was thinking about our current crop of action films and the heroes they present to us.

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My Love of Handmade Things


I recently went out searching for a new living room rug.  I eventually found one that cost significantly more than I planned on spending.  I bargained and got the price down, which helped me rationalize the somewhat expensive purchase.  Then I spent the rest of the week beating myself up about spending so much. Read More →

Lamborghini: Birth of a Supercar


I love cars.  I’ve owned a Jaguar XK 150S, the model predating the E-Type, a Citroën DS 19, an Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider, etc.  I loved them all, especially the Citroën.  One time David Byrne arrived late at the studio and had to park illegally.  I offered to park his car.  He told me nobody knew how to drive his car.  I asked what kind it was, he said a Citroën with Citromatic and the button brake, and I said “just give me the keys”. Read More →

The Road Not Traveled


In 1973, fresh out of grad school and after an unhappy spell in law school,  unable to find a job teaching in American community colleges,  I found two job postings on a UCLA international job bulletin board.  One was to teach English at a brand new university in Constantine, Algeria.  The other was a teaching post at a University in Shiraz, Iran.

What grabbed me about the University of Constantine was the gorgeous futurist architecture of the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has recently celebrated his 104th birthday.   He once beautifully stated:

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves……the curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of a beloved woman.”

Who could resist this?  Plus, I’d lived in Paris before and spoke French.  So I applied. Read More →

Tokyo Olympiad 1964: Amazing Documentary by Ken Ichikawa


The world has watched the Olympics in London, now continuing.  It’s interesting to go back a ways and see an Olympics from an earlier time, Tokyo 1964.  It was the first big international event held in that country since the war ended.  You see Olympian runners who weren’t sponsored by international corporations, just regular guys and gals:  plumbers, teachers, and so on.  Swimming styles were different, track shoes were just regular old Adidas, and the East African marathoners didn’t even wear shoes anyway.   The cold war was in full swing, with the Soviet Union and the USA vying for dominance.  America was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.  It was just four years before Tommy Smith raised his fist in protest in Mexico City, wearing his gold medal.   It’s a fascinating documentary and although a time capsule, it is timeless.

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Sergio Pininfarina 1926-2012 RIP


Sergio Pininfarina headed the Turin design studio that created the most beautiful sports cars in the world.   Alfa Romeos, Lancia, but especially Ferraris.   The elegance of Pininfarina’s designs reminds us that Italian design harkens back to the Renaissance, the timelessless of Michelangelo, Botticelli,  and Da Vinci.

True, there were other Italian designers:  Touring of Milan did graceful Aston Martins, Alfa Romeo’s and Maseratis.  Bertone did IMHO some ugly designs of the 1970s-1980s.  Scaglietti designed some bold and beautiful cars, like the 612 Ferrari and the 353 MM.   But Pininfarina was the biggest and the greatest of them all. Read More →

Our Rich Access to Knowledge


The other night I read–well, actually just perused—Malinowski’s Kiriwina:  Fieldwork Photography 1915-1918–an amazing book about the Polish-born father of modern cultural anthropology’s stay in Papua and the Trobiand Islands.  He went to New Guinea and studied the inhabitants there with unprecedented rigor.  I also listened to an Argentine pianist named  Bruno Leonardo Gelber play Beethoven’s magnificent sonata #14, the Moonlight Sonata.  Then I turned to French photographer Robert Doisneau, looking at images he took of Les Halles, the famous French outdoor marketplace that dated back to the 14th century, only to be torn down in 1971 by President Pompidou to build the much-reviled Centre Pompidou / Beaubourg.  Some called it an oil refinery posing as a cultural center, and many Parisians lamented the loss of the famous market.   Read More →

Our History in 2′: By a Gifted High School Student


I recently got this link to an amazing little video, put together by a high school student somewhere.  Who is this kid anyway?  The credits at the end don’t make this very clear.  Music is great too.

It was sent to me by Dick Lapalm, who happened to be Nat Cole’s manager and who is still active as a jazz promoter.

It is pretty phenomenal.  It’s only two minutes long.  The arresting images, however, capture eons of human history and time.  Be sure to watch full-screen.  To comment on this post, click Read More →

President Carter, Voyager, and UFO’s


The other night we hosted a dinner party.  One of our guests worked at JPL.  I brought out my copy of the box set Murmurs of Earth, published by Time Warner about 20 years ago.  It’s one of the box sets I saved when moving and downsizing last summer, because it’s rare and amazing.

