Sunday, July 31, 2016

POEM: Montague's Seduction

The Kiss. Gustav Klimt. Public domain.

Montague's Seduction comes from the Indian section of Counting Stars at Forty Below.

Feral Thinker's Podcast

Montague’s Seduction

The exalted text’s neither hers nor mine—
Smoke it or drink it with red Groover wine.
I write this in the small of her back
While she giggles chirpily in the endorphin stream
Postcoital and high on fine stash from the
Bloodshot-eyed man on the street.
My cartouche of permanent black
Indian sweet chocolate on a hot
Sunday above the bustling din of the market in a
Life-pressed room my writing disappears in her
She says my Parker tickles as a I draw this line
She holds and shudders me

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pollo con Mole

Pollo con mole. Tortillas. Refried beans topped with cheese. ©2016 Mason West.
Tonight I made pollo con mole, which was easy to make, and it turned out quite delicious. Mole (pronounced like moe-lay) has a unique, earthy flavor that arises from the many dried chili peppers ground into it along with that legendary trace of cocoa powder—but it is not, contrary to blasphemous rumors afloat in the United States, a chocolate sauce for chicken. The chilis are not spicy—there's just a faint piquant nibble—but their flavor, like a warm symphonic chord resounding in cellos and bass, creates a space in the dimension of the palate that, from the first time I tasted it in Oaxaca, left me craving to return again and again. The sauce is very dark brown. A pool of darkness on your plate signals a visual analog of the depth of the flavor. If fruit were a song sung by sopranos, cheese in the range of tenors, and meats in the octaves surrounding Middle C, mole would lurk ominously on the bass clef. There is nothing like it in any of the Mexican-inspired cuisines of the United States, neither in the traditional Tex-Mex nor in the neo-hip styles desperately forging authenticity in Austin and San Antonio; not in the fashion-conscious, fusion-confused eateries of California; nor in the green chili sauce slathered dishes of New Mexico and Arizona. The best mole doesn't wander far from its origins deep in central and southern Mexico, and the best mole takes all day to make. I hate to be a chauvinist here, but mole is a tradition out of the days of a strict division of labor: the woman of the house rises at dawn to start preparing mole that, come dinnertime, she will serve on chickens still crowing to greet the sun. She grinds chilis in her molcajete, renders lard, and simmers the sauce that ever go gradually evolves into the mole. She tastes, she tweaks the seasonings, and simmers some more. By mid-afternoon she tells one of her sons to bring in a couple of chickens, and she and her daughter pluck them and clean them.

Yet there is a shortcut that I used tonight, so I can tell you how to come up with... Well, not a perfect mole, but a reasonably good approximation for a half hour of preparation and an hour of baking. But let's start with the linguistics:

Spanish Word
English Meaning
A sauce made from soybean oil (in old traditional family recipes they used lard), pulverized chili peppers, peanuts, a bit of sugar, and, yes, just a trace of cocoa powder.
Beans, usually pinto beans, unless they say something like frijoles negros, black beans, which are popular in Cuban and Caribbean dishes.
cebollas verdes
Say-bō-yas bare-days
Green onions

Doña María Mole Sauce
It seems cheating to buy a little jar that bypasses that long, loving process at the hearth, but for me, that little jar of Doña María Mole Sauce makes tonight's meal possible. The stuff inside the jar is a concentrate that has to be emptied into a sauce pan and diluted with a four-to-one ratio of liquid—preferably a stock, but water, the label says, is acceptable. I haven't heated up a saucepan in a long while, so I had forgotten about the stock, but I would have preferred to use chicken stock.

The jar that the sauce comes in is designed to be reusable as a small glass. As someone who likes to accumulate household goods from scratch at each new address, glass containers that double as juice and whiskey glasses, offer a decisive feature when it comes to shopping. I move in with my old friend, the Gandhi cup, and a set of bamboo eating utensils—fork, spoon, knife, and chopsticks—but after a few months I've got a cabinet full of mismatched glasses, random bowls, and plates, and a drawer of a few forks and knives, including a decent kitchen knife. The kitchen may not look like much, but it is functional and affordable, and when it comes time to go, I can walk away from it.

Easy-opening lid.
The top of the Doña María jar says "Nueva tapa. Abre fácil," and perhaps I'm being naïve, but I figure this is a new top that really does open easily, but nowhere in the labeling do I find any further instructions on how to apply this easy opening to the new top. First I try the two tried-and-true methods of opening glass jars with metal tops: I try a bottle opener, but the lower tooth of the opener doesn't find enough rim on the lid to lift. Bottle openers are most often used with jars that will serve as small juice glasses after they're emptied of their original product.

Then it's time to try twisting off. I find that I can twist the lid—which works with many jelly jars—but there are no threads on the glass, which is how you want the rim of a drinking glass: smooth, uniform, and without threads.

Then I try pushing a butter knife up under the edge of the lid, and that's hard. So I find Doña María's Web site and call their customer support number, but they say they're closed today (a Thursday!), so I fill in the form on the Web site to explain my conundrum, though this won't help. Then I go back to work with the knife and the lid, and gradually a bump appears on the edge of the lid. Finally, after about ten minutes, the lid pops off. Fortunately I did this inside the 12-inch-square pan I'm going to use to cook the chicken, so the little bit of spillage is contained where it won't be wasted.
The jar, the knife, and the stubborn lid.

