Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Last Friday, while I was still in the San Francisco Bay Area, I travelled through a remote section of Marin County to the Golden Gate Recreational Area. The landscape consisted of a series of chaparral-covered high peaks which dropped majestically to the bay and ocean revealing rocky isolated coves, Cape Bonita Lighthouse, Stinson Beach and Fort Cronkhite. A windy road from Hwy 101 took me to a dramatic promontory and raptor sanctuary, Hawk Hill. I stopped at the viewpoint turn-out and was treated to one most resplendent views of the Golden Gate Bridge imaginable, a dramatically different angle of the world-famous gateway than the traditional perspective I had photographed from San Francisco the week before.
Camera in hand, I stood on a 1000-foot bluff overlooking the Bay, with the ocean at my back, looking south and east, and admired the beloved span which sometimes lay shrouded in fog and then magically revealed itself drenched with intense sunlight. The scene was like an art masterpiece, a perfectly designed architectural wonder, highlighted by one of the world's most memorable skylines in the background.
After snapping a few pictures, I noticed an information board that had been installed at the scenic overlook. It related that in 1846 John C. Fremont, a captain with the Army Corp of Topographical Engineers, had been first to map this breathtaking location and give it the title, the Golden Gate. Almost a hundred years later, in 1937, the bridge was built to accomodate the needs of the ever-expanding modern world and given the name that Fremont had recorded.
I was amused by the scarcity of words devoted to the man who had probably contributed more than any other individual to the development of the West. Identifying Fremont simply as a captain was like calling Benjamin Franklin a postmaster or Abraham Lincoln a railsplitter. Fremont had been one of the greatest American figures of the 19th century. Among his many accomplishments was that he had mapped the Oregon Trail and had written the definitive guidebook called Report and Map which was published by Congress to aid the thousands of immigrants who were traveling by wagon train, especially during the Gold Rush, to California. Also, after mapping huge chunks of the Midwest, accompanied by his guide Kit Carson, Fremont had undertaken a series of four daring expeditions across hostile Indian lands in order to explore the new frontier. His expedition of soldiers criss-crossed both the Northern and Southern Rockies in search of a suitable rail route to facilitate future development and to identify important landmarks. Fremont had also mapped the Klamath Basin, the volcanos of the Cascades and the Sierras, and the location of Lake Tahoe. He was also asked by President Polk to lead his troops in the fight to take California from Mexico and incited the murder of a number of peaceful Mexican leaders and, as second in command behind Robert Stockton, attacked and conquered Los Angeles. In addition he had fought and killed Indians in Oregon. These heroic deeds made Fremont into an almost mythical figure who became known by an adoring public as the Great Pathfinder. His life became the subject of fictional tales told in numerous penny novels which were read avidly by thousands of Easterners who yearned for a vision of adventure on the frontier.
Riding the wave of such popularity, Fremont ran for president in 1856 against James Buchanan on a platform of free land for settlers and the abolition of slavery. His campaign slogan of "Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont" resonated with many of those that embraced the idea of Manifest Destiny. He also became an avid abolitionist who opposed the extension of slavery into the new lands and had the support of the New England intellectual establishment. Although he lost, he remained popular in the drawing rooms of Washington and then was given command during the Civil War of the Army of the West and later attacked Confederates in Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1864 he ran for president again, this time as a Radical Republican against a man from his own party, Abraham Lincoln, who he believed was soft on outlawing slavery and on the treatment of the rebellious South. After the war he became Governor of the Arizona Territory, then purchased a railroad, and lived to the age of 77.
Fremont's exploits remind me how far removed my life has been from those accomplishments of true explorers. The route of my daily adventure takes me safely down major highways with the aid of GPS. Along the roadside I find cozy campgrounds with flush toilets. The only Indians I really know play baseball in Cleveland. I don't worry about disease, lack of provisions or the cold. I consider myself brave when I have hiked for the day on a well-marked trail into a wilderness which is devoid of large animals. My Golden Gate has long been charted, commercialized, and serviced by maintenance crews. When I look across the horizon at the massive blue water bisected by that iconic bridge, I know the current below me is hazardous. My path is neither gallant nor formidable nor is it my place to swim across. Yet I honor the tradition of boldness of a past time through remembrance and occasional acts of courage. From somewhere within, I can hear the call of adventure, albeit it is a muted and distant tone. The wilderness is gone. Even though a camera is hardly a six-shooter or my car a trusty mount, I explore distant lands and experience the joy of conquering the unknown. With the wind in my face, I take on the challenge.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
In the two weeks I have been in the Bay Area, I have spent a lot of time among Asian-Americans. Last night in Starbucks, where I have been working on my posts, of the 24 people who were sitting at tables, relaxing in easy chairs or standing in line, 18 appeared to be of Chinese background. The city of San Bruno may have a greater enclave of Asians than other communities, but that is not saying much. All the communities here abound with people who are of Asian background. This thought was underscored on Saturday while I was driving through a residential neighborhood. I spied a For Sale sign placed in front of a home; other than the phone number, the sign was written almost entirely in Chinese.
