Archive for the ‘Arts & letters’ Category

Resurrection

January 29, 2023

Desert Oracle, Vol. 1. May there be many, many more.

Weirdos and those who love them, rejoice: Ken Layne says he’s reviving his Desert Oracle quarterly, which many of us thought had died and was buried without ceremony somewhere in the desert, like Cactus Ed Abbey.

I bought and enjoyed the first book, a collection, compendium, companion, whatevs. And I help underwrite Desert Oracle Radio, the only audio project I support, though I subscribe to a wide range of virtual and actual magazines.

My next step along this twisted trail is probably subscribing to the quarterly. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the fella says.

In his “An Ode to ‘Desert Oracle'” in Alta Journal, Layne cuts straight to the heart of the beast:

Publishing a little magazine is attractive to exactly one kind of person: a writer who doesn’t want to work for somebody else’s magazine.

My old Pueblo Chieftain bro’ Hal Walter, who didn’t want to work for somebody else’s newspaper anymore, did something similar with Mountain Athlete, which lasted about six or seven years back in the late Eighties and into the early Nineties. Denver Post columnist Ed Quillen did likewise with Colorado Central, which has outlived him.

I contributed to both efforts in small ways, once loaning Ed one of my trucks so he could make it to a speaking engagement.

“Now remember, Ed, you can’t smoke in my truck,” I told him before he motored off. The trip took him about twice as long as it would have taken me because I wouldn’t have stopped and climbed out to burn one at every other mile marker.

But the closest I ever came to “publishing a little magazine” is this comosellama you’re looking at right now. The deadlines are flexible and the audience tolerant, and I can bear the small expense without having to sell a few bikes or vintage Macs.

Not adding books, podcasts, and road shows to the to-do list helps, of course. Saves trees, eardrums, and gasoline, too.

Besides, someone’s got to rustle up the grub around here. There are only so many hours in the day.

Someone’s looking for me

December 14, 2022

Book ’im, Dan-o.

Just ’cause you’re paranoid, etc.

I was browsing the Books section at The New York Times a couple weeks ago and stumbled across a blurb for a book that looked interesting — “No One Left to Come Looking for You,” by Sam Lipsyte — so I ordered it from Page 1 Books, my fave local bookseller.

It was a special order, wouldn’t even be released until Dec. 6, so immediate gratification would not be mine. No worries; no hurry. And so I went about my business.

Then, yesterday, I wandered back to the Books section and spotted a “By the Book” Q&A with Lipsyte, in which he drops a reference to a song that knocked me out the first time I heard it way back when — “Birth, School, Work, Death” by the Eighties alt-rockers the Godfathers.

So naturally I dialed it up on the old YouTube and commenced rocking out, which was about when my email went “Ping!” It was Page 1 informing me that my book was ready to be picked up.

I think my next purchase will be a rear-view mirror for the MacBook Pro.

R.I.P., Thomas Cahill

October 30, 2022

Ah, sure, an’ in what class of a donnybrook would ye be without us so?

The scholar and scribe Thomas Cahill has gone west. He was 82.

Cahill is perhaps best known for his book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.” (You’re welcome, by the way.)

It was to be the kickoff to a seven-part series about critical moments in Western European civilization, according to The New York Times; he wrote six before his death Oct. 18 in Manhattan.

In his introduction, Cahill argues:

“And yet … Ireland, a little island at the edge of Europe that has known neither Renaissance or Enlightenment — in some ways, a Third World country with, as John Betjeman claimed, a Stone Age culture — had one moment of unblemished glory. For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature — everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed.”

Without “the Mission of the Irish Monks,” he continues, “the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one — a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.”

By the end of “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Cahill seems to wonder whether the worlds of then and now are really all that different.

He writes:

“As we, the people of the First World, the Romans of the twentieth century, look out across our Earth, we see some signs for hope, many more for despair. …

“Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics — or better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe that there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their name implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human is an equal child of God, and that God will provide.