With the jar open, I scoop it's contents, which has a consistency somewhat like wet clay, into a saucepan. Then I add four cups of filtered water from my Brita pitcher, and turn on the burner to a low slow flame. I don't want this to boil, but I want the block of concentrated mole sauce to dissolve into the water to make a thick viscous sauce with its rich, characteristic mole flavor. After ten minutes or so the sauce has dissolved into the water. There are a few lumps left, but I decide that an hour in a hot oven while the chicken is baking will take care of those.

Then I open up the fresh package of boneless chicken thighs and lay them side-by-side (no layering) in the pan. I pour the mole sauce over the thighs. Then I slice an onion and lay the slices over the chicken, and pour more mole over the top. Finally I cover the pan with aluminum foil so that the moisture and steam will stay inside. I want the chicken to cook thoroughly until it is extremely tender and saturated with the flavors of the mole.

The clay-like concentrated mole
fresh out of the jar. ©2016 MW.
The chicken laid, unlayered, in
the roasting pan. ©2016 MW.

With sliced onion floating in the mole
sauce over the chicken thighs, I feel
condident that this will be a tasty
dish.  ©2016 MW.

Finally, I cover the roasting pan with foil to
keep the steam inside during the cooking, and
I nest the roasting pan in a larger pan to
catch any dripping and boiling over. This
proved to be a good idea because it's much
easier to clean the outer pan than it is to
clean my oven. ©2016 MW.

I stirred chopped green onions into the canned
refried beans, covered them with microwave-safe
Saran Wrap, and heated it in the microwave oven.
When I put it on the plates, I sprinkled shredded
Mexican cheese over the beans, and served with
ample tortillas to wrap around the chicken and beans
as mole tacos. The tortillas also served to scoop up
bits of beans, mole, and cheese off the plate. ©2016 MW.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Girl Who Ate White Food

Arwyn, The Cupcake Kid, 2009. Photo by Bart Heird, Chicago.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Once upon a time in Colombia I had a step-daughter who preferred to eat foods that were mostly white. She drank milk and ate quesito, which is a popular semi-soft cheese in Colombia; vanilla ice cream, and other dairy products; arepas, which are a tortilla-like staple of the Colombian diet; white bread; bananas; chicken white meat; potatoes; rice; pasta; mayonnaise; and fish. She wouldn't eat cauliflower because it was obviously from a plant, and plants were to be avoided at all costs. Avoiding plants, in ten-year-old logic, may have been her reason for eating only white food.

Yet she loved ketchup—for its sweetness, I'm sure. In Spanish the phrase for ketchup is salsa de tomate, sauce of tomato or tomato sauce, but not to be confused with the tomato purée that comes in cans and gets used in Italian cooking and meatloaf. Mentally, salsa de tomate serves as an integral word for what we call ketchup. By integral word I mean that we say it without picking it apart into its component parts—we don't hear sauce or tomato, we just hear a word like you hear ketchup.

I tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade my step-daughter to try a slice of tomato, for it seemed to me—tomatoes being so high on the evolutionary scale that they almost talk—if she tried one slice, she'd try another, for who could begin and end the inevitable enchantment of tomatoes in only one bite? This one particular night we were eating some meat that was appropriate for ketchup, so I asked her just from what she thought salsa de tomate was made.I pronounced each part of the world separately: Salsa. De. Tomate. I saw the penny drop in her face as she parsed the phrase... So of course that didn't persuade her to try tomato either, but it certainly dissuaded her from eating ketchup ever again.

One night not much after that I peeled and sliced an eggplant. I dipped each slice in milk and egg then rolled it in corn meal and fried it. Deep-fried corn-meal-crusted things are irresistible to almost anyone, including my step-daughter. I lied and told her they were fish. She ate one. She didn't put ketchup on it, but she did ask for another slice.


I'm delighted to say that the little girl in this story, who is now 21 years old, wrote me an email. I had written to her to ask her about her eating habits and to give her a heads-up, and she got back to me today.

Hello mason.
I'm no longer the petulant child as it was before. I have grown in many aspect and one of them is in the food.

Yes I received the information about the Lovecraft book, but I think for the time being. other readings have to come first. I'm busy finishing the undergraduate and doing yoga then I have little time, perhaps in the future. Thank you

Although in the long run I have contributed little to this girl's upbringing, I am extremely proud of her. On merit she won an all-expense-paid scholarship at a prestigious private university in Medellín, and as you can see in her letter, she is very busy and committed to her studies. Whatever she does, she will no doubt be an outstanding person in her pursuits.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

POEM: A Brief Report on Your Child's Progress at School

Újpest, Brunovszky Vendéglő. Source: Fortepan/Péter Gábor.
Licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