On Sunday I ate at a renowned dim sum restaurant, the Grand Palace, a massive, tastefully decorated Chinese restaurant in South San Francisco. It was packed with families representing three generations who were seated around lazy susans which were covered with tasty dishes. The food was wheeled out to the guests on numerous large silver carts or carried out from the kitchen in sumptuous portions and served by incredibly polite women. Such fare consisted mainly of seafood such as whole fish or lobster in red sauce over noodles, or platters of Peking duck or suckling pig.
Wherever I have been, I have sensed a mood and behavior of the people which I have found surprisingly refreshing. I have been touched by the refinement and smiles seen on the faces of young people engaged in light-hearted conversation, the intensity of college students hovering over laptops as they diligently solve math problems, the banter of incomprehensible words by genteel families that appear to be tightly-knit and financially comfortable, and by a certain level of unconditional respect shown to me.
Absent were many of the traits which are often called a malaise in our society such as an undeserved sense of entitlement, a lack of commitment to the value of learning, a disintegration of strong family bonds, and a poor sense of the value of money which is exhibited through profligate spending. Curiously, I heard no one expressing opinions regarding the allegedly unique political or economic crisis which has been grabbing national, state and local headlines. These people appear to be focused elsewhere and appear too busy achieving success to feel the pinch that other groups are experiencing.
Considering that the anscestors of so many Asian-American families lived through dark times in America's past or suffered from the autocratic oppression in their former homeland, these Americans have demonstrated an amazing resilience. It is worth recalling the terrible racism exhibited toward Asians by the policies of the "Know Nothing" mayors of San Francisco or the backlash by angry racists who murdered over 250 Chinese railroad workers and their families in one night in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1887. Through the turn of the 19th century including the round-up and incarceration of Japanese citizens in the 1940's, American-Asians have been the object of mean-spirited people who, out of fear or jealousy, have tried and failed to marginalize these people.
As my stay draws to a close, I feel enriched by the casual friendships I have made and by the values I observed. Although I have oversimplified and generalized, I am not a Pollyanna. Shortcomings and detractions abound within every culture. Simply put, my frequent cynical view of human interaction was softened and was replaced by positive thoughts. From that standpoint, I had entered a room with good feng shui.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I am in the San Francisco South Bay again and am adjusting to this amazingly crowded suburban life. As I walked along El Camino, easily the busiest surface street on the peninsula, and which had been the main North-South highway until the Bayshore Freeway was completed, I found myself recalling the first time I rode on it in 1957. I was probably 10 or 11 and my parents were considering moving away from Chicago and were touring this part of Northern California. Our family had ridden west like so many other pioneers to see first-hand what had been called in those days the Land of Opportunity, California.
Our 1953 green Chevrolet Bel-Air had taken us across the country through what I felt had been magical landscape. I watched incredible farmland whizz by, lush forests, quaint small, towns, tall majestic mountains, until we reached our goal, the almost mythical San Francisco: the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean.
Along the route across the country, I had become accustomed to seeing architecture other than I had known in Chicago, buildings which were devoid of soot-covered brick and multi-stories. I gawked avidly at the clapboard farmhouses and the wooden barns with advertisements painted on their sides such as Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. I enjoyed the humor of every Burma Shave sign sequence along the road and was enthralled by miles of two-lane highway snaking alongside railroad tracks belonging to the Santa Fe railroad.
After briefly touring San Francisco, a city which felt alien to me because it didn't look like Chicago, my perpetually nervous mother, who always had to cope with my father's frightening, unpredictable moods, decided unilaterally that this city would be too rainy for her. The next morning we headed south through Daly City, a peculiar colony of little boxy houses, and onto El Camino. Somewhere then I learned a new word, namely "stucco." Now I saw blocks of single level, pale-colored stores and houses made of a rough substance which reminded me of the dessicated orange peels that I had ignored as they baked in the sun of my childhood schoolyard.
Since I was now in the Promised Land of my parents' dreams, I felt I was expected to love what I saw. I knew instinctively, but being a child I could never have articulated, that the environment before me violated my sense of beauty. Even the eucalyptus and the palms didn't really look like normal plants. They were occasionally interspersed among these ugly structures, but were clearly not leafy green trees that a young boy could climb like those elms whose heights I had still conquered and hid within only a month earlier at home. As we rode through Palo Alto looking for a motel, my parents may have spoken, as they often did, in glowing terms about the expected blessings of temperate weather, the daily sunshine and the gone-forever dreaded icy cold Chicago winters. Yet, even as I listened to this narrative, I believed I was expected to embrace their gloriously optimistic vision. In truth I wondered secretly how I would feel about no longer hearing the scrunch of October leaves that skittered in circles along the pavement in my former backyard and sensed regret about losing the snowmen friends that I took pride in creating each year.