“The twenty-first century, prophesized (André-Georges) Malraux, will be spiritual or it will not be. If our civilization is to be saved — forget about our civilization, which, as (St.) Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind” — if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”

Time travel

October 8, 2022

Truckin’, like the doo-dah man.

• Editor’s note: It’s a gray, gloomy day here at El Rancho Pendejo, and Hal Walter’s road-trip tale has put me in mind of my own meditation from the spring of 2000, when the vile Crusty County weather had me thinking about snorting that long white line to wherever.

“I have been buggered to near death by the clock.” — Jim Harrison in “The Beige Dolorosa,” from the novella collection “Julip”

“How do I shut this alarm off?” my wife asked some years back. Her sports watch was cheeping incessantly, like a baby bird in a sack of crack.

“Like this,” I replied, snatching the watch from her, placing it on the kitchen floor and pounding it into a flattened silence with a claw hammer. We both laughed, but warily; killing time just isn’t that easy.

Still, when you see time limping along like it does in a snowbound April in the Colorado mountains, scraping the slush off its boots on the welcome mat of spring, there arises a murderous desire to put it out of its misery. So Shannon has begun hiding the hammers as I glare at the clock, as if I could will its crawling hands into picking up the pace, spinning me up some sunshine.

• • •

“We’re going to be late,” I warned my friends Hal and Mary as we dawdled first over stout, then over coffee, in a succession of Bibleburg bistros. It was my 46th birthday, and we were headed to Colorado College for a poetry reading by one of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison. Harrison seems the sort to bark at nitwits who interrupt his work, and I wanted his autograph, not his antipathy.

Jim Harrison laid his Jim Hancock on my copy of “Warlock,” though it was not among his favorite works.

As it turned out, we were right on time, and Harrison was late. A student of Zen Buddhism with his own temporal compulsions, Harrison announced: “I’m not a long reader. This will be exactly 52 minutes.” A koan for a birthday present.

Frankly, I’d have settled for a little less light and a little more warmth. Spring brings Colorado the heavy snows that we used to get in winter like everybody else, and the way my mental batteries were running down under the gray-flannel skies had me convinced that I was solar-powered.

My last escape attempt, a mid-March road trip to a cycling festival in California, was too short and not nearly sweet enough. I’ve been contemplating another to someplace where the locals’ knowledge of snow is limited to what they’ve been able to glean from the Encyclopedia Britannica, but you can’t pilot a Toyota truck to the Virgin Islands, not even in four-wheel drive.

And then there’s the expense. The rising price of gasoline aside, it’s not always possible or desirable to sleep in a pickup, which lacks certain amenities — like a toilet, shower, sink, stove, furnace and elbow room, especially when the camper shell is stuffed fore to aft with a bicycle, a cooler full of beer and a day pack crammed with computer gear and drawing tools.

Even if you pack camping gear and spend your nights outside the truck, you’re doomed to an occasional Motel 666 if for no other reason than hygiene, an impulse that will cost you anywhere from $30 to $60 a pop, depending upon your ZIP code at the time.

So lately I’ve been eyeballing used RVs and wondering whether I’m old enough to own one. This is not unlike like cigar-smoking; you have to be of a certain age to pull it off without looking ridiculous.

Too, as a cyclist who has played mirror-tag with many a blue-haired land-yacht captain over the years, the notion leaves me feeling a little like a Lakota warrior applying to join Custer’s 7th Cavalry.

And the entry fee for the RV lifestyle is a high curb to hop — even an elderly, smallish Toyota RV can run from five to ten large, while free-lance cycling journalism pays on the small side.

• • • 

In the essay “Going Places,” from his collection “Just Before Dark,” Harrison advises: “Do not scorn day trips. You can use them to avoid nervous collapse.” So with a light snow falling and the promise of more on the way, I jumped into my ’83 Toyota 4WD and headed north to talk to a guy who had a used, slide-in, pop-up camper for sale.