A Brief Report on your Child’s Progress at School
[Firstname] threw up on [hisher] prison dinner tray
Because [SheHe] had been drinking whiskey
That was later discovered in the alley above the tennis courts;
A urine test for marijuana was given but was negative.
And if [SheHe] is discovered smoking in the dorm a
Third time [SheHe] will be suspended for a week.
Parents will have to bear the expense of a
Trip down and up the mountain and
Roundtrip airfare Madurai-Mumbai.
[SheHe] shows little respect for the property of others
Especially religious materials and is
Rumoured to have burned a blue jeans Bible in [hisher] stove.
[SheHe] has actively engaged in Eve Teasing in Hindi in numerous classes and
We have zero tolerance for that kind of love.
[SheHe] has been diagnosed with hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder and
[hisher] daily dose of Ritalin has been tripled
Resulting in a significant decrease of daily incidents.
[SheHe] with friends takes a taxi daily around the lake
Where [SheHe] smokes along a quiet country lane;
We have infiltrated this group and an investigation is pending.
[SheHe] was suspiciously the first to report a used
Condom thrown on the roof of the piano block—
The envious eyes of the science teachers bled tears.
We admire [Firstname]’s leadership skills and feel
Certain that if only [SheHe] would study
[SheHe] would maintain scholastic probation.
It is a pleasure having [Firstname] as a student in our school.

Feral Thinker's Podcast

Cigarette at the ready
Cigarette at the ready. Photograph by Susan Sermoneta. Licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Monday, July 25, 2016

How my world was integrated

A line of African American boys walking through a crowd of white boys during a period of violence related to school integration in Clinton, Tennessee, 1956. Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran. Public domain.
A self-ordained professor's tongue 
Too serious to fool 
Spouted out that liberty
 Is just equality in school
"Equality," I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.
—Bob Dylan. "My Back Pages."
I grew up in interesting times. The schools I attended before high school reinforced the idea of television shows like The Donna Reed Show or Leave It to Beaver that I lived in a white world with no blacks, no Hispanics, no Asians, or anyone else of color. Segregated education was a lie that denied the very nature of humanity. I was not lucky enough—as some people my age were—to grow up surrounded by friends and families of all colors and creeds. I grew up in a segregated world. If and when we crossed the Interstate below 26th Street, we locked the doors of our cars as if we were passing through dangerous zones of interplanetary space.

The Federal courts integrated the Austin Independent School District in 1970. They mixed things up with a vengeance and with a brutishness that placed the law over people. They shut down Anderson High, which was the black high school in East Austin, and bussed the students to four different white schools, one of which, McCallum, received its first black students on my first day of high school there. The black students were furious that their old school had been torn apart and that their friends had been sent in so many different directions.

Instead of being allowed to study in their own neighborhood, the blacks were being sent far and wide into other parts of town that were not particularly welcoming. The McCallum administration had made no preparations to extend a welcoming hand or to bring people together into this new community, and that oversight added to black anger. I remember for the first few days of school the hallway out to the math wing was lined with angry black students staring at anyone who dared walk down this corridor they'd claimed. There were near riots in the lunch room. One burly black guy walking between those folding lunch tables grabbed the ends of two tables, lifted them, and flipped them in opposite directions, end over end, food, dishes, and trays flying every which way. Everyone else fled the lunch room. For the next three years that I was at McCallum, I did not eat in the cafeteria.

Nobody had taken the trouble to demystify the other in this encounter in our racist world of opposites. The blacks were scared and angry, and most of the whites were frightened by this angry alien presence in our midst. The administration realized how they had failed in this drawing together of people, so they scrambled for a few days to develop plans as they struggled to maintain peace despite the anger about to boil over. So after only three days they held assemblies and began to introduce everyone to everyone else, to welcome the newcomers to our school, to set up committees in which students worked together to establish policies conducive to peace and to making the best out of the new arrangement, and to convince everyone that nobody bites, table tossing in the lunch room notwithstanding.

There were of course some angry whites, which I am inclined to identify as the white supremacists sector of my school. There weren't a lot of them:

I am in German class in one of those first few tense days, and outside a rowdy group of six white students carrying sticks and rocks and chanting racist slogans come marching down the sidewalk. A guy seated two desks ahead of mine stands up and shakes his fist in the air in solidarity with the demonstration outdoors. "Kill! Kill! Kill!" he says. I feel puzzled because, even as tense as things are, I see no reason to kill anyone. The teacher told him to sit down and shut up, and she called the office to ask them to do something about the marauders.

What amazed me then and still amazes me now is that, even though they hadn't had the foresight to do all this before the new students drove up in those bright yellow busses, those assemblies, committees, and, most of all, people talking to each other worked. The effort wasn't perfect, but it did enough to defuse a bomb that was ready to explode. Gradually tensions eased, though it took longer than the three years I was in that school for the students from east Austin to achieve social parity with everyone else. The otherness that each group felt for the other took time to wear off.

There were some blacks who came to school but did not participate in it. They wore dressy and expensive clothes and patent leather shoes, wandered the hallways, went to their cars, or sometimes left campus altogether, but they never came to class. They were in the school but not of it. This annoyed me because I thought their presence was disruptive. The classrooms in the math wing had big shuttered vents out to the hallway that ran both along the ceiling and along the floor, and one day when I was in calculus class, I saw through the floor vents a pair of patent leather shoes walking up the hallway. I wadded up a piece of paper and launched it through the ceiling vents, and the door opened. The vice principal in charge of discipline stood in the doorway with my wad of paper in his hands. "Who threw this?" Nobody said anything, and he decided not to press the issue and went away. There was an object lesson there for me: not all people who wear patent leather shoes were the non-participating blacks. My assumptions, like most racist assumptions, had led me astray.