Now I glance out the window of a Starbucks in San Bruno where I am typing and see the rush hour traffic on El Camino backed up at a traffic light. Originally this street was a trail for earlier people to navigate from mission to mission, and before that it was probably an ancient way created by aboriginal people to visit others or hunt game. It has been a lifepath taken by many. Today I am on that road, one of so many I have traveled to get to this point on my daily adventure. It runs in space and time through landscape that may look bitter or sweet depending on my focus.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Today there was a "homeless" guy at the Safeway parking lot entrance. He had a sign saying something like "hungry, homeless, Jesus loves." I parked and, as I approached the door to the market only 30 yds from the hapless fellow, I encountered a young woman Salvation Army bellringer standing adjacent her pot shaking her bell and producing that familiar repetitous tone. Although I didn't say anything, I thought of catching her attention, point to the fellow and, in a polite voice, recommend something like "Perhaps you might take that kettle over there and dump some coins in that guy's hands. That's what you're here for... isn't it?" Of course, the plainly-clothed, totally-bored bellringer had been hired by her employer at minimum wage to stand there for a shift and seek donations. I am sure that the Salvation Army at corporate had figured that all the nation's bellringers' yield, aka gross income, would exceed gross expense, producing a handsome gain and the net, of course, would be tax free. Then again I considered that, encouraging good deeds by feeding that vessel, might be for them another way to cook up business, like a supermarket's loss leader, created for the purpose of improving public image in order to facilitate advantage over rivals competing in other profit centers.
Next I thought something like, why don't I go up to the guy on the corner and suggest he walk over and ask her for some help from her collection. After all, wasn't she a soldier of Christ? However, I didn't do this either. From someplace within me, I knew already the outcome. She didn't have any spare change.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Things that bug me: It bugs me to be at a hotel counter, tire store or any place for that matter offering a service when the phone rings and the clerk redirects his attention to the person on the line. You stand there like a tolerant schmuck and are the one put on hold. Worst of all you have to listen to someone else's trivial business.
You are sitting at a cozy restaurant or coffee shop when suddenly untalented and vain musicians start playing loudly, disrupting the wonderful ambiance and putting an end to decent conversation.
Seeing the same panhandler every day at the same shopping center exit with the same sign saying God Bless on it. I want to roll down my window and exhort that I'm neither fond of God nor blesssings nor you, for that matter.
Christmas music in stores starting at Halloween. Hearing such crappy music like Jingle Bell Rock, even one more time, reinforces my growing commitment to atheism. No loving God could validate such stupidity.
Football dynasties. Isn't it great when those Southern schools or Nebraska lose! I'm tired of hearing about university pride and spirit. If you insist on having to be Number 1, impress me that your team raised more food than anyone else for the hungry.
Politicians who talk about the will of the Founding Fathers. They don't know squat about American History, couldn't tell who wrote the Constitution or when.
The sensitive touchscreen of my cellphone. Even the slightest miscue and I'm suddenly calling a friend in Portugal.
Paper receipts stuffed into my hand. What a waste of time and resources. Why should I be given one for a Starbucks coffee? Can you name any possible reason to need one? If a patron needs a reimbursement from an employer, let them ask for a receipt, but even this is idiotic.
Items that come in hard plastic packages, where it takes a sharp pair of scissors or a chainsaw to get them out.
Throw-away newspapers on my walk. Who gave you the right to litter? It tells every thief I'm not home and the delivery guy insists he must deliver them.
People in front of you who stand up at concerts so you can't see. How about that guy next to you who sings the lyrics, of course, out of tune, so it distracts from hearing the real performer.
Sliding glass windows in doctors'offices, the signing long unintelligable and useless HIPPA documents and standing in privacy lines, like you care that the woman ahead of you has hemorrhoids.
Having to fill prescriptions for maintenance drugs every thirty days. What a stupid waste of time and a cheap trick to prevent people from buying in quantity.
Signs attached to trees advertising Christ like he were Smoky the Bear.
Speed bumps in parking lots, especially the unpainted ones.
Toilet paper rolls in public bathrooms that are stuck in the housing, and no matter how much you reach up, it either doesn't unroll or at best it allows you to tear off one tiny sheet at a time.
After comparision shopping, you discover that the reasonable published airline or rental car rates that you chose didn't include taxes.
Bathrooms with blowers to dry your hands instead of paper towels. What am I supposed to do, stay in there and do my laundry while I wait for my hands to dry?
Almost everything about automobile dealerships, where a car becomes a vehicle and every week has a goofy sale with balloons. Speaking of insanely annoying marketing, on my recent trip to California (where else?) I saw a neon marquee over a Ford showroom calling it a Ford Auto Studio and a sign above a dealership announcing an Acura Salon. Talk about going in and getting a haircut!
Having to show ID if your credit card is unsigned or signature is illegible. (One of my cards even has my picture on it.) Then you give the officious saleperson the requested additional documents and have to watch them act like they were making an important decision from discerning something from the mass of numbers before them. It is folly to imagine them saying you stole the credit card and the driver's license too.
Why should you have to sign your name on a reader after you swipe your card as a requirement for a purchase in a store? I usually make a squiggle or draw a finger. Do I really need an official contract when I purchase toothpaste? It is clearly not necessary when I buy gas or purchase online. Maybe people should use the signature pad as a way to give feedback for lousy service.
Anyway, it is getting late. My son would probably say that this narrative is the ranting of another crabby old man. He may be, in part, right. Yet I'll bet my one-day-only coupon that is honored any time that you have a few annoying things you could share as well.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
One of the purposes of my trip to Southern California was to visit the cemetery where my parents are buried and to clean the grime off of their gravestones. I began this task several years ago and have used it as a springboard to visit old high school-era friends and explore the neighborhoods of my youth.