The Voyager Spacecraft has fascinated me, not because I have a scientific mind, but because there are so many interesting things about it.  Among them are the fact that President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter, put on the time capsule aboard the spacecraft, that implied an awareness that otherworldly civilizations might be out there.  Second, that there was a music soundtrack on the time capsule, put together by Carl Sagan and Alan Lomax, that included classical music, jazz, blues, and world music.  Third, that Voyager is still out there, 40 million+ miles away, still pinging earth from deep space after 35 years.

Jimmy Carter once saw what he thought was a UFO.   Read More →

Four Food Vignettes from My Life in Paris


I lived in Paris for several years in the 1970s. Things were cheaper then, five francs to the dollar, but gourmet dining in fine restaurants still was $$$ and out of my reach. I usually ate at North African restaurants, or enjoyed the humble, bland faire at the Cité Universitaire. I nevertheless had vicarious methods of enjoying la haute cuisine Française.

I once read an article about food writer Craig Claiborn winning a sweepstakes. The grand prize was $4000 to dine with one guest at any restaurant in the world. The restaurant chosen was Chez Denis, in the upper-crust right bank area, not far from the Champs-Elysées


I remembered this article so when I had to move out of a friend’s flat where I’d been crashing on the couch, I moved into the Hotel Flaubert, right across the street from Chez Denis both because its proximity as well as the fact that I loved reading Flaubert. Read More →

Dumbing Down of the Electorate: Idiocracy in the Making



I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Stupidity Should be Painful”. This was years ago and I still remember it. And agree with it too.

I don’t want to sound like an overeducated snob. But I believe that an electorate that turns solely to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh instead of reading and listening to a variety of news sources and books will be a dumb and irresponsible public. The fact that we live in times where access to information is at its best, there is no excuse to resort to the basest and lowest common denominator, one geared to generating ratings and advertising dollars rather than educating and enlightening it’s viewing and listening audience.

I’m now reading an interesting book by Stephen Greenblatt called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. The book is about an Italian’s discovery, in Germany in the early 15th century, of an ancient Roman philosophical and epic poem by Lucretius called On The Nature of Things. Read More →

The Importance of Music Education


In writing a recent blog, inspired by Gustavo Dudamel’s orchestral version of a popular Puerto Rican band’s hit song, I began to muse on the subject of music education:  in Venezuela and the U.S.  What happened to it here in the U.S.?  Why are the arts always the first to be cut during financial squeezes? Read More →

Music and the Brain: An Enduring Partnership


Ever since I became entranced by Coltrane’s song “India” in my bedroom when I was sixteen, living at home, I’ve been aware of the power of music to affect the heart, soul, and spirit.  Music has always exerted a powerful force on me, even before I could really put its magic powers into words.

It’s what moves the Sufis, enables fire walkers in Morocco to avoid getting burned, and is used in ritual trance ceremonies in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines, and many parts of Africa.  Music is a hypnotic agent and healing elixir, and it has been for a long time.

In preparation for a class I was about to teach a few months back, I did a lot of reading on music and the brain.  Read More →

Africa: A True Oxymoron


I have loved African music for over thirty years.  I discovered it through Olatunji’s seminal Columbia lp Drums of Passion and the great Congolese mass Missa Luba years ago.  I first heard Afro pop while living in Paris in the 1970s.  Congolese rumba was especially sweet and intoxicating.  Later came the great Afro-Cuban grooves of bands like Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz and Orchestra Baobab from Dakar, Senegal.   This is truly joyful noise.

Yet when I read in the newspapers about the Lord’s Resistance Army, hear the Refugee All-Stars (a Sierra Leone group of survivors of the war there), the Congolese murders or Rwandan genocide, it’s hard to square the violence with the sweet soulfulness of the music. Read More →

Bacardi Rum: As Cuban as Rumba


There was an article about Bacardi Rum in yesterday’s LA Times Food Section that caught my eye.  I’m not a mixologist but I appreciate good rum.  In Cuba they put it in regular glasses and you drink it straight at room temperature.  Which doesn’t rule out going to La Bogedita del Medio to get a strong, fragrant mojito that will kick your ass. But it won’t be with Bacardi.  It will be Havana Club, the closest things the Cubans get get to the original Bacardi formula.

Why is that?  Because the Bacardi family escaped from Cuba before the January 1st, 1959 Cuban revolution, taking the famous and secret yeast formula with them.  That’s what the LA Times article was all about.

It struck a bell with me because I’m fortunate to have a famous photograph that the great Cuban photographer Raul Corrales–whom even the more famous Cuban photographer Korda called the best photographer in Cuba—of a militia returning from liberating and requisitioning the Bacardi factory.  They got everything but the yeast: The most important thing. Read More →