I always hated physical education, and in high school I often showed up for roll call then took one of the many halls in the labyrinthine gym to get out of there. One day, though, at the end of the hall through which I was escaping p.e. were a few black guys smoking a joint. These days I would think nothing of it, keep walking, say "Excuse me," and go out the door. But in that time I was into fear mode, so I said, "Um, do you mind if I come through there so I can get outta here?" They said, "Yeah, come ahead." I knew enough about marijuana to know that it didn't turn people into violent fiends, but still it was three black guys and one white guy in a little-used corridor. That was silly and racist of me, I know, yet the desegregation of my school was the beginning of the end of that sort of thinking.

The failure for which I feel the most shame was during the award ceremony at the Science Fair. I won two prizes, and when the winners were called, they were supposed to go up the few stairs to the stage and shake hands with the judges, who were all science teachers seated at the table, then receive the award certificate. With no animosity but wholly passive racism, the black teacher, who was as legitimate of a judge and teacher as anyone else at the table, just did not register in my mind as a teacher or a judge. I didn't know why she was there, nor did I give her a thought. I did not perceive her as a legitimate person. My passive racism made her invisible. So two times I skipped shaking hands with her. At some point, perhaps years later, when it finally dawned on me what I had done, I felt shame for my omission. I've reached a point now where race (rather than people) is almost transparent to me, but that's nothing to brag about because this is how it should have been all along, and it took me far too long to get to this imperfect stage.

These days, they tell me, students choose which schools they want to attend, and schools make like flowers out to attract the bees. Schools are made better by having them compete for students with programs and specialties. Instead of enforcing who must attend what school according to racial lines or court-ordered bus lines, schools make themselves attractive by offering programs and specialties, and students choose which school they want to attend. McCallum is a "high school and fine arts academy" with a large auditorium added to it.

I looked at this list of Austin high schools and toyed with the check boxes by which someone can indicate what sort of school they're looking for, and I cried a tear because we have come so far yet have so far to go.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

From out of the war

Mason at five years old. The cap cried out for
a red star that was added later. ©2016 Mason West.
After World War II ended, my parents, like most young adults, moved around a bit as my dad tried to figure out how to parlay a brief naval career into something more permanent on the land. It didn't help that everyone in the US had been in the armed forces and were now, in the post-war years, looking for a job and a path in life.

My dad enlisted enlisted on 12 September 1939. Most likely, he wanted a steady, dependable job that he could keep until he retired. His enlistment was more than two years before the US entered WWII. I've pondered other possible motives. Maybe he wanted to stay out of fox holes, or maybe it was my dad's equivalent of going to Canada to join the RAF. But I doubt that.

Yet Germany had invaded Poland on 1 September, and England and France had reacted by declaring war on Germany on 3 September. As a result of the escalating tensions in Europe, ten hours after Britain's declaration of war on Germany, a German U-boat mistakes the SS Athenia, a trans-Atlantic passenger liner, for an armed armed merchant cruiser, torpedoes it, kills 128 passengers and crew, including 28 Americans, and sinks the ship. The Germans worry that this unintended provocation will draw the US into the war, as the sinking of the Lusitania had helped bring the US into WWI, but Roosevelt nevertheless insists that the US will remain neutral. Even so, I can't help wondering if my dad didn't see one news reel or read one newspaper between in those eleven days between the Germans' trip to Poland and my dad's trip to the Navy Recruiting Station in Houston, Texas. Did he really trust Roosevelt's assurances that much? Of course the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two years later changed all that, so, to make a long harrowing story short, my father had, by 1945, had enough of the Navy and was honorably discharged on Saturday, 13 October 1945.

My dad is on the far right.
My mother, with her seven sisters, had a plethora of brothers-in-law who were eager to help my father find permanent employment. My parents moved to Houston where one sister and brother-in-law were. That brother-in-law had been in the Navy and served around a naval air station, so he was a logical first choice, a brother in arms. Fortunately the work opportunities there didn't pan out or I might have been born and raised in Houston and been a completely different animal.

Another brother-in-law, who had served as an infantryman in Patton's Third Army in France and Germany, had gotten on with the Austin Police Department, and he thought he could get my father a job there too. So by 1950—less than five years since his discharge—my father's dream was realized. He had found the job he would keep until retirement in the late 1970s.

He started as a uniformed police officer whose duties included directing traffic at Sixth and Congress. Now Sixth Street is the main drag of the music scene and the high voltage cable for SxSW, the big annual festival that brings every musician and music businessperson in the entire solar system to Austin, but back then it was just a major thoroughfare, and my dad's intersection was the busiest in town. After returning from Houston, the rented a house on the northern fringes of Austin on Link Avenue on the corner with Koenig Lane, a cross-town thoroughfare. The area was bursting into life with the guaranteed mortgages of the GI Bill. From there, my mother had a straight shot west on Koenig a mile and a half to the new HEB grocery store that had opened on Burnet Road, and I remember riding around in the kiddie seat of the basket as she pushed it around harvesting goods from the shelves. As a family we've had a continuous relationship with that grocery store for over sixty years.