I have found the need explain to my Darwin-adulating, rational-thinking friends, somewhat awkwardly of course and unable to cloak adequately my embarrassment, that my 21st century consciousness has not been damaged by primitive superstition.. I asssure them that I really do know that below the markers there is a coffin and bones and NOTHING ELSE, and that at night, spirits neither emerge to lament nor serve as oracles, even though the graveyard scene in Thorton Wilder's Our Town had moved me deeply as a child.
So why then should I care about cleaning the markers of dead people whose lives had no particular impact on the wheel of history? Perhaps Abraham Lincoln's resting place deserves to be maintained for future generations, but why the spot belonging to Fred and Hennriette Spangler?
This question led me to the following line of thought. Am I still seeking parental approbation, captive to an unfullfilled desire, an almost primal urge emanating from the jungle of my emotionally entangled childhood? Am I the the prodigal son, who through doing good acts, seek expiation? Well perhaps, but caring for the dead follows a powerful human tradition transmitted over massive lengths of time and appearing in totally diverse cultures. Not every one has needed to slap his chest and cry mia culpa.
The above photo taken outside of San Augustino, Colombia, shows some stones from a plot of several hundred, from an ancient graveyard of elaborate crypts making the site a most treasured archeological landmark. Two thousand years ago giant jaguar-toothed statues of people and animals were placed over the bodies of local dead to narrate something important about the decedent's past or future life or both. In this case this task expresses a complex religious-mythical meaning nearly incomprehensible to us today. Equally significant, it underscores the message that humans, unlike animals except possibly elephants, consider it important to preserve the memory of its people.
So where is the value in remembering the past? Those of you who know me well are aware that I love studying history. It brings me intellectual joy, a sense of community and feeling of continuity. Then there are those people I know who deepen themselves in genealogy research. They take amazing pride in understanding their family tree and derive lasting emotional benefit in feeling connected.
In my observation this week at cemeteries, with only rare exception, tombstones of even recently passed relatives are left to deteriorate. The estate has been settled, the heirs have gotten their deserving due and the benefactor can rot in "somewhere". Even my children neither know anything about my parents, who were their grandparents nor about my grandparents nor, for that matter, much about history at all.
Perhaps these pursuits are out of fashion and have been replaced by other forms of activities that generate equally valuable gratification. To be sure young people have gained other tangible information especially computer skills, but when you hear constantly in the news how our society's ills can be attributed to the decline of the family social unit, isn't the lack of caring and the paucity of knowledge about the chain of events that created a family or the events that led to the present time one more poignant symptom of the decline in respect of fundamental core values of civilization?
Learning history, even family history, contributes to establishing a positive self image. The stories are rife with joy and saddness, of success and failure. They have the potential to evoke genuine compassion of the human condition. From this standpoint I am glad to scrub mom and dad vigorously and to let the light of their time shine through to the future.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Yesterday I left the SF Bay Area and began my coastal trip on Hwy 1 toward LA. The road hugs the beach and rocky outcroppings, offering vistas of the Pacific so riveting that rubberneckers like myself slow down traffic and drift back and forth in the lane like flotsam bobbing in the tide. Before Davenport, near Santa Cruz, I spotted the entrance to Ano Nuevo State Park, home to the largest breeding grounds of the elephant seal.
I learned at the gate that the high tourist season would begin after Thanksgiving when access to the park was only allowed by guided tours requiring reservations and when trams would shuttle tourists to the ocean front. I considered myself fortunate that I would have to trek 2.7 miles each way through deserted marshland and dunes to reach North Cove in order to see these weird floppy-nosed mammals.
From an observation point just above the waterline, I observed several hundred elephant seals hanging out either sunbathing or engaging in water sport. I was told by a volunteer docent that all of these were juvenile males that had arrived in the past week for a brief Winter holiday. Elephant seals travel to these breeding grounds not in pods, but totally alone deep in the sea all the way from the Aleutian Islands. When coming to the surface for air, many fall prey to predators such as orcas and great white sharks. These pinnipeds eat nothing on the whole journey, therefore there is neither poop nor acrid smell wafting about which is usually pervasive with colonies of birds. Unfortunately for these youngsters the trip to this lazy clime and birthplace is for naught since they must flee the beach when the adult males come on shore. A young male weighs only about 300 lbs but daddy weighs 3,500 lbs. Two smaller adults had shown up early and their impressive hulks can be seen in the middle picture. Only a few dominant males ever mate with females so, over the next months, this tranquil scene transforms into a circus of jousting, fighting and uninvited mounting. By April all the 70 lb pups have been born and the time to return to the nutrition rich North begins.
These spots are special to me. I have always loved the outdoors and observing animal behavior. When I was young, my parents took my sister and me often to zoos where we learned of the diversity of the animal kingdom, albeit from behind bars. Yet there is nothing like seeing amazing creatures in the wild. I know that such experiences add value to my daily adventure and a stimulates a profound feeling of wonderment of life itself.
Friday, November 11, 2011
If anyone cares to read an excellent history of the events that led up to World War I, then The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman is a must. Also, a gripping personal account not for the light-hearted of the life of a young German soldier in the war is narrated in the book All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
Anyway for those of you who are off of work today because of Veteran's Day, perhaps it is worth a moment to ponder this historical event and consider the issue of man's inhumanity to man.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
It has been important for me to block thoughts of my own mortality on this trip in response to the fact that in the past week I have spoken with three friends who are dealing with serious illnesses. The best antidote to prevent my own anxious thoughts has been to immerse myself in writing, photographing and in drawing.