As I bounced crazily down our steep, corrugated goat path to the county road — this truck, which under a previous owner carried a camper, has springs apparently salvaged from a buckboard — I realized I’d forgotten my watch. A moment of dismay, then satori; I had more than enough time to make the noon appointment, and there was nothing of pressing urgency requiring a timepiece, so screw it.

So, after checking out the camper — affordable and nicely minimalist, with a cabover bed, a small sink and stove, a pedestal table and bench, and a furnace — I spent the afternoon idling around downtown Bibleburg, where it was not snowing, the roads were paved, and distractions were available in variety.

Drank a pint of Guinness and ate a burger in Jack Quinn’s; looked for Harrison books in the cavernous used-book store Gateways; sipped a tall Americano in a Starbucks staffed by two pleasant young women chattering away like magpies. Then I took my sweet time getting home, and not just because I was following a snowplow and an 18-wheeler up a slushy Hardscrabble Cañon.

Again, Harrison, in “The Beige Dolorosa” from “Julip”: “The clock is the weapon with which we butcher our lives.”

The character who writes this line on an index card — an academic rebelling against the tyranny of the clock as he comes to terms with a vastly altered life — then wraps his watch around the cord of his Big Ben electric clock and dangles both in the toilet, flushing and laughing.

He continues: “The damnable watch still worked. I put it on the floor, stepped up on the toilet seat and jumped, smashing the watch to bits. It occurred to me that I was getting a little excitable, so I took the remnants of the two timepieces outside and peed on them to complete the scene appropriately. I reached back in the cabin and turned off the light, the better to see the stars. They were so dense they made the sky look flossy, almost a fog of stars which had drawn infinitely closer to me than ever before, as if my destruction of time had made me a friendlier object for their indeterminate powers.”

Smash your watches. Pee on your clocks. Go look at the stars.

Double dumbstruck

September 11, 2022

Gassing up for the long commute.

“This heat’s not good for the brain. Turns out nothing much is good for the brain in the 2020s. TV rots it, the Internet turns it to jelly, the miserable climate bakes it, 90 percent of what we call ‘work’ is deliberately designed to actually erase the human brain; this has been proven. Podcasts: Now there’s a guaranteed way to reverse years of book-learning and social skills. There’s online gambling, TikTok … and then Queen Elizabeth II passed away and it was like a Bat-Signal in the sky to make everybody go extra double-dumb. … Only in Ireland did they seem to sort of be enjoying it all.” — Ken Layne, “Like a Hurricane,” Desert Oracle Radio

You said a mouthful, brother.

The news has been so relentlessly grotesque that I found myself double-dumbstruck, which is to say rendered speechless by astonishment while simultaneously catching a puck in the gob from a wildly flailing eejit.

The prospect of commenting on any of our ongoing Dumpster fires felt like pissing into the drinking water in Jackson, Mississippi — an enhancement, to be sure, but not a solution any sane person would swallow.

So I kept it zipped. Averted my eyes. Instead I watched the hummingbirds mobbing our feeders; the little buzzbombs will be leaving us shortly. Played with Miss Mia Sopaipilla, who remains extraordinarily kittenish for a 15-year-old cat. Rode the bike(s) — 130 miles last week, 140 this week.

With “Better Call Saul” in the rear view we branched out a bit in our evening TV-watching. I can recommend “Letterkenny,” (absurdly funny Canadians); “This Fool” (snarky South Central working-class vatos); “Belfast” (The Troubles through a child’s eyes); and “The Sandman,” derived, like “Watchmen,” from a high-gloss DC comic of which I had been ignorant.

• Honorable mention: “Funny Pages,” a bent coming-of-age story about a teenage cartoonist who gets an up-close-and-personal look at the subterranean bits of “underground comics.” Could be straight out of “Zap,” “Bijou,” or pretty much any other comic you read back when weed was still illegal. And yes, Your Humble Narrator recognized more than a few unsavory aspects of himself in this film.