For over twenty years they had only vehicle between them, so if my mother needed a car on a certain day, she'd have to drop him at the police station and pick him up when his shift was over. Although winters are generally mild in Central Texas, there are some bitter cold fronts that come through, and on at least one occasion my brother had to walk to school in bitter weather.

I was born in November 1955, about 285 gestation days after Valentine's Day, a likely foam baby, 12 years after my brother was born. The average pregnancy lasts 280 days, but then I've figured not from date of last menstruation as doctors do but from likely conception. By then my parents were renting a house where the back yard abutted the back side of businesses along the Interstate. Though the buildings along the freeway blocked some of the noise, I became aware that there was some monolithic structure full of cars nearby—my first awareness of humans as a society of builders—and of course I sometimes rode with my parents to places and we crossed or even passed down the speedy lanes of the Interstate, so I'd seen it with my eyes from various angles and had a three-dimensional map of it in my head.

Once, just barely old enough to figure out that the block could be circled, I set out to walk around it. So there I was, three feet tall and toddling the sidewalk that ran between the parking lots of those businesses and the Interstate. But before I got halfway around, the shoelaces on my right shoe had come undone, and I had no idea of how to retie them. So I turned around and went back with that loose shoe flapping all the way.

Afterwards I confessed to my dad what I had done, but I was probably deep in my speech crack-up, and he didn't understand me. He said only, "Oh? That's nice." But he was never as aware of the potential perils surrounding a three-year-old.

One time he took me fishing, and while he was casting along the river bank, I somehow leaned too far toward the water and fell into a swift current. I remember feeling wrapped in a chute of chilled water and being carried swiftly away—rarely does anything happen in nature so perfectly with this cartoon quality of peril accompanied not so much by fear as curiosity—and my dad swam out to rescue me. The whole scene had a cinematic quality to it—a setup, crisis, denouement—like a two-minute movie. I asked my dad about it, and he remembered it clearly and said, "yes, I had to jump in and swim out to you because you were being carried away."

Then there is a blank in memory until I get home, where I have a brief memory of my mother in her work clothes asking what happened. I barely remember my father giving out his condensed narrative, but no more. I remember nothing of my mother's reaction, but I suspect she raised her voice or was somehow emotional, not because I remember it, but because all memories from the time that we were in that two-bedroom rental by the Interstate are somehow tied to emotional tension. I was not yet continuously cognizant.

Two roosters that I had as pets from Easter chicks until it was
time to sell them to someone who would fatten and eat them.
I had learned to talk in more or less the same way that every kid does, but then came the speech crack-up. Suddenly my ability to pronounce consonants went haywire. My S mutated into a lazy H, and G must have been swallowed whole.

Fortunately for me there was a free speech clinic at the University of Texas where graduate students in speech pathology working as interns taught me how to make all the phonics of English speech all over again from scratch. This relearning and rebuilding of my speech process cleared the crack-up before I started first grade, where I would have been laughed at were it not for the free program, and if it hadn't been free I wouldn't have gotten it at all.

In February 1961, during the time of speech therapy, my dead found a deal on a house in that zone of GI Bill tract housing that was under construction when they lived on Link Avenue. It was a hodge-podge of a house. An occupant had built a family room—we called it the den—on the back of the house, and since the original back door of the house was at the end of the kitchen, we had to walk through the kitchen to get to the den, an awkwardness that has never been resolved. What had been the original garage was converted to a bedroom, into which one stepped down by nearly a foot, and this room with its own entrances provided my brother with a bedroom. Beyond that was a small utility room, where my mother had her washing machine—she didn't have a dryer until later, and in this time she hung damp clothes on a clothes line in the back yard. The utility room had a door that opened into the back yard, and this provided my brother with a private entrance to his room. Then beyond the utility room a new garage had been rather careless tacked on, but my parents never used it as a garage but as storage. Today it is crammed with a compulsively collected assortment of things spanning nearly a century.