I have had some spare moments to linger on fishing piers while my old friend has been at doctor appointments. Also yesterday, I took the opportunity for a short hike at one of my favorite places from years ago, the Bay Trail at Shoreline Nature Reserve.
Shoreline Park, which is East of downtown Mountain View and South of Palo Alto, is an enormous area of salt ponds, marshes and bayland located on the flyway for millions of birds who either reside year around or travel back and forth from Alaska to Mexico. It has extensive walking and biking paths, observation platforms and informative signage, making it an outdoor person's paradise.
I snapped quite a few pictures of colorful ducks and geese, lanky blue herons, ibises and noisy gulls, but my goal was to keep my body moving. Too much sitting in the car, eating the wrong food and drinking too many mochas has added a lump to my middle-age paunch which regretably I may have inherited from my father.
To excell in photographing birds requires patience, keen vision and perseverance, qualities which I severely lack. The darn things usually swim away from view or fly off or are hard as heck to spot when a call emanates from a tangle of high branches. Also invariably, the moment before the shutter snaps, the damn thing sticks its beak in its feathers or turns and shows you only its backside.
I have spoken with binocular-toting folks who collect species-sitings like I do stamps. They carry handbooks and checklists and seem to be almost disappointed when the lovely blue-breasted flysucker on the post is a bird they had already spotted three years ago in New Mexico.
In any case, to me it is simply a winged thing, which is willing to serve, if I am lucky, as a lovely component of a vibrant day out in the fresh air. I realize that as I grow older that my need to experience fully such moments have increased. Maybe I sense an internal desperation to make the most of my time before I fly off.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Traveling evokes for me thoughts about nature, social-political issues, or nostalgia. Recently I expressed my disappointment with the sameness of the signs, buildings, and houses in much of the modern urban and suburban landscape I had seen so far on this trip. Yet I have made a conscious effort to look for unique messages. These are hard to find and photographs of unusual advertisement have been discovered by many and are even an integral part of Jay Leno's humor on his late night program.
Nonetheless I decided tonight to post three such scenes that caught my attention on this present trip. The first sign is a Watch Out for Deer message which can be found near meadows along rural highways. Anyone though, who has hit a deer, probably struck one when the poor creature has leaped out where there is nothing posted, since deer clearly neither heed instructions nor use designated crosswalks. This message of Watch Out has been altered to give it a different meaning by some local hunter. Someone has superimposed a large sticker of a bullet over the picture of the innocent animal. He encourages gun-toting drivers to appreciate venison, the thrill of the kill, and to be vigilantly on the lookout.
The second picture is not all that rare. Some restaurants enjoy having a diverse menu. The owners of this eating establishment have obviously an identity crisis. Not long ago I posted a photo of a place in New York that had Chinese food and pizza, but this place in Berkeley, Ca. takes the cake, so to speak. Can you imagine the possibilities on the menu? Yes Senor, I think I'll have the tandoori tamales and wash them down with the Tequilla tea!
The third photo, taken in Klamath Falls, Oregon, requires greater scrutiny. I think, if you click on it and enlarge it, you will be able to see that this building has quite a motley assortment of tenants. On the right is Gigler's Health Food Store, and for those who don't take Gigler's merchandise seriously, its neighbor on the left sells tombstones. I would have been able to snap a better picture if I could have backed up and centered myself in front of the building. Unfortunately this structure sits squarely at the intersection of two incredibly busy highways. I had no intention in juxtaposing life and death in myself for the sake of this blogpost. Incidentally, on the roof between the two shops, is a masonite board advertising a trailer park located in the back. I am glad if you want to give this fact your own special meaning. Perhaps this scene could be immortalized in your own country-western song.
Saturday, November 5, 2011
After several days of sleeping in isolated campgrounds in some of the most tranquil natural settings almost totally devoid of people and also after traveling on backroads through the Sierras, I am now in the thick of the South Bay of SF. I am sitting in the noisiest, most crowded Starbucks I have ever visited which, strangely enough, has only one small dirty bathroom. I arrived last night after exploring historic Placerville. On my drive I followed my GPS obiedently and, as I approached Berkeley, the "voice" asked me to turn off and circumvent the Bay Bridge, which was probably no more than 15 minute from my destination of San Bruno. Instead, it urged me to cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, hook up with Hwy 101 and drive over the Golden Gate. The traffic Southbound was limited to two lanes and the Friday traffic heading to the City like marauding hoardes caused a backup of five miles. Two hours later, feeling withered and blinded, I arrived.
I guess I am not accustomed to the millions of people, cars lights, stores etc.... I know there is great value in the amazing energy and cultural diversity. There are so many Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and Caucasians, its like living confetti spread over the Earth. Strangely enough, with all of this blaring information, there seemed fewer interesting items to photograph. I saw the same stores, signs, shops, blah blah blah, thus my vision became blurred and my inspiration dulled.