What about literature, you ask? Check out a couple road-trippers on the ragged edge: the cabbie Lou in Lee Durkee’s “The Last Taxi Driver,” and the shaggy mercenary Will Bear in Dan Chaon’s “Sleepwalk.”

• Honorable mentions: “Night of the Living Rez” by Morgan Talty (his first book; dark tales of a Native community in Maine) and “Homesickness” by Colin Barrett (his second; darkly funny tales of the Irish at home and abroad).

If none of these diversions from the daily disaster does the trick for you, find a hummingbird to watch or a cat to play with.

R.I.P., Barbara Ehrenreich

September 2, 2022

She took what they were giving ’cause she was working for a living.

Barbara Ehrenreich, the journalist, activist, and author who never lost touch with her working-class roots, has clocked out. She was 81.

Her New York Times obit draws from the introduction to “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” in which she recounts wondering with a magazine editor how the unskilled survive on the wages paid them and then blurting out something that she “had many opportunities to regret: ‘Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism — you know, go out there and try it for themselves.'”

Which is exactly what Ehrenreich did, of course, working and living as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing-home aide, and Walmart “associate,” among other things. Then she came back and told us all about it.

And though she would be writing it up, she wasn’t phoning it in:

People knew me as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk not because I acted like one but because that’s what I was, at least for the time I was with them. In every job, in every place I lived, the work absorbed all my energy and much of my intellect. I wasn’t kidding around. Even though I suspected from the start that the mathematics of wages and rents were working against me, I made a mighty effort to succeed.

She was not, and is not, alone. And in her Evaluation at the end of the book, Ehrenreich proposed that those of us who live in comfort while others barely scrape by should feel not just guilt, but shame.

When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.

What a gift was Ehrenreich’s life. Peace unto her, her family, friends, and readers.

Talking shit

May 5, 2022

A samurai in a latrine; outside, his three attendants hold their noses. Coloured woodcut by Hokusai, 1834. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

I stumbled across an item from the Poetry Foundation, “Haiku on Shit” by Masaoka Shiki, in my virtual wanderings and thought it a delightful departure from the daily shit monsoon, against which a parasol, a wetsuit, or a subterranean bunker are no defense.

R.I.P., Neal Adams

April 30, 2022

The Batman got a chance to feel what it was like to be me in 1969. From “The Secret of the Waiting Graves,” drawn by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, story by Denny O’Neil, © 1969 National Periodical Publications, Inc.

The inimitable Neal Adams has finally stepped away from the drawing board. He was 80.

Adams was, in a word, a legend. I devoured comic books from my early childhood through college, from Superman to the X-Men, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers to Mr. Natural, and I’d never seen anything like his art. When Adams took on a character, he nailed it.

“Yeah, that’s how [insert your hero here] is supposed to look,” I’d think. And if some other artist took over, I’d be all like, “Nope.”

Adams helped put the dark back in the Dark Knight, a.k.a. The Batman; made the Green Lantern-Green Arrow series actually worth a look (a not inconsiderable chore); and fought Frank Frazetta to a draw when it came to depicting Conan the Barbarian.

The Batman may have been his crowning achievement, but Adams didn’t limit himself to Gotham City. He drew for both DC and Marvel, tackling Deadman, the X-Men, the Avengers, Superman, even the gleefully blasphemous Son O’ God Comics for National Lampoon. He was like the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, with a pen in each of his one thousand hands. And like Chickenman, he was everywhere.

He was also a pain in the ass, which as you may imagine only further endeared him to me. He worked to see that creators were treated better than Manpower temps and helped win some long-overdue recognition for “Superman” visionaries Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, without whom we’d all have been stuck reading “Archie” comics … another title Adams had a hand in early on.

Peace to him and to his family, friends and fans.

Be here when?

April 10, 2022

The Cuisinart bread warmer/scorcher.

On Saturday I was making breakfast and mulling over Ken Layne’s latest Desert Oracle podcast when I smelled something burning.