In the summers, the neighbor boy and I ran around self-propelled and largely undisciplined like a couple of shirtless savages through the summer. We got deeply tanned, and knew nothing of air conditioning in this savagely hot state for the first ten years of our lives. It was only when my dad decided that he was tired of becoming sweaty again immediately after bathing before work that he decided to buy two window units to air condition the house. So we gained from air conditioning as accidentally as an innocent bystander loses from a bullet during a drive-by shooting. I knew what air conditioning felt like because stores and movie houses had it. The neighbor boy's father had a massive window unit that cooled their entire house. The dad had a ranch about an hour outside of town, and he'd go up early, feed the cattle, and do whatever else needed to be done, and he'd be back in time to watch mid-afternoon baseball games. I would lie shirtless against the hardwood floor, soak up the coolness, and enjoy the sweet scent of the cigar smoke in the air. My friend's father was always home in time to watch a baseball game, about which I didn't care, but I liked the ambiance around it and the coolness of the room. Before becoming just a rancher, he had worked as a carpenter, and during the war he had been with the Seabees, the Civil Engineer Corps of the US Navy.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Starting up with the Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger on the runway. Rolling Stones in concert at Hyde Park in London, 2013.
Photo by Gorupdebesanez. Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.
It's been one of those hectic periods during which all I want to do is get in bed and pull the cover over my head until it's over. Leonard Bernstein did a wonderful video series of Beethoven's nine symphonies, and at the beginning of each show, before the music began, he gives a talk brimming with ideas and passion for the music. Bernstein is the sort of genius of such lofty occupation that I cannot fault him for his earthly sins. In one of those fascinating talks he mentions how people often say when Beethoven wrote Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, the so-called Pathétique, he was depressed, and depression colored the music with its fury, agony, and lethargy. But Bernstein says no, if you're depressed you stay in bed. You certainly don't get up and write music. He's right, of course. Bernstein here spots the musical version of literature's intentional fallacy that says it's a silly reader who supposes that the word I means the author. My students used to say things like, "Shakespeare was broken-hearted the day he wrote this sonnet." Maybe so, but it's foolish to assume so until you know so. But fallacy be damned, I haven't felt like doing much of anything, and I lack ideas—hence yesterday's pathetic hodge-podge of Random Notes. Fortunately, another source of musical genius, the Rolling Stones, have dropped an idea in my empty idea basket.

The Stones, of whom I am a long-time fan, have newly revised their Android app with several new and wonderful features. They have a message wall (sort of like Facebook) where people can leave Stones stories, and to kick-start that, people who post on the wall automatically become eligible for a drawing for prizes—I haven't worried about prizes because I'm sure there will be so many entrants that I'd have better luck winning the Powerball. My purpose isn't winning but just writing. Everyone has a Stones story, so I wrote mine, which goes something like this:

I saw the Stones in Houston's Astrodome in 1981 by chance. My downstairs neighbors in Houston were Pam and Janet, two young women from Ohio in the "My City Was Gone" epoch. As everybody immigrated out of the "rust belt," they apparently went to Houston, as if someone had handed out flyers like those in The Grapes of Wrath. Pam and Janet were surviving in Houston, and at a time when I had no money, they had tickets for the Rolling Stones concert. I had income, but I lived hand-to-mouth. My irregular cash flow probably meant I had no cash to flow during the narrow window that Stones tickets were on sale (sold out quickly they did). In all fairness, though, I should add that I was working at my first salaried job, and when they had offered me $15K in 1981 dollars, it sounded like a lot of money, but I quickly learned how little it was.

Pam was tall and not quite gangling, with dark-chocolate colored hair in a pixie cut and big glasses, which gave her an intellectual look. Though she wasn't particularly intellectual or scholarly, she was smart and perceptive of things most people didn't notice. She had a methodical way of speaking, putting each word down in a carefully considerate way, as if she were playing Go, and I love that in a person because I'm hypersensitive to usage. My own linguistic failings notwithstanding, bad syntax and grammar grate on me like sour notes on a violin. I felt Pam was a person with whom I could have had a nice romance, but as some people say, Why ruin it? She was, as the song says, someone with whom I couldn't get started, and I suppose she preferred it that way.

Janet meanwhile was blond, shorter, slightly rounder, and softer. Her conversational style felt a bit like someone rushing through the hallways of my mind looking for a joke that must be in there somewhere. She was an avid hunter, interrogating along one line of thought, quickly abandoning it when she didn't find what she sought, trying another of inquisition, and when she found the humor, she greeted it with a loud sharp barking laugh that sometimes I could hear even though I was upstairs in my own apartment. My social awkwardness and general lack of guile—I have little or no façade or mask to wear—made me easy prey for this hunter, but at the same time, her laughter made me feel good about my own silly faults and weaknesses. She wasn't at all hurtful or judgmental.

Janet had a pathologically jealous boyfriend named Raymond. One night I came home and Raymond was downstairs at Janet's door, crying loud enough for everyone all around to hear, "please, baby, oh please, let me in." I saw little of the private side of their relationship, but what I saw of these scenes in public places frightened me because they hinted of darkness and danger.

Pam and Janet threw a small party for ten people. Raymond did his best to fit into the relatively soft-spoken polite society that even this scruffy working class crowd formed, but he obviously struggled with discomfort, like a tom boy forced to scrub and put on a starchy Sunday go-to-meeting dress.

Pam sometimes came up to my apartment alone—Raymond probably wouldn't have permitted Janet to visit my apartment, even in Pam's company—and we would talk or gossip about Janet and Raymond, listen to music, and have a drink. I always had alcohol in the house, which is another reason I never had any money.

During one of Pam's visits she mentioned that it looked like Raymond didn't want Janet to go to the Stones concert, and Janet was debating between Raymond and Mick, Keith, and the boys. I guess Raymond feared the band would make a Honky Tonk Woman out of her. Pam said I might be able to have the ticket. Besides, I had a car, and Pam and Janet didn't, and Houston is a hellish place without one, especially if you're going to the Astrodome to see a concert.