Earlier I had been on a beautiful back road passing small farms and cabins and going through little towns, when I flipped on the radio. ABC news spoke of the Occupy Oakland group shutting down the Port of Oakland, blocking entrances and breaking windows at a Wells Fargo and an announced that some city employees and teachers failed to show up for work. The contrast was so dramatic as golden and red leaves blew across my path on the road and resident ducks bobbed serenely on adjacent ponds. The report reminded me of years ago, when I had been part of similar Oakland-Berkeley protests. The "people" believed that revolution was around the corner. Then, when I left Berkeley and hit the road driving out of the big city and into small-town California-America, I discovered a much different mood.The same could be said today. In these small towns I saw lots of empty store fronts. There were huge mills which had been pivotal to the economy abandoned and deteriotating. You'd think there would be anger or resentment, but I didn't get that feeling. Maybe the angry, disappointed people had left or had become resigned and used to the kind of hard luck immmortalized in country-western songs. In any case, I didnt get the sense that the local people were playing the "blame" game or touting their victimhood. I saw little cottage industries sprouting from many houses. There were signs advertising taxidermy, scrapbooking lessons, beauty work, tool sharpening and the usual antique sales. To be sure, these weren't great-paying jobs with benefits, but showed perseverance and the bulldog tenacity of Americans to succeed by their own wit, independent of large outside forces. Was it enough to make car payments, house payments, and pay for necessities, I don't know, but I didn't see a lot of foreclosure signs. I stopped in one small town market along the Pit River and spoke with the owner, who made excellent deli sandwiches. She told me she and her husband had left the "rat race" of the Bay Area several years ago and had bought a dilapidated general store. When I asked her about being part of the 99%, she knew the expression well from watching the demonstrations on the news. I am paraphrasing her, but she said something like, "Most people around here can't stand those protesters. They've appointed themselves to represent our interests just like many of those fat cat leaders in Washington, but they really aren't like us at all." I didn't pursue what she meant, but felt by her facial expression her repugnance with the noise, the slogans, and the manner of behavior of those people "back there" in Oakland. The disapproval of those actions clearly overshadowed any disillusionment she may have had with the system. Perhaps she felt that fresh country air cured all ills!
Now I am staying in a building of approximately 500 apartments where giant jets from the nearby airport roar almost at rooftop. Instead of on an air matress under the stars, I am sleeping on a couch in a breezeless livingroom. This stage of the trip may not seem like much of an adventure, but it will have its moments, just you wait.
Monday, October 31, 2011
On a different note, I considered this week more complex issues regarding this holiday. Thanks in part to my dearest friend Jenny, who related to me that the celebration of Halloween had been removed from her son's school and then, later by Tapirgal ,who shared with me that an employee had asked for personal time to be with his family out of religious convictions, I embarked on a serious questioning spree. I began to examine the term "witch", which (ha ha) was spurred on my memory of the yearly decorations in Astoria of hags on brooms smashed into lampposts. I asked myself whether these characterizations of old insane women may inappropriately perpetuate ancient prejudice in our society toward followers of Wicca. I had often voiced to friends that aetheists were most likely the most discriminated group in America until I weighed the chance that a declared Wicca follower being elected to office. This prompted me to learn more about this group and looked for information in "Wika"pedia. I also asked Raksha's opinion who shared generously both history and common ideas about Wicca and witchcraft.
I thought I heard a knock in my mind right now and opened to find before me both a real phantom and a play one holding hands. I gave them both a good looking-over and then dropped the words of this post into their orange-lanterned bucket. They have now receded and disappeared into the night but I expect to see them revisit next year. The hour is late and the wizard of sleep is spreading his vapor over the house. Before turning out the light, I eye the left- over candy. Eating one morsel could be like finding the fountain of youth. Mmmm. Now that's a rare treat!
Saturday, October 22, 2011
When looking for unique photo opportunities while walking the riverwalk at Bend's Old Mill District, the following idea occured to me. How about taking a series of pictures showing the techniques, including facial expressions, of socially correct people picking up dogshit? This scatological thought precipitated in me the following questions regarding dogs and dog owners.
Have you ever tried to have a serious conversation with someone who has a conspicious bag of crap attached to a leash?
What is this with therapy dogs? Dogs are being trained as loyal companions for lonely or distraught people who then receive preferential treatment to take them into restaurants. Could this also apply to a disconsolate pirate with a parrot on his shoulder? I understand the value of seeing-eye dogs, but aren't dogs generally loyal companions to lonely people who normally leave them at home? I'm sorry you're depressed. So am I, especially because the presence of your dog is ruining my dinner.
Is it worth it? the barking, the chewing, the itching, the whining, the shedding, the spraying, the fleas, cleaning the piles, the escaping, the vet bill, the slobbering, the pulling, the biting, the misbehaving, the climbing up on people, and living under the gross misconception that everyone thinks your dog is cute?
Have you ever lived near an incessantly barking dog? It can drive the most docile person crazy and has been the object of many murderous thoughts. It has awakened even the most resolute sleeper. I know someone who in dreams slashed the neighbor's dog in the throat. Why should such noise be tolerated over the neighborhood? Maybe I should play drums loudly all night long and see where it gets me when I tell the police of my rights.