The Wirecutter boyos say you can’t buy a proper toaster anymore, whether you spend a lot or a little, and I believe them. If I don’t keep an eye on and make adjustments to this cheapo Cuisinart what I wind up with is either lightly dried bread or a blackened slab that looks like a smoking shake shingle from a lightning-fried cabin.

A little thing, to be sure. Hardly the foundation for a thumbsucker The New Yorker might buy. And never mind writing about it — simply thinking about it may be a red flag, or so posits the Desert Oracle:

If you don’t have any sense of mission or destiny, or religious faith, or really any sort of sustainable lifetime philosophy, then the small stuff is all you can think about. Because no matter where you are in life, at one time or another you are going to have all the usual problems: health, money, sorrow, disgust, anger, gum disease, athlete’s foot, too much house or none at all. Your dog either up and died or it’s neurotic and full of hate and will outlive you by decades. Everybody’s out to get you or nobody pays any attention at all. The entirety of modern technological society has brushed away and marginalized the personal practice of philosophy. So we lose the plot while we’re in it. It’s like one of those Disney “Star Wars” movies.

I’ve had all of these problems, except being outlived by dogs. And that rough beast is bound to come slouching around one of these days, because Herself wants one, even more than she wants properly toasted bread in the mornings, slathered with Irish butter and French spread.

Maybe I should relocate to one of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville-branded “active-living communities,” a paradise for Parrotheads, which is a philosophy of sorts, maybe even a religion.

I had a brief Buffett period, and still enjoy his early works, like “He Went to Paris,” “Cuban Crime of Passion,” and “Death of an Unpopular Poet.” He may have foreshadowed his future as a geezer miner with the lyrics to “I Have Found Me a Home”:

And I have found me a home

Yes, I have found me a home

And you can have the rest of everything I own

’Cause I have found me a home.

I think we’re all bohos on this bus.

That song and the rest of my best-of-Buffett list are from his 1973 breakout album, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean,” which features, among others, Steve Goodman on acoustic lead guitar, Vassar Clements on fiddle, and Thomas McGuane on liner notes (“We are beset by the quack minstrels of a non-existent America, bayed at by the children of retired orthodontists about ‘hard times’ and just generally depleted by all the clown biographies and ersatz subject matter of the drugs-and-country insurgence that is replacing an earlier song mafia,” and if that isn’t vintage Captain Berserko I’m a Daytona Beach Realtor.).

The folks who live in Buffett’s beach-bum burgs out there in Disney country certainly seem to have a philosophy that works for them. In his New Yorker piece Nick Paumgarten quotes Stuart Schultz, Latitude Margaritaville’s head of residential community relations (and a former summer-camp director), as saying that living in a Margaritaville property is “like being in college, but with money and without having to study. You have a great dorm room, you never have to go to class, and there’s always a party.”

Hm. I dunno. An earlier version of me never went to class but took in many a party, so I feel like I’ve done my time in that dorm room. And like the toast from my Cuisinart I have the scorch marks to show for it.

It’d probably be smarter to stay put. Get a philosophy. And maybe a dog.

April is the cruellest month

April 8, 2022

“This is not the Door into Summer,” observes Miss Mia Sopaipilla.

One of Robert A. Heinlein’s lesser-known (and mildly creepy) novels, “The Door into Summer,” takes its name from the protagonist’s snow-phobic cat, who is forever looking for same.

“This will do nicely. You may go now.”

We have one of those, too. Miss Mia Sopaipilla has never been an outside cat — she tours the yard on a harness now and again — but she does love a nice sunny indoor spot on a cool April morning. And after she’s had a nibble, a nap, and another nibble, she insists that I escort her to one with all possible haste.

Thing is, Miss Mia is almost always a few steps ahead of the sun, which doesn’t really give us much love until around 9 a.m. this time of year. So we have to visit the living room, the spare bedroom, and the master bedroom to take sun samples until, like Goldilocks, she finds the spot that’s just right.