A few days later, Janet's ticket fell to me and not long after that we were at the show. ZZ Top warmed up the crowd. That "little old band from Texas" had the audacity to ask for the headliners' position. Yeah right. I like them, and they were a superlative warm-up band, but they were no match for the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

Then it's "Ladies & Gentlemen..." l don't think they really invited us to welcome the world's greatest rock and roll band. It seems like they just charged the stage, and for the first time in touring history they could open with "Start Me Up" because this was the Tattoo You tour. They did all the great songs plus the album.

The tour was sponsored by a perfume company that had machines emitting sweet scents in the air, to say nothing of what people were smoking. The show was an extremely sensual experience, visual, and especially aural.

Keith Richards. Photo by Ilianov. Licensed by CC by 2.0.
Mick yielded control of the stage to Keith for "Little T&A." To my surprise that was the song that played in my head at work the next day. There's an intensity in Richards's performance that cannot be captured in a record. At the heart of rock lies an infinitely strong feeling that is ineffable and that cannot even be recorded, but when I see and hear Richards make it live, it is like getting a tattoo because it stays with me forever.

The next day at work I pretended to be normal even though I'd seen the seraphim pull open a crack in the universe to reveal the Gods of Rock. I've been to hundreds of shows, but this one l remember best, down there on the plebeian floor, close enough to make out the features of their faces and to feel the retinal sting of the lights—or maybe that was the glare of rock itself that these guys channeled so perfectly.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, a salesman from the company where I worked was at this concert wooing a potential client in a skybox with not only the show but various imbibements and some Honky Tonk women of their own.

The object of all this entertaining was a geophysicist who helped his clients find oil, and he recognized me as someone who could keep his multi-million dollar computer purchase in a productive mode, so in my turn I too got wooed and swept away to Colorado from Houston, a city in which, in retrospect, I cannot imagine anyone living voluntarily. I'm not sure, but it seems like there might have been a non-compete agreement with my Houston employer, but if there was, they didn't seek to enforce it. Instead, they gossiped in wicked ways with crudely fabricated stories that shocked me and that worried my new employer. I was certainly naïve—that $15K salary, for example—but I had viewed those people with whom I worked every day in Houston as friends, and the things they said about me—called my new employer up to tell him about me—shocked me because they were not only ugly lies but vicious attacks against me.

Mick Jagger. In concert with the Rolling Stones in New York City, 1970s.
Photo by Dina Regine. Licensed by CC By-SA 2.0.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Random Notes: money, musicians, senior discounts, lawyers, guns, and still more money

Welcome to another random notes blog about money, musicians, senior discounts, lawyers, guns, and, well, still more money.


According to Wikipedia, the US has been the wealthiest country in the world for a long while. In 2015 it had a net national wealth of $85.9 trillion dollars. Below it are China ($22.8 trillion), Japan ($19.8 trillion), the UK ($15.6 trillion), and France ($12.7 trillion).

IF I divide the US into two countries, with the the wealthiest 1% belonging to one country and the other 99% to the other, the lower 99% have 65.5% of the wealth, or $56.2 trillion, which would still be first place on the list of wealthiest nations. The 1% wealthiest Americans in their private plutocracy (probably safely hidden in Delaware somewhere) would have 34.5% of the wealth or $29.6 trillion, placing them in second place between the 99% and China. So the list would look like:

  1. 99% of America 56,265 
  2. 1% of US 29,721
  3. China 22,817

But if these two hypothetical Americas divided the wealth between the top 20% and the lower 80%, then the top 20% would have 84.9% of the wealth or $72.9 trillion, and the lower 80% would have 15.1% or $12.9 trillion. In this scenario, both chunks remain at the top of the list and ahead of China:

  1. 20% of America $72,930
  2. China $22,81
  3. Japan $19,837
  4. UK $15,601
  5. 80% of America $12,971
  6. France $12,697

Artist's depiction of U.S. wealth inequality in 2013.
Graphic by Stephen Ewen. Licensed by CC By-SA 3.0.
This disparity between Upper and Lower America may not seem that bad from these statistics—after all, even the lower 80% are richer than most of the world and are on a par with the UK and France. However, if I consider the plight of the lower 40% then I'm looking at only 0.2% of the wealth of the US, or $171.8 billion. This is a quarter of the wealth of Greece. It's hard to get more specific about wealth because most numbers are expressed as either gross domestic product or wealth per capita, but suffice it to say that a country worth only $171.8 billion isn't worth much.

If I consider my take-home pay relative to my productivity, it looks like my salary rewarded my productivity proportionately from the end of World War 2 up to 1975. When men came home from the war, women's places in the labor market suddenly disappeared, and it would take decades for them to win back that progress. Men became the exclusive breadwinners in most families, yet they were able to buy a house, a car, a television, and support their wives and average 2.2 children. The GI Bill gave most of them a financial boost. But since 1975, women have not only won their places back in the labor force, but they have been left little choice but to work—one wonders if all the women's rights talk from the 1970s onward were merely a polite way of saying "Get to work!" Since that time productivity has more than doubled, yet the real median family income has stayed more or less the same. So all the money made from this increase on productivity goes to someone other than the people who were productive.