I am happy for individual differences and people can do what they want as long as it isn't cruel. Yet isn't it difficult to consider a person really sane who puts a dog in fashionable clothing? I know it is cold outside, but really, I think for the most part, its a conversation piece more than anything. What's next? A bathing suit when dogs goes swimming?
As a now retired real estate broker, let me share with you an old adage tossed around the business. "If it smells, it don't sells." Can you imagine how much energy is spent tiptoeing around sensitive sellers to tell them, as discreetly as possible, that the home has a "slight" pet odor? Can you imagine how much money has been spent repairing or replacing carpets or chewed moldings? Do you know how many customers fail to offer or offer less because the odor may not go away? In some areas angry fleas seek vengeance on unsuspecting buyers and realtors when the home becomes vacant. More than once either I or a buyer have stepped in a pile while admiring the yard. One time I failed to discover this casuality until I climbed back into the car and ground my shoe into the gas pedal. What has been even worse is receiving a seller's showing instruction. "Don't let the dog out". Either Little Lucy yaps its brains out during the entire visit or you squeeze the knob carefully to open the front door to let yourself and the customers in when suddenly a hyper-active chihuahua shoots between your legs down the front steps and out into the street and plants itself under a parked car.
What are people thinking who confuse dogs with humans? Now I understand that dogs serve as surrogate children for owners. Just listen to the complicated jibberish which is told to dogs and the incessant orders which are often not heeded, They speak in conversational English to an animal, as if it were about to learn the alphabet. These doting parents share with everyone who is willing to listen, how smart their dog is becoming. My aunt would often urge her dog on a walk to now go and do its business and then would report to the family any successful accomplishment. I am sure there are already some kind of doggy diaper on the market.
I am well aware that most of my blog readers have dogs and are dog lovers. I want you to know that I had two dogs, Jewel and Zeke. Jewel was run over because she insisted on chasing cars and attacking the tires. Zeke had a penchant for roaming in the middle of the night 3 to 4 miles to visit females and constantly required being retrieved. I hated leashing him up and he hated feeling captive. He was a great companion until the children were born and then became a most problematic family member for all the characteristics mentioned above. Our relationship with him deteriorated. We ran him less, paid less attention to his needs, as we were preoccupied with taking care of the children. Of course, the children liked having a dog, but it was a never-ending complicated responsibility. I have seen this pattern occur in lots of families and is best summed up in The Lady and the Tramp in the classic line by Scotty while comiserating with Lady who ends up on the street. "When the baby moves in, the dog moves out."
In any case, I may have barked a lot here. I am sure that my readers now have something to growl about, since I know you love your pets. You may want to attribute my littany as just the musings and complaints of a crabby old man, who might ease his loneliness with a trusty fido. I don't know think so. My saltwater fish like me and I like them, and they don't go crazy when the doorbell rings. Then again it is awfully quiet here.
Friday, October 14, 2011
Saturday, October 8, 2011
So what lies ahead? Well, at the moment Portland! But beyond that, who knows? Like a dazed airborne pilot, who has no map and feels the victim to an uncertain future, I too must make a new descent from the unknown and hope to survive by finding solid ground. Its just that I dread the turbulent route of tumbling and feeling lost in a maelstrom of disorienting saddness and self-rebuke. Sure I know, with tenacity and time, I'll pull her out, spot the horizon and bring her in. It is just the ETA that I can't predict.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Over the past several days my adventure has taken me again to places so amazing and remote. I have criss-crossed the mountain ranges of Colombia from the hot, wet, steamy Pacific slopes just above sea level to the 12,400 table top in the Central Cordelleras. My desire to photograph and identify lovely plants and animals along the way has been fostered by the expertise and patience of my guide Emilio.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Two years ago, while in Tanzania, the director of the local farm collective chastised me for taking pictures of exotically dressed villagers, tribal people and the poor. He pointed out that it gave the wrong impression of his country to the West, because I had eliminated showing all the progressive, successful, fashionably-dressed, modern-thinking people.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Unlike other adventures, and especially because my guide is an agronomist and conservationist by profession, the emphasis of this trip has been almost entirely on experiencing the amazing nature of Colombia rather than its people. Nonetheless people have been asking me about what the quality of life is in this 3rd world country and about poverty.
First of all, Colombia has a population of 44 million people with incredibly diverse cultural groups and living situations. How to judge poverty would mean having criterion which is both objective and subjective. Whenever I try to get a handle on this subject, I feel like I have a mountain of sand in front of me and I need to look carefully at each grain for color, size and texture and then sort them out to understand what they mean.
First of all, it appears that rural people have abundant food and water and often share collectively in villages. The fact that they have little electricity or running water seems to be less of an issue than other places I've been. I am told, for what it is worth, that there is less craving for additional material gain than in other Western societies. They appreciate the serenity of their life style, but this bucolic description may be a myth, I just don't know. Then there are the remote-living indigenous villagers who, I am told, for the most part love their simple lifestyle, view it as spiritual abundance, and vigorously defend it from the encroachment of modernity.
The cities are a teeming cacaphony of sounds and odors, primarily from an army of obnoxiously loud-buzzing motor bikes, groaning overladen trucks and diesel-spewing buses coursing through potholed streets which lodge everything from super modern office buildings and shopping malls to barios of graffiti-littered rundown storefronts and houses. There are wealthy, fashionably-dressed professionals, intelligent-looking university students and lots of small business folk who are surrounded by a sprawling mass of humanity, who probably must be viewed as the urban poor. These people can be seen crunched on buses, jetting about doubled up on motor bikes or found relaxing or busying themselves in front of a myriad of overstocked, metal screened shops, unsanitary-looking workshops or cheap cafes. There are also the usual homeless people lying in doorways, many victims of continual coca use and, much less so, alchoholism. There seem to be not as many as I expected and, perhaps fewer than I've seen in some American cities, but I am told, exist without any support in terms of soup kitchens or temporary lodging.
Are these Colombians poor? Do they feel disadvantaged or does feeling disadvantaged really qualify as actually being poor? Are these folks poor at all when compared to the people I saw in Tanzania or Bolivia? How should I view the poor of America, many ofwhom have a car, a tv, a cellphone and medical and nutritional support poor in relation to others who have no water? I suppose adressing these questions really would make a more thought-provoking post. Instead I must confess that my answers fluctuate daily depending on my mood and my level of caring.
I am glad to hear your voices on this subject from your own tiny soapboxes. You may think that you know this subject well from personal experience and dare to generalize. For me there is only caution. There are a myriad of lives. The beach is huge and its particles shift capriciously with the wind.
Monday, September 26, 2011
When I thought of the Orinoco Basin, I imagined steamy vegetation and chocolate-colored rivers with exotic animals lurking near the shore. My last post showed such a landscape, but that type of scene comprises only a fraction of the land. Such a jungle ecosystem is only found as narrow strips along the waterways which bisect a mindbogglingly huge savannah, the llano. This great plain stretches 350 miles East to the Orinoco River which defines the border with Venezuela and about 175 miles north and south from the ocean to the Amazon Basin. The few people who live out there raise cattle and have to travel sometimes 3 days by boat or by jeep over incredibly rough, rocky, muddy indistinct trails just to reach some semblance of civilization. Likewise, the men have to drive their lifestock these remarkable distances.
The hardy stock of residents of this desolate area are called llaneros and recall the American cowboy of 150 years ago. To get a taste of the life on the llano, our host asked my guide and me if we would like to ride out a bit to visit one of his outposts. I was not sure I was up to being four hours out and back on the saddle, but yup pardner, that's me on that white nag heading out into the wild blue yonder. I found the grassland really muddy and loaded with countless deer and families of capybaras. There were odd turtles, large iguanas and countless species of birds wherever there were ponds. In addition, numerous scrubby hillocks interspersed the landscape where cougars and jaguars sleep during the day and come out at night to hunt. Then there were the herds of cattle. This section of ranch had over 6000 head of white mooers.
After an exhausting ride in searing heat, and nursing a sore butt and bruises on my legs, I arrived at the above hacienda and was treated to a great meal and to watch horses lassoed and others being ridden for the first time.
This day showed me yet another a side of Colombia I hadn't expected. Never have I been in a country so diverse in culture, climate, geography. It is so wild and and untamed like that proud horse above.
Btw, the toothy animal in the last post was a male white spectacled caiman, a relative of the crocodile. It is identifiable by a high pointed forehead and looks like it is wearing glasses. As far as its sex is concerned, I didn't roll him over to look but was told by a reliable source! The second picture is of a family of capybaras swimming and frolicking in a pond.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
I know that I toured an area so physically and emotionally distant that the remaining sensation of my travel is like the feeling I often have of struggling to hold the memory of a snippet in a dream that evaporates with the morning light. In this case I am drenched in a kaleidescopic eddy of brilliant colors, strange calls, and incomprehensible people.
The wondeful part of taking pictures is that that they play a serious trick on the amnesia brought on by the passing of time. They serve as a testimonial which preserves more clearly and convincingly some unique scenes of an amazing adventure after the magical picture book has closed.
Rather than continuing to rattle on with etherial thoughts, I decided that, through the above photos, I'd enjoy introducing you to some characters I encountered the other day along the river. Do you know what these animals are or for that matter what they are thinking? !!!
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Since we could not leave yesterday, as described in my previous post, and since the showery weather had cleared, I was able to take the aerial tram up to Montserrat, a historic church built on a ledge above the city.
I looked down feeling amazement and sadness. There just seemed that this high plain had too many people. My mind wandered to places I had been which gave massive views of cities such as the Sears Tower in Cicago, the Empire State Building in New York, The Space Needle in Seattle,the Eifel Tower, and the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro.
Damn, I thought. There are sure a lot of people. Even more, these below represented only a tiny fraction of the millions I had seen in villages and towns along the roads throughout my adventure. I looked over at the historic chapel and listened to mass broadcast through loadspeakers which blared a message of hope and faith. Trivial guitar music and the drone of the priest's voice mingled with leftover electric Christmas ornaments which littered this height.
I stood there in the cool mountain breeze and forced away my urge to explain what I saw or to come up with ideas to problems which were, in themselves, too great to tackle. So often I have said on this trip to my naturalist guide whose life is dedicated to preserve natural resources from unbridled consumption, that there are simply too many people.
I turned away from the view and began taking numerous pictures of flowers and plants in the lovely garden. I wanted to see the small more than the large. It felt safer that way.