I often see musicians in mid-song quickly exchanging a few words. I hear the Beatles talking low in the mix, particularly in the endless repeating refrain at the end of the song. And I've noticed this among sitar players like Anoushka Shankar and her percussionist. What do the sitar player and the tabla player talk about while they are playing music? I don't have the answer to this question, but surely there is a musician who can tell me what's going on. Are they making last-minute changes to the arrangement? Are they talking about the gate? Are they just making show?


McMinn County Senior Citizen Center, completed in 1998. Designed by Joseph S. Goodstein.
Photo by Ghbeeri. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
When I became 60 I began to enjoy senior discounts at various places. Actually some places offer senior discounts to people as young as 55, but I didn't even think about the possibility until I turned 60. So that's what it's all about. We work and slave, scrimp and save our lives away, and shops and especially restaurants start offering me senior discounts to soak up those pensions and social security benefits. Yes, after all these years, senior discounts have finally given my life meaning.
Chinese buffet. Photo by Spencer195. Licensed by the
GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
I went to a huge, bulimic-sized Chinese buffet on my birthday to celebrate this new discount in my life, but it turned out that because i was there in mid-afternoon, I was also eligible for the early-bird discount, which was significantly more than the senior discount. What I've learned about the Chinese buffets is that it's much better to go to the Korean Japanese restaurant where the emphasis is on quality over quantity instead of vice versa.
Senior Citizen Fair at Seattle Center, 1973.
Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

There are many Web sites that direct you to businesses offering senior discounts, among them Senior Discounts seems to be the biggest. You should keep in mind that this apparent kindness doesn't reach all the way to the bone. Senior discounts are offered because the shop or restaurant somehow calculates that in the long run they are going to make more money, not less, by offering the discount. I suppose some few feel that they are doing a service to the community, but even they wind up with a lot of regular customers, but if everyone is happy, then that's great. I wouldn't mind a diner where I liked the food and who gave me a 20% discount just because they want a regular customer who finally knows better than I did fifty years ago. I'm just urging anyone to proceed with caution—caveat emptor.

The queen of senior discounts is the US government's Senior Pass for recreational areas. It covers entrance fees at 2,000 federal recreation sites including national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it usually gets you discounts on other fees as well. The areas include not only what we're accustomed to thinking of as recreational areas—the National Park Service and the USDA Forest Service—but also the Bureau of Land Managementthe Bureau of Reclamationthe Fish and Wildlife Serviceand the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is an important one because they are the great builders of dams like the Hoover Dam. Web pages concerning the pass are likewise scattered across the sites of multiple agencies, and none of them are completely clear, but if you're going to enter a federal park more than once during the rest of your life, the Senior Pass is a good investment. You can buy the card at a park entrance, for which you must prove that you are a US citizen or permanent resident 62 years of age or older. Proof includes a driver's license from a US state or territory, a passport, or a permanent resident card. The Senior Pass costs $10 if you buy it at the park gate, but if you prefer to have all your ducks in a row before you get there, pay $20 to get the pass by mail.

The multi-agency Senior Pass replaces the Golden Age Passport. People who have paper versions of the Golden Age Passport or Golden Access Passport may exchange them for the respective new Interagency Recreation Passes free of charge, but they can't exchange the plastic versions yet because "currently hundreds of thousands of these passports [are] in circulation and the agencies cannot accommodate a full exchange program."


Absolutely unnecessary and destructive in cities, and perhaps a necessary evil in rural settings. More die in cars than in wars. They're ruining the planet. Every time I put my foot on a gas-burning accelerator I am fracking. Cars are noisy, dirty, and expensive. They dictate inhumane architectural design and urban planning paradigms. In the typical person's budget, they are the biggest expense except for housing. They're the worst possible solution for everyone's daily commute. In the US, where I have a knee-jerk reaction against anything public because socialism is automatically considered evil and a discussion stopper, I fail to realize that cars are the most socialized form of transportation anywhere because they depend upon roads that are PUBLIC WORKS.... OK, I'll get off my soapbox though I have so much to say about this. I've traveled around the world and seen the huge difference between urban settings developed for cars as opposed to those developed for pedestrians.

Lawyers Guns & Money
Interesting that in the US guns, which should be treated as a criminal problem, are treated as a medical problem—the Center for Disease Control tracks gun-related injuries and fatalities. And drugs, which should be treated as a medical problem, are treated as a criminal problem. If you follow the money involved in this absurdity, it lands close to the people who make the laws, which serves as yet another illustration that there is no real democracy in the US. 

Personally I think that the lack of choice in this election is a grand opportunity for the citizenry to realize how differences among candidates are superficial and insignificant, which gives them a chance to come to terms with the corporate dictatorship. And if you come to terms with the corporate dictatorships grotesquely putrid moral core, then we can start dealing with issues like how the major supplier of drugs in this country is the CIA at the top of the dealing pyramid, or that most wars are for either drugs or petroleum and that 58,000 boys died in Vietnam defending the opium supply (raw product to make heroin), or that in order to preserve its business in Latin America the US has unleashed demonic gangs that have turned every country from Mexico to the Andes into a paradise for demonic gangs whose rein of terror has a huge death toll.... But one crook or another will get elected here in the US, and I can only hope that their crookedness becomes so obvious that people finally realize how naive it is to think America's deep corruption can be fixed at the ballot box.